Designing Hamlet’s second edition

Reed Reibstein
8 min readApr 11, 2015

1604/5. Printed by James Roberts. Published by Nicholas Ling.

James Roberts passed up the opportunity to print the first edition of Hamlet. He held the license for the play from the Stationer’s Company, the guild for members of the printing and publishing trade, making him the text’s owner. Yet he allowed Valentine Simmes to print the first version for publishers Nicholas Ling and John Trundle in 1603.

That Roberts would forgo printing this dramatic masterpiece seems inconceivable in hindsight; a common narrative has been instead that Ling and Trundle pirated Hamlet, a story aided by this first edition’s dramatically cut and altered text compared to later editions. The classic difference between this (the first quarto or “Q1”— a quarto is a book made of large sheets of paper folded into four pages) and other versions is from the title character’s most famous soliloquy.

Hamlet does not say “To be, or not to be — that is the question” in Q1. Instead, it is “To be, or not to be — ay, there’s the point.”

As historian of the book David Scott Kastan has argued, however, Roberts probably was too busy with projects he thought more lucrative to undertake printing the playbook in 1603. He would have known that plays were not sure money-makers. Plays were one of the least expensive books available, with only about one in five producing a profit in the first five years. Nearly all of Shakespeare’s were sold unbound as pamphlets. The format and cost of playbooks reflected the low esteem held for the London theaters, which shared their location in Southwark with prostitutes and vagrants. Compared to less controversial fare, such as sermons, law-books, proclamations, and Bibles, playbooks were a marginal element of the book trade.

We unfortunately know little about who actually read the plays. They were probably on the whole middle-class, with a significant portion female. Play publishers thought of their potential readership as theatergoers, as shown by the frequent references on title pages to the particulars of the first or most recent performance. Readers may have purchased playbooks to relive a favorite drama or experience a play they failed to attend.

We cannot say how popular it was on stage, but Hamlet appears to have been a relative success in print, one of the very few that merited a second edition within the first year. In 1604, Roberts printed the second quarto (“Q2”), perhaps an attempt to capitalize on the public’s appetite for this play. It was billed on the title page as “Newly imprinted and enlarged … according to the true and perfect Coppie,” presumably compared to its predecessor. This more literary subtitle compared to the common information about the play’s performance history might lead one to suspect that its design was highly adapted to the book format. But Roberts, like Simmes, seems to have made few additions to the text as derived from the playscript.

Q2 begins with the title page announcing its name, author, printer, and publisher, and providing some information about the play. The title is repeated on the next page, accompanied by a large headpiece that is the analogue to the printer’s device on the title page. The rest of the play is in a smaller font — a pica roman, with twenty lines measuring 82 millimeters.

Stage directions (describing the characters’ entrances, exits, and actions) and speech headings (noting which character speaks a line) are both in a pica italic, to distinguish them from the characters’ lines. To further enhance their visual distinction, stage directions for entrances are centered above the text, while exits and actions appear in the right empty region of the text-block. Each new speech heading is indented by roughly an em, the height of each line of type, resulting in a notch of white space to mark shifts in dialog. The title appears as the folio at the top of each page, straddling the spread. The bottom contains material to help the printer assemble the book. The centered letters and numbers are to note the “signature,” identifying where in the book the page is. At the bottom right of the right-hand page is a “catchword,” presaging the first word on the following page to ensure that the pages end up in the correct order.

This paper examines Q2 rather than the earlier Q1 because a physical copy of Q2 was available to the author while Q1 was not, as the only copies are at the British Library and the Huntington Library. The only design difference between Q1 and Q2 is that exits in Q1 are separated from the line by a wide space, but are not always aligned to the right margin. The strong resemblance between Q1 and Q2 is not surprising because every Shakespearean play published during the playwright’s lifetime has essentially the same design. That design was a melding of that used for traditional English plays and for imported styles from the Continent associated with classical drama. The lengthy descriptive stage directions and the lack of explicit act and scene divisions in Shakespearean plays are consistent with the vernacular tradition, abbreviated speech headings (“Hamlet” becomes “Ham.”) mark a classical influence, and the left alignment of the headings (rather than right or centered) a development without precedent in either tradition.

Perhaps the most evident aspect, however, is the uniform use of roman type instead of blackletter. Blackletter had been the only style until 1509, when roman was introduced. The roman style was developed by Italian humanists as a sudden revivification of classical writing and inscriptional styles, its antiquated reference being the defining characteristic. Blackletter, in contrast, was the fruit of a continuous evolution, the script of the Romans transformed by language and scribal use over the Middle Ages. Only in 1555 was roman used for non-Latin texts. It quickly surged as the century ended to replace blackletter for printed drama. Between 1570 and 1590, 54 out of the 65 extant published plays were in blackletter; in contrast, between 1591 and 1600, 96 of the 112 plays were in roman. After 1605, blackletter was no longer used for printing the text of plays. To someone reading Q2 in 1604, the appearance of roman type must have seemed unremarkable because of its universal use for printed drama. But the Italianate and humanist associations of roman would have resonated with a reader then, much as a reader today is at least lightly aware of the difference between a traditional-looking book, with a centered arrangement, and a modern-style book, with asymmetric alignments.

A spread from George Gascoigne’s A hundreth sundrie flowres, printed in 1573, showing the major use of blackletter for verse and the italic and roman for headings and notes. From the Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Collection.

In addition to the connotations of the type, the design aided certain methods of experiencing the text and downplayed others. It is a predominately linear conception, assuming that the reader starts at the beginning of the play and finishes without interruption — in this reminiscent of the theatrical performances that readers frequented, which proceeded from scene to scene without the audience’s consent. With no page numbers or easily visible act and scene divisions, it is difficult to open the book to locate a specific passage. Two technologies make navigation easier, however. Stage directions divide the scenes, allowing the reader to look for a right-aligned and italicized “Exit” or “Exeunt” followed by a centered italic list of characters entering. And rectos have signatures, which act like page numbers, and versos may be found in relation to the facing or overleaf recto.

But neither of these features is well suited to this purpose, optimized instead for their respective primary goals of detailing who is on stage and assuring that the pages are in the correct order. With stage directions used within scenes as well as between them, Q2 requires a reasonable effort to distinguish scene divisions. Since they are visually independent of each other, an entrance in the middle of the play is of limited help in determining whether the desired scene comes before or after another — unless the reader knows the play well enough that he or she recognizes the scene in relation to others. (The abbreviated speech headings also make identifying a scene harder, requiring the reader to remember, for instance, that “Pol.” is for Polonius while “Vol.” is for Voltemand.)

Further, signatures are ill-suited to the task of navigation. Their appearance on only half the pages requires a reasonable amount of effort to quickly find versos, as does recalling the recurring pattern of every ninth page restarting the numbering under a new letter. These signatures, though internally consistent, begin at B instead of A in Q2, an unpredictable element that adds to the cognitive difficulties.

Note the quotation marks — Renaissance commonplacing marks — on the left-hand page.

While internal navigation may have been difficult, the linear design lent itself to the popular reading technique known as “commonplacing.” Readers would note passages they wished to recall in the margins and, when finished with the entire play, copy them alphabetically or by subject matter into a blank book. This tactic was actively encouraged by Roberts in Q2, and two short passages were highlighted with quotation marks — Renaissance commonplacing marks. Through commonplacing, readers could recover passages of particular significance without having to re-negotiate the linear text of Q2. In this, we see Q2 remaining close to its origins in the theater, its linearity largely undisturbed. One might be reminded of lawyer and author William Prynne’s term for what he saw as vulgar printed publications: “playhouse books.”

This is the first of six parts in a series, “To the great Variety of Readers,” about the design of historical editions of Hamlet. The series is based on my senior essay for the History of Art major at Yale University in 2011. I am revising it slightly for Medium, splitting it into segments and removing bibliographical footnotes in favor of the works consulted section below.

Works consulted

Bland, Mark. “The Appearance of the Text in Early Modern England.” Text 11: 91–154.

Blayney, Peter W.M. “The Publication of Playbooks.” In A New History of Early English Drama, edited by John D. Cox and David Scott Kastan, 383–422. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.

Gaskell, Philip. A New Introduction to Bibliography. New Castle, Delaware: Oak Knoll Press, 2009.

Hackel, Heidi Brayman. “ ‘Rowme’ of Its Own: Printed Drama in Early Libraries.” In A New History of Early English Drama, edited by John D. Cox and David Scott Kastan, 113–130. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.

Howard-Hill, T.H. “The Evolution of the Form of Plays in English During the Renaissance.” Renaissance Quarterly 43, no. 1 (Spring 1990): 112–145.

Kastan, David Scott. Shakespeare and the Book. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Lesser, Zachary. Renaissance Drama and the Politics of Publication: Readings in the English Book Trade. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Murphy, Andrew. Shakespeare in Print. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Stallybrass, Peter and Roger Chartier. “Reading and Authorship: The Circulation of Shakespeare 1590–1619.” In A Concise Companion to Shakespeare and the Text, edited by Andrew Murphy, 35–56. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishing, 2007.

Thompson, Ann and Neil Taylor. “Introduction.” In William Shakespeare, The Arden Shakespeare Hamlet, edited by Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor, 1–137. London: Thomson Learning, 2006.



Reed Reibstein

Product leader and design manager. Letterform enthusiast.