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  • Writer's pictureMackenzie Elisa

The Hamlet Multiverse

I really hate to get involved in this, but at the same time I have burning opinions, so here we go! So when it comes to printing Shakespeare's plays we have Quartos, Octavos, and Folios. Octavos are going to be in eighths, quartos in fourths, and folios in twos. These different printing techniques and formats were all used for different purposes- but I'm going to focus on quartos and folios in this. With regards to Shakespeare, quartos are booklets that contained a single play. Regarding Shakespeare, a folio is a collection of plays. It is possible, and common, that errors and edits were made when a text went to be printed, and that's how this argument has become so convoluted.

It is believed that the first quarto of Hamlet was published in 1603. Referred to by many as the "bad quarto," this version of the text is much shorter than its later versions. While much of the plot is the same, and it contains many of the famous lines like "something is rotten in the state of Denmark," I would agree with the critics who claim that this play lacks the nuance and depth that we typically associate with Hamlet. In this version, "To be, or not to be" is very different, and I don't like it. It's also a very odd version of "Speak the speech," which I also hate. Gertrude has a much smaller part, Polonius is named Corambis, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Rosencraft and Guilderstone. That's just the beginning of the differences, honestly. Reading this version out loud was a hilariously good time. Hamlet is truly angst incarnate in Q1- I would argue more-so than in the longer versions. He is even more the worst in this one because he doesn't get his profound speeches that make him this reflective and "deep" character. Instead, he's simply a surface-level spoiled rich boy who is a raging misogynist. There are a lot of theories regarding why this version exists. One being that it was censored to be performed in more rural Catholic areas, versus a more lenient and Protestant London. Another theory is that this was lazily written down by actors trying to make a quick buck by selling it, or that it was a transcription from a performance. There are many other theories, but the one that I am inclined to believe is that this is simply an earlier draft of the play (maybe dating back to 1589), and the later versions are the product of a more experienced and established playwright.

Quarto two was published in either 1604 or 1605. It is much longer and closer to what we are familiar with when it comes to Hamlet. However, it reads more like a text to be read instead of a script meant to be performed. This is due to its written-in verbal expressions that actors would traditionally add in themselves during performance. Its punctuation is also less "active" when compared to that in the First Folio.

The First Folio was published in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare's death. The Folio contains 36 of his plays, many of which (18) had never been published prior to this collection. The Folio was assembled by two of Shakespeare's friends and fellow actors. This is also the first time that we have a clear division of his plays by genre: Comedy, History, and Tragedy. This is broadly how we view his canon today and the importance of this Folio for theatre cannot be understated. The Folio version of Hamlet is generally considered to be the most correct version of it, and it is the longest version. Contrary to Q2, this one contains punctuation more conducive with that of a script. This being said, it is very rare to encounter a production of Hamlet today that does not do some cutting of the text. It is a hefty book, to say the least.

Hamlet has a complex history, and it is a complex text- Fitting. It's pretty clear that I prefer the First Folio version, but I think all 3 have their own unique value. I don't think we will ever be able to fully dissect it, that's how brilliant it is. And I don't think that we'll ever truly know which version of Hamlet is truly what Shakespeare wanted, that's just one of the great mysteries of The Bard.

If you're interested in seeing the differences between the text, you can read all three versions at once side-by-side HERE

Here's a chart of the "Now I am alone" speech from all three versions- notice how even the first line differs!

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