THE COSTUME OF "HAMLET." [To THE EDITOR OF THE "SPECTATOR."]
SIR,—At the end of the present month the tragedy of Hamlet will be revived at the Lyceum Theatre ; and it is evidently ex- pected that the revival will have a "ran." This production of the great play will possess one very distinctive attraction, in the grace and charm, in the picturesque poetry, of the acting of our first and finest actress,—Miss Ellen Terry. It may be assumed that the management will devote some care and attention to scenery, dresses, and to the general miss en scene ; but it is also to be expected that the tragedy will be dressed according to -theatrical convention.
I ask leave to suggest that the play of Hamlet should be pro- duced on the English stage in the costume of the days of Shake- speare and of Elizabeth, i.e., in the costume of the date at which Shakespeare wrote and produced the play. The first printed ,edition of Hamlet appeared in 1603, but the drama had then been for a considerable time well known upon the stage. In proof of this fact, we may refer to the quaint title-page of this edition, Which speaks of the tragedy "as it bath beene diuerse times acted by his Highnesse seruants in the Citie of London ; as also in the two Vniuersities of Cambridge and Oxford, and elsewhere."
We cannot return to the scenic decoration of the days of ftalrespeare,—we might as well try to restore the Heptarchy. Theirs were no better than they were, because men were not then able to produce better scenery. Ours are better, because the arts connected with material stage appliances have improved. The scenery at the Globe or Blackfriars Theatre was suggestive to the imagination ; our scenery often pushes realism so far, that the imagination of spectators is overlaid. Their costume, though mainly that of the passing day, was symbolical and suggestive. Thus, the Ghost would appear in Elizabethan armour ! the King would wear a crown ; the actor (not actress) who played the Queen may have been raised nearer heaven by the altitude of a chopine, or high-heeled shoe ; the hero may have worn a "forest of feathers," and two "Provincial roses" in his razed shoes ; and Taylor (the original Hamlet, taught by Shakespeare himself to play the part) would certainly indicate mourning by an "inky cloak ;" but the general costume worn would yet be that of the current day, idealised and rendered symbolic. Our present theatre makes a confused attempt to present the mythical, pre- historic Denmark of the old chronicler, Saro-Grammaticus, and in so doing, we produce the play in an outside garb which is at variance with its inner essence and spirit. The old chronicler was to Shakespeare almost that which a block of marble is to a sculptor. He took mere incident, or such outline of a story as suited him, and out of such objective suggestions he created his Hamlet.
Shakespeare's Hamlet belongs, in manners, morals, and in tone e thought, essentially to his own day. He did not care for archreological correctness or local truth. For instance, the names
of Horatio, Marcellus, Bernardo, and others are not at all Danish. Hamlet says, "There is, Sir, an eyrie of children, little eyases, that are now the fashion." The fashion, yes! but when and where the fashion? They were in fashion, not in Denmark of the time of Amleth, but in London of the time of Shakespeare.
They were the well-known children players, who distracted the attention of the town, and led away playgoers from the nobler drama and from the better playhouses. Saxo-Grammaticus and Amleth could know nothing of rapier and of poniard ; but
Shakespeare makes especial use—and makes it, as I fancy, with a swordsman's enthusiasm—of the chivalric weapons of his own time, which had not then been very long introduced into use in England. Shakespeare, by the way, expressly bequeathed his own sword to Mr. Thomas Combe. Laertea is praised,— "For art and exercise in your defence,
And for your rapier most especiaL"
In the great fencing wager, the King " irnpones " French rapiers and poniards, with their assigns, as girdle and hangers,—the latter very dear to fancy. In short, both in external manners, as in inner thought, Shakespeare's Hamlet belongs essentially to Shakespeare's own day. Why should not we dress the play now as Shakespeare wrote it, and played it, and played in it ?
We have seen a Jacobian Hamlet fence with a Laertes attired in a nondescript Nathan costume. The dress of the spacious times of great Elizabeth is sufficiently remote and sufficiently romantic.
By using that picturesque costume, the play would remain ideal in outward presentment,—would gain greatly in nearness to the very spirit of Shakespeare's time and work. Let us sacrifice the lower literature to the higher truth, and dress the tragedy of Hamlet in the costume of the days of its creator.—I am, Sir, &c.,