Experiment: "Bad" Quarto Hamlet

One of the many examples of how I’m learning that everything theatre school teaches you about Shakespeare is wrong is the case of Hamlet’s first “bad” quarto, or Q1. I’d been told many times that it was a faulty memorial reconstruction by an actor, probably the one playing Marcellus and maybe some other small roles. It’s choppy. It’s weird. The order and character names are wrong and the actor remembering it sort of seems to lose steam and start phoning it in at the end. It makes for a funny theatrical history anecdote.

It’s only this year that I’ve learned that the memorial reconstruction theory is far from accepted fact. And the more I start thinking about the instability of all Shakespeare texts, the questions of collaboration between writer and company, not to mention the alterations (purposeful and otherwise) made by the printers, the more I wonder if, whatever its provenance, Q1 ought to be considered an equally valid Hamlet to the rest.

After all, what we have of Pericles is basically just a bad quarto. But it gets in  because we don’t have anything better. Admittedly, if this was the only Hamlet we had, it probably wouldn’t be quite so famous. But even if it isn’t the best of the Hamlets we have, it doesn’t seem fair to ransack a few useful stage directions and then toss the rest as invalid.

Given Q1’s rumored provenance and the theories that it’s not a corrupted version, but a shortened text for touring– or at least poorly-remembered hints at the cuts that were made to Hamlet’s far-too-long full version for regular performance– maybe the most useful question would be, is this text performable?

So, given free rein of the Globe stage for a night, my class decided to perform it. Here are a few of my major takeaways.

– The biggest argument for me in favor of Q1 being a corrupted text rather than a performance text is that some pretty essential exposition is left out. Horatio’s explanation of Rosencranz and Guildenstern (or Rossencraft and Guilderstone, as they’re called here) being killed by the English doesn’t really make any sense, nor is the mission of the English ambassador who shows up with Fortenbras explained at all. Laertes and Hamlet’s fight at the grave is weirdly truncated: Hamlet insists that he never wronged Laertes, but Laertes hasn’t actually accused him of anything. Most vitally, Laertes and Claudius’s poison plot is never actually elaborated. The fact that the sword and cup are poisoned is mentioned in the final duel as if the audience already knows, but the scene where it was explained– and where, for that matter, the pair decided to stage the duel– seems to have been lost. 

– I read Horatio, so I spent the most time thinking about him, inevitably. When we were talking about Q1 in class a couple weeks ago, someone brought up the fact that Horatio in Q1 is the only character who can’t be doubled with anyone else (I think this is also true in Q2 and Folio, but I haven’t checked– I think he could possibly double as Fortinbras’ soldier, but then of course he couldn’t reenter in that role at the end). This points to an interesting sense of Horatio as universal spectator. He is, after all, the person who is charged at the end of the play with telling the story. But in Q1, he actually sees much less: he does not seem aware of Ophelia’s madness, though in the other versions he strangely seems to be tasked with keeping an eye on her. He is present for less of Hamlet’s fake madness, and fewer of his exchanges with Rosencranz and Guildenstern. 

(Side note: Where the hell is Horatio from? This bugs me across all three texts. In the first half, the text seems to imply that Horatio is not Danish: his presence at Elsinore seems unexpected to Hamlet, he doesn’t know about the custom of carousing, and “Oh day and night, but this is wondrous strange.”/”And therefore as a stranger give it welcome” seems to pretty explicitly suggest that he is not from Denmark. But on the other hand, he’s the only person who knows why the watch has been strengthened, and he both recognizes the King and knows all about his history with Fortinbras. And, of course, at the end he is “more an antique Roman than a Dane.” But then why draw so much attention to his apparent foreignness in the early scenes? Anyway, this has driven me crazy for years and I noticed it again while reading through Q1. Perhaps it relates to his role as observer? Is he better qualified to witness and report as a fellow Dane, or as an outsider?) 

– Rosencranz, Guildenstern, and Horatio also feature (at least in part) in the only scene that is completely different from anything that appears in Q2 or F. Right before the gravediggers scene, Horatio tells Gertrude about Hamlet’s escape from England and return to Denmark and, as mentioned above, offers the unclear explanation about R & G’s deaths. This scene is fascinating, because it places Gertrude explicitly in the pro-Hamlet, anti-Claudius camp. It also excises the quiet but, in my opinion, crucial moment where Horatio seems to question the morality of Hamlet’s choices. His shock over R&G’s murder, prompting Hamlet’s callous reaction, is gone.

– The King tells it like it is. He had so many hilariously blunt lines and I loved it. 

– The play was almost exactly “two hours’ traffic.” If this is a corruption rather than a theatrical cut, it’s a pretty perfectly timed one. 

My over all impression, admittedly a useless one, is that it doesn’t not work. Everyone dies literally over the course of a page at the end, but it doesn’t look quite as ridiculous onstage as it does on the page… and it looks pretty ridiculous in the real thing too. What you lose in Q1 is a lot of the apparent psychological complexity and character relationships that we as modern readers value so highly… but one has to wonder if that necessarily means that an early modern audience would have done so. I think so much of our understanding of Hamlet’s enduring appeal stems from the fact that it contains gestures towards a naturalistic psychology that we can recognize… that is, we like it because it looks more than most other Elizabethan plays like the kind of play we would write today. But that may very well have absolutely nothing to do with why Elizabethan and Jacobean audiences liked it. So (logistical issues mentioned above aside) it doesn’t seem fair to assume that what we see as shortcomings in terms of depth are proof that it would not have been performed in this form then. 

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