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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    Not Peer Reviewed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 IV

    How Fengon the third time devised to send Hamlet to the King of England, with secret letters to have him put to death; and how Hamlet, when his companions slept, read the letters, and instead of them counterfeited others, willing the King of England to put the two messengers to death, and to marry his daughter to Hamlet, which was effected; and how Hamlet escaped out of England.

    30A man would have judged anything rather than that Hamlet had committed that murder. Nevertheless Fengon could not content himself, but still his mind gave him that the fool would play him some trick of legerdemain and willingly would have killed him; but he feared King Roderick, his grandfather, and further durst not offend the Queen, mother to the fool, whom she loved and much cherished, showing great grief and heaviness to see him so transported out of his wits. And in that conceit, seeking to be rid of him, determined to find the means to do it by the aid of a stranger, making the King of England minister of his massacring resolution, choosing rather that his friend should defile his renown with so great a wickedness than himself to fall into perpetual infamy by an exploit of so great cruelty, to whom he purposed to send him, and by letters desire him to put him to death.

    Hamlet, understanding that he should be sent into England, presently doubted the occasion of his voyage, and for that cause speaking to the Queen, desired her not to make any show of sorrow or grief for his departure, but rather counterfeit a gladness, as being rid of his presence, whom, although she loved, yet she daily grieved to see him in so pitiful estate, deprived of all sense and reason; desiring her further that she should hang the hall with tapestry, and make it fast with nails upon the walls, and keep the brands for him which he had sharpened at the points, then whenas he said he made arrows to revenge the death of his father. Lastly, he counseled her that the year after his departure being accomplished she should celebrate his funerals, assuring her that at the same instant she should see him return with great contentment and pleasure unto her for that his voyage.

    Now, to bear him company were assigned two of Fengon's faithful ministers, bearing letters engraved in wood that contained Hamlet's death, in such sort as he had advertised the King of England. But the subtle Danish Prince (being at sea) whilst his companions slept, having read the letters, and known his uncle's great treason, with the wicked and villainous minds of the two courtiers that led him to the slaughter, razed out the letters that concerned his death, and instead thereof graved others, with commission to the King of England to hang his two companions; and, not content to turn the death they had devised against him upon their own necks, wrote further that King Fengon willed him to give his daughter to Hamlet in marriage. And so arriving in England the messengers presented themselves to the King, giving him Fengon's letters, who, having read the contents, said nothing as then, but stayed convenient time to effect Fengon's desire, meantime using the Danes familiarly, doing them that honor to sit at his table (for that Kings as then were not so curiously nor solemnly served as in these our days), for in these days mean kings and lords of small revenue are as difficult and hard to be seen as in times past the monarchs of Persia used to be; or as it is reported of the great King of Ethiopia, who will not permit any man to see his face, which ordinarily he covereth with a veil. And as the messengers sat at the table with the King, subtle Hamlet was so far from being merry with them that he would not taste one bit of meat, bread, nor cup of beer whatsoever as then set upon the table, not without great wondcring of the cornpany, abashed to see a young man and a stranger not to esteem of the delicate meats and pleasant drinks served at the banquet, rejecting them as things filthy, evil of taste, and worse prepared. The King, who for that time dissembled what he thought, caused his guests to be conveyed into their chamber, willing one of his secret servants to hide himself therein, and so to certify him what speeches passed among the Danes at their going to bed.

    Now they were no sooner entered into the chamber, and those that were appointed to attend upon them gone out, but Hamlet's companions asked him why he refused to eat and drink of that which he found upon the table, not honoring the banquet of so great a king, that entertained them in friendly sort, with such honor and courtesy as it deserved? Saying further, that he did not well, but dishonored him that sent him, as if he sent men into England that feared to be poisoned by so great a king. The Prince, that had done nothing without reason and prudent consideration, answered them, and said: "What, think you that I will eat bread dipped in human blood, and defile my throat with the rust of iron, and use that meat that stinketh and savoreth of man's flesh already putrified and corrupted and that scenteth like the savor of a dead carrion long since cast into a vault? And how would you have me to respect the King that hath the countenance of a slave? And the Queen who, instead of great majesty, hath done three things more like a woman of base parentage and fitter for a waiting-gentlewoman than beseeming a lady of her quality and estate?" And having said so, used many injurious and sharp speeches as well against the King and Queen as others that had assisted at that banquet for the entertainment of the Danish ambassadors. And therein Hamlet said truth, as hereafter you shall hear, for that in those days, the north parts of the world, living as then under Satan's laws, were full of enchanters, so that there was not any young gentleman whatsoever that knew not something therein sufficient to serve his turn, if need required, as yet in those days in Gothland and Biarmy there are many that knew not what the Christian religion permitteth, as by reading the histories of Norway and Gothland you may easily perceive. And so Hamlet, while his father lived, had been instructed in that devilish art whereby the wicked spirit abuseth mankind and advertiseth him as he can of things past.

    It toucheth not the matter herein to discover the parts of divination in man, and whether this Prince, by reason of his over-great melancholy, had received those impressions, divining that which never any but himself had before declared, like the philosophers who, discoursing of divers deep points of philosophy, attribute the force of those divinations to such as are Saturnists by complexion, who oftentimes speak of things which, their fury ceasing, they then already can hardly understand who are the pronouncers; and for that cause Plato saith, many diviners and many poets, after the force and vigor of their fire beginneth to lessen, do hardly understand what they have written, although entreating of such things, while the spirit of divination continueth upon them, they do in such sort discourse thereof that the authors and inventers of the arts themselves by them alleged commend their discourses and subtle disputations. Likewise I mean not to relate that which divers men believe, that a reasonable soul becometh the habitation of a meaner sort of devils, by whom men learn the secrets of things natural; and much less do I account of the supposed governors the world feigned by magicians, by whose means they brag to effect marvelous things. It would seem miraculous that Hamlet should divine in that sort, which after proved so true if, as I said before, the devil had not knowledge of things past; but to grant it he knoweth things to come, I hope you shall never find me in so gross an error. You will compare and make equal derivation and conjecture with those that are made by the spirit of God, and pronounced by the holy prophets, that tasted of that marvelous science, to whom only was declared the secrets and wondrous works of the Almighty. Yet there are some imposturious companions that impute so much divinity to the devil, the father of lies, that they attribute unto him the truth of the knowledge of things that shall happen unto men, alleging the conference of Saul with the witch, although on example out of the Holy Scriptures, specially set down for the condemnation of wicked man, is not of force to give a sufficient law to all the world; for they themselves confess that they can divine, not according to the universal cause of things, but by signs borrowed from such like causes, which are all ways alike, and by those conjectures they can give judgment of things to come, but all this being grounded upon a weak support (which is a simple conjecture) and having so slender a foundation, as some foolish or late experience, the fictions being voluntary, it should be a great folly in a man of good judgment, specially one that embraceth the preaching of the gospel, and seeketh after no other but the truth thereof, to repose upon any of these likelihoods or writings full of deceit.

    35As touching magical operations, I will grant them somewhat therein, finding divers histories that write thereof, and that the Bible maketh mention, and forbiddeth the use thereof: yea, the laws of the gentiles and ordinances of emperors have been made against it in such sort, that Mahomet, the great heretic and friend of the devil, by whose subtleties he abused most part of the east countries, hath ordained great punishments for such as use and practice those unlawful and damnable arts; which, for this time leaving of, let us return to Hamlet, brought up in these abuses, according to the manner of his country, whose companions, hearing his answer, reproached him of folly, saying that he could by no means show a greater point of indiscretion than in despising that which is lawful and rejecting that which all men received as a necessary thing, and that he had not grossly so forgotten himself as in that sort to accuse such and so excellent a man as the King of England, and to slander the Queen, being then as famous and wise a princess as any at that day reigning in the islands thereabouts, to cause him to be punished according to his deserts; but he, continuing in his dissimulation, mocked him, saying that he had not done anything that was not good and most true. On the other side, the King, being advertised thereof by him that stood to hear the discourse, judged presently that Hamlet, speaking so ambiguously, was either a perfect fool or else one of the wisest princes in his time, answering so suddenly and so much to the purpose upon the demand by his companions made touching his behavior; and, the better to find the truth, caused the baker to be sent for, of whom inquiring in what place the corn grew whereof he made bread for the table, and whether in that ground there were not some signs or news of a battle fought, whereby human blood had therein been shed? The baker answered that not far from thence there lay a field full of dead men's bones, in times past slain in a battle, as by the great heaps of wounded skulls might well appear, and for that the ground in that part was become fertiler than other grounds, by reason of the fat and humors of the dead bodies, that every year the farmers used there to have in the best wheat they could find to serve His Majesty's house. The King perceiving to be true, according to the young Prince's words, asked where the hogs had been fed that were killed to be served at his table? And answer was made him that those hogs, getting out of the said field wherein they were kept, had found the body of a thief that had been hanged for his demerits and had eaten thereof. Where the King of England, being abashed, would needs know with what water the beer he used to drink of had been brewed? Which having known, he caused the river to be digged somewhat deeper, and therein found great store of swords and rusty armors that gave ill savor to the drink.

    It were good I should here dilate somewhat of Merlin's prophecies, which are said to be spoken of him before he was fully one year old; but if you consider well what hath already been spoken, it is no hard matter to divine of things past, although the minister of Satan therein played his part, giving sudden and prompt answers to this young Prince, for that herein are nothing but natural things, such as were well known to be true, and therefore not needful to dream of things to come. This known, the King, greatly moved with a certain curiosity to know why the Danish Prince said that he had the countenance of a slave, suspecting thereby that he reproached the baseness of his blood, and that he would affirm that never any prince had been his sire, wherein to satisfy himself he went to his mother, and, leading her into secret chamber, which he shut as soon as they were entered, desired her of her honor to show him of whom he was engendered in this world. The good lady, well assured that never any man had been acquainted with her love touching any other man than her husband, sware that the King her husband only was the man that had enjoyed the pleasures of her body; but the King her son, already with the truth of the Danish prince's answers, threatened his mother to make her tell by force, if otherwise she would not confess it, who, for fear of death, acknowledged that she had prostrated her body to a slave and made him father to the King of England; whereat the King was abashed and wholly ashamed.

    I give them leave to judge who, esteeming themselves honester than their neighbors and supposing that there can be nothing amiss in their houses, make more inquiry than is requisite to know the which they would rather not have known. Nevertheless, dissembling what he thought, and biting upon the bridle rather than he would deprive himself by publishing the lasciviousness of his mother, thought better to leave a great sin unpunished thean thereby to make himself contemptible to his subjects, who peradventure would have rejected him as not desiring to have a bastard to reign over so great a kingdom.

    But as he was sorry to hear his mother's confession, on the other side he took great pleasure in the subtlety and quick spirit of the young Prince, and that for cause went unto him to ask him why he had reproved three things in his Queen convenient for a slave and savoring more of baseness than of royalty, and far unfit for the majesty of a great prince? The King, not content to have received a great displeasure by knowing himself to be a bastard, and to have heard with what injuries he charged her whom he loved best in all the world, would not content himself until he also understood that which displeased him, as much as his own proper disgrace, which was that his queen was the daughter of a chambermaid, and withal noted certain foolish countenances she made, which not only showed of what parentage she came, but also that her humors savored of the baseness and low degree of her parents, whose mother, he assured the King, was as then yet holden in servitude. The King admiring the young Prince, and beholding in him some matter of greater respect than in the common sort of men, gave him his daughter in marriage, according to the counterfeit letters by him devised, and the next day caused the two servants of Fengon to be executed, to satisfy, as he thought, the King's desire. But Hamlet, although the sport pleased him well, and that the King of England could not have done him a greater favor, made as though he had been much offended, threatening the King to be revenged. But the King, to appease him, gave him a great sum of gold, which Hamlet caused to be molten and put into two staves, made hollow for the same purpose, to serve his turn there with as need should require; for of all other the King's treasures he took nothing with him into Denmark but only those two staves, and as soon as the year began to be at an end, having somewhat before obtained license of the King his father-in-law to depart, went for Denmark; then, with all the speed he could to return again into England to marry his daughter, and so set sail for Denmark.