Hamlet: An Historical and Comparative Study

By Elmer Edgar Stoll | Go to book overview

APPENDIX
THE OLD HAMLET INFLUENCED BY EURIPIDES

It is, in all likelihood, no accident that there is so close a correspondence between the passage in Hamlet quoted above, p. 49 note 14, and the two in Euripides. Shakespeare had not Greek enough, so far as we know, to read Euripides; but Kyd, who had been a Merchant Taylors' boy, probably had. In default of it, such a classicist as he could have turned to one of the three Latin translations then available. At all events, the parallels between the Orestean dramas and Hamlet seem to have to do with the pre-Shakespearean version. Aside from the above mentioned, these are:

First, the character of Horatio (the equivalent of Pylades, the famous faithful friend for whom there is no model in Belleforest) who calls forth from Hamlet more ardent expressions of friendship than are elsewhere to be found in Shakespeare, and who in the end would fain die with Hamlet, just as Pylades would die with Orestes, not only in the play which bears that name (ll. 1069 ff.) but in the Iphigeneia in Tauris (ll. 675 ff.). Horatio, certainly, was in Kyd's play; the combined testimony of the Spanish Tragedy and the Fratricide Punished indicates it.

Second, the hero's remark to his faithful friend as he plans revenge: "Should you chance to find my dead body, let it be honourably buried." This is not in Hamlet as we have it but in the Fratricide Punished, II, v, when the hero is about to enter upon his undertaking of revenge. Therefore it was probably in Kyd. It is a classical sentiment, and it is not in Belleforest. It seems to be a reminiscence of Orestes' words when about to kill himself: "Do thou, Pylades, stand umpire to our bloody feat, and, when we both are dead [ Orestes and his sister] lay out our bodies decently," etc.-- Orestes, 1065 ff.

Third, the fact that the hero's father was slain unhousel'd, unanel'd, or (in pagan equivalent) without the due rites of religious burial ( Electra, 298, 323 ff.). Much is made of this in Hamlet, as in the Greek Orestes plays, and again there is nothing of it in Belleforest. It is, as Professor Gilbert Murray says, almost the central horror of the whole story.

Fourth, there is the almost explicit allusion, not necessarily to any one play, but to the Orestean story in general, where the Ghost bids Hamlet not to taint his mind nor let his soul contrive against his mother aught; and when he himself says: "O heart, lose not thy nature, let me be cruel but not unnatural . . . I will speak daggers to her but use none."

Most of these parallels have been noted by others before me, but either as evidence of Shakespeare's knowledge of the classics or as evidence of "the great unconscious solidarity and continuity, lasting from age to age, among all the children of the poets." This is a mystery, and Professor Murray falls back upon it "because Æschylus and Euripides and Shakespeare are strikingly similar in certain parts which do not occur at all in Saxo," and because Shakespeare did not know the Greeks. But Professor Murray would not need thus to fall back upon it, or add another to our myths of summer and winter, if he recognized the fact that Kyd was, unlike Shakespeare, something of a linguist and a pedant, knew Latin, French, and Italian, and Greek, very probably, as well.

-76-

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