Sunday, October 23, 2011

A divinity that shapes our ends

New Cambridge Shakespeare (not the 1936 edition)

Hamlet Act 5, Scene 2.

   … and that should teach us
There's a divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them how we will.

Hamlet tells Horatio how on the ship to England he rashly ventured from his cabin at night and found the letter that would have sealed his fate, enabling him to substitute a forgery, so that Guildenstern and Rosencrantz went to their deaths instead of him.

It seems there's a famous footnote to these lines in John Dover Wilson's 1936 Cambridge edition of Hamlet. A gentleman named Malleson (whose son later mentioned this in a letter to Wilson) happened on a craftsman and his mate making fence posts, and the craftsman told him :-

"He rough-hews them and I shape their ends".

Yes really.

It appeared in The Guardian correspondence page on the who-wrote-Shakespeare theme, as evidence that whoever did was familiar with labourer’s talk. I shall get hold of Dover Wilson's 1936 Hamlet when I get the chance and look the note up, to see what he makes of it.

False memory syndrome

Theatre director Trevor Nunn believes Shakespeare really did write Shakespeare's plays, and in The Guardian on Friday 14 October he relates that many years ago an actor friend of his was walking down a country lane in Warwickshire.  Passing two men at work hedging, he stopped and asked, what are you two doing? To which one of them replied, "It's quite simple, I rough-hew them and he shapes their ends."

An instance of false memory, perhaps. Probably (as Hugo Barnacle points out in a reader’s letter on 22 October) Trevor Nunn is actually recalling the Dover Wilson note of 1936, yet really believes that he talked to an “actor friend”, who met two Warwickshire labourers hedging, one of whom uttered a sentence about rough-hewing and the shaping of ends.

In case you want to follow the discussion about who did write Hamlet (which personally I don’t) here's a link to the Trevor Nunn interview in The Guardian. 

Will Shakespeare’s acting pals who all knew him well, plus Ben Jonson, were in no doubt who wrote the plays, and they published them after Will’s death. That they could all have been mistaken beggars belief.

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