The original story on which Shakespeare's Hamlet is founded may be found in Saxo Grammaticus, the Danish historian. From thence Belleforest adopted it in his collection of novels, in seven volumes, which he began in 1564, and continued to publish throughout succeeding years. It was from Belleforest that the old black letter prose "Hystorie of Hamblet" was translated; the earliest edition of which, known to the commentators, was dated in 1608; but it was supposed that there were earlier impressions.
The following passage is found in Epistle, by Thomas Nashe, prefixed to Greene's Arcadia, which was published in 1589: -- "I will turn back to my first text of studies of delight, and talk a little in friendship with a few of our rival translators. It is a common practice now-a-days, among a sort of shifting companions, that runne through every art, and thrive by none, to leave the trade of Noverint [i.e. the law], whereunto they were born, and busie themselves with the endeavours of art, that could scarcely latinize their neck-verse, if they should have neede; yet English Seneca, read by candle-light, yeelds many good sentences, as Bloud is a begger, and so forth: and if you entreat him faire in a frosty morning, he will affoord you whole Hamlets, I should say, Handfuls of tragical speeches. But O grief! Tempus edax rerum -- what is it that will last always? The sea exhaled by drops will in continuance be drie; and Seneca, let blood line by line, and page by page, at length must needs die to our stage."
It is manifest, from this passage, that some play on the story of Hamlet had been exhibited before the year 1589. Malone thinks that it was not Shakespeare's drama, but an elder performance, on which, with the aid of the old prose History of Hamblet, his tragedy was formed.
In a tract, entitled "Wits Miserie, or the World's Madnesse, discovering the incarnate Devils of the Age," published by Thomas Lodge, in 1596, one of the devils is said to be "a foule lubber, and looks as pale as the vizard of the ghost, who cried so miserably at the theatre, Hamlet, revenge." But it is supposed that this also may refer to an elder performance.
Dr. Percy possessed a copy of Speght's edition of Chaucer, which had been Gabriel Harvey's, who had written his name and the date, 1598, both at the beginning and end of the volume, and many remarks in the intermediate leaves; among which are these words: -- "The younger sort take much delight in Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis; but his Lucrece, and his tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke, have it in them to please the wiser sort." Malone doubts whether this was written in 1598, because translated Tasso is named in another note; but it is not necessary that the allusion should be to Fairfax's translation, which was not printed till 1600: it may refer to the version of the first five books of the Jerusalem, published by R.C[arew]. in 1594.
We may, therefore, safely place the date of the first composition of Hamlet at least as early as 1597; and, for reasons adduced by Mr. George Chalmers, we may presume that it was revised, and the additions made to it in the year 1600.
The first entry on the Stationers' books is by James Roberts, July 26, 1602; and a copy of the play in its first state, printed for N.L. and John Trundell, in 1603, has been discovered. As in the case of the earliest impressions of Romeo and Juliet, and the Merry Wives of Windsor, this edition of Hamlet appears to have been either printed from an imperfect manuscript of the prompt books, or the playhouse copy, or stolen from the Author's papers. It is next to impossible that it can have been taken down during the representation, as some have supposed was the case with the other two plays.
The variations of this early copy from the play of Hamlet, in its improved state, are too numerous and striking to admit a doubt of the play having been subsequently revised, amplified, and altered by the Poet. There are even some variations in the plot; the principal of which are, that Horatio announces to the queen, Hamlet's unexpected return from his voyage to England; and that the queen is expressly declared to be innocent of any participation in the murder of Hamlet's father, and privy to his intentions of revenging his death. There are also some few lines and passages which do not appear in the revised copy.
It again issued from the press in 1604, in its corrected and amended state, and in the title-page is stated to be "newly imprinted, and enlarged to almost as much again as it was, according to the true and perfect copy." From these words, Malone had drawn the natural conclusion, that a former less perfect copy had issued from the press; but his star was not propitious; he never saw it. Though it is said to have formed part of the collection of sir Thomas Hanmer, it only came to light [in the] year 1825; too late, alas! even to gratify the enthusiasm of his zealous friend, that worthy man, James Boswell; upon whom devolved the office of giving to the world the accumulated labors of Malone's latter years, devoted to the illustrations of Shakespeare.
The character of Hamlet has been frequently discussed, and with a variety of contradictory opinions. Johnson and Steevens have made severe animadversions upon some parts of his conduct. A celebrated writer of Germany has very skilfully pointed out the cause of the defects in Hamlet's character, which unfit him for the dreadful office to which he is called. "It is clear to me (says Goethe) that Shakespeare's intention was to exhibit the effects of a great action, imposed as a duty upon a mind too feeble for its accomplishment. In this sense I find the character consistent throughout. Here is an oak planted in a china vase, proper to receive only the most delicate flowers. The roots strike out, and the vessel flies to pieces. A pure, noble, highly moral disposition, but without that energy of soul which constitutes the hero, sinks under a load which it can neither support nor resolve to abandon altogether. All his obligations are sacred to him; but this alone is above his powers! An impossibility is required at his hands; not an impossibility in itself, but that which is so to him. Observe how he shifts, turns, hesitates, advances, and recedes! how he is continually reminded and reminding himself of his great commission! which he, nevertheless, in the end, seems almost entirely to lose sight of; and this without ever recovering his former tranquillity."
Dr. Akenside suggested that the madness of Hamlet is not altogether feigned; and the notion has of late been revived. Dr. Ferriar, in his Essay towards a Theory of Apparitions, has termed the state of mind which Shakespeare exhibits to us in Hamlet, -- as the consequence of conflicting passions and events operating on a frame of acute sensibility, -- latent lunacy.
"It has often occurred to me (says Dr. F.) that Shakespeare's character of Hamlet can only be understood on this principle: -- He feigns madness for political purposes, while the Poet means to represent his understanding as really (and unconsciously to himself) unhinged by the cruel circumstances in which he is placed. The horror of the communication made by his father's spectre, the necessity of belying his attachment to an innocent and deserving object, the certainty of his mother's guilt, and the supernatural impulse by which he is goaded to an act of assassination abhorrent to his nature, are causes sufficient to overwhelm and distract a mind previously disposed to 'weakness and melancholy,'; and originally full of tenderness and natural affection. By referring to the play, it will be seen that his real insanity is only developed after the mock play. Then, in place of a systematic conduct, conducive to his purposes, he becomes irresolute, inconsequent; and the plot appears to stand unaccountably still. Instead of striking at his object, he resigns himself to the current of events, and sinks at length, ignobly, under the stream."
A comedian of considerable talents has entered at large into the question of Hamlet's madness, and has endeavored to show that the Poet meant to represent him as insane. Mr. Boswell, on the contrary, in a very judicious and ingenious review of Hamlet's character, combats the supposition, and thinks it entirely without foundation. He argues that "the sentiments which fall from Hamlet in his soliloquies, or in confidential communication with Horatio, evince not only a sound but an acute and vigorous understanding. His misfortunes, indeed, and a sense of shame, from the hasty and incestuous marriage of his mother, have sunk him into a state of weakness and melancholy; but though his mind is enfeebled, it is by no means deranged. It would have been little in the manner of Shakespeare to introduce two persons in the same play whose intellects were disordered; but he has rather, in this instance, as in King Lear, a second time effected what, as far as I can recollect, no other writer has ever ventured to attempt -- the exhibition, on the same scene, of real and fictitious madness in contrast with each other. In carrying his design into execution, Hamlet feels no difficulty in imposing upon the king, whom he detests; or upon Polonius, and his school-fellows, whom he despises: but the case is very different indeed in his interviews with Ophelia; aware of the submissive mildness of her character, which leads her to be subject to the influence of her father and her brother, he cannot venture to entrust her with his secret. In her presence, therefore, he has not only to assume a disguise, but to restrain himself from those expressions of affection, which a lover must find it most difficult to repress in the presence of his mistress. In this tumult of conflicting feelings, he is led to overact his part, from a fear of falling below it; and thus gives an appearance of rudeness and harshness to what which is, in fact, a painful struggle to conceal his tenderness."
Mr. Richardson, in his Essay on the Character of Hamlet, has well observed that "the spirit of that remarkable scene with Ophelia, where he tells her, 'Get thee to a nunnery,' is frequently misunderstood; and especially by the players. At least, it does not appear to have been the Poet's intention that the air and manner of Hamlet, in this scene, should be perfectly grave and serious; nor is there any thing in the dialogue to justify the grave and tragic tone with which it is frequently spoken. Let Hamlet be represented as delivering himself in a light and airy, unconcerned and thoughtless manner, and the rudeness so much complained of will disappear." His conduct to Ophelia is intended to confirm and publish the notion he would convey of his pretended insanity, which could not be marked by any circumstance so strongly as that of treating her with harshness and indifference. The sincerity and ardor of his passion for her had undergone no change; he could not explain himself to her; and, in the difficult and trying circumstances in which he was placed, had, therefore, no alternative.
The Poet, indeed, has marked with a master hand the amiable and polished character of Hamlet. Ophelia designates him as having been
"--the glass of fashion, and the mould of form;"
and, though circumstances have unsettled him, and thrown over his natural disposition the clouds of melancholy, the kindness of his disposition, and his natural hilarity, break through on every occasion which arises to call them forth.
Mr. Boswell has remarked, that "the scene with the grave-diggers shows, in a striking point of view, his good-natured affability. The reflections which follow afford new proofs of his amiable character. The place where he stands, the frame of his own thoughts, and the objects which surround him, suggest the vanity of all human pursuits; but there is nothing harsh or caustic in his satire; his observations are dictated rather by feelings of sorrow that of anger; and the sprightliness of his wit, which misfortune has repressed, but cannot altogether extinguish, has thrown over the whole a truly pathetic cast of humorous sadness. Those gleams of sunshine, which serve only to show us the scattered fragments of a brilliant imagination, crushed and broken by calamity, are much more affecting than a long, uninterrupted train of monotonous woe."
"Ophelia is a character almost too exquisitely touching to be dwelt upon. O rose of May! O flower too soon faded! Her love, her madness, her death, are described with the truest touches of tenderness and pathos. It is a character which nobody but Shakespeare could have drawn in the way that he has done; and to the conception of which there is not the smallest approach, except in some of the old romantic ballads."
The following essay is reprinted from The Dramatic Works of William Shakespeare. Ed. Charles Symmons & John Payne Collier. Boston: Hilliard, Gray, and Co., 1839. pp. 247-51.
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