Hamlet represents the mid period of the growth of Shakespeare's genius, when comedy and history ceased to be adequate for the expression of his deeper thoughts and sadder feelings about life, and when he was entering upon his great series of tragic writings. In July, 1602, the printer Roberts entered in the Stationers' register, The Revenge of Hamlett, Prince of Denmark, as yt latelie was acted by the Lord Chamerlain his servantes, and in the next year the play was printed. The true relation of this first quarto of Hamlet to the second quarto, published in 1604-- "newly imprinted, and enlarged to almost as much againe as it was" --is a matter of dispute. It is believed by some critics that the quarto of 1603 is merely an imperfect report of the play as we find it in the edition of the year after; but there are some material differences which cannot thus be explained. In the earlier quarto, instead of Polonius and Reynaldo, we find the names Corambis and Montano; the order of certain scenes varies from that of the later quarto; "the madness of Hamlet is much more pronounced, and the Queen's innocence of her husband's murder much more explicitly stated." We are forced to believe either that the earlier quarto contains portions of an old play by some other writer than Shakespeare--an opinion adopted on apparently insufficient grounds by some recent editors--or that it represents imperfectly Shakespeare's first draught of the play, and that the difference between it and the second quarto is due to Shakespeare's revision of his own work. This last opinion seems to be the true one, but the value of any comparison between the two quartos, with a view to understand Shakespeare's manner of rehandling his work, is greatly diminished by the fact that numerous gaps of the imperfect report given in the earlier quarto seem to have been filled in by a stupid stage back. That an old play on the subject of Hamlet existed there can be no doubt; it is referred to in 1589 (perhaps in 1587) by Nash, in his Epistle prefixed to Greene's Menaphon, and again in 1596 by Lodge (Wit's Miserie and the World's Madnesse), where he alludes to "the visard of the Ghost which cried so miserably at the Theator, like an oister wife, Hamlet, revenge." A German play on the subject of Hamlet exists, which is supposed to have been acted by English players in Germany in 1603; the name Corambus appears in it; and it is possible that portions of the old pre-Shakespearean drama are contained in the German Hamlet. The old play may have been one of the bloody tragedies of revenge among which we find Titus Andronicus and the Spanish Tragedy, and it would be characteristic of Shakespeare that he should refine the motives and spirit of the drama, so as to make the duty of vengeance laid upon Hamlet a painful burden which he is hardly able to support.
One additional point must be noted with reference to the date of the play. In Act II, scene ii, line 346, Rosencrantz explains that the tragedians of the city are compelled to travel on account of an "inhibition" which is caused by "the late innovation." What does this mean? Does it allude to the Order in Council of June, 1600, limiting the number of playhouses about London to two, an order not carried out until the duty of enforcing it was urged upon the justices of Middlesex and Surrey, December 31st, 1601? Or shall we understand "the innovation" as referring to the license given January, 1603-1604, to the children of the Queen's Revels, to play at the Blackfriars Theatre--a building belonging to the company of which Shakespeare was a member? The license to the children (of whom Rosencrantz speaks depreciatingly) would act as an inhibition to the company of adult actors whose place they occupied.
Beside the old play of Hamlet, Shakespeare had probably before him the prose Hystorie of Hamlet (though no edition exists earlier than 1608), translated from Belleforest's Histories Tragiques. The story had been told some hundreds of years previously in the Historia Danica of Saxo Grammaticus (c. 1180-1208). The Hamlet of the Historie, after a fierce revenge, becomes King of Denmark, marries two wives, and finally dies in battle.
No play of Shakespeare has had a greater power of interesting spectators and readers, and none has given rise to a greater variety of conflicting interpretations. It has been rightly named a tragedy of thought, and in this respect as well as others takes its place beside Julius Caesar. Neither Brutus nor Hamlet is the victim of an overmastering passion as are the chief persons of the later tragedies--eg., Othello, Macbeth, Coriolanus. The burden of a terrible duty is laid upon each of them, and neither is fitted for bearing such a burden. Brutus is disqualified for action by his moral idealism, his student-like habits, his capacity for dealing with abstractions rather than with men and things. Hamlet is disqualified for action by his excess of the reflective tendency, and by his unstable will, which alternates between complete inactivity and fits of excited energy. Naturally sensitive, he receives a painful shock from the hasty second marriage of his mother; already the springs of faith and joy in his nature are embittered; then follows the terrible discovery of his father's murder with the injunction laid upon him to revenge the crime; upon this again follow the repulses which he receives from Ophelia. A deep melancholy lays hold of his spirit, and all of life grows dark and sad to his vision. Although hating his father's murderer, he has little heart to push on his revenge. He is aware that he is suspected and surrounded by spies. Partly to baffle them, partly to create a veil behind which to seclude his true self, partly because his whole moral nature is indeed deeply disordered, he assumes the part of one whose wits have gone astray. Except for one loyal friend, he is alone among enemies or supposed traitors. Ophelia he regards as no more loyal or honest to him than his mother had been to her dead husband. The ascertainment of Claudius' guilt by means of the play still leaves him incapable of the last decisive act of vengeance. Not so, however, with the King, who now recognizing his foe in Hamlet, does not delay to dispatch him to a bloody death in England. But there is in Hamlet a terrible power of sudden and desperate action. From the melancholy which broods over him after the burial of Ophelia, he rouses himself to the play of swords with Laertes, and at the last, with strength which leaps up before its final extinction, he accomplishes the punishment of the malefactor.
Horatio, with his fortitude, his self-possession, his strong equanimity, is a contrast to the Prince. And Laertes, who takes violent measures at the shortest notice to revenge his father's murder, is in another way a contrast; but Laertes is the young gallant of the period, and his capacity for action arises in part from the absence of those moral checks of which Hamlet is sensible. Polonius is owner of the shallow wisdom of this world, and exhibits this grotesquely while now on the brink of dotage; he sees, but cannot see through Hamlet's ironical mockery of him. Ophelia is tender, sensitive, affectionate, but the reverse of heroic; she fails Hamlet in his need, and then in her turn becoming the sufferer, gives way under the pressure of her afflictions. We do not honor, we commiserate her.
The play is harldy consistent with respect to Hamlet's age. In Act V, scene i, lines 155-191, it is stated that he is thirty years old, while in Act I he is spoken of as still quite youthful; yet only a few months, at most, can have elapsed in the interval of time between the beginning and the end of the action. His profoundly reflective soliloquies point to an age certainly past early youth.