By Dave Peterson, assistant director
In Her Hamlet, Jude refers to Shakespeare as the “dad of scraps and patches.” She tries to build a play out of the bits of paper she steals from her father. In Her Hamlet we see many parts of Hamlet, but through Jude’s fractured vision. Just as Jude is cobbling together a whole from scraps, fragments, and partial information, so are those of us working on the play. Shakespeare left behind a host of plays, but many of them come in multiple forms. Hamlet, for example, remains in three copies from Shakespeare’s time. While one copy is thought to be a “bad quarto” (think of quartos as Elizabethan paperbacks) we have one “good quarto” and a folio (the hardcover). These good copies contain significant variations.
Any modern audience watching any performance of Shakespeare is seeing the choices of directors, dramaturges, and literary managers. Now some choices seem obvious. Few modern theatre makers choose, “To be or not to be, aye there’s the point” over, “To be or not to be, that is the question.” Other choices are less clear. One of Hamlet’s most famous soliloquies, “How all occasions do inform against me,” is only present in one of the authoritative copies of the play. The speech comes at a pivotal moment, and leaving it in or out can have significant ramifications. But the work can get even more precise. Hamlet asks that his, “Too too solid flesh would melt.” Consulting another version, he asked that his “too too sullied flesh would melt.” The difference may be slight, but our actors must decide which best applies to this Hamlet, at this time. Which scrap do we use to patch together Hamlet?
Beyond patching together Hamlet, we need to make further choices for Her Hamlet. At times pieces from other Shakespeare plays pop in to highlight a moment, or lend the right type of song. In addition to these textual scraps, we have to decide which scraps of Shakespeare’s sparsely known and contradictory life will make it into the play. There are a vast amount of stories written about the man, but we have to choose which ones are best for Jude’s journey and engagement with this distant man.
But scraps and patches are not just a way of looking at composing the play, but also how we think about Shakespeare. For a man who penned some of, if not the most, famous work in the English language, we know very little about him. Modern media and its audience lusts after the latest news about celebrities’ personal lives. In pouring over great artist, academic scholars often look for the life events that caused such exciting and unique work. But with Shakespeare, little remains. Instead biographers and scholars need to construct a life and motive for the man from the scraps and patches.
What we do have is the work. Roughly thirty-eight plays, depending on whom you ask. The work is what remains, that and a few scraps of biographical detail. Jude finds herself in a similar situation. She is the daughter of the man, but must steal scraps and patches of the plays. She puts them together in her head and with her siblings. We know all of the plays, but the man remains one we can’t quite put together. For Jude, her father is always away, always distant. Even though she calls him Will and knows his mundane secrets, she seems no closer to the mystery of this man and these plays than we are. But if she can get close to the plays, somehow piece them together and sort them out, then maybe she can find a piece of her dad. Until that time, she, just like the rest of us, can only make sense of the words that she has found. Those of us in the present must be content to patch together our Shakespeare from the scraps that history leaves us.
Dave Peterson is a fourth PhD student in Theatre Arts at the University of Pittsburgh. Dave's primary research interests are Shakespeare performance and clowning. At the University of Pittsburgh Dave has taught course in introduction to theatre, dramatic literature, performance, and Shakespeare. He has also taught for the Pittsburgh International Children's Theatre and the Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre. Dave has served as dramaturg for productions at Michigan State University and the Michigan Shakespeare Festival.