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The story of Hamlet, Prince of Den- quented the theaters, and, later, to the mark, like that of Dr. Faustus, had a long greatest of modern poets. In this fusion and wide popularity before it found place of immediate human interest with the very among the classics. There was much in highest and most complex problems of both tales which appealed to the popular character and destiny these two stories are imagination ; there was a touch of the unique; and it is due to the presence of supernatural in both, and the Renaissance these qualities that, in their final versions,
JAMES THE FIRST
From an old print. mind still loved the supernatural ; there these stories hold the first place among was in both an abundance of horrors, those dramas which deal with the ultiand the age of Shakespeare craved strong mate questions of life. incitements of the imagination ; and in Saxo Grammaticus, who lived about both there was a combination of story and the year 1200, midway between the earlipsychologic interest which appealed from est crusades and the discovery of Amerthe beginning to the crowds who fre- ica, was, as his name suggests, a man of
unusual learning. He was the earliest there was an English play dealing with Danish writer of importance, and his Latin Hamlet as early as 1589 is now generally style evoked the admiration of so compe- believed. In that year Greene made an tent an authority as Erasmus, who ex- unmistakable reference to such a play; pressed his surprise that a Dane of that and seven years later Lodge wrote of age should be able to command such a “the wisard of the ghost, which cried so “ force of eloquence.” The great work of miserably at the theatre, like an oysterthis brilliant Latinist was the “ Historia wife, Hamlet revenge.” That startling cry Danica,” or History of the Danes ;" of the ghost appears to have made a deep written, there is reason to believe, with impression on the imagination of the time, Livy as a model. This history, like and was heard on the stage again and all other histories of that age, was largely again in later plays. made up of mythical and legendary tales This earlier English version of Hamlet chiefly illustrative of heroic persons and has disappeared, but the probabilities incidents. One of the most striking of point to Thomas Kyd, whose “Spanish these hero stories is that which relates the Tragedy” was one of the most popular tragical experiences of Hamlet-in his plays of the age, as its author ; there are origin probably one of those mythical obvious similarities between the plays. figures who typified the forces of nature The introduction of the ghost was in in the Norse mythology. The roots of keeping with the traditions of the English great works of art are sunk deep in the stage and the temper of the time. This soil of human life; and a creation of the earlier version of the tragedy was probably magnitude of the Hamlet of Shakespeare a very rough study, so far as action was always rests on a broad, solid foundation concerned, of Shakespeare's work; some of prehistoric myth or legend, or semi-his- fragments of it may have been used toric tradition. Characters of such world by the dramatist in the earlier sketches of wide significance and such typical expe- his own version; and some remnants of rience as Hamlet and Faust are, in a sense, it are to be found, perhaps, in a German the children of the race, and are born in version, which is probably a copy of a those fertile ages when the imagination translation used in that country by English plays freely and creatively upon the ex- actors not much later than Shakespeare's ternal world and upon the facts of human time. It is probable that both the author experience. In the pages of Saxo Gram- of the lost version and Shakespeare read maticus, Hamlet is a veritable man, the story in Belleforest's French version. caught in a network of tragical circum- There are very perplexing questions stances, feigning madness to protect him- connected with the text of " Hamlet” as self from an uncle who has killed his it is found in different editions ; the father, seized the throne, and married probability is that Shakespeare worked his Hamlet's mother, and who seeks to entrap material over more than once, revising Hamlet by many ingenious devices. A and, in part, recasting it. There is reason crafty old courtier plays the eavesdropper; to believe also that the story found a lodga young girl is put forward as part of the ment in his imagination at an early day, plot against Hamlet; he is sent to England, and that it slowly took shape, widening in and secret orders to put him to death are its significance with his experience, and sent with him. In the end Hamlet's striking deeper root in the psychology of feigning saves him ; he kills the usurper, the human spirit as his insight into life explains his deed in an address to the deepened. This was the history of the people, and is made king.
growth of the Faust idea in Goethe's mind. This group of incidents constitute the The play probably appeared in 1602. In story of Hamlet in its earliest recorded that year the edition known as the First form, which was probably the survival of Quarto was published, with the announceearlier and mythical forms. In the ment on the title-page that the piece had fifteenth century the story was widely been “ acted divers times in the city of known throughout northern Europe, where London, as also in the two Universities of it had the currency of a popular folk-tale. Cambridge, Oxford, and elsewhere." AlAbout 1570 it was told in French in though the longest, with the single excepBelleforest's "Histoires Tragique." That tion of " Antony and Cleopatra," of the
From a picture in the possession of Mr. Knight. Shakespearean plays, and farthest re- tinctness of characterization that “ Hammoved from the ordinary interests of let” as a great world-drama and “Hamlet” theater-goers, “Hamlet” has not only as an engrossing stage play may be seen been critically studied and widely com- on the same stage on the same night. mented upon, but has been put upon the The rough sketch upon which Shakestage of every civilized country and has speare worked had all the characteristics awakened an unfailing popular interest. of the Elizabethan play; it was sanguinary, The dramatic movement is much slower noisy, full of movement, action, crime; it than in most of the dramas; the plot un- was written for the groundlings. Upon folds very gradually ; there are a number this elemental basis, with its primary and of scenes in which the interest is almost immediate elements of human interest, wholly psychological ; but the spell of the Shakespeare built up a drama of the soul, play has been felt as keenly by the un- which never for a moment loses touch learned as by the cultivated, and the story with reality, and never for a moment loses has appealed as directly to the crowds its universal significance. In the pathetic before the footlights as to students and figure of Hamlet, with his gifts of genius critics. There is no higher evidence of and personal charm, every generation has Shakespeare's genius than this presenta- recognized the protagonist of humanity. tion of a great spiritual problem in a form The concentration of interest, the intensity so concrete and with such marvelous dis- of feeling, the hushed passion, which
characterize the play, make us feel that it quired of him-not the impossible in itself, but had some exceptionally close relation to the
the impossible to him. How he winds, turns, poet's experience, and that in an unusual
agonizes, advances, and recoils, ever reminded,
ever reminding himself, and at last almost degree his personality pervades it. There loses his purpose from his thoughts, without is nothing to connect it with the happen- ever again recovering his peace of mind. . ings of his own life and the development hero who acts of himself
, who loves and hates
It pleases, it flatters us greatly, to see a of his own spirit save the fact that it falls
us as his heart prompts, undertaking and exewithin the tragic period and that it immedi- cuting, thrusting aside all hindrances, and ately precedes two of his most somber accomplishing a great purpose. Historians dramas. The authenticity of an autograph and poets would fain persuade us that so
In“ Hamlet” we of Shakespeare on a fly-leaf of a copy of proud a lot may fall to man.
are taught otherwise; the hero has no plan, Florio's Montaigne in the British Museum but the piece is full of plan. ... is doubted, but there are passages in “Ham- Hamlet is endowed more properly with senlet " which are reminiscent of Montaigne's timent than with a character; it is events speculations and reflections. It was in piece has somewhat the amplification of a
alone that push him on; and accordingly the his own nature, however, that Shakespeare novel. But as it is Fate that draws the plan, found the questionings, the perplexities, as the piece proceeds from a deed of terror, the deep and almost insoluble contradic
and the hero is steadily driven on to a deed tions, which are presented with such subtle
of terror, the work is tragic in its highest sense,
and admits of no other than a tragic end. suggestiveness in “Hamlet.”
No play has called forth so vast a liter- This interpretation leaves other aspects ature or has been the subject of so much of Hamlet unexplained. This subjective criticism and interpretation. The problem condition must be supplemented by taking presented by Hamlet is so many-sided that into account the objective world in which it will evoke the thought and ingenuity of Hamlet found himself. Sensitive alike in every successive generation of students. intellect and in his moral nature, he was Much has been done, however, in remov- placed in a corrupt society, in which every ing obscurities, and discussion has cleared relation was tainted. The thought of his the air of some confusing mists. That mother, which ought to have been a spring Hamlet was sane is the conviction of the of sweetness and strength, was unendurgreat majority of the students of the play; able. He was surrounded by false friends an insane Hamlet would rob the drama of and paid spies. Upon him was laid the its spiritual significance and destroy its appalling task of reasserting moral order authority as a work of art. That in his in a loathsome household and a demorallong feigning Hamlet sometimes lost for ized kingdom ; and the only way open to the time the clear perception of the differ- him was by the perpetration of a deed of ence between reality and his own fancies vengeance from which his whole nature is probable ; but he is at all times a respon- drew back in revolt. The tragic situation sible actor in the drama of which he is the was created by the conflict against the central figure. Goethe's exposition of his State and the family to which he was comnature and his fate remains one of the mitted by the knowledge of his father's classics of Shakespearean criticism, so death, his uncle's crime, and his mother's clear and definite is its insight into one lust, and the conflict within himself beaspect of Hamlet's character:
tween the duty of revenge and the The time is out of joint; O cursed spite,
horror of blood-shedding. If to these That ever I was born to set it right!
considerations is added the fact that he In these words, I imagine, is the key to Hamlet's whole procedure, and to me it is clear ble tendency to the meditation and subtle
was an idealist, with a deep and irresistideed laid upon a soul unequal to the perform- speculation which feel in advance all the ance of it. In this view I find the piece com- possible results of action so keenly that the posed throughout. Here is an oak tree planted responsibility for acting becomes almost in a costly vase, which should have received into its bosom only lovely flowers; the roots unbearable, the character of Hamlet bespread out, the vase is shivered to pieces. comes intelligible, if not entirely explicable.
A beautiful, pure, and most moral nature, The weight of evidence shows, as has without the strength of nerve which makes
been suggested, that in the “war of the the hero, sinks beneath a burden which it can neither bear nor throw off ; every duty is holy
theaters which raged at the end of to him—this too hard. The impossible is re- the sixteenth and the beginning of the