W.S. Hamlet from Heritage Bookshop

Restoration Actor’s Annotated Prompt Copy of  ‘Hamlet’ in the Original Wrappers

SHAKESPEARE, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet Prince of Denmark. As it is now Acted at his Highness the Duke of York’s Theatre. London: Printed for H. Heringman and R. Bentley, 1683. Large quarto. (8 11/16 x 7 inches; 220 x 179 mm.). [ 4, blank], [iv], 88, [4, blank] pp. Eighth quarto edition and the last Restoration edition to be performed at the Duke’s Theatre (James, Duke of York, later James II). An exceptionally large copy in the original marbled wrappers. This copy is larger than any copy reported in the major bibliographies, and also exceeds the size of the largest Hamlet quarto at the Folger Shakespeare Library. According to the Folger, marbled wrappers of this type were common first bindings on a set of quartos purchased by an acting company for the production of the play. It is suggested that the binder ran short of the red-brown marbled paper with which he began this binding, and had to add a piece of complementary blue marbled paper to finish the back wrapper. A rare actor’s prompt book, with numerous ink annotations for the part of Hamlet throughout. Title inscribed on the front wrapper in ink; dampstain to front wrapper. Bookplate of Donald & Mary Hyde on front pastedown of a brown cloth chemise, lettered in gilt, by Riviere. A totally original, unsophisticated, untouched and unrestored example of this very rare edition of Shakespeare’s single most important play. Whose Prompt Copy? The stage history of Hamlet is richly documented. A great deal of information is available on scenery and settings, on costume, on stage-business, on how the great actors of the past handled individual scenes. The London Stage records show that Hamlet was produced numerous times during the Restoration at the Duke of York’s Theatre, Drury Lane, Lincoln’s Inn Fields, and at the royal court by the Duke’s Company, which later merged with the King’s Company to form the United Company. The ‘Book keeper and prompter’ at the Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre from 1662 to 1706 was one, John Downes, who kept personal theatre memoirs in his Roscius Anglicanus, 1708. He claims that the acting tradition for the part of Hamlet was passed down to the great Shakespearean actor, Thomas Betterton, in a direct line from Shakespeare through Davenant, the theatre’s licensee. This 1683 edition of the play assigns the role of Hamlet to Betterton in the list of ‘Persons Represented’ on the verso of leaf A4. According to the Folger Shakespeare Library, the version of the play printed in the 1676, 1683 and  1685 quartos is the version ‘cut,’ or edited, by Davenant for a particular production that would have been performed by Betterton. Betterton was a shareholder in Davenant’s Duke’s Company and played the part of Hamlet (among other parts) from 1663 until 1709, when he was in his seventies. The opinion of the Biographical Dictionary, is that “Betterton [was] the greatest actor of his time.” During the Restoration it was customary for an acting company to purchase and hold a set of play quartos in house which were used as actor prompt copies, edited for a specific production of a play. From the cumulative historical evidence we conclude that this prompt copy may have belonged to John Downes and was used to prompt Betterton in one of Davenant’s productions of Hamlet at Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre.

Shakespeare’s Tragedy of Hamlet Prince of Denmark is based on a 12th-century tale by Saxo Grammaticus, which Shakespeare most certainly never saw, and is part of a spate of revenge dramas which were extremely popular around the turn of the seventeenth century; the missing link between Saxo and Shakespeare may be an earlier play about Hamlet (called the Ur-Hamlet by scholars), which may or may not have been written by the Ur-Revenger himself, Thomas Kyd, based in turn on François de Belleforest’s Histoires tragiques (1570), a free translation of Saxo (Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare).

“The Tragicall Historie of Hamlet Prince of Denmark lies at the very heart of Shakespeare’s career, his writing, his life, and his mystique. So central is this tragedy to Shakespeare, to theatre, to the English language, to world literature, to Western Civilization, and to the psyche of modern man that more has been written about this play than any other text save the Bible” (D. Gregory).

Jaggard, p. 306.; Greg, 197K; Wing, S-2952.


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