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SEVERAL quarto editions of Shakespeare's tragedy of “Hamlet, Prince of Denmark,” were in print previous to its appearance in the famous folio of 1623,- the first published collection of the poet's dramas, and the edition to which modern editors generally look for the genuine text of his plays. Of these quartos, that of 1604 is regarded as authentic, and a useful auxiliary in throwing light on obscure passages in the “Hamlet” text of the folio.
The story on which the tragedy is founded is told by Saxo Grammaticus in his "Historia Danica," written in Latin about the end of the twelfth century. It is included in Belleforest's “Histoires Tragiques," published in Paris in 1570. / The first English translation we have of the story appeared in 1608, under the title of "The Hystorie of Hamblet," although it is possible there was an earlier English edition.
Shakespeare, however, owes but little to the original story, whatever the shape in which it came to him. He found in the records of a barbarous period a tale of conjugal infelicity, murder, and revenge, together with some rude indication of the character of Hamlet. “But," as Knight observes, "what he has given us is so essentially a creation, from first to last, that it would be only tedious to point out the lesser resemblances between the drama
and the history." The period of the action of the play is the same as that of the relation by the Danish historian,- a period anterior to the Norman Conquest, when England was either under the sovereignty of the Northmen, or paid tribute to the Danish power.
It has been justly remarked that Hamlet' is not Shakespeare's greatest play, nor does it contain his greatest poetry." Yet it has probably contributed more to his fame than any
other one production of his genius. It has been translated into all the languages of Europe, and has engaged the attention, and won the admiration, of the most eminent scholars, philosophers, and poets, not only among those
who speak the tongue That Shakespeare spake,”
but throughout the civilized world; and the commentaries on the nature and action of the drama generally, and of the character of Hamlet especially, are innumerable. We have not far to look for the reason of the continued and unabated popularity of “Hamlet," and our perennial interest in its title character. As Hazlitt aptly says, “It is the one of Shakespeare's plays we think of the oftenest, because it abounds in striking reflections of human life, and because the distresses of Hamlet are transferred, by the turn of his mind, to the general account of humanity. . . . Whatever happens to him we apply to ourselves, because he applies it so himself, as a means of general reasoning. He is a great moralizer; and what makes him worth attending to is, that he moralizes on his own feelings and experience. His speeches and sayings are as real as our own thoughts. Their reality is in the reader's mind. It is we who are Hamlet."
The opening scene of the tragedy is at Elsinore, in front of the castle of the Danish King, where, as it is rumored, the night watch has seen on two occasions a Ghost resembling Hamlet, the lately deceased King. Horatio, a friend of the young Prince Hamlet, while he has little faith in the rumor, has, at the solicitation of the sentinels, consented to share the watch with them, that he may see and speak to the Apparition, should it present itself. Twice before the dawn, the Ghost appears. Horatio addresses it, but receives no reply, though on its second appearance it lifted its head as about to speak, when, at the crowing of the morning cock, it faded away. Horatio, now convinced that the Ghost is no illusion, predicts that its appearance bodes some evil to the State; and it is agreed that he, with his companions, shall visit young Hamlet, and communicate to him what they have seen. 2. The next scene is a room in the castle, where Claudius the King, Gertrude the Queen, Hamlet her son, Polonius an old chamberlain, his son Laertes, and others, are assembled. Here we learn from the King that he succeeded to the throne on the death of his brother, whose widow he has married; that an invasion of the kingdom is threatened by young Fortinbras, Prince of Norway; that he is about to send ambassadors to the King of that country, the uncle of the Prince, to remonstrate against the warlike preparations of the nephew. He then grants Laertes' request to return to Paris, whence he had come to attend the King's coronation; then, turning to Hamlet, Claudius and the Queen expostulate with him on his excessive and continued grief for his father's death, and urge him to give up all thought of his proposed return to the college at Wittenberg. Hamlet yields to his mother's wishes, but presently, when left alone, expresses his contempt and hatred of the King, and his horror at the unseemly and unnatural