The Bad Hamlet: from Shakespeare’s quill, through Bunbury’s library, to Dawson’s theatre



Along the south bank of the River Thames strode a sunken-faced man carrying a small book. The man, only thirty-nine years old, was meditating on life and death as he walked down the waterfront promenade. His eyes, bruised from sleeplessness, carefully studied the calm current in the river. It had only been three years since the death of his father, and nearly a decade since the passing of his eleven-year old son. Away from his Stratford-upon-Avon home and family, he had been summoned to the sunless district of Bankside to write a play based on an ancient Scandinavian legend. In 1603, an unauthorized publication of his manuscripts had appeared, but was quickly forgotten and overshadowed by its better-written successor in 1604, famously known as Hamlet.

Two centuries later, British soldier Sir Henry Bunbury had newly inherited Great Barton Hall, his late uncle’s manor house on the estate. The mansion’s previous owner had carefully adorned its interior with grotesque Baroque portraits and wooden hand-carved ceilings. Excited to discover his new belongings, Sir Bunbury decided to make an inventory of everything. In the left wing of the house, he discovered a closet filled with books owned by his grandfather, who was an ardent collector of old dramas. Rummaging through the texts, he stumbled upon a soiled, badly-bound booklet. On its title page read “The Tragicall Historie of Hamlet Prince of Denmarke”—now commonly known as the Bad Hamlet.

Fast forward to the twenty-first century — as the semester comes to an end and students cram for finals, this fall’s production of the Dawson Theatre Program provided its audience with a sense of relief. Directed by Stéphane Zarov, the graduating students performed Shakespeare’s lesser-known version of the tragedy: Bad Hamlet, or Hamlet Q1 (first quarto). At the end of the show, just as everybody had started gathering their belongings to exit the theatre, my friend turned to me and asked, “What’s the difference between the good and bad Hamlet?” The question stayed with me, and I became increasingly intrigued.

I decided to interview the director to gain some insight. “The bad Hamlet is about 1,200 lines shorter. It’s about half the size,” he says, adjusting his round glasses. “It doesn’t scan as well. It’s a terribly composited text, in other words you really have to go through it. You know, is this prose, is this verse? Usually, when we do Shakespeare we have to cut. But in this case, I don’t. We didn’t have to cut—what you are hearing is the full text. The full first quarto. An hour and forty-five minutes, this is the full Shakespeare play. It’s a hoot. I wrote at one point, ‘Hamlet without the introspection.’ So imagine Hamlet not thinking—just going. ‘Hamlet with running shoes.’”

Despite the fact that they share the same title, the two texts are very different. The second quarto, which appears in 1604-05 and is most similar to the popularized tragedy, features an introspective and elaborate protagonist. The first quarto, much shorter and very plot-driven, was published in 1603 only to be buried away almost immediately after its publication. However, its rediscovery in 1823 redirected critical debate: scholars had already formed strong opinions on Shakespeare’s identity and the nature of his texts, and this quarto was incongruous with their beliefs. Many theories arose hypothesizing the origins of Q1: some claimed that it was a pirated version of the play, others argued that it was a cast member’s memorial reconstruction, and so on.

I interviewed Amanda Cockburn, Chairwoman of the English department at Dawson and Shakespeare scholar, to get a more definitive answer. “We don’t know enough about Shakespeare’s creative process to make a final determination as to whether he wrote it or not. Hamlet was a Scandinavian play, a revenge tragedy. What Shakespeare is doing with Hamlet, as a revenge tragedy, is very clever. In the original tragedy, Hamlet’s uncle kills his father, the ghost says, ‘Revenge! Avenge me! I’ve been murdered by your uncle,’ and it’s almost immediately a blood bath. The ancient Hamlet in the Scandinavian and the Nordic tales, he goes and gets right to it. So what’s clever about Shakespeare’s good Hamlet, is that he stalls, and he stalls, and he stalls—and that’s the big joke.”

Here, she refers to the philosophical introspection as the main difference between the bad quarto and the final play. “A lot of scholars point to Michel de la Montaigne. He’s this wonderful French writer who wrote a series of essays, and he popularized the essay genre. What he really talks about in his collection of essays—they’re very funny—is his own interiority, and the nature of thinking. He explores what it is to meditate upon and think about a question. And Hamlet soliloquizing, ‘To be or not to be, that is the question,’ is philosophical stalling. One question begets another question, and more questions—and never answers. It almost mimics this idea of the self entering into a complicated labyrinth. This is the whole project of Michel de Montaigne. What’s interesting is that he wrote this in the century previous, so before Hamlet was published. The English translation [by John Florio] happened in between the bad and the good quarto. So scholars think that Shakespeare came back to Hamlet after reading Michel de Montaigne’s essays.”

In fact, some of Hamlet’s major soliloquies in the good Hamlet clearly echo de Montaigne’s essays. For example, his most famous soliloquy contemplating suicide, “To be, or not to be: that is the question,” deeply resembles Florio’s translation of de Montaigne’s essay: “I know I have neither frequented nor knowne death, nor have I seen any body that hath either felt or tried her qualities to instruct me in them. Those who feare her presuppose to know; as for me, I neither know who or what she is, nor what they doe in the other world. Death may peradventure be a thing indifferent, happily a thing desirable. […] Wee finde nothing so sweete in life as a quiet rest and gentle sleepe, and without dreames.”

Zachary Lesser, an English professor at the University of Pennsylvania, published a biographical book called “Hamlet” After Q1 in 2014 in which he focuses not on Q1’s origin, but on the cultural significance of its resurgence. Lesser argues the possibility that scholars came up with different theories in order to preserve their idea of Shakespeare as the best writer in the English language. In reaction to this, Amanda Cockburn adds:

“So we tend to make an icon of Shakespeare as this monolithic genius who channels truths about human nature through his plays. I think that a lot of people have conspiracies about Shakespeare and the works he’s produced in part because we have a natural tendency to break down monolithic ideas of genius: ‘How could it be just one man?’ And in fact it wasn’t just one man. He was writing in collaboration with other actors; he talked to Ben Johnson, one of his contemporaries, probably all the time, about his ideas. Was he doing work and writing alone by himself and doing research and reading Montaigne’s essays? Absolutely. I think that, yes, we like to make conspiracy theories about Shakespeare because of what we attribute to his genius, and his status as the head white man at the top of the literary canon.”

Although most scholars have declared Q1 a rough draft, we might never reach a consensus about the bad Hamlet; very little is known about Shakespeare’s personal life. While more popular versions of Hamlet are composited from the later publications, the bad Hamlet remains a fascinating play and demonstrates part of Shakespeare’s creative process.