‘Father and Mother is One Flesh’: Hamlet and the Problems of Paternity

  • Ann Thompson
  • Neil Taylor


Shakespeare’s Hamlet must be one of the world’s best-known stories. It has for example been filmed more often than any other narrative with the single and rather surprising exception of Cinderella.1 Yet people get it wrong. The printer of the 1623 First Folio text apparently made a slip in Hamlet’s apology to Laertes just before the duel in the final scene. In both the 1603 and the 1604 Quarto texts, Hamlet claims that any wrong he has done Laertes (by killing his father, for example, and driving his sister to madness and death) was committed accidentally: ‘I have shot my arrow o’er the house / And hurt my brother, (V.ii. 243–4).2 In the Folio text he says ‘I have shot my arrow o’er the house / And hurt my mother’. Horace Howard Furness in his 1877 Variorum edition of the play quotes Joseph Hunter’s 1845 speculation in support of ‘mother’: ‘The change in the Folio might have been made by Shakespeare after he retired to Stratford, the passage as it originally stood coming too near to an incident which had recently occurred in the family of Greville in that neighbourhood, where one of them had by misadventure killed his brother with an arrow.’3 Furness nevertheless prints ‘brother’ as do all other editors of the play, including those who privilege the Folio as Shakespeare’s own revision of his earlier text; they assume ‘mother’ is simply a misreading and correct it without feeling any need to comment.


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  1. 1.
    This claim was made by Luke McKernan of the National Film and Television Archive in a programme note for the June 1994 season of Hamlet films at the National Film Theatre, London. McKernan is co-author with Olwen Terris of Walking Shadows: Shakespeare in the National Film and Television Archive (London: British Film Institute, 1994).Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    Joseph Hunter, New Illustrations of the Life, Studies, and Writings of Shakespeare (London: J.B. Nichols and Son, 1845) II, p. 265.Google Scholar
  3. 5.
    Anonymous compiler of publicity brochure for Shakespeare on Film, part of the Everybody’s Shakespeare International Festival, Barbican Centre, London, October–November 1994.Google Scholar
  4. 6.
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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 1998

Authors and Affiliations

  • Ann Thompson
  • Neil Taylor

There are no affiliations available

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