The play of Hamlet is above all others the most stupendous monument of Shakespeare’s genius, standing as a beacon to command the wonder and admiration of the world, and as a memorial to future generations, that the mind of its author was moved by little less than inspiration. Lear, with its sublime picture of human misery;—Othello, with its harrowing overthrow of a nature great and amiable;—Macbeth, with its fearful murder of a monarch, whose “virtues plead like angels trumpet-tongued against the deep damnation of his taking off,”—severally exhibit, in the most pre-eminent degree, all those mighty elements which constitute the perfection of tragic art—the grand, the pitiful, and the terrible. Hamlet is a history of mind—a tragedy of thought. It contains the deepest philosophy, and most profound wisdom; yet speaks the language of the heart, touching the secret spring of every sense and feeling. Here we have no ideal exaltation of character, but life with its blended faults ands,—a gentle nature unstrung by passing events, and thus rendered “out of tune and harsh.”
The original story of Hamlet is to be found in the Latin pages of the Danish historian, Saxo Grammaticus, who died in the year 1208. Towards the end of the sixteenth century, the French author, Francis de Belleforest, introduced the fable into a collection of novels, which were translated into English, and printed in a small quarto black letter volume, under the title of the “Historie of Hamblett,” from which source Shakespeare constructed the present tragedy.
Saxo has placed his history about 200 years before Christianity, when barbarians, clothed in skins, peopled the shores of the Baltic. The poet, however, has so far modernised the subject as to make Hamlet a Christian, and England tributary to the “sovereign majesty of Denmark.” A date can therefore be easily fixed, and the costume of the tenth and eleventh centuries may be selected for the purpose. There are but few authentic records in existence, but these few afford reason to believe that very slight difference existed between the dress of the Dane and that of the Anglo-Saxon of the same period.
Since its first representation, upwards of two centuries and a half ago, no play has been acted so frequently, or commanded such universal admiration. It draws within the sphere of its attraction both the scholastic and the unlearned. It finds a response in every breast, however high or however humble. By its colossal aid it exalts the drama of England above that of every nation, past or present. It is, indeed, the most marvellous creation of human intellect.