The Reactionary Utopian
                      June 22, 2006

by Joe Sobran

     Academic snobs insist there is no doubt who 
Shakespeare was. He was the man baptized Guglielmus 
Shakspere in Stratford upon Avon, in Warwickshire, 
England, in 1564, wasn't he?

     But the seemingly simple facts of the man's life 
keep creating difficulties for his biographers. Why are 
Shakespeare's Sonnets so hard to square with those facts? 
The scholars have argued endlessly about this, many 
giving up and calling the Sonnets "fictions." That's a 
tacit admission that if the Sonnets are autobiographical, 
Shakspere didn't write them.

     Then there is the problem of HAMLET, Shakespeare's 
most famous play. The scholars agree that he must have 
written it around 1600, when he was 36 and at the height 
of his powers -- roughly the age when Beethoven wrote the 
EROICA Symphony.

     Unfortunately, we find references to a popular play 
about Hamlet long before that: in 1589, 1594, and 1596. 
One refers to his "tragical speeches," probably the 
famous soliloquies; another to the ghost demanding, 
"Hamlet, revenge!" Other revenge plays were proliferating 
around this time under this play's influence.

     An early date for HAMLET can hardly be reconciled 
with Shakspere's authorship. In 1589 he was only 25, far 
too young for such a mature work. So the scholars have 
decided that the pre-1600 allusions must refer to an 
earlier Hamlet play by somebody else.

     This would mean that around 1600 Shakspere (if he 
was the same man as Shakespeare) took an old, popular 
play, already proverbial, and wrote his own competing 
version of it. But there is no trace of evidence that 
such an older play ever existed. It was never printed, 
never compared or contrasted with the Shakespeare play.

     In short, this "other" HAMLET is purely a deduction. 
The only Hamlet play was Shakespeare's. It finally 
appeared in print in a 1603 quarto, the text short, many 
of the lines comically mangled, some of the characters 
with names different from those we know. It was 
apparently assembled by a minor actor who had played in 

     The title page suggests it was already an old play; 
it had been performed "divers times" in London, at the 
universities of Oxford and Cambridge, "and elsewhere." So 
it was not a new play; it had been around. As early as 

     Possibly. The "bad" 1603 text shows what looks like 
an important change in the plot: the queen, Hamlet's 
mother, is aware that the king has murdered her first 
husband, and she promises to help her son take revenge.

     Around 1598, the scholar Gabriel Harvey named HAMLET 
and THE RAPE OF LUCRECE as two of Shakespeare's works 
that had won the esteem of "the wiser sort" of readers. 
This too implies that the play had been familar for a 

     In 1604, a better and much longer quarto of HAMLET 
appeared, whose text is widely accepted as authoritative 
today (usually conflated with the very similar text of 
the 1623 Folio). Again, neither the 1603 nor the 1604 
quarto suggests there had been an earlier Hamlet play; 
both identify the author as "William Shakespeare."

     The play remained both popular and proverbial. A 
university wit remarked that a good play "should please 
all, like Prince Hamlet." In 1607/8 HAMLET was actually 
performed on a ship off the coast of Sierra Leone! In 
1608 appeared a pamphlet called THE HISTORY OF HAMBLET, a 
translation from the French of the medieval Danish legend 
the play was loosely based on.

     Early in the seventeenth century, another garbled 
version of HAMLET was performed in Germany under the 
title FRATRICIDE AVENGED. It's all very murky, but one 
fact stands out: HAMLET caught the imaginations of London 
playgoers as early as 1589, its fame soon spread far 
beyond England, and it has never lost its fascination.

     Unless we insist that Shakspere of Stratford was 
Shakespeare, there is no need to deduce an earlier play 
about Hamlet's revenge. Scholars have searched in vain 
for this entirely hypothetical play rather than give up 
their false image of the great Bard.

     Again, consider LUCRECE. This amazing poetic tour de 
force was published in 1594, when Shakspere was only 30; 
the scholars have had to dismiss it as an "early" work, 
though it actually shows the author at the pinnacle of 
his unmatched powers of expression. Nobody is as 
credulous as an expert with a pet hypothesis.


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