A Desk Bound Dramatisation: The Limitations of Editorial Intervention in School Editions of Hamlet
Anna Henley, an undergraduate student in the Department of English, University of York, considers the limitations of available editions on teaching Shakespeare’s plays in light of new A-level English specifications. She focuses particularly on the constraints they might place on the plays’ dramatic interpretation by students, in their mind’s eye. As new editions of the Cambridge School Shakespeare series have been rolled out since Anna’s research, those who’ve got their hands on the newest versions might want to comment in the discussion thread on whether these limitations still apply, or on the pleasures and challenges of these and other available editions more generally. Since this piece focuses on AQA specifications, we also welcome comments from those teaching Shakespeare at A-level through other bodies.
In an effort to capture a student’s imagination, school editions of Shakespeare attempt to straddle both mediums of text performance: they profess the authority of a text but feel the need to constantly remind students: “remember? This thing happens on a stage sometimes!” They are limited by and constantly trying to negotiate what I term a “desk-bound dramatisation” in the title of this piece: a single dramatic interpretation which (arguably dangerously) is caught between and limited by its need to incorporate both text and performance. I borrow the term “desk bound” from Susan Leach, who uses the term to express her exasperation over the “desk bound state” in which Shakespeare exists in schools and universities (59). School editions and curriculums are conscious of the need to breathe animation back into Shakespeare, and through photographs and illustrations seek to remedy such criticism. However, these attempts become capable of influencing a student’s opinion of certain characters and soliloquies: the single “interpretation” of a performance becomes in danger of being the interpretation. It has been argued that it is “dangerous” to “undramatise Shakespeare” (Haddon, 75), but through the limited desk-bound dramatisation that school editions offer, I will contend that attempts at animating the text from this “desk-bound” state can be equally “dangerous”. To illustrate my point, I will focus on the introductions and summaries of act three, scene one in the Oxford School Shakespeare (2007) and the Cambridge School Shakespeare (2006) editions of Hamlet, as well as supplementary classroom materials (York Notes, Advanced Level English CGP Guide). I will argue that contrary to the Cambridge’s declaration that their text is “filled with imaginative possibilities” (iv), their editorial decisions instead work to limit them.
This issue is pertinent not only because it seeks to highlight Cambridge School’s apparent hubris in their introduction, but also because an awareness of “imaginative possibilities” is something sought after by A-level syllabuses. Peter Reynolds writes in Drama: Text into Performance that in order for a reader to animate a piece of drama from its textual source, they must assume an “actor-as-reader” (57) role in which they undertake “active reading”. He writes in his advice to students,
“[there are a]… number of… interpretative decisions – indeed… risks- that need to be taken in order for you, as an active reader, to make a unique, imaginative, theatrical event out of a piece of… dramatic literature”. (21)
His process of animation serves the National Curriculum well. The A-level curriculums for OCR, Edexcel and AQA in their various capacities state the importance of multiple “interpretations” in order to achieve the better grades. For example, AQA-s A-Level in English Literature (Specification B) requests that even at the lowest level, students “show awareness of different interpretations” (16) and, even more specifically in relation to the study of theatre, “show how the re-creative process can highlight different interpretations of texts” (7). In order to score the top marks therefore, a student must show in their extended answers that they have “re-created” or dramatised Shakespeare in order to consider multitudinous interpretations – a task more likely than not grounded in one of the school editions examined here. Reynolds’s approach to understanding and creating originality in a dramatic interpretation hinges on a student’s ability to take “risks”; however, the editors in their effort to aid understanding take the “risks” for students, endangering their originality of thought through their editorial decisions.
Let’s start at the beginning: introductions. The Oxford edition’s introduction firmly roots the play in the tragic genre, providing character lists that brand Gertrude and Polonius among others as “Victims of the Disaster” (vii). Feed into the AQA curriculum and its module on tragic genre as it may, it simplistically implies that they have done nothing to deserve their deaths, cementing them firmly in the role of “victim” and providing a series of expectations with which a student approaches the play. Hamlet himself is summarized similarly simplistically, with the sentence: “doubt makes him indecisive, and for a time he pretends to be mad. But when he knows the truth, he is resolute and fearless”. Again, in this simplification, we find the possible “interpretations” limited; what of the interpretation for instance that Hamlet is mad from the outset? Conversely in the Cambridge edition, we find an introduction with an overview of the play which is accompanied by photographs from several different productions. It may take fewer “risks” in that it is brief and primarily concerned with the multitude of interpretations that have been previously committed to the stage but nevertheless, the Hamlet presented here is one that is still unambiguously sane (one that actively decides to “put on ‘an antic disposition” in order to “test the truth” (viii)). In these introductions, Hamlet finds himself reduced for the sake of simplicity, rendered (rather tamely) as an introspective outsider who has a penchant for black. Furthermore, in both these editions, the introductions in their location prior to the playtext have the capacity to limit a student’s interpretation, meaning the text is in danger of becoming defined by these prior summaries. Classroom experience from Bruce Coville and Alison Prindle among others (Isaac, Marchitello) has shown that narrative forms – such as the summaries which precede the text of Hamlet in both these editions – are a fantastic entry point for students despite the narrowing of interpretation that may accompany this approach. For instance, Bruce Coville writes, “it is stories that children long for, and it is story that is the entry point for many people to the pleasures of Shakespeare” (57). The summaries that are provided in the introductions to both the Oxford and Cambridge editions work to provide a clear cut narrative in order to stabilise the text and create this “entry point” that Coville cites; but what we are presented with as a bi-product of this is a two dimensional, stabilised Hamlet. It is the product of but one combination of “risks”: a desk-bound rendering of a Hamlet dressed in black, feigning madness.
This summarising continues throughout both editions, with short introductory scene summaries and loaded subheadings working to further advocate just a single “interpretation”. In the Cambridge edition, editorial additions assign each scene a specific location: for example, act three scene one is to be envisaged in “The Great Hall at Elsinore Castle” (a detail that in many places is absent from the quartos or folio). Again, specifying this is not incorrect, but it does make it more difficult for A-level students to explore the other possibilities their syllabuses encourage them to. The Cambridge edition is not alone in wanting to provide a breakdown of the when and where: supplementary student guides such as York Notes Advanced and the CGP Advanced Guides similarly attempt to impose order. For instance, the York Notes guide (2003) dictates that act three scene one takes place “the next day” (39) with the following scene taking place “a few hours later” (45). Again, as in the Cambridge edition, this information is prioritised above even the matter of character narrative, as it is offered directly under the scene sub-headings. These pieces of information are partially prioritized because a distinct sense of setting is a key “Aspect of Narrative” insisted on by some English Literature A-level specifications. In the textbook for the AQA A-level, students are told as part of the “Aspects of Narrative” module that “Setting is always important in establishing the structure of a novel or short story… When a writer establishes settings they are usually more than a mere backdrop to events” (29-30). This is problematic specifically in the case of Hamlet because the fluidity of the multiple sources for this text avoids such rigid categorisation. In the case of this scene, its setting has to be worked out from textual clues and in the absence of these, it is a “risk” that needs to be taken. Stabilize the text and make it easier to understand as it might, placing the action of act three scene one “a day later” or “in the great hall of Elsinore Castle” (101) is an editorial choice which could rob students of the risk-taking “actor-reader” role required to achieve the exam board’s desired “different interpretations”.
Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” monologue is perhaps the best encapsulation of the binds summaries can place on the text: despite the same raw text, the editions all champion slightly different Hamlets. In all the editions I have examined, editors have offered a small summary of Hamlet’s opening line, but no two are identical. In the Oxford School edition for example, “to be or not to be” is glossed as simply “live, exist” which ties in with the extremely simplistic summary: “Hamlet debates with himself whether patient endurance of wrong is more honourable than courageous opposition” (66). The emphasis lies here on the issues surrounding whether or not he best take action, suggesting these ponderings are in direct correlation with the actions of his uncle. Compare this with the gloss provided by the Cambridge edition where the monologue is summarized with the lines: “Hamlet reflects on death. Is it better to live or die, to endure suffering or fight against it? The fear of what might happen after death makes us bear with life. Thought prevents us from acting” (104). The Cambridge edition deals with a more pensive and abstract Hamlet, the rhetorical questions asking wider philosophical questions and working to play down how a student might consider this being specifically about Claudius. Collectively they may reveal the complexity and intentional vagueness of this passage, however a student would only ever be confronted with one or maybe two of these sources. Both offer one interpretation with only the shadow of another: one emphasising narrative, the other issues surrounding broader aspects of humanity that the play approaches. Through these glosses, once again we see how an effort to aid understanding can simultaneously narrow possible interpretations, providing just one version of events, when it is both (and indeed more) that the exam specification demands. Textual, “desk” elements of the plays are compromised by “dramatizing” summaries which disempower “actor-readers”. These editions can thus be said to be caught in limbo; in a limiting state of “desk-bound dramatisation” which can prevent students from taking the necessary “risks” needed to formulate their own “interpretations”.
AQA. “GCE AS and A Level Specification: English Literature B”. filestore.aqa.org.uk, 2014. 20 April. 2014. Web. < http://filestore.aqa.org.uk/subjects/specifications/alevel/AQA-2745-W-SP-14.PDF>
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