To celebrate publication week, I’ll take five days and take a closer look at five cool rare books that play important roles in The Bookman’s Tale.
Today: Number Three
The Bad Quarto of Hamlet
OK, the first printed edition of arguably the greatest play (some would argue the greatest work) in all of English literature is pretty obviously an awesome rare book, but in the case of the 1603 edition of Hamlet, it’s a little more complicated. This first quarto edition of Hamlet contains only about half the text of later editions. In addition to being shorter than later editions, the bad quarto has a number of odd characteristics and problems in the text, leading some to speculate that (as Francis Leland explains to Peter Byerly in The Bookman’s Tale) the text may have been written down from memory by a member of the audience or possibly one of the minor actors. One scholar has suggested that the bad quarto text comes from the actor who played Marcellus (presumably because his lines and the scenes in which he appears are more accurately rendered). So, as a text of Hamlet, it could be argued that the bad quarto isn’t worth much. But let me repeat—it’s the first edition of Hamlet. Add to that the fact that there are only two known copies in the world and you’ve got the recipe for a seriously expensive book. The price of rare books depends, like anything else, on supply and demand, and the demand depends on the importance of the author, the work, etc. By those standards, if a third copy of the bad quarto did surface (as happens in The Bookman’s Tale) it would almost certainly fetch millions. In The Bookman’s Tale, Peter and Francis use the term “Holy Grail” to refer to that book that, more than any other, they would like to discover. Some years ago I had the chance to ask a prominent book appraiser who had worked for Christie’s and Antiques Roadshow what his Holy Grail was. He did not hesitate to reply: the bad quarto of Hamlet.
Tomorrow: Number 2