Line by Line: My Life for the Next 4,042 Days

Photo via shutterstock.comAs I’m refining details around the edges of this blog, new ideas occur to me. This one is a doozy, with the potential to hijack the whole project, but it occurred to me as an exciting and possibly even original approach to Hamlet studies — something that would not have been possible prior to the age of the internet, and which is probably inadvisable even now. But here goes:

Hamlet. Line by line. One post per line.

Almost immediately, problems present themselves. Which Hamlet should I use? There were two very different versions published in Shakespeare’s lifetime, plus another version shortly after his death. Scholars call them the First Quarto, the Second Quarto, and the First Folio version, and argument rages (of course) about which one, if any, is the most authoritative version. Most published versions are editorial creations, picking and stealing from two or even all three texts. As a result, it’s impossible to even choose a length to work from.

The play’s Wikipedia page lists 4,042 lines — but that number is based on the 1974 Riverside Edition, and while that version certainly contains the greatest hits (“To be or not to be,” “The rest is silence,” and so forth), it inevitably leaves out some potential lines.

But even if I stick with that number as a bare minimum, it’s daunting to say the least. If I posted about one line every single day, I’d finish the project in just over 11 years! By which time, of course, my own production will have come and gone.

On the other hand, “line by line” does not necessarily need to be taken literally. Individual lines of Shakespeare do not exist in a vacuum. So, although the first few lines of Hamlet are arrestingly terse (“Who’s there?” “Nay, answer me; stand and unfold yourself.” “Long live the King!” etc.), once the play settles into a comfortable blank verse rhythm, it makes more sense to study the content in groups of lines. For instance, in 1.1, when Horatio says,

That can I;
At least, the whisper goes so. Our last king,
Whose image even but now appear’d to us,
Was, as you know, by Fortinbras of Norway,
Thereto prick’d on by a most emulate pride,
Dared to the combat;

There is precious little value in devoting an entire blog post to Horatio’s first line, “That can I” (he’s replying to Marcellus’s request, “Who is’t that can inform me?”). And the next 5 lines are essentially one single thought. Readers will likely benefit more from my interpretation of the whole chunk. That’s not cheating, is it?

In addition, other lines cluster together organically, even if they belong to different characters. In the same scene, when Horatio and the soldiers pursue the Ghost, they blurt out this quick barrage:

BERNARDO: ‘Tis here!

HORATIO:‘Tis here!

MARCELLUS: ‘Tis gone!

Clearly, if anything insightful is going to be said about those lines, they need to be treated as a unit.

My point here is, 4,042 discrete lines of Hamlet won’t cut it. But I can’t make a realistic estimate of how many “line-units” I’d be analyzing. I would simply have to dive in to the icy Danish waters, and see how long it takes me to reach bottom.

At least I can provide myself with a few ground-rules before I take the plunge:

  1. Line references will need to come from some definitive edition. I’ll use the Arden Shakespeare’s Second Quarto Text (edited by Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor), because it comes with a complementary edition of the other two texts, Q1 and F1. That will allow me to make quick comparisons between texts — a practice which might not interest all readers, but which ought to be acknowledged in a project such as this.
  2. It would be great to have an identical online text I could link to, but I don’t think that’s feasible. Instead, I’ll probably link to the MIT’s Online Shakespeare, which isn’t very searchable, but which at least has the distinction of being the internet’s longest-standing Shakespearean resource (it was established in 1993).
  3. What, exactly, will I be talking about? Well, it will vary depending on the lines. For those unfamiliar with the language of Hamlet, I’ll do my best to interpret or “translate” the lines into comprehensible English. But I may also talk about: how the line has been interpreted by scholars; how the line has been treated in performance traditions; personal recollections of past deliveries; and/or my own director’s opinion about how the line should be delivered.
  4. Then, since part of my agenda here is to create a performance script for my own 2016 production of Hamlet, I’ll make judgment calls about whether the line in question deserves inclusion (In or Out?), whether it needs any emendations to be comprehensible to modern audiences (To Tweak or Not to Tweak?), and whether I plan to shuffle the line around in my revised structure (Get Thee To…).
  5. Finally, above all else, I want this blog to be an exchange, and not just between me and Will. So I’ll try to end with questions, in the hopes that other armchair scholars, theatre practitioners, and all-around Shakesgeeks will take a stand. Spar with me! Throw down a scholarly quote, or a personal take on the line/scene/character. The play’s mysteries might only deepen, but the conversation will enrich us all.

There we have it: the grand scheme of Maple Danish, at least for now. Like Hamlet, I reserve the right to change my mind, even when the dagger is upraised.

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