Collections of Distinction

Boston’s Oldest Hamlets

by jmoschella


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.

Almost all of the BPL’s early Hamlets came to the library in 1873 with the purchase of the personal collection of Thomas Pennant Barton (1803-1869), the first major American collector of rare and early Shakespeare editions. Below is an illustrated list, with the details of each one.


BPL call no. G.176.1: the third quarto of Hamlet.


The Third Quarto (1611)

Pictured above is the BPL’s copy of the third quarto (Q3) edition of Hamlet, printed by George Eld for John Smethwicke in 1611, five years before Shakespeare’s death. Q3 Hamlet is the first of three subsequent quartos of the play printed more or less directly from the text of Q2 (1604/05).

The BPL’s copy of Q3 holds additional distinctions: it is one of the nine copies of Shakespeare’s plays printed during his lifetime now owned by the library. It is also one of just seventeen recorded, surviving specimens of Q3 left in the world. Thomas Pennant Barton purchased this copy from the auction of the library of the English book collector Richard Heber through his agent, the bookseller and occasional diplomat Obadiah Rich.

(Click here for a digitized version of the BPL copy — Click here for the bibliographic record)



Hamlet in the BPL copy of the First Folio (G.174.1)

The First Folio (1623)

Scholarly consensus suggests that the 1623 First Folio (F1) text of Hamlet is based on an entirely separate manuscript than the ones that lay behind Q1 and Q2; a manuscript that was partially abridged for performance. However, the full scope of the textual relationships between the early folio and quarto versions of the play is extremely complex. For example, while 220 lines of dialogue present in Q2 Hamlet are absent in the First Folio, the First Folio Hamlet nevertheless contains 70 lines of dialogue that are not present in Q2.

Thomas Pennant Barton bought his copy of the First Folio for £110 in 1845.

(Click here for a digitized version of the BPL copy — Click here for the bibliographic record)




BPL call no. G.176.2: the fourth quarto of Hamlet with its hand-drawn, pen-and-ink title page.

The Fourth Quarto (1625)

The undated fourth quarto of Hamlet (Q4) was printed by William Stansby for John Smethwicke. Scholars have frequently disagreed on the publication date of this particular edition, with theories ranging from 1607 through 1637. Modern scholarship now dates Q4 to 1625.2

The BPL copy of Hamlet Q4 is one of sixteen recorded, surviving specimens. This copy is also notable for the fact that its missing title page was replaced by a hand-drawn, pen-and-ink facsimile by the magnificently talented John Harris (1791-1873).

Thomas Pennant Barton, however, accepted this rare quarto only grudgingly, as he was an extreme stickler when it came to the condition of his books. Thomas Rodd, one of Barton’s long-time book dealers, seemed almost apologetic when reporting the condition of the book: “The Hamlet is unluckily made up by facsimile title page [by Harris]; but such is the rarity of these articles, and so much eagerness is there to obtain them in any shape, that one must not stand too nice in regard to condition.”

(Click here for a digitized version of the BPL copy  — Click here for the bibliographic record)



G.174.2: One of the BPL’s two copies of the Second Folio.

The Second Folio (1632)

The text of Hamlet printed in the Second Folio (1632) is ostensibly a page-for-page reprint of the First Folio text.  The Second Folio (F2), however, contains its own series of significant textual errors, though it also shows evidence of careful correction and editing.

The BPL owns two copies of the Second Folio (call numbers G.174.2 and G.174.3).



(Click here for a digitized version of the BPL copy — Click here for the bibliographic record (G.174.2))

(Click here for a digitized version of the BPL copy — Click here for the bibliographic record (G.174.3))


BPL call no. G.176.3: the fifth quarto of Hamlet.


The Fifth Quarto (1637)

Hamlet Q5 was printed in 1637 by Robert Young for John Smethwicke. It is the last of the 17th-century quarto reprints of the Q2 text to be issued before the closure of the English theaters during the period of Puritan rule over England.

(Click here for a digitized version of the BPL copy — Click here for the bibliographic record)





G.174.5: The BPL’s copy of the Third Folio (1664 issue)

The Third Folio (1663/64)

Hamlet was published in 1663 and again in 1664 within the two issues of the so-called Third Folio. As with the Second Folio, the text of the Third Folio contains both a significant number of errors and a series of conscious editorial changes. The most significant change, beyond the slew of textual emendations, was the inclusion in the 1664 issue of seven additional plays, only one of which — Pericles — is still partially attributed to Shakespeare.

The Barton/BPL copy of the 1663 issue was formerly owned by John Harward. The Barton/BPL copy of the 1664 issue was formerly owned by John Gardiner Kinnear and the portrait of Shakespeare at the front of the book is taken from a copy of the Fourth Folio (1685).

(Click here for a digitized version of the BPL copy of the 1663 issue  — Click here for the bibliographic record)

(Click here for a digitized version of the BPL copy of the 1664 issue  — Click here for the bibliographic record)



BPL call no. G.4012.16: the seventh quarto of Hamlet.

The Seventh Quarto (1676 or later)

Beginning in 1676, a series of Hamlet editions based on a popular adaptation of Q5 (1637) by William D’Avenant were published in London.  These so-called “player’s quartos” at first reflected D’Avenant’s adaptation of Hamlet as it was then performed in London by a cast that featured Thomas Betterton as Hamlet.

During the 18 years of Puritan rule, when stage plays were outlawed in England and public theaters shuttered, tastes in literature and drama changed, even if interest in Shakespeare’s work remained relatively unabated. With the restoration of the English monarchy and the reopening of the theaters, playwrights had to cater to new audiences in part by updating popular old plays. In adapting Hamlet for these new audiences, William D’Avenant therefore made a number of alterations, though his text was far more faithful to Shakespeare than many other adaptations staged after the Restoration. Interestingly, while the full text of the play is represented in these quartos, those portions omitted during performance are set off from the rest of the text.

Hamlet Q7, dated 1676 on its title page, is the second of the so-called players’ quartos. It is most easily differentiated from Q6 (1676) on the basis of its title page, which contains a five-line imprint. W.W. Greg suggests that Q7 is a later, falsely-dated reprint of Q6.

(Click here for a digitized version of the BPL copy  — Click here for the bibliographic record)



BPL call no. G.65.9: the eighth quarto of Hamlet.

The Eighth Quarto (1683)

Hamlet Q8, printed in 1683, is the third of at least six “players’ quartos” published between 1676 and 1709. This is the only pre-1709 edition of Hamlet at the BPL that does not come from the Barton Collection.

(Click here for the bibliographic record)







G.174.6: the BPL copy of the Fourth Folio (1685).

The Fourth Folio (1685)

The last of the 17th-century folio editions of Shakespeare’s collected plays, the Fourth Folio carried over the addition of the seven plays that originated with the 1664 issue of the Third Folio. While the texts in the Fourth Folio hold little authority (if one limits textual authority for printed drama to original playwrights only), they do show signs of careful editorial intervention.

The record of provenance for the Thomas Pennant Barton/BPL copy of the Fourth Folio embodies the diffuse and growing universality of Shakespeare’s plays over the centuries. It was formerly owned by the British financier and Jewish rights activist Isaac Lyon Goldsmid (1778-1859), but it also bears an earlier ownership inscription traceable to the exiled English Carthusian monastery at Nieuwpoort, Belgium.

(Click here for a digitized version of the BPL copy — Click here for the bibliographic record)



BPL call no. G.4012.17: the ninth quarto of Hamlet.

The Ninth Quarto (1695)

Hamlet Q9, printed in 1695, is the fourth of at least six “players’ quartos” published between 1676 and 1709. Two issues of Q9 were published in 1695, differentiated primarily by their imprint statements.

(Click here for a digitized version of the BPL copy   — Click here for the bibliographic record)





The Tenth Through Fourteenth Quartos (1703)


G.4012.18: one of the BPL’s two 1703 Hamlet quartos.

Several editions of the tenth quarto text were issued in 1703, with type apparently reset each time. These are the last of the pre-1709 “players’ quartos.” The sequence in which each was printed and issued, along with the full nature of their relationships to one another remain unclear (to the author of this post, at least). The English Short Title Catalogue records at least five different versions of Hamlet quartos issued in 1703.

(Click here for a digitized version of the BPL copy — Click here for the bibliographic record (G.4012.18))

(Click here for a digitized version of the BPL copy — Click here for the bibliographic record (G.4010.8 no.2))


Click here for an animated illustration of all the title pages of the BPL’s pre-1709 Hamlet quartos.


See Q3 Hamlet and the First Through Fourth Folios In Person

Hamlet is the lens through which the upcoming Shakespeare Unauthorized exhibition at the BPL is initially focused. The first display in the hall examines the ghostly reappearance in 1823 of the long-lost first edition of Hamlet — a then-forgotten version of the play that differs wildly from the Hamlet with which most modern readers are familiar. Presented via two very rare, mid-19th-century photolithographic facsimiles paid for by a British Duke and given to the BPL by an infamous forgery artist in the late 1850s, the story of the two Hamlet texts is one of many in the exhibition that explore the various ways in which Shakespeare’s texts and reputation have been altered, undone, and remade by persons both anonymous and well-known.

The 1611 third quarto of Hamlet will also be displayed in a section of the exhibition that focuses on Shakespeare’s biography, situating him in late 16th- and early 17th-century London through the books of his contemporary playwrights and poets, along with some of the rarest early editions of his plays in the world.

All six of the BPL’s 17th-century Shakespeare folios (including the First Folio) will also be on display in various parts of the exhibition.


  1. For an exhaustive chronology of the editions of Shakespeare’s plays before 1709, see the chronological appendix in: Murphy, Andrew. Shakespeare in Print: A History and Chronology of Shakespeare Publishing (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005) 279-311.

2. Hailey, R. Carter. “The Dating Game: New Evidence for the Dates of Q4 ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and Q4 ‘Hamlet’.” Shakespeare Quarterly, 58, no. 3 (2007): 367-387.













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