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HOUGHTON, MIFFLIN AND COMPANY
The Riverside Press, Cambridge
OCT 17 1919
Copyright, 1883 and 1897,
All rights reserved.
The Riverside Press, Cambridge, Mass., U. S. A.
THE story of the tragedy which has added more than any other of his works to Shakespeare's fame (although it neither is his greatest play nor contains his greatest poetry), was well known in England long before it was made the subject of dramatic representation. Indeed, it was turned into a play for the very reason that it was "an old story." The chief interest of the audiences for which Shakespeare wrote was in events which they already had in mind. These they liked to have vividly set before their eyes and made impressive by living men seeming the actual personages of legend or of history. They delighted to hear these creatures of flesh and blood utter their joys and their sorrows with that soul-stirring union of homely strength and poetical elevation which came and vanished in the Elizabethan era. But the great point was always the story; and that having popular interest, if it were well known, so much the better. The legend of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, made its first appearance, we have reason to believe, in the Historia Danica of Saxo Grammaticus, who wrote about the end of the twelfth century. This was translated into French, and published in Belleforest's Histoires Tragiques at Paris in 1570. The French version was translated into English; when, we do not know. The earliest edition known is dated 1608; but we may be sure that it had been printed in English long before that year. From this story that of our tragedy differs in some important details and in its ending; but the variation is due only in part to Shakespeare. We have evidence that before 1587 an English play founded on the story of Hamlet was well known in London; and in this play there was important variation from the old legend. For a very striking incident in this old tragedy was the incitement of young Hamlet to revenge by the ghost of his father, of which the tale told by Saxo Grammaticus says nothing. Indeed, in this earlier play the crying out of "Revenge!" by the ghost and by Hamlet was so impressive that that exclamation became associated with Hamlet's name, and was almost a byword. Shakespeare took the old play in hand and entirely rewrote it, modifying the action yet again in his turn; and the result was the famous tragedy now known the world over. His dramatic version of this favorite story was so successful that it was eagerly sought by readers; and to meet this demand an edition of it was published in quarto in 1603. Except in its first scenes, however, this edition is a
monstrous caricature of Shakespeare's tragedy. It was a piratical publication, and the copy was obtained surreptitiously. All the evidence in regard to it goes to show that it was procured through the bad faith of some minor actor in Shakespeare's theatre, partly from notes taken down during the performance; in some passages from actors' copies of their parts; in others from the feeble memory of some person who could not understand what Shakespeare wrote, and who yet undertook to supply from his own poor brain what he could not recollect; and, when all these sources failed, from the old play, many lines of which were made to do duty for corresponding passages in Shakespeare's drama. These scraps were huddled together in confusion and printed in haste, to meet the public demand for the new Hamlet. The result was such a ridiculous and mutilated misrepresentation of the real thing that (apparently in selfdefence) an authentic copy of the tragedy was furnished to the "stationer (as booksellers were then called), and in 1604 another edition in quarto was published, which justly professed on its title-page to be "enlarged to almost as much againe as it was, according to the true and perfect coppie." 1 There were other quarto editions before its appearance in the folio of 1623. Internal evidence shows that the editions of 1603, 1604, and 1623 (the only ones of any importance or authority) all represent one and the same drama. The most valuable text is that of 1604; but even the mutilated, distorted, and interpolated edition of 1603 furnishes important aid to the completion of the tragedy as it came from Shakespeare's pen, which after all, it is to be feared, is not quite attainable. The text of the folio shows evidences of incorrect transcription and also of sophistication. It probably represents the acting copy, and hence omits some very important passages not necessary to stage effect. Of these there are, in a few instances, vestiges in the mutilated edition of 1603 which do not appear in that of 1604. Hamlet was probably written about the year 1600. The period of its action is historically very uncertain; but in Shakespeare's imagination it seems to have been somewhere about the tenth century. The duration of the action is as uncertain and indefinite as its period. [See Suggestions for Special Study.]
1 These two important and interesting title-pages are reproduced on the next page, with the typographical arrangement of the originals.
Tragicall Historie of
By William Shake-speare.
As it hath beene diuerse times acted by his Highneffe feruants in the Cittie of London: as alfo in the two Vniuerfities of Cambridge and Oxford, and elfe-where.
At London printed for N: L. and Iohn Trundell.
Tragicall Hiftorie of
Prince of Denmarke.
By William Shakespeare.
Newly imprinted and enlarged to almost as much againe as it was, according to the true and perfect Coppie.
Printed by I. R. for N. L. and are to be fold at his shoppe vnder Saint Dunftons Church in Fleetstreet. 1604.