The first clear reference to what we know as William Shakespeare's Hamlet appears in the Stationers' Register, 26 July 1602, as a play called The Revenge of Hamlet Prince [of] Denmark. In that article, the author says the play was "lately acted by the Lord Chamberlain his servants" . In his list of London plays published in 1598, Francis Meres makes no mention of any play called Hamlet, but a note in Gabriel Harvey's edition of Speght's Chaucer (published in 1598) does mention the play Hamlet. Since scholars question the date of the actual writing of that note, most of them agree that Shakespeare published Hamlet after 1601 and before 1603. The First Folio, in 1623, categorized Shakespeare's plays as Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies. Shakespeare wrote the great tragedies — excluding Romeo and Juliet, which is not, strictly speaking, a true tragedy — between 1601 and 1606, and apparently Hamlet was written first. Shakespeare closely followed Hamlet with Othello (1604), King Lear (1605/6), and Macbeth (1606), but a number of experts in Bardology (the study of Shakespeare, who is known as The Bard of Avon) believe that Hamlet represents the best of Shakespeare's work. It is the perfect play.
Scholars base modern editions of Hamlet on the three versions of the play published by 1623. Two of the versions appeared while the author was alive; the third surfaced seven years after his death.
The First Quarto (so named because the play was printed on paper that was folded in four parts) is difficult to read. It contains 240 more lines than in the next version (the First Folio), but it has merit because it represents the first publication of the actual stage version of the play.
In some cases, the writing in the First Quarto is so amateurishly unpolished as to make the experts believe that the First Quarto edition is poorly done and fraught with mistakes, designed essentially as an acting script marked over and edited by an actor.
The Second Quarto edition of Hamlet, published in 1604, used a more finely tuned edition as its basis. John Heminge and Henry Condell, members of Shakespeare's company, compiled the First Folio by combining the Second Quarto text with updated stage manager's notes. Thus, scholars base modern texts largely — if indirectly — on the text of the Second Quarto.
Theater has always been a collaborative art. In Shakespeare's time, a repertory company could not expect a playwright to write in a vacuum. The nature of the schedule, in which a new play could be commissioned weekly, required playwrights to collaborate. English playwrights in the late 16th and early 17th centuries freely borrowed material from one another and shared criticisms and edits. Hamlet, like the other great works attributed to Shakespeare, definitely presents Shakespeare's work, but also showcases many contributions by actors, managers, prompters, and so forth, who all knew what parts of a play to leave in or take out.
Like the Greeks, Elizabethan and Jacobean audiences attended the theater to watch plays they had seen often or which were based on stories as familiar to them as their own family histories. Accordingly, Shakespeare based his Hamlet on a popular Scandivian saga that had existed for at least a hundred years in one form or another, and which actors all over Europe had performed in earlier manifestations as early as the 1550's.
Newington Butts featured the Lord Chamberlain's Men in Hamlet, an earlier revenge play, directed by Henslowe, on June 9, 1594. Scholars commonly call this Hamlet the Ur-Hamlet and believe the author to be Shakespeare's brilliant contemporary Thomas Kyd. Neither a copy of the Ur-Hamlet nor concrete evidence that Kyd actually wrote the play exist, but the story of Hamlet does bear a strong resemblance to Kyd's masterpiece The Spanish Tragedy, which many scholars believe to be a perfected version of the Ur-Hamlet.
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