In attempting to interpret Hamlet by any explanation or combination of explanations derived from a study of the drama itself, some difficulties and discrepancies remain to trouble the student. We shall take up certain considerations that are not drawn from the play itself.
The noble words of King Thoas in Goethe's Iphigenie almost make us forget that he sacrifices captive strangers upon the altar. Goethe accepted the old story, but he has refined the character of Thoas; hence, while it is assumed that the King acts barbarously, he speaks nobly.
May there not be some clashing of this sort in our Hamlet, since the play is based upon a crude old tale of blood and revenge? Shakespeare was also embarrassed by the fact that the theatre-going public had already a definite conception of the story of the Prince and his character.
An account of the life of Hamlet appeared in a French prose work by one Belleforest, Histoires Tragiques, and was written in 1570. The Elizabethan Hamlet is believed to be based upon this form of the story. The tale is known to go back as far as the Historia Danica of Saxo Grammaticus, who wrote about 1200. In Belleforest, Hamlet kills his uncle, and then goes to England, whence he returns "with two wives."
Beginning with 1589 we find numerous allusions to an English play upon the story of Hamlet. This work has been lost. It seems to have been a tragedy of blood and vengeance. Unlike the story in Belleforest, but like that in Shakespeare, this tragedy had a ghost. The cry of the Ghost in this lost play, "Hamlet, revenge!" is often quoted by writers of the time. A few students have conjectured that this drama was a youthful production of Shakespeare; a German scholar, Sarrazin, is confident that Thomas Kyd was its author. The importance for us of this vanished play consists in the proof which it furnishes that a distinct conception of the character of Hamlet and of the story of his life had possession of the stage before Shakespeare took up the subject. Dr. Latham goes so far as to say that "long before it came under the cognizance of Shakespeare," the character of Hamlet was "as strongly stamped and stereotyped" as were those of Medea, Orestes, and Achilles upon the Greek stage. As a practical application of this doctrine, he argues that "the pretendedness" of Hamlet's madness is as unquestionable "as the reality of that of Orestes."
In 1603 was published the first version of our Hamlet, the so-called First Quarto. This is somewhat more than half as long as the later play. The outline of the action is substantially the same as that which we know; but the Queen repents of her sin, and offers to assist Hamlet in securing revenge. Strangely enough, the First Quarto has been considered by some critics to be better fitted for stage presentation than the later versions.
The texts of the Second Quarto of 1604 and of the First Folio of 1623 are for the most part the same; these give the play in the form with which we are all familiar. As compared with the First Quarto, these versions make only slight changes in the story; but the astonishing fullness of thought and poetry which distinguishes this play appears for the first time in the Second Quarto.
That the gradual development of this drama into its present form might easily give rise to contradictions in the final text will be clear if we look for a moment, just by way of illustration, at the question of Hamlet's age.
There is nothing in the First Quarto which requires us to believe that "young Hamlet" is over nineteen or twenty years of age. The skull of Yorick, who played with him when he was a child, has been in the ground only "this dozen year." In the later text we learn that Hamlet's age is thirty (V. i. 153-77), and that Yorick's skull has "lain in the earth three and twenty years." In spite of this, however, many things remain in the accepted text which seem to make Hamlet a youth of not more than twenty: among these are his wish to return as a student to Wittenberg, the election of Claudius as king without the bestowal of any consideration upon the claim of Hamlet, the probable age of his mother when she yields to guilty passion, and especially the language of Laertes when he speaks to Ophelia concerning the Prince. Mr. Wilson Barrett, the actor, thinks that the age was given as thirty for the convenience of some actor who was "incapable of looking the youthful prince." Many scholars, however, accept on this point the opinion expressed by Dr. Furnivall:
"I look on it as certain, that when Shakespeare began the play [and while he was composing the version preserved for us in the First Quarto], he conceived Hamlet as quite a young man [following the accepted story and the tradition of the stage]. But as the play grew, as greater weight of reflection, of insight into the character, of knowledge of life, etc..., were wanted, Shakespeare necessarily and naturally made Hamlet a formed man; and, by the time that he got to the Grave-diggers' scene [in writing the version of the Second Quarto], told us the Prince was thirty,--the right age for him then.... The two parts of the play are inconsistent on this main point in Hamlet's state."
Perhaps it ought to be said here that several other minor discrepancies have been noted in the play. It is impossible, for example, that Horatio has been at Elsinore some two months before he meets Hamlet (I. ii. 138, 161-76). Again, it is four months after the death of Hamlet's father when the mad Ophelia sports with wild flowers. Did the dead king take a nap in a Danish orchard in mid-winter? and was it his "custom always of the afternoon"? The fact that Hamlet knows at the close of Act III that he is to be sent to England (III. iv. 200) is very puzzling. The King has only just decided upon the course (III. i. 177 and III. iii. 4, fall upon the same day), and there seems to have been no opportunity for the hero to get this information. Two months after Laertes left home Hamlet says, "I have of late ... forgone all custom of exercises" (II. ii. 306-8); about ten days or two weeks later, according to Daniel's estimate of the time, the Prince declares to Horatio, while speaking of the proposed fencing-bout, "Since he [Laertes] went into France, I have been in continual practice" (V. ii. 220-1). It is hard to see, also, at the beginning of Act V, why Horatio has told Hamlet nothing about the fate of Ophelia. It is hard to understand this, whether we suppose that Hamlet has inquired abour her, or that he has not. Probably the only explanation is that it best suits the purpose of the dramatist to have the hero learn of Ophelia's death in the manner represented in the play.
The explanation of Dr. Furnivall concerning the age of the hero suggests that some more central difficulties in the play may perhaps be explained in a similar way. Are there in the drama as a whole unconformable strata? Sarrazin and others, among the Germans, Kenny in England, and Professor March and Mr. John Corbin in this country have made use of this method of explanation. Perhaps the last-named writer is the one who goes farthest. He says:
"Shakespeare's happiest additions to the old tragedy of blood were precisely contradictory to its vital structure as a drama. Wherever Hamlet is in action his character dates back to the lost play: the Shakespearean element has to do almost exclusively with the reflective, imaginative, humane traits of his portraiture."
"When Hamlet is in action he is to be judged by the standards of the tragedy of blood and revenge. It is only in his speech and manner that the Shakespearean conception shines forth. In this fact lies the root of most of the disagreements among the modern critics and actors."
The fact that the old tragedy delighted its audiences with these horrors may well be the main reason why the six principal characters, together with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, are killed during the play -- five of them, if we include Polonius, meeting death before our eyes. The easy fashion in which the Prince consigns to destruction his former schoolfellows, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, may come from the old play. Perhaps the difficulty in finding a motive for Hamlet's action in pretending madness admits in part a similar explanation. In the story as given by Belleforest he feigns madness because "perceiving himself to be in danger of his life." Victor Hugo interprets our play in the same way; but where in the text does it appear that this is the motive? May it not be that the feigning of insanity is a feature which Shakespeare accepts from the traditional story and from the older play, but of which he makes little constructive use? It is noticeable that the portion of Act I. Scene v., which follows the entry of Horatio and Marcellus, has in the First Quarto practically the same form as in the two later texts. It may well be that a familiar scene in the lost version is here closely followed.
Now for the bearing of all this upon our main topic, the reasons for Hamlet's dilatoriness. The above discussion naturally suggests that Shakespeare, while retaining the crude story of revenge that was fixed in the public mind, gradually deepened and refined the character of Hamlet until it clashed with that story. Conscientious scruples against blood-revenge, I admit, are utterly foreign to the original tale. In spite of changes and additions, it may well be that the dramatist was so hampered by the fixed outlines of the accepted story that he was prevented from motivating the inactivity of the Prince as fully as he could otherwise have done. The energetic Hamlet retained from the old play accords but badly with the reflective, halting hero of a more intellectual age: the new wine bursts the old bottles.
Brandes says, in connection with this topic:
"The old legend, with its harsh outlines, its medieval order of ideas, its heathen groundwork under a varnish of dogmatic Catholicism, its assumption of vengeance as the unquestionable right, or rather duty, of the individual, did not very readily harmonize with the rich life of thoughts, dreams, and feelings which Shakespeare imparted to his hero. There arose a certain discrepancy between the central figure and his surroundings.... But Shakespeare, with his consummate instinct, managed to find an advantage precisely in this discrepancy, and to turn it to account. His Hamlet believes in the ghost and -- doubts. He accepts the summons to the deed of vengeance and -- delays. Much of the originality of the figure, and of the drama as a whole, springs almost inevitably from this discrepancy between the medieval character of the fable and its Renaissance hero, who is so deep and many-sided that he has almost a modern air."
The loss of the pre-Shakespearean Hamlet makes it impossible to say just how much weight should be given to this line of argument.
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