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1. THE HISTORY OF THE PLAY. The earliest known edition of Hamlet appeared in quarto form in 1603, with the following title-page:
THE | Tragicall Historie of | HAMLET | Prince of Denmarke | By William Shake-speare. | As it hath beene diverse times acted by his Highnesse ser- | uants in the Cittie of London : as also in the two V- | niuersities of Cambridge and Oxford, and else-where | At London printed for N. L. and Iohn Trundell. | 1603.
In the preceding year (July 26, 1602) James Roberts the printer had entered in the Stationers' Register “ A booke called the Revenge of HAMLETT Prince of Denmarke as yt was latelie acted by the Lord Chamberleyne his servantes.” The quarto of 1603 may have been printed by Roberts, though his name does not appear on the title-page. He certainly printed the second quarto, published by the same “N. L.” (Nicholas Ling) in 1604, with the following title-page:
THE | Tragicall Historie of | HAMLET, | Prince of Denmarke. | By William Shakespeare. | Newly imprinted and enlarged to almost as much | againe as it was, according to the true and perfect Coppie. | AT LONDON, Printed by I. R. for N. L. and are to be sold at his / shoppe vnder St. Dunstons Church in | Fleetstreet. 1604.
The relation of the first quarto to the second has been much disputed. Collier, White, and some other critics believe that the former is merely an imperfect report of the play as published in the latter ; that it was printed, either from short-hand notes taken at the theatre, or from a stagecopy cut down for representation and perhaps corrupted by the insertion of stuff from an earlier play on the same subject. The second quarto, on the other hand, was an authorized edition of the play from “ the true and perfect copy.”
Other critics—among whom are Caldecott, Knight, Staun. ton, and Dyce — believe that the first quarto represents, though in a corrupt form, the first draught of the play, while the second gives it as remodelled and enlarged by the author. It is not necessary to suppose that the former was written near the time when it was published ; it was more likely an early production of the poet. After the revision the original copy could be more easily obtained for surreptitious publication, and it may have been printed in haste to “head off” an authorized edition of the remodelled play.
Another theory, and a very plausible one, is that of Messrs. Clark and Wright, brought out in the “Clarendon Press” edition of the play ; namely, “ that there was an old play on the story of Hamlet, some portions of which are still preserved in the quarto of 1603 ; that about the year 1602 Shakespeare took this and began to remodel it, as he had done with other plays; that the quarto of 1603 represents the play after it had been retouched by him to a certain extent, but before his alterations were complete ; and that in the quarto of 1604 we have for the first time the Hamlet of Shakespeare.”
For a résumé of the discussion of this interesting question (which will probably never be settled) see Furness's Hamlet, vol. ii. pp. 12–33.
The third quarto, published in 1605, is a reprint of the second ; the title-page being identical except in date, and the variations in the text slight and unimportant. A fourth quarto, “ Printed for Iohn Smethwicke” and “to be sold at his shoppe in Saint Dunstons church yeard in Fleetstreet," appeared in 1611 ; and a fifth, undated, was afterwards issued by the same publisher.* No other editions appeared during the lifetime of Shakespeare, or before the publication of the folio of 1623. The text of the latter varies considerably from that of the quartos, as will be seen by our Notes, in which the more important differences are recorded. Collier thinks that “if the Hamlet in the first folio were not composed from some hitherto unknown quarto,f it was derived from a manuscript
* Malone believes that this edition was printed in 1607, and Halliwell is inclined to place it “ before 1609;" but, as the Cambridge editors show, its orthography is more modern than that of the quarto of 1611, from which it was probably printed.
† It is not impossible that there may have been such a quarto. No copy of the quarto of 1603 was known until 1823, when one was found by Sir Henry Bunbury. A second was picked up in 1856 by a Dublin · bookseller, who paid a shilling for it. The former, which lacks the last page, was afterwards sold to the Duke of Devonshire for £230 ; the latter, which wants the title-page, was bought by Mr. Halliwell for £120, and
obtained by Heminge and Condell from the theatre.” The standard text of the play is chiefly made up by a collation of the second quarto and the first folio.
II. THE SOURCES OF THE PLOT. There was certainly an old play on the subject of Hamlet, and some critics believe that it was an early production of Shakespeare's. The first allusion to it that has been discovered is in an Epistle “ To the Gentleman Students of both Universities,” by Thomas Nash, prefixed to Greene's Menaphon, printed in 1589. Referring to the playwrights of that day, Nash says: “It is a common practice now a daies amongst a sort of shifting companions,* that runne through every arte and thrive by none to leave the trade of Noverintt whereto they were borne, and busie themselves with the indevours of art, that could scarcelie latinize their necke-verse if they should have neede; yet English Seneca read by candle-light yeeldes manie 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.” In Henslowe's Diary the following entry occurs :
9 of June 1594, Rd at hamlet ... viiij Five lines above the entry is this memorandum: “In the name of God Amen, beginninge at Newington, my Lord Admeralle and my Lorde chamberlen men, as foloweth, 1594.” At this date, Shakespeare was one of the company of actors known as “the Lord Chamberlain's men.”
Again, in Lodge's Wits miserie, and the Worlds madnesse,
is now in the British Museum. These are the only copies of the first quarto that have come down to our day.
* For the contemptuous use of companion (=fellow), cf. 7. C. iv. 3. 138: “Companion, hence !” and see Temp. p. 131, or M. N. D. p. 125.
† That is, of attorney ; from the Latin formula with which deeds be. gan : “Noverint universi” =our “Know all men," etc.
published in 1596, we have an allusion to "ye ghost which cried so miserally [sic] at ye theator, like an oisterwife, Hamlet reuenge."
There is also an old German play on the story of Hamlet, Der Bestrafte Brudermord, which some critics suppose to have been acted by English players in Germany as early as 1603 (though there seems to be no authentic record of any performance earlier than 1626, and the text that has come down to us cannot be traced farther back than 1710), and which may have been based on the pre-Shakespearian play. In the quarto of 1603 Polonius appears as “Corambis,” and in the German play as “Corambus.” As there is no evidence that the German writer made any use of the quarto, it is not improbable that he drew from the earlier drama.*
It is impossible to say what use Shakespeare made of this old English play (we do not believe that it was a youthful production of his own), as it seems to be hopelessly lost, and we cannot guess how much of it, if any. thing, survives in diluted form in the German play just mentioned. Of another source from which he probably derived his material we have better knowledge: namely, The Hystorie of Hamblet, translated from the Histoires Tragiques of Francis de Belleforest. The story of Hamlet is found in the fifth volume, which was printed at Paris in 1570. The English version was probably made soon after, though the only edition now extant is that of 1608.7
The poet has followed the Hystorie in some of its main incidents—the murder of Hamlet's father by his uncle, the marriage of his mother with the murderer, his feigned madness, his killing of Polonius, his interview with his mother, his voyage to England, his return, and his revenge—but not
* For a translation of the German play and a discussion of its relations to the history of Shakespeare's Hamlet, see Furness, vol. ii. pp. 114-142.
† Reprinted (with the exception of the last two chapters, of which S. made no use) by Furness, vol. ii. pp. 91-113.