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Geruth, the daughter to Roderick, chief K. of Denmark by whom he had Hamblet: and how after his marriage his brother Fengon slewe him trayterously, and marryed his brothers wife, and what followed. Chap. II. How Hamblet counterfieted the mad man, to escape the tyrannie of his uncle, and how he was tempted by a woman (through his uncles procurement) who thereby thought to undermine the Prince, and by that meanes to finde out whether he counterfieted madnesse or not : and how Hamblet would by no meanes bee brought to consent unto her, and what followed. Chap. III. How Fengon, uncle to Hamblet, a second time to entrap him in his politick madnes, caused one of his counsellors to be secretly hidden in the queenes chamber, behind the arras, to heare what speeches passed between Hamblet and the Queen ; and how Hamblet killed him, and escaped that danger, and what followed. Chap. IIII. How Fengon the third time devised to send Hamblet to the king of England, with secret letters to have him put to death ; and how Hamblet, when his companions slept, read the letters, and instead of them counterfieted others, willing the king of England to put the two messengers to death, and to marry his daughter to Hamblet, which was effected; and how Hamblet escaped out of England. Chap. V. How Hamblet, having escaped out of England, arrived in Denmarke the same day that the Danes were celebrating his funerals, suposing him to be dead in England; and how he revenged his fathers death upon his uncle and the rest of the courtiers; and what followed. Chap. VI. How Hamlet, having slaine his Uncle, and burnt his Palace, made an Oration to the Danes to shew them what he done; and how they made him King of Denmarke; and what followed. Chap. VII. How Hamlet, after his coronation, went into England; and how the king of England secretly would have put him to death ; and how he slew the king of England, and returned againe into Denmarke with two wives; and what followed. ' Chap. VIII. How Hamblet, being in Denmarke, was assailed by Wiglerus his Uncle, and after betrayed by his last wife called Hermetrude, and was slaine; after whose death she marryed his enemie, Wiglerus.
With Hamlet's return from England all likeness between Shakespeare's play and the story from which its chief incidents were indirectly taken is at an end. Nor are the incidents of both even thus far so nearly identical as at the first blush they seem. In the story Hamlet’s father is not King of Denmark, but joint Governor, with his brother Fengon, of the province of Jute. Fengon lives in adultery with Hamlet's mother during the lifetime of his father, who is not secretly poisoned, but openly put to death by Fengon at the head of his partisans. Hamlet's madness is counterfeited upon his own suggestion, and not in consequence of an interview with his father's ghost — an important character in the play which is not found in the story. In the story Hamlet is tempted by a “faire and beautifull woman in a secret place,” but in vain, because he is forewarned by one of the courtiers, and also because “by her he was likewise informed of the treason, as being one that from her infancie loved and favoured him, and would have been exceedingly sorrowfull for his misfortune; ” and in these few words consists its entire contribution to the character of Ophelia and the Scenes in which she bears so prominent a part. No play convicts the King of conscious guilt, according to the story; and of his own accord Hamlet goes to his mother's closet, where he kills the listening courtier before her eyes; and, this done, we are told that he “cut his bodie in pieces, which he caused to be boyled, and then cast it . . . to the hogges.” In the story Hamlet takes his revenge by burning his uncle's banqueting hall at a time when it was filled with courtiers overcome with wine, and by afterwards rousing his uncle himself from his drunken slumbers in his own bedchamber, and cutting off his head with his own sword. — Yet with all this dissimilarity between play and story, added to that which is the consequence of the addition of new characters and new incidents, there is remarkable resemblance in minute particulars. Thus, for instance, in the story as well as in the play, Hamlet, on detecting the hidden eavesdropper in his mother's closet, calls out, “A rat, a rat l” and the purport and character of his subsequent reproaches to his mother are notably alike in both.
To suppose that in the first dramatization of the History of Hamblet there was such a departure from the course of events which it relates as that just noticed, would not be in accordance with what we know of the practice among playwrights of the Elizabethan age, Shakespeare himself included. Histories and novels were them adapted to the stage with as little alteration as would fit them for their new function. If the subject proved popular, the plays were rewritten again and again, as the exigencies of the theatre required, and by pen of him who was nearest at hand and most capable of the work; and, as at each rewriting they were generally more or less recast, the longer they kept the stage the more they deviated from the original story upon which they were founded. To this common fortune Hamlet appears not to have been an exception. The vestiges of its transformation are slight, indeed, and do not enable us to trace it through its various phases; but, under the circumstances, they are quite sufficient to establish the fact that there was at least one intermediate form between the old story and the play which has come down to us.
The earliest mention of a tragedy of Hamlet which has yet been discovered is in an Epistle by Thomas Nash “To the Gentlemen Students of both Universities,” prefixed to Robert Greene's Menaphon, which was published in 1589, and, Mr. Dyce seems to think, two years before. In this epistle Nash says that “English Seneca read by candle-light yeeldes many good sentences, as Bloud is a begger, and so foorth ; and if you intreate him faire in a frostie morning he will affoord you whole Hamlets, I should say handfulls of tragical speaches.” “ — Henslowe's Diary affords the next trace of a Hamlet. In that singular and interesting record we find the following entry (p. 35. Ed. Shak. Soc.): — -- “9 of June 1594 at hamlet - - - - - viii. s.”
Next, in Thomas Lodge's Wit's Miserie, or The World's Madnesse, printed in 1596, a certain fiend is said to be “a foul lubber . . . and lookes as pale as the vizard of the ghost who cried so miserably at the theatre, Hamlet revenge ” Last, among the plays which Francis Meres cites, in the well-known passage of his Palladis Tamia, 1598, to prove Shakespeare's excellence in tragedy, Hamlet is not mentioned, although Titus Andronicus is, and the only other pure tragedy named is Romeo and Juliet. I regard this omission as strong negative evidence that Shakespeare had not at that time written his Hamlet. That he had written it, in any form known to us, as early as 1588 or 1589, nine or ten years before Meres’ book appeared, is yet more improbable ; and, considering also that he was at that date but twenty-four yéars old, this point may be regarded as sufficiently established. But, as we have seen, before 1589 a Hamlet had been written, and in 1594 there was performed at Henslowe's theatre a Hamlet, which, from the absence of his distinguishing mark, ne, and the small sum which he received as his share of the profits, we may be sure was not a new play. Finally, in 1596, two years before the appearance of Meres' book, Nash knew of a Hamlet (and had it been Shakespeare's, Meres would surely have cited it) in which the Ghost of Hamlet’s father incited him to revenge. This seems to lead us to the conclusion that the first introduction of the Ghost into the plot is not due to Shakespeare, and that there was therefore an intermediate form of the tragedy between the old history and that which is now known to us. And in support of this yiew there is the important fact that in the earliest existing version of Shakespeare's work two characters have different names from those which they bear in all editions of the completed version, which can hardly be other than a remnant of a preceding dramatization of the story.
* Apud Rev. A. Dyce.
This first version of the tragedy is of such a character that it bears alike upon the questions of the formation of the text, the period at which the drama was produced, and the manner in which it was written. On the 26th of July, 1602, James Boberts entered upon the Register of the Stationers’ Company “A booke, The Revenge of Hamlett prince of Denmarke, as yt was latelie acted by the Lord Chamberlayn his servantes.” # No edition of that year is known, and it is almost certain that none was printed. But we may be sure that the play which Roberts entered was Shakespeare's, because it had been lately performed by the company to which he belonged, -the Tord Chamberlain's, —and which, before a year had passed, became the King's players. And in 1603 the earliest known edition of the play appeared, with the announcement on the title page that it had been divers times acted by his Highness’ servants in the city of London, and also in the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford, and elsewhere. The latter part of this announcement is of moment, as showing the great favor in which the play was held in the highest quarters at that period, and making it still surer that 'such a play could not have been passed over by Meres when he mentioned Titus Andronicus. Of the edition of 1603, only two copies are known ; one without the title page, and the other lacking the last leaf. But a very exact reprint of it was made by William Nicol in 1825, in which even its minutest errors and defects are represented.* The text of this edition is but about half as long as that of the folio; and, like those of the first editions of The Merry Wives of Windsor, King Henry the Fifth, and Romeo and Juliet, it is so mutilated, as well as so corrupt, that there can be no doubt that it also was printed from a very imperfect copy which had been surreptitiously procured. The great difference in length between the texts of the first and the second edition has been generally regarded of late years as presumptive evidence that the play was revised and largely added to before the printing of the latter. And this opinion has been thought to derive very material support from the noteworthy announcement upon the title page of the second edition; of which opinion that announcement, however, (owing to what I regard as a misapprehension of its meaning,) is rather the source. On this title page the play is said to be “Newly imprinted and enlarged to almost as much againe as it was, according to the true and perfect coppie,” which has been accepted on all hands as meaning that the play had been “enlarged ” by the author. But upon the very face of it, and especially under the circumstances, has it not clearly a very different purport The previous edition is so corrupt, disconnected, and heterogeneous that the least observant reader, even of that day, when plays were printed so carelessly, must have seen that as a whole it was but a maimed and mutilated version of the true text, and in some parts, a mere travestie of it. Therefore immediately, as soon as might be, another edition was prepared from a genuine copy, and this, with reference to the preceding notoriously imperfect and spurious edition, (sold, be it observed, by the same bookseller,) was declared to be newly imprinted, and enlarged, according to the true and perfect copy, to almost as much again as it was. It seems to be very plainly indicated that the enlargement was the consequence of the procurement of a complete and authentic text,
* See “Extracts from the Stationers' Register,” Variorwm of 1821, Vol. II. p. 369.