SHAKESPEARE, William (1564-1616). The Tragedy of Hamlet Prince of Denmark. As it is now Acted at his Highness the Duke of York's Theatre. London: for H. Heringman and R. Bentley, 1683.
Eighth quarto edition, this copy annotated for rehearsal by a contemporary actor, very likely by Thomas Betterton, the greatest Shakespearian actor of his day, in the title role of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. One of the three earliest witnesses to the performance of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. A fine, large copy in original marbled wrappers.
After the suppression of the theatre under the Puritans during the English Civil War, two theatre companies were licensed during the Restoration: the King’s Men, a vestige of Shakespeare’s original company, and the Duke’s Men, a new company headed by William Davenant. The exclusive right to perform Hamlet (among other plays) rested with the Duke’s Men as holder of the patent, and it was among the company’s most performed and remunerative productions, with Thomas Betterton its celebrated star. At a time when leading actors owned roles and played them for the duration of their career, Betterton performed the role from his youth in 1661 for the next 50 years to just before his death; he is named in the role of Hamlet in the list of characters on leaf A4 verso of this edition. In 1661 Samuel Pepys raved: ‘above all, Betterton did the prince’s part beyond imagination’ (Diary, 24 August 1661), and still in 1709 as a 70-year-old playing a young prince his performance was lauded as ‘the force of action in perfection’ (The Tatler, 22 Sept. 1709). Betterton’s immersive performance – what today is called method acting – was much commended. The book-keeper and prompter of the Duke’s Men company, John Downes, claimed in his 1708 memoir of the theatre that Betterton learned the role of Hamlet via Davenant from John Taylor, who had learned it from Shakespeare himself.
The present copy is clearly annotated for the part of Hamlet, with each line marked in the margin with a stroke and with a number of changes – text amendments and line cuts affecting only Hamlet’s lines – written in a contemporary hand. Theatre companies would own a set of plays to be used by the principal actors to learn their parts for performance. The present copy, almost certainly annotated for and used by Betterton, would have been owned and prepared by the company, very possibly by John Downes, prompter and long-term member of Betterton’s company. It is closely associated with a rehearsal copy of the 1676 quarto edition at the Folger Library (Ham 5), which is also marked for the part of Hamlet and with some of the same textual amendments; it is also very similarly bound in marbled wrappers. The only other rehearsal or prompt copy of Hamlet to survive from the 17th century is the Smock Alley copy of the Third Folio (now at the University of Edinburgh) annotated c. 1680.
The eighth quarto edition (Q1683) derives from its immediate predecessor, printed in 1676. It has been referred to as the Davenant-Betterton version on the false understanding that the text was cut for stage performance under the direction of those two men. This is not the case, and in fact Q1683 presents in some ways a superior text, having been freshly corrected against the text of the First Folio. The stage performance was indeed cut, but both 1676 and 1683 editions state explicitly that text left out of a performance has been included and identified with quotation marks ‘that we may no way wrong the incomparable Author’ by printing a truncated version and misrepresenting his work. The surviving rehearsal copies make clear that further cuts were made in performance.
The present copy does not appear in Bartlett's updated Census among the twenty-one copies listed (none of which are in their original wrappers), nor does it appear on Shattuck’s listing of Promptbooks. All 17th-century quarto editions of Hamlet are rare, with 4 copies of the 1683 edition recorded in ABPC since 1975 and only 12 copies of the earlier seven editions combined. Bartlett 86; Greg 197k; Wing S-2952.
Quarto (220 x 176mm). Collation: A2 B-M4. Contemporary manuscript annotations, Hamlet’s lines marked with a stroke, 60 text emendations amendments ranging from a single word (‘A’ for ‘He’, ‘I’m’ for ‘I am’) to a longer insertion: ‘O Good Horatio, Ile take the Ghosts word for a Thousand pounds. Did perceive.’, a few deletions, cuts marked. (Lightly browned, some faint spotting, small paper flaw in M3 affecting 2 words, paper flaw at corner of I4 and margin of L2, small hole in margin of M3-4.) Original marbled wrappers with ‘Hamlet’ written in ink on front cover in a contemporary hand (front wrapper and flyleaves detached, some staining, lacks paper on spine); cloth folding case by Riviere, modern morocco box. Provenance: [Thomas Betterton (1635-1710), copy almost certainly prepared for him acting Hamlet] early manuscript notes and marking in the text – Donald and Mary Hyde (1909-66 and 1912-2003; bookplate; Mary Hyde Eccles sale, Christie’s NY, 14 April 2004, lot 78) – Roberto Salinas Price (d. 2012, Mexican bibliophile and businessman, his collection sold via Heritage Book Shop; ‘Biblioteca Huicalco’ tooled at spine foot of box).