“Sadly the Poor Wretch Comes reading”

Text as Context for understanding Mental Health in Hamlet

Vim, Ph.D.
34 min readSep 1, 2021

My lecture today, about mental health in Hamlet, has four parts.

I. “Diseases Desperate Grown”: Denmark under Siege
 II. “A sister driven into desp’rate terms”: Ophelia’s Distraction
 III. ‘All sawes of Bookes, all formes, all pressures past”: The Texts of Hamlet
 IV. “Ay, There’s the point”: Revisiting Hamlet’s Health in 3.1

I will start Part I by picking up some threads that Dean Kozol started to weave together on Tuesday, discussing the health of the Danish body politic as it declines further in Acts 4 and 5.

In Part II I will discuss the developments that we see in Ophelia’s character in Act 4, the manifestations of her madness and her highly aestheticized death. CONTENT WARNING: Just a heads up: in this part, I will read a brief quotation from a medical text about a stillborn child; because its addressed in the abstract its clinical detachment may seem harsh and unfeeling. In the same section, I will also mention abortion, a broad term describing procedures for terminating pregnancy; as there are currently in the united states procedures of this kind that are both legal and safe, I’d like to say it would not require advanced warning. But there are fraught cultural and political discourses surrounding it in our public discourse, even as the current laws in place were secured to protect all women’s health and bodily autonomy. I’ve already spent more time on it up front than I’ll actually give it in the lecture today; In Part II, I will merely explain it as a prospect that Shakespeare casually raises in his depiction of Ophelia’s madness — which of course is only his fictional projection of what a distressed woman would feel and act like.

In Part III, I’ll turn to Hamlet, not the Dane and melancholy prince, but the texts of the plays named after him. I know this is a play that many of you have studied before, and so my efforts today will not be to reinforce what you already have learned about it, but to unsettle your prior experiences and teach you something entirely new about it — from the perspective of a person whose research focuses on early modern British literature and history. In Part IV, I’ll use this material to re-visit one of the scenes that Dean Kozol and her students staged so beautifully on Tuesday, the famous “To be or Not to Be” speech, and give you additional ways to understand Hamlet’s state of mind in that scene.

Part I. Diseases Desperate Grown: Denmark under Siege

Picture of Section title including a Map of Europe & Scandinavia
Part I

In the opening scene of the play, you learned that Denmark is characterized by military preparations, with ship-makers and producers of canons and other arms working nights and weekends to make sure the country has sufficient means to defend itself from an invasion. The

Norwegian Prince Fortinbras intends to reclaim lands that Old Hamlet had won after killing Fortinbras’s father, conveniently called Old Norway. Fortinbras’s uncle, the current King of Norway, has been sick, so nobody stopped the nephew from raising an Army to renew war with Denmark.

Passage from Hamlet, 2.2, with news about the Norwegian army
Voltemand to Claudius

In Act 2, (2.2.58–80) Voltemand assures Claudius that they’ve secured a deal from Fortinbras’ uncle, apparently now healthy enough to see what his nephew was up to and rebuke him. [read quote]. In this passage here, we see that Fortinbras is sorry for lying to his uncle before about Denmark and has vowed not to invade anymore. For this vow, his uncle gives him additional funds to take that same Army into Poland instead. Claudius seems happy with this outcome, even though there are a few things that should give him pause: for this new military campaign, the Norwegian army wants to travel into Poland through Denmark. From this news, we are to understand that Fortinbras’ has more money and resources to grow than before. And rather than merely threating to enter Danish soil, he’d be doing so with Denmark’s permission. How much do we trust the man that Claudius calls “Brother Norway? And how much do we think, given this passage, that Norway really knows and can trust his nephew’s motives?

Claudius vows to think about this prospect a bit more, and he should: after all, he doesn’t even trust his own nephew, who is at least his countryman and, as he admits at the beginning of Act 4, a man “loved of” the Danish people. That’s who the king means when he refers to “the distracted multitude,” but it’s clear by Act 4 that it’s actually Claudius that is dangerously distracted. Rather than worry about foreign interference, he’s understanding the health of the state and body politic strictly in domestic and personal terms. “How dangerous is it that this man goes loose!” (4.3.2), he exclaims, and for him, the man who presents the greatest thread is not Fortinbras, but Hamlet. “Diseases desperate grown / by desperate appliance are relieved,” he says, and by this he means he needs to draft orders for Hamlet’s murder in England.

For his part of the royal family, Hamlet’s not doing any better to protect Denmark’s interests from foreign foes. In 4.4, Fortinbras and his army arrive on the Coast of Denmark, “the conveyance of the promised march” toward Poland. He speaks of duty and license as if his intentions are as they were articulated in Act 2 — their presence isn’t a threat — and his Captain confirms as much when Hamlet asks what they’re doing there. The Captain’s explanation is interesting: for he confides in Hamlet that the purpose is rather silly:

We go to gain a little patch of ground That hath in it no profit but the name. To pay five ducats, five, I would not farm it. Nor will it yield to Norway or the Pole A ranker rate, should it be sold in fee.
We go to gain a little patch of ground
That hath in it no profit but the name.
To pay five ducats, five, I would not farm it.
Nor will it yield to Norway or the Pole
A ranker rate, should it be sold in fee.

Hamlet is incredulous at hearing it, protesting that Poland would never defend the territory given its small value. But the Captain again insists: that’s what they’re doing in Denmark.

For anybody with any skill in foreign policy, this would be a red flag. It is of course entirely possible that the Captain tells the truth: it would certainly not be the first or the last time a captain has been sent to lead an army to do something that’s not at all profitable for his country and will in fact cost lives unnecessarily on both sides. But if you were, say, a member of the government learning that a once-rival army is embarking on your soil, you might also want to form an independent judgment on whether the stated reason is plausible. This could be a cover for Fortinbras to make attempt the attack on Denmark that he was initially going to make in revenge for his father’s death and lost lands; it also would not be the first or the last time that a prince kept a secret from his uncle.

Hamlet takes the Captain at his word, and for him, what’s troubling is not that Fortinbras has large forces on the ground in Denmark, but that these soldiers are willing to kill and die in Poland for less than what he has at stake in his own country. And so rather than immediately return to the castle to alert anyone that Denmark’s defenses need to be on alert, he does exactly what Claudius does, making national security all about his own position:

Witness this army of such mass and charge,…
[willing to fight]…Even for an eggshell….
…How stand I, then,
That have a father killed, a mother stained,
Excitements of my reason and my blood,
And let all sleep, while to my shame I see
The imminent death of twenty thousand men
That for a fantasy and trick of fame
Go to their graves like beds, fight for a plot
Whereon the numbers can not try the cause?

Hamlet understands that the errand the soldiers take on is pointless; but rather than suspect the army’s alternate aims, he instead draws a very self-absorbed conclusion: he too should rush headlong into his own eggshell, taking up arms against a sea of troubles, even if there are healthier, and actually more practical things to do for the sake of the kingdom to which he is heir. But of course, if you’ve read to the end of the play, you know that Fortinbras will show up to re-claim the territory his father lost to the Danes. The play ends with ceremonial gunpowder, the only shots his soldiers will have to fire.

PART II. “A sister driven into desp’rate terms”: Ophelia’s Distraction

A Sister Driven into Desp’rate terms; image of mental health patient portraying Ophelia
Part II heading

Immediately following this scene in Act 4, we return to the court, where a gentleman ushers in the entrance of Ophelia before Horatio and Gertrude. He calls attention to markers of Ophelia’s “distracted” behavior: she speaks of her father and “beats her heart,” “spurns enviously at straws,” “speaks things in doubt that / That carry but the half sense.”She “winks and nods and gestures,” and she also sings in this moment and in another, later set of lines in the scene, leaving and re-entering to punctuate the conversations of others with her songs.

The first song is about being able to recognize true love, possibly an allusion to Hamlet and the conversation she has with her father and brother discouraging her to expect anything from him; the second’s lyrics repeat a lament that someone is dead and gone, a male figure that we’re of course inclined to identify as her recently murdered father, Polonius. The song’s description of him as “larded with sweet flowers” anticipates later images we are given in the play, including Ophelia’s distribution of herbs and flowers roughly 100 lines later, and also the description of the weeds and plants that enshrine her in Gertrude’s narration of her watery death.

At her re-entry in Scene 4.5, this time with a highly agitated Laertes in the room, she sings of the deceased figure again, and in case we are inclined to dismiss her words as non-sensical–-remember the gentleman’s earlier claim, “Her speech is nothing” (4.5.2) — Laertes encourages us to see matter in what she says and does: “This nothing’s more than matter.”

Speeches included in the text of the lecture from 4.5.4–17, with red font for emphasis
operative phrasing in 4.5

With his direction, we are thus invited to seek meaning in each of the herbs she distributes, though we don’t need to work all that hard at first, because Ophelia glosses some of them herself. That she knows something about what various plants mean and do shouldn’t surprise us, as we’ve already seen in Hildegard and in my previous lecture that women were readers and keepers of knowledge of medicinal plants and herbal remedies.

But our knowledge of the sources of Ophelia’s knowledge takes on greater significance when we attend to the one herb she both distributes and also keeps it for herself. The medical uses of Rue are glossed for you by our text’s editor Constance Jordan, who provides us on page 113 with an image from John Gerard’s well-known 1597 herbal. Jordan also provides in the textual note the rest of Gerard’s entry on Rue, which appears on another page: “Rue provoketh urine, bringeth downe the sickness, [and] expelleth the dead children and afterbirth, being inwardly taken or the decoction drunk.”

contains an image of the page from Gerard that is quoted in the lecture
From Gerard’s History of Plants (1597)

As this list suggests, Rue was known as a remedy following the discovery of a stillborn child. By a similar quality, it had another use in earlier stages of pregnancy as an abortifacient just after conception. It provided a natural way to terminate possibly fertilized ova and induce miscarriages, which are even in the 20th century, fairly common even without medical aid. This keeping of Rue is not a clear sign that Ophelia was pregnant — though if she had been, it gives greater irony to Polonius’ comment that you heard on Tuesday, about Hamlet’s fulsome replies. The image of her taking rue on stage also gives new resonances to the songs she sings that are obviously not about the death of her father but depict couples having pre-marital sex. The song about St. Valentine’s day, for instance, where a male lover departs the room of a maid, but the maid in question is no longer a maid after their encounter. Quoth she, “Before you tumbled me/ You promised me to wed, / “So would I have done by yonder son. An thou hadst not come to my bed.”

Image of passages from 4.5 and other scenes featuring “pregnant replies” & Ophelia’s allusions to pre-marital sex
Ophelia’s songs

It’s impossible to say what Shakespeare intended us to make of these songs and Ophelia’s other references. But there’s certainly room for us to attribute her mental state at least in part to anxieties that stem from her relationship with Hamlet. I’ll come back to this relationship towards the end of this lecture, but first I want to again make note of the way Shakespeare associates Ophelia’s madness with flowers here at the beginning of Act 4 and later, at her death before its end. Both Ophelia and the queen exit the scene after 4.5, but only Gertrude re-enters, making the announcement that Ophelia has drowned.

paintings of Ophelia romanticizing her death and the moments before it; quotations from Charles Bucknil in the lecture and Elaine Showalter’s essay on Ophelia’s influence on actual treatments of women’s mental health
Ophelia in other representations

The scene has been reproduced in a number of paintings from the 19th century on, in part because Shakespeare’s description is so poetic: the image of Ophelia on the boughs of the willow, making “fantastic garlands” of flowers, hanging them up, but falling when the boughs break. The brook, as if sad to accept her body, is weeping, and the brook itself allows her to float, “mermaidlike,” with “her clothes spread wide,” while she sings hymns. Her “melodious lays” stop when her garments are heavy from the water, an image that hearkens back to the description that Dean Kozol mentioned on Tuesday, of a Denmark whose King and court drink too much. Unlike the accusations that Hamlet levels at his uncle’s drunken parties, the description of Ophelia has a softness in its imagery, depicting her solitude and distraction as thing of tragic beauty. Later, the grave digging clowns will describe her death as a suicide, despite the description Gertrude gives in which the entire act is done without any sense of Ophelia’s agency. We might also ask why Gertrude was close enough to witness all these details without actually intervening, but that, along with the full causes of Ophelia’s suffering, is something the play does not supply an answer to.

According to the conventional wisdom in the 16th and 17th centuries, Ophelia’s madness would be distinct from Hamlet’s with respect to causes and cures. It might be useful in your section to compare their symptoms, one apparently feigning and the other apparently real; it would also be interesting to consider them in relation to other pre-modern medical discourses we’ve seen this semester, namely the treatise on women’s “disorders” that we saw in the Hippocratic corpus this semester. Where that author described a wandering womb and advised sex as the best cure for this ailments, seventeenth-century experts offered a different, though related cure. On page 179 of your edition of Hamlet, Jordan has excerpted part of Robert Burton’s giant book, The Anatomy of Melancholy, in which women get a brief mention: of their depression he says, “the best and surest remedy of all is to see them well placed and married to good husbands in due time. This is the ready cure to give them content to their desires.”

Shakespeare’s depiction of Ophelia’s declining health is not unsympathetic. But it is a depiction by male playwright whose investment in characterizing women is to emphasize features that are aesthetic rather than intellectual, and he locates Ophelia’s primary value in her relationships to her father, brother, and boyfriend — who all at various points in the play locate her value in her virginity and in her deference to their wills. Even in death, she exercises very little agency or autonomy over her own body; as Claudius says, she is “Divided from herself and her fair judgment, / Without the which we are pictures.”

This assessment of Ophelia is seems apt when we see the degree to which Shakespeare’s characterization has influenced many pictures in which Ophelia is not a thinking person, but a pretty young woman whose garlands signal both her sexual readiness and her impending death. More troubling are how these depictions in turn influenced people’s understanding of women’s mental health in the world outside of the playhouse. In a seminal essay from the 1980s, Elaine Showalter described a two-way transaction between psychiatric theory and cultural representation, noting multiple instances in which Shakespeare’s portrayals informed images of female patients in Medical textbooks from the 19thcentury. “Dr John Charles Bucknill, president of the Medico-Psychological Association, remarked in 1859, “Ophelia is the very type of a class of cases by no means uncommon. Every mental physician of moderately extensive experience must have seen many Ophelias. It is a copy from nature, after the fashion of the Pre-Raphaelite school.” 27 At an Asylum outside of London, Dr. Hugh Welch Diamond photographed his female patients “posed in prayer, or decked with garlands.” In a clinic in Paris, the French neurologist Jean Martin Charcot oversaw what he described as a “living theatre” of female pathology, at which his patients were coached in their performances for the camera, and, under hypnosis, were sometimes instructed to play heroines from Shakespeare.

On Tuesday, Dean Kozol asked you to imagine being approached by a ghost as you attempt to finish your to do list this semester. I’d like you to just briefly imagine for a second what it would be like to be a woman who feels unwell in the fictional and non-fictional pre-modern worlds we have examined this semester; what kinds of “care” or advice would you’d receive from a doctor who takes his cue from the author on women’s disorders in the Hippocratic corpus? or worse, somebody who really bought into the genius Shakespeare?

I want to be clear that in saying this, I don’t mean to deny the central point of Dean Kozol’s excellent lecture Tuesday, that theater presents us with a lively body of evidence with which to diagnose the health of individuals and nations. And I think we can all agree that her lecture and her actors brought Hamlet to life in a way that the text alone can’t do. I fully agree with her claims and Hamlet’s about the particular force that live productions have. But for the remainder of the lecture today, I want to flip the equation and consider how important the texts of Hamlet are to performances of the play and its long history as the pinnacle of Shakespeare’s unique genius.

Part III. All sawes of Bookes, all formes, all presures past: The Texts of Hamlet

header with title of Part III
Heading for Part III

Just as playing forms a central conceit in the play, so too does reading. “In 3.1, Polonius instructs Ophelia to “Reade on this booke” (3.1.43]). In the previous scene, Gertrude comments on Hamlet’s entrance, saying “looke where sadly the poore wretch / Comes reading” ( [2.2.168]). As Peter Stallybrass, Roger Chartier, J. Franklin Mowery, and Heather Wolfe note, Hamlet is “[also] reading a book at a particularly critical point: just before he delivers the most famous speech in the language, ‘To be, or not to be.’”

These critics point out that books also play a crucial figurative function in the play, becoming a synonym for memory. “After seeing the ghost of his father, Hamlet says:

Remember thee?
I, thou poore Ghost, while memory holds a seate
In this distracted Globe: Remember thee?
Yea, from the Table of my Memory,
Ile wipe away all triuiall fond Records,
All sawes of Bookes, all formes, all presures past,
That youth and obseruation coppied there;
And thy Commandment all alone shall liue
Within the Booke and Volume of my Braine, Vnmixt with baser matter. . . .(1.5.95–104)

Hamlet’s “tables”

Here, “Hamlet imagines his memory as an inscribed “Table” or tablet that can be wiped clean. This virtual table seems, however, to require the supplement of real ones: “My Tables, my Tables,” he says fervently; “meet it is I set it downe” (1.5.105).

You couldn’t know this without formal study of book and print culture in the early modern period. But when Hamlet refers to the “Table of [his] Memory,” he’s talking about a very specific object that the literate reading public in England kept. The term in the 16th century was “a table book,” also referred to as Commonplace books. Both kinds of texts generally consisted of blank pages, something like a journal, where people would copy down meaningful quotations from their reading, as suggested by this poem, “Upon a Table-Book presented to a Lady,” “those empty regions which within you see, May by yourself planted and peopled be.”

Image from Henry King’s Poem about Commonplacing
Henry King’s Poem about Commonplacing

We have many surviving examples of these books in rare book libraries across the world.

Images of Commonplacebooks owned by libraries at Harvard and Yale
More table books and images; these are of an “erasable” book thanks to the fantastic article: “Hamlet’s Tables and the Technologies of Writing in Renaissance England” by Peter Stallybrass, Roger Chartier, J. Franklin Mowery and Heather Wolfe” (Shakespeare Quarterly 55 [2004]: 379–419).

Some table books were sold as part of almanacs, and some actually had eraseable pages, with instructions like these above on how to clear off the ink. As Stallybrass, Chartier, Mowery and Wolfe note, this is precisely the act that Hamlet invokes with his promise to “wipe away all trivial fond Records” of anything other than the ghost’s command for revenge.

Commonplace books from this period contain material from all kinds of books. The practice of copying things into them was supported and enabled by the people who printed books, who frequently supplied these marks, what look like inverted commas, in the margins of texts to give readers a sign that of especially noteworthy passages.

images of pages with Commonplace markers in books, printed and hand-written, from Holinshed’s Chronicles, Machiavelli’s Art of War, and Hamlet
Commonplace markers in books, printed and hand-written

On the left are some examples of printed commonplace marks in a historical chronicle about the kings of England, and some handwritten ones in the Art of War by Nicollo Machiavelli; on the right are both printed and handwritten marks in an edition of Hamlet printed during Shakespeare’s lifetime. We also have proof that readers followed the cues left by printers and found Hamlet worthy of copying: here are two surviving commonplace books from the early 17th century that include passages from it:

These images can be accessed in full in Shakespeare Documented: https://shakespearedocumented.folger.edu

What these examples tell us is that Hamlet and other plays were not just written for performance; in fact, it is clear that they were also written to be printed and read. In 1603 and several other points in Queen Elizabeth’s reign, the theatres were shut down on account of the plague. So if you wanted to enjoy a play, your best option was to read one.

images of the manuscript containing lists of plays licensed by the Master of Revels for performance
performances in the book of plays licensed by the Master of Revels for performance

Printed editions of plays have been essential to the construction of authorship in the period; everything that was licensed to be performed in the period was entered into an account book kept by an official on the royal payroll. But these records often just list titles without the names of playwrights, so without the attribution that often appeared on title pages of printed works, we would have few other ways to connect playwrights to the works they penned and almost no way to determine the content of the plays we find listed as being performed. You may have assumed that they existed as what we now call “scripts,” paper copies with lines. If they did have such things in Shakespeare’s playing company, they did not survive. From his lifetime, the very few surviving documents we have include spotty copies of what actors received, individual parts that contain only a single character’s lines. We also have a few documents like this,containing “plots,” very short summaries of what will happen in a play that playwrights would share in order to split up the labor of drafting.

Parts (on the left) and a Plot (on the right), images from the book Shakespeare in Parts (OUP, 2007) https://global.oup.com/academic/product/shakespeare-in-parts-9780199272051?cc=us&lang=en&

Aside from a single complicated example that I can’t go into today, we have no manuscript of a play handwritten by Shakespeare himself from the period. This is why it is crucial that there were plays attributed to him that circulated in print during his lifetime or shortly after his death. These texts exist in two primary forms: Quartos & Folios. These terms are generally size distinctions identifying how many times a large sheet of paper was folded to make multiple pages. Quarto editions are small, usually single plays; Folio editions are big and Shakespeare’s contains 36 plays. By his death in 1616, 18 plays had been printed already as Quartos; the First Folio, printed in 1623, included them as well as18 additional plays that had not yet appeared in print.

Without these we’d have almost nothing to learn from. But printed editions don’t tell us everything we might want to know. In fact, the plays within contain what we have to recognize as errors and inconsistencies. Sometimes lines are ostensibly attributed to the wrong characters ; there are also apparently missing lines. You might be wondering how we can tell something’s missing, but it’s actually pretty easy to determine if a part of a play is written in rhymed verse and lacks lines that would complete a rhyme and in cases where a sentence is grammatically incomplete. Grammar and knowledge of poetic scansion are essential for this work. We can also detect missing or extra lines in the 18 plays for which more than one edition was printed through the process of collation — that is, comparing multiple texts with an eye for different.

In the interest of eventually getting back to mental health in Hamlet, I’m going to set aside the 18 that had never been printed prior to 1623 and focus on the way editors handled the 18 plays, like Hamlet, that had already appeared in print in Quarto before the Folio. Overall, there’s no hard and fast rule or consensus as to whether the Folio versions constitute the most “purely Shakespearean” or best version over Quarto editions, though we have reached some accord on a handful of specific plays. But for many of them, there is no agreement on what would constitute an authoritative version, and anyone who writes about these works professionally must consider variants in different editions when they want to make a convincing text-based claim.

Anyone who intends to produce a modern edition of a Shakespeare play like the one you’re holding also must consider all of the available editions; they too must collate the plays line by line and where they find discrepancies, make decisions about which version to include and also record notes on all variations in a section at the end of the text. For Hamlet specifically, that means determining whether to include 90 lines that are in the 1623 Folio but not in the1604 Quarto, and also examining 200 lines there are not in the 1623 Folio but are in the 1604 Quarto. For an example of what this looks like, open your books to page 149–154 of the Longman edition that we ordered, in which Jordan tells us her text is based primarily on the 1604 Quarto & a 1605 reprint variant; as you can see, she also indicates places throughout the text where her version departs from lines and directions that occur in the other editions.

Constance Jordan’s edition of Hamlet includes these textual notes, page listed in the lecture itself.
Jordan’s edition has notes!

In many editions, you will find that scholars adhere to one edition over others, but ultimately produce a kind of composite that includes what they decide is the best from both. This means generally that no two modern editions are going to be exactly the same. More importantly, no modern edition that draws from both the folio and the quarto text will be the same text that Shakespeare’s original readers would have read. And it probably goes without saying, but they are both much longer than any play that 17th century audiences would have seen.

How might small differences between editions affect the meaning of the text of in a big way? Well, typically in the case of misprints or typos, not much: The Rpince of Denmark in the 1675 4th Folio is an example of that. But sometimes typos that shouldn’t make a difference in meaning do, as in this 1631 reprint of the King James Bible from 1611, the so-called “Wicked Bible” and you can probably guess why this accident led to this name. But with Shakespeare Quartos and Folios, I’m not talking about things we can identify clearly as accidents. What we often find are variations and it’s not clear there’s a correct choice between them.

Here’s an interesting example from Othello, from the speech the title character gives after committing a horrific act of violence on his wife Desdemona. You can see in the blue lines that there are a variety of punctuation and spelling differences in the speech, even though these texts were printed just a single year apart. But the main difference I want you to notice here is the red line with the simile, where Othello compares his act of murder to “the base Indian who threw a pearl away / richer than all his tribe.” The folio has this similarly rendered in parentheses and instead of a base Indian, we have a base Judean doing the same action. You may be wondering why I read this word as “Judean” even though it looks like the word starts with an I.

an image of two speeches from Othello with variant type/spellings
Variants in Othello
Famous image of a printing house https://www.britannica.com/technology/printing-press
See: https://www.britannica.com/technology/printing-press & https://www.folger.edu/virtual-printing-house-down

In early modern printhouses, letters were actual objects carved out of wood or metal, and because the ability to print required having multiple letters to make words, some letters, including I’s and J’s, and V’s and U’s, were used interchangeably.

how letters might be used economically, as indicated in the lecture itself.

This gave printers maximal options for spelling and ensured that they didn’t run out of specific letters. So if we go back to the Othello speeches, and we look at the lines with the word “jealous,”you’ll see they are spelled with an I as well. So with our variant constructions here: Is Othello comparing himself to an Indian or a member of Judah’s tribe? Does the one we choose make a difference in how we imagine himself feeling about the act he’s just committed? And to what extent might a variant like this have to do with Shakespeare’s intentions?

How do variants come about Unknown Origins for scribal copy
 Number of people involved: Scribes, Compositor’s assistant
 Compositors (sometimes multiple); Lack of Standardization
 General lack of standards/rules;
 Compositors have different spelling & punctuation preferences
 Material conditions affect spellings as well
How do variants come about?

We can’t answer that, and mostly what we work on in scholarship is consider how variants like these might come about. In a great many cases with early modern plays, we don’t know the reason for the variants because we don’t know the origins of the text they used as their source. In addition, there are so many people involved that the source of the variant can be obscured. In the picture here, you can see an employee called a compositor whose job it is to line up the letters in the blocks so they can be inked. The man at the top is dictating to him. If you look at the larger engraving of the printing house, you can see how many people were in the room doing the same or similar actions and you can imagine it might get loud and chaotic. Some texts, including the First Folio of Shakespeare, had multiple compositors, and these people had personal preferences rather than set standards for spelling and punctuation. And as I noted before, the material conditions of print had an impact on the text as well: if you ran out of certain letters, you’d have to make them by using others.

The Judean/Indian variant could make for significantly distinct readings of Othello’s feelings and it may be the case that there was some individual, Shakespeare or otherwise, who exercised volition or agency in printing one of those nouns over the other. Or, it could simply be that a compositor in 1623 thought Indian could be spelled with an “e” and then accidently flipped his “n” upside down. We can’t know, and though we can certainly think productively about the valences that each word might add, we certainly can’t identify one being closer to Shakespeare’s original intent. Unlike the Ghost of Old Hamlet, he’s not coming back to explain what happened here.

Something similar is at work in Hamlet’s first soliloquy when he wishes “Oh, that this too too sullied flesh would melt” (1.2.29, 14). In the 1604 Quarto, it reads “sallied,” which doesn’t seem correct. In F, it says “solid.” Solid actually makes sense, but many modern editors have opted to replace it and use a word that isn’t in either text; they attempt to correct it with “sullied,” seeing the Quarto’s use of “sallied” as a misprint and F’s “solid” as a misguided or lack of effort to figure out what it should be instead: sullied conveys the notion of the flesh being tainted, and so arguably is a better choice thematically here than either solid or sallied. Was it Shakespeare’s choice? Maybe. But also maybe not!

I promise I will get to the variants in the “To be or Not to be” speech in the Hamlet editions I’ve already mentioned — and from there, I will discuss how they bear upon our conception of Hamlet’s mental wellness.

An image of a Yoda Meme (No, there is another) and the First Quarto of Hamlet
There is another!

But first, I have to tell you that the 1604 Quarto and the 1623 Folio are not the only Hamlet texts that circulated in print during or just after his lifetime. An earlier text was recorded in the stationer’s register, where all texts licensed for publication appeared. For a long time, we had a record of its existence, but not the text itself. In 1823, this Quarto was discovered, dated 1603, making it the First Quarto, or as it’s called now, Q1.

After the discovery of the 1603 edition of Hamlet, there was of course a demand to make it widely available to the public. The publishers who saw Q1 into its first 19th century edition touted its importance in “bringing to light several lines of great beauty subsequently omitted.” The last page was missing in the newly found copy, they admitted, but as you can see at the bottom of this introduction, “as the play is perfect to the death of Hamlet, the loss is of comparatively small importance.” Sometime within the next 30 years, a second copy of the same Quarto was found and this copy had the final page of the play.

1821 re-print of Q1

The most obvious difference between Q1, Q2, and F was the length of the 1603 version. The First Quarto of Hamlet is half the length of the Quarto published a year later. It is much trimmer than either the Folio or Q2, and as some scholars have noted, it is there by much closer to the timing and pacing of a 2-hour play on stage. Kind of curiously, even though it is a shorter text than Q2 by a significant number of lines, Hamlet’s ranting about clowns who go off script is also many lines longer in Q1 than it is in Q2 and F. Q1 was also not helpful in resolving the discrepancy between Q2’s “sallied” and F’s “solid.” Like the second Quarto, it too contained the odd nonsensical verb “sallied.” It’s hard to imagine that two wrongs make that word right.

In addition to the additional lines not in the other texts touted by the booksellers who re-printed it for 19thcentury audiences, the appearance of the First Quarto seemed to solve a controversary that 18th century editors had fretted over. In the Folio and Second Quarto scene with the staging of the Mousetrap or Murder of Gonzago, Hamlet puts his head in Ophelia’s lap and asks her “Did you think I meant Country Matters,” a bawdy joke intended to pun on the word for female genitalia. 18th century editors found the joke, which is continued by the next lines about the word “nothing” and what lies “between a maid’s legs” too crass and unbefitting of both Hamlet and Shakespeare; they had long advanced the theory that some actors had inserted this language into the scene. In Q1, the same scene features Hamlet asking about “contrary matters,” and the similarly bawdy joke centered on the word “nothing” is simply not there. For many 19th century scholars who were convinced by the 18th century editors’ fretting, this Quarto seemed like a useful addition in this regard. The person who owned an 1825 copy of the newly printed Q1 certainly found it so, having made note of this difference specifically in the front cover of their text.

Learn about all this and more in Zachary Lesser’s book “Hamlet” After Q1
An Uncanny History of the Shakespearean Text https://www.upenn.edu/pennpress/book/15298.html

At the same time, Q1 also contained a few things that many of these Victorians found profoundly embarrassing. You will remember from your reading the scene in Act 3 in which Hamlet confronts his mother and kills Polonius; at one point, the Ghost enters to remind him to keep his eyes on the prize and leave Gertrude alone. The first time we hear of the ghost, in all three editions, the watchmen describe him as being in full armor. When he returns in the third Act, Q2 and Folio simply include the same stage direction introducing him as they did in Act 1: Enter Ghost. In Q1’s version of Act 3, we have this amazing stage direction: “Enter the Ghost in his nightgown.”

Images from the Q2 and F of Hamlet with and without nightgowns
What else would he be wearing?

In both Q2 and F, the direction simply reads “Enter Ghost.” Our prudish Victorians saw this reference to a nightgown as undignified, and claimed it made the scene more amusing than scary because the imposing spectre of Hamlet’s father is by this direction somehow reduced. For many decades in the 19th century, companies resisted incorporating this direction into performances, putting the deceased king in armor even when he’s indoors. The embarrassment they felt tells you more about 19th century actors than it does Shakespeare’s text, and since that time for this and various other reasons, many 20th and 21st century editors have come around to the logic of Q1’s direction. You’ll notice that in the Longman edition on page 90, Constance Jordan includes this direction in brackets and provides additional information with a gloss.

Image with a stage direction indicating that only Laertes leaps in the grave
Laertes Leaps in

Another direction in Q1 that is not matched in Q2 or F that provoked some controversy occurs in Act 5, after Laertes leaps into Ophelia’s grave. Q2 and F have Hamlet remaining above the fray, which many 19th century scholars and actors felt was appropriate for their contemplative anti-hero.

image from Q1 in which Hamlet leaps in the grave
Hamlet Leaps in

Q1, however, has Hamlet joining Laertes there. I’d be willing to be that many of you have seen a production of Hamlet in which Hamlet and Laertes begin fighting at the gravesite. For some scholars prior to the 20th century, this leap in was not the Hamlet they knew and loved; another strike against Q1. And one final example of a distinct stage direction from Q1: Ophelia’s entrance is much more specific with respect to the actor’s props, wardrobe, and hair.

Images indicating different stage directions and whether or not Ophelia has a lute
Ophelia’s entrance

The graveside leap, nightgown, and lute playing Ophelia may all seem vaguely familiar to you. But the experience of reading Q1 for the first time can be a little alienating.

It preserves some naming conventions that were changed over the course of the play’s earliest performances: Claudius is unnamed, for instance, referred to simply as King; Polonius is named Corambis and Berndardo and Marcellus are simply called Centinels. We know of these switches not just because they appear as we know them now in Q2 and F, but because a contemporary reader made these marginal notations in their copy.

image showing how marginalia in the 1603 copy lets us know the reader knows about the 1604 copy
Marginalia in the 1603 copy lets us know the reader knows about the 1604 copy

This suggests that the play had evolved or at least shifted in its contents, but also it affirms our sense of the inter-relatedness of the stage and printed page during Shakespeare’s lifetime.

Finally, we find an even more surprising and substantive difference in Q1s characterization of Gertrude. Q2 & the F, and therefore in the edition you read, we’re looking at a deeply ambiguous Gertrude. We don’t know if she had any knowledge of Claudius’ plot and murder of her husband, but we see how angrily Hamlet responds to her, despite the Ghost’s urging him not “let [his] soul contrive/ Against [his] mother aught” 1.5.83–86; the Ghost is also rather ambiguous about Gertrude’s guilt: he describes her as his “most-seeming virtuous Queen” (1.5.44) and tells Hamlet to leave her to Heaven, / And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge, to prick and sting her. It seems Gertrude is going to Heaven, but it’s the kind of heaven where you are punished with physical and emotional anguish. In Q1, however, Gertrude almost immediately sides with Hamlet when tensions flare between him and her husband, and she explicitly pleads her ignorance of Claudius’ dealings and vows to assist Hamlet in the so-called closet scene in 3.4 and allies with Horatio to rescue Hamlet in a later scene. She is less complex but her motives are less ambiguous, but her stronger relationship with her son seems markedly less misogynist than the depiction of Gertrude in the folio and second quarto.

Passages indicating Gertrude is less sketchy and more sympathetic to her son
A different Mother

You can imagine that the discovery of Q1 in the 19th century was exciting, but also that it too raised more questions than it answered. Because of its length and distinct pacing, some of its earliest readers argued that it represented an early draft of the play that got revised a year later in Q2, drawing on the language on the title page that it contained the play “as it hath been diverse times acted.” But this theory was somewhat undermined by the title page of the second Quarto, which claimed itself to be “newly imprinted and enlarged almost as much again as it was according to a true and perfect coppie.”

title pages of Q1 and Q2
Title pages of Q1 & Q2

The possibility the second quarto represented something closer to Shakespeare’s original draft, a work especially designed for readers, along with the opposing belief that Q1 was an early draft of a play that achieved its full potential in Q2, never fully fell out of the discussion. But something happened in the late 19th century and early 20th century that would place these theories in the background. Some influential bibliographers of this period published several studies in succession that described Q1 of Hamlet and a few other Quarto editions — of Henry V and Romeo and Juliet — as “Bad Quartos,” insisting that these editions’ origins were dubious and the poetry within them insufficiently good to really be Shakespeare’s. With respect to Hamlet, the latter claim was based in large part on what reads in Q1 almost like a parody of the “To Be or Not To Be Speech.” This brings me to my conclusion, Part IV. In Q1, “The To be or not To be” speech is shorter and punchier in its rhythms, missing many of the lines we know and love and including some that were unfamiliar seemed foreign. Some scholars at the time suggested it was a terrible rendering because Q1 must have been pirated and unauthorized printing; others renewed the literal bad actor theories of the 18th century and posited that they were the product of some of the players in Shakespeare’s company putting the play back together by the process of memorial reconstruction.

To be clear, there was and still is not any real material evidence that supports these explanations, and their sense of the poetry’s quality rests on subjective and in many ways elitist conceptions of canon-building that they inherited from their 18th century predecessors. More so in the 18th and 19th century than in Shakespeare’s 17th did people have a huge stake in claiming the singularity and of the “bard.” Many of the scholars and actors had lived a lifetime with the Q2 or F versions of Hamlet and had internalized it as the pinnacle of literary achievement. From Alexander Pope and Samuel Johnson to Samuel Coleridge, they had read from seminal editions of Shakespeare and studied the play through what Zachary Lesser describes as an “accreted history” of editorial knowledge about Hamlet: for more than half a century, these unsubstantiated views prevailed, and more problematically, they licensed Shakespeare scholars broadly to generally disregard Q1 Hamlet and other texts they deemed “bad.”

Quotation from Lesser (in the text of the lecture)

As Lesser notes in his recent study of this history, “these contingent “truths” [about the superiority of Q2 and the Folio] have become true only through a long process of critical, editorial, and theatrical engagement with Q1” and the other contemporary texts of the play. “[The] seeming bits of knowledge” on which this superiority is based “are not quite wrong, but they are not quite right either; [yet] they have become so entrenched that we can no longer see alternatives…”

Thanks to Scholars like Lesser and several others writing in the 1990s and early oughts, scholarship on the matter has shifted considerably since the Bibliographers of the turn of the century denounced Q1 and other short quartos as “bad.” Though we still aren’t able to fully explain Q1s origins and variants, and though there remains a strain of literature scholars who see their job as gatekeeping and canon-preserving, many of us are swayed by the very existence of the object and the knowledge of its circulation in the 17th century to accept it — not as inferior or as bad, but as simply different.

In his 2003 book on the subject, Lucas Erne mades this point and in addition reminds us not to confuse the order of printing with dates of composition. Although Q1 appeared first, he argued convincingly that it’s not a first draft, but rather, a conscious reworking of a longer, literary version designed to shorten and speed up the play in preparation for the stage.

Quotation from Lucas Erne (in the text of the lecture)

Looking very closely at the parts of Q2 and F that are omitted in Q1, he notes: “The considerable difference in pace between Q1 and Q2/F raises the intriguing possibility that the time-honored belief that procrastination and delay are central to the play has much to do with the text readers have studied, but little with the play Elizabethan theatre-goers would have witnessed.” That Q2’s title page claimed to be “Enlarged to almost as much againe as it was, according to the true and perfect copy” supports this reading.

I am sure you still have many questions about how to understand the value judgments behind these texts, but I’m going to end with a quick set up that I hope will change and further complicate how you think about Hamlet’s madness or feigned madness in “To Be or Not to Be.”

IV. “Ay, There’s the Point:” revisting Hamlet’s Health in 3.1

Title slide for Part IV, featuring Ethan Hawk in the Almeryeda Hamlet, a “gen x” Hamlet, the BEST Hamlet IMO. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0171359/

On Tuesday, we saw this scene performed brilliantly, with Dean Kozol introducing it as a partial soliloquy. Naming Hamlet’s speech as such, as Kozol noted well, endows it with a degree of authenticity. When characters speak on stage alone, they are more likely to be telling the truth. At the same time, Hamlet is never alone in this scene, and the information we get about the positions of characters from their speeches and stage direction is different in Q1, Q2 and F.

The general sense we get from Jordan’s edition is that Ophelia remains with a book while Claudius and Polonius hide, “withdraw,” she says, in a direction she puts in bracket, ostensibly because that direction isn’t in any of the three 17thcentury texts, though in the Folio Polonius says directly “I hear him coming, let’s withdraw.” In the Quarto, Corambis tells Gertrude to leave and is still giving Ofelia and Claudius cues after Hamlet enters; in both texts, Ophelia is always there, and so the question is not “to be or not to be,” but rather: does Hamlet only say this just because he knows she’s there?

Polonius & Ophelia’s Exchange 2.1.85–100
Polonius & Ophelia’s Exchange 2.1.85–100

We know from an earlier scene 2.1.86–100 that Hamlet performs his antic disposition before Ophelia, using her as the initial conduit through which he circulates his campaign of misinformation. She tells her father, her father tells the king, and this first act of madness is what gives rise to their plan to spy on him. If Hamlet is aware of Ophelia’s presence, then the speech be delivering more calculated commentary instead of a heart-felt soliloquy. Towards the end of the speech, he recognizes Ophelia’s presence, something Jordan’s edition punctuates with long dashes.

Constance Jordan uses long dashes at Ophelia’s invocation by Hamlet
Constance Jordan’s way of signaling Hamlet’s reaction

The 1603 Quarto and the 1623 Folio treat the moment differently — and I hope you can discuss in your sections how those small punctuation differences can impact our understanding. Those are worth looking at and thinking about — but the speeches also have more fundamental differences among or between them.

In one, the brain is puzzled; the other the will. In one it’s a question, another a point. One is concerned with dreams after death, whereas the other espouses a traditional Christian view of the afterlife; they differ in their overt theology, what practical aspects of life lead to suffering and whether death culminates in joy or dread. In the handout I’ve provided, you can take a look at all three speeches on one side, and on the back, I’ve made word clouds that present words in sizes that correspond to the number of times they appear in the speech. This should help you isolate unique words as well as get a sense visually of what concepts are emphasized in each.

I want to urge you not to withhold judgment about the goodness or badness of Q1 and instead think about how differences among all three versions of Hamlet might change how the play is performed: how the language sounds as well as how the action proceeds.

Instead of thinking about what we lose in Q1, try to focus on what’s there and the apparent health of the Hamlet we get within it.

To what extent do these different texts change how we feel about the stability of our protagonist and his control over his own words and behavior? What specifically in each version shapes how we see him and what we think is behind his actions?



Vim, Ph.D.

Early Modernist, Associate Prof, college hoops fan, crazy cat lady. Tweeting out of conviction or exhaustion or both. Views my own. My head hurts.