“He [Horwendil, i.e. King Hamlet] had now passed three years in valiant deeds of war; and, in order to win higher rank in [King] Rorik’s favor, he assigned to him the best trophies and the pick of the plunder. His friendship with Rorik enabled him to woo and win in marriage his daughter Gerutha [Gertrude], who bore him a son Amleth [Hamlet].
“Such great good fortune stung Feng [Claudius] with jealousy, so that he resolved treacherously to waylay his brother …. And behold, when a chance came to murder him, his bloody hand sated the deadly passion of his soul. Then he took the wife of the brother he had butchered, capping unnatural murder with incest...
“Amleth beheld all this, but feared lest too shrewd a behavior might make his uncle suspect him. So he chose to feign dullness, and pretend an utter lack of wits.”
-Saxo, Translated by Oliver Elton, from Geoffrey Bullough, “Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare” (1973), vol. 7
THE SECOND EDITION (1534) OF SAXO’S HISTORY OF MEDIEVAL DENMARK, CONTAINING THE STORY THAT BECAME SHAKESPEARE’S HAMLET.
“The first connected account of the hero whom later ages know as Hamlet is that of Saxo, called Grammaticus, in [the work offered here], written at the end of the twelfth century and first published in 1514” (Harold Jenkins, ed., Introduction to The Arden Shakespeare Edition of the Works of William Shakespeare).
“The [1514 editio princeps] of Saxo probably had a political purpose, to strengthen the legitimacy of the young Danish king, Christian II, vis-a-vis his new family-in-law, the Hapsburg dynasty. Saxo’s patriotic history of Denmark, written in language which the Renaissance humanists could appreciate, had finally reached a European public, and thus after a long delay it contributed to the reputation of Saxo’s country and its kings, exactly as he would have liked” (Karsten Friis-Jensen, ed., Saxo Grammaticus: Gesta Danorum: The History of the Danes).
Saxo’s preface to his book is charmingly modest: “Because other nations are in the habit of vaunting the fame of their achievements, and joy in recollecting their ancestors, Absalon, archbishop of Denmark, had always been fired with a passionate zeal to glorify our fatherland; he would not allow it to go without some noble document of this kind and, since everyone else refused the task, the work of compiling a history of the Danes was thrown upon me, the least of his entourage; his powerful insistence forced my weak intellect to embark on a project too huge for my abilities” (Peter Fisher’s translation, in Friis-Jensen, op. cit.). Yet whatever the deficiencies of the author or the work, Saxo deserves credit for passing on the story that fired Shakespeare’s imagination and led him to create what is arguably the greatest play ever written in the English language.
“In this primitive and sometimes brutal story the essentials of Shakespeare’s plot — fratricide, an incestuous marriage, feigned madness, and the ultimate achievement of a long-delayed revenge — are already present. And it is the kind of potentially dramatic story in which ‘carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts’ show ‘ purposes mistook Fall’n on th’inventors’ heads’ ([Hamlet] v.ii.386-90) The woman who waylays the hero, the man who spies on him in his mother’s chamber, and the retainers who escort him to England to be killed already adumbrate the roles of Ophelia, Polonius, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern... Likenesses do not stop at incidents. In Shakespeare’s big set scene between Hamlet and his mother [Act III, sc. 4], the very drift of the dialogue is anticipated in Saxo... Something of Saxo also remains in Hamlet’s savage contempt for Polonius’s corpse [Act IV, sc. 3]” (Jenkins, op. cit.).
Opinions differ on whether Shakespeare ever read Saxo, the majority view being that he did not, and instead got the story indirectly, through the adaptation of it by François Belleforest in his Histoires Tragiques, which first appeared in 1570. Nevertheless, there is some evidence that Shakespeare did at least consult Saxo. For example, Gunnar Sjögren, the Swedish Shakespeare scholar, states that “It is not generally believed that Shakespeare had read Saxo at all. Yet, there are in Hamlet what I take to almost literal, but seemingly unintentional, echoes from Saxo’s text which I find otherwise difficult to explain away” (Sjögren, “Hamlet the Dane”).
Whatever Shakespeare may have borrowed from Saxo and other sources, the play that survives today is uniquely his own: "Saxo has no ghost demanding vengeance, and the identity of the murderous uncle is known from the start. There is no Osric, no gravediggers or play within a play. The legend lacks a Laertes character and the young woman does not go mad or kill herself. Perhaps most crucially, Amleth lacks Hamlet’s melancholy disposition and long self-reflexive soliloquies, and he survives after becoming king” (British Library).
This second edition of Saxo - following the very rare first edition of 1514 - includes on the title page an early example of a “blurb” — a five line statement from Erasmus of Rotterdam, praising the work.
This edition is also noteworthy as a fine example of 16th-century printing: with wide-margined text ruled in red throughout; the first text page with engraved horizontal borders by Hans Holbein the Younger and vertical borders by the Master I.F.; the title page and last page with engraved printer's devices; and several decorated woodcut initials.
Provenance: Ex-libris Chateau La Roche-Guyon, with stamp on title. The historic chateau outside of Paris dates back to the 12th century.
Basel: Johan Bebel, 1534. Folio (196x310mm), contemporary French calf; boards blind-ruled with gilt ornaments and gilt medallion of Plato's profile in the center of both boards, all edges gilt. Restoration to spine, some stains on boards. A touch of dampstaining to extreme lower margin of last few leaves. A beautiful tall copy, very handsomely bound.
Price: $7,000 .