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HAMLET, PRINCE OF DENMARK.
The original story on which this play 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 through 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 is supposed that there were earlier impressions.
The following passage is found in an 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 now2-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 beggar, 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 edar rerumwhat is it that will last always ? The sea exhaled by drops will in continuance be drie ; and Seneca, let bloud 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 Shakspeare'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
sort take much delight in Shakspeare'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 recently 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 intention of revenging his death. There are also some few lines and passages which do not appear in the revised copy. The principal variations are noticed in the course of the notes.*
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 at the commencement of the present year (1825); too late, alas ! even to gratify the enthusiasm of his zealous friend, that worthy man, James Boswell;
• There are some singular variations in the names of the Dramatis Personæ. Corambis and Montano are the names given to the Polonius and Reynaldo of the revised play; for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, we have Rossencraft and Gilderstone; and Osric is merely designated a Braggart Gentleman.