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The French novelist Belleforest extracted from Saxo Grammaticus, the Danish historian, the history of Amleth, and inserted it in the collection of novels published by him in the latter part of the sixteenth century; whence it was translated into English under the title of 'The Historie of Hamblett,' a small quarto volume printed in black letter, which formed the subject of a play previous to 1589: and on these materials our author is supposed to have constructed this noble tragedy, the composition of which is assigned by Malone to the date of 1600, while Mr. Chalmers and Dr. Drake contend that it was written as early as 1597, on the authority of Dr. Percy's copy of Speght's edition of Chaucer, which once belonged to Gabriel Harvey, who had written his name at both the commencement and conclusion, with several notes between; among which was the following:-'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.' The original composition of this play may therefore be placed in 1597; and its revision, with additions, in 1600. The earliest entry of it at Stationers' Hall is July 26th, 1602; and a copy of the
play in its imperfect state, dated 1603, and supposed to have been printed from a spurious original, was first discovered in the beginning of 1825. Another edition appeared in 1604, 'newly imprinted, and enlarged to almost as much again as it was;' the variations in which are both numerous and striking.
No character in our author's plays has occasioned so much discussion, so much contradictory opinion, and, consequently, so much perplexity as that of Hamlet, the inconsistencies of whose conduct have perhaps received the most satisfactory solution from the immortal Goethe. It is clear to me,' observes this great writer, 'that Shakspeare's intention was to exhibit the effects of a great action imposed as a duty on a mind too feeble for its accomplishment. In this sense I find the character consistent throughout. Here is an oak tree planted in a china vase, proper only to receive 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 turns, shifts, hesitates, advances, and recedes; how he is continually reminded and reminding himself of his great commission, which he, nevertheless, in the end, seems almost intirely to lose sight of, and this without ever recovering his forme tranquillity.'
The scene of this tragedy is at the castle and court
of Elsinore, and the action apparently occupies some months. The story is intirely fabulous, and is placed at an uncertain period of antiquity; but perhaps it may be safely referred to the end of the tenth or the beginning of the eleventh century, during the invasions of England by the Danes.
If the dramas of Shakspeare,' says Dr. Johnson, 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 mad