This is the earliest surviving printed version of William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet. There are only two copies of this book in the world – one at the Huntington Library, discovered in 1823, and missing the last page of text; and the British Library copy (C.34.k.1.) which does not have a title page. This was discovered apparently in Nottinghamshire by a Dublin student in the 1850s and eventually acquired by the British Museum Library in 1858.
Shakespeare’s Hamlet is thought to have been written and first performed in around 1600. This edition was printed in 1603. It is known as the first quarto (shortened to Q1), or sometimes as the ‘bad quarto’ of Hamlet. The term ‘quarto’ denotes a specific size of book – and in this case indicates that it was made of sheets of paper which had each been folded twice to produce a book of a similar size to a modern paperback. Playscripts of this type were relatively cheap to buy, unlike the larger and grander folio size.
The term ‘bad quarto’ refers to a small number of early editions of Shakespeare’s works which have somewhat dubious textual authority. In the case of Q1 Hamlet, the text is significantly different from the later versions published in the second quarto (Q2; 1604/5) and the First Folio (F1; 1623). For example, there are around 2,200 lines in Q1 and 3,800 lines in Q2 (whereas Q2 and F1 are much more similar in length and content). In addition, in Q1 Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy runs, ‘To be or not to be, I there’s the point.’ This is a startling indication of how different this version of the play is. The speech also appears in a totally different place in the text – in the equivalent to Act 2, Scene 2, rather than the more common Act 3, Scene 1.
There are various theories for why the text of Q1 differs so much from later versions. One possible explanation is that Q1 was a pirate edition put together from memory by one of the players, possibly the actor who played the minor role of Marcellus. The idea that actors compiled this edition may also explain the stage directions, which appear frequently in this edition but less commonly in other early printed versions of Shakespeare’s plays. On page G2 verso, in the scene in which Hamlet and Gertrude talk in her bedroom, the direction is ‘enter the ghost in his night-gowne’. This may be a reference to the way the scene was played in a particular early production. The ghost, who appeared earlier in the play in battledress, here is more fittingly attired for the domestic setting. This gives us a fascinating insight into how one of the earliest productions of the play might have been staged.
The fact that only two copies of Q1 survive may be further evidence that it is a pirated edition. A second quarto, with a wholly different text, came out only a year later. As scholar G R Hibbard theorizes, a second edition following so closely upon the first would normally mean that the first had been a huge success – in which case we might have more surviving copies today. The fact that so few copies exist suggests that Shakespeare’s players may have persuaded the printer to sell them the remaining copies, so that Q2, which was advertised on its title page as being from ‘the true and perfect Coppie’ – i.e. presumably from Shakespeare’s manuscript – could gain traction in the market.
Another explanation for the difference between Q1 and later editions is evidenced on the title page of the Huntington Library copy, which says that the play had been ‘diverse times acted by his Highnesse servants in the Cittie of London : as also in the two Universities of Cambridge and Oxford, and elsewhere’. This may point to the fact that the text was a variant used for touring productions, a view partially supported by the suggestion that two character names were changed as they were too similar to notable Oxford University figures: Polonius is here called Corambis, and Reynaldo is Montano. Touring productions may have been shorter than plays in the London theatres, and Q1 is certainly a snappier version of the play, with scenes cleverly abridged so that the story still (mostly) makes sense.
Whilst most modern texts of Hamlet are composites of Q2 and F1 and ignore this earlier edition altogether, it remains a fascinating version of the play and is occasionally performed verbatim.
To see this quarto in full, and other Shakespeare quartos, visit the British Library's Treasures in Full