The three Hamlets

There is no single text of Hamlet: there are three separate texts, and versions we read or see performed are usually conflations of two of them, with, perhaps, a nod to the third. But it is highly unlikely that Shakespeare intended the different texts to be conflated. I have heard Prof. James Shapiro – author of the book 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, in one chapter of which he discusses the textual differences and the impact they make – insist passionately that Shakespeare wrote quite different versions of the play, and that to conflate the two versions together is to end up with a play that is faithful to neither to Shakespeare’s original thoughts, nor to the revised. Since hearing Prof Shapiro on the subject, I had been meaning to read the different versions separately; and now that the Arden Shakespeare has printed these different versions in separate volumes, I really have no excuse not to.

(The earlier Arden edition of the play, edited by Harold Jenkins, is still widely considered to be an exemplary piece of Shakespearean scholarship, although, like most editions, it uses a conflated text.)

hamlet 001

It was in 1603 that the first text appeared: this is known as the First Quarto (Q1), or the “Bad Quarto”. Whoever put this together obviously had access to Shakespeare’s own text, but there are huge cuts, and, at times, the text seems garbled:

To be or not to be – ay, there’s the point.
To die, to sleep – is that all? Ay, all.
No, to sleep, to dream – ay, marry, there it goes…

At other points, it seems to follow closely enough the later texts that we think of as the better ones. How this particular text came about is a bit of a mystery: it is often conjectured that it was pieced together from memory by some players who may recently have left Shakespeare’s company, but who had heard it often enough at rehearsals, or who had even performed in it, to be familiar enough with it to reproduce large chunks of it. The play we now recognise as Hamlet is recognisable, but it’s like seeing a mediocre artist’s copy of a painting by an old master: we may discern a genius lurking somewhere behind the work, but the work itself seems clumsy.

The very next year, in 1604, as if in response to the Bad Quarto, there appeared another text – the Second Quarto (Q2), or, as it is rather unimaginatively dubbed, the “Good Quarto”. This is almost twice as long as the Bad Quarto, and it is unmistakably a work of genius. But it is very long. A full performance would have taken some four hours – far longer than the “two hours’ traffic on our stage” mentioned in Romeo and Juliet, or even the “two hours and a half, and somewhat more” as mentioned in Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair. So either this text is a fuller version of what was performed on stage; or conceivably, the players made an exception for this work in performance, allowing it to run longer than was usual. (Shapiro argues this latter possibility is unlikely: given that the performance started at 2 in the afternoon, and that this play was performed in the Globe during autumn and winter months, it would have been dark by the final scene.)

The third text appeared in the First Folio, the first collected works of Shakespeare’s plays that was published in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare’s death. And here, we have another good text, but with a great many differences from that of the Good Quarto. It wasn’t an abridgement for performance: only 230 lines are excised, while 90 are added. It is, quite clearly, a conscious revision. That is, if we agree that the Folio text is a revision of the Second Quarto text, and not the other way round: both Shapiro, and the editors of the Oxford edition, Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor, seem agreed that the Second Quarto text had been written first.

(Interestingly, in the various passages of the First Quarto that correspond to the “good texts”, it is the Folio text rather than that of the Second Quarto that it appears closer to. This is why the First Quarto is often consulted by editors when there appears to be printing errors or uncertainties in the Folio. The First Quarto is also interesting in that it places Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy, and the scene that follows with Ophelia, in Act Two rather than in Act Three, where it stands in both the Good Quarto and in the Folio texts. This leaves open the fascinating possibility that Shakespeare, even during rehearsals, was experimenting with the structure, and tinkering with the order of various scenes. The DVD of the recent RSC production with David Tennant and Patrick Stewart, although using, as usual, a conflated version of Q2 and the Folio, nonetheless followed Q1 in placing these passages in Act Two.)

After a while, I must admit, scholarly discussion of textual matters finds me a bit out of my depth. Naturally, there is much controversy over several aspects of this, but, fascinating though it all is, it is a controversy in which I do not feel sufficiently knowledgeable to take part. However, after some forty or so years of reading conflated texts, I felt I should take Prof Shapiro’s advice and read the texts separately. That isn’t actually as easy as it sounds: my mind is so imprinted on conflated texts, that even when a passage is missing from one text or the other, I find myself automatically filling in the gaps. One can’t, after all, unlearn what one already knows.

Most of the changes are quite minor – changes in wording, or in phrasing. But often, even small changes can make a huge impact. For instance, in the Q2 text, while Hamlet, Horatio and Marcellus are waiting for the ghost to appear, we get this:

HAMLET: The air bites shrewdly; it is very cold.
HORATIO: It is a nipping and an eager air.

This is a bit of idle chit-chat while they are waiting. But in the Folio text, we get this:

HAMLET: The air bites shrewdly: is it very cold?
HORATIO: It is a nipping and an eager air.

Here, Hamlet is at a stage where he cannot even trust the evidence of his own senses, and needs confirmation that what he feels really is a reflection of reality. A slight change, but it casts the entire scene, and, indeed, the entire play, in a different light.

I am intrigued also by the change of phrasing in Hamlet’s famous passage about the nature of man. In the First Folio, and in all the conflated versions I have seen, we get this:

What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel! In apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world, the paragon of animals – and yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?

But in Q2, we had this:

What a piece of work is a man – how noble in reason; how infinite in faculties, in form and moving; how express and admirable in action; how like an angel in apprehension; how like a god; the beauty of the world; the paragon of animals. And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?

Admittedly, the overall meaning remains much the same, but there is something fascinating about Shakespeare rethinking and re-organising the phrasing and the rhythms in this manner. I’d love to hear the Q2 phrasing used in a production.

There are also somewhat more significant changes. In Act 2 Scene 2, where Hamlet sees through Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the Quarto text allows Hamlet to see through them almost immediately; the Folio text, however, allows Hamlet a bit longer, letting him engage for a while in seemingly friendly banter before dropping the bombshell: “Were you not sent for?” Here, I must admit, I feel the Folio text is dramatically more effective, giving more scope for the actor playing Hamlet to display his shrewdness in weighing up the motives of his former friends. In the Q2 text, the question “Were you not sent for?” seems based on a hunch, asked on the spur of the moment.

In the closet scene, however (III,iv), Q2 has a magnificent piece of extended rhetoric in which Hamlet berates his mother. It is an irresistible torrent in full flow:

This was your husband. Look you now, what follows:
Here is your husband; like a mildew’d ear,
Blasting his wholesome brother. Have you eyes?
Could you on this fair mountain leave to feed,
And batten on this moor? Ha! have you eyes?
You cannot call it love; for at your age
The hey-day in the blood is tame, it’s humble,
And waits upon the judgment: and what judgment
Would step from this to this? Sense, sure, you have,
Else could you not have motion; but sure, that sense
Is apoplex’d; for madness would not err,
Nor sense to ecstasy was ne’er so thrall’d
But it reserved some quantity of choice,
To serve in such a difference. What devil was’t
That thus hath cozen’d you at hoodman-blind?
Eyes without feeling, feeling without sight,
Ears without hands or eyes, smelling sans all,
Or but a sickly part of one true sense
Could not so mope.

And I can’t help feeling what a shame it is that Shakespeare in his revision chose to shorten this of all passages. Presumably, he had his reasons for doing so, but I can’t help wondering what devil was’t that thus hath cozen’d him at hoodman-blind.

But without doubt, the most significant cut of all comes in the fourth act. In Q2, Hamlet, as he is led into exile, sees Fortinbras and his troops; expresses some thoughts about them to Fortinbras’ captain, and then, left on his own, delivers the last of his great soliloquies (“How all occasions do inform against me”). In the Folio text, Hamlet is not present at all in this scene: his words to the captain, and his soliloquy, one of the most magnificent speeches in all Shakespeare, are cut out. This scene now serves a purely narrative purpose – to remind us of Fortinbras and his troops, and to prepare the ground for their entrance at the end of the play. But before decrying this unkindest cut of all, we should examine why Shakespeare was so apparently willing to discard so extraordinary a passage.

To be entirely honest, this longer scene in Q2, magnificent though it is, has always puzzled me. On hearing from the captain that the troops are on their way to fight over a meaningless piece of land, all for the sake of honour, Hamlet is horrified:

This is the impostume of much wealth and peace,
That inward breaks, and shows no cause without
Why the man dies.

“Impostume” is an abscess: once again, Hamlet employs the imagery of disease. This Hotspur-like insistence on honour, even at so great a loss, is a disease, and is the hidden reason that explains “why the man dies”. Shapiro thinks that this “may well be the darkest moment in the play”. But then, left on his own, we have Hamlet’s final soliloquy. At the very opening of the soliloquy, Hamlet castigates himself – as he had done in the soliloquy that had ended the second act – for not having yet acted:

How all occasions do inform against me,
And spur my dull revenge!

But this opening is immediately followed by some of the most glorious lines in English literature, in which Hamlet speaks of humans as thinking beings:

What is a man,
If his chief good and market of his time
Be but to sleep and feed? a beast, no more.
Sure, he that made us with such large discourse,
Looking before and after, gave us not
That capability and god-like reason
To fust in us unused.

How noble in reason indeed!

But at this point, the soliloquy takes a strange turn. Hamlet now turns his critical eye on thinking too much – on “thinking too precisely on th’event”. One of Hamlet’s own principal characteristics – the ability to think and to reason deeply – is found wanting, and rejected:

Now, whether it be
Bestial oblivion, or some craven scruple
Of thinking too precisely on the event,
A thought which, quarter’d, hath but one part wisdom
And ever three parts coward, I do not know
Why yet I live to say ‘This thing’s to do;’
Sith I have cause and will and strength and means
To do’t.

In all the years I have been reading and re-reading this play, I have never understood this turn of Hamlet’s mind. And it eludes me still. Hamlet knows that what Fortinbras is doing – leading two thousand souls to their deaths for nothing, for some point of honour – is stupid, is pointless. It is an “impostune” – an abscess, a disease. So why does he now think that Fortinbras’ actions shows himself, Hamlet, in a bad light? Why is he turning against his own nature? Why is he now castigating himself for being, unlike Fortinbras, capable of thought? He is still aware that what Fortinbras is fighting for is not worth fighting for: an “eggshell”, he calls it, “a fantasy and a trick of fame”. And yet, he now admires and wishes to emulate even this fighting that is pointless, that is an impostume.

When I last wrote about Hamlet on this blog, I had conjectured that Hamlet sees in Fortinbras an image of his own warlike father; and that his guilt in being so unlike his father, in having, as it were, betrayed his father’s values, compels him to admire those very qualities that he knows he does not have. It compels him to admire these qualities even though he can see these qualities for what they are. This is, I admit, mere conjecture on my part; but I can think of no other reason why Hamlet should express admiration for Fortinbras, and try to force himself into becoming what he knows he isn’t:

O, from this time forth,
My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!

However we interpret this soliloquy, and Hamlet’s words to the captain, we are in deep moral and psychological waters. By removing these passages, these complexities are also removed. Shapiro in his book presents us with a number of other changes Shakespeare introduced into the revised text that, consistent with the removal of complexity, present revenge as morally correct and desirable, and Hamlet as, essentially, a revenging angel.

First of all, since Fortinbras is no longer so strong a foil to Hamlet, Laertes’ role as a foil is emphasised, perhaps somewhat clumsily, with the addition of these lines:

But I am very sorry, good Horatio,
That to Laertes I forgot myself;
For, by the image of my cause, I see
The portraiture of his.

Hamlet’s beautiful lines on the acceptance of Fate are also subtly changed. In Q2, we had this:

We defy augury. There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all, since no man of aught he leaves knows what is’t to leave betimes. Let be.

In the Folio, this becomes:

We defy augury. There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all. Since no man has aught of what he leaves, what is’t to leave betimes?

The more committed avenger in the Folio text leaves out “Let be”. And the passage is rephrased so that the word “knows” drops out: Hamlet in the Folio no longer says that it is not possible to know, but, rather, that it is unimportant to have. The moral complexity of the Q2 text is here ironed out: in that text, Hamlet had resolved the questions that had been tormenting him by calmly accepting that it is impossible to know. In the Folio text, all those issues have disappeared altogether, leaving a somewhat simplified character, but also, for that very reason, a more credible avenger.

There is a further significant addition. In Q2, we had this:

He that hath kill’d my King and whored my mother,
Popp’d in between th’election and my hopes,
Thrown out his angle for my proper life
And with such cozenage. Is’t not perfect conscience?

This passage is clearly intended to prepare us for the act of revenge that is soon to follow, but in the light of the moral complexities introduced earlier, this passage sits awkwardly: has Hamlet forgotten about these complexities? But, with these complexities removed in the Folio text, this same passage can now be given greater dramatic force, and the sense of the impending revenge, and of its correctness, emphasised:

He that hath kill’d my king and whored my mother,
Popp’d in between the election and my hopes,
Thrown out his angle for my proper life,
And with such cozenage–is’t not perfect conscience,
To quit him with this arm? and is’t not to be damn’d,
To let this canker of our nature come
In further evil?

It is now “to be damn’d” not to take revenge – a sentiment that the Q2 text could not have accommodated.

(For a more detailed and a far more eloquent account of the impact of these changes, I would strongly recommend Chapter 15 of James Shapiro’s book 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare.)

So, what are the final impressions left by reading these competing texts separately? A certain clarification, certainly. To see the subtle touches of revision, those apparently little changes that alter so much, are in themselves a joy to behold. But while there are some aspects of the revised Folio text that I would not wish to be without – such as the extended scene in II,ii where hamlet speaks with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – it is the morally and psychologically complex Hamlet of Q2 that I find more compelling. Even though, admittedly, the final act of revenge in which the play culminates does nothing to resolve those complexities.

12 responses to this post.

  1. Reblogged this on A Celebration of Reading and commented:
    I found this posting very interesting and felt a pang of loss for all those years of academic study that are now so long forgotten … I had to share this.


    • Thanks very much for the re-blog, Mike. I’ve never had a post re-blogged before!

      I find textual issues in Shakespeare fascinating, although I rarely feel confident enough to write about them. I guess I’m just a bit of a nerd in these matters! 🙂


  2. Thank you for bringing these details to my attention. Hamlet is often presented at the man who cannot make up his mind, a ditherer. It is more attractive to me to see him as a person who respects the uncertainty of knowledge, hesitant to proceed because he cannot certainly know.

    Perhaps he envies Fortinbras for not being restrained by such scruples. Fortinbras may do stupid things, but he is probably more comfortable with himself than Hamlet is.


    • Hello, and welcome to the blog (I believe this is your first post here, isn’t ut?)

      Hamlet is a tremendously complex character: perhaps more has been written about Hamlet than just about any other fictional character. He is constantly thinking, and he thinks deeply; he is tremendously self-aware. And yet, as his soliloquies reveal, even he cannot understand his own self. On several occasions he asks himself why he is inactive. And yet despite his inactivity when it comes to carrying out his revenge, he can be very active at certain points: he is himself aware of this – he knows that there are moments when he loses control over his own actions. This is why before going to see his mother (in Act 3) he has to tell himself that he must not kill her. for he knows that he is well capable of doing so.

      How this extraordinarily complex character can be reduced merely to a man who couldn’t make up his mind, I really cannot imagine! And yet, even Olivier described Hamlet in such terms at the start of his famous film version.

      I think one possible reason why he feels so unable to carry out the revenge is that it wouldn’t resolve the questions that are so tormenting him. the revenge tragedy was a popular genre, and the whole point of it was that the good guy eventually vanquishes the bad. But Hamlet’s thinking is far more subtle and complex than can be accommodated by so simplistic a formula: the moral and psychological issues become so complex, that the killing of Claudius would resolve nothing. I think this is the problem Shakespeare found himself faced with: the plot demanded that the resolution come with the killing of Claudius, but Shakespeare had broached themes that would not be satisfied with such a conclusion. It appears that in his Folio revisions, Shakespeare had ironed out some of these complexities to make this conclusion more dramatically appropriate.

      But it’s a deeply problematic work no matter how you look at it!


  3. Though I had heard that Shakespeare had gone through several revisions I had no idea that there were these alternate versions out there.

    Among many interesting points that you make involve the lines ending with “Let Be”. This is one of my favorite passages in literature. It is amazing how much the delation of those two words and the addition of a question mark changes this. I strongly favorite Q2 version with regard to these lines.


    • Hello Brian,

      Yes , I prefer the Q2 version as well. As well as deleting the words “let be”, Shakespeare also deletes the words about “knowing”. So where he had previously spoken of the impossibility of knowing, now he is merely saying, in effect, that whatever you have in life, “you can’t take it with you”. Compared to what we had in the previous version, this strikes me as trite. I get the impression that Shakespeare realised that he had allowed the play to become so complex that the resolution demanded by the plot is no longer adequate; and so, it make it dramatically more coherent, he ironed out many of these complexities.

      I think on the whole I do prefer the Q2 text, despite the inherent dramatic problems, which come, essentially, from Shakespeare loading more into the genre of the revenge tragedy than the genre could reasonably take. It is well worth reading the differenttexts separately. (there are different texts with King Lear also: that’s my next stop, I think!)


  4. I was in a lecture, last week, about textual problems in Shakespeare. It was maddeningly fascinating – maddening because of the complexity that lay far beyond my grasp, and fascinating, well… because it throws up so many questions about authorial intent, interpretation, the role of the editor, the compositor, the director and the actors, the thin line between being faithful to the “play”, and interposing your own choices.

    One example. We were discussing King Lear – Quarto 1608 and Folio 1623. Now, in Quarto 1608, after Gloucester’s blinding, Cornwall exits, and then:

    Second Servant
    I’ll never care what wickedness I do,
    If this man come to good.

    Third Servant
    If she live long,
    And in the end meet the old course of death,
    Women will all turn monsters.

    Second Servant
    Let’s follow the old earl, and get the Bedlam
    To lead him where he would: his roguish madness
    Allows itself to any thing.

    Third Servant
    Go thou: I’ll fetch some flax and whites of eggs
    To apply to his bleeding face. Now, heaven help him!

    The dialogue is essentially a moment of compassion – but the *reason* for it being there is to *buy time* – because when Gloucester comes into the next scene, he is bandaged up already – and the actors needed to buy time in order to clean him up off-stage. Now, in the 1623 Folio, the players had moved to an indoor theatre, with *intervals between acts*. Thus, in the 1623 folio, the dialogue is removed. There is a clear difference of interpretive effect – Quarto 1608 is a “compassion filled text”, so to say, more than Folio 1623 – but the *reason* may not have been aesthetic.

    To me, personally, traditional categories and techniques of interpretation, be it authorial intent, new criticism, resistant reading or whatever – simply doesn’t have the conceptual tools to *deal* with this kind of complexity. How do you *read* King Lear in this situation? I’d love to hear your thoughts.


    • Hello Gautam, and thank you for that. I haven’t yet read the different texts of King Lear : I’ll get on to that shortly. But I was under the impression, possibly mistaken, that act divisions were added later. Am I wrong about this? And even if the act divisions are Shakespeare’s own, are we certain that there would have been breaks between them? For instance , Act 1 of Macbeth ends with Macbeth setting off to kill Duncan. To have a break at this point would be very insensitive, and destroy the tension, which builds unremittingly right through to the porter scene.

      Of course, we can only note the differences, and then make intelligent and informed guesses as to why the changes have come about. They could indeed be for reasons other than artistic, as you say. They could be to accommodate certain actors. Smaller changes could be due to misprints. Generally, if a passage that exists in one version is cut in another, but if the latter version flows nonetheless without an obvious disruption, it’s probably safe to assume that the cut is deliberate. And when the cumulative effect of the revisions is consistent with a particular end (in the case of Hamlet, for instance, the end of reducing some of the moral and psychological complexity in order to make the whole dramatically more coherent) then, once again, it is perhaps reasonable to assume that the revisions are deliberate, and made for artistic reasons. But, as you observe, it is important to include such words as “probably” and “perhaps” and “reasonable to assume”.

      Of what I know of the texts of King Lear, the mock trial scene in III,vi is cut in the Folio text- and this I don’t understand at all: it is a superb scene – how could Shakespeare have the heart to cut out something like that? However, in the Folio text, Lear is given those extraordinary last lines:

      Do you see this? Look on her, look, her lips,
      Look there, look there!

      I am looking forward to my readings of the Lear texts.


  5. Thanks for bringing this up. I’ve been wanting to return to Shapiro’s book (I really enjoyed 1599) as well as the texts he mentions in there. I hope you do make it to the 2 Lear versions–I look froward to it!


    • Thanks for that, Dwight. It was really Shapiro’s book that encouraged me to read the texts separately. The texts of King lear are certainly next on my list! It’s a shame you can’t get editions with the different texts on facing pages: that would mske it much easier to compare and contrast.


  6. I think that Fortinbras exists in the play primarily to remind Hamlet (and the audience) of his duties to his father. There are a lot of father-son pairs in “Hamlet,” and all of them comment upon each other. Count up all the dead fathers in the play. Hamlet’s trying hard to ignore his own ideas about right and wrong, and obey his promise to his father(‘s ghost). The extended debate about revenge reflects the public debate about revenge going on in Elizabethan England, where revenge killings were illegal but still had wide public support. Shakespeare is talking about his audience again.

    “Hamlet” is the play I re-read most often. I have a collection of editions, and no clear favorite, though I grew up with the Pelican, which is based primarily on the First Folio, IIRC.

    Also, congratulations on your 3rd anniversary with this blog.


    • Hello Scott, good to see you here.

      I remember as a child having the Signet Classics edition of Hamlet (it was an American publication, but was available here in the UK). It was an excellent series, and each individual edition would have at the back a collection of critical essays. i don’t see those editions eny more. Since my student days, I have been reading mainly the Arden editions.

      I agree that Fortinbras reminds Hamlet of his duties to his father; but Hamlet’s questioning mind has broached so many other things as well by this stage, that the mere act of revenge does not seem – to me, at least – an adequate resolution to all the issues that the drama has raised. I think what worries me about Fortinbras is Hamlet’s approval for him. Hamlet knows that Fortinbras is a warmonger, but even as he speaks of Fortinbras’ activities in the darkest of terms, he expresses admiration for him, and seeks to emulate him. Of course, I do not think this is a shortcoming in the play: but it is something that has long troubled me, and is likely to go on doing so. But literature isn’t supposed to be comfortable, I guess – especially a work as endlessly fascinating as this.

      All the best,


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