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About this text

  • 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    Not Peer Reviewed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

    The Argument

    1It is not at this present, neither yet a small time since, that envy reigning in the world hath in such sort blinded men, that without respect of consanguinity, friendship, or favor whatsoever, they forget themselves so much as that they spared not to defile their hands with the blood of those men who by all law and right they ought chiefly to defend and cherish. For what other impression was it that entered into Romulus's heart, when, under pretense of I know not what law, he defiled his hands with the blood of his own brother, but the abominable vice of desire to reign? Which, if in all the occurrences, prosperities, and circumstances thereof, it were well weighed and considered, I know not any man that had not rather live at his ease, and privately without charge, than, being feared and honored of all men, to bear all the charge and burden upon his shoulders; to serve and please the fantasies of the common people; to live continually in fear, and to see himself exposed to a thousand occasions of danger, and most commonly assailed and spoiled when he thinks verily to hold Fortune as slave to his fantasies and will, and yet buys such and so great misery for the vain and frail pleasures of this world, with the loss of his own soul; making so large a measure of his conscience that it is not once moved at any murder, treason, deceit, nor wickedness whatsoever he committed, so the way may be opened and made plain unto him whereby he may attain to that miserable felicity, to command and govern a multitude of men, as I said of Romulus, who, by a most abominable action, prepared himself a way to heaven -- but not by virtue.

    The ambitious and seditious orator of Rome supposed the degrees and steps to heaven, and the ways to virtue, to consist in the treasons, ravishments, and massacres committed by him that first laid the foundations of that city. And not to leave the histories of Rome, what, I pray you, incited Anclus Martinus to massacre Tarquin the Elder but the desire of reigning as a king, who before had been the only man to move and solicit the said Tarquinius to bereave the right heirs and inheriters thereof? What caused Tarquinius the Proud traitorously to imbrue his hands in the blood of Servius Tullius, his father-in-law, but only that fumish and unbridled desire to be commander over the city of Rome? Which practice never ceased nor discontinued in the said principal city of the empire as long as it was governed by the greatest and wisest personages chosen and elected by the people; for therein have been seen infinite numbers of seditions, troubles, pledges, ransomings, confiscations, and massacres, only proceeding from this ground and principle, which entereth into men's hearts and maketh them covet and desirous to be heads and rulers of a whole commonwealth. And after the people were deprived of that liberty of election, and that the empire became subject to the pleasure and fantasy of one man, commanding all the rest, I pray you peruse their books and read diligently their histories, and do but look into the means used by the most part of their kings and emperors to attain to such power and authority, and you shall see how poisons, massacres, and secret murders were the means to push them forwards that durst not openly attempt it or else could not compass to make open wars. And for that the history (which I pretend to show unto you) is chiefly grounded upon treason committed by one brother against the other, I will not err far out of the matter, thereby desiring to show you that it is and hath been a thing long since practiced and in use by men, to spill the blood of their nearst kinsmen and friends to attain to the honor of being great and in authority; and that there hath been some that, being impatient of staying till their just time of succession, have hastened the death of their own parents, as Absolon would have done to the holy King David, his father; and as we read of Domitian, that poisoned his brother Titus, the most courteous and liberal prince that ever swayed the empire of Rome. And God knows we have many the like examples in this our time, where the son conspired against the father; for that Sultan Zelin, emperor of Turks, was so honest a man, that fearing Bajazeth, his father, would die of his natural death, and that thereby he should have stayed too long for the empire, bereaved him of his life; and Sultan Soliman, his successor, although he attempted not anything against his father, yet being moved with a certain fear to be deposed from his empery, and bearing a hatred to Mustapha, his son (incited thereunto by Rustain Bassa, whom the Jews, enemies to the young prince, had by gifts procured thereunto), caused him to be strangled with a bow string, without hearing him (that never had offended his father) once speak to justify his innocency. But let us leave the Turks, like barbarians as they are, whose throne is ordinarily established by the effusion of the blood of those that are nearest of kindred and consanguinity to the empire, and consider what tragedies have been played to the like effect in the memory of our ancestors, and with what charity and love the nearst kindreds and friends among them have been entertained. One of the other, if you had not the histories extant before you, if the memory were not in a manner fresh and known almost to every man, I would make a long discourse thereof; but things being so clear and evident, the truth so much discovered, and the people almost, as it were, glutted with such treasons, I will omit them, and follow my matter, to show you that, if the iniquity of a brother caused his brother to lose his life, yet that vengeance was not long after delayed, to the end that traitors may know, although the punishment of their trespasses committed be stayed for a while, yet that they may assure themselves that, without all doubt, they shall never escape the puissant and revenging hand of God, who, being slow to anger, yet in the end doth not fail to show some signs and evident tokens of his fearful judgment upon such as, forgetting their duties, shed innocent blood and betray their rulers, whom they ought chiefly to honor, serve, and reverence.

    The Preface

    although in the beginning of this history I had determined not to have troubled you with any other matter than a history of our own time, having sufficient tragical matter to satisfy the minds of men; but because I cannot well discourse thereof without touching many personages whom I would not willingly displease, and partly because the argument that I have in hand seemed unto me a thing worthy to be offered to our French nobility, for the great and gallant occurrences therein set down, I have somewhat strayed from my course, as touching the tragedies of this our age, and, starting out of France and over Netherlanders' countries, I have ventured to visit the histories of Denmark, that it may serve for an example of virtue and contentment to our nation (whom I specially seek to please), and for whose satisfaction I have not left any flower whatsoever untasted, from whence I have not drawn the most perfect and delicate honey, thereby to bind them to my diligence herein; not caring for the ingratitude of the time present, that leaveth (as it were rejecteth) without recompense such as serve the commonwealth, and by their travel and diligence honor their country and illustrate the realm of France. So that oftentimes the fault proceedeth rather from them than from the great personages that have other affairs which withdraw them from things that seem of small consequence. Withal, esteeming myself more than satisfied in this contentment and freedom which I now enjoy, being loved of the nobility, for whom I travel without grudging, favored of men of learning and knowledge, for admiring and reverencing them according to their worthiness and honored of the common people, of whom, although I crave not their judgment, as not esteeming them of ability to eternize the name of a worthy man, yet I account myself sufficiently happy to have attained to this felicity, that few or no men refuse or disdain to read my works, many admiring and wondering thereat; as there are some that, provoked by envy, blame and condemn it. To whom I confess myself much bound and beholding, for that by their means I am the more vigilant, and so by my travel much more beloved and honored than ever I was; which to me is the greatest pleasure that I can enjoy, and the most abundant treasures in my coffers, wherewith I am more satisfied and contented than (if without comparison) I enjoyed the greatest treasures in all Asia. Now, returning to our matter, let us begin to declare the history.