The Alexandrian

The scene and act divisions in Hamlet pose a troubling scholastic problem.

A little history: The First Quarto and Second Quarto contain no separation of scenes or acts at all. In fact, the traditional five act structure that we typically associate with Shakespeare didn’t actually become popular until the reign of King James. In other words, at least half of Shakespeare’s plays (including Hamlet) weren’t written with the five act structure in mind.

By the time the First Folio was published in 1623, however, the five act structure wasn’t only popular, it had become the de facto standard of the theater. And someone involved in the publication of the first collection of Shakespeare’s plays decided to impose the five act structure onto his earlier works.

In the case of Hamlet they did a literally half-assed job of it: Scene and act divisions appear sporadically throughout the first act and a half of the play… and then they simply stop.

Full scene and act divisions didn’t appear in an edition of Hamlet until the 1676 Quarto. Unfortunately, these divisions are badly flawed.

The primary example can be found in the now-traditional division between scenes 3.4 and 4.1. To understand the error here, one must first understand that the 1676 Quarto was typeset from the Second Quarto, and the Second Quarto contained an error. After Hamlet leaves the stage with Polonius’ body, leaving the Queen alone in her closet, the Second Quarto has a stage direction which reads:

Enter King, and Queene, with Rosencraus and Guyldenstern.

The inclusion of the Queen in this stage direction is clearly in error: She’s already onstage and hasn’t left it. The First Folio corrects this error by removing the Queen from the stage direction. But the 1676 Quarto instead decided to start an entirely new scene and act (although it still neglected to provide an exit direction for the Queen).

Much like Hamlet’s ghost writing, this erroneous scene/act division has had an interpretive impact on the play. There have been many, many productions which have featured Gertrude leaving her closet to seek Claudius in some other corner of the castle. And among these, there have been more than a few that have taken an intermission at this juncture. This obviously disrupts Shakespeare’s intended pace for the play, but it also has a dramatic impact: Claudius entering Gertrude’s closet so closely on the heels of her meeting with Hamlet contributes to the pervasive sense of surveillance in Elsinore. And there is a significant performance difference in viewing the scene of the crime itself and only hearing Gertrude’s report of it at second-hand.

Most editors are leery of abandoning the traditional scene and act divisions in the text because it will mismatch scholastic references to the text. But since my primary concern is in providing an effective acting edition which is true to the original texts, I really felt I had no choice but to fix such an egregious error.

Of course, once I’d completely disrupted the act and scene numbering of the play, I couldn’t seen any good reason not to continue mucking about.

The scene divisions in the ASR script occur at any natural and indisputable clearing of the stage. This corrects the errors of the 1676 Quarto, but I’ve also taken the unusual step of eliminating the division between 1.4 and 1.5 to enforce my sense that these scenes are tightly knit in both time and place (and, furthermore, that Shakespeare intended the re-entrance of Hamlet and the Ghost to overlap with the exit of Horatio and Marcellus). (This also brings the text into agreement with the Folio divisions, which similarly “skip” from 1.4 to 2.1.)

The act divisions of the ASR script, however, are more radically divergent from the 1676 Quarto. In restructuring these divisions, I have chosen to adhere to the three-act structure inherent in the temporal arrangement of the play:

Act I: Two months after Hamlet, Sr.’s death. Ends after Hamlet speaks with Hamlet, Sr.’s ghost.

Act II, III, IV: Two months later. Ends when Hamlet is banished to England.

Act V: Some time later (perhaps two months again?). Ends when everybody in the play dies horribly.

The traditional scene/act divisions are still indicated in the text as emendations (for example, [Act I, Scene 5]) for those who need to reference them.

Originally posted on November 21st, 2010.

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