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 The Hamlet That Never Was 

June 22, 2006 
paragraph indentAcademic snobs insist there is no doubt who Shakespeare was. He was the man baptized Guglielmus Shakspere in Stratford upon Avon, in Warwickshire, Today's column is "The HAMLET That Never Was" -- Read Joe's columns the day he writes them.England, in 1564, wasn’t he?

paragraph indentBut the seemingly simple facts of the man’s life keep creating difficulties for his biographers. Why are Shakespeare’s Sonnets so hard to square with those facts? The scholars have argued endlessly about this, many giving up and calling the Sonnets “fictions.” That’s a tacit admission that if the Sonnets are autobiographical, Shakspere didn’t write them.

paragraph indentThen there is the problem of Hamlet, Shakespeare’s most famous play. The scholars agree that he must have written it around 1600, when he was 36 and at the height of his powers — roughly the age when Beethoven wrote the Eroica Symphony.

paragraph indentUnfortunately, we find references to a popular play about Hamlet long before that: in 1589, 1594, and 1596. One refers to his “tragical speeches,” probably the famous soliloquies; another to the ghost demanding, “Hamlet, revenge!” Other revenge plays were proliferating around this time under this play’s influence.

paragraph indentAn early date for Hamlet can hardly be reconciled with Shakspere’s authorship. In 1589 he was only 25, far too young for such a mature work. So the scholars have decided that the pre-1600 allusions must refer to an earlier Hamlet play by somebody else.

paragraph indentThis would mean that around 1600 Shakspere (if he was the same man as Shakespeare) took an old, popular play, already proverbial, and wrote his own competing version of it. But there is no trace of evidence that such an older play ever existed. It was never printed, never compared or contrasted with the Shakespeare play.

[Breaker quote for The HAMLET That Never Was: Solving a false mystery]paragraph indentIn short, this “other” Hamlet is purely a deduction. The only Hamlet play was Shakespeare’s. It finally appeared in print in a 1603 quarto, the text short, many of the lines comically mangled, some of the characters with names different from those we know. It was apparently assembled by a minor actor who had played in it.

paragraph indentThe title page suggests it was already an old play; it had been performed “divers times” in London, at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, “and elsewhere.” So it was not a new play; it had been around. As early as 1589?

paragraph indentPossibly. The “bad” 1603 text shows what looks like an important change in the plot: the queen, Hamlet’s mother, is aware that the king has murdered her first husband, and she promises to help her son take revenge.

paragraph indentAround 1598, the scholar Gabriel Harvey named Hamlet and The Rape of Lucrece as two of Shakespeare’s works that had won the esteem of “the wiser sort” of readers. This too implies that the play had been familar for a while.

paragraph indentIn 1604, a better and much longer quarto of Hamlet appeared, whose text is widely accepted as authoritative today (usually conflated with the very similar text of the 1623 Folio). Again, neither the 1603 nor the 1604 quarto suggests there had been an earlier Hamlet play; both identify the author as “William Shakespeare.”

paragraph indentThe play remained both popular and proverbial. A university wit remarked that a good play “should please all, like Prince Hamlet.” In 1607/8 Hamlet was actually performed on a ship off the coast of Sierra Leone! In 1608 appeared a pamphlet called The History of Hamblet, a translation from the French of the medieval Danish legend the play was loosely based on.

paragraph indentEarly in the seventeenth century, another garbled version of Hamlet was performed in Germany under the title Fratricide Avenged. It’s all very murky, but one fact stands out: Hamlet caught the imaginations of London playgoers as early as 1589, its fame soon spread far beyond England, and it has never lost its fascination.

paragraph indentUnless we insist that Shakspere of Stratford was Shakespeare, there is no need to deduce an earlier play about Hamlet’s revenge. Scholars have searched in vain for this entirely hypothetical play rather than give up their false image of the great Bard.

paragraph indentAgain, consider Lucrece. This amazing poetic tour de force was published in 1594, when Shakspere was only 30; the scholars have had to dismiss it as an “early” work, though it actually shows the author at the pinnacle of his unmatched powers of expression. Nobody is as credulous as an expert with a pet hypothesis.

Joseph Sobran

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