Alas, poor Yorick: the spell of Hamlet

The title page of the Hamlet First Quarto

The title page of the Hamlet First Quarto

On 26 July 1602 Shakespeare’s play Hamlet was registered with the Stationers’ Company in London. It’s an important date, but has done little to settle the burning question of when Shakespeare’s most famous play was first written and first performed. The Stationers’ Register sets out the details: “James Robertes. Entred for his Copie under the handes of master Pasfield and master Waterson warden A booke called the Revenge of Hamlett Prince Denmarke as yt was latelie Acted by the Lord Chamberleyne his servantes”.

Books had to be registered with the Stationers’ Company before they could be printed, but entry didn’t guarantee this would happen. Sometimes books were entered just to stop anyone else publishing first. This time something went wrong. In 1603 the play appeared in print without any reference to James Roberts. It’s assumed that there was such a demand for Shakespeare’s brilliant play that a publisher got a bootleg copy out quickly. This so-called “bad quarto” was intended to satisfy those who had seen it performed. The title page claimed “As it hath beene diverse times acted by his Highnesse servants in the Cittie of London: as also in the two Universities of Cambridge and Oxford, and else-where”. It’s the one that includes the lines “To be, or not to be, I there’s the point./To die, to sleepe, is that all? I all”. Only two copies survive, the first being discovered as late as 1823.

The comparison between the 1603 “bad quarto”, the 1604 “good quarto” and the 1623 Folio has challenged scholars ever since. The 1604 quarto appeared, printed by James Roberts who had registered the play two years earlier, but without the information about the performances outside London. Those early audiences had no way of reminding ourselves of the hundreds of quotable lines and phrases it contains, other than to go ad see it again. Hamlet is often said to be a play made up of quotations. The British Library’s Treasures in Full contains an article covering the whole subject.

Many people have undertaken detective work to date the play and Gabriel Harvey’s note in a book published in 1598 provides a clue. He wrote “The Earle of Essex much commendes Albions England…The younger sort takes much delight in Shakespeares Venus & Adonis: but his Lucrece & his tragedie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke, have it in them, to please the wiser sort”. With the Earl of Essex being executed in February 1601 this means that the play was being performed in 1600, and it would be more than four years before a reliable text would be made available.

David Tennant as Hamlet, RSC 2008, with the skull used by Edmund Kean

David Tennant as Hamlet, RSC 2008, with the skull used by Edmund Kean

Every performance of Hamlet requires probably the most famous theatrical prop of all, a human skull. Modern productions are able to use one made of a material such as fibre glass, but for centuries there was no alternative to a real one. The RSC Collection contains the skull used by the great actor Edmund Kean in 1814. In 2008 this object, that had lain quietly in a box in a museum store for probably a hundred years, made an unexpected reappearance, not just on stage but in the photographs of the RSC’s production. It’s a wonderful if unintentional example of the continuity of Shakespeare in performance.

It wasn’t meant to be like this: David Tennant was the first Hamlet the RSC had engaged who was happy with the idea of using the skull of a man whose dying wish was to appear onstage as Yorick. Gregory Doran, directing the production, published his diary entry for 26 July 2008, an early preview. His entertaining account of this bizarre story was published in his 2009 book The Shakespeare Almanac. Doran clearly appreciated the Shakespearean resonances raised by events, and I hope he will not mind me quoting part of it.

“In 1980* [sic], William Lockwood, the head of properties at the RSC, received a very strange parcel. It was a human skull. It belonged to Andre Tchaikowski, a pianist and composer, who had died of cancer in Oxford aged 46. He had bequeathed his skull in his will to the company to be used in a production of Hamlet, as Yorick. Apparently, the funeral directors handling Andre’s cremation had baulked at removing his head, and permission had to be sought from the Home Office. The head was removed and processed by medical staff at the hospital, but by the time William Lockwood received it, it still stank… And so far it has never been used. Roger Rees was painted for the poster of the 1984 production holding this skull, and Mark Rylance had used it in rehearsal in 1989, but Andre had never actually got on stage in performance. Tonight was to be his night”.

The reason why the skull was not used for the first performances, and a substitute had to be found at short notice, was that the special license required to go ahead had not been received. There was no such problem with the skull Kean had used, so this one was back in the spotlight again. The official license was received shortly afterwards and Andre’s skull was used for both the Stratford and London runs. His wish had been granted.

*Tchaikowski died in 1982.

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2 Responses to Alas, poor Yorick: the spell of Hamlet

  1. David Gontar says:

    Alas, one finds nothing of poor Yorick in this discussion of publication dates. Fortunately, there is a fascinating and revealing treatment of this figure in the opening chapter of Unreading Shakespeare, just out from New English Review Press,
    ISBN 978-1-943003-00-6, available through Amazon Books. Isn’t that nice?

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