Hamlet: Plot Revealed Early in the First Quarto (1603)

If you have read and/or know the plot of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, you will have no doubt wondered whether or not Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, knew any of the villainy committed by her new husband, Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius. Questions such as “was she complicit” or “did she even know that Claudius killed her late husband, the elder Hamlet” make for good literary criticism and broaden the dramatic range an actor may explore when playing her part. Decisions have to be made to justify words and actions for all characters.

Regardless of the publisher and edition of the play you’ve read, it is most likely that you will recall a sequence of events that follows the killing of Polonius, and it goes something like this: Hamlet is sent to England under the supervision of his school chums, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern ; they are given a sealed written commission to the King of England by the King of Denmark (Claudius) whereby Hamlet is to be executed upon arrival; Hamlet suspecting as much secretly discovers the commission, alters it to instead have Rosencrantz and Guildenstern killed and reseals the commission with his father’s seal which he had with him; and by happenstance, Hamlet was able to escape the ship by sneaking aboard a pirate ship that had overtaken them on the way. Upon his Return Hamlet shares this only with Horatio and sends a letter to the King by way of a messenger, not Horatio himself, requesting leave to see his “kingly eyes” and to “recount the occasion” of his “sudden and more strange return.” I will stop here at the end of Act IV. Of all the published editions of Hamlet in modern times this is the story as we know it. HOWEVER, if you were to go by the First Quarto, the copy of the play first published in 1603, you would have a very different scenario and there is a problematic arc of the story that doesn’t get resolved.

The First Quarto (1603) differs from all the subsequent Quartos (1604, 1605, 1611, 1622) – as well as the First Folio edition of 1623 – in a few ways. It is roughly half the length and much of the dialogue is, frankly for Shakespeare, quite bad. It has often been called the “Bad” Quarto. It is actually very useful in studying the play, but it would clearly be a “bad” version to perform. When considering the whole of the text, it reads as though it were copied from the memory of a minor actor who had performed the play (perhaps someone who played Marcellus) or, perhaps, a prompter who had attended as many performances. A few scenes resemble the other editions, but much is quite different. For example, the famous soliloquy that begins, “To be, or not to be, that is the question: / Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer / The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”, is nauseatingly paraphrased as follows: “To be, or not to be, Ay there’s the point, / To Die, to sleep, is that all? Aye all: / No, to sleep, to dream, aye marry there it goes,” to which I must ask – what…the…hell…is…that??? It’s neither indicative of Shakespeare’s poetic genius nor the incredible memory of an actor that played the role of Hamlet.

What follows is the brief scene that not only reveals to Gertrude the King’s plot to kill Hamlet whilst in England, but it also reveals that Hamlet rewrote and resealed the order to have Rosencrantz and Guildenstern killed upon their arrival in England. Despite appearing to accept this information as fact, Gertrude’s behavior towards the King and Hamlet does not seem to differ from the other editions.

Enter Horatio and the Queene.

HoratioMadame, your son is safe arrived in Denmark.
This letter I even now received of him,
Whereas he writes how he escaped the danger,
And subtle treason that the king had plotted,
Being crossed by the contention of the winds,
He found the packet sent to the king of England ,
Wherein he saw himself betrayed to death,
As at his next conversation with your grace,
He will relate the circumstance at full.

Queen: Then I perceive there’s treason in his looks
That seemed to sugar o’re his villainy:
But I will soothe and please him for a time,
For murderous minds are always jealous,
But know not you Horatio where he is?

Horatio: Yes Madame, and he hath appointed me
To meet him on the east side of the city
Tomorrow morning.

QueenO fail not, good Horatio , and withal, commend me
A mothers care to him, bid him a while
Be wary of his presence, lest that he
Fail in that he goes about.

Horatio:Madam, never make doubt of that:
I think by this the news be come to court:
He is arrived, observe the king, and you shall
Quickly find, Hamlet being here,
Things fell not to his mind.

Queen: But what became of Guildenstern and Rosencrantz ?

Horatio: He being set ashore, they went for England ,
And in the packet there writ down that doom
To be performed on them pointed for him:
And by great chance he had his father’s seal,
So all was done without discovery.

Queen: Thanks be to heaven for blessing of the prince,
Horatio once again I take my leave,
With thousand mothers blessings to my son.

Horatio:. Madam adieu.

So, what do you think of this undeveloped arc? In all likelihood it was a confused and poorly remembered scene on the part of whoever supplied the publisher with the manuscript. But could this short scene be a remnant (it never appears in print again) of another version of Hamlet with an alternate ending? It is a point of deviation whereby one could stage a slightly less tragic finale in terms of body count, and perhaps our protagonist could actually live to tell his own tale.

For me, this is fascinating and a prompt for more research.

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