A reliable text?

More on textual variants: Many of Shakespeare's plays were not published before 1623, when his friends Heming and Condell issued what is known as the First Folio, containing thirty-six plays by Shakespeare. ‘Folio' indicates the size of paper; eighteen of his plays had already been published during his lifetime on smaller, ‘quarto' paper. Hamlet had been published before 1623, in two quarto editions, the first (now known as Q1) in 1603, being an unauthorised edition containing many errors. The second quarto edition (Q2) was published in 1604.

Title page of the First Folio

Because there are textual variations, even between the ‘good' second quarto edition and the First Folio edition, texts of Hamlet which people study nowadays may vary, depending on which version, or mixture of versions, the editor has chosen. There are lines in Q2 which do not appear in the First Folio, and vice versa. However, there is enough common ground in most modern accepted texts for us to be able to discuss the overall structure of the play.

Parallels to Hamlet

Shakespeare deliberately gives us two other young men whose situations have some parallels with that of Hamlet: Laertes and Fortinbras. In this way, we can consider whether:

  • it is the situation in which Hamlet finds himself that makes him act — or fail to act — as he does
  • Hamlet's actions are a result of aspects of his individual character.


Like Hamlet:

  • Fortinbras is the son of a king who has been killed — in the case of the king of Norway, killed by Old Hamlet, in a duel
  • The throne left vacant by the death of his father has been taken by his uncle
  • Fortinbras wishes to take action to right his perceived wrongs.

However, the similarity stops there:

  • Fortinbras, whose name means ‘strong in arm', chooses military action, marching against Denmark to take back the lands lost by his father
  • If we see this as a form of vengeance, then we must also note that Fortinbras is persuaded against it
  • His father was killed in an honourable fight, not by poison and deceit
  • He decides instead to use his army in another campaign.

Hamlet is well aware of the difference between himself and Fortinbras, as he shows when he compares his own hesitation with Fortinbras's actions, in Act IV scene iv. They have both been brought up carefully and sensitively as princes, but Fortinbras is prepared to risk his life in battle:

‘Witness this army of such mass and charge,
Led by a delicate and tender prince,
Whose spirit, with divine ambition puff'd,
Makes mouths at the invisible event,
Exposing what is mortal and unsure
To all that fortune, death and danger dare.'


 Laertes has even more similarities with Hamlet, and indeed they almost change places during the course of the play:

  • Both have a father and a woman (one a mother, the other a sister) to whom they are close
  • Both find that their father has been murdered and the true cause of death hushed up
  • Halfway through the play, by killing Polonius, Hamlet the son seeking revenge becomes the murderer upon whom another son seeks vengeance.

But Laertes' action in this position is very different from Hamlet's:

  • Hamlet had cried in Act I scene v:

    ‘Haste me to know it, that I with wings as swift
    As meditation or the thoughts of love
    May sweep to my revenge!'
    but then had failed to act.

  • Laertes, on the other hand, has, up to his dying moments, no scruples about revenge. He charges into the palace (Act IV scene v) and demands vengeance in words which clearly show the similarity of his position to that of Hamlet:

    ‘That drop of blood that's calm proclaims me bastard,
    Cries cuckold to my father, brands the harlot
    Even here between the chaste unsmirched brow
    Of my true mother.'
  • Laertes then allows himself to be persuaded by Claudius to exact his revenge through poison and deceit — the methods we associate with Claudius
  • Unlike the death of Old Fortinbras, whose son can accept that he has no real reason to seek vengeance, since his father died in an honourable duel, Laertes wants vengeance at any price — he would even ‘cut (Hamlet's) throat i' th' church' (Act IV scene vii)
  • Laertes allows his lust for Hamlet's blood to overcome all scruples:

    ‘To hell, allegiance! Vows to the blackest devil!
    Conscience and grace to the profoundest pit!
    I dare damnation.' (Act IV scene v)

    These words make the audience aware of the debate about the fitness of revenge as opposed to the need for forgiveness and grace which is being acted out in front of our eyes.

Amythical parallel

A third example of a son seeking vengeance occurs in the speech given by the First Player in response to Hamlet's request.

More on the story of Pyrrhus: The speech depicts an episode in the Trojan War — a conflict in ancient Greek history and legend which was caused by a Greek queen, Helen, leaving her husband and committing adultery with Paris, a prince of Troy (a city also known as Ilium). Her husband seeks revenge, and many men die in the long war which follows.

The Player's speech depicts the moment at which a man called Pyrrhus, whose father has been killed in the war, exacts revenge by slaughtering the aged King Priam of Troy in front of his wife Hecuba.

The references to a queen's adultery, a son seeking vengeance, who hesitates to let his sword fall (in Pyrrhus' case, only momentarily), and a slaughtered king, provide graphic parallels with Hamlet's own situation.

In ‘The Mousetrap', which Hamlet arranges to be performed because, as he tells Horatio in Act III scene ii,

‘one scene of it comes near the circumstance … of my father's death',

there is a striking difference in the parallels

  • there is a queen whose husband is murdered
  • who rapidly agrees to marry the murderer


  • the assassin is not the brother of the king, but the nephew, foreshadowing the awful predicament to come, when Hamlet himself, the nephew of the king, becomes a murderer.

Ophelia as counterpoint


Another parallel to Hamlet is provided by Ophelia, and in particular her madness:

  • She too is the child of a murdered father
  • She too takes refuge from her grief in madness — but we assume that hers is genuine, whereas Hamlet's may well be feigned (see Characterisation: Hamlet)
  • Like Hamlet, the words she utters when supposedly mad strike their hearers as having sense: Polonius says of Hamlet (Act II scene ii)

    ‘Though this be madness, yet there's method in't ... How pregnant sometimes his replies are.'

    Laertes comments of his sister's ‘mad' words,

    ‘This nothing's more than matter' (Act IV scene v).


The Death of OpheliaAnother parallel between Ophelia and Hamlet has to do with the question of suicide.

Hamlet contemplates it from the first moment we see him –

‘Or that the Everlasting had not fix'd /His canon 'gainst self-slaughter'

and continues to think of it as a means of escape:

‘To be, or not to be, that is the question.
Whether ‘tis nobler, in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing, end them …
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time …
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin.'

Ophelia is deemed to have committed suicide, in spite of the fact that Gertrude's account of her death (in Act IV scene vii) indicates that the branch (‘an envious sliver') on which she was hanging over the stream, broke, causing her to fall into the water. In Shakespeare's time suicide was seen as leading to inevitable damnation, and suicides were buried in unhallowed ground (hence the ‘maimed' funeral rites for Ophelia).

Yet both Hamlet, who has contemplated suicide and murder, and has killed Polonius, and Ophelia who may have killed herself, are seen as finding rest for their souls:

  • At her funeral in Act V scene i, Laertes says of her,
‘I tell thee, churlish priest,
A ministering angel shall my sister be
When thou liest howling'
  • In Act V scene ii Horatio says of Hamlet, who has killed Polonius, Laertes and Claudius,
‘Good night sweet prince,
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.'

Shakespeare seems to be suggesting to us that forgiveness and the grace of God may be extended to all, and are far more potent than vengeance — or than the limited human view of God's mercy.

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