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  • Title: The History of Hamlet
  • Author: François de Belleforest
  • Editor: David Bevington
  • General textual editors: James D. Mardock, Eric Rasmussen
  • Coordinating editor: Michael Best

  • Copyright François de Belleforest. This text may be freely used for educational, non-profit purposes; for all other uses contact the Editor.
    Author: François de Belleforest
    Editor: David Bevington
    Not Peer Reviewed

    The History of Hamlet

    Chapter II

    How Hamlet counterfeited the madman to escape the tyranny of his uncle, and how he was tempted by a woman, through his uncle's procurement, who thereby thought to undermine the Prince, and by that means to find out whether he counterfeited madness or not; and how Hamlet would by no means be brought to consent unto her, and what followed.

    Geruth having (as I said before) so much forgotten herself, the Prince Hamlet perceiving himself to be in danger of his life, as being abandoned of his own mother and forsaken of all men, and assuring himself that Fengon would not detract the time to send him the same way his father Horvendile was gone, to beguile the tyrant in his subtleties (that esteemed him to be of such a mind that if he once attained to man's estate he would not long delay the time to revenge the death of his father), counterfeiting the madman with such craft and subtle practices that he made show as if he had utterly lost his wits; and under that veil he covered his pretense, and defended his life from the treasons and practices of the tyrant his uncle. And although he had been at the school of the Roman Prince who, because he counterfeited himself to be fool, was called Brutus, yet he imitated his fashions and his wisdom. For every day being in the Queen's palace, who as then was more careful to please her whoremaster than ready to revenge the cruel death of her husband or to restore her son to his inheritance, he rent and tore his clothes, wallowing and lying in the dirt and mire, his face all filthy and black, running through the streets like a man distraught, not speaking one word but such as seemed to proceed of madness and mere frenzy, all his actions and gestures being no other than the right countenances of a man wholly deprived of all reason and understanding, in such sort that as then he seemed fit for nothing but to make sport to the pages and ruffling courtiers that attended in the court of his uncle and father-in-law. But the young prince noted them well enough, minding one day to be revenged in such manner that the memory thereof should remain perpetually to the world.

    Behold, I pray you, a great point of a wise and brave spirit in a young prince, by so great a show of imperfection in his person for advancement, and his own embasing and despising, to work the means and to prepare the way for himself to be one of the happiest kings in his age. In like sort, never any man was reputed by any of his actions more wise and prudent than Brutus dissembling a great alteration in his mind, for that the occasion of such his device of foolishness proceeded only of a good and mature counsel and deliberation, not only to preserve his goods and shun the rage of the proud tyrant, but also to open a large way to procure the banishment and utter ruin of wicked Tarquinius, and to enfranchise the people (which were before oppressed) from the yoke of a great and miserable servitude. And so not only Brutus, but this man and worthy prince, to whom we may also add King David that counterfeited the madman among the petty Kings of Palestina to preserve his life from the subtle practices of those kings.

    I show this example unto such as, being offended with any great personage, have not sufficient means to prevail in their intents or revenge the injury by them received. But when I speak of revenging any injury received upon a great personage or superior, it must be understood by such an one as is not our sovereign, against whom we may by no means resist, nor once practice any treason nor conspiracy against his life. And he that will follow this course must speak and do all things whatsoever that are pleasing and acceptable to him whom he meaneth to deceive, practice his actions, and esteem him above all men, clean contrary to his own intent and meaning; for that is rightly to play and counterfeit the fool, when a man is constrained to dissemble and kiss his hand, whom in heart he could wish an hundred foot depth under the earth, so he might never see him more, if it were not a thing wholly to be disliked in a Christian, who by no means ought to have a bitter gall or desires infected with revenge.

    15Hamlet, in this sort counterfeiting the madman, many times did divers actions of great and deep consideration, and often made such and so fit answers that a wise man would soon have judged from what spirit so fine an invention might procced, for that standing by the fire and sharpening sticks like poniards and pricks, one in smiling manner asked him wherefore he made those little staves so sharp at the points? "I prepare," saith he, "piercing darts and sharp arrows to revenge my father's death." Fools, as I said before, esteemed those his words as nothing; but men of quick spirits and such as had a deeper reach began to suspect somewhat, esteeming that under that kind of folly there lay hidden a great and rare subtlety, such as one day might be prejudicial to their prince, saying, that under color of such rudeness he shadowed a crafty policy (concealed a crafty stratagem}}, and by his devised simplicity he concealed a sharp and pregnant spirit. For which cause they counseled the King to try and know, if it were possible, how to discover the intent and meaning of the young Prince; and they could find no better nor more fit invention to entrap him than to set some fair and beautiful woman in a secret place that, with flattering speeches and all the craftiest means she could use, should purposely seek to allure his mind to have his pleasure of her. For the nature of all young men, especially such as are brought up wantonly, is so transported with the desires of the flesh, and entereth so greedily into the pleasures thereof, that it is almost impossible to cover the foul affection, neither yet to dissemble or hide the same by art or industry, much less to shun it. What cunning or subtlety soever they use to cloak their pretense, seeing occasion offered, and that in secret, especially in the most enticing sin that reigneth in man, they cannot choose (being constrained by voluptuousness) but fall to natural effect and working.

    To this end certain courtiers were appointed to lead Hamlet into a solitary place within the woods, whither they brought the woman, enciting him to take their pleasures together, and to embrace one another -- subtle practices used in these our days, not to try if men of great account be extract out of their wits, but rather to deprive them of strength, virtue, and wisdom, by means of such devilish practitioners and infernal spirits, their domestical servants, and ministers of corruption. And surely the poor Prince at this assault had been in great danger, if a gentleman that in Horvendile's time had been nourished with him had not shown himself more affectioned to the bringing up he had received with Hamlet than desirous to please the tyrant, who by all means sought to entangle the son in the same nets wherein the father had ended his days. This gentleman bare the courtiers (appointed as aforesaid of this treason) company, more desiring to give the Prince instruction what he should do than to entrap him, making full account that the least show of perfect sense and wisdom that Hamlet should make would be sufficient to cause him to lose his life. And therefore by certain signs he gave Hamlet intelligence in what danger he was like to fall, if by any means he seemed to obey or once like the wanton toys and vicious provocations of the gentlewoman sent thither by his uncle. Which much abashed the Prince, as then wholly being in affection to the lady, but by her he was likewise informed of the treason, as being one that from her infancy loved and favored him, and would have been exceeding sorrowful for his misfortune and much more to leave his company without enjoying the pleasure of his body, whom she loved more than herself. The Prince in this sort having both deceived the courtiers and the lady's expectation, that affirmed and swore that he never once offered to have his pleasure of the woman, although in subtlety he affirmed the contrary, every man thereupon assured themselves that without all doubt he was distraught of his senses, that his brains were as then wholly void of force and incapable of reasonable apprehension, so that as then Fengon's practice took no effect. But for all that he left not off, still seeking by all means to find out Hamlet's subtlety, as in the next chapter you shall perceive.