Working on my thesis, have ended up (tangentially) reading about customary cuts to Hamlet in its nineteenth/twentieth century stage history. As I am working on the Victorian stage history of five (sometimes tragi)comic heroines, this could hardly be less relevant. Found something interesting, though — when Gregory Doran directed the David Tennant Hamlet last year (see Clamorous Voice passim etc etc), he cut the end of the play from Horatio’s speech over the dead Hamlet, making ‘Goodnight sweet prince/And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest’ the last words of the play; the last picture was Fortinbras entering through the open mirrored doors that formed the back wall, and – while the rest of the court lay dead or weeping – Osric rose and turned and bowed to him, signalling the transference of power and Osric’s allegiance to the new regime (in turn making real the ‘harsh world’ in which Horatio was going to have to live without his Hamlet – everyone else who really cares is dead). Doran had good reasons for his extensive cuts to the play (which worked very well), and although a few seasoned theatregoers were sniffy (scroll down), but it seems they weren’t as iconoclastic as everybody thought!
Colby Sprague writes that, actually, until 1897 (when Forbes-Robertson, the greatest Victorian Hamlet staged Hamlet in London), it was customary to omit Fortinbras completely, losing IV.4 and Hamlet’s ‘How all occasions do inform against me’ soliloquy. Beerbohm Tree, one of the the most famous Victorian actor-managers, also ended his production (1892) on the same lines as Doran – ‘Flights of angels sing thee to thy rest’. Although Doran omitted the ‘angelic choir’ that Beerbohm Tree placed backstage, who ‘faintly echoed’ Horatio’s line in song. It’s also worth noting that Doran kept a lot of characters often cut throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (cut from both the Stratford 1948 production and the Olivier film), Voltimand and Cornelius (often omitted) and Polonius’s servant Reynaldo (notably represented in full during the Old Vic revival in 1937, when he was played by a young Alec Guinness).
Anyway. Yes. Nothing to see here, move along, I’ll be getting back to my actual work (the death of Ellen Terry & the bitchiness of Constance Benson) now…
Dr Sophie Duncan is Fellow in English at Christ Church, University of Oxford. She works regularly as a historical advisor and as a dramaturg for theatre, TV, radio and film. She likes theatre, detective fiction and cocktails.