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ADAPTED FOR USE IN SCHOOAS AND FOR PRIVATE STUDY.
REV. JOHN HUNTER, M.A.
Instructor of Candidates for the Civil Service and other Public Examinations;
The legend of Amleth, or Hamlet, is first met with in the Third and Fourth Books of the · History of Denmark,' written in Latin by Saxo Grammaticus, a native of Elsinore, about the end of the twelfth century, but not printed till 1514. About fifty years after the publication of Saxo's history, Belleforest, in a French collection of stories, called * Histoires Tragiques,' introduced that of Amleth, in a form pretty nearly corresponding to the Danish historian's account, leaving out a few gross and absurd details, and considerably amplifying some of the sentimental portions ; but presenting, like the original, a very poor treasury of incident and thought for the purposes of dramatic adaptation. From the · Histoires Tragiques,' an English translation, called the “ Historie of Hamblet,' was made before the close of the sixteenth century; but the only perfect copy of it known to exist is a black-letter quarto, bearing the date of 1608, and now in the library of Trinity College, Cambridge. A modern reprint of it (1841) will be found in J. P. Collier's "Shakspeare's Library.
If this . Historie’ was the only source from which Shakspeare derived materials for the framework of his “Hamlet, all the excellence of that wonderful drama is his own. As Capel observes, “ None of the relater's expressions have got into the play, except when Hamlet kills the counsellor behind the arras : here, beating the hangings, he cries out, “ A rat! a rat!” But from some allusions by old writers, it seems tolerably certain that the story of Hamlet had been dramatised, with the introduction of a ghost scene, before Shakspeare had reached his 24th year; and therefore our poet may have taken the outline of his plot from a previous play, rather than from the Danish historian's legend, which makes no mention of a ghost. But, as Collier, in his edition of Shakspeare, says, 'How far that lost play might be an improvement upon the old translated Historie we have no means of deciding, nor to what extent Shakspeare availed himself of such improvement.' *
* The following extract from Sir Thomas Overbury's Characters deserves to be read by the student of Shakspeare's Hamlet. I cannot help thinking that it was seen in manuscript, if not in print, by our dramatist before the Hamlet was written:
'A Melancholy Man is a strayer from the drove: one that nature made sociable, because she made him man, and a crazed disposition hath altered. Impleasing to all, as all to him, straggling thoughts are his content; they make him dream waking, there's his pleasure. His imagination is never idle, it keeps his mind in a continual motion, as the poise the clock: he winds up his thoughts often, and as often unwinds them; Penelope's web thrives faster. He'll seldom be found without the shade of some grove, in whose bottom a river dwells. He carries a cloud in his face, never fair weather; his out
The first production of Shakspeare's “Hamlet,' in the original form (for he afterwards altered it), was certainly not later than 1602, and probably not later than 1589, when he was only twenty-five years of age. The earliest edition of it known is the small quarto of 1603, of which one copy is in the library of the Duke of Devonshire, and another, discovered in 1856, is deposited in the British Museum. In the year 1604, another edition came forth, under the title of “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 Saint Dunston's Church in Fleetstreet. 1604. Only three copies of this second quarto are known, one of them
side is framed to his inside, in that he keeps a decorum, both unseemly. Speak to him; he hears with his eyes, ears follow his mind, and that's not at leisure. He thinks business, but never does any: he is all contemplation, no action. He hews and fashions his thoughts, as if he meant them to some purpose, but they prove unprofitable as a piece of wrought timber to no use. His spirit and the sun are enemies; the sun bright and warm, his humour black and cold.'
That Shakspeare had read some of Overbury's Characters before the production of the Hamlet may appear somewhat probable from a comparison of the following passages :•Do not believe his vows, for they are brokers,
Not of the dye which their investments show.'— Hamlet, i. 3. * He dyeth his means and his meaning into two colours; he baits craft with humility, and his countenance is the picture of the present disposition. He allures, is not allured, by his affections, for they are the brokers of his observation.' -OVERBURY's Dissembler.