Date and text - Hamlet, prince of Denmark

Four tragedies - Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Othello, the Moor of Venice, Macbeth and King Lear - David Bevington and David Scott Kastan 1988, 2005

Date and text
Hamlet, prince of Denmark


Like everything else about Hamlet, the textual problem is complicated. On July 26, 1602, James Roberts entered in the Stationers’ Register, the official record book of the London Company of Stationers (booksellers and printers), “A booke called the Revenge of Hamlett Prince Denmarke as yt was latelie Acted by the Lord Chamberleyne his servantes.” For some reason, however, Roberts did not print his copy of Hamlet until 1604, by which time the following unauthorized edition had appeared:

THE Tragicall Historie of HAMLET Prince of Denmarke[.] By William Shake-speare. As it hath beene diuerse times acted by his Highnesse seruants in the Cittie of London: as also in the two Vniuersities of Cambridge and Oxford, and elsewhere At London printed for N. L. [Nicholas Ling] and Iohn Trundell. 1603.

This edition, the first quarto of Hamlet, seems to have been memorially reconstructed by actors who toured the provinces (note the references to Cambridge, Oxford, etc.), with some recollection of an earlier Hamlet play (the Ur-Hamlet) written before 1589 and acted during the 1590s. The actors seemingly had no recourse to an authoritative manuscript. One of these actors may have played Marcellus and possibly Lucianus and Voltimand. Their version seems to have been based on an adaptation of the company’s original playbook, which itself stood once removed from Shakespeare’s working papers by way of an intermediate manuscript. The resulting text is very corrupt, and yet it seems to have affected the more authentic text, because the compositors of the second quarto made use of it, especially when they typeset the first act.

The authorized quarto of Hamlet appeared in 1604. Roberts, the printer, seems to have reached some agreement with Ling, one of the publishers of the first quarto, for their initials are now paired on the title page:

THE Tragicall Historie of HAMLET, Prince of Denmarke. By William Shakespeare. Newly imprinted and enlarged to almost as much againe as it was, according to the true and perfect Coppie. AT LONDON, Printed by I. R. [James Roberts] for N. L. [Nicholas Ling] and are to be sold at his shoppe vnder Saint Dunstons Church in Fleetstreet. 1604.

Some copies of this edition are dated 1605. This text was based seemingly on Shakespeare’s own papers, with the bookkeeper’s annotations, but is marred by printing errors and is at times contaminated by the first quarto—presumably when the printers found Shakespeare’s manuscript unreadable. This second quarto served as copy for a third quarto in 1611, Ling having meanwhile transferred his rights in the play to John Smethwick. A fourth quarto, undated but before 1623, was based on the third.

The First Folio text of 1623 omits more than two hundred lines found in the second quarto. Yet it supplies some clearly authentic passages. It seems to derive from a transcript of Shakespeare’s draft, in which cuts made by the author were observed—cuts made by Shakespeare quite possibly because he knew the draft to be too long for performance, and which had either not been marked in the second quarto copy or had been ignored there by the compositors. The Folio also incorporates other alterations seemingly made for clarity or in anticipation of performance. To this theatrically motivated transcript Shakespeare apparently contributed some revisions. Subsequently, this version evidently was copied again by a careless scribe who took many liberties with the text. Typesetting from this inferior manuscript, the Folio compositors occasionally consulted the second quarto, but not often enough. Thus, even though the Folio supplies some genuine readings, as does the first quarto when both the Folio and the second quarto are wrong, the second quarto remains the most authentic version of the text.

Since the text of the second quarto is too long to be accommodated in the two hours’ traffic of the stage and since it becomes even longer when the words found only in the Folio are added, Shakespeare must have known it would have to be cut for performance and probably marked at least some omissions himself. As he may have consented to such cuts primarily because of the constraints of time, however, this present edition holds to the view that the passages in question should not be excised from the text we read. The Hamlet presented here is doubtless longer than any version ever acted in Shakespeare’s day, and thus does not represent a script for any actual performance, but it may well represent the play as Shakespeare wrote it and then expanded it somewhat, while also including passages that he may reluctantly have consented to cut for performance. It is also possible that some cuts were artistically intended, but, in the face of real uncertainty in this matter, an editorial policy of inclusion gives to the reader those passages that would otherwise have to be excised or put in an appendix on questionable grounds of authorial “intent.”

Hamlet must have been produced before the Stationers’ Register entry of July 26, 1602. Francis Meres does not mention the play in 1598 in his Palladis Tamia: Wit’s Treasury (a slender volume on contemporary literature and art; valuable because it lists most of the plays of Shakespeare that existed at that time). Gabriel Harvey attributes the “tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark” to Shakespeare in a marginal note in Harvey’s copy of Speght’s Chaucer; Harvey acquired the book in 1598 but could have written the note any time between then and 1601 or even 1603. More helpful in dating is Hamlet’s clear reference to the so-called “War of the Theaters,” the rivalry between the adult actors and the boy actors whose companies had newly revived in 1598—1599 after nearly a decade of inactivity (see Hamlet, 2.2.337—62). The Children of the Chapel Royal began acting at Blackfriars in 1598 and provided such keen competition in 1599—1601 that the adult actors were at times forced to tour the provinces (see Hamlet, 2.2.332—62). Hamlet’s reference to the rivalry appears, however, only in the Folio text and could represent a late addition. The reference to an “inhibition” imposed on acting companies “by the means of the late innovation” (2.2.332—3), printed in the 1604 quarto, may possibly refer to the abortive uprising of the Earl of Essex on February 8, 1601, or to a decree issued by the Privy Council on June 22, 1600, restricting London companies to two performances a week in each of two playhouses. Revenge tragedy was also in fashion during these years: John Marston’s Antonio’s Revenge, for example, dates from 1599—1601, and The Malcontent is from about the same time or slightly later, though it is hard to tell who influenced whom. Hamlet’s apparent indebtedness to John Florio’s translation of Montaigne suggests that Shakespeare had access to that work in manuscript before its publication in 1603; the Florio had been registered for publication in 1595 and 1600.