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How do we 'know' Hamlet?

Updated Monday, 7th December 2009

Pulling together a production is more than just the script, Hannah Lavery from the Open University explains the process behind Hamlet and invites us to compare the text.

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Hamlet (David Tennant), watched by Osric (Ryan Gage) listens to Claudius (Patrick Stewart) as he prepares to fight Laertes (Edward Bennett) Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: BBC

What needs to be taken into consideration when a production company decides to stage a version of Hamlet? Apart from the casting of characters, decisions about set design, props, and costume need to be made. All of these decisions will also depend on the text that is used. There are three versions of Hamlet from around the time of Shakespeare’s first staging of the play in 1599/1600: Quarto 1 (Q1, 1603), Quarto 2 (Q2, 1604/5) and the larger Folio (1623).

Directors often choose to adapt a script from a mixture of more than one version: for example taking stage directions from the Folio version, but using text from the earlier Quartos. The choices that directors make will inform how we view the characters, respond to the action, and ultimately understand the play as a whole.

How do these choices impact on interpretation? Let’s take a look at the text of the play, before thinking about what implications the casting of David Tennant in the role of Hamlet has for our interpretation of the play.

Click here to visit Open Source Shakespeare and view Act I, Scene ii

Shakespeare’s texts

Editing Shakespeare’s Plays’ by Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor AA306 Shakespeare: Texts and Context, pp. 155-165 edited by Hannah Lavery

Is there such a thing as a Shakespeare text? If we mean by this a single, unchallengeable, authoritative document that we could consult in a library somewhere, the answer has to be no.

We need to recognize that the written text is a problematic entity. Shakespeare was a professional writer operating in a predominantly oral culture. Literacy was the privilege of a few, and there were usually many different people involved in the production of play texts: writers, actors, printers and scribes, amongst others!

Patrick Stuart talking to Gregory Doran Furthermore, printers made mistakes, and proof-reading was something done on the job while printing was taking place. Books would therefore come out in a number of different states – some pages in one copy corrected and others not, different pages in another copy corrected and others not. All of this means that the idea of ‘the text’ of a Shakespeare play has to be a fluid one. Everything suggests process more than product, the generation of multiple texts rather than a single, final version.

We know that when playwrights were commissioned by companies to write plays, they sometimes handed them over as finished manuscripts, but sometimes they submitted them in instalments, act by act. On receipt, the play would usually be copied out again at least once by a scribe (a professional writer, who would write out texts by hand), and in the process it might well be altered, either accidentally or deliberately. Then someone wrote out each actor’s part separately. Finally, these parts were committed to memory by the actors. What happened to the scripts in rehearsal and performance we can only imagine, but we have Hamlet’s speech to the Players (Hamlet, 3. 2) as evidence that at least some actors annoyed playwrights by departing from their scripts.

Printed Texts

From ‘Editing Shakespeare’s Plays’ by Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor (AA306 Shakespeare: Texts and Context, pp. 155-165),
edited with additions by Hannah Lavery

In 1623, seven years after Shakespeare’s death, there appeared a large-format collected edition of almost all his plays: this volume is referred to by scholars as the ‘First Folio’ (F1). However, about half of Shakespeare’s plays had already appeared in print during his lifetime, published singly in pocket-size paperbacks known as ‘Quartos’. The terms ‘Folio’ and ‘Quarto’ simply describe the size of the books’ pages.

There is no absolute proof that the Folio text of Hamlet (1623) represents authorial revisions. Nor is there absolute proof that Q1 of Hamlet (1603) is a reported text of the play deriving from one of the longer texts. Scholars used to argue that it was Shakespeare’s ‘first sketch’, preceding the more sophisticated versions. We do not have to claim that one text is in every respect better than another: we may find that we prefer one passage in Q1 and another passage in the Folio. Even if we could prove that a particular reading is a Shakespearean revision, we might decide that his first thoughts were superior.

When a director starts to think about staging a version of Hamlet, s/he will need to decide upon a suitable play text. The differences in language between versions of the play can impact upon how we react to the characters.

See for yourself! Compare the text of the famous speech ‘To be or not to be’ from the Q1 (1603) and the Folio (1623) versions (below).


Bound book of Shakespeare plays

First Quarto 1603

To be, or not to be, I there's the point,

To Die, to sleepe, is that all? I all:
No, to sleepe, to dreame, I mary there it goes,
For in that dreame of death, when wee awake,
And borne before an euerlasting Iudge,
From whence no passenger euer retur'nd,
The vndiscouered country, at whose sight
The happy smile, and the accursed damn'd.
But for this, the ioyfull hope of this,
Whol'd beare the scornes and flattery of the world,
Scorned by the right rich, the rich curssed of the poore?
The widow being oppressed, the orphan wrong'd,
The taste of hunger, or a tirants raigne,
And thousand more calamities besides,
To grunt and sweate vnder this weary life,
When that he may his full Quietus make,
With a bare bodkin, who would this indure,
But for a hope of something after death?
Which pusles the braine, and doth confound the sence,
Which makes vs rather beare those euilles we haue,
Than flie to others that we know not of.
I that, O this conscience makes cowardes of vs all,
Lady in thy orizons, be all my sinnes remembred.

First Folio 1623

To be, or not to be, that is the Question:

Whether 'tis Nobler in the minde to suffer
The Slings and Arrowes of outragious Fortune,
Or to take Armes against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them: to dye, to sleepe
No more; and by a sleepe, to say we end
The Heart-ake, and the thousand Naturall shockes
That Flesh is heyre too? 'Tis a consummation
Deuoutly to be wish'd. To dye to sleepe,
To sleepe, perchance to Dreame; I, there's the rub,
For in that sleepe of death, what dreames may come,
When we haue shufflel'd off this mortall coile,
Must giue vs pawse. There's the respect
That makes Calamity of so long life:
For who would beare the Whips and Scornes of time,
The Oppressors wrong, the poore mans Contumely,
The pangs of dispriz'd Loue, the Lawes delay,
The insolence of Office, and the Spurnes
That patient merit of the vnworthy takes,
When he himselfe might his Quietus make
With a bare Bodkin? Who would these Fardles beare
To grunt and sweat vnder a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The vndiscouered Countrey, from whose Borne
No Traueller returnes, Puzels the will,
And makes vs rather beare those illes we haue,
Then flye to others that we know not of.
Thus Conscience does make Cowards of vs all,
And thus the Natiue hew of Resolution
Is sicklied o're, with the pale cast of Thought,
And enterprizes of great pith and moment,
With this regard their Currants turne away,
And loose the name of Action. Soft you now,
The faire Ophelia? Nimph, in thy Orizons
Be all my sinnes remembred.

The first thing you may have noticed is that, quite apart from the fact that the language sounds very different to modern English, the spelling of certain words is also unusual.

Here are some questions to consider when you are comparing these two versions:

  • What differences are there between the two passages?
  • Do you find that these differences impact on your understanding of Hamlet as a character?
  • How does Hamlet talk about life and death in terms of: money, status and religion?
  • What is Hamlet’s emotional state at this point in either passage: angry, despondent, frustrated, in love? (Perhaps think about how David Tennant played these lines in the 2008 RSC production, and compare that to your reading of the two passages).
  • Which version of the speech best suits your understanding of the character of Hamlet and the action of the play at this point?

Want to know more about the performance of Hamlet?




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