Shakespeare’s Hamlet was probably first performed in 1602 with Richard Burbage in the title role.
Three different versions of this play were subsequently published:
1603: First Quarto (Q1)
• previously thought to have been printed from an “unauthorized” manuscript created by actors
and/or be an earlier and cut version as performed by Shakespeare’s company;
• more recent theories suggest that Q1 was prepared specifically for print by unknown agents with
access to a range of memorial and material sources.
1604: Second Quarto (Q2)
• thought to have been printed from Shakespeare’s working papers.
1623: First Folio (F1)
• the first collected works of Shakespeare, thought to be printed from a theatrical manuscript.
Each version contains peculiarities that make it unique. Q2 and F1 are very similar but not identical.
Q1 was printed first but contains many lines and speeches that scholars call “corrupt,” but maybe
it was an earlier, unrevised version. Q1 has about 2800-2900 lines and is, therefore, closer to the
length of most Renaissance plays. Q2 has about 3800 lines. F1 is around 3650 lines, but it omits 230
lines from Q2 and adds 80 lines not found in Q2 or any other version. Harold Bloom calls Q2, F1, and
the conflated Hamlet of 3880 lines “Shakespeare’s White Elephant” and “an anomaly in the canon”
because they are so long. Andrew Gurr writes:
Shakespeare and his company were in the habit of trimming and redrafting his scripts for use on the stage
quite drastically. They shortened long speeches and cut redundant characters in order to streamline the text
into something that could easily be put on as a two-hour performance.
The most intriguing difference found in these versions (revisions?) of Hamlet involves the sequence
of scenes. Q2 and F1 feature identical scene order while Q1 places the “to be or not to be” soliloquy
(followed by the “get thee to a nunnery” scene) much earlier in the play. Some believe that the
Q1 scene order is “more logical” and that the story it tells is more direct and immediate. In Q1, “to
be or not to be” and the nunnery scene are followed by the fishmonger scene, the arrival of the
players, Hamlet formulating his plan “to catch the conscience of the king,” and Hamlet putting
that plan into immediate action. In Q2/F1, the fishmonger scene comes first, followed by the arrival
of the players, then Hamlet formulating his plan; but then Hamlet seems to lose his momentum,
contemplating death with “to be or not to be,” followed by the nunnery scene, and THEN the
players perform their play. Obviously, the arc of the story is significantly different in each of the two
sequences; but which version has the “right” sequence? Which sequence plays “better”? Do the two
sequences feel different for an audience?
Our 2011 Hamlet will use the length of the Q1 text as our guide, but we will be selecting speeches and
word choices from all three versions. And we will be rehearsing both scene sequences.
At this point, my plan is to work up two versions of the show and perform the Q1 sequence on some
nights and the F1/Q2 sequence on other nights. In homage to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,
maybe we’ll flip a coin each night and let an audience member choose our scene order by calling
heads or tails. The fact remains that we can never know which version of Hamlet is “correct” or
“definitive” or “Shakespeare’s favorite.” With such an abundance of material from which to choose,
the adventure lies in the exploration.
ASC Artistic Director, Co-founder
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