Text Me, Hamlet: Which to play?

For the last couple of entries, we’ve been discussing the early published versions of Hamlet, with a look at the problematic First (or “Bad”) Quarto, and its Gertrude/Horatio scene.

That scene is not the only structural difference between the texts:

First Quarto scene number Second Quarto/FIRST FOLIO/Current Reading
1 Act One, Scene One
2 Act One, Scene Two
3 Act One, Scene Three
4 Act One, Scene Four
5 Act One, Scene Five
6 Act Two, Scene One
7 Act Two, Scene Two (to Hamlet’s entrance); Act Three, Scene One (“To be or not to be” and Ophelia); Act Two, Scene Two (remainder of scene)
8 Act Three, Scene One (without “To be or not to be” and Ophelia)
9 Act Three, Scene Two
10 Act Three, Scene Three
11 Act Three, Scene Four; Act Four, Scenes One and Three (Scene Two is skipped)
12 Act Four, Scene Four (Fortinbras only; no Hamlet)
13 Act Four, Scene Five
14 Horatio and the Queen (this scene does not exist in other versions of the play)
15 Act Four, Scene Seven
16 Act Five, Scene One
17 Act Five, Scene Two

Notice the alternate order of what are scenes Seven and Eight of the First Quarto. In this version, when Hamlet enters into what will be Act Two, Scene Two, instead of immediately meeting with Polonius, he delivers the “To be or not to be” soliloquy. That speech leads, as it does in the other versions, into the Hamlet/Ophelia confrontation. Hamlet then exits, the king and Ophelia’s father (in the First Quarto named Corambis) debrief what they’ve seen, the king exits, Hamlet re-enters, and we’re back to where we diverged from the text. We then get the next part of what will be Act Two, Scene Two (the “fishmonger” sequence), and it runs parallel to the end of the scene–Hamlet’s reunion with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the entrance of the players, then Hamlet’s decision to use the play to “catch the conscience of the king” (II.ii.544).

This new sequence of scenes makes Hamlet’s emotional journey much simpler and straightforward: mourning/meet the ghost/depression-suicide (? in “The Soliloquy”)/anger-sense of betrayal/new plan because of the players. Compare that with mourning/meet the ghost/new plan because of the players/then depression-suicide/anger… this might make sense if Hamlet was truly mad–instead of trying on an “antic disposition” (I.v.175); otherwise, it’s a little tough to follow as an emotional through-line.

Some directors has used this First Quarto ordering (but texts from the later versions) for their productions, most recently by the RSC directed by Gregory Doran and starring David Tennant.

When I first started discussing the three texts, I noted that the editor of the version I’m using (A. R. Braunmuller, Pelican) feels that for reading, the best version is the Second Quarto. At that point, I asked the question, what would be the best for playing? Obviously, the text of the First Quarto is corrupted to the point of almost uselessness, but what about that narrative order of scenes? I’m thinking that may be the way to go.

What do you think?

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