The Importance of the Origin of the First Quarto of Hamlet
Ofel: Alas, what a change is this? Ham: But if thou wilt needes marry, marry a foole, For wisemen know well enough, What monsters you make of them, to a Nunnery goe. Ofel: Pray God restore him. Ham: Nay, I have heard of your painting too, God hath giuen you one face, And you make your selues another, --HAMLET, Prince of Denmarke, The First Quarto
The title page of the second quarto of Hamlet claims that the text beneath it is "Newly imprinted and enlarged to almost as much / againe as it was, according to the true and perfect / Coppie." Taking this at face value, three facts necessary follow: That there is at least one earlier edition (or else this one could not be "newly imprinted...again"); that the earlier edition was shorter (or else this one could not be "enlarged"); and that this quarto does not include some lines from the "perfect Coppie" (since it is "almost as much"). Indeed, a First Quarto exists dated a year earlier (1603); Q1 is shorter some 1600 lines; and the Folio does restore certain seemingly authorial passages. It appears as if "I.R.," the printer, or "N.L.," the publisher, is correct on all possible counts. We cannot even condemn I.R. or N.L. for self-interested advertising. They admit that their copy is "almost," but not quite, "perfect."* Thus we might wish to take seriously one further point that the title page tries to make, namely, that the earlier quarto was neither "true" nor "perfect," and therefore is corrupted not simply in its brevity, but also in the presentation of the text which it actually does contain. This would mean that Q1 did not use the "true and perfect Coppie" as its copy-text. It does not seem preposterous to rephrase: Our new edition is bigger and truer than that other edition, because we had access to the play as it was mean to be, while the earlier publication did not. N.L. would certainly know if this were the case, since he was one of Q1's printers. That such a reading is believable suggests it is exactly what we are intended to believe, as the title page is an advertisement after all. Accepting this last implication as true, Q1 must be the product of a theatrical production in one sense or another. Indeed, its title page brags that the text is "As it hath beene diverse times acted" as opposed to as "William Shake-speare" had written it. Nothing is confusing yet.
The thesis of the day, specifically that the actor who played Marcellus and Lucianus reconstructed the text of Q1 from memory, fits in nicely with the two title pages. An actor would of course have access primarily if not solely to the "acted" playtext or the memory thereof; a shilling or two should provide the rest of the explanation. However, the thesis as it stands cannot satisfy all of the curiosity a careful reader of the First Quarto is bound experience. It is not simply that an actor misremembered Q2's "truer" text. Rather he worked from what was "diverse...