Skip to main content
Hamlet /

An Introduction to This Text: Hamlet

By Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine
Editors of the Folger Shakespeare Library Editions

The play we call Hamlet was printed in three different versions in the first quarter of the seventeenth century.

In 1603 appeared The Tragicall Historie of Hamlet Prince of Denmark by William Shake-speare, a quarto or pocket-size book that provides a version of the play markedly different from the two subsequent printings and from the play most readers know. This version is little more than half as long as the others. Some of the characters have different names; for example, Polonius is called Corambis and his servant Reynaldo appears as Montano. The action of the play also varies considerably. Most scholars have found many passages in this version extremely difficult to read and have concluded that it is so full of errors that it is generally unreliable as a witness to what was written for the stage. This First Quarto has therefore been dubbed a “bad quarto.”

The Second Quarto, often called the “good quarto,” is dated in some copies 1604, in others 1605. Although it has exactly the same title as the First Quarto, the Second Quarto’s title page goes on to represent it as “Newly imprinted and enlarged to almost as much againe as it was, according to the true and perfect Coppie.”

The third version to see print is found in the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays, published in 1623. Entitled The Tragedie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke, the Folio play has some eighty-five or so lines not found in the Second Quarto; but the Folio lacks about two hundred of the Second Quarto’s lines. These two versions also differ from each other in their readings of hundreds of words.

Most modern editions offer various combinations of the Second Quarto and Folio versions. It is impossible in any edition to combine the whole of these two forms of the play, because they often provide alternative readings that are mutually exclusive; for example, when the Second Quarto has Hamlet wish that his “too too sallied flesh would melt,” the Folio prints “solid” for “sallied.” In such cases (and there are a great many such cases) editors must choose whether to be guided by the Second Quarto, by the Folio, or perhaps even by the First Quarto in selecting what to print.

Explore the Hamlet Second Quarto (1604) in the Folger’s Digital Collections.


Twentieth-century editors made the decision about which version to prefer according to their theories about the origins of the three early printed texts. Most such editors have preferred the Second Quarto’s readings in the belief that it was printed either directly from Shakespeare’s own manuscript or from a scribe’s copy of it. A few have, instead, adopted Folio readings in the belief that the Folio was set into type from a theater manuscript, and they wanted to give their readers the play as it was performed on Shakespeare’s stage. Still fewer editors have granted the First Quarto much influence over their choices, since many believe that the First Quarto prints a manuscript put together from memory by a small-part actor who had a role in the play as it was performed outside of London. Editors who have been convinced of this story about the First Quarto sometimes have depended on it as a record of what was acted. In recent years, some editors have come to believe that the Second Quarto and Folio are distinct, independent Shakespearean versions of the play that ought never to be combined with each other in an edition. Nevertheless, as today’s scholars reexamine the narratives about the origins of the printed texts, we discover that the evidence upon which they are based is questionable, and we become more skeptical about ever identifying with any certainty how the play assumed the forms in which it was printed.

The present edition is based upon a fresh examination of the early printed texts rather than upon any modern edition. It is designed both for those who prefer the traditional text of Hamlet, which is the combination of Second Quarto and First Folio, and for those who prefer to regard the Second Quarto and First Folio as distinct versions of the play. The present edition resembles most other modern editions in offering its readers a text of the Second Quarto combined with as much of the First Folio as it has been possible to include. It also resembles most other editions in its efforts to correct what are believed to be errors or deficiencies in the Second Quarto by substituting or introducing alternatives either from the First Folio or from the editorial tradition. Yet the present edition is unique in marking all passages that are found only in the Second Quarto and all words and passages found only in the Folio. Thus it becomes possible for a reader to discover the major and even many of the minor differences between the Second Quarto and First Folio versions of Hamlet. This edition ignores the First Quarto version because the First Quarto is so widely different from the Second Quarto and the Folio.

In order to enable its readers to tell the difference between the Folio and Second Quarto versions, the present edition uses a variety of signals:

(1) All the words in this edition that are printed only in the Folio version but not in the Second Quarto appear in pointed parentheses ( ).

(2) All lines that are found only in the Second Quarto and not in the Folio are printed in square brackets ([ ]).

(3) Sometimes neither the Second Quarto nor the Folio seems to offer a satisfactory reading, and it is necessary to print a word different from what is offered by either. Such words (called “emendations” by editors) are printed within superior half-brackets ( ).

Whenever we change the wording of the Second Quarto or add anything to its stage directions, we mark the change because we want our readers to be immediately aware that we have intervened. (Only when we correct an obvious typographical error in the Second Quarto or the First Folio does the change not get marked.) Whenever we change the Second Quarto’s or First Folio’s wording or their punctuation so that meaning changes, we list the change in the textual notes, even if all we have done is fix an obvious error. Those who wish to find the Folio’s alternatives to the Second Quarto’s readings will be able to find these in the textual notes.

For the convenience of the reader, we have modernized the punctuation and the spelling of both the Second Quarto and the Folio. Thus, for example, our text supplies the modern standard spelling “sullied” for the Second Quarto’s variant spelling “sallied.” Sometimes we go so far as to modernize certain old forms of words; for example, usually when a means “he,” we change it to he; we change mo to more, ye to you, and god buy to you to good-bye to you. It is not our practice in editing any of the plays to modernize words that sound distinctly different from modern forms. For example, when the early printed texts read sith or apricocks or porpentine, we have not modernized to since, apricots, porcupine. When the forms an, and, or and if appear instead of the modern form if, we have reduced and to an but have not changed any of these forms to their modern equivalent, if. We also modernize and, where necessary, correct passages in foreign languages, unless an error in the early printed text can be reasonably explained as a joke.

We correct or regularize a number of the proper names in the dialogue and in the stage directions, as is the usual practice in editions of the play. For example, the Second Quarto’s “Gertrard” or “Gertrad” is changed to Folio’s “Gertrude” because “Gertrude” has become the familiar form of the name; and there are a number of other comparable adjustments in the names.

This edition differs from many earlier ones in its efforts to aid the reader in imagining the play as a performance. Thus stage directions are written with reference to the stage. For example, the present edition reproduces the Second Quarto direction: “Ghost cries under the stage” (1.5.168). Whenever it is reasonably certain, in our view, that a speech is accompanied by a particular action, we provide a stage direction describing the action. (Occasional exceptions to this rule occur when the action is so obvious that to add a stage direction would insult the reader.) Stage directions for the entrance of characters in mid-scene are, with rare exceptions, placed so that they immediately precede the characters’ participation in the scene, even though these entrances may appear somewhat earlier in the early printed texts. Whenever we move a stage direction, we record this change in the textual notes. Latin stage directions (e.g., Exeunt) are translated into English (e.g., They exit).

We expand the often severely abbreviated forms of names used as speech headings in early printed texts into the full names of the characters. We also regularize the speakers’ names in speech headings, using only a single designation for each character, even though the early printed texts sometimes use a variety of designations. Variations in the speech headings of the early printed texts are recorded in the textual notes.

In the present edition, as well, we mark with a dash any change of address within a speech, unless a stage direction intervenes. When the -ed ending of a word is to be pronounced, we mark it with an accent. Like editors for the last two centuries, we display metrically linked lines in the following way:

 It is offended.
BARNARDO  See, it stalks away.


However, when there are a number of short verse-lines that can be linked in more than one way, we do not, with rare exceptions, indent any of them.