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‘To be or not to be’: a hit or a miss for Shakespeare’s early readers? (1603‒1800)

Jean-Christophe Mayer

Résumés

Cet article analyse la réception du discours d’Hamlet, « Être ou ne pas être », de sa première parution jusqu’à la fin du XVIIIe siècle. Sont étudiées tout d’abord les particularités de l’impression des premières éditions d’Hamlet. Nous examinons ensuite la réception du passage par les lecteurs jusqu’à la Restauration. Une exploration succincte des débats critiques autour du désormais célèbre discours d’Hamlet suit. L’article s’achève avec l’étude des réactions, et des appropriations du discours, par les lecteurs, de 1700 à 1800 environ. Les conclusions de cet article sont que même les lecteurs les plus enthousiastes et les plus érudits ne parvinrent pas à saisir véritablement les résonances complexes du discours d’Hamlet. Sur scène, en revanche, le discours acquit progressivement une aura : metteurs en scène et comédiens parvinrent, à travers ce discours, à susciter un émoi authentique et profond auprès de leur public. 

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  • 1 There is currently no critical consensus on whether ‘To be or not to be’ is a soliloquy (the actor (...)
  • 2 Thompson goes so far as writing that ‘it could be said to epitomize the play as a whole, and the qu (...)
  • 3 Among the flow of books and articles devoted to Hamlet, one fairly recent short monograph offers so (...)

1The rather facetious title of this article is meant to draw attention to the convoluted and sometimes contradictory ways this speech was handed down to us through two decisive centuries.1 By the early 1800s, its story is not over, but at the end of that period, I argue it is possible to determine with some clarity the literary and theatrical reception of the ‘To be or not to be’ speech, or scene. One difficulty is that the speech is so famous today that it has become an epitome of the play itself.2 Modern actors playing the part are regularly challenged because a fraction of their audience may know the speech by heart and recite it with them. Moreover, much ink has been spent by early critics and editors, as well as contemporary academics, in writing about the speech.3

2Thus, it is time perhaps to go back to basics and specifically to the early history of Hamlet’s reception, which might shed some useful light on our current debates on the play. In order to do so, I first probe briefly the nature of the scene. An examination of the play’s print configuration in its first editions follows, and I move on afterwards to consider the speech’s early reception by its readers until the Restoration. Then I continue the survey of readers, this time from a later era (from c. 1700 to 1800). They were primarily literary annotators, transcribers, but also theatre people, and I endeavour to determine what they might have thought of, or done with ‘To be or not to be’. To conclude, I intend to look back on the early interpretation and adaptation of the speech to answer the question in the title: was the speech during that period a ‘hit’ or a ‘miss’?

‘To be or not to be’: probing briefly the nature of the scene

  • 4 K. Irace notes indeed that ‘the first quarto has had its own surprisingly rich modern performance h (...)

3Modern editors of Hamlet have three source texts of the play to work with. The First Quarto version of 1603 (Q1) and the First Folio of 1623 (F1), which varies slightly from the Second Quarto of 1604/5 (Q2). In Q1, the ‘To be or not to be’ speech is 23 verse lines long, as opposed to the F1’s 35 lines. However imperfect the Q1 version might be (it has been referred to in the past as a ‘bad quarto’), it nevertheless keeps some kind of coherence. It is thus tempting for directors to make use of it.4

  • 5 This is Kathleen O. Irace’s position, who suggests that ‘the position of the “To be or not to be” s (...)
  • 6 Thompson, ‘Hamlet 3.1: “To be or not to be”’, p. 1145.
  • 7 A reader of a copy of Nicholas Rowe’s 1709 edition of Shakespeare’s works (Folger Shakespeare Libr (...)

4Yet the more pressing question is: what if the speech was misplaced? In Q1, it appears much earlier in the play, when Hamlet is still debating on whether to take action. Some theatre directors and academics argue that placing it in act 3 scene 1, actually undercuts the process and dynamics of the play, as Hamlet is supposed to be closer to making up his mind at this point – an argument we have already touched upon.5 So, is the speech in truth a ‘detachable’ or ‘portable scene’, ‘easily moved to one scene (some 500 lines) earlier if the director finds its traditional position in the two ‘good texts’ [i.e., Q2 and F1] ‘uncomfortable’. ‘Most people in most audiences would probably not notice any difference’, Ann Thompson surmises.6 For that matter, some eighteenth-century readers had already pointed out, more radically, that the speech was ‘a perfectly detached piece’, as the last section of this essay will make clear.7

  • 8 Edwards and Hirschfeld, ‘Introduction’, Hamlet: Prince of Denmark (2019), p. 15.

5These questions indicate that with Shakespeare, no text is actually sacred or fixed. There were substantial differences between the various source texts of Hamlet from the start. Nonetheless, modern directors often blamed for tampering with the ‘holy text’ have every reason to make the most of the fundamental flexibility of the Shakespearean material in order to serve their vision of the play. If we want to go further, we could argue with Heather Hirschfeld that ‘the complexity of the play’s textual situation reverberates in the complexity, even ineffability, of its central character’.8 This is a statement to ponder.

6At all events, this logic of detachability, disarticulation, decontextualization / generalisation, or, alternatively, a tendency to merge textual elements is not one invented in contemporary times. It is one we have seen and will witness again employed by some of the first readers of Hamlet.

Early editions of Hamlet marked up for commonplacing – or what did these printed texts want their readers to recollect of the play?

  • 9 ‘Commonplacing’ was a widespread practice among early modern readers. The activity consisted in ent (...)

7It is well known that a number of passages in Shakespeare’s early editions were demarcated for their readers. These highlighted parts usually took the shape of marginal single or double quotation marks placed to the left of the lines. It is easy for our modern eye to miss them, but their use was primarily to enable early readers to extract these passages and make a note of them in their commonplace books or miscellanies. One could argue that they pointed to what was to be retained of a text and perhaps that they encouraged reuse in another context. One can also see them as providing the commonplacing9 ‘gist’ of the play.

  • 10 See Peter Stallybrass and Zachary Lesser, ‘The First Literary Hamlet and the Commonplacing of Profe (...)

8In recent years, scholars have been drawn to them and have found that (poetry aside) F1 contains some such marks, as well as earlier editions, such as Q1 and Q2.10 No explanation as to their presence is given. They could be the work of publishers, or stationers and printers, as they were called at the time. Authorial intervention is unlikely (especially for F1 published after Shakespeare’s death in 1616), but not to be totally excluded for the quartos. They were most probably another marketing ploy aimed to please commonplacing readers.

  • 11 William Shakespeare, The Tragicall Historie of Hamlet Prince of Denmarke (London: printed for N. L. (...)
  • 12 NCS: New Cambridge Shakespeare, that is, William Shakespeare, Hamlet: Prince of Denmark, ed. Philip (...)

9Let us have a brief look at them, starting with Q1 (only discovered in 1823).11 Reading just the demarcated lines in Q1 and not knowing the play, one could get a sense that Hamlet is really an advice book meant for parents who need to educate a son and a daughter. Indeed, only two passages in the whole play are marked out in print. The verse lines are both spoken by Corambis (called Polonius in Q2 and F1). Corambis addresses his son Laertes and the marked lines begin with ‘Be thou familiar, but by no meanes vulgare;’ down to ‘For the apparell oft proclaimes the man’ (sig. C2r in the original; 1.3.61–72 in NCS)12. A single line on the same page, which is part of Corambis’s same speech, is delimited in a similar fashion ‘This above all, to thy owne selfe be true’.

1. Close-up of demarcations in print opposite a part of Corambis’s speech to his son Laertes in William Shakespeare, The Tragicall Historie of Hamlet Prince of Denmarke (London: printed for N. L. and Iohn Trundell. 1603). [Q1]. STC 22275, sig. C2r, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.

1. Close-up of demarcations in print opposite a part of Corambis’s speech to his son Laertes in William Shakespeare, The Tragicall Historie of Hamlet Prince of Denmarke (London: printed for N. L. and Iohn Trundell. 1603). [Q1]. STC 22275, sig. C2r, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.
  • 13 Let me add that in Q1, the ‘To be or not to be’ speech is not demarcated. How indeed could it fit i (...)

10As for the education a father could give his daughter, it is not only brief but also opposes written communication between lovers, which, in the opinion of Corambis, fosters desire and threatens chastity. The marked-up lines, even more than in the case of Laertes, are generalisations that are equally easy to extract by readers for their purposes: ‘For lovers lines are snares to intrap the heart; / Refuse his tokens, both of them are keyes’ (sig. C2v; not in NCS ).13

2. Close-up of demarcations in print opposite a part Corambis’s speech to his daughter Ophelia. Shakespeare, The Tragicall Historie of Hamlet, sig. C2v [Q1], The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.

2. Close-up of demarcations in print opposite a part Corambis’s speech to his daughter Ophelia. Shakespeare, The Tragicall Historie of Hamlet, sig. C2v [Q1], The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.
  • 14 William Shakespeare, The Tragicall Historie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke (London: Printed by I. R. (...)

11Yet, in Q2 and the ensuing quartos, the demarcated lines do not involve Polonius directly.14 In fact, the marked-up passages in Q2 offer readers a kind of female diptych – one in which the young Ophelia is seen as a potential victim of sin and another, spoken by Gertrude, in which she describes the personal consequences of sin.

12The first demarcated passage carries evident moral overtones. Thus, the play could be read as a treatise not on education, but on righteous values in this case. Ophelia is, as it were, lectured on proper virtue for a young woman and warned about a possible fall into sin: ‘Vertue it selfe scapes not calumnious strokes / ‘The Canker gaules the infants of the spring’ (sig. C3v; NCS 1.3.38–9). Who is the speaker this time? No other than her brother, Laertes, who, at this point, sounds very much like his father, from whom he is also about to receive similar upright advice a few lines later (sig. C4r).

3. Close-up of demarcations in print opposite a part of the admonition delivered to Ophelia by her brother Laertes. William Shakespeare, The Tragicall Historie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke (London: Printed by I. R. for N. L. and are to be sold at his shoppe vnder Saint Dunstons Church in Fleetstreet, 1604), sig. C3v [Q2]. STC 22276, image 8051, Folger Shakespeare Library.

3. Close-up of demarcations in print opposite a part of the admonition delivered to Ophelia by her brother Laertes. William Shakespeare, The Tragicall Historie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke (London: Printed by I. R. for N. L. and are to be sold at his shoppe vnder Saint Dunstons Church in Fleetstreet, 1604), sig. C3v [Q2]. STC 22276, image 8051, Folger Shakespeare Library.

13Now, the second demarcated passage is spoken by Queen Gertrude and carries greater moral overtones, as her female voice is unleashed and the Queen describes in detail and, in her own words, the torture of guilt:

‘To my sicke soule, as sinnes true nature is,
‘Each toy seemes prologue to some great amisse,
‘So full of artlesse jealousie is guilt,
‘It spills it selfe, in fearing to be spylt. (sig. K4r; NCS 4.4.17–20)

4. Close-up of demarcations in print opposite a part of Queen Gertrude’s description of the guilt that tortures her. Shakespeare, The Tragicall Historie of Hamlet, sig. K4r [Q2]. STC 22276, image 8079, Folger Shakespeare Library.

4. Close-up of demarcations in print opposite a part of Queen Gertrude’s description of the guilt that tortures her. Shakespeare, The Tragicall Historie of Hamlet, sig. K4r [Q2]. STC 22276, image 8079, Folger Shakespeare Library.
  • 15 Those passages are the only ones demarcated in Q1 and Q2 and might have struck some readers and att (...)

14Although the Folio does contain demarcated lines, there are none in Hamlet. Was this a conscious decision on the part of the Folio publishing syndicate? If so, Hamlet and its now celebrated speech might have been considered less significant than other marked-up plays. Moreover, are we to conclude that early modern readers of Q1 and Q2 were to follow suit and copy the same marked-up lines? Not necessarily, as we shall see. The intent of whoever chose to demarcate those passages had an overall limited influence on what early readers really sought in Hamlet. However, they remain of interest in that they show what could well be a possibly unfinished15 attempt at responding to literary readers’ commonplacing needs on the part of the publisher, or someone who had access to the text.

The play’s early reception and reputation

  • 16 On Pudsey, see David Kathman, ‘Pudsey, Edward (bap. 1573, d. 1612/13)’, in ODNB, ed. H. C. G. Matth (...)
  • 17 For a definition of what a commonplace book is and of the activity of commonplacing, see note 9 abo (...)
  • 18 The Hamlet extracts appear on both sides of one of four leaves now detached from a miscellany compi (...)
  • 19 See Andrew Hiscock’s article in this issue.
  • 20 Some of Pudsey’s lines resemble the demarcated Polonius passages in Q1 we have studied. Yet the sit (...)
  • 21 Similarly, a recently discovered tiny anonymous notebook, which dates back to the first half of the (...)

15Early allusions to Hamlet, and certainly references to its now famous speech, are in fact few and far between. A commoner by the name of Edward Pudsey (bap. 1573, d. 1612/13)16 compiled a commonplace book,17 transcribing extracts from many works, including seven Shakespearean playbooks, one of which was Hamlet Q2.18 Yet Pudsey, who had undoubtedly been trained in his school years to recognise commonplaces and sententiae,19 focused primarily on Polonius’s sayings. Taking them seemingly at face value, he copied in his commonplace book some of Polonius’s lines almost word for word,20 often simply by transforming the verse into prose and deleting speech prefixes and oral structures, thus completely decontextualising the verse lines. Nothing is said about the appreciation of the play, nor on Hamlet’s speech.21 Pudsey had a noticeable interest in rhetorical tropes and lines that he could extract and perhaps reuse in another context. Despite his curiosity for Hamlet, one cannot deduce the consideration he had for the play, other than by the few passages he lifted from it.

  • 22 For more information on these figures, see Lukas Erne, Shakespeare and the Book Trade (Cambridge: C (...)
  • 23 Cited in Virginia F. Stern, Gabriel Harvey, His Life, Marginalia and Library (Oxford: Clarendon Pre (...)
  • 24 Gary Taylor and Rory Loughnane differ and claim that ‘Harvey’s Hamlet reference could thus have bee (...)
  • 25 These lines are in Harvey’s copy of Guicciardini’s Detti, et Fatti (1571), see Stern, Gabriel Harve (...)

16Quantitative surveys show that readers and book collectors were more attracted to Shakespeare’s English history plays, with 1 Henry IV topping the list. Hamlet is in fifth place only.22 Hamlet in print was not the most absolute bestseller it has later become. What we can infer from some of the early comments on the play is that Hamlet created, at least in the eyes of some, a kind of niche for itself. Thus, famously, scholar and writer Gabriel Harvey (1552/3–1631) noted in his copy of Thomas Speght’s folio edition of Chaucer published in 1598 that ‘The younger sort takes much delight in Shakespeares Venus, & Adonis: but his Lucrece, & his tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, have it in them, to please the wiser sort’.23 Written after 1603,24 these lines represent an original attempt at looking at Shakespeare’s reception sociologically (the young as opposed to older and no doubt scholarly readers like himself). Hamlet was probably one of his personal favourites, as it also appears (‘the Tragedie of Hamlet’), together with ‘Richard 3’ in marginalia listing his preferred fifteenth- and sixteenth-century works.25

  • 26 Abraham Wright cited in Arthur C. Kirsch, ‘A Caroline Commentary on the Drama’, Modern Philology 66 (...)
  • 27 William Cartwright, ‘Upon the report of the printing of the Dramaticall Poems of Master John Fletch (...)
  • 28 Cited in Kirsch, ‘A Caroline Commentary on the Drama’, p. 258.

17If Hamlet was indeed a niche or elite play for those who saw themselves as lofty scholars, not everyone agreed. Clergyman Abraham Wright (1611–90) compared Othello and Hamlet, concluding, largely against the judgement of centuries to come, that Hamlet was ‘But an indifferent play, the lines but meane: and in nothing like Othello’. Wright did enjoy the gravediggers’ scene in Hamlet (‘a good scene’), but found it ‘better’ in Thomas Randolph’s The Jealous Lovers of 1632.26 New plays were overshadowing Shakespeare’s in the decades after his death. As a matter of fact, around the time when Wright was taking his notes, William Cartwright wrote of Shakespeare’s ‘Old fashion’d wit’ in 1647. This was a mere thirty years after the dramatist’s passing and in the middle of the English Civil War (1642‒1651).27 Nevertheless, the most damning, and no doubt the best remembered lines against the play, are by Wright, who remarked disparagingly: ‘Hamlet is an indifferent part for a madman’.28

  • 29 For details see Edwards’ introduction to the play in Shakespeare, Hamlet: Prince of Denmark, ed. Ed (...)

18This vein of ridicule and mockery remained attached to the play and certainly to its main protagonist (seen as a character amusingly out of his mind), especially during the first half of the seventeenth century. Philip Edwards notes in his introduction to the New Cambridge Shakespeare Hamlet that this comical reputation was further fostered, in particular, by two works that contained direct and disparaging allusions to Hamlet’s madness: Anthony Scoloker’s Daiphantus, a verse romance published in 1604, and the city comedy Eastward Hoe by George Chapman, Ben Jonson and John Marston (1605). Both included passages that indisputably poked fun at Hamlet.29

  • 30 The MR774 Folio is the property of the research library of Meisei University, Tokyo, Japan.
  • 31 See, for the latest information on what we know of the author, Akihiro Yamada, ‘William Johnstoune, (...)
  • 32 For details, see Akihiro Yamada, ed., The First Folio of Shakespeare: A Transcript of Contemporary (...)
  • 33 The digital facsimile is available at http://shakes.meisei-u.ac.jp/search.html (accessed 19 June 20 (...)
  • 34 Stephen Orgel, The Reader in the Book, A Study of Spaces and Traces (Oxford: Oxford University Pres (...)

19Yet, for some readers, Hamlet was no source of ridicule. In what is currently the most annotated First Folio by a single reader, known as MR774, the notes date back to the early decades of the seventeenth century and cover every play, including Hamlet.30 The identity of this serious and even frenzied annotator still remains a mystery.31 Of the thirty-six plays in the First Folio, those he annotated most were Shakespeare’s twelve tragedies.32 Thus, one might wonder if the inscriber had any idea of tragedy as a literary genre. It seems that it was the case. His reading of Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ speech is that it is really a ‘question whether we ought to overcome our selves and our passions by extreme patience or die seeking desperate wrong’ (sig. Oo5r [TLN 1651–1716]).33 In the text of Hamlet, the question is whether we ought to live or escape in death. But the annotator introduces revenge here, which, for us, is a misreading of the passage, but actually shows what he, as an early reader, was expecting, as Stephen Orgel has pointed out.34 The inscriber held the view that this speech was supposed to be about vengeance, and no mere arresting abstract reflection impeding the action of play. This was otherwise a common criticism of the dramatic function of the speech, which could be seen as hampering Hamlet’s decision-making process so late in the play. We shall come back to this point. Let us now turn to the next period of the play’s history.

  • 35 The Grave-Makers (Hamlet and the grave-diggers) is one such short play, or droll, to have been writ (...)

20Even though a few plays were written and performed in private venues during the Interregnum (1649 to 1660), some of which were inspired by Shakespeare35, it can be said that Hamlet had a very mixed reception during its early years and did not really resurface before the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660. At the Restoration, a kind of nostalgia drew dramatists and readers back to works that had been composed before, under the Tudor and Stuart monarchies. Moreover, with the closure of the theatres in 1642, little dramatic work had been created and writers had to turn to Shakespeare and others in order to produce new plays. This led not only to a period of pilfering of preceding playwrights but also to adaptations of Shakespeare, who was in odour of sanctity, because, for many, he still remained closely associated with the Monarchy. On the market and freshly off the press was Shakespeare’s Third Folio printed tellingly four years after the Restoration in 1664.

21So, in the latter half of the seventeenth century, Shakespeare and his Hamlet re-emerged in various ways. Naval official and diarist Samuel Pepys (1633‒1703), who had a notorious passion for women and for the theatre, bought several Shakespeare editions in July 1664, which he recorded in his famous diaries. In November of that year, he was learning Hamlet’s ‘To be, or not to be’ speech and was trying to recite it without the help of the book. In his entry for 15 August 1665, and amid an outbreak of plague, he mentions his dreams and his fear of death. At this moment, the lines from Hamlet he had learned the year before come to mind and allow him to express not only his fears but also his will to defeat death somehow: ‘what a happy thing it would be if when we are in our graves (as Shakespeare resembles it) we could dream, and dream but such dreams as this, that we should not need to be so fearful of death as we are this plague-time’. Clearly, the ‘To be or not to be’ speech took on the value of a consolation piece for Pepys, who ignored, or oversaw, its ambiguities. Thus, at the turn of the seventeenth century, Hamlet had definitely made its mark. Nonetheless, its success as a play was not inevitable and remained unstable.

What did early non-theatrical annotators and transcribers of ‘To be or not to be’ think of the speech in the eighteenth century?

  • 36 The works of Mr. William Shakespear: in six volumes; adorn’d with cuts / revis’d and corrected, wit (...)
  • 37 In January 1726, Voltaire was insulted and then beaten on the orders of the Chevalier de Rohan, who (...)
  • 38 Voltaire [François-Marie Arouet], ‘Letter xviii: on Tragedy’, Letters concerning the English nation (...)
  • 39 The annotator’s notes could not have been made before 1733‒34, precisely because of the Voltaire al (...)
  • 40 Voltaire, ‘Letter xviii: on Tragedy’, p. 166.
  • 41 Ibid., p. 170.
  • 42 Ibid., p. 170.
  • 43 Ibid., pp. 173–4.

22In a volume of Nicholas Rowe’s 1709 edition of Shakespeare’s works, a reader wrote the following marginal note next to Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ speech: ‘Voltaire Vol: 4. p. 275’.36 Indeed, Voltaire had commented on Shakespeare’s speech in ‘Letter xvi “On Tragedy”’ published in English first in 1733, in Letters Concerning the English Nation,37 and a year later in French, in his Lettres philosophiques.38 What reason did this eighteenth-century reader have to bring Hamlet and Voltaire together?39 Perhaps because Voltaire gave parts of Shakespeare’s works some literary cachet. The French man of letters recognised that ‘Shakespear boasted a strong, fruitful Genius’, but, according to him, he ‘had not so much as a single Spark of good Taste’.40 Voltaire believed that translation was the only way to redeem Shakespeare: ‘methinks two Pages which display some of the Beauties of great Genius’s, are of infinitely more Value than all the idle Rhapsodies of those Commentators’.41 And what passage of Shakespeare did he choose? No other than Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ speech. ‘I have made choice’, wrote Voltaire, ‘of Part of the celebrated Soliloquy in Hamlet, which you may remember is as follows’.42 He then cites the speech in English in full and gives his own version translated into French.43 You will note that ‘celebrated Soliloquy’ and ‘Hamlet, which you may remember’ stand out as phrases of recognition by the Frenchman that, of all Shakespeare’s passages, Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ speech ought to be best praised. This may have been music to the ears of the annotator of Rowe’s 1709 edition, especially in the context of discord opposing English taste to French taste, which increased during the eighteenth century and was not helped by ensuing military warfare between the two nations.

  • 44 Leeds University Library, Brotherton Collection, MS Lt. 80, I, fos 7a-b.

23Yet, for other eighteenth-century transcribers of Hamlet’s speech, there was still the temptation to resort to ‘headings’, or titles, that commonplace books favoured. Thus, ‘Poems and translations by Hugh Wormington’44 has a transcription of Hamlet’s speech headed ‘Futurity’. The OED defines ‘Futurity’ as a ‘State or condition in the future. Also, existence after death’, although this precise meaning is not attested before 1741 (OED 3.c.). Wormington probably copied Hamlet’s speech from the First Folio. Written in a single autograph hand, around 1715–23, the reproduction stands out because of its title and its implications; Wormington, unlike many ensuing transcribers or annotators, seems to have contemplated what the future held for him, suicide or death, like Hamlet himself.

  • 45 See James Sambrook, ‘Harte, Walter (1708/9-74)’, ODNB (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), www. (...)

24No doubt more concerned with establishing the Hamlet speech as a set piece, our next reader steers clear of any mention of suicide evoked in the speech’s course. An avowed friend and admirer of Pope, writer and classicist Walter Harte (1708/9–1774),45 assiduously assembled one of the most extensive eighteenth-century dramatic commonplace books. Entitled ‘Miscellanea tragica: Theatrical index of Sentiments & descriptions’ (Folger Shakespeare Library, MS M.a.47) and composed ca. 1730, the manuscript is 231 leaves long and contains a wealth of passages by Shakespeare, as well as a comparatively extended section of extracts from Hamlet.

5. Opening page of Walter Harte’s manuscript commonplace book entitled ‘Miscellanea tragica: Theatrical index of Sentiments & descriptions’ (MS M.a.47)

5. Opening page of Walter Harte’s manuscript commonplace book entitled ‘Miscellanea tragica: Theatrical index of Sentiments & descriptions’ (MS M.a.47)

Photo credit: Jean-Christophe Mayer. By permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, D.C.

  • 46 William Shakespeare, The works of Shakespear. In six volumes. Collated and corrected by the former (...)

25For his notetaking, Harte used Pope’s 1725 edition, and Harte’s record of the speech, which he entitled ‘Death’ significantly differs from Pope’s text.46

To be, or not to be, ay there’s the question. [Pope: that is the Question –
[The following 8 lines on suicide are cut by Harte compared to Pope’s edition:]
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind, to suffer
The slings and arrows of outragious fortune;
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? ---- To die, -----to sleep -----
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to; ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die ----- to sleep -----
[Having cut the preceding passage, Harte continues:]
To die, to sleep–perhaps dream ay, there’s the rub [Pope: To Sleep? perchance to dream
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come? [Pope: come,
[Harte then cuts another 3 lines, which were perhaps too long-winded or too close to thoughts on suicide for him:]
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.
[Harte goes on:]
Else who would bear the whips, & scorns of time, [Pope: For who
Th’oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of disperse’d love, the law’s delay, [Pope: pang
The insolence of office.
[One-and-a-half lines cut again by Harte when compared to Pope – perhaps the passage was deemed too opaque? Pope’s lines:]
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th’ unworthy takes;
[Harte continues:]
Whereas himself might his quietus make [Pope: When he
With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,
To groan & sweat beneath a weary life? [Pope: under
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover’d country from whose bourn [Pope: (That discovery’d; country,
No traveler returns: puzzles the will, [Pope: )
& makes us rather bear those ills we have,
Than fly to others who we know not of. [Pope: that
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all, Act III.Sc. i [Pope: all:
[At this point, Harte in fact adds two lines from a much earlier passage in Pope (I.ii, p. 353), spoken by Queen Gertrude to Hamlet:]
Thou know’st tis common all that live must dye, [Pope: common,
Passing thro’ nature to eternity. [Pope: through
[Finally, 7 lines from Pope’s edition are left out. Harte certainly gets rid of a section expressing Hamlet’s irresolution and decontextualizes the extract by removing it from the play’s plot. Pope’s text:]
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought;
And enterprizes of great pith and moment,
With this regard, their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action. ---- Soft you now, [Seeing Oph.
The fair Ophelia? nymph, in thy oraisons
Be all my sins remembred.

6. Walter Harte’s transcription of ‘To be or not to be’, adapted from Alexander Pope’s 1725 edition of Shakespeare’s works in his manuscript commonplace book entitled ‘Miscellanea tragica: Theatrical index of Sentiments & descriptions’ (MS M.a.47)

6. Walter Harte’s transcription of ‘To be or not to be’, adapted from Alexander Pope’s 1725 edition of Shakespeare’s works in his manuscript commonplace book entitled ‘Miscellanea tragica: Theatrical index of Sentiments & descriptions’ (MS M.a.47)

Photo credit: Jean-Christophe Mayer. By permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, D.C.

26What can we conclude from this transcription? What is most striking is that Harte evacuated all references to suicide – no doubt because taking one’s life is an unchristian act? It could also be argued that the couple of verse lines placed at the end introduce somewhat of a platitude to what we regard now as an elevated speech. Nonetheless, it was the transcriber’s choice and whatever our thoughts about it, I suggest we accept that this arrangement was satisfactory to Harte, who, like other transcribers, retained from Shakespeare’s celebrated speech only a few verse lines on death – those he was ready to approve of and conceivably cherish.

  • 47 Letter by Elizabeth Montagu (Robinson) to Sarah (Robinson) Scott, 16 January 1755, Huntington Libra (...)

27During the eighteenth century, it is obvious that Shakespeare’s ‘To be or not to be’, was no longer overlooked as easily as before. In truth, it was not only regarded as noteworthy, but also appropriated and adapted by the literati. As Britain was taking its place among the strongest nations in Europe, it naturally turned to the best in its vernacular literature – and Shakespeare who had served both Elizabeth I and James I in what began to be seen as an age to be admired – provided just that. So much so that what was later to become the epitome of English vernacular literature, Hamlet and the lines of its ‘To be or not to be’ speech, circulated quite casually in literary and nationalist circles, like those, for instance, of eighteenth-century patron of the arts Elizabeth Montagu (1718‒1800). Narrating the events of her existence, she regularly looked at everyday life around her through the prism of Shakespearean references. Thus, in a private letter to her sister, she writes about Lord Monfort’s estate and his loss of revenue and suddenly comes up with this phrase: ‘To retrench or to dye was the question, he reasoned like Hamlet, but left out the great argument of a future state’.47

‘To be or not to be’ on stage: early printed and annotated promptbooks

28Hamlet’s famous speech owed its reputation, not only to literary readers, but also to theatre directors, or actors. Many used copies of Shakespeare’s four folios, others (more rarely) original quartos of the play. Yet during the Restoration, Hamlet was released as handy quarto handbooks, by publishers who sold them both before and after performances, with a view to attracting a performance-oriented public, who, in the case of theatre people, could turn them into promptbooks as well.

  • 48 William Shakespeare, The tragedy of Hamlet Prince of Denmark. As it is now acted at his highness th (...)

29Such was the 1676, so-called Hamlet ‘players’ Quarto’.48 The edition had been slightly rewritten and amended by the poet, playwright, and theatre manager, William D’Avenant (1606‒1668). One specificity has to be noted: instead of demarcating passages to be remembered by the use of quotation marks, the publishers retained inverted commas, but this time to indicate parts to be cut on stage. Looking at the performance cuts, it is easy to see that the play, although relatively faithful to the original, was heavily downsized.

  • 49 Hazleton Spencer, cited in Andrew Murphy, Shakespeare in Print: A History and Chronology of Shakesp (...)
  • 50 Murphy, Shakespeare in Print, p. 34.

30Hazelton Spencer remarked that ‘In general the cutting is done with a view to retaining what is dramatic, and lopping off the lyric and sententious passages which have now become elocutionary arias for Hamlet’.49 Hamlet’s speech, nonetheless, is left untouched. The 1676 Hamlet was quite a success, as its reprint dates seem to indicate: 1683, 1695 and 1703. Other such promptbooks of Hamlet followed, published by various stationers.50

  • 51 Folger Shakespeare Library PROMPT Ham. 55 (1676).

31Interestingly, the Folger Shakespeare Library holds a 1676 quarto that was undoubtedly used for performance.51 In this rehearsal copy, there are no stage directions but just checks and cuts, which – ironically but tellingly – do not follow the printed cuts for performance delineated by quotations marks. In fact, the hand-written erasures are often completely different. Again, despite the numerous cancellations, ‘To be or not to be’ escapes unscathed, which implies that it was increasingly regarded as a set piece for many performances of Hamlet.

32One should not omit to mention the well-known Smock Alley (Dublin) promptbook of Hamlet, which, unlike the promptbooks we have studied so far, is part of a copy of Shakespeare’s Third Folio, published in 1664. A close look at the text reveals that several hands have been at work in the folio, some from the seventeenth century and others from the Augustan age. Thus, broadly speaking, the Smock Alley promptbook of Hamlet has become a hybrid piece, with not only blatant theatrical cuts, but also editorial emendations dating from the eighteenth century.

  • 52 G. Blakemore Evans, Shakespearean prompt-books of the seventeenth century, 8 vols (Charlottesville: (...)

33Once more the ‘To be or not to be’ speech escapes cutting. One characteristic, which is found generally in many Hamlet promptbooks, is that there are very significant erasures before the speech, as if to showcase it better. Consequently, Polonius’s advice to his daughter and after that the King’s admission of guilt are crossed out.52

34Nonetheless, in the fields of reception and appropriation studies, one rarely encounters consensus. In the following example, the theme of Hamlet’s madness resurfaces and affects the status of the acclaimed speech. Indeed, during the first half of the eighteenth century, a reader and passionate annotator of Nicholas Rowe’s 6 volume 1709 edition of Shakespeare’s works took the idea of the detachability of the ‘To be or not be’ speech to its extreme limit:

The Famous soliloquy so much cry’d up
in Hamlet To be or not to be &c. is a
perfectly detached piece & has nothing
to do in the play. for as it was produced
by nothing before so has it no manner
of Influence on w[ha]t fortunes after
vid. Gildons Lawes
of poetry p. 206

7. An anonymous reader’s lines on ‘The Famous soliloquy’ – adapted from Charles Gildon’s The Laws of Poetry (1721) – on the recto of the second back flyleaf, in volume 5 of Nicholas Rowe’s 1709 edition of Shakespeare’s works (PR2752 1709a Copy 4 Sh.Col.).

7. An anonymous reader’s lines on ‘The Famous soliloquy’ – adapted from Charles Gildon’s The Laws of Poetry (1721) – on the recto of the second back flyleaf, in volume 5 of Nicholas Rowe’s 1709 edition of Shakespeare’s works (PR2752 1709a Copy 4 Sh.Col.).

Photo credit: Jean-Christophe Mayer. By permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, D.C.

  • 53 Charles Gildon, The laws of poetry, As laid down by the Duke of Buckinghamshire in his Essay on Poe (...)
  • 54 Ibid., p. 205.
  • 55 Ibid., p. 206.

35The annotator was not an eccentric reader, but one who had been influenced by the writer Charles Gildon (c. 1665‒1724) and his Laws of Poetry published in 1721, which was really a compilation of other treatises on poetry.53 The passage in question is actually from The Essay on Poetry, a work published in 1682 by the deceased John Sheffield, first duke of Buckingham (1647‒1721), which Gildon reprints with a few comments. The duke was no lover of soliloquies and regarded Shakespeare’s and his contemporaries’ soliloquies ‘equally unnatural and absurd in all, none but madmen talking aloud to themselves’.54 Just before tearing down Hamlet’s speech to pieces and suggesting it should be cut entirely, he notes that ‘Shakespear has frequently soliloquies of threescore [i.e. sixty] lines, and those very often, if not always, calm, without any emotions of the passions, or indeed conducive to the business of the play’.55

  • 56 See note 6 of G. Blakemore Evans’s Shakespearean Prompt-Books, online at: https://bsuva.org/bsuva/p (...)

36Few followed that radical track in the history of Shakespearean productions. G. Blakemore Evans records only a couple of promptbooks (that is, early editions of Hamlet, especially annotated for the theatre) that omitted Hamlet’s speech entirely. These are two Q6 editions now in the Shakespeare Folger Library and published in 1703 and 1766.56 While we are completely entitled to disagree with Buckingham’s writing and the decisions of those two Q6-based productions, they do take us back to the idea of madness attached to Hamlet – both the play and the character. This did much to mar the play’s early reputation. Some hundred years later, the accusation was still there, even if it revolved around the nature of soliloquies, like Hamlet’s, which were allegedly fit for ‘madmen talking aloud to themselves’. So, by the 1750s, there was some kind of general critical agreement about the value of Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ speech, but that consensus was not complete.

  • 57 William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. A tragedy, by Shakespeare. As performed at the Thea (...)

37Be that as it may, a late eighteenth-century promptbook of Hamlet (Folger Shakespeare Library PROMPT Ham. 82; 1773), appears to confirm that opinions about the famous speech had definitely changed. The main character comes in from the left of the stage, as a handwritten inscription in ink indicates. The text of this performance edition57 has an asterisk, leading to a footnote, just before Hamlet is about to deliver ‘To be or not to be’ (sig. R2r-v; pp. 39‒40). The note reads thus:

*There never was so much philosophical reasoning expressed so nervously, in so narrow a compass, by any author, as in this excellent, we may say unparalleled, soliloquy, which gives a good orator great latitude for the exertion of his abilities – the thought of death being a desirable consummation; the doubts arising from that translation; the picture of life; which our uncertainty forces us to bear, are admirably conceived and expressed.

38In other words, in the theatre of the late eighteenth century, ‘To be or not to be’ had become a showpiece for a talented actor to demonstrate his skills.

Conclusion: the early circulation and adaptation of the ‘To be or not to be’ speech

39From almost total blindness to the speech, ridicule, some mixed appreciation, a relative disappearance to a rediscovery tinged with some misinterpretation (from our perspective), this is the journey the play and Hamlet’s speech took from the seventeenth to the eighteenth century. Even the most appreciative and learned readers never openly embraced the speech in its entirety, perhaps because it touched a chord that was so sensitive in them: the value and necessity of their own existence. So, from our modern standpoint, we can call its very early reception somewhat of a ‘miss’.

  • 58 First printed the 1623 First Folio, but first performed in 1603.
  • 59 William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure, ed. Brian Gibbons, updated ed., The New Cambridge Shakesp (...)
  • 60 This statement is supported by my own experience of looking at hundreds of early miscellanies and c (...)

40As a matter of fact, ‘To be or not to be’ had a very appealing ‘competitor’, which was much more popular among readers and annotators than Hamlet’s ‘lofty’ speech: Claudio’s speech in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure (3.1.118–32),58 which begins with the catchy ‘Ay, but to die and go we know not where, / To lie in cold obstruction and to rot […]’.59 Claudio’s speech, which is neither a soliloquy, nor a monologue, but is directly spoken to his sister Isabella addressed the fear of death in more pressing, more concrete and horrifying terms. Quotations of Claudio’s lines appear far more frequently in miscellanies and commonplace books than Hamlet’s speech.60 Still, what happened on early stages was rather different. When Hamlet was performed the speech was never, or extremely rarely cut, as theatre managers, or directors, sought to stir genuine emotions in their audiences – sentiments that readers seemingly could not wrestle with completely on their own. By hardly ever cutting it, the stage gradually gave the ‘To be or not to be’ speech a special aura. Often repeated, it began to disclose the pains of the ebbs and flows of existence. In sum, the speech was undeniably invaluable and unavoidable in British theatre by the late 1770s and – if well performed – it was a definite ‘hit’ on stage.

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Notes

1 There is currently no critical consensus on whether ‘To be or not to be’ is a soliloquy (the actor would then be speaking alone to the audience), or a monologue (there is a chance that Hamlet may be overheard at least by the king and Polonius). Therefore, I refer to the famous passage as a ‘speech’ throughout this essay. On this issue, see Ann Thompson, ‘Hamlet 3.1: “To be or not to be”’, in The Cambridge Guide to the Worlds of Shakespeare, ed. Bruce R. Smith, Katherine Rowe, Ton Hoenselaars, Akiko Kusunoki, Andrew Murphy and Aimara da Cunha Resende (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), pp. 1144–50, 1145 and 1147.

2 Thompson goes so far as writing that ‘it could be said to epitomize the play as a whole, and the questions it raises pervade the entire text’. See Thompson, ‘Hamlet 3.1: “To be or not to be”’, p. 1449.

3 Among the flow of books and articles devoted to Hamlet, one fairly recent short monograph offers some of the best close readings of the speech both for students and scholars. See chapters 3 and 4 (pp. 13–63) in Douglas Bruster’s To Be or Not to Be, Shakespeare Now! (London: Continuum, 2007).

4 K. Irace notes indeed that ‘the first quarto has had its own surprisingly rich modern performance history, beginning with William Poel’s staging in 1881 and continuing to the present – with a cluster of successful productions beginning in the 1980s’. (William Shakespeare, The First Quarto of Hamlet, ed. K. Irace, The New Cambridge Shakespeare: The Early Quartos (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 23. Ann Thompson writes also of ‘a strong theatrical tradition of preferring the Q1 ordering of events’ (for details, see Thompson, ‘Hamlet 3.1: “To be or not to be”’, p. 1446).

5 This is Kathleen O. Irace’s position, who suggests that ‘the position of the “To be or not to be” soliloquy in Q2 and F may itself seem contradictory, for it interrupts Hamlet’s plan to test the king: in Q2 and F Hamlet hopefully seizes on this plan in Act 2, Scene 2, but the next time he appears (Act 3, Scene 1), he is meditating the pros and cons of suicide’ (Shakespeare, The First Quarto of Hamlet, ed. Irace, p. 21). As for theatre directors, see Trevor Nunn’s similar opinion on the matter (cited in Thompson, ‘Hamlet 3.1: “To be or not to be”’, p. 1447).

6 Thompson, ‘Hamlet 3.1: “To be or not to be”’, p. 1145.

7 A reader of a copy of Nicholas Rowe’s 1709 edition of Shakespeare’s works (Folger Shakespeare Library PR2752 1709a Copy 4 Sh. Col., vol. 5, recto of second back flyleaf; ESTC N10409), adapting Charles Gildon’s The Laws of Poetry (London: printed for W. Hinchliffe, at Dryden’s Head, under the Royal-Exchange; and J. Walthoe, jun. over against the Royal-Exchange, in Cornhill, 1721), p. 206. ESTC N10409.

8 Edwards and Hirschfeld, ‘Introduction’, Hamlet: Prince of Denmark (2019), p. 15.

9 ‘Commonplacing’ was a widespread practice among early modern readers. The activity consisted in entering notable or interesting passages from a text or play into a manuscript notebook, or commonplace book, in which the extracts could be classified, kept for one’s pleasure, or used in everyday life at a later date, often in an adapted form.

10 See Peter Stallybrass and Zachary Lesser, ‘The First Literary Hamlet and the Commonplacing of Professional Plays’, Shakespeare Quarterly 59.4, 2008, pp. 371–420, esp. 384 and also Adam Hooks, ‘Commonplace Books’, in The Encyclopaedia of English Renaissance Literature, eds. Alan Stewart and Garrett Sullivan, 2 vols (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), vol. 1, pp. 206–9, p. 208.

11 William Shakespeare, The Tragicall Historie of Hamlet Prince of Denmarke (London: printed for N. L. and John Trundell, 1603). STC 22275 [Q1].

12 NCS: New Cambridge Shakespeare, that is, William Shakespeare, Hamlet: Prince of Denmark, ed. Philip Edwards, The New Cambridge Shakespeare (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

13 Let me add that in Q1, the ‘To be or not to be’ speech is not demarcated. How indeed could it fit in a play apparently on the education of children?

14 William Shakespeare, The Tragicall Historie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke (London: Printed by I. R. for N. L. and are to be sold at his shoppe vnder Saint Dunstons Church in Fleetstreet. 1604, STC 22276. There are two issues of this edition: one is dated 1604, the other 1605.

15 Those passages are the only ones demarcated in Q1 and Q2 and might have struck some readers and attempted to influence their reading to some extent. Nonetheless, clearly not all readers were attracted to them, as we shall see.

16 On Pudsey, see David Kathman, ‘Pudsey, Edward (bap. 1573, d. 1612/13)’, in ODNB, ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004); online ed., ed. Lawrence Goldman, January 2008, www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/71298 (accessed 19 June 2023).

17 For a definition of what a commonplace book is and of the activity of commonplacing, see note 9 above.

18 The Hamlet extracts appear on both sides of one of four leaves now detached from a miscellany compiled by Edward Pudsey (1573-1613). They date from 1604/5, or shortly after as they are based on the second Quarto of Hamlet. These leaves (together with extracts from Richard II, Richard III, Othello, Much Ado About Nothing and parts of Romeo and Juliet) were separated from the overall MS (Bodleian Library, MS. Eng. Poet. d. 3) and are now preserved by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, shelfmark ER 82, in Stratford-upon-Avon. Most of these extracts (apart from the Othello excerpts) were reproduced (not always accurately) in Richard Savage’s Shakespearean Extracts from ‘Edward Pudsey’s Booke’ (Stratford-upon-Avon: John Smith, 1888).

19 See Andrew Hiscock’s article in this issue.

20 Some of Pudsey’s lines resemble the demarcated Polonius passages in Q1 we have studied. Yet the situation is not so simple, as, according to Ernst A. J. Honigmann, ‘the two plays [Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet] each of which reached print in two different quarto versions, could have been jotted down during a performance, for he [Pudsey] sometimes agrees with Q1 and sometimes with Q2 of the same play’, Othello, Arden Shakespeare 3 (London: Bloomsbury, 1996), p. 388.

21 Similarly, a recently discovered tiny anonymous notebook, which dates back to the first half of the seventeenth century, and contains thousands of quotations of Shakespeare in only 48 pages, does not have a single reference to Hamlet’s famous speech. See Dalya Alberge, ‘Tiny notebook by “first Shakespeare geek” to go on show in Stratford’, The Guardian, Saturday 4 February 2023, Guardian online: https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2023/feb/04/tiny-notebook-by-first-shakespeare-geek-show-stratford-first-folio-exhibition?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other (accessed 4 February 2023). I would like to thank Jacqueline Mayer and Daniel Yabut for drawing my attention to this item.

22 For more information on these figures, see Lukas Erne, Shakespeare and the Book Trade (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), p. 12.

23 Cited in Virginia F. Stern, Gabriel Harvey, His Life, Marginalia and Library (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979), p. 127.

24 Gary Taylor and Rory Loughnane differ and claim that ‘Harvey’s Hamlet reference could thus have been written at any time between late 1599 and 1612’. See their chapter ‘The Canon and Chronology of Shakespeare’s Works’, in The New Oxford Shakespeare: Authorship Companion, ed. Gary Taylor and Gabriel Egan, 1st edition (Oxford, United Kingdom; New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2017), pp. 417–602, p. 545. Nonetheless, since Q1 of Hamlet was published in 1603, it seems unreasonable to opt for 1599, unless the play had circulated in manuscript.

25 These lines are in Harvey’s copy of Guicciardini’s Detti, et Fatti (1571), see Stern, Gabriel Harvey, His Life, Marginalia and Library, p. 128.

26 Abraham Wright cited in Arthur C. Kirsch, ‘A Caroline Commentary on the Drama’, Modern Philology 66, 1969, pp. 256–61, 257–8.

27 William Cartwright, ‘Upon the report of the printing of the Dramaticall Poems of Master John Fletcher, collected before, and now set forth in one Volume’, in Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, Comedies and Tragedies, Never Printed Before (London: Humphrey Robinson and Humphrey Moseley, 1647), sig. d2v. Wing B1581.

28 Cited in Kirsch, ‘A Caroline Commentary on the Drama’, p. 258.

29 For details see Edwards’ introduction to the play in Shakespeare, Hamlet: Prince of Denmark, ed. Edwards, pp. 18-20.

30 The MR774 Folio is the property of the research library of Meisei University, Tokyo, Japan.

31 See, for the latest information on what we know of the author, Akihiro Yamada, ‘William Johnstoune, Signatory in Shakespeare’s First Folio, and its Owners’, Notes and Queries 65.4 (December 2018), pp.  551–6.

32 For details, see Akihiro Yamada, ed., The First Folio of Shakespeare: A Transcript of Contemporary Marginalia in a Copy of the Kodama Memorial Library of Meisei University (Tokyo: Yushodo Press Co., 1998), p. xxviii.

33 The digital facsimile is available at http://shakes.meisei-u.ac.jp/search.html (accessed 19 June 2023). The facsimile also makes the text of the reader’s annotations available and uses both signatures and the through line-numbering (TLN) system to reference pages.

34 Stephen Orgel, The Reader in the Book, A Study of Spaces and Traces (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), p. 55.

35 The Grave-Makers (Hamlet and the grave-diggers) is one such short play, or droll, to have been written during the period. For details, see Dale B. J. Randall, Winter Fruit, English Drama 1642-1660 (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1995), p. 55. On drolls, see Susan Wiseman, Drama and Politics during the English Civil War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 6 et passim. On the role of publishers establishing a literary canon in print during the Interregnum, see Heidi Craig, Theatre Closure and the Paradoxical Rise of English Renaissance Drama in the Civil Wars (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2023).

36 The works of Mr. William Shakespear: in six volumes; adorn’d with cuts / revis’d and corrected, with an account of the life and writings of the author, by N. Rowe, Esq., 6 vols, (London: Printed for Jacob Tonson, within Grays-Inn Gate, next Grays-Inn Lane, 1709), vol. 5, pp. 2409-10. Folger Shakespeare Library: PR2752 1709a Copy 4 Sh.Col. ESTC T138297.

37 In January 1726, Voltaire was insulted and then beaten on the orders of the Chevalier de Rohan, whom Voltaire had ridiculed. None of Voltaire’s aristocratic friends stood up in his defence and he was imprisoned in the Bastille for fifteen days. He was then released on condition of exile in England. Voltaire moved to London in November 1726 and remained in England for three years, during which he discovered Shakespeare. On Voltaire’s love-hate relationship with Shakespeare, see Michèle Willems, ‘L’excès face au bon goût : la réception de Gilles-Shakespeare de Voltaire à Hugo’, Actes des congrès de la Société française Shakespeare [online] 25, 2007, https://journals.openedition.org/shakespeare/1032 (accessed 26 July 2023).

38 Voltaire [François-Marie Arouet], ‘Letter xviii: on Tragedy’, Letters concerning the English nation. By Mr. de Voltaire (London: printed for C. Davis in Pater-Noster-Row, and A. Lyon in Russel-Street, Covent-Garden, 1733), pp. 166-75. ETSC T137614. Voltaire, Lettres philosophiques (Amsterdam: E. Lucas, au Livre d’or, 1734), pp. 170–5.

39 The annotator’s notes could not have been made before 1733‒34, precisely because of the Voltaire allusion.

40 Voltaire, ‘Letter xviii: on Tragedy’, p. 166.

41 Ibid., p. 170.

42 Ibid., p. 170.

43 Ibid., pp. 173–4.

44 Leeds University Library, Brotherton Collection, MS Lt. 80, I, fos 7a-b.

45 See James Sambrook, ‘Harte, Walter (1708/9-74)’, ODNB (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/12492 (accessed 5 February 2023).

46 William Shakespeare, The works of Shakespear. In six volumes. Collated and corrected by the former editions, By Mr. Pope, 6 vols (London: Printed for Jacob Tonson in the Strand, 1725), vol. 6, pp. 400-1. ESTC N26033.

47 Letter by Elizabeth Montagu (Robinson) to Sarah (Robinson) Scott, 16 January 1755, Huntington Library, MS MO 5742. For more information on the circulation of Shakespearean extracts, including Hamlet, see Julie Maxwell and Kate Rumbold (eds), Shakespeare and quotation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018) and Douglas Bruster, Quoting Shakespeare: Form and Culture in Early Modern Drama (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000).

48 William Shakespeare, The tragedy of Hamlet Prince of Denmark. As it is now acted at his highness the Duke of York’s Theatre (London: By Andr. Clark, for J. Martyn, and H. Herringman, 1676). Wing S2950.

49 Hazleton Spencer, cited in Andrew Murphy, Shakespeare in Print: A History and Chronology of Shakespeare Publishing (Cambridge UK; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 34.

50 Murphy, Shakespeare in Print, p. 34.

51 Folger Shakespeare Library PROMPT Ham. 55 (1676).

52 G. Blakemore Evans, Shakespearean prompt-books of the seventeenth century, 8 vols (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1996), vol. 4 (Smock Alley Hamlet), online facsimile prepared for the University of Virginia Library Electronic Text Center: https://bsuva.org/bsuva/promptbook/ShaHamP.html#div2_3.1 (accessed 20 June 2023).

53 Charles Gildon, The laws of poetry, As laid down by the Duke of Buckinghamshire in his Essay on Poetry, By the Earl of Roscommon in his Essay on Translated Verse, And by the Lord Lansdowne on Unnatural Flights in Poetry, Explain’d and Illustrated (London: printed for W. Hinchliffe, at Dryden’s Head, under the Royal-Exchange; and J. Walthoe, jun. over against the Royal-Exchange, in Cornhill, 1721), p. 206. ESTC N10409.

54 Ibid., p. 205.

55 Ibid., p. 206.

56 See note 6 of G. Blakemore Evans’s Shakespearean Prompt-Books, online at: https://bsuva.org/bsuva/promptbook/ShaHamP.html (accessed 3 February 2023).

57 William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. A tragedy, by Shakespeare. As performed at the Theatre-Royal, Covent-Garden. Regulated from the prompt-book, With Permission of the Managers, By Mr. Younger, Prompter. An introduction, and notes Critical and Illustrative, are added by the Authors of the Dramatic Censor (London: printed for John Bell; and C. Etherington, at York, 1773), Folger Shakespeare Library PROMPT Ham. 82. ESTC T62810.

58 First printed the 1623 First Folio, but first performed in 1603.

59 William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure, ed. Brian Gibbons, updated ed., The New Cambridge Shakespeare (Cambridge [England]; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

60 This statement is supported by my own experience of looking at hundreds of early miscellanies and commonplace books in a substantial number of libraries and archives.

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Table des illustrations

Titre 1. Close-up of demarcations in print opposite a part of Corambis’s speech to his son Laertes in William Shakespeare, The Tragicall Historie of Hamlet Prince of Denmarke (London: printed for N. L. and Iohn Trundell. 1603). [Q1]. STC 22275, sig. C2r, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/asf/docannexe/image/8278/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 162k
Titre 2. Close-up of demarcations in print opposite a part Corambis’s speech to his daughter Ophelia. Shakespeare, The Tragicall Historie of Hamlet, sig. C2v [Q1], The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/asf/docannexe/image/8278/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 35k
Titre 3. Close-up of demarcations in print opposite a part of the admonition delivered to Ophelia by her brother Laertes. William Shakespeare, The Tragicall Historie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke (London: Printed by I. R. for N. L. and are to be sold at his shoppe vnder Saint Dunstons Church in Fleetstreet, 1604), sig. C3v [Q2]. STC 22276, image 8051, Folger Shakespeare Library.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/asf/docannexe/image/8278/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 183k
Titre 4. Close-up of demarcations in print opposite a part of Queen Gertrude’s description of the guilt that tortures her. Shakespeare, The Tragicall Historie of Hamlet, sig. K4r [Q2]. STC 22276, image 8079, Folger Shakespeare Library.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/asf/docannexe/image/8278/img-4.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 171k
Titre 5. Opening page of Walter Harte’s manuscript commonplace book entitled ‘Miscellanea tragica: Theatrical index of Sentiments & descriptions’ (MS M.a.47)
Crédits Photo credit: Jean-Christophe Mayer. By permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, D.C.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/asf/docannexe/image/8278/img-5.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 605k
Titre 6. Walter Harte’s transcription of ‘To be or not to be’, adapted from Alexander Pope’s 1725 edition of Shakespeare’s works in his manuscript commonplace book entitled ‘Miscellanea tragica: Theatrical index of Sentiments & descriptions’ (MS M.a.47)
Crédits Photo credit: Jean-Christophe Mayer. By permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, D.C.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/asf/docannexe/image/8278/img-6.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 510k
Titre 7. An anonymous reader’s lines on ‘The Famous soliloquy’ – adapted from Charles Gildon’s The Laws of Poetry (1721) – on the recto of the second back flyleaf, in volume 5 of Nicholas Rowe’s 1709 edition of Shakespeare’s works (PR2752 1709a Copy 4 Sh.Col.).
Crédits Photo credit: Jean-Christophe Mayer. By permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, D.C.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/asf/docannexe/image/8278/img-7.jpg
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Jean-Christophe Mayer, « ‘To be or not to be’: a hit or a miss for Shakespeare’s early readers? (1603‒1800) »Arrêt sur scène / Scene Focus [En ligne], 13 | 2024, mis en ligne le 24 avril 2024, consulté le 19 juillet 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/asf/8278 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/11njf

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Jean-Christophe Mayer

Jean-Christophe Mayer is a Research Professor employed by the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS). He is also a member of the Institute for Research on the Renaissance, the Neo-classical Age and the Enlightenment (IRCL-UMR 5186) at Université Paul-Valéry Montpellier 3. He is the author of Shakespeare’s Hybrid Faith (2006), Shakespeare et la postmodernité (2012) and Shakespeare’s Early Readers: A Cultural History from 1590 to 1800 (2018). He is currently co-general editor of the journal Cahiers Élisabéthains: A Journal of English Renaissance Studies.

Jean-Christophe Mayer est Directeur de Recherche au Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS). Il est également membre de l’Institut de Recherche sur la Renaissance, l’âge Classique et les Lumières (IRCL-UMR 5186) à l’Université Paul-Valéry Montpellier 3. Il est l’auteur de Shakespeare’s Hybrid Faith (2006), Shakespeare et la postmodernité (2012) et de Shakespeare’s Early Readers: A Cultural History from 1590 to 1800 (2018). Enfin, il est co-rédacteur en chef de la revue Cahiers Élisabéthains: A Journal of English Renaissance Studies.

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