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Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.
THE original story on which this play is built 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 now-a-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 edax 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 Shak
speare'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]
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
* 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 Osrick is merely designated a Braggart Gentleman.
commencement of the present year ; too late, alas! even to gratify the enthusiasm of his zealous friend, that worthy man, James Boswell; upon whom devolved the office of giving to the world the accumulated labours 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, bas 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 affec
* William Meister's Apprenticeship, b. iv. ch. 13.