Hamlet was published in two different quarto editions during Shakespeare's life as well as in the First Folio, the "complete works" edition that appeared within a decade of his death. These editions are known among scholars as Q1 (the first quarto, 1603), Q2 (the second quarto, 1604) and F1 (the first folio, 1623).
Almost all modern editions of Hamlet conflate passages from Q2 and F1, largely ignoring the first printed version of the play. Scholars have surmised that this Q1 version, often referred to as "the bad quarto," was a faulty version copied from the memory of an actor or a group of actors who performed the play. The sequence of action, the length of speeches, and many more details both significant and not are different in Q1 than they are in either Q2 or F1. (Indeed, Q1 is only about 2200 lines long, compared with almost 4000 lines in the conflated Q2 and F1 editions.)
In recent years, however, scholars have argued that Q1 is not necessarily an inferior text, but is rather a performing version of the play. Q1 has a much more dramatic plot than that found in the later editions, and cuts much superfluous dialogue. Kathleen Irace, editor of the New Cambridge edition of the play, has suggested that Q1 was used in smaller, traveling companies, and other critics have done much to resist the notion that Q1 is necessarily "bad." As a result of such efforts, performances of the Q1 version of Hamlet have become less uncommon. In their Arden edition of the play, Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor have accounted for twenty-eight performances of Q1 since the late nineteenth century.
Moreover, the Shakespearean Lukas Erne has proposed, in fact, that Shakespeare himself oversaw multiple versions of his plays -- performing versions, like Q1, which were short, snappy and dramatic, and longer, literary versions, like Q2, designed primarily for an educated readership. This thesis flies in the face of prior critical consensus, which has held that Shakespeare was uninterested in publishing his plays. In his book, Shakespeare as Literary Dramatist, however, Erne culls a great deal of evidence that has led to a widespread critical reevaluation of this assumption.
Nevertheless, this ClassicNote uses a standard conflation of Q2 and F1 in considering Hamlet.