A couple weeks ago, I examined the differences between the various folios and quartos of Othello. Today, I looked at the first quarto of Hamlet, and wow, I’m surprised scholars gave it a nickname so generous as “The Bad Quarto.”
To begin, the names were an absolute mess. Francisco didn’t even have a name, Voltemand and Cornelius became Voltemar (I kept on reading this as Voldemort) and Cornelia (a girl?). Ophelia’s name was close — Ofelia — but I don’t even know what happened with Polonius, whose name became Corambis. Montano, who I’m pretty sure is the governor of Cyprus in Othello, makes a cameo as Reynaldo, and then Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s names just straight-up were butchered (Rossencraft and Gilderstone).
And that was just the character names…Many of the soliloquies are drastically cut short in the first Quarto, though it’s still possible to understand the story line through the text (which, I assume, was the main goal of those who pirated Shakespeare’s original version). Here’s a look at the same section in the two editions (where Hamlet is planning on how to identify his uncle as guilty).
Quarto: I have heard that guilty creatures sitting at a play Hath, by the very cunning of the scene, confessed a murder Committed long before.This spirit that I have seen may be the devil, And out of my weakness and my melancholy, As he is very potent with such men, Doth seek to damn me. I will have sounder proofs. The play's the thing Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King.
Folger Library Text: Hum, I have heard That guilty creatures sitting at a play Have, by the very cunning of the scene, Been struck so to the soul that presently They have proclaimed their malefactions. For murder, though it have no tongue, will speak With most miraculous organ. I’ll have these players Play something like the murder of my father Before mine uncle. I’ll observe his looks. I’ll tent him to the quick. If he do blench, I know my course. The spirit that I have seen May be the devil, and the devil hath power T' assume a pleasing shape. Yea, and perhaps Out of my weakness and my melancholy, As he is very potent with such spirits, Abuses me to damn me. I’ll have grounds More relative than this. The play’s the thing Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.
Hamlet’s plan to have the players act out “The Murder of Gonzago” is much more elaborate, planned out and well-thought in the 2nd version, as he decides how he will employ the actors and how he will watch for Claudius’ reaction. These ideas are much more developed than those in the first version, where the paragraph length is cut in half. Certainly, it’s possible to catch the gist of Hamlet’s plan in the former version, but it’s only in the second that we sees these ideas form as a result of Hamlet’s thought-process and gives depth to his actions and decisions. These soliloquies are particularly important as they give us insight into the character’s mind, but when they’re cut –as they are in the bad quarto, we no longer have a thought-provoking and dark play, but rather just another murder mystery.
Still, the first quarto is pretty funny to read, especially after you’ve actually read Shakespeare’s Hamlet. For a good laugh, I’d definitely recommend it. For literary value (other than comparison to the other versions of the text), you’ll have to go elsewhere.