William Shakespeare: The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (Folger Library Edition)

To thine own self be true …

William Shakespeare‘s Hamlet is arguably the most famous play ever written in the English language; it presents the world with questions and characters that have been the subject of thespian and scholarly debate ever since the Prince of Denmark’s first appearance on the stage of London’s Globe Theatre. Probably written and first performed in 1601 (estimates vary between 1600 and 1602), the play draws on Saxo Grammaticus’s late 12th/early 13th century chronicle Gesta Danorum, which includes a popular legend with a similar plot centering around a prince named Amleth; as well as several more contemporaneous sources, primarily Francois de Belleforest’s Histoires Tragiques, Extraicts des Oeuvres Italiennes de Bandel (1559-1580), which expands on the story told in the Gesta Danorum, and a lost play known as the Ur-Hamlet (i.e., original Hamlet), sometimes also attributed to Shakespeare, but equally likely written by a different author a few decades earlier. Another work frequently cited in this context is 16th century playwright Thomas Kyd’s Spanish Tragedie.

Pursuant to Shakespeare‘s wishes and like all of his works, Hamlet was not immediately published, and the original manuscript did not survive. However, in the absence of copyright laws or other forms of protection of what today would be called the playwright’s intellectual property rights, first bootleg copies (so-called quartos) based on transcripts made during or after performances began to appear in 1603. Yet, it would not be until 1623 – seven years after Shakespeare‘s 1616 death – that his former fellow actors John Hemmings and Henry Condell published 36 of his plays (including this one) in a collection known as the First Folio.

As no print version of any of Shakespeare‘s plays has a bona fide claim to its author’s first-hand blessings, ever since the Bard‘s death the world is left with numerous questions about his characters’ motivations and psychological makeup; first and foremost, in this particular case: who is this Prince of Denmark anyway, and what’s driving him – is he a reluctant suicide or reluctant avenger? A Renaissance man? Wrecked by Freudian guilt? Genuinely mad, or merely putting on a clever act of deception? Or is he someone else entirely? – Indeed, we’re even left in doubt as to what exactly it was that Shakespeare meant his characters to say, with all attendant interpretative consequences: Does the Prince wish for his “too too sullied” or his “too too solid” flesh to “melt, thaw, and resolve itself into a dew” in his first major soliloquy (Act I, Scene 2)? Does he really contemplate “the stamp of [that] one defect” which may fatally taint the perception of a man’s other virtues, “be they as pure as grace,” before meeting his father’s ghost (I, 4)? Does Polonius, when sending Reynaldo on a spying mission after Laertes, refer to his scheme as “a fetch of wit” or “a fetch of warrant” (II, 1)? Do Hamlet’s musings in “To be, or not to be” (III, 1) concern “enterprises of great pith and moment” or “of great pitch and moment,” whose “currents turn awry and lose the name of action” by his doubts? Does or doesn’t the sight of the Norwegian army while Hamlet is on his way to England (IV, 4) prompt him, who has so far failed to carry out his purpose, to reflect “How all occasions do inform against me,” and conclude his soliloquy with the vow “from this time forth my thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth”?

How you answer any of these questions, and how you consequently view the play’s characters, depends in no small part on the text you read. Like all Folger Shakespeare editions, this one is based on what the editors have deemed the “best early printed version,” while allowing the reader a unique direct comparison of the principal reliable versions by including a text essentially combining these versions, with unobtrusive markers characterizing those passages appearing only in one particular version. For Hamlet, the editors eschewed the play’s very first (1603) quarto, which was possibly compiled by a journeyman actor and whose inconsistencies with all subsequent versions (textually as well as plot-wise and even regarding character names) have caused it to be generally considered a “bad” quarto, in favor of the 1604 Second Quarto, which some even believe to be based on Shakespeare‘s own first draft of the play and which, in any event, while more extensive than the 1623 First Folio (in turn, thought to be closest to the version(s) actually produced on the Globe Theatre stage), boasts about as secure a claim of authenticity as the latter. In some instances, the text follows the Second Quarto (Q2) without visually alerting the reader to the differences vis-a-vis the First Folio (F1), thus compelling those more used to the latter version to seek out the extensive end notes to reassure themselves that (in the examples given above) it might indeed be “solid flesh,” “warrant,” and “pith and moment” (F1) instead of “sullied flesh,” “wit,” and “pitch and moment” (Q2). In other instances, however, the First Folio’s language (clearly marked as such) is given preference over that of the Second Quarto; while crucially, the text also includes all those passages *only* contained in the latter, including the “stamp of one defect” and “bloody thoughts” monologues, whose interpretation has such a direct bearing on many a reader’s understanding of Hamlet’s character.

The text is amplified by illustrations and annotations for those unfamiliar with 16th century English, scene-by-scene plot summaries, a short biography of Shakespeare, and introductory and concluding essays on this and the Bard‘s other plays and on Shakespearean theatre, as well as extensive suggestions for further reading, and a key to the play’s most famous lines. While it is unlikely that after 400 years of debate any one version, be it in print, on stage or on screen, will be able to generate unanimous acceptance as the “definitive” rendition of this complex play, this is an excellent starting point for an in-depth excursion into the Prince of Denmark’s world.


Hamlet and Horatio in the cemetery - Delacroix Eugene

Eugène Delacroix: Hamlet and Horatio in the Cemetery
(1839, Musée du Louvre, Paris, France)


Favorite Quotes:

“This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.”

“Brevity is the soul of wit.”

“What is a man, if his chief good and market of his time be but to sleep and feed? a beast, no more. Sure he that made us with such large discourse, looking before and after, gave us not that capability and god-like reason to fust in us unused.”

“Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel;
But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
Of each new-hatch’d, unfledg’d comrade.”

“Not a whit, we defy augury: there’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all.”

“Rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind.”

“Could beauty, my lord, have better commerce than with honesty?”



One-page edition of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (photo mine)


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0 thoughts on “William Shakespeare: The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (Folger Library Edition)

  1. “How you answer any of these questions, and how you consequently view the play’s characters, depends in no small part on the text you read.” it also depends on who we are. The person I am will “canonize” the answers I’ll get.

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