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Shakespeare Matters: The Hamlet “Bad” Quarto

Thomas Keene played Hamlet in the United States during the 1880’s. This poster depicts the major scenes of the play, all of which are included in the “bad” quarto though it’s little more than half the length of later versions.

It’s been called a “rough draft” with “shortcomings,” “fragmentary and unreliable.” It’s the “bad” quarto of Hamlet, the first printed text of the play. Published in 1603, it’s just over half the length of the first “good” version that appeared in 1604.

No one knows with much certainty when Hamlet was written, with some believing it could have been as early as 1589.

The “bad” quarto famously mangles Hamlet’s soliloquies, such as: “To be, or not to be, that is the point.” It has other oddities which include giving no name to Hamlet’s uncle other than “King of Denmark,” the man who murders Hamlet’s father, marries his mother (Queen Gertrude), and becomes the new King. He’s called Claudius in the 1604 version.

In the “bad” quarto, the new King repeatedly addresses his nephew Hamlet as his son. Perhaps that’s not unusual since the new King is Hamlet’s stepfather. Yet in the “good” versions of Hamlet, the new King (Claudius) refers to Hamlet as his son much less often, and more often refers to him as Queen Gertude’s son (“your son”).

In an absorbing study of Hamlet, Marc Shell, a Professor of English at Harvard University, shows how Hamlet’s paternity is ambiguous, and that the new King could well be his biological father. With its numerous references to Hamlet as the reigning monarch’s son, the “bad” quarto perhaps intended to get that point across. We’ll likely never know why the later versions change or delete many of those references.

The Taffety Punk Theatre Company played up the strangeness of what it calls the “bad ass quarto” in a recent performance at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. 

The company’s “bootleg” production — for which the actors rehearsed together for the first time on the day of their one and only performance — had the crazy Prince of Denmark (played by the boyish and highly likeable Marcus Kyd) streak across the stage bad-ass naked in front of a packed audience. It was Shakespeare delightfully in the raw (full disclosure: I’m a Taffety Punk supporter).

Directed by Joel David Santner, the Taffety Punk show featured additional strong performances by Eric Hissom (King of Denmark), James Beaman (Ghost of Hamlet’s father), Todd Scofield (Corambis), Kimberly Gilbert (Ofelia), Shawn Fagan (Laertes), Esther Williamson (Horatio), Joe Brack (Rossencraft) and Tonya Beckman as (“Gilderstone”).

Yes, those are how the characters’ names are spelled in the “bad” quarto.

So just how bad is the “bad” quarto of Hamlet? From the viewpoint of the most powerful man in Queen Elizabeth’s court for most of her 45-year reign, the answer would be, very bad.

Many view the character named “Corambis,” the new King’s right hand man in the “bad” quarto, as a parody of Sir William Cecil, Lord Burghley, who served as the Crown’s Secretary and Treasurer under Queen Elizabeth I. The numerous links between Corambis and Burghley include the character’s recitation of precepts to his son, Laertes, which sound very similar to those Burghley had published.

Later versions of Hamlet change the character’s name from Corambis to Polonius. In 1869, George Russel French was the first to propose that Burghley was Polonius.

Burghley’s motto was “Cor unum, via una,” Latin for “one heart, one way.” By simply substituting “ambis” for “unum,” the first part of the motto becomes “Corambis,” giving it the pejorative meaning of “double-hearted” (“bis” in Latin means “twice”). Burghley created the Queen Elizabeth’s spy service. In the turning point of the play, Corambis, who’s been spying on Hamlet and his mother, is murdered by the prince.

Corambis comes off as a vicious parody of Burghley, a long-winded, meddling, sanctimonious fool. Little wonder that subsequent versions of Hamlet changed the character’s name to Polonius.

If Corambis/Polonius was meant to represent the powerful Lord Burghley, it’s hard to believe that he (or his nearly equally powerful son, Robert Cecil, or both) wouldn’t have demanded the name change if not banned the play altogether.

To Burghley, a performance of what’s now called the “bad” quarto of Hamlet would have been bad news indeed.

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