Skip main navigation

New offer! Get 30% off your first 2 months of Unlimited Monthly. Start your subscription for just £29.99 £19.99. New subscribers only. T&Cs apply

Find out more

Hamlet: the second quarto and the folio

Dr John Lavagnino examines textual variants across the second quarto and the folio texts of *Hamlet*, explaining how they might have come about.
Shakespeare’s play Hamlet is really several plays with significant differences that appear during Shakespeare’s lifetime and shortly thereafter. Nobody at the time explained why these versions were so different. And for the last 300 years, readers have been trying to untangle those differences. For example, in Act Two, Hamlet talks to his friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and surprises them by calling Denmark a prison. They never thought it was, they say. And Hamlet responds, ‘Why then, ‘tis none to you, for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. To me, it is a prison.’
This is the conversation in which Hamlet goes on to say, ‘Oh, God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a King of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.’ It’s a passage with many famous lines, fitting our idea of Hamlet as somebody who is often thinking about thinking. But these lines are only in the First Folio, the collection of Shakespeare plays published in 1623, seven years after his death. In a quarto edition published in 1604, a small book containing only the one play, Hamlet also talks to his friends at this point, but the conversation is 30 lines shorter.
So the Folio, we might think, gives us the correct version with material that was left out of the quarto by mistake. But then there’s material in that quarto that’s not in the Folio. Late in the play, Hamlet has a soliloquy that begins, ‘How all occasions do inform against me and spur my dull revenge.’ Thinking about why he hasn’t acted. ‘I do not know why yet I live to say this thing’s to do, sith I have cause and will and strength and means to do it.’ There are 30 lines of reflection on thinking and action, another famous passage, but it’s only in the quarto. In fact, the quarto has 230 lines that are not in the Folio.
The text published later is actually shorter. But the Folio isn’t just a shorter version of the quarto, because it has 70 lines that the quarto doesn’t have. And in hundreds of other places, they differ by a word or two. So what do you mean when you refer to Hamlet? Is it the quarto or the Folio? One answer that was popular from the 18th century until the late 20th century is that Hamlet is all the lines in both quarto and folio added together.
So plenty of printed versions of the play put in both those lines about nutshells and infinite space, along with those lines about will and strength and means to make a single text that isn’t like any single text that survives from Shakespeare’s day or existed anywhere, so far as we know, until an editor first created one in 1709. This is what’s known as a conflated text. This approach was based on the assumption that Shakespeare never really rewrote his plays, so any lines that now exist must have been part of what he originally wrote, omitted from one printed text or another only by mistake. But what if Shakespeare did sometimes revise his plays?
That actually seems like a much more plausible explanation for what we see in these printed texts. Authors who revise their works do often remove things as well as adding things. So in the last few decades, the direction of scholarship has been towards thinking of the quarto and Folio as different versions, created as Shakespeare rethought his play, perhaps for different performers or theatres. But there’s also a third version of Hamlet, one that makes it even harder to work out what the play is, because that quarto I’ve been talking about is the Second Quarto. There’s another quarto edition published a year before that one. This is the First Quarto, forgotten for a long time after Shakespeare’s day and only recovered in 1823.
It’s three variations on one story, and that gives us more to think about and enjoy. But we also wonder, what happened to make them different? And there’s still no consensus on that.

Dr John Lavagnino examines textual variants across the second quarto and the folio texts of Hamlet, explaining how they might have come about.

Please explore Hamlet, quarto 2 (1604) on the British Library’s Shakespeare in Quarto website , and Hamlet in the First Folio (1623) on the Folger website before and after watching this video. You can access these from the SEE ALSO section.

Dr John Lavagnino

Dr Lavagnino has been a member of the King’s Department of English since 2009 and his current work focuses on early modern drama from 1580 to 1642.

This article is from the free online

Shakespeare: Print and Performance

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now