“The Origin of Hamlet” from ‘All The Year Round’ – Conducted by Charles Dickens


[173] Shakespeare was wont to build upon foundations laid by other hands. The splendid superstructure was all his own unmistakably – his name was writ large upon it; but it was reared upon borrowed or appropriated materials. In considering his plays, it has been usual to look, not only for their themes pre-existing in certain popular collections of fables or novels, but for a dramatic treatment of such themes by earlier authors. He was a sort of Providence to small, rude, and primitive playwrights, shaping their rough-hewn ends; and assuredly, like that poet’s pen he has himself described, giving to “airy nothings, a local habitation and a name.”

Shakespeare’s tragedy of Hamlet was, without doubt, preceded by a drama dealing with the same subject. In an epistle by Thomas Nash, prefixed to Robert Greene’s Menaphon published in 1589, allusion is made to a tragedy called Hamlet; and on June 9th, 1594, Henslowe the manager records in his diary a performance of Hamlet by his company in the theatre at Newington Butts. Even then it was an old play, producing only a small receipt in comparison with the profits arising from the representation of new works. Malone, confidently though conjecturally, assigned to Thomas Kyd the Hamlet thus mentioned by Nash and Henslowe. As Mr. Collier says, “it is often alluded to by contemporaries, and there is not a moment’s doubt that it was written and acted many years before Shakespeare’s tragedy of the same name was produced.”

The earliest known edition of Shakespeare’s Hamlet is the quarto published in 1603 by Nicholas Ling and John Trundell. The title-page describes the play as a tragical history, “as it hath been diverse times acted by his Highnesse servants in the city of London, as also in the two universities of Cambridge and Oxford and elsewhere.” In the following year a second quarto edition appeared, “newly imprinted and enlarged to almost as much again as it was according to the true and perfect copy.” These words imply that the quarto [174] of 1603 was not printed from a true and perfect copy .1

The only known copy of the novel called The Hystorie of Hamblet bears date 1608, and was printed by Richard Bradocke for Thomas Pavier, and sold at his shop in Cornhill. It is believed that there were many previous issues of the book; but no evidence is forthcoming on this head. The Hystorie of Hamblet is a rude translation by an unknown hand from the French of Belleforest, who began to publish about 1560, in conjunction with Boaistuau, a series of translations of the Italian novels of Bandello; amongst these was the story of Amleth. Belleforest gave it the following additional title: Avec quelle ruse Amleth, qui depuis fat Roy de Dannemarch, vengea la mort de son père Horvvendile, occis par Fengon, son frère, et autre occurrence de son histoire. The novel, it may be added, is founded upon events in the mythical annals of Denmark, narrated by Saxo Grammaticus in the twelfth century.

The period of the story is described as “a long time before the kingdom of Denmark received the faith of Jesus Christ and embraced the doctrine of the Christians;” the common people were barbarous and uncivil, their princes cruel, without faith in loyalty, seeking nothing but to offend and depose each other. King Roderick was then reigning in Denmark, and he had appointed the brothers, Horvendile and Fengon, two valiant and warlike lords, to be joint governors of the province of Jute (Jutland). Horvendile was a famous pirate who had scoured the seas and havens of the north. Challenged to single combat by Collere, king of Norway (the Fortinbras of the play), who is grieved to find himself surpassed in feats of arms, Horvendile slays Collere, buries his adversary in a tomb with all honourable obsequies, and carries away much treasure to King Roderick. The grateful monarch bestows the hand of his daughter Geruth upon the victor. Of the marriage of Horvendile and Geruth is born Hamblet.

Fengon grows jealous of the success of Horvendile, and desires to rule alone in Jute. He secretly assembles a band of men, suddenly sets upon Horvendile while he is banqueting with his friends, and cruelly slays him. Before he had thus committed “patricide upon his brother,” as the novelist describes the crime, Fengon has secured the illicit love of Geruth, a courteous princess “as any then living in the north parts, and one that had never so much as once offended any of her subjects, either commons or courtiers.” Fengon, slandering his victim, gives out that he had interfered to defend Geruth from the blows of Horvendile, who was threatening the life of his consort, and that in the struggle ensuing Horvendile was slain; and false witnesses, the very men who had aided Fengon to murder his brother, depose in support of his story; so that instead of pursuing and punishing the malefactor for his crime, all the courtiers admired and flattered him in his good fortune. Thus encouraged, Fengon ventures to take Geruth to wife, “in that sort spotting his name with a double vice, and charging his conscience with abominable guilt and two-fold impiety.”

Meantime Prince Hamblet perceived himself in danger of his life, abandoned of his mother, and forsaken of all men. He was assured that Fengon, apprehensive that if he attained to man’s estate he would not long delay to avenge the death of his father, was only looking for an opportunity to murder him. He resolved, therefore, in imitation of Brutus, to counterfeit the madman. This he did with much craft, so that he seemed to have utterly lost his wits; he rent and tore his clothes, wallowing and lying in the dirt and mire, his face all filthy and black, running through the streets like a man distraught, not speaking one word but such as seemed to proceed from madness and mere frenzy, in such sort that he seemed fit for nothing but to make sport to the pages and ruffling courtiers that attended the court of his uncle and father-in-law. “But the young prince noted them well enough, minding one day to be revenged in such manner that the memory thereof should remain perpetually to the world.” And under this veil he “covered his pretence, and defended his life from the treasons and practices of the tyrant his uncle.”

Fengon suspects that the insanity of his nephew is assumed, and seeks in various ways to entrap him into a confession that he does but counterfeit madness, subjecting him to some such temptation as good St. Anthony underwent; but Hamblet, receiving timely warning from a friend, avoids betraying himself. It is then proposed to Fengon that he “should make [175] as though he were to go some long voyage concerning affairs of great importance, and that in the meantime Hamblet should be shut up alone in a chamber with his mother, wherein some other should be secretly hidden behind the hangings unknown either to him or to his mother, there to stand and hear their speeches;” Fengon being assured that if there were any point of wisdom and perfect sense in Hamblet’s spirit he would easily discover it to his mother, as being void of all fear that she would betray him. Fengon approves this suggestion, and his counsellor offers to be the man to stand behind the hangings to harken and bear witness of Hamblet’s speeches with his mother. Fengon quits the palace, affecting to go on a long voyage, but really proceeds only to hunt in the forest; meantime, the counsellor secretly enters the queen’s chamber and hides himself behind the arras. The queen and her son presently draw near, when Hamblet, doubting some treason, uses his ordinary manner of dissimulation, and begins beating with his arms, as cocks strike with their wings, upon the hangings of the chamber; “whereby,” the novelist continues, “feeling something stirring under them, he cried, ‘A rat! a rat!’ and, drawing his sword, thrust it into the hangings, which done, he pulled the counsellor, half dead, out by the heels, made an end of killing him, and being slain, cut his body in pieces, which he then caused to be boiled and then cast into an open vault, that so it might serve for food to the hogs,” &c. He then in a speech of considerable power, which Mr. Collier suggests may have been supplied by an abler writer, better versed in translation, upbraids Geruth for her sins against his father and himself. “Weep not madame,” he says in conclusion, “to see my folly, but rather sigh and lament your own offence, tormenting your conscience in regard of the infamy that hath so defiled the ancient renown and glory that in times past honoured Queen Geruth.” In reply the queen admits that she had wronged her son greatly in marrying Fengon; but pleads as her excuse her small means of resistance, the treason of the palace, and the little confidence she could repose in the courtiers, all wrought to the will of the tyrant. She declares that she had never consented to the murder of Horvendile, swearing by the majesty of the gods that if it had lain in her power to resist the tyrant, although it had been with the loss of her blood, she would surely have saved the life of her lord and husband, “with as good will and desire,” she protests, addressing Hamblet, “as since that time I have often been a means to hinder and impeach the shortening of thy life, which being taken away, I will no longer live here upon earth, for seeing that thy senses are whole and sound, I am in hope to see an easy means invented for the revenging of thy father’s death.”

Fengon returns, affecting to have been away on a long journey, and asks concerning the man who had engaged to hide behind the hangings and entrap Hamblet. That prince tells him the simple truth – that his spy had been slain, cut up, and eaten by hogs. Fengon, entertaining fears for his own safety, determines to send Hamblet to England, and appoints two faithful ministers to bear him company. These carry “letters engraved on wood” to the King of England, charging him to put Hamblet to death. But being at sea, the subtle Danish prince, while his companions sleep, reads their letters, and learns his uncle’s treason, “with the wicked and villainous minds of the two courtiers that led him to the slaughter.” He accordingly alters the letters, and so contrives that Fengon seems to ask that the two courtiers may be put to death, and, further, that the hand of the King of England’s daughter may be bestowed upon Prince Hamblet.

The novel then deals with matters which find no reflection in the drama. Hamblet discovers the King of England to be the son of a slave, and his queen to be the daughter of a chambermaid; it is agreed, however, that Hamblet shall wed the princess born of this curious union. He affects to be much offended at the death of Fengon’s ministers, but is appeased with a gift of a great sum of gold, which he melts and encloses in two hollow staves. At the end of a year he returns to Denmark, and entering the palace, finds his funeral being celebrated; for all believe him to have died in England. Great “store of liquor” is provided, and drunkenness, described as “a vice common and familiar among the Almaines and other nations inhabiting the north part of the world,” prevails generally. Hamblet, finding so many of his enemies, their “drunken bodies filled with wine, lying like hogs upon the ground,” causes the hangings about the hall to fall down and cover them all over; he then fastens down the hangings with sharp nails, so that none can loose themselves or get [176] from under them; finally he sets fire to the four corners of the hall, so that all therein are consumed by “the inevitable and merciless flames.” Fengon had previously withdrawn to his chamber; Hamblet, with his sword naked in his hand, seeks him there. Fengon endeavours to defend himself, but his sword has been nailed to the scabbard, so that he cannot unsheath it. “As he sought to pull out, Hamblet gave him such a blow upon the chine of the neck that he cut his head clean from his shoulders, and as he fell to the ground said: ‘This just and violent death is a first reward for such as thou art; now go thy ways, and when thou comest in hell, see thou forget not to tell thy brother, whom thou traitorously slewest, that it was his son that sent thee thither with the message, to the end that being comforted thereby his soul may rest among the blessed spirits and quit me of the obligation which bound me to pursue his vengeance upon mine own blood.’ ” Having thus slain his uncle, Hamblet makes an oration to the Danes, explaining to them the wickedness of Fengon, and demanding at their hands “the price of his own virtue and the recompense of his victory.” The Danes are so much moved, and the affections of the nobility are won; “some wept for pity, others for joy;” with one consent they proclaim him King of Jute and Chersonese.

Here the story of Hamblet might have concluded happily; but further adventures are in store for him. He returns to England to marry the king’s daughter. But the king’s feelings change towards his son-in-law. It seems that in early times Fengon and the King of England had been friends and companions-in-arms, and had sworn together that if either chanced to be slain by any man whatsoever, his death should surely be avenged by the survivor, who should take the quarrel upon him as his own, and never cease till he had done his best endeavour in the matter. The king desires to accomplish his oath, but without defiling his hands with the blood of his daughter’s husband; he is unwilling, moreover, to break the laws of hospitality, or to pollute his house by the traitorous massacre of his friend. He determines, therefore, to make a stranger the avenger of Fengon’s death; and being a widower, sends Hamblet to demand for him the hand in marriage of Hermetrude, the Queen of Scots. Now this Hermetrude was a maid of haughty courage, who despised marriage, “not esteeming any worthy to be her companion,” and, by reason of this arrogant opinion, there never came any man to desire her love but she caused him to lose his life. But on the arrival of Hamblet, regarding him as the greatest prince then living, she determines to make him her husband, and to deprive the English princess of her lawful spouse. She reveals to him that the King of England had with a treacherous motive sent him to Scotland, purposing that he shall there lose his life; altogether she so welcomes and entices Hamblet, kissing and toying with him, that forgetful of the affections of his first wife, he resolves to marry the Queen of Scots, “and so open the way to become king of all Great Britain.” His English wife, much distressed at his inconstancy, warns him that her father is seeking means to destroy him, and that Hermetrude will one day surely cause his overthrow. Invited to a banquet by the king on his return to England, Hamblet is in danger of assassination; but he prudently wears armour under his clothes, his friends doing likewise, and so all escape with life. Soon the King of England pays the penalty for his treachery: he is slain by his son-in-law in a pitched battle, and the whole country of England is thereupon, for the third time, overrun and sacked by the barbarians of Denmark and the islands.

But Hamblet’s career now draws near its end. Setting sail for Denmark after his victory, laden with spoil and accompanied by his two wives, he learns that his uncle Wiglere, the son of King Roderick, and the brother of Geruth, had seized upon the kingdom, “saying that neither Horvendile nor any of his held it but by permission, and that it was in him, to whom the property belonged, to give the charge thereof to whom he would.” For a time, with rich presents, Hamblet buys peace of Wiglere and his withdrawal from the kingdom. But the treacherous Hermetrude, notwithstanding Hamblet’s deep love of her, holds secret communication with Wiglere, promising to marry him if he will but take her out of the hands of her husband. Wiglere thereupon sends to defy Hamblet, and to proclaim open war against him. As the novelist records: “The thing that spoiled this virtuous prince was the over great trust and confidence he had in his wife Hermetrude, and the vehement love he bare unto her, not once repenting the wrong in that case [177] done to his lawful spouse, and but for which peradventure misfortune had never happened unto him, and it would never have been thought that she whom he loved above all things would have so villainously betrayed him.” Hamblet fights a battle with Wiglere; Hermetrude betrays her husband to the enemy; Hamblet is slain, and Hermetrude yields herself with all her dead lord’s treasures into the hands of Wiglere, who gives orders for presently celebrating his marriage with his nephew’s widow. “Such was the end of Hamblet, son to Horvendile, Prince of Jute; to whom, if his fortune had been equal with his inward and natural gifts, I know not which of the ancient Grecians and Romans had been able to have compared with him for virtue and excellency.”

It is “a far cry” from Hamblet, the rude Viking of the early novel, to Shakespeare’s Hamlet:

The expectancy and rose of the fair state,
The glass of fashion, and the mould of form,
The observed of all observers.

But the germs of the tragedy are certainly discoverable in Bandello’s story. There are marked and curious resemblances, indeed, between the two productions, for all the dull prose of the one and the divine poetry of the other. But while in the novel may be perceived rough antitypes of Hamlet and Gertrude, Claudius, Fortinbras, Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, there are no traces of the fair Ophelia, of Laertes, of Horatio, of Osric, and other minor characters. The novel is without mystery or subtlety of any kind; it is plain to baldness, intelligible to the meanest capacity. In it no question arises touching the hero’s mental condition; it is made clear that he simulates madness because he believes his own life threatened by the king, quite as much as in order to avenge his father’s murder. The antic disposition of Shakespeare’s Hamlet is not due to fear of Claudius. The Hamblet of the novel never doubts or hesitates for a moment, and has not the slightest need of a supernatural visitant from the other world to assure him of his uncle’s guilt, and prompt him to revenge a foul and most unnatural murder; still less does he require the presence of a troop of players to catch the conscience of the king. The novelist fails to satisfy the demands of poetical justice. Fengon is sufficiently punished, if the circumstances of his doom are rather brutally contrived; but nothing is told of the fate of Queen Geruth, or of the English princess, Hamblet’s first wife; and at the end the wicked Hermetrude is left prosperous and happy in the love of Hamblet’s uncle, the victorious Wiglere. It may be only an accident, but it is certainly curious that the first syllable of Geruth and the last syllable of Hermetrude form the word Gertrude, the name of Shakespeare’s queen.

It is possible, of course, that Shakespeare had no direct acquaintance with this prose History of Hamblet, Prince of Denmarke; there is no absolute proof that it existed in print before the publication of the first quarto edition of the tragedy, and it is held certain that he did not go straight to Belleforest or Bandello for his materials. Mr Carew Hazlitt, indeed, suggests that Shakespeare knew nothing of the prose story, and simply resorted “to the earlier drama on the subject, and made the piece what it is out of the inexhaustible resources of his own marvellous mind.” But in this earlier drama, attributed to Thomas Kyd, the incidents of the novel, and even certain of its phrases, must assuredly have been employed, or their presence in Shakespeare’s tragedy cannot be accounted for. However, the earlier drama by Kyd – if Kyd is to be credited with it – having become extinct, we are left to surmise the extent of Shakespeare’s obligations to it, and the amount of poetic invention he grafted upon his original. Kyd, as a dramatist, dealt largely in crimes, atrocities, and horrible catastrophes; to gratify the crowd he did not hesitate to outrage sense and discretion. But he was a skilful writer of blank verse. In this respect, “I am inclined,” says Mr. Collier, “among the predecessors of Shakespeare to give Kyd the next place to Marlow.” Nevertheless, from what is known of Kyd’s plays, there need be little hesitation in ascribing to Shakespeare all or nearly all that is admirable in the tragedy of Hamlet.

It may be noted that Hamlet has been a source of some perplexity to the costumiers of the stage. Is the early period of the story to be assigned to the play? Are Shakespeare’s Danes to be regarded as Vikings ignorant of Christianity? Mr. Marshall writes upon this subject: “The period of Hamlet’s existence in Saxo Grammaticus is placed about the second century before Christ; but the chronology of Saxo is utterly worthless. As after 794 we have the names of all the kings of Denmark preserved, Hamlet must have [178] existed, if he really did exist, before then; and as England could not have paid tribute to Denmark before 783, the number of years, arguing from the allusion in the text, within which Hamlet could have existed, is very limited. The fact is, it is utterly impossible to ascertain the exact period of the events in this play; and therefore, all the attempts that have been made from time to time to secure accuracy in the costumes are mere waste of ingenuity. Any time during the ninth or tenth centuries might be taken, according to fancy; but the spirit of the principal character, and many trifling allusions that occur in the play, would even then strike us as anachronisms.” The university of Wittenberg, for instance, was not founded till 1502. The tone of the play throughout pertains to Shakespeare’s own time, and originally, of course, the actors assumed costumes of an Elizabethan pattern. Mr. Boaden writes in his Life of John Kemble, 1825: “We have for so many years been accustomed to see Hamlet dressed in the Vandyke costume, that it may be material to state that Mr. Kemble played the part in a modern court dress of rich black velvet with a star on the breast, the garter, and pendant ribbon of an order, mourning sword and buckles, with deep ruffles; the hair in powder, which, in the scenes of feigned distraction, flowed dishevelled in front and over the shoulder.” Later Hamlets have worn costumes of an earlier period than Vandyke’s, so far as they should be assigned any date whatever; tunics of black velvet, trimmed with bugles; silk stockings; short cloaks; and low-crowned hats or flat bonnets, heavily laden, after a hearse-like fashion, with black ostrich plumes. In his careful and picturesque revival of Hamlet at the Lyceum, in 1864, Mr. Fechter sought to give “an antique Danish colouring” to the tragedy. He retained the blonde wig, the black stuff-dress with ample cloak, he had first donned at the Princess’s, in 1861; the scenery represented “massive architecture of the Norman style;” and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern no longer appeared “in that conventional costume which is vaguely associated with the courtiers of Spain or Italy, but were dressed as northern warriors – bluff fellows, with thick beards, coarse leggings, and cross garters; and the other characters were after the same model.” Mr. Bellew, reading Hamlet in front of a representation of the tragedy by mute performers, hung the stage with curtains imitative of the Bayeux Tapestry, and caused the hero to appear as “a princely figure of the tenth century,” exhibiting upon his cloak the favourite Danish bird of fate, the raven. “Had I altogether followed my own convictions,” explained Mr. Bellew, “I should have preferred the figure of Hamlet entirely dressed in royal purple – the proper colour for kingly mourning – and draped with the ‘inky cloak.’ It would have been more correct, but perhaps too startling a novelty for the English eye.” Mr. Tom Taylor, who, in 1873, produced a version of Hamlet at the Crystal Palace, attired the dramatis personæ in the costume of the thirteenth century, “because,” as he writes, “it seemed to me both dignified and picturesque.” On the other hand, Mr. Irving has apparently decided, for like reason, in favour of the style of the fifteenth century; and the grace and picturesqueness of the dresses now worn at the Lyceum in Hamlet are quite unquestionable.

1 ALL THE YEAR ROUND, New Series, No. 530, p.138 of the present volume, January 25th 1879, “Young Shakespeare’s Hamlet.”