Text Me, Hamlet: You want that in a Quarto or a Folio?

If you’ve been paying attention, maybe you’ve noticed (or remembered) that I’m using the Pelican Shakespeare editions for the Project. Hamlet is no different.


Why the Pelican? No particular reason. A quick search on Amazon back in 2009 showed that I could get cheap used copies of all the plays (which was not the case in all published series).

Did I want to go with paperback singles? Not really: I loved the romantic ideal of toting around my collegiate Collected Works… I want to say that it was a Riverside, but honestly I don’t remember. I had wanted to use that edition, the same one I had used when I was teaching Shakespeare at Oxnard High School. I loved that I could see how my readings changed by my comments in the margins. There was only one problem: after leaving the classroom, I lent that behemoth to a former student. Who? I don’t remember. I don’t know who has it now, just that it ain’t me, man. The book was never returned.

So I rationalized pragmatism in portability of paperback singles, and off I went buying like a madman from Bezos’ bookstore.

Why do I mention this?

Here’s why…

No text has been handed down from Willy Shakes to the present day. All are editions, which means all have been edited. And not always from the same source.

Such is the case of my Pelican Hamlet.

The Pelican Hamlet is edited by A.R. Braunmuller of my alma mater UCLA (Go Bruins!), but that’s not why I picked it (see above). I mention Braunmuller only to give credit (and/or blame) where it’s due. It’s Braunmuller’s contention that Hamlet, as a text for study, should be based on the Second Quarto.

Some of you are giving a silent nod of the head.

Others are saying, “Whaaaaa?”

Lemme ‘splain:

There are three early published texts of Hamlet:

  • the First Quarto version, printed in 1603
  • the Second Quarto version, printed in 1604
  • the First Folio version, printed in 1623, after Shakespeare’s death

Quartos had their sheets of paper folded twice to create four leaves with eight printed pages. Folios were folded once to create two leaves with four larger printed pages. Folios were seen as more prestigious.

What’s the difference?

Well, considering the First Quarto is often referred to as the “Bad” Quarto, quite a bit actually.

The First Quarto is the shortest version of the three (by far, with just under 2200 lines). It contains more explicit stage direction, and thus has been seen more as an early record of a theatrical performance. It could be a kind of bootleg copy (created by another theater company so they could perform a version of the play), or perhaps a touring company’s text, but Shakespeare doesn’t seem to have much of a hand in its editing or publication.

It’s not altogether surprising then that the Second Quarto came out the very next year. And the publishers seemed to know the First Quarto’s “bad” reputation already, as its title page contains the statement “Newly imprinted and enlarged to almost as much againe as it was, according to the true and perfect Coppie.” Enlarged indeed, as this version is the longest of the three, with more than 3600 lines. Some of the additions include the political elements of the play. Because it doesn’t seem to have the same kind of performance-based elements, it is also seen as being closer to the manuscript.

Seven years after the death of Shakespeare, the First Folio edition was published, containing 36 of the plays, including Hamlet. In this version, the text is slightly shorter (just over 3500 lines), with some 70 lines that aren’t in the Second Quarto, but losing over 200 lines that are. It is believed that this version is based on the “playhouse” version of the manuscript, one that is more performance-based, with cuts, clarifications, and even censorship.

Which to read? Braunmuller says the Second Quarto, and that’s where we are. But which to play? Ay, that’s the question… to be answered later.