The First (bad) Quarto of 1603 is long presumed to be a pirated version, presumably reassembled by minor actors within the company. But there are, however, even earlier versions which throw an intriguing light on Shakespeare’s writing processes as he moved from first draft to finished masterpiece.
The ‘Frightfully Bad’ Quarto, for instance, featured Hamlet with the now notorious 'Scooby Doo’ ending, where King Hamlet turns out to be Fortinbrass simply pretending to be a ghost in order to divert attention away from his pending invasion. It finishes with the line, now much paraphrased: “And were it not for these children of meddlesome countenance, this crown would be mine.’
Of lesser interest still is the fragmented 'Die Hard Quarto’ which features Hamlet visiting Elsinore castle to reconcile with Ophelia, only to find the castle overrun with 'A foul and pestilent congregation of evilness’ led by Polonius’ estranged brother, Hans Gruber. Thankfully the play is now lost except for fragments of the 'Now I have a rapier Ho Ho Ho’ scene. As a minor aside, the play features the first known usage of the exclamation: 'Yippee Ki Yay, Bull’s pizzle’
But of all the various Hamlet drafts theorised to exist, perhaps the most contentious is: 'The Comedy of Hamlet, Prince of Zombies’. Extrapolated from scribbled margin notes in Kit Marlowe’s early draft of 'The Massacre of Paris’, the play is unique in that it was originally thought to have been performed backwards.
Denmark has been overrun by a Zombie Apocalypse. All are undead. The action begins when Prince Hamlet is brought back to life during a fencing tournament. In revenge for this 'foul and discourteous act’ Hamlet proceeds to 'undead’ the rest of the cast. He does this by various means - an 'elixir of life’ to his mother, a refreshing sea journey for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, a swim in the fountain of life for his undead girlfriend Necrophelia, and the 'unstabbing’ of Polonius. It was, according to a contemporary observer: 'A play of infinite mirth’.
Details of the action are mostly obscure, but the soliloquy survives where Hamlet muses on whether it is better to be dead or undead: 'To not to be, or to not to not to be’. The play ends, it is supposed, with Hamlet swearing to make his father undead and reseat him on the throne of the now living Denmark. It is thought the surviving line: 'Something Rotten in the State of Denmark’ also refers to the play’s Zombie roots.
The mechanism by which this early draft morphed into the modern Hamlet has long been mired in controversy, but tellingly, Shakespeare was known to have promised to deliver a 'most excellent tragedy’ to the King’s Men in 1602, and was told to: 'deliver the work on Monday or your head will be off’. It is tantalising to suggest that he simply reversed the action over the course of a boozy weekend.
Alas, we will never know.