A couple of days back, I discussed the three different early versions of Hamlet which are the sources for all editions of the play that followed in the past four hundred years. I noted at the time that the length of the First (or “Bad”) Quarto is much shorter than of their the Second Quarto or the First Folio.
Based on the lengths, you would assume that the First Quarto would contain fewer scenes, or at least not to have scenes that weren’t already in the other versions.
And you’d be right (there is nothing that approaches Act Four, Scene Two in the First Quarto), but you’d also be very wrong as well.
In what would be(come) Act Four in future editions, just after Laertes returns to find his father dead and his sister distract, the Second Quarto and First Folio have the scene where Horatio receives Hamlet’s letters from the sailors.
Not so in the First Quarto. Here, we do get a letter scene, but it’s different:
[Enter Horatio and the Queen.]
Madam, your son is safe arrived in Denmark.
This letter I even now received of him,
Whereas he writes how he escaped the danger
And subtle treason that the King had plotted.
Being crossed by the contention of the winds,
He found the packet sent to the King of England,
Wherein he saw himself betrayed to death,
As, at his next convers’ion with your grace,
He will relate the circumstance at full.
Then I perceive there’s treason in his looks
That seemed to sugar o’er his villany.
But I will soothe and please him for a time,
For murderous minds are always jealous.
But know not you, Horatio, where he is?
Yes, madam, and he hath appointed me
To meet him on the east side of the city
Oh, fail not, good Horatio, and withal commend me
A mother’s care to him. Bid him awhile
Be wary of his presence, lest that he
Fail in that he goes about.
Madam, never make doubt of that.
I think by this the news be come to court:
He is arrived. Observe the King, and you shall
Quickly find, Hamlet being here,
Things fell not to his mind.
But what become of Gilderstone and Rossencraft?
He being set ashore, they went for England,
And in the packet there writ down that doom
To be performed on them ‘pointed for him.
And by great chance he had his father’s seal,
So all was done without discovery.
Thanks be to heaven for blessing of the Prince!
Horatio, once again I take my leave,
With thousand mother’s blessings to my son.
One can see how this could take the place of the Horatio letter scene. It contains much of the same exposition (the king’s betrayal, the orders for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern [or in this case, Gilderstone and Rossencraft], and Hamlet’s return), as well as what we will later learn from Hamlet directly: that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are sent to their doom. Beyond some clumsy writing (another characteristic of the “Bad” Quarto), we also get one thing found nowhere in our other versions: a clear statement by Gertrude of support for and loyalty to Hamlet and suspicion and barely-contained disdain for the king.
While I can see how this scene could work, I think it makes the last portion of the play weaker. It removes all subtlety and ambiguity from Gertrude’s character and the range of performance choices from the actress playing Gertrude.
What I find interesting (beyond this completely substituted scene) is how Horatio is missing from the First Quarto’s previous scene with Gertrude, Claudius, and Laertes, a scene in which he appears in the other versions. I’m guessing Horatio was off receiving those Hamlet letters.
But it still doesn’t explain why Horatio is in that scene in the first place (er, second place since this is about the Second Quarto… see what I did there?), especially when he gives such seemingly out-of-character cynical and politically savvy advice (“’Twere good [Ophelia] were spoken with, for she may strew // Dangerous conjectures in ill-breeding minds.” [IV.v.14-5]).
What is he doing there? And why is he channeling his inner Claudius?