Nineteenth Century Promptbooks of Shakespeare’s Hamlet

autore: Carla Dente - Pisa University


In the academic year 2000-2001, Department of English, University of Pisa, a teaching experiment was carried out with the aim of highlighting for the students the interaction of disparate factors exerting their influence on the shaping of the theatrical event. The project was planned in such a way that could be at the same time a research project, a didactic experiment and an attempt at developing updated publishing methodologies. For further discussion see Carla Dente “Studying the Reception of Shakespeare’s Hamlet in the Theatre: A hypertext of nineteenth century promptbooks as teaching material”, 177- 189, in S. Bigliazzi and S. Wood, Collaboration in the Arts 4from the middle Ages to the Present (Aldershot, Ashgate 2006).

The project
Briefly, the idea was to produce a hypertext of the promptbooks concerning Kemble’s 1800-1804-1807 productions, Kean’s 1840-1859 and Irving’s 1874-1878 productions, working both with younger researchers and in part with the students, testing results and methods while producing our archive. The development of hypertexts editing and publishing, for example, has now opened up an entirely new horizon in the sector of the critical editions of Shakespeare’s plays. These innovative constructs actually help explain the process of text transmission within the stage tradition, taking account of performative aspects of the theatrical event that leave traces in the composition of a promptbook – scenery, props, actors’ movements, timing of speeches’ delivery, music and so on – and effectively act as a bridge between written text and its stage presentation.

Promptbooks and acting editions, together with the scholarly critical editions of the same periods, are at the core of the critical debate on the aesthetic and theatrical evaluation of Shakespeare as a dramatist and in this case of Hamlet as a tragedy, very often two sides of the same coin in the nineteenth century. The form the debate assumed at the time – ‘character criticism’ (Coleridge), ‘language oriented criticism’ (Coleridge), ‘Shakespeare in performance’ (Hazlitt), ‘political Shakespeare’, ‘international Shakespeare’, all critical labels that sound familiar within the academy – have shaped the reception of Shakespeare in the twentieth century in particular ways, and have also been perhaps the most enduring influence on critical attitudes and teaching practices to date.

An undertaking of this kind should be viewed against the background of the extensive and highly complex history of the long term reception of classical texts belonging to different and successive literary and cultural paradigms. Such an approach aims to take into account the specific features of multilevel communication that characterize a dramatic text. And as this projects evolved through interaction with the students, other objectives emerged:

- through the elaboration of the project-based method , students were encouraged to work collaboratively with their peers and tutors in a student-centered environment, where small groups explored topics as close as possible to their interests, while remaining within the general plan of the research;
- after the completion of their course task, the students proved able to focus on their learning processes and their abilities at problem-solving;
- through the challenge embodied by the complexity of the overall project the students were encouraged to construct their own forms of knowledge.

It is only fair to mention that in order to reproduce the texts for inclusion on this platform an updating of the language in which the encoding was originally made was necessary. For this, grateful thanks are due to Dr. Besseghini, and his crew of students alternating ‘school and stage’ within a project approved by the University of Pisa.