Quarto 1

The first quarto of Hamlet was published in 1603, although scholars tend to agree that it was not necessarily the first of the texts that Shakespeare wrote. There is somewhat of a  linear relationship between the Quarto 1 text and the First Folio, which suggests that the folio text, the last to be published in 1623, was actually written before the publication of Quarto 1 in 1603. Most scholars also believe that the folio text was written after the second quarto, which would mean that the order in which Shakespeare wrote the three versions was not, as might be expected, Quarto 1 – Quarto 2 – Folio, but Quarto 2 – Folio – Quarto 1.

Quarto 1 is often considered to be the “Bad Hamlet,” more like a rough draft than a finished text. In actuality though, it is often agreed that the first quarto is a transcribed recollection of a performance, which would account for several of ways in which the text is a departure from Quarto 2 and the Folio.

There is, of course, very little evidence that will reveal to us the nature of a performing text in Shakespeare’s theater; but there is a little. There are those notorious ‘bad’ quartos that seem to derive directly from performing texts, or even conceivably (like the first quarto of Hamlet) from a recollection of a performance itself, and whose evidence, therefore, in this respect, is not bad, but excellent. If we were less concerned with the authority of texts and more with the nature of plays, these would be the good quartos. (Orgel 4)

While there is no way of knowing what performance the first quarto might have been derived from, there is a general acceptance of the idea that if staged and performed with talent and skill, Quarto 1 can provide evidence of what it was like to perform such a text in Shakespeare’s time.

There are no real records documenting the performance of Quarto 1 in the seventeenth century, but there is evidence of performances that seem to have been based on Quarto 1. The German text Der bestrafte Brudermord oder Prinz Hamlet aus Dannemark (Fratricide Punished) serves as evidence that there were likely performances of something similar to Quarto 1 in Germany in the early seventeenth century. Despite the lack of documentation of performances of Quarto 1 during that time, there are records of touring companies of English actors. One of these companies, John Green’s ‘Englander,’ performed Tragoedia von Hamlet einen Prinzen in Dennemarck in Dresden in 1626. A manuscript of this play is dated 1710, and although, at half the length it is not directly a translation of Quarto 1, it maintains some specific details as well as the ordering of the scenes. In addition to the performance in Dresden, it is also likely that this text was performed by Carl Andreas Paul’s German company which toured Germany and Scandinavia between 1660 and 1690.

*Photo: Lachlan McKinney as Quarto 1 in Bad Hamlet. Carnegie Mellon University, Oct. 30, 2010; credit: Tom Strong
Orgel, Stephen. Imagining Shakespeare: A History of Texts and Visions. Houndmills U.K: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.
Thompson, Ann, and Neil Taylor, eds. Hamlet: The Texts of 1603 and 1623. London: Arden Shakespeare, 2006.

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