(A Couple of Reasons Why) The “Hamlet” Bad Quarto is Fantastic and Deserves More Love

Although critics and directors have started to show a greater appreciation for the the First Quarto of Hamlet in recent years, it still doesn’t get as much love from writers and audiences as it deserves. Traditionally derided as the “Bad Quarto”, the first published version of the play from 1603 is thought to have been composed from rough notes and scraps of script by one of the minor actors in the troupe. It’s a clunkier and less poetic version than the more polished Q2 (1604) and First Folio (1623) revisions of the text, and includes, by way of an example, the much-derided speech beginning, “To be or not to be? Ay, there’s the point”. As a result, it’s still only very rarely performed – and any productions which do use Q1 tend to parade, not without good reason, its status as “Bad” or “rough”.

That’s a shame, because there’s an awful lot to love about Q1. Not only is it shorter and snappier than the Q2/FF text, but certain scenes in the earlier edition are, I think, far more effective.

Here, for example, are some sections from the Q1 “Mousetrap” scene, in which prince Hamlet arranges for a troupe of actors to put on a play designed to a) challenge his mother Gertred’s infidelity in marrying the (unnamed) “King”, and b) accuse the King of murdering Hamlet’s father to usurp the throne…

PLAYER DUCHESS: O speak no more, for I am accursed:
None weds the second, but she kills the first.
A second time I kill my lord that’s dead,
When second husband kisses me in bed.

HAMLET [in audience]: O Wormwood, wormwood!

PLAYER DUKE: […] But what we do determine oft we break.
[…] So think you will no second husband wed,
But die thy thoughts, when thy first lord is dead.

PLAYER DUCHESS: Both here and there pursue me lasting strife,
If once a widow, ever I be wife.


HAMLET: […] look how cheerfully my mother looks; my father died within these two hours.

The scene does, in the politest possible terms, go on a bit. But I’m nevertheless unashamedly in love with the Q1 version. The structure and language of the play-within-a-play complement the narrative in subtle, powerful ways – and in doing so reveal significant details about Hamlet‘s central characters.

Hamlet plotting “The Mousetrap” in Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 film adaptation.

Firstly, let’s take a moment to appreciate the double meaning in the Player Duchess’ claim that she will deserve eternal strife “if once a widow, ever I be a wife” – a line that has no exact counterpart in later versions of the text. This line serves as a twofold accusation against Gertred: in manifest terms, the line makes the simple case that the Duchess will be eternally damned if she ever remarries – a clear indictment of Hamlet’s mother, who sits (uncomfortably, we might imagine) in the audience. In a latent sense, however, the choice of language here (“ever”) carries the uncomfortable connotation that the Duchess remains the Duke’s wife even after his death. In this context, to remarry would not only be damnably disrespectful to the dead Duke – it would constitute adultery. 

The connotations of the Duchess’ line cast everything that follows in a sordid light – particularly Hamlet’s interjection that “my father died within these two hours”. In the Q2 and Folio texts, the corresponding line “my father died within ‘s two hours” (3.2.115) is arranged so that Hamlet speaks before the play, rather than after. Modern printed editions of Hamlet follow suit, and thus remove this line from the context of the dumb show’s re-enactment of Old Hamlet’s death and the dialogue of the Duke and Duchess. In these versions, Hamlet’s words are no longer presented as informed by, or overtly related to, the words of the players; instead, they serve as a pointed comment on the speed with which Gertrude remarried, re-heating the his earlier dark joke about the “funeral baked meats” which “Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables” (1.2.179-180).

The Q1 composition shown above, on the other hand, develops the joke rather than repeating it, and in doing so offers a new perspective on Hamlet, Gertred, and the King. In Q1, Hamlet’s outburst comes AFTER the Player Duke has been killed on stage. Hamlet’s wry assertion that his father “died within these two hours” therefore reads as a direct response to these events, therefore emphasising to both the King and Gertred the fact that the Duke serves as a stand-in for the murdered Old Hamlet. Moreover, given that Hamlet’s words immediately follow the Player Duchess’ assertion that “A second time I kill my lord that’s dead, / When second husband kisses me in bed” (9.122-3), his reference to the time-frame of his father’s death also carries an additional unsavoury accusation, implying that the King bedded Gertred shortly before the scene began. 

These are subtle differences, certainly, but meaningful ones, and the upshot of it all is that, in this passage alone, we get a better sense of the motivations driving these three characters than the very same scene in later revisions of the text. The Hamlet we see in this brief Q1 extract is more confrontational than his revised counterparts, while the charges levelled at Gertred and the King take on an additional edge of sexual violence. There’s an awful lot for actors and directors to work with here.

See? It’s not so “Bad” really.

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