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TRAGEDY OF HAMLET.
EM BRACING A VIEW OF HAMLET'S CHARACTER-HIS peignED OR REAL
WRITINGS AND GENIUS OF SHAKSPERE.
WITH COPIOUS ORIGINAL NOTES AS AN APPENDIX.
P. MAC DONELL,
AUTHOR OF “AN ESSAY ON THE TEMPEST;"
LATE PRESIDENT OF THE ROYAL PHYSICAL SOCIETY OF EDINBURGH.
CUNNINGHAM AND MORTIMER, ADELAIDE STREET,
That Play of Shakspere's, which appears to have most affected English hearts, and has, perhaps, been oftenest acted of any that have come upon our stage, is almost one continued moral; a series of deep reflections drawn from one mouth, upon the subject of one single accident and calamity, naturally fitted to move horror and compassion.
HAKSPERE, a few years before he died, left the busy scenes of life, to enjoy amidst the sylvan beauties of his native Avon, that ease and retirement which his well-earned laurels had deservedly yielded to him ; but unconscious of the splendour of his mighty
genius, and regardless of future fame, he permitted his works to be carried down the stream of time, without an effort on his part to collect them, a circumstance which unhappily has led to many of those errors and blemishes that have obscured the pages of this illustrious poet. The first edition of Shakspere's plays was published in 1623, by Hemings and Condell, seven years after his death,
and to form some idea of the careless manner in which his writings have been transmitted to posterity, it is only necessary to repeat, what was before observed, in the late essay on the Tempest, that Professor Porson, and Mr. Upcott, found in their examination of this edition, three hundred and forty-seven literal mistakes. These inaccuracies, combined with the interpolations made by the players, have called forth the elucidation of some of our ablest writers, who doubtless have done much to unravel the obscurity of many passages; but notwithstanding all that has been written, there yet remains a wide and extensive field for investigation. Not a few of Shakspere's plays, which have always been ranked amongst his works, have likewise each in themselves excited much attention, some authors denying them as his composition ; the Taming of the Shrew, Pericles, and Titus Andronicus, come under this imputation, these dramas having apparently been adapted out of old pieces, and remodelled by his pen. When we find, however, those beautiful historical productions, the three parts of Henry VI, considered by Theobold, Warburton, and Malone, as decidedly spurious, we should be slow in awarding to them as commentators that importance which hitherto has deeply associated their names with the writings of our great dramatic bard.(1) But amidst the diversity of opinion which prevails regarding the real dramas of Shakspere, Hamlet stands pre-eminently undisputed, its characteristic excellence proclaiming it truly as one of his genuine efforts, though, it is proved, that the edition published in 1603, was deficient in many of those beauties which the more mature genius of the poet at an after period created. (2)
The original story on which the tragedy of Hamlet is founded, is to be met with in the writings of Saxo Grammaticus, the Danish historian, who flourished towards the end of the twelfth century; but about 1564, Belleforest adopted it, in his collection of novels, from which, it is supposed, the old black letter prose “ Hystorie of Hamblet" was translated; with the aid of this translation, Shakspere was enabled to give to the world a production, which for splendour and magnificence is unequalled
in the annals of dramatic poetry. The basis of the piece rests upon the murder of Hamlet's father by his uncle Claudius, King of Denmark ;-the murder is revealed to Hamlet, by the supernatural appearance of his father's ghost, which inspiring the young Prince with revenge, the bent of the play turns upon the accomplishment of this purpose. Hamlet's indignation at the incestuous marriage of his mother with his uncle, his grief for his father's death, with the noble and generous qualities which distinguish his character, all prepare us to sympathise with his wrongs and sufferings.
Shakspere, as a tragic writer, possessed in an eminent degree an advantage over the poets of ancient Greece, by availing himself of the gloomy superstitions of his country, and as it was his task, to abide by the narration of those events, related by the historian, with the same faithful accuracy, that guided him when depicting with so much power the witches in Macbeth ; su in the Tragedy of Hamlet, he has produced a phantom in the ghost of the Danish King, with such admirable skill as to make us for the moment forget the wisdom of philosophy, and leave our minds harrowed with fear and wonder, a prey to all the delusions of " this dreaded sight.” With some authors, the ghost in Hamlet has formed a source of severe but unjust criticism, by it being brought in comparison with the phantoms of Æschylus; but this censure is now regarded as the offspring of very circumscribed views. Shakspere wrote and adapted his scenes to the taste and prejudices of his time, and whilst the powers of his imagination were congenial to the established superstitions which then prevailed, he has rendered those objects of terror subservient to the designs of the drama, amidst a boldness of poetic fiction, that has embellished the traditions of the vulgar, with the elegance and splendour of classic erudition.
The first scene of the play is principally occupied by the appearance of the ghost. Horatio and Marcellus, the schoolfellows of Hamlet, at the solemn hour of midnight meet with Bernardo and Francisco, two centinels upon watch, to whom the spirit had appeared the preceding night, and the relation