The Return of Elizabeth: William Poel’s Hamlet and the Dream of Empire
Medieval and Early Modern English Studies, Volume 16 No. 1 (2008)
This essay examines William Poel’s three Elizabethanist experiments of Hamlet as a way of addressing the issue of authenticity and translation. Poel objects to the pictorial staging of Shakespeare by actor-managers on the ground that their Shakespeare is ‘inauthentic.’ Poel’s Hamlets attempt to achieve authentic Shakespeare by restoring the original text(1881), the original theatre condition(1900), and the original meaning(1914). Underlying Poel’s Elizabethan project is his wish to revive the glorious moment of the Elizabethan theatre. This paper argues that Poel’s Elizabethanism was conditioned by the imperial anxiety of Edwardian England. Poel, by inscribing the authorial intention as sole source of authenticity and thus restoring Elizabethan England to Shakespeare, reinforces the idea of the Empire and the cultural ownership of Shakespeare. However, it is doubtful if Poel was ever able to realize Shakespeare’s intention, as he ignores the dynamism between the author and the audience and turns his Shakespeare into a museum piece. Poel’s case presents the pitfalls of authorial authenticity, rigid adherence to which without negotiating the gap between past and present may result in cultural tourism, or cultural imperialism.