Literary daybook, July 26

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

By the Salon Books Editors
Published July 26, 2002 7:00PM (EDT)

Today in fiction
On July 26, the cricket final between Upper VI and the upstart lower IV.A.
-- "The Cricket Term" (1974)
by Antonia Forest

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
Know when something that did not really happen
occurred? Send it to

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Today in literary history
On this day in 1602, printer James Robertes entered in the Stationers' Register, "A booke called the Revenge of Hamlett Prince Denmarke as yt was latelie Acted by the Lord Chamberleyne his servants." Shakespeare seems to have written "Hamlet" about 1600; more certain is that two of the Chamberlain's Men in the original cast at the Globe playhouse were Richard Burbage, as Hamlet, and Shakespeare, probably as the Ghost and perhaps as Claudius too -- a casting economy that might have given Gertrude a start.

James Robertes was practicing standard thievery for those pre-copyright times, but Shakespeare too had borrowed. As well as various mythic sources, an 11th or 12th century Danish saga entitled "Amleth" tells the tale of Feng murdering his brother Horwendil in order to marry Gerutha, his sister-in-law; causing son Amleth to pretend to be mad in order to save himself; causing the suspicious Feng to set woman- and spy-traps for young Amleth; causing Amleth to be sent to England guarded by two no-goods carrying an execution letter, which Amleth will alter to have, as Shakespeare put it, "the engineer hoist with his own petard..."

Apart from "Hamlet's" complexity and depth, Shakespeare's unique additions include the play-within-the-play device. Stage historian John Mills ("Hamlet on Stage: The Great Tradition," 1985) documents more than a century of lead actors who borrowed the stage business of "Hamlet's crawl" for this scene. Starting with Edmund Kean in 1814, Hamlet would slither and squint toward Claudius, jumping up when the guilty conscience was "frighted with false fire." The first-night reviewer for the London Herald was appalled:

"During the mimic representation, Mr. Kean so far forgot that inalienable delicacy, which should eternally characterize a gentleman in his deportment before the ladies, that he not only exposed his derriere to his mistress, but positively crawled upon his belly towards the King like a wounded snake in a meadow, rather than a Prince openly indulging himself in moral speculation in the salon of a royal palace."

A different sort of tradition is documented on a Web page devoted to all the book titles that have used "Hamlet" as their inspiration. There are more than 150 titles currently listed for the "To be, or not to be" soliloquy alone -- 24 "To Be or Not to Bes," 22 "Undiscovered Countrys," 18 "Outrageous Fortunes," 16 "Perchance to Dreams," 11 "No Traveler Returns," as many "Slings and Arrows" ... all the way down to one "To Take Arms," subtitled "A Year in the Provisional IRA." Also included on the Web page is this anagram of the first three lines of the soliloquy: "In one of the Bard's best-thought-of tragedies, our insistent hero, Hamlet, queries on two fronts about how life turns rotten."

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," contact Steve King.

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