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On the 26th of July, 1602, a memorandum was entered on the registers of the Stationers' Company,—
" James Roberts.] A booke, The Revenge of Hamlett prince of Denmarke, as yt was latelie acted by the Lord Chamberlayn his servantes."
This entry unquestionably refers to our author's “Hamlet,” the publication of which Roberts desired to secure. As, however, an edition of the play appeared in the following year, “printed for N. L. and John Trundell,” Mr. Collier conjectures that Roberts was unable to obtain such a copy of the piece as he could creditably associate his name with, but that some inferior and nameless printer, not so scrupulous, contrived to possess himself of an imperfect manuscript of it, and brought out the edition of 1603. Of this impression, one copy of which is in the library of the Duke of Devonshire, and another recently discovered has been purchased for the British Museum, the title is, “ The Tragicall Historie of Hamlet Prince of Denmarke. By William Shake-speare. As it hath beene diverse times acted by his Highnesse servants in the Cittie of London : as also in the two Universities of Cambridge and Oxford, and else-where. At London printed for N. L. and John Trundell, 1603.”
But, as Mr. Dyce observes, we have no proof that Roberts was not the "nameless printer” of the quarto of 1603 : on the contrary, there is reason to suspect that he was, since we find that he printed the quarto of 1604 for the same Nicholas Ling who was one of the publishers of the quarto of 1603. It is of no material consequence, however, who printed that maimed and surreptitious version. What really concerns us is to know whether, making large allowance for omissions and corruptions due to the negligence of those through whose hands the manuscript passed, the edition of 1603 exhibits the play as Shakespeare first wrote it and as it was “ diverse times acted.” We believe it does. The internal evidence is to our judgment convincing that in this wretchedly printed copy we have the poet's first conception (written probably at an early stage of his dramatic career) of that magnificent tragedy which, remodelled and augmented, was published in 1604, 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 under Saint Dunstons Church in Fleetstreet, 1604."
Prefixed to Greene's “ Menaphon. Camillas alarum to slumbering Euphues,” &c. 1589, is an Epistle “ To the Gentlemen Students of both Universities,” by Nash, in which occurs the following passage,—“ Ile turne backe to my first text, of studies of delight; and talke a little in friendship with a few of our triviall translators. 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 Noverint 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 Blould 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."
Here, the “ shifting companions, that runne through every arte," brings so distinctly to mind the epithet, “ an absolute Johannes Fac-totum,” which Nash's sworn brother, Greene, in his “ Groats-worth of Wit,” &c. 1593, applied to Shakespeare, and “ the trade of Noverint” so well tallies with the received tradition of his having passed some time in the office of an attorney, that, prima facie, the allusion to Hamlet would seem directly levelled at our author's tragedy. But, then, interposes a difficulty on the score of dates. Shakespeare, in 1589, was only twenty-three years of age,—too young, it may be well objected, to have earned the distinction of being satirized by Nash as having “ run through every art.” It is asserted, too, on good authority, that an edition of the “ Menaphon.” was published in 1587; and if that earlier copy contained Nash's Epistle, the probability of his referring to Shakespeare is considerably weakened. Again, in “ Wits Miserie, and the Worlds Madnesse,” &c. 1596, Lodge, describing a particular fiend, says, “ he walks for the most part in black under colour of gravity, and looks as pale as the vizard of ye ghost which cried so miserally at ye theator like an oisterwife, Hamlet, revenge.”
After duly weighing the evidence on either side, we incline to agree with Mr. Dyce, that the play alluded to by Lodge and Nash was an earlier production on the same subject; though we find no cause to conclude that the first sketch of Shakespeare's “ Hamlet,” as published in 1603, was not the piece to which Henslowe refers in the entry connected with the performances at Newington Butts,
“9. of June 1594 at hamlet * * * -viii. s."
The original story of “ Hamlet,” or “ Amleth,” is related by the Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus, and was adopted by Belleforest in his collection of novels, 1564. From the French of the novelist, it was rendered into English at an early date, and printed under the title of “ The Hystorie of Hamblet.” If there were really a tragedy of “Hamlet” anterior to the immortal drama by Shakespeare, we may reasonably assume that he derived the outline of his plot from that source. If no such play existed, he probably constructed it entirely from the rude materials furnished by “ The Historie of Hamblet.”
CLAUDIUS, King of Denmark.
MARCELLUS, Hamlet, Son to the former, and Nephew to the BERNARDO, y Officers. present Ring.
FRANCISCO, Polonius, Lord Chamberlain.
REYNALDO, Servant to Polonius. Horatio, Friend to Hamlet.
Players. LAERTES, Son to Polonius.
Two Clowns, Grave-diggers. VOLTIMAND,
FORTINBRAS, Prince of Norway. CORNELIUS,
GERTRUDE, Queen of Denmark, and Mother to A Gentleman.
Hamlet. A Priest.
Ghost of Hamlet's Father.
FRANCISCO on guard. Enter to him BERNARDO.
Enter Horatio and MARCELLUS.
And liegemen to the Dane. BER. Long live the king !*
FRAN. Give you good night. FRAN.
O, farewell, honest soldier: BER.
He. Who hath reliev'd you ? FRAN. You come most carefully upon your hour. | FRAN.
Bernardo has my place. BER. 'Tis now struck twelve ; get thee to bed, Give you good night.
Holla! Bernardo ! FRAN. For this relief much thanks : 'tis bitter BER. Say, what, is Horatio there? cold,
A piece of him. And I am sick at heart.
BER. Welcome, Horatio ;-welcome, good MarBER. Have you had quiet guard ?
Not a mouse stirring. MAR. What, has this thing appear'd again toBER. Well, good night.
night? If you do meet Horatio and Marcellus,
BER. I have seen nothing.
Touching this dreaded sight, twice seen of us :
(*) The first folio omits, ho ! · Long live the king !) This was the watchword of the night.
b The rivals-] That is, the associates, partners, &c. In the quarto of 1603, the reading, indeed, is “partners."