A Document in Variance
by Lonely Christopher
Works titled The Tragicall Historie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark were printed in different editions in the form of the quarto, comparable to a paperback, and the folio, often not dissimilar from thicker books of Shakespeare’s collected plays, most notably from 1603 to 1623; of all the extant texts three primary variants are remarkably distinguished: the First Quarto, the Second Quarto, and the First Folio. All three are accredited to Shakespeare, and insist upon legitimacy, but the disparities amongst them are so profound that it’s impossible to conceive of one cohesive and uncomplicated text representative of the impregnable, quintessential Hamlet. Hamlet is plural; it is a congregation of sources, manuscripts, editorial influences, and cultural perspectives. The Second Quarto (1605), which in content comfortably resembles the popular understanding of a “definitive” Hamlet, most likely derives from an authorial manuscript (foul papers). The especially complicated late Folio edition (1623) probably originates from a different source; in content it is seven percent unique, although ten percent of the Second Quarto’s dialog is absent from it. The First Quarto (1603) is the most radically different and is seventy-nine percent shorter than the Second Quarto. The sources for Shakespeare’s Hamlet include anterior material such as a Nordic tale recorded in Latin circa 1200 CE by Saxo Grammaticus --- maybe by way of Francois de Belleforest’s Histoires Tragique --- aspects of Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, and the indefinable lost Ur-Hamlet of which little is known besides it must have existed (though it is posited by some that Kyd was the likely author). In those preceding works the broad outlines of our Hamlet are discernable --- though the blunt tropes of storytelling have yet to be rendered poetically ambiguous and complex by Shakespeare. The extensive accumulations of pertinent data are manipulated by editors until a recognizable Hamlet is wrought from heterogeneous texts. In the introduction to Arden’s new two-volume Hamlet, Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor summarize the ways in which the data can be presented for a general readership: “1. A photographic, or diplomatic, facsimile of a particular copy of a particular printed book [...]; 2. An old-spelling, or modernized, edition of such a copy of Hamlet; 3. An old-spelling, or modernized, edition of an ‘ideal’ [...] printed edition of a text [...]; 4. An old-spelling, or modernized, edition of the reconstructed text of a lost manuscript assumed to lie behind a printed edition [...]; 5. An old-spelling, or modernized, edition of a play (e.g. Shakespeare’s Hamlet).” A common production titled Hamlet uses an idealized conflation of the Second Quarto and Folio; abridging it to a standard play length by excising dialog, scenes, and whole plot threads. The First Quarto constitutes the initial appearance in print of a play --- accredited to William Shakespeare --- titled The Tragicall Historie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, but what it is exactly is unconcluded. It entered the discourse of textual scholarship in 1823 when it was “discovered,” but a satisfactory explanation of its existence has never been reached. An early popular theory was that it is an altogether different play beside the other Hamlets attributed to Shakespeare --- an adaptation of another source text entirely. The story is more similar in minutiae to the Second Quarto than the Nordic tale, but certain names and aspects of narrative, not to mention dialog, are drastically unlike the canonized idea of Hamlet. Another mostly discounted theory is that the First Quarto represents an embarrassing first draft of what would eventually be crafted into Shakespeare’s “true” Hamlet --- or that it’s even the Ur-Hamlet itself. The fashionable theory, which has given rise to the accusation that the text is a bad quarto reflecting poor authorial fidelity, is that this version of the play is a memorial reconstruction. An actor (most likely he who played Marcellus and Voltemar judging by how closely his lines resemble the dialog of the other texts) wrote down what he remembered of the play and sold it to be printed first for his own gain. Thus the consequent Second Quarto is understood as a correction and usurpation of the initial edition; an effort that presumably reflects much more authorial fidelity. It is surprising to a modern reader how unstable all of the extant material is. For example, in the Second Quarto Hamlet is considered by others a youthful student until his age is remarkably revealed to be thirty in the last act, whereas the Bad Quarto features a reasonably teenaged Hamlet. Additionally, though the title Claudius is traditionally given to the character of the King it is doubtful that any conception of Shakespeare as a singular and historical author ever thought of the King with that name. Claudius is only named as such once at the beginning of the Second Quarto and the Folio and thereafter only referenced by his position; in the Bad Quarto he is never given a name at all. When one remembers that, in the Second Quarto, eventually an attendant mentions to the King a character named Claudio, the practice of calling the King Claudius seems more like an editorial imposition based on a printer’s quirk than the reflection of one definitive play. In the Bad Quarto many of the names are what might generally be considered “nonstandard.” The Bad Quarto's Queen Gertred, Ofelia and her father Corambis, and Montano all suggest a Hamlet as the Shakespearean manifestation of antecedent stories of Hamnet, or Hamblet, or Amleth, or Amlodi. While the names Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are, rendered thus, widely recognizable they actually represent editorially systematized interpretations --- whereas in the three major versions of the play those specific names vary significantly even within each individual text in a way resulting from and illustrating the non-codified spelling of Elizabethan drama that is almost always modernized in print. In the Bad Quarto the dialog is abbreviated and less poetic --- scenes are shuffled, revised in another context, abridged, and deleted withal. Scene fourteen, in which Horatio clandestinely plots with the Queen, is notorious because it is found in no other version. In the Bad Quarto, opportunities to confront the play’s textuality are significant and unique. Threadbare edges of the material present interpretive challenges that must be met with ardent conceptualism. After confronting the badness of the Bad Quarto, it is given out that this misfit Hamlet, while unpopular and estranged, seems superlative in is freakishness. Hamlet refuses to cohere into something neatly definitional or a successful “organic whole” expressing an “objective correlative” --- through the lens of postmodernity the “real figure” of the greatest writer ever (the author of humanity according to Bloom) seems untranslatable; ergo one might posit that we can now say Shakespeare are authors; through that statement much more available surface area of the work is discoverable. As Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor wrote in the introduction to the new Arden Hamlet, “If by ‘Hamlet’ we mean a public representation of a ‘Hamlet’ narrative --- that is, a story involving a character called Hamlet who has some continuity of identity with the Amlodi figure of Nordic myth --- then these three texts are just three ‘expressions’ of Hamlet out of the infinite number of Hamlets which have or could have come into existence.” The textual and narrative multiplicity of data that are available to an interpreter can enable a reaching toward the Shakespearean infinite space.