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Note on the Hystorie of Hamblet

From Hamlet. Ed. Horace Howard Furness.

In that chaotic mass of 'authentic Extracts from divers English Books that were in Print' in Shakespeare's time, Capell's third volume of Notes, on p. 19, the title of Hystorie of Hamblet is given, together with the contents merely of the eight chapters. To this Capell has added the following note: 'Upon the woman, who in Chapter ii, is set to tempt Hamlet is grounded Shakespeare's Ophelia; and his deliverance from this snare by a friend' suggested his Horatio. The courtiers ['appointed to leade Hamblet into a solitary place,' -- p. 96 of the Reprint] are likewise a shadow of Rosincrantz and Guildenstern. Amidst all this resemblance of persons and circumstances, it is rather strange that none of the relater's expressions have got into the play: and yet not one of them is to be found except in Chapter iii, where Hamlet kills the counsellor (who is described as of a greater reach than the rest, and is the poet's Polonius) behind the arras .... and is made to cry out: 'a rat, a rat. After which ensues Hamlet's harangue to his mother; and the manner in which she is affected by this harangue is better describ'd than any other thing in all the history, or, more properly, is the only good stroke in it.

'To speak the very truth, perhaps, the Geruthe of this picture is superior to Shakespeare's Gertrude in this one situation; allowance being made for the coloring, suiting the time 'twas done in. Shakespeare pursues the history no farther than to the death of the tyrant; and he brings this event to pass by means different from what are there related; yet it is easy to see that Hamlet's counterfeit funeral furnish'd him with the idea of Ophelia's true one; as his harangue to the Danes did the speech of Horatio. This history, as it is call'd, is an almost literal translation from the French of Belleforest; and is of much older date than the impression from which these extracts are made; perhaps but little later than it's original, which was written in 1570, and published soon after.'

In the Introduction to the first volume of his edition of Shakespeare, p. 52, Capell has the following additional remarks: About the middle of the sixteenth century Francis de Belleforest, a French gentleman, entertain'd his countrymen with a collection of novels, which he entitles Histoires tragiques; they are in part originals, part translations, and chiefly from Bandello. He began to publish them in the year 1564; and continued his publication successively in several tomes, how many I know not; the dedication to his fifth tome is dated six years after. In that tome the troisieme Histoire has this title: Avec quelle ruse Amleth, qui depuis fut roy de Dannemarch, vengea la mort de son pere Horvuendille, occis par Fengon sonfrere, & autre occurrence de son histoire.

Painter compil'd his Palace of Pleasure almost entirely from Belleforest, taking here and there a novel as pleas'd him, but he did not translate the whole: other novels, it is probable, were translated by different people, and publish'd singly; this, at least, that we are speaking of, was so, and is intitled -- 'The Hystorie of Hamblet;' it is in Quarto, and black letter. There can be no doubt made, by persons who are acquainted with these things, that the translation is not much younger than the French original; though the only edition of it that is yet come to my knowledge is no earlier than 1608; that Shakespeare took his play from it there can likewise be very little doubt.

Theobald was the first to note that the plot of Hamlet is derived from Saxo Grammaticus. A brief extract of the story from Historae Danica is given by him on the first page of his edition of the tragedy.

Skottowe (Life of Shakespeare, &c, 1824, ii, p. 1) analyses the Hystorie at greater length than any other commentator has thought worth the while, unless it be among the Germans. It is needless to repeat his remarks here; the curious student with the Reprint at hand can misspend what time he pleases, and make his own conclusions. Skottowe sums up: 'The Hystorie of Hamblet, then, contributes much towards the illustration of a character deemed peculiarly difficult. It assigns rational motives for actions otherwise unintelligible, and lays the foundation for the necessary distinction that has been made between the natural and artificial character of Hamlet; a clue to the interpretations of his actions, which, carefully pursued, leaves little in his conduct dubious or obscure. Above all things, the reason for his deportment to Ophelia is explained.'

The copy of the black-letter Quarto owned by Capell is the only one that is known, and is preserved among his books at Cambridge. It was reprinted in 1841 by Collier in the first volume of his Shakespeare's Library, and of it Collier remarks: It was printed for Thomas Pavier, a well-known stationer of that time. There can be little doubt that it had come originally from the press considerably before the commencement of the seventeenth century, although the multiplicity of readers of productions of the kind, and the carelessness with which such books were regarded after perusal, has led to the destruction, as far as can now be ascertained, of every earlier copy.... It will be found that the tragedy varies in many important particulars from the novel, especially towards the conclusion; that nearly the whole conduct of the story is different; that the catastrophe is totally dissimilar, and that the character of the hero in the prose narrative is utterly degraded below the rank he is entitled to take in the commencement. The murder of Hamlet's father, the marriage of his mother with the murderer, Hamlet's pretended madness, his interview with his mother, and his voyage to England, are nearly the only points in common.

We are thus able to see how far Shakespeare followed the Hystorie; but we shall probably never be able to ascertain to what extent he made use of the antecedent play [referred to by Nash, Lodge, and others]. The prose narrative of 1608 is a bald, literal, and, in many respects, uncouth translation from the Histoires tragiques of Belleforest, who was himself by no means an elegant writer for the time in which he lived: his story of Amleth was professedly copied from an earlier author, whom he does not name, but who was either Saxo Grammaticus or some writer who had intermediately borrowed the incidents and converted them to his own purposes. The English translator, especially in the descriptive portion of his work, has multiplied all the faults of Belleforest, including his lengthened and involved periods and his frequent confusion of persons. It may be suspected that one or two of the longer speeches, and particularly the oration of Hamlet, occupying nearly the whole of Chapter vi, was by another and a better hand, who had a more complete knowledge of French and a happier use of his own language.

'We must not have much hesitation in believing that the oldest copy (perhaps printed about the year 1585) was sufficiently corrupt in its readings; but the corruptions increased with the re-impressions, and a few portions of the edition of 1608 seem almost to defy correction. Some passages might be rendered more intelligible, such as, 'distill a field of tears' (page 112), instead of distill a flood of tears; but it was thought "best to present the curious relic, as nearly as it could be done, in the shape and state in which it issued from the press not quite two centuries and a half ago. For this reason it has not been considered right to make the orthography of the name of the hero uniform; sometimes he is called Hamblet (as, no doubt, it stood in the first impression), and at other times Hamlet, as we have every reason to suppose it was altered in the old play, and as we find it in Shakespeare.'

Elze contends that the translation from Belleforest is of a later date than the drama. Prose versions are more likely to follow poetical versions than the reverse. This is noticeable in the popular legends of both England and Germany. It is readily conceivable that a poet should select from Belleforest the story of Hamlet's feigned insanity and of his revenge, and cast it in a dramatic or poetic mould, but it is not so conceivable that a mediocre translator should pick out this single story, unless he were led to do so by the popularity of the poetic version. There are two points or passages in the Hystorie of Hamblet which materially strengthen this view: as has been before noticed, this Hystorie is a clumsy translation of Belleforest, adhering throughout to the original with slavish fidelity, except in two places, which betray the mark of a superior hand, and point very decisively to Shakespeare.

In the Histoires tragiques the counsellor who acts the spy during Amleth's interview with his mother conceals himself under the quilt (stramentum, according to Saxo; loudier or lodier, according to Belleforest), and Amleth on entering the chamber jumps upon this quilt (sauta sur ce lodier); whereas the English version converts the quilt into a curtain or tapestry, and makes use of the very same terms employed by Shakespeare, viz.: 'hangings' and 'arras.' In the second place, it is still more striking that the English translator makes Amleth exclaim in the very words of Shakespeare: 'A rat! a rat!' whereof not a trace is to be found in Belleforest. That this passage, on the stage, made a deep impression on the audience is highly probable, and the probability receives confirmation from the fact that Shirley in his Traitor, 1635, imitated this scene almost word for word. What more likely, then, than that die translator half unconsciously adopted an incident and phraseology which had caught the popular fancy, and become almost proverbial? At any rate, we hold this explanation to be less forced than that which assumes that two such striking passages were invented by a translator of a manifestly inferior stamp, and transferred from his work to Shakespeare's. [Especially when, I think Elze might have added, they are the only two points where the phraseology is common to both.] We by no means wish to deny the possibility of the Hystorie of Hamblet having been published long before 1608; perhaps, as Collier thinks, even as early as 1580. According to our belief, the first sketch of Hamlet is to be set down at about 1585-86.

The above argument of Elze's in favor of the existence of the drama before the translation has not, I think, met with the acceptance it deserves. To my mind it is convincing. Not that the early drama was by Shakespeare. That is not my belief.

How to cite this article:
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Ed. Horace Howard Furness. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1905. Shakespeare Online. 27 Aug. 2013. < >.


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