Many and various emotions crowded upon Shakespeare's mind in the year 1601. In its early months Essex and Southampton were condemned. Perhaps at the same time occured the crisis in the relations of Shakespeare with the Dark Lady. Finally, in the early autumn Shakespeare suffered a loss which he must have felt deeply. The Stratford register of burials for 1601 contains this line:
Septemb. 8. Mr. Johannes Shakespeare.
He lost his father, his earliest friend and guardian, whose honour and reputation lay so near to his heart. The father probably lived with his son's family in the handsome New Place, which Shakespeare had bought four years before. He had doubtless brought up the two girls Susannah and Judith; he had doubtless sat by the death-bed of the little Hamnet. Now he was no more. All the years of his youth, spent at his father's side, revived in Shakespeare's mind, memories flocked in upon him, the fundamental relation between son and father preoccupied his thoughts, and he fell to brooding over filial love and filial reverence.
In the same year Hamlet began to take shape in Shakespeare's imagination.
Hamlet has given the name of Denmark a worldwide renown. Of all Danish men, there is only one who can be called famous on the largest scale; only one with whom the thoughts of men are forever busied in Europe, America, Australia, aye, even in Asia and Africa, wherever European culture has made its way; and this one never existed, at any rate in the form in which he has become known to the world. Denmark has produced several men of note -- Tycho Brahe, Thorvaldsen, and Hans Christian Anderson -- but none of them has attained a hundredth part of Hamlet's fame. The Hamlet literature is comparable in extent to the literature of one of the smaller European peoples -- the Slovaks, for instance.
As it is interesting to follow with the eye the process by which a block of marble slowly assumes human form, so it is interesting to observe how the Hamlet theme gradually acquires its Shakespearian character.
The legend first appears in Saxo Grammaticus. Fengo murders his brave brother Horvendil, and marries his widow Gerutha (Gertrude). Horvendil's son, Amleth, determines to disarm Fengo's malevolence by feigning madness. In order to test whether he is really mad, a beautiful girl is thrown in his way, who is to note whether, in his passion for her, he still maintains the appearance of madness. But a foster-brother and friend of Amleth's reveals the plot to him; the girl, too, has an old affection for him; and nothing is discovered. Here lie the germs of Ophelia and Horatio.
With regard to Amleth's mad talk, it is explained that, having a conscientious objection to lying, he so contorted his sayings that, though he always said what he meant, people could not discover whether he meant what he said, or himself understood it -- an account of the matter which applies quite as well to the dark sayings of the Shakespearian Hamlet as to the naive riddling of the Jutish Amleth.
Polonius, too, is here already indicated -- especially the scene in which he plays eavesdropper to Hamlet's conversation with his mother. One of the King's friends proposes that some one shall conceal himself in the Queen's chamber. Amleth runs his sword through him and throws the dismembered body to the pigs, as Hamlet in the play drags the body out with him. Then ensues Amleth's speech of reproach to his mother, of which not a little is retained even in Shakespeare:
"Think'st thou, woman, that these hypocritical tears can cleanse thee of shame, thee, who like a wanton hast cast thyself into the arms of the vilest of nithings, has incestuously embraced thy husband's murderer, and basely flatterest and fawnest upon the man who has made thy son fatherless! What manner of creature doest thou resemble? Not a woman, but a dumb beast who couples at random."
Fengo resolves to send Amleth to meet his death in England, and dispatches him thither with two attendants, to whom Shakespeare, as we know, has given the names of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern -- the names of two Danish noblemen whose signatures have been found in close juxtaposition (with the date 1577) in an album which probably belonged to a Duke of Würtemberg. They were colleagues in the Council of Regency during the minority of Christian IV. These attendants (according to Saxo) had rune-staves with them, on which Amleth altered the runes, as in the play he rewrites the letters.
One more little touch is, as it were, led up to in Saxo: the exchanges of the swords. Amleth, on his return, finds the King's men assembled at his own funeral feast. He goes around with a drawn sword, and on trying its edge against his nails he once or twice cuts himself with it. Therefore they nail his sword fast into its sheath. When Amleth has set fire to the hall and rushes into Fengo's chamber to murder him, he takes the King's sword from its hook and replaces it with his own, which the King in vain attempts to draw before he dies.
Now that Hamlet, more than any other Dane, has made the name of his fatherland world-famous, it impresses us strangely to read this utterance of Saxo's: "Imperishable shall be the memory of the steadfast youth who armed himself against falsehood with folly, and with it marvellously cloaked the splendour of heaven-radiant wisdom.... He left history in doubt as to whether his heroism or his wisdom was the greater."
The Hamlet of the tragedy, with reference to his mother's too hasty marriage, says, "Frailty, thy name is woman!" Saxo remarked with reference to Amleth's widow, who was in too great a hurry to marry again: "Thus it is with all the promises of women: they are scattered like chaff before the wind and pass away like waves of the sea. Who then will trust to a woman's heart, which changes as flowers shed their leaves, as seasons change, and as new events wipe out the traces of those that went before?"
In Saxo's eyes, Amleth represented not only wisdom, but bodily strength. While the Hamlet of Shakespeare expressly emphasizes the fact that he is anything but Herculean ("My father's brother, but no more like my father than I to Hercules"), Saxo expressly compares his hero to the Club-Bearer whose name is a synonym for strength: "And the fame of men shall tell of him that, if it had been given him to live his life fortunately to the end, his excellent dispositions would have displayed themselves in deeds greater than those of Hercules, and would have adorned his brows with the demigod's wreath." It sounds almost as though Shakespeare's Hamlet entered a protest against these words of Saxo.
In the year 1559, the legend was reproduced in French in Belleforest's Histoires Tragiques, and seems in this form to have reached England, where it furnished material for the older Hamlet drama, now lost, but to which we find frequent allusions. It cannot be proved that this play was founded upon Pavier's English translation of Belleforest, or even that Shakespeare had Pavier before him; for the oldest edition of the translations which has come down to us (reprinted in Collier's Shakespeare's Library, ed. 1875, pt. I. vol. ii. p. 224) dates from 1608, and contains certain details (such as the eavesdropper's concealment behind the arras, and Hamlet's exclamation of "A rat! a rat!" before he kills Polonius) of which there is no trace in Belleforest, and which may quite well have been taken from Shakespeare's tragedy, as borrowed by him from an unknown older edition of the novel.
The earliest known allusion to the old Hamlet drama is a phrase of Thomas Nash, dating from 1589.  In 1594 the Lord Chamberlain's men (Shakespeare's company), acting together with the Lord Admiral's men at the Newington Butts theatre under the management of Henslow and others, performed a Hamlet with reference to which Henslow notes in his account-book for June 9th: "Rd. at hamlet ... viii s." This play must have been the old one, for Henslow would otherwise have added the letters ne (new), and the receipts would have been much greater. His share, as we see, was only eight shillings, whereas it was sometimes as much as nine pounds.
The chief interest of this older play seems to have centred in a figure added by the dramatist -- the Ghost of the murdered King, which cried "Hamlet, revenge!" This cry is frequently quoted. It first appears in 1596 in Thomas Lodge's Wits Miserie, where it is said of the author that he "looks as pale as the visard of ye ghost, which cried so miserably at ye theater like an oister-wife, Hamlet, revenge." It next occurs in Dekker's Satiromastix, 1602, where Tucca says, "My name's Hamlet, revenge!" In 1605, we find it in Thomas Smith's Voiage and Entertainement in Rushia; and it is last found in 1620 in Samuel Rowland's Night Raven, where, however, it seems to be an inaccurate quotation from the Hamlet we know.
Shakespeare's play was entered in the Stationers' Register on the 26th of July 1602, under the title "A booke called 'the Revenge of Hamlett Prince [of] Denmarke' as yet was latelie Acted by the Lord Chamberleyne his servantes."
That it made an instant success on the stage is almost proved by the fact that so early as the 7th of July the opposition manager Henslow pays Chettle twenty shillings for "The Danish Tragedy," evidently a furbishing up of the old play.
The publication of Shakespeare's Hamlet, however, did not take place till 1603. Then appeared the First Quarto, indubitably a pirated edition, either founded entirely on shorthand notes, or on shorthand notes eked out by aid of the actors' parts, and completed, in certain passages, from memory. Although this edition certainly contains a debased and corrupt text, it is impossible to attribute to the misunderstandings or oversights of a copyist or stenographer all its divergences from the carefully-printed quarto of the following year, which is practically identical with the First Folio text. The differences are so great as to exclude such a theory. We have evidently before us Shakespeare's first sketch of the play, although in a very defective form; and, as far as we can see, this first sketch keeps considerable closer than the definitive text to the old Hamlet drama, on which Shakespeare based his play. Here and there, though with considerable uncertainty, we can even trace scenes from the old play among Shakespeare's, and touches of its style mingling with his. It is very significant, also, that there are more rhymes in the First than in the Second Quarto.
The most remarkable feature in the 1603 edition is a scene between Horatio and the Queen in which he tells her of the King's frustrated scheme for having Hamlet murdered in England. The object of this scene is to absolve the Queen from complicity in the King's crime; a purpose which can also be traced in other passages of the first edition, and which seem to be a survival from the older drama. So far as we can gather, Horatio appears to have played an altogether more prominent part in the old play; Hamlet's madness appears to have been wilder; and Polonius probably bore the name of Corambis, which is prefixed to his speeches in the edition of 1603. Finally, as we have seen, Shakespeare took the important character of the Ghost, not indicated in either the legend or the novel, from this earlier Hamlet tragedy. The theory that it is the original of the German tragedy, Der bestrafte Brudermord, published by Cohn, from a manuscript of 1710, is unsupported by evidence.
Looking backward through the dramatic literature of England, we find that the author of the old Hamlet drama in all probability sought inspiration in his turn in Kyd's Spanish Tragedy. It appears from allusions in Jonson's Cynthia's Revels and Bartholomew Fair that this play must have been written about 1584. It was one of the most popular plays of its day with the theatre-going public. So late as 1632, Prynne in his Histriomastix speaks of a woman who, on her death-bed, instead of seeking the consolations of religion, cried out: "Hieronimo, Hieronimo! O let me see Hieronimo acted!"
The tragedy opens, after the fashion of its models in Seneca, with the apparition of the murdered man's ghost, and his demand for vengeance. Thus the Ghost in Shakespeare's Hamlet is lineally descended from the spirit of Tantalus in Seneca's Thyestes, and from the spirit of Thyestes in Seneca's Agamemnon. Hieronimo, who has been driven mad by sorrow for the loss of his son, speaking to the villain of the piece, gives half-ironical, half-crazy expression to the anguish that is torturing him:
LORENZO: Why so, Hieronimo? use me.
HIERONIMO: Who? you my lord?
I reserve your favour for a greater honour:
This is a very toy, my lord, a toy.
LORENZO: All's one, Hieronimo, acquaint me with it.
HIERONIMO: I' faith, my lord, 'tis an idle thing ...
The murder of a son, or so--
A thing of nothing, my lord!
These phrases foreshadow Hamlet's speeches to the King. But Hieronimo is really mad, although he speaks of his madness much as Hamlet does, or rather denies it point-blank--
Villain, thou liest, and thou dost naught
But tell me I am mad: thou liest, I am not mad.
I know thee to be Pedro, and he Jacques;
I'll prove it to thee; and were I mad, how could I?
Here and there, especially in Ben Jonson's additions, we come across speeches which lie very closely to passages in Hamlet. A painter, who also has lost his son, says to Hieronimo: "Ay, sir, no man did hold a son so dear;" whereupon he answers--
What, not as thine? That is a lie,
As massy as the earth: I had a son,
Whose least unvalued hair did weigh
A thousand of thy sons; and he was murdered.
Thus Hamlet cries to Laertes:
I lov'd Ophelia: forty thousand brothers
Could not, with all their quantity of love,
Make up my sum.
Hieronimo, like Hamlet, again and again postpones his vengeance:
All times fit not for revenge.
Thus, therefore, will I rest me in unrest,
Dissembling quiet in unquietness:
Not seeming that I know their villainies,
That my simplicity may make them think
That ignorantly I will let all slip.
At last he determines to have a play acted, as a means to his revenge. The play is Kyd's own Solyman and Perseda, and in the course of it the guilty personages, who play the chief parts, are slaughtered, not in make-believe, but in reality.
Crude and naive though everything still is in The Spanish Tragedy, which resembles Titus Andronicus in style rather than any other of Shakespeare's works, it evidently, through the medium of the earlier Hamlet play, contributed a good deal to the foundations of Shakespeare's Hamlet.
Before going more deeply into the contents of this great work, and especially before trying to bring it into relation to Shakespeare's personality, we have yet to see what suggestions or impulses the poet may have found in contemporary history.
We have already remarked upon the impression which the Essex family tragedy must have made upon Shakespeare in his early youth, before he had even left Stratford. All England was talking of the scandal: how the Earl of Leicester, who was commonly suspected of having had Lord Essex poisoned, immediately after his death had married his widow, Lady Lettice, whose lover no one doubted that he had been during her husband's lifetime. There is much in the character of King Claudius to suggest that Shakespeare has here taken Leicester as his model. The two have in common ambition, sensuality, an ingratiating conciliatory manner, astute dissimulation, and complete unscrupulousness. On the other hand, it is quote unreasonable to suppose with Herman Conrad that Shakespeare had Essex in his eye in drawing Hamlet himself.
Almost as near to Shakespeare's own day as the Essex-Leicester catastrophe had been the similar events in the Royal Family of Scotland. Mary Stuart's second husband, Lord Darnley, who bore the title of King of Scotland, had been murdered in 1567 by her lover, the daring and unscrupulous Bothwell, whom the Queen almost immediately afterwards married. Her contemporaries had no doubt whatever of Mary's complicity in the assassination, and her son James saw in his mother and his stepfather his father's murderers. The leaders of the Scottish rebelion displayed before the captive Queen a banner bearing a representation of Darnley's corpse, with her son kneeling beside it and calling to Heaven for vengeance. Darnley, like the murdered King in _Hamlet_ was an unusually handsome, Bothwell an unusually repulsive, man.
James was brought up by his mother's enemies, and during her lifetime, and after her death, was perpetually wavering between her adherents, who had defended her legal rights, and her adversaries, who had driven her from the country and placed James himself on the throne. He made one or two efforts, indeed, to soften Elizabeth's feelings towards his mother, but refrained from all attempt to avenge her death. His character was irresolute. He was learned and -- what Hamlet is very far from being -- a superstitious pedant; but, like Hamlet, he was a lover of the arts and sciences, and was especially interested in the art of acting. Between 1599 and 1601, he entertained in Scotland a portion of the company to which Shakespeare belonged; but it is uncertain whether Shakespeare himself ever visited Scotland. There is little doubt, on the other hand, that when, after Elizabeth's death in 1603, James made his entrance into London, Shakespeare, richly habited in uniform of red cloth, walked in his train along with Burbage and a few others of the leading players. Their company was henceforth known as "His Majesty's Servants."
Although there is in all this no lack of parallels to Hamlet's circumstances, it is, of course, as ridiculous to take James as to take Essex for the actual model of Hamlet. Nothing could at that time have been stupider or more tactless than to remind the heir-presumptive to the throne, or the new King, of the deplorable circumstances of his early history. This does not exclude the supposition, however, that contemporary history supplied Shakespeare with certain outward elements, which, in the moment of conception, contributed to the picture bodied forth by the creative energy of his genius.
From this point of view, too, we must regard the piles of material which well-meaning students bring to light, in the artless belief that they have discovered the very stones of which Shakespeare constructed his dramatic edifice. People do not distinguish between the possibility that the poet may have unconsciously received a suggestion here and there for details of his work, and the theory that he deliberately intended an imaginative reproduction of definite historic events. No work of imagination assuredly, and least of all such a work as Hamlet, comes into existence in the way these theorists assume. It springs from within, has its origin in an overmastering sensation in the poet's soul, and then, in the process of growth, assimilates certain impressions from without.
Back to Hamlet Criticism
- The passage runs thus: "It is a common practice now a days among 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 latinize their neck-verse if they should have need; yet English Seneca, read by candlelight, 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." Although this passage seems at first sight an evident gibe at Shakespeare, it has in reality no reference to him, since An Epistle to the Gentleman Students of both Universities, by Thomas Nash, although not printed till 1589, can be proved to have been written as early as 1587, many years before Shakespeare so much as thought of Hamlet.