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E-text prepared by Bill Boerst, Juliet Sutherland, and Tonya Allen

Editorial note: "Shakspere" is the spelling used by the author and
therefore was not changed


An Endeavour to Explain the Tendency of 'Hamlet'
from Allusions in Contemporary Works




























It has always been a daring venture to attempt finding out Shakspere's
individuality, and the range of his philosophical and political ideas,
from his poetical productions. We come nearest to his feelings in his
'Sonnets;' but only a few heavy sighs, as it were, from a time of
languish in his life can be heard therefrom. All the rest of those
lyrical effusions, in spite of the zealous exertions of commentators
full of delicate sentiment and of deep thought, remain an unsolved

In his historical dramas, a political creed has been pointed out, which,
with some degree of certainty, may be held to have been his. From his
other dramas, the most varied evidence has been drawn. A perfect maze of
contradictions has been read out of them; so much so that, on this
ground, we might almost despair of trustworthy results from further

The wildest and most incongruous theories have been founded upon 'Hamlet'
- the drama richest in philosophical contents. Over and over again men
have hoped to be able to ascertain, from this tragedy, the great
master's ideas about religion. It is well-nigh impossible to say how
often such attempts have been made, but the reward of the exertions
has always remained unsatisfactory. On the feelings which this masterwork
of dramatic art still excites to-day - nearly three hundred years after
its conception - thousands have based the most different conclusions;
every one being convinced of the correctness of his own impressions.
There is a special literature, composed of such rendering of personal
impressions which that most enigmatical of all dramas has made upon
men of various disposition. Every hypothesis finds its adherents among
a small group, whilst those who feel differently smile at the
infatuation of their antagonists. Nothing that could give true and final
satisfaction has yet been reached in this direction.

It is our intention to regard 'Hamlet' from a new point of view, which
seems to promise more success than the critical endeavours hitherto
made. We propose to enter upon a close investigation of a series of
circumstances, events, and personal relations of the poet, as well
as of certain indications contained in other dramatic works - all of
the period in which 'Hamlet' was written and brought into publicity.
This valuable material, properly arranged and put in its true connection,
will, we believe, furnish us with such firm and solid stepping-stones
as to allow us, on a perfectly trustworthy path, to approach the real
intentions of this philosophical tragedy. It has long ago been felt
that, in it, Shakspere has laid down his religious views. By the means
alluded to we will now explain that _credo_.

We believe we can successfully show that the tendency of 'Hamlet' is of
a controversial nature. In closely examining the innovations by which
the augmented second quarto edition [1](1604) distinguishes itself
from the first quarto, published the year before (1603), we find that
almost every one of these innovations is directed against the principles
of a new philosophical work - _The Essays of Michel Montaigne_ - which
had appeared at that time in England, and which was brought out under
the high auspices of the foremost noblemen and protectors of literature
in this country.

From many hints in contemporary dramas, and from some clear passages in
'Hamlet' itself, it follows at the same time that the polemics carried
on by Shakspere in 'Hamlet' are in most intimate connection with a
controversy in which the public took a great interest, and which, in
the first years of the seventeenth century, was fought out with much
bitterness on the stage. The remarkable controversy is known, in
the literature of that age, under the designation of the dispute
between Ben Jonson and Dekker. A thorough examination of the dramas
referring to it shows that Shakspere was even more implicated in
this theatrical warfare than Dekker himself.

The latter wrote a satire entitled 'Satiromastix,' in which he replies
to Ben Jonson's coarse personal invectives with yet coarser abuse.
'Hamlet' was Shakspere's answer to the nagging hostilities of the
quarrelsome adversary, Ben Jonson, who belonged to the party which
had brought the philosophical work in question into publicity. And
the evident tendency of the innovations in the second quarto of
'Hamlet,' we make bold to say, convinces us that it must have been
far more Shakspere's object to oppose, in that masterly production
of his, the pernicious influence which the philosophy of the work
alluded to threatened to exercise on the better minds of his nation,
than to defend himself against the personal attacks of Ben Jonson.

The controversy itself is mentioned in 'Hamlet.' It is a disclosure
of the poet, which sheds a little ray of light into the darkness in
which his earthly walk is enveloped. The master, who otherwise is
so sparing with allusions as to his sphere of action, speaks [2]
bitter words against an 'aery of children' who were then 'in fashion,'
and were 'most tyrannically clapped for it.' We are further told that
these little eyases cry out on the top of the question and so berattle
the common stages (so they call them), that many, wearing rapiers,
are afraid of goose-quills, and dare scarce come thither.' The
'goose-quills' are, of course, the writers of the dramas played by
the 'little eyases.' We then learn 'that there was for a while no
money bid for argument' (Shakspere, we see, was not ashamed of honest
gain) 'unless the poet and the player went to cuffs in the question.'
Lastly, the reproach is made to the nation that it 'holds it no sin to
tarre them (the children) to controversy.' This satire is undoubtedly - all
commentators agree upon this point - directed against the performances of
the children who at that time flourished. The most popular of these
juvenile actors were the Children of Paul's, the Children of the Revels,
the Children of the Chapel Royal.

Shakspere's remarks, directed against these forward youngsters, may
appear to us to-day as of very secondary importance in the great drama.
To the poet, no doubt, it was not so. The words by which he alludes
to this episode in his life come from his very heart, and were written
for the purpose of reproving the conduct of the public in regard to

'Hamlet' was composed in the atmosphere of this literary feud, from
which we draw confirmatory proof that our theory stands on the solid
ground of historical fact.

Even should our endeavour to finally solve the great problem of
'Hamlet' be made in vain, we believe we shall at least have pointed
out a way on which others might be more successful. In contradistinction
to the manner hitherto in use of drawing conclusions from impressions
only, our own matter-of-fact attempt will have this advantage, that the
time spent in it will not be wholly wasted; for, in looking round on
the scene of that eventful century, we shall become more intimate with
its literature and the characters of Shakspere's contemporaries.

Before entering upon the theme itself, it is necessary to cast a rapid
glance at the condition of the dramatic art of that period.

1: 'Enlarged to almost as much-againe as it was.'

2: Act ii. sc. 2.






Long before Shakspere, perhaps with fardel on his back, travelled to
London, the stage, not only in the capital, but in the whole country,
had begun to exercise its attractive power upon the people's imagination.

In the year 1586, a Protestant zealot, a soldier, [1] writes: - 'When the
belles tole to the Lectorer, the trumpetts sound to the Stages, whareat
the wicked faction of Rome lawgeth for joy, while the godly weepe for
sorrowe. Woe is me! the play houses are pestered when the churches are
naked. At the one it is not possible to gett a place; at the other voyde
seates are plentie.... Yt is a wofull sight to see two hundred proude
players jett in their silks where five hundred pore people sterve
in the streets.'

Already in the reign of Henry VIII. a 'Master of the Revels' was required,
whose task it was to control the public representations and amusements.
Queen Elizabeth had to issue several special ordinances to define more
closely the functions, and provide with fresh power this office, which had
been created by her father.

Like all other great achievements of the English nation, the drama, too,
developed itself in this country unhampered by foreign influence. Its
rapid growth was owing to the free and energetic spirit of Englishmen,
to their love for public life. Every event which in some way attracted
public attention, furnished the material for a new ballad, or a new drama.

Among the dramatists of that time, there was a specially active group
of malcontents - men of culture, who had been at the colleges and
universities; such as Peel, Greene, Marlowe, Chapman, Marston, Ben
Jonson, and others. If we ask ourselves how it came about that these
disciples of erudition turned over to a calling so despised in their
days (for the dramatist, with few exceptions, was then mostly held
in as low a repute as the player), the cause will be found in the
peculiar circumstances of that epoch.

The revival of classical studies, and the art of printing, were, in
the hands of the peace-loving citizen, fresh means for strengthening
his position in the State. The handicraftsman or the merchant, who
had gained a small fortune, was no longer satisfied with the modest
prospects which he could offer to his talented son in an ordinary
workshop, or in his narrow store-rooms. Since Rome no longer
exercised her once all-powerful influence in every walk of life,
university men, owing to their superior education, saw before them
a brighter, a more hopeful, future.

In the sixteenth century the number of students in colleges and
at theuniversities increased in an astonishing degree, especially
from the middle classes. The sons of simple burghers entered upon
the contests of free, intellectual aspirations with a zeal mostly
absent in those whose position is already secured by birth. At Court,
no doubt, the feudal aristocracy were yet powerful indeed. They could
approach their sovereign according to their pleasure; influence him;
and procure, by artful intrigue, positions of dignity and useful
preferments for themselves and their favourites. Against these abuses
the written word, multiplied a thousandfold, was a new weapon. Whoever
could handle it properly, gained the esteem of his fellow-men; and a
means was at his disposal for earning a livelihood, however scanty.

Towards the middle and the end of the sixteenth century there were many
students and scholars possessing a great deal of erudition, but very
little means of subsistence. Nor were their prospects very encouraging.
They first went through that bitter experience, which, since then,
so many have made after them - that whoever seeks a home in the realm
of intellect runs the risk of losing the solid ground on which the
fruits for maintaining human life grow. The eye directed towards the
Parnassus is not the most apt to spy out the small tortuous paths of
daily gain. To get quick returns of interest, even though it be small,
from the capital of knowledge and learning, has always been, and still
is, a question of difficult solution.

These young scholars, grown to manhood in the Halls of Wisdom, were
unable, and even unwilling, to return to simple industrial pursuits,
or to the crafty tactics of commerce. Alienated from practical
activity, and too shy to take part in the harder struggles of life,
many of them rather contented themselves with a crust of bread, in
order to continue enjoying the 'dainties of a book.' The manlier and
bolder among them, dissatisfied with the prospect of such poor fare,
looked round and saw, in the hands of incapables, fat livings and
lucrative emoluments to which they, on account of their superior
culture, believed they had a better claim.

There were yet many State institutions which by no means corresponded
to the ideal gathered from Platon, Cicero, and other writers of
antiquity. Men began expressing these feelings of dissatisfaction
in ballads and pamphlets. Even as the many home and foreign products
of industry were distributed by commerce, so it was also the case with
these new products of the intellectual workshop, which were carried to
the most distant parts of the land. At the side of his other wares, the
pedlar, eager for profit, offered the new and much-desired achievements
of the Muse to the dwellers in the smallest village, in the loneliest

Moreover, the cunning stationers had their own men, to whom they lent
'a dossen groates worth of ballads.' If these hucksters - as Henry
Chettle relates - proved thrifty, they were advanced to the position
of 'prety (petty) chapman,' 'able to spred more pamphlets by the
State forbidden, then all the bookesellers in London; for only in
this Citie is straight search, abroad smale suspition, especially
of such petty pedlars.' [2]

Chettle speaks strongly against these 'intruders in the printings
misserie, by whome that excelent Art is not smally slandered, the
government of the State not a little blemished, nor Religion in the
least measure hindred.'

Besides the profit to be derived from the Press by the malcontent
travelling scholars, there was yet another way of acquiring the means
of sustenance and of making use of mental culture; and in it there
existed the further advantage of independence from grumbling
publishers. This was the Stage. For it no great preparations were
necessary, nor was any capital required. A few chairs, some boards;
in every barn there was room. Wherever one man was found who could
read, there were ten eager to listen.

A most characteristic drama, 'The Return from Parnassus,' depicts
some poor scholars who turn away from pitiless Cambridge, of which
one of them says -

For had not Cambridge been to me unkind,
I had not turn'd to gall a milky mind. [3]

After having long since completed their studies, they go to London
to seek for the most modest livelihood. Bitter experience had taught
these disciples of learning that the employment for which they waited
could only be gained by bribery; and bribe they certainly could not,
owing to their want of means. Some of them already show a true
Werther-like yearning for solitude: -

We will be gone unto the downs of Kent....


So shall we shun the company of men,
That grows more hateful as the world grows old.
We'll teach the murm'ring brooks in tears to flow,
And sleepy rocks to wail our passed woe. [4]

Another utters sentiments of grief, coming near the words of despair
of Faust. There is a tone in them of what the Germans call
_Weltschmerz_: -

Curs'd be our thoughts, whene'er they dream of hope,
Bann'd be those haps that henceforth flatter us,
When mischief dogs us still and still for aye,
From our first birth until our burying day. [5]

In the difficult choice of a calling which is to save them from need
and misery, these beggar-students also think of the stage: -

And must the basest trade yield us relief?

So Philomusus, in a woebegone tone, asks his comrade Studioso; and
the latter looks with the following envious words upon the players
whose prospects must have been brighter and more enticing than those
of the learned poor scholars: -

England affords those glorious vagabonds,
That carried erst their fardles on their backs,
Coursers to ride on through the gazing streets,
Sweeping it in their glaring satin suits,
And pages to attend their masterships:
With mouthing words that better wits have framed,
They purchase lands, and now esquires are made. [6]

Shakspere, as well as Alleyn, bought land with the money earned by
their art. For many, the stage was the port of refuge to which they
fled from the lonely habitations of erudition, where they -

... sit now immur'd within their private cells,
Drinking a long lank watching candle's smoke,
Spending the marrow of their flow'ring age
In fruitless poring on some worm-eat leaf. [7]

Many of these beggar students sought a livelihood by joining the
players. That which the poor scholar had read and learnt in books
old and new; all that he had heard from bold, adventurous warriors
and seamen returning from foreign lands or recently discovered
islands; in short, everything calculated to awaken interest and
applause among the great mass, was with feverish haste put on the
stage, and, in order to render it more palatable, mixed with a
goodly dose of broad humour.

The same irreconcilable spirit of the Reformation, which would not
tolerate any saint's image in the places of worship, also destroyed
the liking for Miracle Plays. The tendency of the time was to turn
away from mysteries and abstract notions, and to draw in art and
poetry nearer to real life. Where formerly 'Miracles and Moralities'
were the delight of men, and Biblical utterances, put in the mouth
of prophets and saints, served to edify the audience, there the wordy
warfare and the fisticuffs exchanged between the Mendicant Friar and
the Seller of Indulgences [8] or Pardoner, whose profane doings
were satirised on the stage, became now the subject of popular
enjoyment and laughter. Every question of the day was boldly handled,
and put in strong language, easily understood by the many, before
a grateful public of simple taste.

The drama, thus created anew, soon became the most popular amusement
in the whole country. Every other sport was forgotten over it. In
every market town, in every barn, a crowd of actors met. In those
days no philosophical hair-splitting was in vogue on the boards.
Everything was drawn from real life; a breath of freedom pervaded
all this exuberant geniality. That which a man felt to-day, tomorrow
he was able to communicate to his public. The spoken word was freer
than the printed one. The latter had to pass a kind of censorship; the
author and the publisher could be ascertained, and be made responsible.
But who would be so severe against an extemporised satirical hit,
uttered perhaps by a clown? Who would, for that sake, be the denouncing

Yet it must not be thought that poets and players could do exactly as
they listed. They, too, had their enemies. More especially, the austere
Puritans were their bitter foes; they never ceased bringing their
influence to bear upon highly-placed persons, in order to check the
daring and forward doings of the stage, whose liberty they on every
occasion wished to see curtailed, and its excesses visited by
punishment. The ordinary players, if they did not possess licences
from at least two justices of the peace, might be prosecuted, in
accordance with an old law, as 'rogues and vagabonds,' and subjected
to very hard sentences. It was not so easy to proceed against the
better class of actors, who, with a view of escaping from the
chicanery which their calling rendered them liable to, had placed
themselves under the protection of the first noblemen, calling
themselves their 'servants.' An ordinance of the Privy Council was
required in order to bring actors who were thus protected, before
a court of justice.

Nevertheless, these restless people got into incessant conflicts with
the authorities. Actors would not allow themselves to be deprived of
the right of saying a word on matters of the State and the Church;
and what did occupy men's minds more than the victory of the

Already, in the year 1550, Cardinal Wolsey felt bound to cast an author,
Roo, [9] and 'a fellow-player, a young gentleman,' into prison, because
they had put a piece on the stage, the aim of which was to show that
'Lord Governaunce (Government) was ruled by Dissipation and Negligence,
by whose misgovernment and evil order Lady Public-Weal was put from
Governaunce; which caused Rumor-populi, Inward Grudge, and Disdain of
Wanton Sovereigntie to rise with a great multitude to expel Negligence
and Dissipation, and to restore Publike-weal again to her estate - which
was so done.'

The reproaches made to the bishops about the year 1544 prove, that the
stage had already long ago boldly ventured upon the territory of
religion, in order to imbue the masses with anti-ecclesiastical
tendencies. In this connection the following words of an actor,
addressed to the clerics, are most significant. 'None,' he says,
'leave ye unvexed and untroubled; no, not so much as the poor
minstrels and players of interludes. So long as they played lies
and sang bawdy songs, blaspheming God, and corrupting men's
consciences, ye never blamed them, but were very well contented;
but since they persuaded the people to worship the Lord aright,
according to His holy laws and not yours, ye never were pleased
with them.' [10]

The first Act of Parliament for 'the controul and regulation of stages
and dramatic representations' was passed in the reign of Henry VIII.
(1543). Its title is, 'An Act for the Advancement of True Religion
and the Punishment of the Contrary.'

In 1552 Edward VI. issued a further proclamation both in regard to the
stage and the sellers of prints and books; this time mainly from
political reasons.

Whilst poets and players under Henry VIII. and his youthful successor
could bring out, without hindrance, that which promoted their ideas of
'true religion,' they ran great risk, in the reign of Queen Mary, with
any Protestant tendencies; for, scarcely had this severe queen been a
month on the throne than she issued an ordinance (August 16, 1553)
forbidding such dramas and interludes as were calculated to spread the
principles and doctrines of the Reformation.

Under this sovereign, spectacles furthering the Roman Catholic cause
were of course favoured. On the other hand, it may be assumed that,
during the long and popular reign of Queen Elizabeth, Protestant
tendencies on the stage often passed the censorship, although from
the first years of her government there is an Act prohibiting any
drama in which State and Church affairs were treated, 'being no
meete matters to be written or treated upon but by men of authoritie,
nor to be handled before any audience, but of grave and discreete

However, like all previous ordinances, proclamations, and Acts of
Parliament, this one also remained without effect. The dramatists
and the disciples of the mimic art continued busying themselves, in
their customary bold manner, with that which awakened the greatest
interest among the public at large; and one would think that at a
certain time they had become a little power in the State, against which
it was no longer possible to proceed in arbitrary fashion, but which,
on the contrary, had to be reckoned with.

Only such measures, it appears, were afterwards passed which were
calculated to harmonise the religious views uttered on the stage with
the tenets of the Established Church. This follows from a letter of Lord
Burleigh, addressed, in 1589, to the Archbishop of Canterbury, in which
he requests him to appoint 'some fytt person well learned in divinitie.'
The latter, together with the Master of the Revels and a person chosen
by the Lord Mayor of the City of London, were to form a kind of
Commission, which had to examine all pieces that were to be publicly
acted, and to give their approval.

It would be an error to believe that this threefold censorship had any

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