I WILL pass on to a consideration of what seem like further historical
resemblances in the drama.
After the Darnley murder, popular excitement showed itself in continually
representing the scene of the murder, and thrusting these representations
before the eyes of the people mainly concerned. The Lords of the Council
exhibited a banner showing the two dead menDarnley and his servantbeneath
a tree, the little prince kneeling beside their bodies praying for vengeance,
and a broken branch.
"A portion of the natural excitement of the time appears oddly
enough to have expended itself in painting. Several representations
seem to have been made of the discovery of the bodies, with more or
less allegorical machinery; and several other pictures made their
appearance which, either through an allegory or an attempt to represent
facts, gave shape to the feelings of their producers. Caricatures
they could not be called, for they had a deadly earnest about them
. . . they were deemed as signs of the times so important that some
of them may now be found among the documents of the period. There
is one in which an attempt is made to represent the whole scene of
the murder . . . the shattered house, the Hotel of the Hamiltons beside
it, the city gate and wall, the remnant of the old Kirk-of-the-Field,
the bodies and the assembled crowd of citizens."
The banner used by the Lords of the Council was employed at Carberry
Hill as a kind of sacred symbol; it was shown to Mary after her captivity,
and produced a dreadful impression upon her.
"An hour did not elapse before Mary learned that she was a captive
in the hands of unfeeling adversaries. At her entrance into the city
she was met by a mob in the highest state of excitement: her ears
were assailed with reproaches and imprecations; and before her eyes
was waved a banner, representing the body of her late husband, and
the prince her son on his knees exclaiming, "Revenge my cause,
O Lord." . . . During the two and twenty hours that she was confined
in her solitary prison, the unhappy queen abandoned herself to the
terrors which her situation inspired. From the street she was repeatedly
seen at the window almost in a state of nudity; and was often heard
to call on the citizens conjuring them to aid and deliver their sovereign
from the cruelty of traitors."
Here, again, we surely have a very close likeness to the "play
within the play" motive of Hamlet. Hamlet desires to reconstruct
the murder before the very eyes of the guilty king; since the whole
drama is a stage presentation also, how else could it be shown? The
idea is exactly and precisely the same as that of the Scottish banners
and paintings; that of constructing graphic representations of the murder
and thrusting them before the eyes of the guilty parties. We may observe,
also, that Hamlet's play is largely a dumb show.
Hamlet cries, "The play's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience
of the king," and the Scottish accusers exhibited the dreadful
scene on the banner in precisely this way, and with this motive, to
the persons whose guilt was suspected but of whose participation they
were not assured, and the result was precisely the same betrayal of
grief and horror and anguish.
Nothing like this play scene appears in either Saxo Grammaticus or
in the Hystorie of Hamblet, though it may have done in Kyd's
play; but, as I have already pointed out, anything anterior to the supposed
date of that play (1587 or 1589) may have been used by him as readily
as by Shakespeare, and the Scottish parallel certainly might have been
employed. If Shakespeare really wished to dramatise history it is difficult
to see how he could have arranged the dramatisation better or more effectively,
the essence being the scenic representation which forces the guilty
to betray themselves.
I do not think this is the only historical reference in the part of
Hamlet which relates to the players; but the rest will have its
due study later.
Another historic parallel to be found in Hamlet is his voyage
to England. This, of course, occurs in the original saga, but Shakespeare
has changed its conclusion. In Saxo, Hamlet is sent to England with
a secret message to the king, desiring him to put Hamlet to death; Hamlet,
however, suspects the deceit, alters the message, and substitutes one
desiring the king of England to give his daughter in marriage to the
noble youth; "Nor was he satisfied with removing from himself the
sentence of death, and passing the peril on to others, but added an
entreaty that the king of Britain would grant his daughter in marriage
to a youth of great judgment whom he was sending them."
In the Hystorie of Hamblet, we have exactly the same situation.
All takes effect as Hamlet has planned.
The King, having witnessed many extraordinary examples of Hamlet's
wisdom, gives him his daughter and Hamlet returns to his own country,
takes his revenge, and ultimately, of course, claims his British bride:
"Then the king adored the wisdom of Amleth as though it were inspired
and gave him his daughter to wife; accepting his bare word as though
it were a witness from the skies."
Now, in the saga, the real purport of this journey to England is
to get Hamlet married to an English princess; Shakespeare removes
this motive altogether, for his Hamlet does not marry, nevertheless
he retains the voyage. There is thus a very curious effect produced.
Hamlet, who knows the designs the king has against his life, who knows
that he ought to pursue his task of vengeance and punishment, nevertheless
allows himself to be hurried out of the kingdom on a voyage which he
must have been aware was excessively dangerous, from which he might
never have returned. As more than one critic has pointed out this is
most unfair to his unfortunate country; he leaves it in the power of
a villain while he allows himself to go, without any real necessity,
on a most perilous expedition from which he is only saved by chance.
The effect is a curious mingling of hesitancy and rashness which is
one of the difficulties of Hamlet's character and of the play. The whole
adventure is without the strong, obvious and clear motive given in the
saga. Why is it retained? The answer would seem to be "because
there is a real historical parallel and because this historical parallel
did genuinely supply an important element in the character Shakespeare
James had received the promise of Anne of Denmark as his bride; the
marriage by proxy was solemnised in August 1589. A brilliant little
fleet was appointed for conveying the bride home to Scotland; but it
was driven by storms into a port of Norway; James thereupon determined
to set out himself to bring home his bride, and actually did so; the
voyage at that time of the year was exceedingly dangerous, and the king's
return was long delayed by storms.
In the meantime, the younger Bothwell had been left to his own devices
in the kingdom.
Elizabeth blamed James as severely for his rashness in this episode
as modern commentators have blamed Hamlet:
"I do believe that God hath of his goodness more than your hide,
prospered to good end your untimely and, if I dare tell you the truth,
evil-seasoned journey, yet I may no longer stay but let you know.
. . . And now to talk to you freely as paper may utter conceit. Accept
my hourly care for your broken country, too, too much infected with
the malady of strange humours and to receive no medicine so well compounded
as if the owner make the mixture appropriated to the quality of the
sickness. Know you my dear brother, for certain, that those ulcers
that were too much skinned with the 'doulceness' of your applications
were but falsely shaded and were filled within with much venom as
hath burst out since your departure with most lewd offers to another
king to enter your land." [Letter XXXIV.]
Shakespeare has removed the clear, effective, and powerful motive which
the voyage had in the saga. Yet he retains the incident. Why? It certainly
looks as if he had retained it as a temperamental trait because it shows
a power of vigorous action in emergency with, at the same time, a certain
rashness and weakness in the very circumstances which enable the vigour
to be shown.
It is interesting also to observe that the mysterious letters have
a historical parallel in the affair known as the "Spanish blanks"
which occurred shortly after James' voyage.
"In the same year1592occurred the incident called
the "Spanish blanks" which disturbed the zealous Presbyterian
party to an extent not easily realised by looking at the scanty materials
by which it was produced. But in fact it was the mystery excited by
imperfect evidence that created suspicion and terror. It was suspected
that a man named Kerr, who was leaving Scotland by the West coast,
had dangerous documents in his custody. The minister of Paisley, hearing
of this, gathered some sturdy parishioners who seized and searched
Kerr. They took from him eight papers called "the blanks."
Each had upon it the concluding courtesies of a letter addressed to
royalties. "De vostre majestie tres humble et tres obesant servitor,"
and this was followed by one or more signatures."
Otherwise these slips of paper had "no designation on the back,
nor declaration of the causes for which they were sent, but blank and
white paper on both sides except the said subscriptions." They
were signed by the Catholic earls: Huntly, Errol, Angus, etc. The conclusion
arrived at was that the blanks were intended to be filled up by certain
Jesuit emissaries and were, when so filled, to form an invitation to
the king of Spain to send men to Scotland to assist in a Catholic rising.
James behaved in this affair according to his usual custom, and was
particularly merciful to the offenders. Elizabeth, as her letters show,
was greatly enraged, and once more demanded justice, but James punished
Now here, again, one notices a marked difference between Shakespeare
and his saga source. In the saga there is no question whatever of Amleth
being on good terms with the king after the treacherous embassy; having
discovered the truth, Amleth returns to Denmark and proceeds at once
to his revenge. He sets the banqueting hall on fire, burns most of the
courtiers to death in their drunken sleep, and cuts off the head of
the king in his own bedchamber.
Shakespeare's ever-forgiving Hamlet, however, once more places himself
on amiable terms with Claudius and, for the last time, attempts friendship;
exactly in the same way James once more forgave the Catholic earls and
Once again we have a historic parallel.