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Looking for Hamlet
By Marvin W. Hunt
Palgrave Macmillan Copyright © 2007 Marvin W. Hunt
All rights reserved.
THE PREHISTORY OF HAMLET
The story presented in Hamlet did not originate with Shakespeare. In order to appreciate Shakespeare's achievement, we must therefore bring to light what we can of the material Shakespeare inherited and from which he produced his play. Indeed, as will become clear as we go along, commentators who ignore Shakespeare's source material are sometimes led to make unsupportable claims for the playwright's character and motivation. The story of Hamlet took shape five hundred years before Shakespeare's play, from still far more ancient material. The earliest account of Hamlet was written in Latin by the Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus during the twelfth century. Saxo lays out the general plot and characters that eventually evolve into Shakespeare's Hamlet. His story proceeds this way. Horwendil, king of Denmark, is murdered by his brother Feng, who then marries his brother's wife, Queen Gerutha, and becomes king, thus depriving Horwendil's son, Amleth, of the throne. The fact that Horwendil's murder is committed openly, known to all, is significant. It means, of course, that the Amleth legend has no need for a private means of revealing the nature of the murder to the hero. The ghost is a post-Danish addition to the story, appearing perhaps in the 1580s when the legend was rendered as a stage play in a version that was never printed and thus is missing.
After his father is killed, Amleth feigns madness to avoid suspicion and to buy himself time to engineer his revenge against Feng. Amleth becomes, Saxo writes, "utterly listless and unclean, flinging himself on the ground and bespattering his person with foul and filthy dirt. His discolored face and visage smutched with slime denoted foolish and grotesque madness. All he said was of a piece with these follies; all that he did savored of utter lethargy." As part of this strategy, Amleth spends his time carving wooden stakes. When asked why, he replies cryptically that with these he will avenge his father's killers. Amleth's assumption of the guise of a madman clearly prefigures Hamlet's strategy in Shakespeare's play, and so is an aspect of the character that Shakespeare inherited from Saxo, if indirectly, since it is unlikely that Shakespeare had access to Saxo's version.
Meanwhile Feng, suspecting that Amleth is not really mad, devises two stratagems to flush him out: first, he sends "a fair woman" to seduce Amleth; and second, if the seduction doesn't work, he'll send "a counselor" to eavesdrop on Amleth and his mother in her chamber. In Feng's first scheme, Amleth is tipped off by a "foster-brother," and leads the woman to a secluded spot, "a distant and impenetrable fen," where he has sex with her while avoiding detection by Feng's agents.
Feng then moves to his backup plan, planting a spy in his wife's chamber. Whatever may be the immediate source of Shakespeare's 3.4 in which Hamlet kills Polonius and harangues his mother, its distant origin is undoubtedly this episode from the Amleth saga. Coming to his mother's chamber, Amleth discovers the spy hiding in the straw covering the floor and stabs the unnamed counselor. Amleth then cuts the body into pieces, which he boils and throws into a sewer, where the eavesdropper's remains are eaten by swine. While Shakespeare's Hamlet doesn't abuse Polonius' corpse this way, his dragging the body offstage with the words, "I 'll lug the guts into the neighbor room" echoes that abuse. Having dispensed with the spy, Amleth returns to his mother, berating her for marrying incestuously. "Most infamous of women!" he cries, "dost thou seek with such lying lamentations to hide thy most heavy guilt? Wantoning like a harlot, thou hast entered a wicked and abominable state of wedlock, embracing with incestuous bosom thy husband's slayer, and wheedling with filthy lures of blandishment him who had slain the father of thy son." She is, he says, little better than a mare, a brute beast. The debt, however indirect, of Shakespeare's 3.4 to this episode in Saxo is underscored when Amleth goes on to tell his mother that in order to escape treachery he has had to pretend madness, that he has had to make himself a fool to rectify a circumstance that his mother was complicit in creating. In this we might hear Hamlet's insistence to Gertrude that "It is not madness / That I have uttered"—that is, that his madness has been a guise. Unmistakably, when Saxo writes that "[w]ith such reproaches, he rent the heart of his mother, and redeemed her to walk in the ways of virtue," we hear Hamlet's much more intense plea that his mother "[l]et [not] the bloat King tempt you again to bed, / Pinch wanton on your cheek, call you his mouse / And let him for a pair of reechy kisses, / Or paddling in your neck with his damned fingers, / Make you to ravel all this matter out, / That I essentially am not in madness / But mad in craft."
The outline of Shakespeare's plot continues to follow Saxo rather closely until the fifth act of Hamlet, the Graveyard Scene, which owes nothing to Saxo's version, and the duel with Laertes, who has no parallel in Danish saga. When Feng discovers that Amleth has eluded his traps, he exiles the young prince to England in the company of two retainers who carry a letter to the British king instructing him to have the hero killed. Amleth, however, wins the confidence and trust of the king by issuing a number of prophesies that come true, then altering the letter so that it commands the deaths of the retainers rather than himself. After the British king executes Feng's henchmen, and after a year's absence, Amleth returns to Denmark just as the court, at his mother's behest, is observing Amleth's obsequies. Amleth's entrance astonishes the crowd, who clamor in wonderment how he is still alive. Amleth, while telling of his sojourn in England, plies the courtiers with alcohol. When they are drunk and incapacitated, Amleth pulls down the wall hangings, covering the sleepers, ties them together with the staves he had carved and sets the bundle on fire, immolating the entire court. While the flames rage, Amleth goes to Feng's chamber, confronts him with his crimes, and slays the king with the king's sword.
Thus ends Book Three of Saxo's History of the Danes, which covers only the first half of Amleth's life, the half that Shakespeare adopted and adapted. But the legend of Amleth as recorded by Saxo continues far beyond Shakespeare's version. Shakespeare's Hamlet dies while accomplishing his revenge, but his prototype Amleth looks forward to a remarkable career after the killing of Feng. After cleansing the Danish court of a corrupt regime, he is made king of Denmark, returns to England, wins the hand of the Queen of Scotland, and ultimately is betrayed and killed in battle.
FRANÇOIS DE BELLEFOREST
After Saxo but before Shakespeare, the Hamlet story is told again, with much moralizing and small but significant alterations, by François de Belleforest in hisHistories Tragiques in 1570 and translated into English in 1608, five years after the first edition of Shakespeare's Hamlet appeared in print. From Belleforest we gain new details that have a significant bearing on Shakespeare's play. We learn from Belleforest that Fengon, the usurping brother, had "incestuously abused" the Queen while her husband, Horvendile, was still alive. "An unfortunate and wicked woman," Queen Geruth "made divers men think that she had been the causer of the murder." Belleforest asks, "Where shall a man find a more wicked and bold woman" whom "we leave in the extremity of lasciviousness?"
As in Saxo, Belleforest's hero, here named Hamblet, hides behind the counterfeit of madness, but the Histories Tragiques takes the characterization a step further by adding that Hamblet "had been at the school of the Roman Prince," Junius Brutus, whose fashion and wisdom he imitated. Belleforest's Hamblet "rents and tears his clothes, wallowing in the dirt and mire, his face all filthy and black." He "runs through the streets like a man distraught." Like Amleth, Hamblet sharpens sticks in front of the fire, muttering, "I prepare piercing darts and sharp arrows to revenge my father's death." Foolish courtiers, Belleforest writes, "esteemed these his words as nothing; but men of quick spirits, and such as had a deeper reach" understood that "under that kind of folly there lay hidden a great and rare subtlety." This cloaking of wisdom in the guise of madness follows Saxo, who associates Hamlet with the Roman Brutus, as well as with the Bible's David, who feigned madness at the court of Achish (1 Samuel 10–15). Thus the concept of the wise fool, which I discuss in another chapter, may be the deepest and most ancient aspect of Hamlet's character, a concept registered in the name Amleth, which etymologically suggests the notion of the fool or idiot. Yet the character Amleth/Hamblet clearly strategically employs, as his ancestor Junius Brutus had, the appearance of folly as a supremely wise and effective means of evading his murdering uncle.
As in Saxo's account, Belleforest's evil Fengon sends a woman to seduce Hamblet. And as in Saxo, a boyhood friend who had been "nourished" with the prince warns Hamblet of the trap. Belleforest adds a significant detail about this woman, that "from her infancy [she] loved and favored" Hamblet, "whom she loved more than herself." Belleforest, the rigid moralist, equivocates on the matter of whether Hamblet has sex with her, writing that "[t]he prince deceived the courtiers and the lady's expectation that affirmed and swore that he never once offered to have his pleasure of the woman, although in subtlety he affirmed the contrary."
Like Saxo's Feng, Belleforest's Fengon decides that Hamblet should be closeted with his mother, to whom he might confess his intentions. But in Belleforest's version of the story, the spy—a "counselor"—hides himself behind a wall hanging rather than under the straw as in Saxo. Hamblet enters and begins to crow "like a cock beating his arms against the hangings." Feeling something stir behind the arras, Hamblet cries "a rat, a rat"—and stabs the counselor. Similarly, Shakespeare's Hamlet prefaces his stabbing of Polonius behind the arras with "How now! A rat! Dead for a ducat, dead!" After dragging the corpse from behind the curtain, Belleforest's Hamblet, like Saxo's Amleth, cuts the body to pieces, boils them, and dumps the parts into a privy where they are eaten by hogs.
Having disposed of the counselor, Hamblet then turns his attentions to his mother, berating her in much harsher terms than Saxo's Amleth does. Hamblet calls her "a vile, wanton adulteress" who nightly embraces "the traitorous villainous tyrant that murdered my father." "Is this the part of a queen and daughter to a king?" he asks, "to live like a brute beast (and like a mare that yieldeth her body to the horse that hath beaten her companion away), to follow the pleasure of an abominable king that hath murdered a far more honester and better man than himself in massacring Horvendile, the honor and glory of the Danes?" As we see later in Shakespeare, Belleforest's Hamblet viciously whips his mother with bestial analogies. "O, queen Geruth," he says, "it is the part of a bitch to couple with many." Geruth is less and worse than a beast. Even "lions, tigers, ounces and leopards fight for the safety and defense of their whelps," he says. To the moralizing Belleforest—this tone is not so evident in Saxo—it must be "unbridled desire" that leads the queen to the arms of the tyrant Fengon.
Hamblet tells his mother that he is "constrained to play the part of a mad man" (my emphasis). This explicit reference to playing may be quite important: it may stand as the moment when the saga of Hamblet becomes incipiently a drama, when historiography becomes theater, a destiny that will be fulfilled by Shakespeare, who will exuberantly explore the nature of playing and contrast various forms of acting with his own actor-hero's inward reality.
This action rises to an angry crescendo as Hamblet turns his mother's attention to his own unfortunate circumstance: "the face of a madman serveth to cover my gallant countenance; and the gestures of a fool are fit for me, to the end that guiding myself wisely therein, I may preserve my life for the Danes." In a statement that even more closely prefigures Shakespeare's Closet Scene than did the parallel scene in Saxo, Belleforest's Hamblet says, "weep not to see my folly but rather sigh and lament your own offense, tormenting your conscience." His vituperative tirade forces a confession from Geruth: she was wrong to marry Fengon, she says, "the cruel tyrant and murderer of thy father, and my loyal spouse." But she did not, she insists, conspire in or consent to the death of her husband. In her last gesture in this scene, Hamblet's mother swears loyalty to her son in his plan to avenge the death of his father; she soon proves his loyal ally.
Once the killing of the counselor is discovered, Fengon announces that Hamblet is to be exiled to England accompanied by two "faithful ministers." Hamblet instructs his mother not to grieve at his exile but to pretend happiness, and to hang the walls with tapestries fastened with nails, and also to keep the sharpened brands Hamblet has made. After his absence of a year, she is to organize a celebration of his funeral.
Fengon's henchmen, Shakespeare's characters Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, bear a letter to the English king ordering the murder of Hamblet. Supremely wise, the hero obtains the letter and alters it to command the deaths of the henchmen. This accomplished, Hamblet charms the English king with prophesies, discussed below, that come true. For his success Hamblet is rewarded with gold that he melts into staves. The prince returns to Denmark just as the court, according to the instructions Hamblet had left with his mother, is celebrating his funeral. The crowd drinks and carouses while Hamblet in plain sight feigns distraction. Once they pass out, the wall hangings are brought down on the drunken revelers, whom Hamblet stitches up with staves. He sets the human bundle on fire. Hamblet then makes his way to Fengon's tent, where, as in Saxo's account, he cuts down the usurping king with the king's own sword, foreshadowing Hamlet's killing of Claudius.
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In Saxo Grammaticus' account of Amleth and in Belleforest's reworking of this material in his story of Hamblet, we can clearly see the lineaments of Shakespeare's plot and his characters. Horwendil/Horvendile is Hamlet's father; Feng/Fengon is Claudius; Gerutha/Geruth is Gertrude; Amleth/Hamblet is Hamlet; the "fair woman"—unnamed in both accounts—is the prototype of Ophelia, though she is not called a daughter in the Danish saga; the unnamed foster brother who warns the hero about the setup with the woman is a version of Hamlet's friend, Horatio; the "counselor" killed, boiled, and fed to swine is the prototype of Polonius (called Corambis in Belleforest's Histoires tragiques and in the first edition of Shakespeare's play); the two retainers who accompany the hero to England are versions of Rosencrantz and Gildenstern (which are names of two of the most noble families in Danish history). Like his prototypes in Saxo and Belleforest, Hamlet is the son of a father whose murderer married his mother and took Hamlet's place as king. As in the earlier accounts, Shakespeare's Hamlet feigns madness as a means of buying time to plot revenge against his father's killer, though it is far from clear in Shakespeare's play the degree to which Hamlet feigns madness or slips into actual insanity. Hamlet's antics, furthermore, appear tame compared to those of his prototype, who is filthy and crows "like a noisy cock."
The scene in Geruth's chamber is clearly reflected in 3.4 of Hamlet when Hamlet confronts his mother in her bedchamber, but Shakespeare incorporates a telling difference. Whereas Amleth's assault upon Geruth succeeds in making an ally of her, Hamlet's shrill and violent attack upon his mother fails. The failure is the effect of something present in Shakespeare's play that is missing from the Danish sources: the ghost of Hamlet's father. In 3.4 the ghost appears only to Hamlet, not to his mother. This creates for Gertrude the appearance that Hamlet is hallucinating. The fear that her son is mad leads Gertrude to betray Hamlet in subtle ways, and so set into motion a series of events that will condemn innocent people, herself included, to death.
The Danish hero's return from England, just as a funeral is being staged, provides the context for the opening of Shakespeare's 5.1, when Hamlet and Horatio arrive just as the court prepares for the burial of Ophelia. But Shakespeare uses nothing of the second half of the prince's life in Danish lore, which includes Amleth/Hamblet becoming king of Denmark.
Excerpted from Looking for Hamlet by Marvin W. Hunt. Copyright © 2007 Marvin W. Hunt. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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