Actors' Renaissance Season 2007

Study Guides & Learn More

Stuff that Happens
  • Hamlet, the King of Denmark, dies.
  • Prince Hamlet returns to court (Elsinore) from studying at Wittenburg.
  • Hamlet’s brother is named King and marries the dead King’s widow, Queen Gertred.
  • The ghost of the dead king appears on the battlements to the soldiers Marcellus and Barnardo on two different occasions.
  • Marcellus and Barnardo bring Horatio, Hamlet’s friend and fellow student, to the battlements where the ghost appears again but does not speak.
  • The new King addresses his court and grants permission for Leartes, son to the King’s councilor, Corambis, to return to Paris, but the King tells Hamlet not to return to school in Wittenberg.
  • Leartes says goodbye to his sister Ofelia and gets advice from his father before departing to France.
  • Ofelia tells her father that Hamlet has “made many tenders of his love” to her; Corambis responds, “receive none of [Hamlet’s] letters” and “refuse his tokens.”
  • Hamlet goes to the battlements where the ghost of his dead father appears; the ghost tells Hamlet to “revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.”
  • Hamlet makes Horatio and Marcellus swear not to speak of the ghost and tells them he will “put an antic disposition on.”
  • Corambis sends his servant Montano to France to check up on Leartes.
  • Ofelia tells her father that Hamlet came to her chamber acting strangely after she “did repeal his letters, deny his gifts as [her father] did charge [her].”
  • The King and Queen welcome Hamlet’s “schoolfellows” Rossencraft and Gilderstone and ask them to discover what’s troubling Hamlet.
  • Ambassadors return from Norway to report that young Fortinbrasse has vowed to keep the peace with Denmark and asks permission to march his army through Denmark to get to Poland.
  • Corambis positions Ofelia where Hamlet will see her; Corambis and the King hide to eavesdrop.
  • Hamlet questions “to be or not to be”; Ofelia tries to “redeliver” “such tokens” she received from Hamlet; and he urges her to “go to a nunnery.”
  • Hamlet calls Corambis a “fishmonger,” greets Rossencraft and Gilderstone and asks them if they were “sent for.”
  • Players arrive at Elsinore; Hamlet knows them and requests a performance of “The Murder of Gonzago” with the addition of “some dozen or sixteen lines which [Hamlet] would set down and insert.”
  • Hamlet tells the audience that “guilty creatures sitting at a play hath…confessed a murder long before” and that “the plays the thing wherein [he’ll] catch the conscience of the King.”
  • Playgoing, drowning, pirating, gravedigging, plotting, poisoning, and other tragedies ensue.
Notes from the Executive Director
bad quarto! down, quarto, down!

Playwrights in Shakespeare’s Elizabethan London wrote their plays for performance, not for publication. On those occasions when it looked las if a play might sell in print, the company, the playwright, or someone who had access to the play (no copyright laws applied) would take the play to a printer for publication in a single edition called a quarto. Eighteen of Shakespeare’s thirty-eight plays appeared in quarto versions before The Complete Works of William Shakespeare appeared in folio form in 1623 (seven years after his death). A number of these quartos appear to be corrupt, that is, they contain garbled passages or omissions from what we know to be the standard text. Bibliographers call such editions “bad quartos.”

The 1603 Hamlet, the first in print, is supposedly the “bad” quarto. If “bad” means that the text is full of lines that are not like the Hamlet we know from the second quarto (1604) or the Folio (1623), then, yes, this is a bad version. Or if “bad” means that a number of lines are – for lack of a better word – clunkers, then the first quarto is, yes, a bad version.

If the question, however, is how well the story hangs together, then the first quarto may be better than the Hamlet we all study. Or if the question is which play has the most comedy in it, then the first quarto may have more. Or if the question is which play’s characters are the most vivid (as opposed, perhaps, to complex), then the first quarto may have a stronger claim. If the question is which play sticks closer to Shakespeare’s “two hours traffic of the stage,” then the first quarto at 2800 lines is a whole lot closer to the mark than the second quarto at 4200 lines.

In short, when we read Shakespeare instead of seeing and hearing his plays, then we judge by other standards than those we use when we go to a play mediated for us by great acting. At one time or another a play more like the first quarto of Hamlet than like the “official” Hamlet played before an audience in Shakespeare’s Globe theatre. Those original playgoers weren’t judging the play by what they learned in a Shakespeare class. So, in keeping with our mission of recovering the joy of these plays, the American Shakespeare Center decided to stage the “bad” quarto.

Maybe you’ll come out of the Blackfriars production with a strong opinion of which play is the “real” Hamlet. Maybe not. But if you leave thinking you enjoyed the show, then as far as we at the American Shakespeare Center are concerned, the “bad quarto” is a good play.

ralph alan cohen

Executive Director