“Some second Shakespeare must of Shakespeare write.” Until this miracle occurs, it is not likely that any esthetic criticism on the tragedy will be successful . . . .
Featuring an excerpt from an unfinished work by James Halliwell-Phillipps written before his death in 1889.
Previously in Hamlet, Drama’s Apex. Now we continue.
Place: London, Globe Theater
There was once in existence a copy of Speght’s edition of Chaucer, 1598, with manuscript notes by Gabriel Harvey, one of those notes being in the following terms: “The younger sort take much delight in Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis, but his Lucrece and his tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke, have it in them to please the wiser sort.” This note was first printed in 1766 by Steevens, who gives the year 1598 as the date of its insertion in the volume, but, observed Dr. Ingleby, “we are unable to verify Steevens’ note or collate his copy, for the book which contained Harvey’s note passed into the collection of Bishop Percy, and his library was burned in the fire at Northumberland House.” Under these circumstances one can only add the opinions of those who have had the opportunity of inspecting the volume. Firstly, from the letter of Percy to Malone, 1803: “In the passage which extols Shakespeare’s tragedy, Spenser is quoted by name among our flourishing metricians. Now this edition of Chaucer was published in 1598, and Spenser’s death is ascertained to have been in January, 1598-1599, so that these passages were all written in 1598, and prove that Hamlet was written before that year, as you have fixed it.” Secondly, from a letter from Malone to Percy, written also in 1803, in which he gives reasons for controverting this opinion: “When I was in Dublin I remember you thought that, though Harvey had written 1598 in his book, it did not follow from thence that his remarks were then written; whilst, on the other hand, I contended that, from the mention of Spenser, they should seem to have been written in that year; so that, like the two Reynoldses, we have changed sides and each converted the other; for I have now no doubt that these observations were written in a subsequent year. The words that deceive are ‘our now flourishing metricians,’ by which Harvey does not mean ‘now living,’ but now admired or in vogue; and what proves this is that in his catalogue he mixes the living and the dead, for Thomas Watson was dead before 1593. With respect to Axio Philus, I think you will agree with me hereafter that not Spenser, but another person, was meant. Having more than once named Spenser, there could surely be no occasion to use any mysterious appellation with respect to that poet. My theory is that Harvey bought the book in 1598 on its publication, and then sat down to read it, and that his observations were afterward inserted at various times. That passage, which is at the very end, and subjoined to Lydgate’s catalogue, one may reasonably suppose was not written till after he had perused the whole volume.”
The tragedy of Hamlet is familiarly alluded to more than once in the play of Eastward Hoe, printed in 1605, in a manner which indicates that the former drama was very well established in the memories of the audience. There is a parody on one of Ophelia’s songs which is of some interest in regard to the question of the critical value of the quarto of 1604; the occurrence of the word “all” before “flaxen” showing that the former word was incorrectly omitted in all the early quartos excepting in that of 1603. One of the subordinate characters in Eastward Hoe is a running-footman of the name of Hamlet, who enters in great haste to tell the coachman to be ready for his mistress, whereupon Potkin, a tankard-bearer, says: “Sfoote, Hamlet, are you madde? Whether run you nowe? You should brushe up my olde mistresse.”
There is an unsupported statement by Oldys to the effect that Shakespeare received but five pounds for his tragedy of Hamlet, but whether from the company who first acted it or from the publisher is not mentioned. This is the only information that has reached us respecting the exact emolument received by Shakespeare for any of his writings, but it cannot be accepted merely on such an authority. It is, however, worthy of remark that Greene parted with his Orlando to the Queen’s Players for twenty nobles; so the sum named appears to have been about the usual amount given for a play sold direct from the author to a company, but in all probability, when Hamlet was produced, Shakespeare was playing at the Globe Theatre on shares.
Notwithstanding the extreme length of the tragedy of Hamlet, there is such a marvelously concentrative power displayed in much of the construction and dialogue that, in respect to a large number of the incidents and speeches, a wide latitude of interpretation is admissible, the selection in those cases from possible explanations depending upon the judgment and temperament of each actor or reader. Hence it may be confidently predicted that no esthetic criticisms upon this drama will ever be entirely and universally accepted, and as certainly that there will remain problems in connection with it which will be subjects for discussion to the end of literary time. Among the latter the reason or reasons which induced Hamlet to defer the fulfillment of his revenge may perhaps continue to hold a prominent situation, although the solution of that special mystery does not seem to be attended with difficulties equal to those surrounding other cognate inquiries which arise in the study of the tragedy.
In respect to this drama, as to many others by the same author, the prophetic words of Leonard Digges may be usefully remembered–“Some second Shakespeare must of Shakespeare write.” Until this miracle occurs, it is not likely that any esthetic criticism on the tragedy will be successful; and certainly at present, notwithstanding the numbers of persons of high talent and genius who have discussed the subject, nothing has been, nor is likely to be, produced which is altogether satisfactory. The cause of this may perhaps to some extent arise from the latitude of interpretation the dramatic form of composition allows, to the appreciation of the minor details of a character, and the various plausible reasons that can often be assigned for the same line of action; something also may be due to the unconscious influence exercised by individual temperament upon the exposition of that character, and again much to the defective state of the text; but the reason of the general failure in Hamlet criticism is no doubt chiefly to be traced to the want of ability to enter fully into the inspiration of the poet’s genius.
Text of play here.