Hamlet after Q1: An Uncanny History of the Shakespearean Text

Hamlet after Q1: An Uncanny History of the Shakespearean Text

Hamlet after Q1: An Uncanny History of the Shakespearean Text

Hamlet after Q1: An Uncanny History of the Shakespearean Text


In 1823, Sir Henry Bunbury discovered a badly bound volume of twelve Shakespeare plays in a closet of his manor house. Nearly all of the plays were first editions, but one stood out as extraordinary: a previously unknown text of Hamlet that predated all other versions. Suddenly, the world had to grapple with a radically new--or rather, old-- Hamlet in which the characters, plot, and poetry of Shakespeare's most famous play were profoundly and strangely transformed.

Q1, as the text is known, has been declared a rough draft, a shorthand piracy, a memorial reconstruction, and a pre-Shakespearean "ur- Hamlet," among other things. Flickering between two historical moments--its publication in Shakespeare's early seventeenth century and its rediscovery in Bunbury's early nineteenth--Q1 is both the first and last Hamlet. Because this text became widely known only after the familiar version of the play had reached the pinnacle of English literature, its reception has entirely depended on this uncanny temporal oscillation; so too has its ongoing influence on twentieth- and twenty-first-century ideas of the play.

Zachary Lesser examines how the improbable discovery of Q1 has forced readers to reconsider accepted truths about Shakespeare as an author and about the nature of Shakespeare's texts. In telling the story of this mysterious quarto and tracing the debates in newspapers, London theaters, and scholarly journals that followed its discovery, Lesser offers brilliant new insights on what we think we mean by Hamlet.


Two centuries after the death of its author, William Shakespeare’s greatest play was changed forever. In 1823, Sir Henry Bunbury found an old book, “a small quarto, barbarously cropped, and very ill-bound,” in a closet of the manor house of Great Barton, Suffolk. Or maybe he had found it two years earlier in the library, or in a closet in the library; Sir Henry could never seem to recall. He had recently inherited the manor and was taking an inventory of his new holdings, which fortuitously led him to this book that otherwise might have continued to rest on the shelf unknown and unread. Or maybe he was inspired to scour his shelves for rare books after reading The Library Compan ion by the self-described bibliomaniac Thomas Frognall Dibdin; so Dibdin claimed, anyway, providing a third possibility for the discovery. Since Barton Hall was destroyed by fire in 1914, it is now impossible to know exactly where this remarkable book was found. But the story I will tell deals repeatedly with loss, destruction, and reconstruction.

Bunbury’s “small quarto” contained twelve of Shakespeare’s plays, nearly all in their first editions, including Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and several of the histories. Such a compendium would today be worth a fortune, had it not been disbound sometime later in the nineteenth century while in the collection of the Duke of Devonshire, the pages of each play “barbarously cropped” once again to be inlaid in fine paper and rebound. Despite the obvious value of these Shakespearean first editions, however, in an age when antiquarian book collecting was a relatively new gentlemanly pursuit and when numerous Shakespearean playbooks were still in private hands, this “ill-bound” book would not have created such a stir had it not included one oddity (Figure 1).

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