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Hamlet: The Text

Hamlet: The Text

By Isabel Smith-Bernstein

There is much debate surrounding the history of Shakespeare’s play Hamlet.  It was first performed between 1598 and 1602, depending on which source you believe. The first published text was the First Quarto in 1603. This Quarto is often known colloquially as “The Bad Quarto” because it differs significantly from the more accepted Folio text. The Second Quarto was published in 1604 or 1605 still lacking some seventy-seven lines found in the Folio but is much closer to what was published in 1623 in the First Folio.

There are many possible explanations for the differences in the texts, one of them being that the First Quarto is an actor’s recollection of a performance. Another theory is that the text is actually that of Ur-Hamlet, a play by an unknown author which no longer survives but featured a character that is known to have said, “Hamlet, revenge!” 

Since the eighteenth century, editors have worked to create a “definitive” version of the text, often combining the three published versions. Ultimately, we will never know what Shakespeare intended and what precise words Shakespeare’s audiences would have heard. What we do know is that our sources leave us with a beautiful and masterful play.

Hamlet was likely written after Julius Caesar and before Twelfth Night. Our record of publication puts it between Macbeth and Measure for Measure, which are both plays performed (and likely written) for the new King James. Hamlet, then, is a piece that straddles both Queen Elizabeth and King James, and we can see elements of each ruler reflected within the play. The fact that Hamlet mirrored both rulers (for instance, King James fashioned himself a scholar and so might have seen some of himself in the noble Hamlet) is a possible reason for its popularity and continued production under the Lord Chamberlain as well as the King’s Men—the Masters of Revels approved of the play on behalf of their monarchs.