Textual conflation has long been a problem for editors of Shakespeare’s plays, those with two or more substantive texts that do not completely agree. A famous example involves the two texts of King Lear, the quarto text of 1608 and the Folio text of 1623. Each version of the play omits lines found in the other and includes lines unique to itself. Until recently, editorsnot wishing to lose any of Shakespeare’s languageengaged in combining the two texts into a single text of the play that Shakespeare never saw performed. A long play, King Lear in the conflated text is even longer. An even more extreme example is Hamlet, which has three different texts: the first quarto of 1603, a second quarto of 1604, and the Folio version. Not only do these texts have lines unique to each (the first quarto even has a unique scene in act 4), but often their readings have variant words or phrases, making the job of the modern editor still more difficult and problematic.
What John Reed has done is to take conflation to a further extreme. His play, All the World’s a Grave, subtitled A New Play by William Shakespeare, combines large chunks of dialogue from several of Shakespeare’s tragedies into what is indeed a “new play.” Despite the fact that Shakespeare is the author of about 80 percent of the text, one might well question whether it deserves to be called a new play “by Shakespeare,” for Reed has transformed his sources, rearranged much of the plot and structure, and added a good deal of his own dialogue. He has borrowed extensively from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, King Lear, Romeo and Juliet (pb. 1597), Henry V (pb. 1600), and Othello (pb. 1622), along with scraps of verse from several other plays when it suited his purposes. What results is something new and strange, amusing (and occasionally a little baffling) to those who know Shakespeare’s original works and entertainingto say the leastto those who are less acquainted with the originals but enjoy seeing them in a new light.
As if to demonstrate Hamlet’s martial prowess, but mostly to fuse his character with Othello’s, Reed starts the play with the prince on the field of battle in Aquitaine against the forces of King Lear. Iago has the opening lines, borrowed from the first Chorus of Henry V (“O for a muse of fire”), appropriately modified to introduce the new situation; hence, after referring to “the swelling scene,” he says: “Then should the warlike Hamlet, all for love,/ Assume the cost of blood.” Readers soon understand that Hamlet is battling against the forces of Aquitaine to gain his love, Juliet, whom he presumably has met earlier and with whom he has fallen in love. Before the battle begins, he speaks Romeo’s lines, fearing “some consequence yet hanging in the stars.” Iago urges him on to claim his bride, and Hamlet responds with more lines from Henry V (act 3, scene 1, lines 3-17) on the proper countenance and behavior of the warrior. In the next scene, Hamlet lightly paraphrases Henry’s “St. Crispin Crispian” lines (act 4, scene 3, lines 18-67), converting it to a St. Valentine’s Day speech. The battle ensues, and a herald later confirms that the day is Hamlet’s: King Lear has lost.
In scene 3, Hamlet/Othello/Henry V assumes a Romeo-like role, knocking on the door of a parish church, as Juliet comes to meet him. Reed here adapts lines from Romeo and Juliet (act 2, scenes 2, 3, and 6), taking a few lines out of context from Hamlet (act 1, scene1), before the pastor (not a friar) agrees to marry the young couple. The dialogue in the following scene is quite unlike the aubade in Romeo and Juliet (act 3, scene 5), though the situation is roughly similar. It ends with more lines taken out of context as Juliet, not Romeo, asks if her lover will leave her “so unsatisfied,” and Romeo replies, “What satisfaction canst thou have, dear love?” This role reversal is an “in” joke, and it is clear by now that Reed’s play is a spoof of Shakespearean tragedy.
The last scene of act 1 is set outside the Boar’s Head tavern, where Hamlet and Juliet are celebrating their wedding night. Not content with adapting lines from Shakespeare’s plays, Reed has Iago begin by reciting Sonnet 129 (“Th’ expense of spirit in a waste of shame”) directly to the audience. Soldiers are loading corpses onto a wagon, while inside the tavern General Romeo and his surviving soldiers carouse. They drink to the health of the prince and princess, oblivious of anything tragic that will follow....
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