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THE PLOT, THE FABLE, AND CONSTRUCTION
HAM LE T.
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. From this work, The Hystorie of Hamblett, quarto, bl. 1. was translated. I have hitherto met with no earlier edition of the play than one in the year 1604, though it must have been performed before that time, as I have seen a copy of Speght's edition of Chaucer, which formerly belonged to Dr. Gabriel Harvey, (the antagonist of Nash), who, in his own hand-writing, has set down Hamlet, as a performance with which he was well acquainted, in the
year 1598. His words are these: "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, 1598."
In the books of the Stationers' Company, this play was entered by James Roberts, July 26, 1602, under the title of "A booke called The Revenge of Hamlett, Prince of Denmarke, as it was lately acted by the Lord Chamberlain his servantes."
The frequent allusions of contemporary authors to this play sufficiently show its popularity. Thus, in Decker's Bel-man's Nightwalkes, 4to. 1612, we have— "But if any mad Hamlet, hearing this, smell villainie, and rush in by violence to see what the tawny diuels [gypsies] are dooing, then they excuse the fact" &c. Again, in an old collection of Satirical Poems, called The Night-Raven, is this couplet:
"I will not cry Hamlet Revenge my greeves,
Greene, in the Epistle prefixed to his Arcadia, hath a lash at some vaine glorious tragedians,' and very plainly at Shakspeare in particular. I leave all 'these to the mercy of their mother-tongue, that feed on nought but the crums that fall from the translator's trencher.-That could scarcely latinize their neck verse if they should have ncede, yet English Seneca read by candlelight yeelds many good sentences ---hee will afford you whole Hamlets, I should say, handfuls
of tragicall speeches.'-I cannot determine exactly when this Epistle was first published; but, I fancy, it will carry the original Hamlet somewhat further back than we have hitherto done: and it may be observed, that the oldest copy now extant is said to be enlarged to almost as much againe as it was.' Gabriel Harvey printed at the end of the year 1592, Foure Letters and certaine Sonnetts, especially touching Robert Greene:' in one of which his Arcadia is mentioned. Now Nash's Epistle must have been previous to these, as Gabriel is quoted in it with applause; and the Foure Letters were the beginning of a quarrel. Nash replied in Strange News of the intercepting certaine Letters, and a convoy of Verses, as they were going privilie to victual the Low Countries, 1593. Harvey rejoined the same year in • Pierce's Supererogation, or a new Praise of the old Asse.' And Nash again, in Have with you to Saffron Walden, or Gabriell Harvey's Hunt is up;' containing a full answer to the eldest sonne of the halter-maker, 1596.
If the dramas of Shakspeare were to be characterised, each by the particular excellence which distinguishes it from the rest, we must allow to the tragedy of Hamlet the praise of variety. The incidents are so numerous, that the argument of the play would make a long tale. The scenes are interchangeably diversified with merriment and solemnity; with merriment that includes judicious and instructive observations; and solemnity not strained by poetical
violence above the natural sentiments of man. New characters appear from time to time in continual succession, exhibiting various forms of life and particular modes of conversation. The pretended madness of Hamlet causes much mirth, the mournful distraction of Ophelia fills the heart with tenderness, and every personage produces the effect intended, from the apparition that in the first act chills the blood with horror, to the fop in the last, that exposes affectation to just contempt.
The conduct is perhaps not wholly secure against objections. The action is indeed for the most part in continual progression, but there are some scenes which neither forward nor retard it. Of the feigned madness of Hamlet there appears no adequate cause, for he does nothing which he might not have done with the reputation of sanity. He plays the madman most, when he treats Ophelia with so much rudeness, which seems to be useless and wanton cruelty.
whole piece, rather an in
After he has, by the stra
Hamlet is, through the strument than an agent. tagem of the play, convicted the king, he makes no attempt to punish him; and his death is at last effected by an incident which Hamlet had no part in producing.
The catastrophe is not very happily produced; the exchange of weapons is rather an expedient of necessity, than a stroke of art. A scheme might easily be formed to kill Hamlet with the dagger, and Laertes with the bowl.
The poet is accused of having shown little regard to poetical justice, and may be charged with equal neglect of poetical probability. The apparition left the regions of the dead to little purpose; the revenge which he demands is not obtained, but by the death of him that was required to take it; and the gratification, which would arise from the destruction of an usurper and a murderer, is abated by the untimely death of Ophelia, the young, the beautiful, the harmless, and the pious.