Two weeks after Elsinore and I'm still brooding over Saxo Grammaticus.
Have you reread Saxo lately (you never ask an intellectual if he has read anything; only if he has reread it lately)? Huh? Have you? Ah, I suspected as much. But you do recall that Saxo is recognized as the first Danish historian; his Gesta Danorum was completed early in the 13th Century, and serves, inter alia, as the source of Shakespeare's Hamlet. This you knew; but have you ever actually paid attention to Saxo's telling of the Saxo tale,ever actually thought through what it was for Shakespeare to use it as a source? No, me neither, at least not until this week when my mind ran aground on the topic. Now, this may be old stuff to the cognoscenti, but it just now sank in on me and I can't let go of it. The thing is—the thing is I think I said before that we can regard Shakespeare, without a particle of disrespect, as the world's greatest rewrite man. Almost everything he wrote was swiped from somebody else. But the point is that everything he swiped he made better; every time he looked at a potential source, you can hear him saying “I see possibilities here”--and finding them.
I remarked before how the Danish locale of Saxo's Hamlet (Saxo calls him “Amleth”) is enough in itself to add power to Shakespeare's theatre—the unsettling energy of English adversary and forebear. But now look at Saxo's text (there's a serviceable version here, though not the one Shakespeare used). But you take a look at the original, you can see it is far more than that. . You can see, first, that Saxo offered far more than the bare revenge plot. Rather, it appears that many, perhaps most, of the scenes we remember in the play are already adumbrated in the old narrative. But most important, you can see that everything Shakespeare took from Saxo, he made into something entirely his own.
Or perhaps better, “our own.” Serious critics have remarked on the fact that Hamlet appeared just about half way through Shakespeare's public career. They've made the point that he seems to be telling us everything he has learned in the tumultuous stage decade that has gone before. Harold Bloom says (I quote from memory) that Hamlet/Shakespeare taught us what it was to be human. And it comes forth from the seed planted in the mists of time.
Bonus: you can also see, refreshingly, how interwoven Shakespeare's artistry is with the ordinary work of the stage. You can see that the “plot”of this masterpiece isn't that much: rather, what we have here is a series of scenes—scenes in most of which the actor gets to test his chops, and to assemble the first great modern sensibility. It all helps you to understand why they say that any actor who gets to play Hamlet goes into heaven by a separate door. Saxo himself seems to have anticipated the point:
O valiant Amleth, and worthy of immortal fame, who being shrewdly armed with a feint of folly, covered a wisdom too high for human wit under a marvelous disguise of silliness! and not only found in his subtlety means to protect his own safety, but also by its guidance found opportunity to avenge his father. By this skillful defense of himself, and strenuous revenge for his parent, he has left it doubtful whether we are to think more of his wit or his bravery.
You can say that again. Rather, Shakespeare did say it again, but with a force and insight that Saxo could barely have understood.