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Cap. O brother Montague, give me thy hand.
Cap. As rich shall Romeo by his lady lie; Poor sacrifices of our enmity!
Prince. A glooming brings;
peace this morning with it
The sun for sorrow will not show his head.
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.3
1 The quarto of 1597 reads, "A gloomy peace." To gloom is an ancient verb, used by Spenser and other old writers.
2 This line has reference to the poem from which the fable is taken; in which the nurse is banished for concealing the marriage; Romeo's servant set at liberty, because he had only acted in obedience to his master's orders; the apothecary is hanged; while friar Laurence was permitted to retire to a hermitage near Verona, where he ended his life in penitence and tranquillity.
3 Shakspeare, in his revision of this play, has not effected the alteration by introducing any new incidents, but merely by adding to the length of the scenes.
THIS play is one of the most pleasing of our Author's performances. The scenes are busy and various, the incidents numerous and important, the catastrophe irresistibly affecting, and the process of the action carried on with such probability, at least with such congruity to popular opinions, as tragedy requires.
Here is one of the few attempts of Shakspeare to exhibit the conversation of gentlemen, to represent the airy sprightliness of juvenile elegance. Dryden mentions a tradition, which might easily reach his time, of a declaration made by Shakspeare, that he was obliged to kill Mercutio in the third Act, lest he should have been killed by him. Yet he thinks him no such formidable person, but that he might have lived through the play and died in his bed, without danger to the Poet. Dryden well knew, had he been in quest of truth, in a pointed sentence, that more regard is commonly had to the words than the thought, and that it is very seldom to be rigorously understood. Mercutio's wit, gayety, and courage, will always procure him friends that wish him a longer life; but his death is not precipitated; he has lived out the time allotted him in the construction of the play; nor do I doubt the ability of Shakspeare to have continued his existence, though some of his sallies are, perhaps, out of the reach of Dryden; whose genius was not very fertile of merriment, nor ductile to humor, but acute, argumentative, comprehensive, and sublime.
The nurse is one of the characters in which the Author delighted. He has, with great subtilty of distinction, drawn her at once loquacious and secret, obsequious and insolent, trusty and dishonest.
His comic scenes are happily wrought; but his pathetic strains are always polluted with some unexpected depravations. His persons, however distressed, have a conceit left them in their misery, a miserable conceit. JOHNSON.
* A. W. Schlegel has answered this remark at length, in a detailed criticism upon this tragedy, published in the Horen, a journal conducted by Schiller in 1794-1795, and made accessible to the English reader in Ollier's Literary Miscellany, Part I. In his Lectures on Dramatic Literature (vol. ii. p. 135, Eng. translation) will be found some further sensible remarks upon the "conceits" here stigmatized. It should be remembered that playing on words was a very favorite species of wit combat with our ancestors. "With children, as well as nations of the most simple manners, a great inclination to playing on words is often displayed [they cannot therefore be both puerile and unnatural; if the first charge is founded, the second cannot be so]. In Homer we find several examples; the Books of Moses, the oldest written memorial of the primitive world, are, it is well known, full of them. On the other hand, poets of a very cultivated taste, or orators like Cicero, have delighted in them. Whoever, in Richard the Second, is disgusted with the affecting play of words of the dying John of Gaunt, on his own name, let him remember that the same thing occurs in the Ajax of Sophocles."
HAMLET, PRINCE OF DENMARK.
THE original story on which this play is founded may be found in Saxo Grammaticus, the Danish historian. From thence Belleforest adopted it in his collection of novels, in seven volumes, which he began in 1564, and continued to publish through succeeding years. It was from Belleforest that the old black letter prose "Hystorie of Hamblet" was translated; the earliest edition of which, known to the commentators, was dated in 1608; but it is supposed that there were earlier impressions.
The following passage is found in an Epistle, by Thomas Nashe, prefixed to Greene's Arcadia, which was published in 1589:-"I will turn back to my first text of studies of delight, and talk a little in friendship with a few of our rival translators. It is a common practice nowa-days, among a sort of shifting companions, that runne through every art, and thrive by none, to leave the trade of Noverint [i. e. the law], whereunto they were born, and busie themselves with the endeavours of art, that could scarcely latinize their neck-verse, if they should have neede; yet English Seneca, read by candle-light, yeelds many good sentences, as Bloud is a beggar, and so forth and if you entreat him faire in a frosty morning, he will affoord you whole Hamlets, I should say, Handfuls of tragical speeches. But O grief! Tempus edar rerum— what is it that will last always? The sea exhaled by drops will in continuance be drie; and Seneca, let bloud line by line, and page by page, at length must needs die to our stage."
It is manifest, from this passage, that some play on the story of Hamlet had been exhibited before the year 1589. Malone thinks that it was not Shakspeare's drama, but an elder performance, on which, with the aid of the old prose History of Hamblet, his tragedy was formed.
In a tract, entitled "Wits Miserie, or the World's Madnesse, discovering the incarnate Devils of the Age," published by Thomas Lodge, in 1596, one of the devils is said to be "a foule lubber, and looks as pale as the vizard of the ghost, who cried so miserably at the theatre, Hamlet, revenge." But it is supposed that this also may refer to an elder performance.
Dr. Percy possessed a copy of Speght's edition of Chaucer, which had been Gabriel Harvey's, who had written his name and the date, 1598, both at the beginning and end of the volume, and many remarks in the intermediate leaves; among which are these words:-"The younger sort take much delight in Shakspeare's Venus and Adonis; but his Lucrece, and his tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke, have it in them to please the wiser sort." Malone doubts whether this was written in 1598, because translated Tasso is named in another note; but it is not necessary that the allusion should be to Fairfax's translation, which was not printed till 1600: it may refer to the version of the first five books of the Jerusalem, published by R. C[arew]. in 1594.
We may, therefore, safely place the date of the first composition of Hamlet at least as early as 1597; and, for reasons adduced by Mr. George Chalmers, we may presume that it was revised, and the additions made to it in the year 1600.
The first entry on the Stationers' books is by James Roberts, July 26, 1602; and a copy of the play in its first state, printed for N. L. and John Trundell, in 1603, has recently been discovered. As in the case of the earliest impressions of Romeo and Juliet, and the Merry Wives of Windsor, this edition of Hamlet appears to have been either printed from an imperfect manuscript of the prompt books, or the playhouse copy, or stolen from the Author's papers. It is next to impossible that it can have been taken down during the representation, as some have supposed was the case with the other two plays.
The variations of this early copy from the play of Hamlet, in its improved state, are too numerous and striking to admit a doubt of the play having been subsequently revised, amplified, and altered by the Poet. There are even some variations in the plot; the principal of which are, that Horatio announces to the queen, Hamlet's unexpected return from his voyage to England; and that the queen is expressly declared to be innocent of any participation in the murder of Hamlet's father, and privy to his intention of revenging his death. There are also some few lines and passages which do not appear in the revised copy. The principal variations are noticed in the course of the notes.*
It again issued from the press in 1604, in its corrected and amended state, and in the title-page is stated to be "newly imprinted, and enlarged to almost as much again as it was, according to the true and perfect copy." From these words, Malone had drawn the natural conclusion, that a former less perfect copy had issued from the press; but his star was not propitious; he never saw it. Though it is said to have formed part of the collection of sir Thomas Hanmer, it only came to light at the commencement of the present year ; too late, alas! even to gratify the enthusiasm of his zealous friend, that worthy man, James Boswell;
*There are some singular variations in the names of the Dramatis Personæ. Corambis and Montano are the names given to the Polonius and Reynaldo of the revised play; for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, we have Rossencraft and Gilderstone; and Osric is merely designated a Braggart Gentleman.
upon whom devolved the office of giving to the world the accumulated labors of Malone's latter years, devoted to the illustration of Shakspeare.
The character of Hamlet has been frequently discussed, and with a variety of contradictory opinions. Johnson and Steevens have made severe animadversions upon some parts of his conduct. A celebrated writer of Germany has very skilfully pointed out the cause of the defects in Hamlet's character, which unfit him for the dreadful office to which he is called. "It is clear to me (says Goëthé) that Shakspeare's intention was to exhibit the effects of a great action, imposed as a duty upon a mind too feeble for its accomplishment. In this sense I find the character consistent throughout. Here is an oak planted in a china vase, proper to receive only the most delicate flowers. The roots strike out, and the vessel flies to pieces. A pure, noble, highly moral disposition, but without that energy of soul which constitutes the hero, sinks under a load which it can neither support nor resolve to abandon altogether. All his obligations are sacred to him; but this alone is above his powers! An impossibility is required at his hands; not an impossibility in itself, but that which is so to him. Observe how he shifts, turns, hesitates, advances, and recedes! how he is continually reminded and reminding himself of his great commission! which he, nevertheless, in the end, seems almost entirely to lose sight of; and this without ever recovering his former tranquillity.”*
Dr. Akenside suggested that the madness of Hamlet is not altogether feigned; and the notion has of late been revived. Dr. Ferriar, in his Essay towards a Theory of Apparitions, has termed the state of mind which Shakspeare exhibits to us in Hamlet,—as the consequence of conflicting passions and events operating on a frame of acute sensibility,— latent lunacy.
"It has often occurred to me (says Dr. F.) that Shakspeare's character of Hamlet can only be understood on this principle:-He feigns madness for political purposes, while the Poet means to represent his understanding as really (and unconsciously to himself) unhinged by the cruel circumstances in which he is placed. The horror of the communication made by his father's spectre, the necessity of belying his attachment to an innocent and deserving object, the certainty of his mother's guilt, and the supernatural impulse by which he is goaded to an act of assassination abhorrent to his nature, are causes sufficient to overwhelm and distract a mind previously disposed to 'weakness and to melancholy,' and originally full of tenderness and natural affection. By referring to the play, it will be seen that his real insanity is only developed after the mock play. Then, in place of a systematic conduct, conducive to his purposes, he becomes irresolute, inconsequent; and the plot appears to stand unaccountably still. Instead of striking at his object, he resigns himself to the current of events, and sinks at length, ignobly, under the stream."+
* William Meister's Apprenticeship, b. iv. ch. 13.