Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Unhappy (in fact Melancholic) 404th Birthday

Thought I would share an article I found at Book TV.

Hamlet -- Borrowed, Crawled and Pythoned

by Steve King

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On this day in 1602, printer James Robertes entered in the Stationers' Register, "A booke called the Revenge of Hamlett Prince Denmarke as yt was latelie Acted by the Lord Chamberleyne his servants." Shakespeare seems to have written Hamlet about 1600; more certain is that two of the Chamberlain's Men in the original cast at the Globe playhouse were Richard Burbage, as Hamlet, and Shakespeare, probably as the Ghost and perhaps as Claudius, too -- a casting economy which might have given Gertrude a start.

James Robertes was practicing standard thievery for these pre-copyright times, but Shakespeare too had borrowed. As well as various mythic sources, an 11th-12th century Danish saga entitled "Amleth" tells the tale of Feng murdering his brother, Horwendil in order to marry Gerutha, his sister-in-law; causing son Amleth to pretend to be mad in order to save himself; causing the suspicious Feng to set woman- and spy-traps for young Amleth; causing Amleth to be sent to England guarded by two no-goods carrying an execution letter, which Amleth will alter to have, as Shakespeare puts it, "the engineer hoist with his own petard."

Apart from the complexity and depth, Shakespeare's unique additions include the play-within-the-play device. Stage historian John Mills (Hamlet on Stage: The Great Tradition, 1985) documents over a century of lead actors who borrowed the stage business of "Hamlet's Crawl" for this scene. Starting with Edmund Kean in 1814, Hamlet would slither and squint towards Claudius, jumping up when the guilty conscience was "frighted with false fire." The first-night reviewer for the London Herald was appalled:

During the mimic representation, Mr. Kean so far forgot that inalienable delicacy, which should eternally characterize a gentleman in his deportment before the ladies, that he not only exposed his derriere to his mistress, but positively crawled upon his belly towards the King like a wounded snake in a meadow....

A different sort of tradition is documented on the web site, devoted to listing all the book titles that contain an allusion to Hamlet. There are over 150 titles currently listed for the "To be, or not to be" soliloquy alone -- To be/Not be (24), Undiscovered Country (22), Outrageous Fortune (18), Perchance to Dream (16), No Traveler Returns (11), as many Slings and Arrows... all the way down to one To Take Arms (subtitled, 'A Year in the Provisional IRA'). Also included on the site is this anagram of the first three lines of the soliloquy: "In one of the Bard's best-thought-of tragedies, our insistent hero, Hamlet, queries on two fronts about how life turns rotten."

There are almost as many Hamlet parodies, the one following owing a lot to Monty Python's Dead Parrot:

Hamlet Alas, poor Yorick. I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. He hath bore me on his back a thousand times. I cannot believe he is dead. Tell me, good sir, what is wrong with my friend Yorick?

Digger I'll tell you what's wrong with him, my Lord. He's dead, that's what's wrong with him.

Hamlet No, no, he's resting. Look you upon those lips that I have kissed.

Digger My Lord, I know a dead jester when I see one, and I'm looking at one right now.

Hamlet No, he is not dead. He is merely resting.

Digger Resting?

Hamlet Yes, a remarkable fellow, Yorick. Beautiful skin tone.

Digger His skin tone don't enter into it - he's stone dead.

This goes on for a bit (available at, until the Gravedigger makes a near-fatal mistake:

Digger He's not pining, he's passed on. This jester is no more. He has ceased to be. He's expired and gone to meet his maker. This is a late jester. He's a stiff. Bereft of life, he rests in peace. If you hadn't wrenched him from the earth, he'd be pushing up the daisies. He's rung down the curtain and joined the choir invisible. This is an ex-jester! He cannot speak, and he cannot be!

Hamlet To be or not to be...

Digger God, not a soliloquy! I have work to do.

Hamlet Right then, wrap him up. I'll take him with me. Yorick loves a good ride.

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