Saturday, September 15, 2012

Ay, there's the point: The Bad Quarto of Hamlet

This essay is the second part of my look at Hamlet and the "To be or Not to be" speech.  Why not start with the first one: To Be OR Not To Be: How Shakespeare Charted the Path to the Modern? Or you can read this one by itself.

To be, or not to be,
Ay there's the point,
What were you expecting? “that’s the question?”  It comes later.  This is the first line of an early version of Shakespeare’s famous soliloquy. It’s from a rendering of Hamlet scholars call the “bad quarto”. Did you know there was an early version of Hamlet, a “bad quarto”?

“Ay, there’s the point!” It’s a eureka moment.  Hamlet has made an amazing discovery.

This version is called the “bad quarto” because it lacks the amazing language and complexity of the later version, called the “good quarto” which is universally accepted as being the BEST PLAY IN THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE. The “bad quarto” not so much. It’s a simple revenge tragedy. Hamlet would have been forgotten if all we had was the “bad quarto”.

Shakespeare worked on Hamlet for years, probably between 1591 and 1601. It was an old story. He ripped it off from a play that is lost to us, scholars call it the Ur- Hamlet. It was performed by the Queen’s Men in the 1580s. Shakespeare borrowed constantly from other writers.  He wouldn’t win any Original Screenplay Awards today, he was more of an Adapted Screenplay guy.[i] 

Shakespeare’s company had played either the bad quarto or some version of Hamlet while on tour prior to premiering the new version in the newly built Globe Theater in 1601.

Just as Shakespeare was completing his new version of Hamlet, the one we know, his early version of the play was stolen and published. Shakespeare was midway through revising the script when it was stolen.  He had reworked sections of the first two acts, but not the rest of the play. People have blamed the actor who played Marcellus for stealing the manuscript. His lines and scenes are most like the good version. Another theory of the theft of Hamlet is that scribblers (who could write really quickly) or person with a hyperthymestic memory (who could memorize the play in one hearing) were employed to go to the playhouse to steal the play.  They theorize the bad quarto is an Elizabethan version of a bootleg tape.  However, we got it the stolen version has become known as the “bad quarto”. Having no copyright laws sucked for the playwright and the players.[ii]

By the way, a quarto is a printing of a single play script, a small book, cut to the size of a quarter page, thus a quarto. The First Folio was published after Shakespeare’s death. It contained 36 of his plays, more of a Complete Works of Shakespeare. A quarto is to a single play script as the Folio is to a Complete Works. Got it?
To be, or not to be, Ay there's the point,
To Die, to sleep, is that all? Ay all:
This “to be or not to be” speech is spoken in the second act. In the first act, Hamlet encounters the Ghost of his father who tells him that he was murdered by his uncle. Hamlet, being a good son, promises to revenge his father. To give him time to plot his revenge, Hamlet will “put on his antic disposition” which means act crazy. The next time we see him he speaks this speech. As he enters, the stage directions let us know that he sees Uncle Claudius and Corambis (an early name for Polonius, the King’s counselor and his girlfriend’s father) hiding behind the arras (a curtain). He also sees Ophelia, his girlfriend, sitting to the side, set as a trap so his uncle can overhear their conversation. This “to be or not to be” is a crazy speech clearly about suicide with a few somewhat veiled homicidal threats for Claudius who Hamlet knows is hiding behind the arras. It is a coarse speech:

To be, or not to be, Ay there's the point,
To Die, to sleep, is that all? Ay all:
No, to sleep, to dream, Ay marry there it goes,
For in that dream of death, when we awake,
And borne before an everlasting Judge,
From whence no passenger ever retur'nd,
The undiscovered country, at whose sight
The happy smile, and the accursed damn'd.
And on…[iii]

After this speech, Ophelia clearly betrays her boyfriend when she lies about where her father is when they both know he is behind the arras. Hamlet abuses her and acts crazy for a bit until he comes up with a test to confirm his Uncle’s guilt. Hamlet will have the Players play a play like the murder of his father, he calls it the The Mousetrap. When Claudius sees the murder enacted, he flips out. Hamlet is now sure of his guilt. The course is set. In the closet scene, Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude swears to support him in killing Claudius. Though there are still dramatic complications and Hamlet still ends up dead, he revenges his father. He gets the job done. A good revenge tragedy!

After the “bad quarto” was stolen and published, Shakespeare’s company published the Second Quarto, the good one, within the year as the:

Newly imprinted and enlarged to almost as much againe as it was,
according to the true and perfect Coppie.

This is the Hamlet we know. This is the great play. It contains all of the great language, the intrigues, the complications and Hamlet’s infernal indecision. There is a huge difference between these two plays.
Shakespeare changed the play. He added complexity. The play got longer. The text got sharper. The poetry, more poetic. Hamlet’s path is less clear. He waters down Ophelia and makes her weaker by changing the very sound of her words. She lost her hard consonants, her "t"s, "b"s and "d"s for soft consonants "m"s, "n"s and "l"s. Gertrude doesn’t commit to help him even after Hamlet tells her of Claudius’ guilt as she does in the Bad Quarto. Every place where he could, he made the play more ambivalent.  He made Hamlet less decisive and more concerned, well, about everything.  He doesn’t know what to do.  He can’t make up his mind.

The biggest change is that the “to be or not to be” speech is moved from the second act to the third act after he has made the plan with the players to play The Mousetrap. He has a great soliloquy: “Oh What a Rogue and Peasant Slave am I?” (Which is a much better line than the Bad Quarto’s: “Why what a dunghill Idiot slave am I?”) He makes this plan with the players, he stops acting crazy, then he does the speech. For a revenge tragedy, it makes no sense. Also, the stage directions do not inform us that he sees Claudius and Polonius hide behind the arras or that he sees Ophelia waiting for him. He speaks the speech directly to the audience.
To be, or not to be, that is the question,
Whether tis nobler in the minde to suffer
The slings and arrowes of outragious fortune,
Or to take Armes against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing, end them, to die to sleep
No more, and by a sleep, to say we end
The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to; tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished to die to sleep,
In this speech, Hamlet has a decision, a choice. The Ghost of his father or some fiend claiming to be his father (Elizabethans believed demons appeared as dead people to trap the living; this type of thing was rumored to happen) tells him that his uncle murdered him to get his throne and his queen. Hold On! Let’s pause a moment. An apparition of his father comes back from the dead and has a long conversation with him??? It’s easy to take this for granted, but it is not an everyday occurrence. This was out there stuff.

Hamlet and his dad were very different. Hamlet Senior was a warrior and a King, more of a “Not to be” kind of guy. Hamlet Junior tends to be a thinker and feeler, more of a “to be” kind of guy. A son’s responsibility is to avenge his father and to protect the virtue of his mother. But, murder especially regi- and uncle-cide are bad things to do, against God’s law. Who do you believe? What should a Prince do? One would need to be sure, right? Maybe it would be better to take a wait and see attitude. Wait for it to sort itself out?

Hamlet had been at school in Wittenberg, you know the place where Martin Luther hung his Ninety-Five Thesis on the door of the church and started the religious reformation. He learned there that men had choice. To be or not to be. This or That. When Shakespeare revived the play he gave Hamlet a choice. Not a clear choice, a very complicated and messy choice. Such, is life.

With choice came consequences. Hamlet really got this. He is paralyzed with the consequences of his choice. It is the source of modern angst, depression and schizophrenia. Hamlet says so much at the end of the “to be or not to be” speech.

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hiew of resolution
Is sickled ore with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment,
With this regard theyr currents turne awry,
And lose the name of action.
For Hamlet, as with Modern Man, knowing you have a choice messed him up. Choice comes with unknown consequences, causality. Whether the “to be or not to be” was to suffer what life gave you or to or commit suicide, murder or become numb, you were stuck with the consequences of your choice. Hamlet was paralyzed by choice. He decided that suicide was not the answer. Homicide on the other hand was very much the answer.

By the end he had murdered or caused the murder of his girlfriend, her father, her brother, his two best friends, his mother and his uncle, the King. Oh, and his own death. Had he just made a choice, the play might have ended better.  Or at least would have had a smaller body count.  But, that’s the problem with being the Master of your Fate.  YOU become responsible for the consequences of your choices even when you fail to actually make one.

Before the final duel Hamlet throws up his hands not knowing what to do.

Not a whit, we defy augury, there is special providence, in
the fall of a Sparrow, if it be, tis not to come, if it be not to come,
it will be now, if it be not now, yet it well come, the readines is all,
since no man of ought he leaves, knows what ist to leave betimes, let be. [V.2.219-224]
Perhaps that is where modern choice leaves us.  All we can do is throw our hands up and accept what comes because we cannot predict the outcome of our choices.  Is this what Shakespeare learned?  All you can really do is be ready?

The Bad and Good Quartos show us two different approaches on how to live.  They were invented over a decade of vast and significant change.  Shakespeare’s later version of the play gave us the model for choice and the responsibility of the consequences.  This play plotted the path to the Modern Era.  The new question or challenge is how do we handle the choices going forward?

[i] Shakespeare regularly borrowed and adapted scripts by others.  Only Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest seem to be original stories, and with both of these he gained inspiration from other writings.  For more on this read my entry into the authorship debate: Shakespeare’s Mentor (to be posted soon).
[ii] Yes, Shakespeare regularly rewrote and revised his plays like any good writer. When his fellow actors wrote in the forward to the First Folio, the complete works of Shakespeare:
His mind and hand went together: And what he thought, he uttered with that easiness,
that we have scarce received from him a blot in his papers.
I’m sure “the lady doth protest too much”. They were trying to sell a few books. They wanted everyone to know that they had the right versions of the plays. Not “bad” versions. I’m also sure it was an inside joke coming from actors who suffered through twenty years of constant rewrites. Shakespeare was a serial reviser.
[iii] Full text of Quarto 1 “To be, or not to be” speech:
To be, or not to be, I there's the point,
To Die, to sleepe, is that all? I all:
No, to sleepe, to dreame, I mary there it goes,
For in that dreame of death, when wee awake,
And borne before an everlasting Judge,
From whence no passenger ever retur'nd,
The undiscovered country, at whose sight
The happy smile, and the accursed damn'd.
But for this, the joyfull hope of this,
Whol'd beare the scornes and flattery of the world,
Scorned by the right rich, the rich curssed of the poore?
The widow being oppressed, the orphan wrong'd,
The taste of hunger, or a tirants raigne,
And thousand more calamities besides,
To grunt and sweate under this weary life,
When that he may his full Quietus make,
With a bare bodkin, who would this indure,
But for a hope of something after death?
Which pusles the braine, and doth confound the sence,
Which makes us rather beare those evilles we have,
Than flie to others that we know not of.
I that, O this conscience makes cowardes of us all,
Lady in thy orizons, be all my sinnes remembred.
[Adapted from Internet Shakespeare Edition:]


  1. Hamlet would have been forgotten if all we had was the “bad quarto”.

    You might just as easily and accurately say that Hamlet would have been forgotten if not FOR the so-called "bad quarto" text.

  2. But for a hope of something after death (Q1)

    But that the dread of something after death (Q2/F)

    How might this difference be explained? And how does it affect our sense of Hamlet?

    1. This is one of the differences I love between Q1 and Q2/F. I wonder how much this was coming from a change in the playwright's craft of making the play more complex or from the his own perspective of life.


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