Beggarstaff “Hamlet” Paris: Lithograph, 1898 (BPL Rare Books Dept.)
The textual history of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet is complex and interesting. Centuries of scholarly investigation into how the play came to be written and published have yielded as many questions as answers: what specific sources did Shakespeare draw on? If a single, original version of Hamlet ever existed, what did it look like? How, why, and by whom were the successive 17th-century editions altered and edited, and how (if at all) did readers and audiences perceive the discrepancies between different texts of the play?
The challenge of understanding the textual history of Hamlet begins, in part, with that fact that there are three distinct, early versions of the play, each of which is believed to originate from a different manuscript with a separate, though not entirely clear relationship to Shakespeare himself. These three versions were originally printed in 1603 (the first quarto), 1604/05 (the second quarto), and in the First Folio of 1623.
Subsequent 17th-century editions were primarily based on the texts of either the second quarto or the First Folio until the emergence of a new theatrical tradition created a significantly emended representation of the play, reflected in a series of so-called “players’ quartos” published between 1676 and 1718.1
Because multiple different, authoritative versions of the play’s text exist, editors and scholars who seek to present new editions of Hamlet to modern readers have to make difficult choices: when passages differ between versions (as they often do), which one is preferable, and why? Should the separate, early texts be conflated into a single edition, or should they remain separate?
To answer these kinds of questions, editors and scholars turn to those few surviving specimens of the earliest copies of Shakespeare’s plays. Handmade in every way (from ink and paper to typesetting, printing, and binding) each of these rare books is unique and each copy represents the textual equivalent of an archaeological dig site: the information that can be collected often sheds light on the processes through which the physical books and, in turn, their texts, were created.
The Boston Public Library holds copies of thirteen editions of Hamlet printed before 1709 — the year that Nicholas Rowe published the first modern, critical edition of the collected plays of William Shakespeare. A mixture of both folios and quartos, the BPL’s collection of Hamlets illustrates the vibrant and varied evolution of the play in the theaters and printing houses of 17th- and early 18th-century England, while facilitating an incredibly intimate glimpse into the world of Shakespeare’s texts as they appeared to his early readerships.
Read more »