A Level English: Hamlet’s sallied, sullied or solid flesh- “that is the question”

Screen Shot 2015-07-04 at 10.33.57Screen Shot 2015-07-04 at 10.38.00 You may, like me, have a written copy of Hamlet. It sits on your bookshelf, maybe on your desk. Perhaps there are notes and annotations scribbled inside the pages, with post-it notes peeking out through the covers. You may pride yourself on having memorised the whole play, or any one of Hamlet’s soliloquys.

And now here I am, telling you that the version of Hamlet you find so familiar, is not the only version of Hamlet, and may be very much different to what Shakespeare actually wrote, because modern editors must decide which version of the early printed play texts to use. There are three- the First Quarto, Second Quarto and Folio.

The First Quarto was published in 1603; Although lacking “the literary polish of the longer texts” (Professor Ann Thompson, “The First and Second Quartos of Hamlet”) and often regarded as the ‘bad’ or ‘pirated ‘ version of “Hamlet”, it is “by no means unactable” (as numerous productions have demonstrated), and many critics have countered that it is wrong to regard it as a completely ‘bad’ quarto because it throws useful light on theatrical details in Hamlet (e.g. Whereas the Second Quarto has ‘Enter Ophelia’ and the Folio has ‘Enter Ophelia distracted’, the First Quarto directs: ‘Enter Ofelia playing on a Lute, and her haire downe singing’) In fact, it contains a scene which does not exist in the other versions, in which Horatio returns to Elsinore alone to inform the Queen of Hamlet’s escape.

The Second Quarto was published in 1604-5; it is commonly regarded as the ‘good’ quarto. Most modern editors base their work primarily on the Second Quarto and/or the Folio, which was published in 1623. A must read is “The case for the Folio” by Jonathan Bate, which includes some enlightening and interesting discussion on the three versions of Hamlet.

Some of the bigger differences between the versions are:

Screen Shot 2015-07-04 at 12.38.56

Editors of modern editions are faced with the difficult task of deciding how much of any of the versions to use. To assume that one version is ‘correct’ would be to ignore the unique qualities and value of the others, which accentuate the richness of “Hamlet” as a play and even our understanding of how it may have been originally performed at the Globe in the 1600s. Ultimately, there is no ‘perfect’ version of Hamlet, but the many ways it has been interpreted, and will continue to be in the future, means that though times have certainly changed very much from when the play was first written, over 400 years ago, “Hamlet” has continued to live on and evolve, allowing both traditional and modern performances of it.  A timeless treasure, whether or not my version of Hamlet is anywhere near the original, I will continue to cherish it always.







Special thanks to The Wooster Group for providing me with a comparison of the three versions (http://www.thewoostergroup.org/projects/hamlet/Q1Q2F.html)

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