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THE TRAGEDY OF HAMLET.
The story on which Shakespeare founded The TRAGEDY OF HAMLET, PRINCE OF DENMARK, was told by Saxo Grammaticus, the Danish historian, whose work was first printed in 1514, though written as early as 1204. The incidents as related by him were borrowed by Belleforest, and set forth in his Histoires Tragiques, 1564. It was probably through the French version of Belleforest that the tale first found its way to the English stage. The only English translation that has come down to us was printed in 1608 ; and of this only a single copy is known to have survived. The edition of 1608 was most likely a reprint; but, if so, we have no means of ascertaining when it was first printed : Mr. Collier thinks there can be no doubt that it originally came from the press considerably before 1600. The only known copy is preserved among Capell's books in the library of Trinity College, Cambridge, and has been lately republished by Collier in his Shakespeare's Library. It is entitled “ The History of Hambiet.”
As there told, the story is, both in matter and style, uncouth and barbarous in the last degree ; a savage, shocking tale of lust and murder, unredeemed by a single touch of art or fancy in the narrator. Perhaps there is nothing of the Poet's achieving more wonderful than that he should have reared so superb a dramatic structure out of materials so scanty and so revolting. The scene of the incidents is laid before the introduction of Christianity into Denmark, and when the Danish power held sway in England : further than this, the time is not specified. So much of the story as was made use of for the drama is soon told.
Roderick, king of Denmark, divided his kingdom into prov. inces, and placed governors in them. Among these were two valiant and warlike brothers, Horvendile and Fengon. The greatest honour that men of noble birth could at that time win, was by ex. ercising the art of piracy on the seas; wherein Horvendile surpassed all others. Collere, king of Norway, was so wrought upon
by his fame, that he challenged him to fight body to body; and the challenge was accepted on condition that the vanquished should lose all the riches he had in his ship, and the vanquisher should cause his body to be honourably buried. Collere was slain ; and Horvendile, after making great havoc in Norway, returned home with a mass of treasure, most of which he sent to King Roderick, who thereupon gave bim his daughter Geruth in marriage. Of this marriage proceeded Hamblet, the hero of the tale.
All this so provoked the envy of Fengon, that he determined to kill his brother. So, having secretly assembled certain men, when Horvendile was at a banquet with his friends, he suddenly set upon him and slew him; but managed his treachery with so much cunning that no man suspected him. Before doing this, he had corrupted his brother's wife, and was afterwards married to her. Young Hamblet, thinking that he was likely to fare no better than his father had done, went to feigning himself mad, and made as if he had utterly lost his wits ; wherein he used such craft that he became an object of ridicule to the satellites of the court. Many of his actions, however, were so shrewd, and his answers were often so fit, that men of a deeper reach began to suspect somewhat, thinking that beneath his folly there lay hid a sharp and pregnant spirit. So they counselled the king to try measures for discovering his meanivg. The plan hit upon for entrapping bim was, to leave him with some beautiful woman in a secret place, where she could use her art upon him. To this end they led him out into the woods, and arranged that the woman should there meet with him. One of the men, however, who was a friend of the Prince, warned him, by certain signs, of the danger that was threatening him : so he escaped that treachery.
Among the king's friends there was one who more than all the rest suspected Hamblet's madness to be feigned ; and he counselled the king to use some more subtle and crafty means for discovering his purpose. His device was, that the king should make as though he were going out on a long hunting excursion; and that, meanwhile, Hamblet should be shut up alone in a chamber with his mother, some one being hidden behind the hangings to hear their speeches. It was thought that, if there were any craft in the Prince, he would easily discover it to his mother, not fearing that she would make known his secret intent. So, the plot being duly arranged, the counsellor went into the chamber secretly and hid himself behind the arras, not long before the queen and Hamblet came thither. But the Prince, suspecting some treacherous practice, kept up his counterfeit of madness, and went to beating with his arms, as cocks use to strike with their wings, upon the hangings : feeling something stir under them, he cried, “ A rat, a rat!” and thrust his sword into them; which done, he pulled the counsellor out half dead, and made an end of him.
Hamblet then has a long interview with his mother, who weeps
and torments herself, being sore grieved to see her only child made a mere mockery. He lays before her the wickeduess of her life and the crimes of her husband, and also lets her into the secret of bis madness being feigned. “ Behold,” says he, “into what distress I am fallen, and to what mischief your over-great lightness and want of wisdom have induced me, that I am constrained to play the madman to save my life, instead of practising arms, following adventures, and seeking to make myself known as the true heir of the valiant and virtuous Horvendile. The gestures of a fool are fit for me, to the end that, guiding myself wisely therein, I may preserve my life for the Danes, and the memory of my deceased father ; for the desire of revenging his death is so engraven in my heart, that, if I die not shortly, I hope to take so great vev. geance that these countries shall forever speak thereof. Nevertheless, I must stay my time and occasion, lest by making overgreat haste I be the cause of mine own ruin and overthrow. To conclude, weep not, madam, to see my folly, but rather sigh and lament your own offence ; for we are not to sorrow and grieve at other men's vices, but for our own misdeeds and great follies."
The interview ends in an agreement of mutual confidence between Hamblet and his mother; all her anger at his sharp reproofs being forgotten in the joy she conceives, to behold the gallant spirit of her son, and to think wbat she might hope from his policy and wisdom. She promises to keep his secret faithfully, and to aid him all she can in his purpose of revenge ; swearing to him that she had often hindered the shortening of his life, and that she had never consented to the murder of his father.
Fengon's next device was, to send Hamblet into England, with secret letters to have him there put to death. Hamblet, again suspecting mischief, comes to some speech with his mother, and desires her not to make any show of grief at his departure, but rather to counterfeit gladness at being rid of his presence. He also counsels her to celebrate his funeral at the end of a year, and assures her that she shall then see him return from bis voyage. Two of Fengon's ministers being sent along with him with secret letters to the king of England, when they were at sea, the Prince, bis companions being asleep, read their commission, and substituted for it one requiring the messengers to be hung. After this was done, he returned to Denmark, and arrived the very day when the Danes were celebrating his funeral, supposing him to be dead. Fengon and his courtiers were then at their banquet, and Hamblet's arrival provoked them the more to drink and carouse; wherein Hamblet encouraged them, himself acting as butler, and keeping them supplied with liquor, until they were all laid drunk on the floor. When they were all fast asleep, he caused the hangings of the room to fall down and cover them; then, having nailed the edges fast to the floor so that none could escape, he set fire to the hall, and all were burnt to death. Fengon having previously
withdrawn to his chamber, Hamblet then went to him, and, after telling him what he had done, cut off bis head with a sword.
The next day, Hamblet makes an oration to the Danes, laying open to them his uncle's treachery, and what himself has done in revenge of his father's death ; whereupon he is unanimously elected king. After his coronation, he goes to England again. Finding that the king of England bas a plot for putting him to death, he manages to kill him, and returns to Denmark with two wives. He is afterwards assailed by his uncle Wiglerus, and finally betrayed to death by one of his English wives named Hermetrude, who then marries Wiglerus.
There is, besides, an episodical passage in the tale, from which lhe Poet probably took some hints towards the part of his hero, especially his melancholy mood, and his suspicion that “the spirit he has seen may be a devil :" “ In those days, the north parts of the world, living then under Satan's laws, were full of enchanters, so that there was not any young gentleman that knew not something therein sufficient to serve his turn, if need required; and so Hamblet, while his father lived, had been instructed in that devlish art, whereby the wicked spirit abuseth mankind, and advertiseth them, as he can, of things past. It toucheth not the matter herein to discover the parts of divivation in man, and whether this Prince, by reason of his over-great melancholy, had received those impressions, divining that which never any bad before declared ; like such as are saturnists by complexion, who oftentimes speak of things which, their fury ceasing, they can hardly understand.” It is hardly needful to add, that Shakespeare makes his persons Christians, giving them the sentiments and manners of a much later period than they have in the tale ; though he still places the scene at a time when England paid some sort of homage to the Danish crown, which was before the Norman conquest.
The earliest edition of the tragedy, in its finished state, was a quarto pamphlet of fifty-one leaves, the title-page reading thus : “ The Tragical History of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark : By Wil. liam Shakespeare. Newly imprinted and enlarged to almost as much again as it was, according to the true and perfect copy. At London : Printed by J. R. for N. L., and are to be sold at his shop under St. Dunstan's Church, in Fleet-street. 1604." The same text was reissued in the same form in 1605, and again in 1611; besides an undated edition, which is commonly referred to 1607, as it was entered at the Stationers' in the fall of that year. In the folio of 1623, it stands the eighth of the tragedies, and is without any marking of the Acts and scenes save in the first two Acts. The folio also omits several passages that are among the best in the play, and some of them highly important to the right understanding of the hero's character. All these are duly attended to in our notes, so that they need not be specified here. On the other hand, the folio has a few short passages, and here and there a line or two, that are not in the quartos. These, also, are duly noted as they occur. On the whole, the quartos give the play considerably longer than the folio; the latter having been most likely printed from a play-house copy, which had been shortened, in some cases not very judiciously, for the greater convenience of representation.
From the words,“ enlarged to almost as much again as it was," in the title-page of 1604, it was for a long time conjectured that the play had been printed before. At length, in 1825, a single copy of an earlier edition was discovered, and the text accurately reprinted, with the following title-page : “ The Tragical History of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark : By William Shakespeare. As it hath been divers times acted by his Highness Servants, in the city of London ; as also in the two Universities of Cambridge and Oxford, and elsewhere. At London : Printed for N. L. and John Trundell. 1603." There is no doubt that this edition was piratical : it gives the play but about half as long as the later quar. los ; and carries in its face abundant evidence of having been greatly marred and disfigured in the making-up.
As to the methods used in getting up the edition of 1603, a careful examination of the text has satisfied us that they were much the same as appear to have been made use of in the quarto issues of King Henry V., and The Merry Wives of Windsor ; of which some account is given in our Introductions to those plays. From divers minute particulars which cannot be specified without overmuch of detail, it seems very evident that the printing was donc, for the most part, from rude reports taken at the theatre during representation, with, perhaps, some subsequent eking out and patching up from memory. There are indeed a few passages that seem to be given with much purity and completeness ; they have an integrity of sense and language, that argues a faithful transeript;
for instance, the speech of Voltimand in Act ii. sc. 2, which scarcely differs at all from the speech as we have it : but there is barely enough of this to serve as an exception to the rule. As to the other parts, the garbled and dislocated state of the text, where we often have the first of a sentence without the last, or the last without the first, or the first and last without the middle; the constant lameness of the verse where verse was meant, and the bungling attempts to print prose so as to look like verse; - all this proves beyond question, that the quarto of 1603 was by no means a faithful transcript of the play as it then stood ; and the imperfectness is of just that kind and degree which would naturally adhere to the work of a slovenly or incompetent reporter.
On the other hand, it is equally clear, that at the time that copy was taken the play must have been very different from what it afterwards became. Polonius is there called Corambis, and his servant, Montano. Divers scenes and passages, some of them such as a reporter would have been least likely to omit, are there