To be, or not to be; ay, there’s the point.

Nov 6, 2023

It doesn’t have the same ring to it as the Hamlet that we know, but this is from the first published version of Hamlet in 1603. It’s known as a “bad quarto” because the text is of significantly lower quality than contemporary Shakespeare.

(A quarto is a type of pamphlet where you print eight pages (four on each side) and then fold the pages twice to form a book. Then there’s the folio, which is four printed pages (two on each side), folded once)

The most reliable version of Shakespeare (what we read today) comes from the First Folio, published in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare’s death. Scholars are mixed on whether the bad quartos are legitimate or not. Or even how they differ so wildly from the First Folio.

Plays that have a “bad quarto”:

  • Henry VI, Part 2: Has a quarto named “The First part of the Contention betwixt the two famous Houses of York and Lancaster”, published in 1594.
  • Henry VI, Part 3: “The True Tragedy of Richard Duke of York" in 1595
  • Romeo and Juliet, in 1597.
  • Hamlet (also known as “Q1”), in 1603. And a better version in 1604 (the “good” second quarto, “Q2”).

So what are some hypotheses around why the “bad quartos” differ so wildly from contemporary Shakespeare?

  • Reconstructed from memory. Either an actor or an audience member reconstructed the play from memory.
  • Pirated. Copied during a performance by a competitor or someone wanting to sell or reconstruct the play.
  • Early drafts. Even though they are significantly different from the First Folio, there are 30 years in between where the plays could have been refined and improved.
  • Adaptations. The bad quartos are much shorter than the final plays. Maybe they were used for shorter plays or for specific audiences while touring.

It’s interesting to think of them as early drafts. To show that the greatest works are a result of continuous improvement rather than a burst of divine inspiration (well, you probably need a little of both).

Or even to understand the competitive dynamics of the late 16th-century theatre. How did Shakespeare and his benefactors protect their IP? How did most people experience the plays? Did they

Here’s the most famous excerpt from the Hamlet bad quarto (Q1):

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 returned,

The undiscovered country, at whose sight

The happy smile and the accursed damned,

But for this, the joyful hope of this,

Who'd bear the scorns and flattery of the world,

Scorned by the right rich, the rich cursed of the poor,

The widow being oppressed, the orphan wronged,

The taste of hunger, or a tyrant's reign,

And thousand more calamities besides,

To grunt and sweat under this weary life,

When that he may his full quietus make,

With a bare bodkin? Who would this endure,

But for a hope of something after death,

Which puzzles the brain and doth confound the sense,

Which makes us rather bear those evils we have

Than fly to others that we know not of?

Ay, that. O this conscience makes cowards of us all.