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THE earliest edition of 'Hamlet' known to exist is that of 1603. It bears the following title: "The Tragicall Historie of Hamlet Prince of Denmarke, by William Shake-speare. As it hath beene diverse times acted by his Highnesse servants in the Cittie of London: as also in the two Universities of Cambridge and Oxford, and elsewhere. At London, printed for N. L. and John Trundell, 1603.' The only known copy of this edition is in the library of the Duke of Devonshire; and that copy is not quite perfect. It was reprinted in 1825.
The second edition of 'Hamlet' was printed in 1604, under the following title: 'The Tragicall Historie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke. By William Shakespeare. Newly imprinted and enlarged to almost as much againe as it was, according to the true and perfect coppie. Printed by J. R. for N. Landure, 1604, 4to.' This edition was reprinted in 1605, in 1609, in 1611, and there is also a quarto edition without a date.
In the folio of 1623 some passages which are found in the quarto of 1604 are omitted. In our text we have given these passages. In other respects our text, with one or two minute exceptions, is wholly founded upon the folio of 1623. From this circumstance our edition will be found considerably to differ from the text of Johnson and Steevens, of Reed, of Malone, and of all the current editions which are founded upon these.
In the reprint of the edition of 1603, it is stated to be "the only known copy of this tragedy, as originally written by Shakespeare, which he afterwards altered and enlarged." We believe that this description is correct; that this remarkable copy gives us the play as originally written by Shakspere. It may have been piratical, and we think it was so. The Hamlet' of 1603 is a sketch of the perfect 'Hamlet,' and probably a corrupt copy of that sketch.
The comprehension of this tragedy is the history of a man's own mind. In some shape or other, Hamlet the Dane' very early becomes familiar to almost every youth of tolerable education. He is sometimes presented through the medium of the stage; more frequently in some one of the manifold editions of the acted play. The sublime scenes where the Ghost ap pears are known even to the youngest school-boy, in his 'Speakers' and 'Readers;' and so is the soliloquy, "To be, or not to be." As we in early life become acquainted with the complete acted play, we hate the King, we weep for Ophelia,- -we think Hamlet is cruel to her, we are perhaps inclined with Dr. Johnson to laugh at Hamlet's madness-(" the pretended madness of Hamlet causes much mirth ")-we wonder that Hamlet does not kill the King earlier,—and we believe, as Garrick believed, that the catastrophe might have been greatly improved, seeing that the wicked and the virtuous ought not to fall together, as it were by accident.
A few years onward, and we have become acquainted with the 'Hamlet' of Shakspere,-not the 'Hamlet'
of the players. The book is now the companion of our lonely walks;-its recollections hang about our most cherished thoughts. We think less of the dramatic movement of the play, than of the glimpses which it affords of the high and solemn things that belong to our being. We see Hamlet habitually subjected to the spiritual part of his nature, — communing with thoughts that are not of this world,—abstracted from the business of life,-but yet exhibiting a most vigorous intellect, and an exquisite taste. But there is that about him which we cannot understand. Is he essentially "in madness," or mad "only in craft?" Where is the line to be drawn between his artificial and his real character? There is something altogether indefinable and mysterious in the poet's delineation of this character;-something wild and irregular in the circumstances with which the character is associated,-w see that Hamlet is propelled, rather than propelling. But why is this turn given to the delineation? We cannot exactly tell. Perhaps some of the very charm of the play to the adult mind is its mysteriousness. It awakes not only thoughts of the grand and the beautiful, but of the incomprehensible. Its obscurity constitutes a portion of its sublimity. This is the stage in which most minds are content to rest, and, perhaps, advantageously so, with regard to the comprehension of 'Hamlet.'
The final appreciation of the 'Hamlet' of Shakspere belongs to the development of the critical faculty,-to the cultivation of it by reading and reflection. Without much acquaintance with the thoughts of others, many
men, we have no doubt, being earnest and diligent students of Shakspere, have arrived at a tolerably adequate comprehension of his idea in this wonderful play. In passing through the stage of admiration they have utterly rejected the trash which the commentators have heaped upon it, under the name of criticism, - the solemn commonplaces of Johnson, the flippant and insolent attacks of Steevens. When the one says, "the apparition left the regions of the dead to little purpose," -and the other talks of the "absurdities" which deform the piece, and "the immoral character of Hamlet," the love for Shakspere tells them, that remarks such as these belong to the same class of prejudices as Voltaire's "monstruosités et fossoyeurs." But after they have rejected all that belongs to criticism without love, the very depth of the reverence of another school of critics may tend to perplex them. The quantity alone that has been written in illustration of 'Hamlet' is embarrassing. We have only one word here to say to the anxious student of 'Hamlet:"" Read, and again, and again." These are the words which the Editors of the folio of 1623 addressed "to the great variety of readers as to Shakspere generally: "Read him, therefore; and again, and again: and if then you do not like him, surely you are in some manifest danger not to understand him."