A Note on Shakespeare’s “Bad Quarto” of Hamlet

Arden, the greatest of contemporary Shakespeare publishers, has released an edition of Shakespeare’s Hamlet which includes the controversial “1603 and 1623” texts of the play. Just what exactly are these editions two plays? And how are they distinct from the authoritative version? During Shakespeare’s lifetime, there were multiple versions of his plays, some shortened and others pirated. In 1602, a shortened and heavily revised version of Hamlet was entered into the Stationer’s Register and subsequently published in 1603 by Nicholas Ling and John Trundell, publisher of the authoritative First Folio. However, this early version of Hamlet is called the “First Quarto.” It was a largely unknown version of the play until its discovery in 1823 by Sir Henry Bunbury. This “First Quarto” version of Hamlet is odd –it is a much faster-paced play filled with scenes of action, revised dialogue, and different characters. Unlike in the standard First Folio version of the play, Hamlet and his mother Gertrude jointly seek vengeance on Claudius as Gertrude claims no knowledge of his machinations, and she wishes to support her son. In addition, soliloquies like Hamlet’s famous “to be or not to be” speech are moved to entirely new sections of the play, and the contents of the speeches are different, story arcs are left incomplete (such as Hamlet’s escape from the ship to England and his return to Denmark), and character names are changed (in this version, Polonius is named “Corambis” and Reynaldo is named “Montano”).

Since its discovery, the First Quarto (or the “Bad Quarto” as defined by A.W. Pollard in 1909) was long regarded as simply one of the many stolen and surreptitious copies of the play which were widely circulated in Shakespeare’s day but denounced upon publication of the First Folio in 1623. Perhaps this is why the Second Quarto was immediately published after the First Quarto in 1604 by Shakespeare’s company, to combat the rise of forgeries (the Second Quarto later became the basis for the more widely accepted version of the play which appears in the First Folio on 1623). Still, theories persist –was the First Quarto an early draft written by Shakespeare? Or was it created by an acting troupe in order to remove some of the more existential sections of the play? Was it published in a hurry to prevent other theatrical groups from stealing the story? Is it merely based on the vague recollections of an early performer in the play? Was it an organic version of the performed play? At any rate, scholarly debate persists, even though occasional performances of the First Quarto of Hamlet continues to offer something new for actors who are seeking a fast-paced, altered version of the story.

Several other Shakespearean plays also have “Bad Quartos” which were the first published editions, such as Romeo and Juliet, Henry V, and The Merry Wives of Windsor, however the First Quarto of Hamlet is perhaps the most notorious.

1 thought on “A Note on Shakespeare’s “Bad Quarto” of Hamlet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s