Terri Bourus is taking on the academic establishment with Young Shakespeare's Young Hamlet, which tries to account for the existence of three "radically different versions" of Hamlet published between 1603 and 1623. The first features a Hamlet who's much younger than the others. A majority of Shakespeare scholars have long insisted that the 1603 text — "Young Hamlet," if you will — was penned by someone other than Shakespeare. The preferred culprit? An unethical printer who, with the help of theatergoers or actors, churned out a pirated version absent the ineffable touch of the Bard.
Bourus isn't buying it, and in the first three chapters of her new study, she elegantly deconstructs that reductive theory. Then she delivers three more delightful chapters where we learn about the inner workings of the three scripts while engaging with economic, social, moral and intellectual issues of the seventeenth century.
Bourus is a director and general editor at the New Oxford Shakespeare Project, an IUPUI-based effort to produce a new edition of Shakepeare's plays — scheduled for completion in 2016 — using the "latest advances in editorial theory and practice," often by returning to source texts. She's also the founder of Hoosier Bard Productions, a community theater troupe that serves as a laboratory for the project where Bourus and company might try out their latest interpretations and reconstructions of plays that have long bedeviled Shakespeare scholars.
In keeping with the New Oxford Shakespeare Project's emphasis on airing out theories that have long been accepted to be true — even when textual sources fail to support those conclusions — Bourus's Young Shakespeare's Young Hamlet refuses to accept received wisdom and embraces the complexity that such variants offer to contemporary readers.
"The relationship between the three early printed versions of Hamlet is the most complicated and important textual problem in the study of Shakespeare," states Bourus in the prologue.
And, for Bourus, it can be a pleasure to encounter these forgotten texts for the first time. Instead of trying to find villains who subverted Shakespeare at every turn, we ought to enjoy the 1603 script for what it is — not to mention the 1604 and 1623 versions.
When I first confronted the 1603 text, unknown to the modern world until discovered in 1823, I had to adjust my relationship with the Hamlet that is still generally performed, namely the 1623 text with its changes made by scholars and directors over five centuries. But we ought not treat Shakespeare differently than other playwrights. His 1603 Hamlet should be understood as the first script for a play that evolved as it was performed.
And it certainly was performed quite often in its time. "Between 11 June 1594, and 24 January 1637, a play called Hamlet was repeatedly performed in and around London, always by the same acting company," Bourus notes.
No evidence has yet been found as to who would have played a teenage Hamlet. However, in citing "A manuscript elegy of 1619," Bourus gives a first-hand account of someone who "remembers various roles played by the recently deceased leading actor of Shakespeare's company, Richard Burbage."
Burbage would have been "between 32 and 34 years old" when he first he portrayed Hamlet between late 1599 and early 1601. Playing a teenager would have been inappropriate for Burbage, who at that time reportedly had a bit of girth about him. If he wanted Burbage in the role, Shakespeare had to change to an age-appropriate Hamlet in the text that was printed in 1604.
However, a playwright can't change one character's age without affecting other characters and key relationships. Doing this requires both repositioning some scenes and altering and enlarging some dialogue while keeping the initial thrust of the play — the story of a family caught within the web of regicide and revenge.
When Bourus and Hoosier Bard mounted a production using the 1603 text, audience members came face-to-face with a playwright who had a vision, and subsequently had to adjust that vision to fit the realities of an acting company. It's the ongoing stuff of theatre.
Bourus will read from and sign copies of Young Hamlet on Feb. 26 at 1 p.m at the IUPUI Barnes & Noble. Signings are also planned (dates and times TBA) for the Vonnegut Library, Indy Reads Books and Barnes & Noble in Avon. And Bourus is taking the book on the road, heading to Chicago's Newberry Library, Shakespeare's Globe in London, the Societe Francais at the Sorbonne and the Sapienza University in Rome before the summer is through.