This series has four easy 5 minute installments. This first installment: Shakespeare’s Masterpiece, Hamlet.
The tragedy of Hamlet is generally regarded by critics as Shakespeare’s masterpiece. Hence it is often referred to as the highest literary product of human genius. In the following discussion of the play, Mr. J. O. Halliwell-Phillipps, the master and dean of later Shakespearean scholars, gives 1601 as the probable date of its first production. At that time Shakespeare was a London actor, and leading shareholder in the Globe Theatre, where his play was presumably produced. He had made his first big success some five years before with Romeo and Juliet, and was, so far as we can judge, on the high tide of financial prosperity. The profession of an actor carried with it in those days much discredit, but in his far-off home at Stratford, Shakespeare had in 1601 already begun to seek the repute of a country gentleman, and had purchased the finest house and estate in the little village.
This selection is from an unfinished work by noted Shakespeare scholar James Halliwell-Phillipps published in 1889.
Place: London, Globe Theater
The tragedy of Hamlet is unquestionably the highest effort of artistic literary power yet given to the world. There is nothing to be found in real competition with it excepting in the other works of Shakespeare, but all are inferior to this great masterpiece. There is hardly a speech in the whole play which may not fairly be made the subject of an elaborate discourse, especially when viewed in connection with its bearings, however occasionally remote, on the character of Hamlet, the development of which appears to have been the chief object of the author, not only in the management of the plot, but in the creation of the other personages who are introduced. There is contemporary evidence to this effect in the Stationers’ Register of 1602 in the title there given–The Revenge of Hamlet.
There was an old English tragedy on the subject of Hamlet which was in existence at least as early as the year 1589, in the representation of which an exclamation of the Ghost–“Hamlet, revenge!”–was a striking and well-remembered feature. This production is alluded to in some prefatory matter by Nash in the edition of Greene’s Menaphon, issued in that year, here given: “I’le turne backe to my first text, of studies of delight, and talke a little in friendship with a few of our triuiall translators. It is a common practise now a daies amongst a sort of shifting companions that run through euery arte and thriue by none, to leaue the trade of Nouerint whereto they were borne, and busie themselues with the indeuors of art, that could scarcelie latinize their necke-verse if they should haue neede; yet English Seneca read by candle light yeeldes manie good sentences, as Bloud is a beggar, and so foorth: and if you intreate him faire in a frostie morning, he will afoord you whole Hamlets, I should say hand-fulls of tragical speeches.”
Another allusion occurs in Lodge’s Wits’ Miserie, “and though this fiend be begotten of his father’s own blood, yet is he different from his nature; and were he not sure that jealousie could not make him a cuckold, he had long since published him for a bastard: you shall know him by this, he is a foule lubber, his tongue tipt with lying, his heart steeled against charity; he walks for the most part in black under color of gravity, and looks as pale as the visard of the ghost which cried so miserably at the theator like an oister-wife,’ Hamlet, revenge‘.” Again, in Decker’s Satiromastix, 1602: “Asini. ‘Wod I were hang’d, if I can call you any names but Captaine and Tucca.’ Tuc. ‘No, fye’st, my name’s Hamlet, revenge. Thou hast been at Parris Garden, hast not?’ Hor. ‘Yes, Captaine, I ha plaide Zulziman there'”; with which may be compared another passage in Westward Hoe, 1607–“I, but when light wives make heavy husbands, let these husbands play mad Hamlet and crie, revenge.” So, likewise, in Rowland’s Night Raven, 1620, a scrivener, who has his cloak and hat stolen from him, exclaims, “I will not cry, Hamlet, revenge my greeves.” There is also reason to suppose that another passage in the old tragedy of Hamlet is alluded to in Armin’s Nest of Ninnies, 1608: “There are, as Hamlet sayes, things cald whips in store,” a sentence which seems to have been well known and popular, for it is partially cited in the Spanish Tragedie, 1592, and in the First Part of the Contention, 1594.
It seems, however, certain that all the passages above quoted refer to a drama of Hamlet anterior to that by Shakespeare, and the same which is recorded in Henslowe’s Diary as having been played at Newington in 1594 by “my Lord Admeralle and my lorde Chamberlen men, 9 of June, 1594, receved at Hamlet, viii, 5,” the small sum arising from the performance showing most probably that the tragedy had then been long on the stage. As Shakespeare was a member of the Lord Chamberlain’s Company at that time, it is certain that he must have been well acquainted with the older play of Hamlet, one of a series of dramas on the then favorite theme of revenge, aided by the supernatural intervention of a ghost.
There are a few other early allusions to the first Hamlet which appear to deserve quotation. “His father’s empire and government was but as the Poeticall Furie in a Stageaction, compleat, yet with horrid and wofull Tragedies: a first, but no second to any Hamlet; and that now Reuenge, iust Reuenge was coming with his Sworde drawne against him, his royall Mother, and dearest Sister to fill up those Murdering Sceanes.”–Sir Thomas Smithe’s Voiage and Entertainment in Rushia, 1605. “Sometimes would he overtake him and lay hands upon him like a catch-pole, as if he had arrested him, but furious Hamlet woulde presently eyther breake loose like a beare from the stake, or else so set his pawes on this dog that thus bayted him that, with tugging and tearing one another’s frockes off, they both looked like mad Tom of Bedlam.”–Decker’s Dead Terme, 1608. “If any passenger come by and, wondering to see such a conjuring circle kept by hel-houndes, demaund what spirits they raise there, one of the murderers steps to him, poysons him with sweete wordes and shifts him off with this lye, that one of the women is falne in labor: but if any mad Hamlet, hearing this, smell villanie and rush in by violence to see what the tawny divels are dooing, then they excuse the fact, lay the blame on those that are the actors, and perhaps, if they see no remedie, deliver them to an officer to be lead to punishment.”–Decker’s Lanthorne and Candle-light, or the Bellman’s Second Nights-Walke, 1609, a tract which was reprinted under more than one different title.
Text of play here.