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THE LITERATURE OF THE PLOT OF 'HAMLET.'
THE earliest known source of the story on which this masterpiece of imagination and intellect is founded is the Danorum Regum Heroumque Historia, or Danish History, of Saxo Grammaticus, a valuable repertory of traditions and facts relative to the nations of northern Europe. Its author, a zealous collector of the popular ballad poetry of his fellowcountrymen, and a diligent student of the vernacular tongues of the Icelandic, Scandinavian, and Danish nations, was born in Elsinore about 1150. His father and grandfather had both borne office in the state; but he was a cleric of the diocese of Lund during the episcopate of Archbishop Absalon, primate of Denmark, Sweden, and Norway, and premier during the reigns of Waldemar I and Canute IV. * At the suggestion of his ecclesiastical superior, whose secretary he was, Saxo, 'the scholar,' commenced this chronicle in 1178, and finished it about 1198. The author died at Roeskilde in 1204. This History is written with considerable elegance, in Latin, somewhat after the manner of Valerius Maximus, and consists of sixteen books. The earliest printed edition was issued at Paris in 1514. Subsequently one of the Stephens produced a fresh impression, with prolegomena; and the work, which won the commendation of Erasmus, has since been frequently reissued, both in the original and in Danish translations. The best modern edition in Latin, for the purposes of the student, is that superintended by P. E. Müller and J. M. Velschov, printed at Copenhagen in 1839.
The story of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, occurs under the reign of Röricus, in the third and fourth books of the Historia Danica, though, so far as Shakespeare's drama is concerned, Saxo's third book contains the whole plot. The Hamlet of the fourth book is of no Shakespearian interest. Because Saxo's history had not been translated into any modern tongue in the Elizabethan era, it was formerly supposed that Shakespeare must have read the history in the original. It is known, however, that the story was transferred from the pages of the Danish scholar into those of the Histoires Tragiques of François de Belleforest, in the fifth volume of whose collection of tales, published in 1570, Hamlet appears. It seems to have been speedily translated into English, though we have no exemplar of any version extant earlier than 1608. The title of this book is, ' The Hystorie of Hamblet. London: Imprinted by Richard Bradocke, for Thomas Pavier, and are to be sold at his shop in Cornhill, neere to the Royal Exchange, 1608.' If, as is highly probable, this Hystorie was translated and published not long after its issue in 1570, Shakespeare may have, through it, gained access to the story. It might have come to his knowledge by oral repetition in those tale-telling days; or he may have perused it in Belleforest's French, if not in Saxo's Latin.
It is the unanimous opinion of commentators, however, that the origin of the story of Saxo's Amlethus is not to be found in Scandinavia. "No such name occurs in any [known] Icelandic record; for though there exists a Hamlet saga, it is acknowledged to be founded on Saxo's narrative,'* the source of that being as uncertain as ever. Saxo probably derived the main elements of the story from some old ballad, and incorporated it into his narrative as history, after the manner of the earlier chroniclers. It is certain that in the Danish History the plot is to be found; that in Belleforest it was made more accessible; but it is, in all probability, to an early issue of the Hystorie of Hamblet that Shakespeare owed the plot of this pearl of plays.
It has been usual for Shakespearian critics to assume 'that a play upon the story of Hamlet had been written some years before 1590;' that 'Shakespeare resorted to this earlier drama as his original, and made the piece what it is, out of the inexhaustible resources of his own marvellous mind.' Malone confidently, though conjecturally, assigned that old Hamlet to Thomas Kyd, and his conjecture has been generally accepted as settling the question. 'It has been supposed, as we have previously said, 'Kyd wrote a Hamlet; it is known Shakespeare did write one: why
* Dr R. G. Latham's Two Dissertations on Hamlet, p. 36.
should we not conclude that this Hamlet was an early production revived ?* rather than assume that Shakespeare was the plagiarist-general of the age, without one tittle of foundation for the accusation. Until some evidence of the existence of Thomas Kyd's (or somebody else's) Hamlet as a preShakespearian drama is produced, we need not enrol that imaginary performance among the sources of the plot of this play,
SECTION I I.
THE HYSTORIE OF HAMBLET.'
Among the books in Trinity College, Cambridge, which formerly belonged to Edward Capell, the Shakespearian commentator, there is preserved the only known perfect copy of a small work which bears this title: 'The Hystorie of Hamblet. London, 1608.' This prose story is a rough literal translation from Belleforest's Histoires Tragiques. Ther were probably earlier editions of the Hystorie; although from the multiplicity of the readers of such productions, and the carelessness with which they were handled, none of these have survived till our day.
In Shakespeare Illustrated (1753), by Mrs Charlotte Lennox, authoress of The Female Quixote, there is to be found (vol. ii, pp. 241-260) 'the story of Amleth, translated from the Danish History of Saxo Grammaticus;' and in Collier's Shakespeare's Library a reprint was given of the 1608 Hystorie of Hamblet. This has been reissued in Hazlitt's Shakespeare's Library, part i, vol. ii, pp. 211-279. Of the contents of this novelette the following is a summary, related as closely as possible in the words of the original. The book begins with ‘The Argument,' on the iniquity of murder stimulated by ambition; next follows 'The Preface;' and thereafter, 'The Hystorie of Hamblet, Prince of Denmarke, given in eight chapters, proceeds thus:
CHAP. I. A ‘long time before the kingdome of Denmarke received the faith of Jesus Christ, and imbraced the doctrin of the Christians,''the common people were barbarous and uncivil, and their princes cruell, without faith or loyaltie.' 'King Rodericke, after he had appeased the troubles in the
countrey and driven the Sweathlanders and Slaveans from thence,' divided the kingdome into divers provinces, placing governours therein (who after[wards] bare the names of dukes, marqueses, and earls); ' 'giving the government of Jutie' (Ditmarse) to 'two valiant and warlike lords, Horvendile and Fengon, sonnes to Gorvendile, who likewise had been governour of that province. Horvendile ‘obtained the highest place in his time, being the most renowned pirate that in those days scoured the seas and havens in the North parts; whose great fame so moved the heart of Collere, King of Norway, that he was much grieved to heare that Horvendile surmounted him in feates of armes, thereby obscuring the glory by him alreadie obtained upon the seas.' 'This valiant and hardy king having challenged Horvendile to fight with him body to body, the combate was by him accepted, with conditions that hee which should be vanquished should loose all the riches he had in his ship, and that the vanquisher should cause the body of the vanquished (that should bee slaine in the combate) to be honourably buried, death being the prise and reward of him that should loose the battaile ; and to conclude, Collere, King of Norway (although a valiant, hardy, and courageous prince), was in the end vanquished and slaine by Horvendile;' who ‘having overrunne all the coast of Norway, and the Northern I[s]lands, returned home againe laden with much treasure' (i, i, 77-92). King Rodericke gave ‘him Geruth, his daughter, to his wife, of whom he knew Horvendile to be already much enamoured.' Of this marriage proceeded Hamblet.'
'Fengon, brother to this Horvendile, who [not] only fretting and despighting in his heart at the great honour and reputation wonne by his brother in warlike affaires, but solicited and provoked (by a foolish jealousie) to see him honoured with royal alliance, and fearing thereby to bee deposed from his part of the government; or rather desiring to be only governor : thereby to obscure the memorie of the victories and conquests of his brother Horvendile; determined (whatsoever happened) to kill him. Which hee effected in such sort, that no man once so much as suspected him, every man esteeming that from such and so firme a knot of alliance and consanguinitie, there could proceed no other issue than the full effects of vertue and courtesie.'
'Fengon, having secretly assembled certain men, and perceiving himself strong enough to execute his interprise, Hor