One of the biggest questions in Shakespeare studies is, “Why are there three different versions of ‘Hamlet,’ printed respectively in 1603, 1605 and 1623?”
Are they all written by Shakespeare? And when? And why should we care?
A new, heavily researched and anticipated book — “Young Shakespeare’s Young Hamlet” (Palgrave MacMillan) by Terri Bourus, associate professor of English drama in the IU School of Liberal Arts at IUPUI — looks to solve the mystery of the earliest printed version of the play, sometimes called “Q1 Hamlet.”
Bourus, who is also director and general editor of the New Oxford Shakespeare Project, has long been writing and teaching about a “younger, less philosophical” “Hamlet.” She examines the life of William Shakespeare, the late-16th-century London theatre environment, the London printing houses and book shops, and, of course, the play itself. How did Shakespeare come to write it? What did the play mean to him? Why are there three versions, and of those three, why is the earliest so different from the other two?
The book grew out of Bourus’ research for a graduate seminar on the book trade in Shakespeare’s London. For the required research paper, she chose to investigate the printing operations of Nicholas Ling, a prominent businessman who published some of Shakespeare’s plays, including the early “Hamlets.” Her exploration grew beyond the class research paper and eventually became her dissertation. Bourus said a book was the next natural step.
Researching the project included visiting London printing houses and theaters and, most importantly, several research trips to the British Library and the National Archives in London (for which she won several prestigious grants). Only by working with original documents in London and in Norwich (Ling’s birthplace) could Bourus track down the events in both Ling’s and Shakespeare’s lives that might lead to some answers about this troublesome quarto. The printers might be the key.
“After all, without the printing houses, we would not have Shakespeare’s plays today,” Bourus said. “Shakespeare’s plays come down to us, not only on the stage, but primarily from the page.”
One of the findings that most fascinated Bourus was what she discovered about the interactions between the printers and actors, the printing houses and theaters.
“These ‘dramatic intersections,’ as I like to call them, added a rich layer of story to my research,” she said. “I was able to talk about the relationship of Nicholas Ling to the players, especially Shakespeare, and I was also able to discuss the personal relationship between Shakespeare and his friend and longtime colleague Richard Burbage (the earliest actor to play Hamlet). This allowed me to get to know these Elizabethan and Jacobean Players (as actors were called) and businessmen in an entirely new light.”
Because Shakespeare wrote plays — not novels — Bourus said viewing the play is crucial to understanding the work.
“The best way to really understand a play is to see it on stage and to hear the words on the page spoken by actors,” she said. “A play does not have a ‘narrative voice’ like a book. Instead, a play is explicated through ‘action,’ the action of an actor on a stage with his or her primary tool: language. … Through theater, through performance, through the stage, we come to understand Shakespeare’s use of the English language — language that creates images, ideas, colors, landscapes … paintings made of words.”
In 2011, as she worked on the mystery of the printed “Hamlet,” Bourus decided to see whether she could stage this version of the play successfully and formed Hoosier Bard Productions. Her first production, based on “Q1 Hamlet,” was called “Young Hamlet” because of the age of the protagonist and the young age, she believes, of the playwright himself. Bourus’ book includes images and lively details about how directing the production further shaped her understanding of the history of the text.
Bourus said one of her toughest challenges in completing the project was the continuing resistance to any change in the Shakespearian “tradition.” Some Shakespeare scholars refuse to accept evidence that alters Shakespeare’s legacy. Even the thought that Shakespeare, like all writers, revised his work in order to craft his masterpiece is preposterous to some.
“But he was young once, too, and he was learning his trade,” Bourus said. “The first edition of ‘Hamlet’ was, I argue, Shakespeare’s first play. It’s a good story for university students because they are all, as Shakespeare once was, just embarking on the life they will lead and the legacy they will create.”