Hamlet Critical Commentary
by William Shakespeare

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Preface to the Critical Commentary

Preface to the Critical Commentary:

The text of Hamlet exists in three versions: the First Quarto (1603 and hereafter called Q1), the Second Quarto (1604 - Q2), and the text included in the First Folio (1623 - F1). [FN1] To get a 'quarto', the printer took a sheet of paper and folded it in half twice to create four separate sections and then printed the text in these sections. A Folio is printed on a large, complete sheet of paper. Our modern paperbacks and 'coffee table' books are almost equivalent to a quarto and a folio. This means that there are two versions of Hamlet, printed at different times, in the small version, and one large 'official' version printed by Shakespeare's friends. If all these texts had the same words, the same punctuation, the same spelling, the same number of lines, and the same character names, then there would be no problem. However, that is not the case with Hamlet, and editors feel that in order to make a text that everyone can read with ease, adjustments have to be made.

In order to arrive at a 'complete' version of the Hamlet that Shakespeare wrote, editors take all three texts and compare them. According to many editors of Shakespeare texts, the text of Q1 is so different from the other two that it is labelled corrupt or 'bad'. The latest critical thinking, however, is that this text is not 'bad', but simply a different version of the play. The F1 text omits more then 200 lines found in Q2. When F1 and Q2 could be wrong, Q1 might be right. For example, in Act 1, scene 2, Hamlet has a soliloquy that begins, 'Oh that this too, too ----- flesh would melt'. The word that goes in that space is 'sallied' in Q1 and Q2, and 'solid' in F1. 'Sallied' meaning 'gone' does not make sense. 'Sullied' would mean that Hamlet is feeling so down, he feels dirty, which could be a possible meaning. The word 'solid', however, seems to make the most sense when put against the following line which is 'Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!' One editor may choose 'sullied', another 'solid'. But the confusion does not end there. Because there are a different number of lines in Q1, Q2, and F1, it is difficult to number the lines so that they can be referenced easily. With a long and popular play like Hamlet, therefore, most editors will choose the best meaning of a word from all three versions, insert lines into one that are missing from another, and then number the lines of the copy that they end up with. They will also make the characters' names the same throughout so that a reader or performer knows who is speaking a line. This text is known as a conflated text. Most schools and most people involved with a production of the play use a conflated text because they feel they are getting what Shakespeare originally set down.

A conflated text is 3,760 lines long, and because Hamlet is probably the most complex of all Shakespeare's plays, this analysis will use a conflated text: William Shakespeare. Hamlet. David Bevington, ed. New York: Bantam Books, 1988. All act, scene, and line numbers refer to this edition.

1. Though three additional Folios were printed after the First, these were more or less based on the First and not considered in this discussion.

Act I Commentary

Scene i : Hamlet opens with two guards on watch. Strangely, the opening line is 'Who's there?' (1.1.1). Of course this is what we all want to know, and by the end of the play we will have multiple answers. The question receives a curious response: 'Nay, answer me. Stand and unfold yourself.' (1.1.2). The other voice says 'Long live the King!'(1.1.3). Like many other Shakespeare plays, this opening grabs our attention and pulls us into the world of the play, a world probably very different from the one in which we are a member of an audience. We do not know where we are geographically in the play, or what time it is, or what is going on. To complicate things, the men on the stage do not know all that much either! Shakespeare has very cleverly, although we do not realise it now,...

(The entire section is 11,162 words.)