The date of 1601 for the production of Hamlet appears to suit the internal evidence very well.
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
Mr. Collier, in his Farther Particulars, 1839, cites a very curious passage–“a trout, Hamlet, with four legs”–which is given as a proverbial line in Clarke’s Paroemiologia Anglo-Latina (or Proverbs English and Latin), 1639. It is unnecessary to be too curious in searching for the exact meaning of the phrase, but, as Dr. Ingleby suggested to me, it is in all probability taken from the older play of Hamlet, which does not appear to have been entirely superseded at once by the new, or at least was long remembered by play-goers.
The preceding notices may fairly authorize us to infer that the ancient play of Hamlet–1. Was written by either an attorney or an attorney’s clerk, who had not received a university education; 2. Was full of tragical, high-sounding speeches; 3. Contained the passage “There are things called whips in store,” spoken by Hamlet; 4. Included a very telling brief speech by the Ghost in the two words “Hamlet, revenge!” 5. Was acted at the theatre in Shoreditch and at the playhouse at Newington Butts; 6. Had for its principal character a hero exhibiting more general violence than can be attributed to Shakespeare’s creation of Hamlet.
As the older Hamlet was performed by the Lord Chamberlain’s Company in the year 1594, it is possible that Shakespeare might then have undertaken the part of the Ghost, a character he afterward assumed in his own tragedy. There is a curious inedited notice of this personage in Saltonstall’s Picturæ Loquentes, 1635: “a chamberlaine is as nimble as Hamlet’s ghost, heere and everywhere, and when he has many guests, stands most upon his pantofles, for hee’s then a man of some calling.”
There are a number of critics, following the lead of Coleridge, who tells us that Shakespeare’s judgment is commensurate with his genius; but they speak of the former generally as if it were always unfettered, and neglect to add that it was continually influenced by the conditions under which he wrote, and that it was often his task to discover a route to a successful result through the tortuous angularities of a preconceived foreground. There is every reason to believe that this was the case with the tragedy of Hamlet and, if so, it is certain that no genius but that of Shakespeare could have moulded the inartistic materials of a rude original into that harmonious composition, which, although it has certainly been tampered with by the players, and is therefore not the perfect issue of his free inspiration, is the noblest drama the world is ever likely to possess.
It must be recollected that in 1602 Shakespeare was in the zenith of his dramatic power. His tragedy of Hamlet was produced on the stage either in 1601 or 1602, as appears from the entry of it on the books of the Stationers’ Company on July 26, 1602: “James Robertes–Entered for his copie under the handes of Mr. Pasfeild and Mr. Waterson, warden, a booke called the Revenge of Hamlett, Prince (of) Denmarke, as yet was latelie acted by the Lo: Chamberleyne his servantes.”
No copy of this date is known to exist, but a surreptitious and imperfect transcript of portions of the tragedy appeared in the following year under the title of “The Tragicall Historie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke. By William Shakespeare. As it hath been diuerse times acted by his Highnesse seruants in the Cittie of London: as also in the two Vniuersities of Cambridge and Oxford, and elsewhere. At London, printed for N. L. and Iohn Trundell, 1603.” In the next year, 1604, N. L., who was Nicholas Ling, obtained by some means a playhouse copy of the tragedy, not a copy in the state in which it left the hands of the author, but representing in the main the genuine words of Shakespeare. It was published under the following title: “The Tragicall Historie of Hamlet, 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. At London, Printed by I. R. for N. L., and are to be sold at his shoppe under Saint Dunston’s Church in Fleetstreet, 1604.” This impression was reissued in the following year, the title-page and a few leaves at the end, sigs. N. and O., being fresh-printed, the sole alteration in the former being the substitution of 1605 for 1604.
Hamlet is not mentioned by Meres in 1598, and it could not have been written before 1599, in which year the Globe was erected, there being a clear allusion to that theatre in act ii, sc. 2. The tragedy continued to be acted after Shakespeare’s company commenced playing at the Blackfriars Theatre, it being alluded to in a manuscript list, written in 1660, of “some of the most ancient plays that were played at Blackfriars.” According to Downes, Sir William Davenant, “having seen Mr. Taylor of the Black-Fryars Company act it, who, being instructed by the author, Mr. Shaksepeur, taught Mr. Betterton in every particle of it.”–Roscius Anglicanus, 1708. Roberts, in his answer to Mr. Pope’s Preface on Shakespeare, 1729, thinks that Lowin was the original Hamlet.
The date of 1601 for the production of Hamlet appears to suit the internal evidence very well. That evidence decidedly leads to the conclusion that it could not have been written long before that time, and, without placing too much reliance on the general opinion that Shakespeare entirely laid aside his earlier style of composition at some particular era, that year is probably about the latest in which he would have written in the strain of the following lines, which, taken by themselves, might be assigned to the period of the Two Gentlemen of Verona: br />
“Fear it, Ophelia, fear it, my dear sister;
And keep you in the rear of your affection
Out of the shot and danger of desire.
The dearest maid is prodigal enough
If she unmask her beauty to the moon:
Virtue itself scapes not calumnious strokes:
The canker galls the infants of the spring,
Too oft before their buttons be disclos’d;
And in the morn and liquid dew of youth
Contagious blastments are most imminent.
Be wary, then; best safety lies in fear;
Youth to itself rebels, though none else near.
Were it not that the elder play of Hamlet did not belong to Shakespeare’s company, these lines might lead to the conjecture that he had made some additions to it long before he wrote his own complete tragedy.
Text of play here.