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INTRODUCTION TO HAMLET, PRINCE OF DENMARK.
THE transcendent merits of this great drama may be said
character of Hamlet-and on the richness and grandeur of the poetry with which it is imbued. Its interest is supremely intellectual, and therefore it is in the highest sense original ; for though an old novel or play may have furnished the fable and course of action, neither would have contributed towards the true or profound analysis of character, the workings of passion, the colouring of poetic imagination, or the penetration and wisdom of philosophic thought. These constitute the primary elements of this tragedy, disposed and combined with the most perfect art, and with a power and affluence of genius which seem like direct supernatural inspiration.
The original story of Hamlet is given in the Danish History of Saxo Grammaticus, from which it was copied by Belleforest in his Histoires Tragiques, commenced in 1564. An English translation from Belleforest, The Hystorie of Hamblet, appeared about the close of the sixteenth century, though the only copy of it known to exist, and which has been reprinted by Mr Collier, is dated 1608. This is a very wretched performance, but it contains the murder of Hamlet's father, the marriage of his mother with the murderer, Hamlet's interview with his mother, and his voyage to England. The plot is materially different, as in the Hystorie Hamlet slays his uncle, burns his palace, and, after making an oration to the Danes, is elevated to the throne of Denmark. He next proceeds to England, and kills the king (who had engaged to put the Danish prince to death), and returns to Denmark with two wives, one of whom betrays him, and he is slain in battle. From this tissue of vulgar horrors and improbabilities the poet could gain little ; but in the conduct of the story he may have been indebted to a previous play on the subject. There are several references to an old tragedy of Hamlet. Nash, in an Epistle prefixed to Greene's Menaphon, 1589, has the following passage : 'It is a common practice now-a-days amongst a sort of shifting companions, that run through every art and thrive by none, to leave the trade of Noverint whereto they were born, and busy themselves with the endeavours of art, that could scarcely Latinise their neck-verse if they should have need ; yet English Seneca read by candle-light yields many good sentences—as “Blood is a beggar,” and so forth—and if you entreat him fair in a frosty morning, he will afford you whole Hamlets—I should say handfuls of tragical speeches.' Some have supposed that the allusion here is to Shakespeare and his tragedy of Hamlet, but it more probably refers to an earlier play. Henslow, the manager, mentions a Hamlet as having been acted at the Newington Butts Theatre in June 1594 ; and Lodge, in 1596, describing a certain fiend, says : ‘He walks for the most part in black, under colour of gravity, and looks as pale as the visard of the ghost which cried so miserably at the theatre, like an oyster wife, “Hamlet, revenge !"'
The first edition of Shakespeare's Hamlet is dated 1603, and the title-page states that it had been divers times acted by his highness servants in the city of London, as also in the two universities of Cambridge and Oxford, and elsewhere.' The registers of the Stationers' Company shew that a bookseller, Roberts, had in the previous year (July 26, 1602) applied for leave to print a book, The Revenge of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, as it was lately acted by the Lord Chamberlain his servants ;' and we may conclude that the drama had been produced in 1601, or early
i The trade of Noverint was that of an attorney or attorney's clerk. The old Latin deeds generally began with the words Noverint Universi, equivalent to the modern ‘Know all men,' &c.