Reflections upon Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’


There are three early 17th century texts of Hamlet: the First Quarto (1603), the Second Quarto (dated 1604 and 1605), and the First Folio (1623).  Q1 is by far the shortest version; Q2 and F are similar, but each has passages not present in the other.  Both editors and directors of performances of the play prefer Q2 and F to Q1.  While editors may debate the relative merits of Q2 and F (as regards major and minor matters), directors are free to choose from both versions when preparing a script for film or theatre.  I examine the play, below, in limited terms, to do with plots and with adaptation for performance.


In Act 1 Scene 2, King Claudius and Queen Gertrude (uncle and mother of Hamlet, respectively) oblige Hamlet to remain at the Danish Court and not return to the University of Wittenberg.  The unspoken intention of Claudius is to keep an eye on Hamlet.  (This is Claudius’s first plan.)  Hamlet has already aroused suspicion and brought about criticism by continuing to wear black, in mourning for his dead father (the former king).  After meeting the ghost of his father, who accuses Claudius of murdering him (Act 1), Hamlet decides to act the part of a madman, in order to deceive the killer and to await his opportunity to avenge his father.  (This is his first plan.)

In Act 2 Scene 1, Ophelia tells her father, Polonius, that Hamlet is acting very strangely; Polonius says they will go to Claudius and inform him of Hamlet’s state – “the ecstasy of love”.

At the start of Act 2 Scene 2, Claudius (already concerned, himself) asks Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to talk to Hamlet and find out the cause of his “transformation”.  (This is his second plan.)

In the First Folio and Second Quarto versions of the text, Polonius arrives, alone. Once the ambassadors have reported on their mission to Norway, he gives Claudius and Gertrude (the queen) his opinion that Hamlet is “mad” for love of his daughter, Ophelia, and is suffering because of her rejection of him.  He produces a love letter from Hamlet to Ophelia and proceeds to read it aloud.

In the First Quarto, however, Ophelia’s father (here named Corambis) brings Ophelia with him.  (It must be embarrassing for her to hear one of Hamlet’s love letters read out loud by her father! And Hamlet appears, on cue, just as Corambis and Claudius are devising Plan 3: they hide and spy on Hamlet and Ophelia straightaway.)

Polonius and Claudius plan (a) to arrange for Hamlet to meet Ophelia and (b) to spy on their conversation: “I’ll loose my daughter to him,” says Polonius (in F and Q2).  (This is the third plan.)

Hamlet enters: he converses with Polonius and makes fun of him, calling him a “fishmonger”.  Then Rosencrantz and Guildenstern come to talk to Hamlet, in accordance with Claudius’s Plan 2, but achieve little.

The next entrants are the players: they keep Hamlet busy until the end of the scene (2.2). Although he calls himself “a rogue and peasant slave”, he also makes a plan (his second) to use the forthcoming play-acting to expose Claudius’s guilt:    “The play’s the thing/Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.”

In F and Q2 Act 3 Scene 1, Claudius questions Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, in the presence not only of Gertrude but also of Polonius and Ophelia.  Hamlet appears (sent for by Claudius).  Hamlet expects to see Claudius but sees Ophelia instead.  Meanwhile, Claudius’s Plan 3 is put into operation: Claudius and Polonius hide, in order to spy on the two young people.

Hamlet first soliloquises (“To be or not to be….”) and then addresses Ophelia, so vehemently (“Get thee to a nunnery,” etc) that he upsets her (“O, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!”).  (Q1 has a parallel episode.)

After the young people have both departed, Claudius and Polonius emerge from hiding, still unsure about what Hamlet is up to: Polonius now proposes to spy (alone) on Hamlet when he sees his mother (Gertrude), after the play put on by the players.  (This is the fourth plan.)  At this point, in Q1, Corambis and Claudius do not mention the interview with the queen or the performance of the play (the players have not arrived yet); but Polonius says that he will interview Hamlet himself.  Hamlet re-enters, on cue, calls Corambis a “fishmonger”, and greets Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and the players, in turn.  From here on, indeed, this version continues more or less as do F and Q2 (at least until Hamlet’s return from England, which is reported differently).


Once the play-within-the-play is over (broken off), and Claudius has indicated by his body language his guilt (Act 3, Scene 2), further plans are made by both sides (Claudius and his supporters, on the one hand, and by Hamlet, on the other).  Hamlet is invited to go to see his mother (in accordance with Plan 4), and he accepts.  His plan now (no 3) is to “speak daggers to her, but use none.”

In 3.3, Claudius plans, with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, to send Hamlet to England, escorted by them.  (What they may not know is that he is sending Hamlet to his death.)  (This is the fifth plan.)  Hamlet finds Claudius alone and steals up behind him.  He thinks seriously of killing him on the spot (a fourth plan) but defers the idea, because his intended victim is at prayer.

In 3.4, Hamlet speaks at length with his mother.  He tells her of Claudius’s guilt.  He asks her not to sleep with Claudius again.  Somehow he has got wind of Claudius’s plan to send him to England (how?) but reveals (at least in the Q2 text) how he will deal with this threat (a fifth plan), namely, by blowing up Rosencrantz and Guildenstern with their own petard (explosive device).

Unfortunately, Hamlet also kills Polonius, thinking that he is Claudius (cf Plan 4), and in so doing lends strength to Claudius’s case against him.


When Hamlet returns safe from England, without Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (executed in England in his stead), Claudius and Laertes (Polonius’s son) conspire to kill him (Act 4 Scene 7): Laertes will engage in a sword-fight with Hamlet – with a poisoned weapon (a sixth plan); and (as a back-up) Hamlet will be offered a cup of poisoned wine (a seventh plan).

At the climax of the play (5.2), events do not go according to these plans: Hamlet, Claudius, Gertrude and Laertes all die; Hamlet’s friend, Horatio, is left to tell the tale to Fortinbras of Norway and the English ambassadors.


Hamlet is a very long play, and it is generally cut in performance.  A director has to make choices as to which passages to leave out, while preserving continuity and intelligibility.

In his 1987 edition of Hamlet for the Oxford University Press, G R Hibbard discusses a hypothetical acting version – based on the Folio, but taking into account Q1’s omission of certain “moralizing” passages.  He writes: “What then emerges….is a fast-moving, coherent drama” (page 87).  Hence, Q1 could have its uses, as regards planning a performance of the play.  (See too below.)


Arguably, the Q1 order of these scenes has an advantage.  In F and Q2, Hamlet’s depressive soliloquy, “To be or not to be….” (3.1), follows his conference with the players, which indeed has had the positive effects of (a) cheering him up and (b) inspiring him to find a way to test the king’s guilt.  Perhaps it makes sense to reverse the order, as in Q1.  Certainly, some directors of Hamlet have preferred the Q1 sequence here, while still relying upon the F and Q2 texts for the actors’ speeches.


The play can be made to end with Hamlet’s death and Horatio’s valedictory words:

“Now cracks a noble heart.  Good night, sweet prince,

And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”

Hence, the 40 or so lines that end the printed play, covering the arrival of Fortinbras and the ambassadors from England, can be left out, with the play ending on an elegiac rather than a military note.


I would add that, in an effective performance of the play, Hamlet should come across as a man of action as well as of thought; and the interpretation of him as a man who could not make up his mind (cf Laurence Olivier, 1948) is, in my opinion, misguided and misleading.

David Harries

October 2013