The early history of Hamlet affords one of the most difficult problems with which Shakespeare scholarship has to deal. Three printed versions of the text have come down to us. These represent remarkable variations from each other, and one of them in particular, the earliest, appears to be fundamentally different from the other two. The most probable explanation is that the play underwent a process of revision after it was originally written and acted. If, then, we could determine the exact relation in which the three forms stand to one another, we should learn a good deal about Shakespeare's dramatic method as shown in the deliberate modification of his first ideas. Unfortunately this is not so easy. Scholars still disagree hopelessly as to the exact nature of the earliest version; and the whole question is complicated by the probable existence of a pre-Shakespearian Hamlet, which may have had a considerable influence upon the later play. So that for the present one must be content to bring together the facts, to indicate the conditions of the problem, and to suggest the most likely hypothesis for its solution.
The Registers of the Stationer's Company for 1602, amongst other entries of books 'allowed to be printed', contain the following:
xxvj [to] Julij
James Robertes. Entered for his copie vnder the handes of master Pasfield and master Waterson warden, A booke called 'the Revenge of HAMLETT Prince [of] Denmarke' as y[t] was latelie Acted by the Lord Chamberleyne his seruantes..............vjd.
No edition is known to have been published in 1602, but in 1603 appeared the perplexing First Quarto (Q1). In the interval the Lord Chamberlain's players had passed under the direct patronage of James the First, and they are therefore entitled 'his Highness' servants' upon the title-page, which runs:
THE | Tragicall HIftorie of | HAMLET | Prince of Denmarke | By William Shakefpeare. | As it hath beene diverfe times acted by his Highneffe fer- | vants in the Cittie of London: as alfo in the two V- | niverfities of Cambridge and Oxford, and elfe-where | [Vignette] | At London printed for N.L. and Iohn Trundell. | 1603.
James Roberts' name is not here mentioned; but he may have printed the book for the publisher N[icholas] L[ing], whose device forms the vignette. At any rate he appears to have done this in the case of the Second Quarto (Q2), which was published in 1604, with the following title-page:
THE | Tragical Hiftorie of | HAMLET, | Prince of Denmarke. | By William Shakefpeare. | Newly imprinted and enlarged to almoft as much againe as it was, according to the true and perfect | Coppie | [Vignette] | AT LONDON, | Printed by I. R. for N. L. and are to be fold at his fhoppe vnder Dunfton's Church in | Fleet ftreet. 1604.
The First Quarto stands by itself; the later Quartos follow the second; but an independent text is afforded by the First Folio (F1) edition of the collected plays issued after Shakespeare's death in 1623. Here Hamlet is entitled a Tragedy, and no longer a Tragical History. In the order of the plays it follows Julius Caesar and Macbeth, and immediately precedes King Lear.
The modern text of Hamlet is based upon a combination of the Second Quarto and the First Folio, and it is therefore necessary briefly to compare the two with each other, and both with the First Quarto.
The editors of the First Folio claim to have provided carefully corrected texts of all plays whereof 'stolen and surreptitious copies' had been in circulation before. To a certain extent this is justified as to Hamlet. The Second Quarto is very ill printed; it is disfigured by obvious mistakes and confusions; the punctuation is chaotic. The First Folio is not faultless in these respects, but it is a great improvement. Many of the errors of the Quarto have been avoided, and the minor details of presswork, the commas and colons, have been carefully attended to. Moreover the Folio adds a few passages which are not found in the Quarto. But these advantages are more than compensated for by considerable and important omissions, especially in the soliloquies. The Second Quarto was evidently printed from a longer and more complete manuscript than the Folio, and where divergencies of reading occur, and the compositor is not in fault, it generally provides the better sense.
The relation of the First Quarto to the later versions is a much more difficult matter. Most critics agree that, whatever may have been the case with the Second Quarto, the First, like the First Quarto of Romeo and Juliet, was fairly to be put down by the editors of the 1623 folio as a 'stolen and surreptitious copy'. The publication of it was doubtless due rather to the enterprise of a piratical bookseller than to the wish of Shakespeare or his company. And in all probability it was founded upon hasty notes, taken in shorthand or otherwise, by some agent of this bookseller's during a performance at the theatre. This would account for the extreme shortness of the text, for its mutilated character, for the obvious gaps in the sense, for the number of imperfect and wrongly arranged lines, and of misheard words and phrases. Some scholars have held that the note-taker's materials were pieced out, either from a sight of the prompter's copy or the actors' parts, or by the pen of a hack poet. but if this had been the case to any considerable extent, the defects would hardly have been so glaring as they are. I do not think that more has been done than just to transcribe the careless and incomplete notes, and perhaps here and there to fill up a line by the addition of a few words. In any case the printed copy is very far from reproducing the dialogue of the play as it was presented upon the stage.
But now comes the point which is still the subject of the keenest controversy. Supposing that this dialogue had been reproduced with absolute accuracy, would the result have closely resembled the Second Quarto? In other words, was the play as acted when the note-taker went to the theatre practically identical with the play as acted and printed in 1604; or did it undergo alteration and revision in the interval? Scholars of great authority have declared on both sides, but the weight of evidence appears to me to be in favour of the theory that there was a considerable and important revision. The order of the scenes in the First Quarto is not quite that of the second. Some of the characters, notably that of Gertrude, are differently conceived; the great soliloquies are almost entirely omitted; the dialogue is less subtle and elaborate, as might well be the case in a first sketch. There are passages which make very good sense and not bad poetry as they stand, where there is no sign that the reporter has gone far wrong, but which have apparently been rewritten and improved throughout for the Second Quarto. And finally, the names of the characters are not quite the same in the two versions: the Polonius and Reynaldo of the Second Quarto replace the Corambis and Montano of the First. In all probability, then, the First Quarto is an exceedingly corrupt text of a first sketch of Hamlet; the Second Quarto represents much more accurately a revised form of the same play.
It has been asked--Was this first sketch of Hamlet Shakespeare's throughout, or did it contain parts by an earlier writer, which in the revision Shakespeare cut out and replaced by his own work? One cannot suppose Shakespeare's masterpiece of tragedy to have been written in the sixteenth century; but there certainly was a play of Hamlet in existence as early as 1589 or possibly 1587. There are several allusions to this play in contemporary literature, notably in Nash's prefatory epistle to Greene's Menaphon. And in the diary of Henslowe the manager there is a record of a performance of it, not as a 'new interlude,' on June 9, 1594. It was acted by the Lord Chamberlain's company, who were then playing for about ten days under Henslowe's management at Newington Butts. It has been suggested with some plausibility that this early Hamlet was written by Thomas Kyd, author of The Spanish Tragedy. In any case, seeing that it had come into the hands of the Lord Chamberlain's company by 1594, there can be little doubt that Shakespeare used it as a starting point, when he wrote his own play on the same subject for the same company. Probably he kept the framework of the plot, including the ghost, the play within a play, and the somewhat bloodthirsty final scene. Shakespeare was never careful to invent his own plots; his art lay rather in using old bottles to contain his quite new wine. But the dialogue, the characters, the psychological motive--these are his and his alone, and it is in these that the greatness of Hamlet lies. The only question is whether this process of adaptation was complete in the first sketch, or whether fragments of the earlier author's writing are still embedded in the text. The Clarendon Press editors adopt the second alternative. They believe that the First Quarto represents Shakespeare's remodelling of an old play "after it had been retouched by him to a certain extent, but before his alterations were complete", and they go on to say: "In the earlier form it appears to us that Shakespeare's modification of the play had not gone much beyond the second act". I am obliged to dissent entirely from this theory. It ascribes a great deal too much to the older writer. Tentative as the First Quarto is, it still contains the essential outlines of the perfected play; and if the bulk of it is not Shakespeare's, then there was another Elizabethan dramatist as great as Shakespeare himself, who has left no other sign of his existence. If there are any traces of the older play left in the first sketch, I am pretty sure they are very slight, and I rather think they are retained in the revised version also.
There is another source from which it has been suggested that we may perhaps get some idea of what the pre-Shakespearian Hamlet was like. This is the German version, known as Der bestrafte Brudermord, or Fratricide Punished. The existing text dates only from 1710, but in the opinion of some scholars it is a degenerate form of a play, written not later than 1589. Several companies of English actors visited Germany at the end of the sixteenth and the beginning of the seventeenth centuries, and there is a record of a performance of Hamlet a Prince of Dennemarck by 'the English actors' at the court of Dresden in 1626. It is not at all unlikely that the MS. of an early Hamlet, by Kyd or another, was carried by Leicester's players to Denmark in 1585, and thence to Saxony in 1586. Or it may have been written, appropriately enough, for performance in Denmark. Three of these players, Will (Kempe?), George Bryan, and Thomas Pope, had joined the Chamberlain's (then Lord Strange's) company by 1593, and thus the play would have come into Shakespeare's hands. Fratricide Punished is very short--a mere dramatic sketch; but it contains the outlines of Hamlet, without the Shakespearian psychology or the Shakespearian style. These are replaced by coarse humour and a good deal of bathos and commonplace. Something of this may be due to German influences; but on the whole the difference is just what one would expect to find between a popular drama of 1585 and a Shakespearian drama based upon it. Some of the dramatis personae bear other names than those in Hamlet, and it is noteworthy that Polonius is represented by Corambus. It must be remembered, however, that the German play cannot be proved to date from the sixteenth century. The MS., belongs to the eighteenth, and the resemblances to Hamlet may be due to the fact that the author was simply adapting a copy of the First Quarto which had drifted to Germany.
Hamlet, then, is probably based upon an older play of the crude 'revenge' type. To what dates are we to ascribe the various stages of Shakespeare's treatment of the theme? The revised version may fairly be put at about 1603-4, between the date of the publication of the Second Quarto and the visit of the surreptitious note-taker to the theatre. The first sketch cannot be later than the entry in the Stationers' Registers for 26th July, 1602. And it cannot well be earlier than 1598, as it is not mentioned in the list of Shakespeare's plays given by Francis Meres in his Palladis Tamia of that year. Internal evidence appears to fix 1601 as the most likely date. We know from the title-page of the First Quarto that it was acted when Shakespeare and his fellows were touring in the provinces; and this being so, we may fairly find in what is said about the players in act ii. sc. 2 an allusion to the fortunes of the Chamberlain's company. Two reasons are there given for the 'travelling' of the actors; one, an 'inhibition,' due to a 'late innovation'; the other, the popularity of a rival company, an 'eyrie of children', who had 'be-rattled the common stages'. No other year fits these references so well as 1601. The Chamberlain's company were 'inhibited' from giving their customary court performances at the Christmas of that year, on account of their connection with Essex's attempt at political 'innovation'. We know that they 'travelled', for they are found at Aberdeen in October, and there are also traces of a possible visit to Cambridge at about this time. In 1601, moreover, Jonson's satirical plays, in which he attacked most of the rival dramatists, were being produced by the Chapel children at Blackfriars. This sufficiently explains the allusion to the 'eyrie of children'. It is also worth noting that at this period William Kempe, the famous actor of clowns, was not a member of the Chamberlain's company. He left them in 1599, and probably returned in 1602. This explains why the hit at him in iii. 2. 41 is so much more elaborate in the first than in the Second Quarto. There is yet one more consideration which points to this date of 1601. It brings the play into close connection with Julius Caesar and Macbeth, both of which belong to just this period, the period of the earliest tragedies. And it is noteworthy that the same dramatic motive is used in all three plays--the contrast, namely between the active and the speculative temperament.
I may sum up this discussion by a brief sketch of what I conceive to have taken place. I may add that for this I am largely indebted to the suggestive work of Mr. Fleay. I think, then, that ever since 1594 the Chamberlain's company had possessed the manuscript of the old 'revenge' play of Hamlet. While they were on tour in 1601, Shakespeare used this as a basis for a hasty drama on the same subject. When they returned to London in 1602 they continued to perform this, and it was printed by James Roberts. In the meantime, however, Shakespeare had revised his work, and the new version was put upon the stage in 1603. Then Roberts or Ling came to terms with the company, and was allowed to publish a second and authorized edition from the poet's manuscript. Thus the Second Quarto represents the completest form of the drama, as performed in 1604. But it nearly always happens that when a play has been on the boards some little time, it requires 'cutting' and altering in detail for stage purposes. It was so with Hamlet. In particular, some of the soliloquies proved too long. And in the same way, a few new passages were from time to time introduced. These alterations would naturally be inserted in the stage-copy, and from this stage-copy the First Folio was printed in 1623. A good deal of this sketch is merely hypothesis, but at least it is an hypothesis which gives an intelligible theory of the relation between the various versions.
The distinction between the Quarto and Folio text was maintained throughout the seventeenth century. The Folios of 1623 (F2), 1664 (F3), and 1685 (F4) all reproduce in the main the text of 1623. Quarto editions were published during the poet's lifetime in 1605 (Q3) and 1611 (Q4). The date of Q5, which follows Q4, is unknown. Then come the quarto of 1637 (Q6), and what are called the Players' Quartos of 1676, 1683, and 1703. All of these follow the Second Quarto, with certain emendations of their own.
The first actor of the part of Hamlet was doubtless Richard Burbage. A record of his performance is preserved in an elegy upon his death, written perhaps in 1619. The lines run as follows:
"He's gone, and with him what a world are dead
[Which he reviv'd, to be revived so
No more: young Hamlet, old Hieronimo,
Kind Leir, the grieved Moor, and more besides,
That liv'd in him, have now for ever died.]
Oft have I seen him leap into the grave,
Suiting the person, that he seem'd to have,
Of a sad lover, with so true an eye,
That there I would have sworn he meant to die.
Oft have I seen him play this part in jest,
So lively, that spectators and the rest
Of his sad crew, while he but seemed to bleed,
Amazed thought ev'n then he died indeed."
Burbage was succeeded by Joseph Taylor, and from Taylor the tradition of the part was handed down to Thomas Betterton, the famous actor of the Restoration.