The history of Hamlet is a history of versions. We hold up the tragedy today as the model of modern subjectivity—distilled in Hamlet’s oscillations from active revenge to more vexed analysis of his father’s murder—but it had its messy and uncertain origins. Though probably composed around 1600, the first edition of the play was not set to print until 1603. That edition, the text now derisively acknowledged as the “Bad Quarto,” lacks much that is there in the 1623 Folio version, or the 1604 Quarto version that was to come out a year later. Those later versions almost double the first in length; the versification differs considerably; the pivotal scene of Hamlet regarding rival Fortinbras’s army (4.4) takes up a mere five lines; and the famously self-reflexive assertion, “That is the question,” loses its interrogative edge with, “Ay, there’s the point.”
And yet, to condemn the 1603 Quarto for such reasons is to fall into a troubling short-circuit of logic. If the First Quarto came first, should not that be our standard for judging later versions–not the other way around? Or shouldn’t the later editions, at least, seem as susceptible to textual corruption as that first “bad” version? A chicken and egg mentality, when we think about Hamlet’s origins, starts to take a hold of us. Where, even, can we locate a true or original or authoritative version of Hamlet? Scholars have exerted great energies in working to resolve this last question. To attempt a solution, in this short a space, is to limit its manifold complexities; only to raise it is the point.
Only two copies of the first quarto have survived since the pamphlet’s initial printing—a fact that may testify to its initial popularity, or perhaps just to the many contingent historical forces that pamphlets—as loosely bound sheets of flimsy paper—could succumb to. The many versions of Hamlet featured by Shakespeare at Yale, though—all printed in the wake of the bad quarto—depend like so many second or third or fourth editions upon the implicit presence of that first copy as part of their appeal.
Here, for instance, is the title page of a later edition of Hamlet, printed by William Stansby and lacking any publicized date:
And here is the famous “To be or not to be” speech, altered and considerably amplified from its first quarto manifestation:
Though editing hands have changed the speech considerably, making it an interesting document to place in relation to earlier and alter versions of the play, certain textual features also make it an interesting document in and of itself. Notice, for instance, the punctuation, which had not yet been standardized. Notice, too, the implicit stage direction in Hamlet’s address to Ophelia; while the speech begins with “Enter Hamlet,” no similar such direction announces Ophelia’s appearance. It depends, instead, on Hamlet’s own language to act as a cue, implicitly rather than explicitly coaxing Ophelia onto the stage.