Did Shakespeare Annotate this 16th Century Source for Hamlet?
by Tony Tambasco
The Guardian recently reported that independent researcher John Casson noted that marginalia in the British Library's copy of François de Belleforest’s Histoires Tragiques, a possible source for Hamlet, are likely to be Shakespeare's own notes, presumably to assist him in writing Hamlet. While an exciting possibility, there are several problems with Casson's reasoning.
"Who else was interested in this text in the late 16th century? There is only one person we absolutely know was interested in it, and that’s Shakespeare. No other person has been shown to definitely have an interest in this text," says Casson. But if we treat his first question as an honest one, the answer could be just about anyone. Casson's presumption is that, since we have a play by William Shakespeare from the 16th century for which a section of Histoires Tragiques may have been a source, no one else in the whole of early modern England (1), let alone the city of London, might have taken an interest in this book. With the path to royal succession in question, since it was clear that that Queen Elizabeth I would not herself have a child, being the foremost political question of the day, hat logic is simply incredible. Since one of the underlined passages that Casson uses to argue his point related directly to the question of succession, we can only stand his above question on it's head: with the fate of the nation at stake, who wouldn't be interested in questions of succession?
Casson also makes the point that these notes must pre-date Shakespeare's Hamlet because the notes make no mention of Shakespeare's play. "there is no mention of the play. If you were annotating after the play, you would put: ‘This was Shakespeare’s Hamlet; he refers to this.’ You wouldn’t be coy," he says. Which carries with it the dangerous presumption that just about anyone in early modern London could be relied upon to know or care about Shakespeare's Hamlet. Hamlet, for us, is one of the great works of Western Civilization, and Shakespeare the greatest dramatist of the same. For early modern Londoners, he was an actor and a writer, more or less equivalent to comic book authors, and certainly far less interesting than any of the wealthy aristocrats who were the real centers of power and fashion. Hamlet might have, at best, enjoyed the sort of response that a movie like Captain America: The Winter Soldier did upon its release, and in all likelihood wouldn't garner special attention from the political class or the traditional guardians of culture in early modern London.
And we also have to admit the possibility that, even if the annotator of this book was familiar with Hamlet, he might not have had it in mind when making these annotations. It is just as likely that a lawyer, having seen a production of a play called Hamlet, written by someone other than Shakespeare and now completely lost to us, was intrigued by the alien idea of king's succeeding to the throne in alternate ways than the English system, and becoming more intrigued by other aspects of the story, made his complete set of notes. This scenario is complete speculation, but it is no less speculative than Casson's.
Casson is an anti-Stratfordian, and believes the true author of Shakespeare's plays was the courtier Sir Henry Neville. That is simply not true, as better researchers than I have continually noted, and as Brian Vickers and John Mullan note in The Guardian article. But if Casson were correct, and Neville was the man behind Hamlet and the other plays, his entire argument might make more sense. Based on extent scenes in French from Shakespeare's plays (most notably Henry V), Shakespeare from Stratford, the actor and playwright, while clearly possessing some proficiency with the French language, probably did not know French well enough to use a book written in French as his primary source for anything, especially when an English translation was published just one year after the book Casson examines.
While Casson's theory is intriguing, it is based on the idea that no one else might have found the ideas in this particular section of Belleforest’s Histoires Tragiques especially noteworthy, and there's little reason to suppose that. Casson likewise assumes that anyone else would have necessarily been reading and noting Shakespeare's sources like a modern secondary school student working on a term paper, and given the status of plays in Shakespeare's London, that's pretty clearly not the case, either. There is simply insufficient grounds to presume that this is Shakespeare's book and the notes in Shakespeare's hand, and there is at least some extant evidence to the contrary.
If you're interested in reading Casson's article in the British Library's journal about his findings, which includes photographs of some of the pages in question, you can find that here: https://www.bl.uk/eblj/2016articles/pdf/ebljarticle72016.pdf. And if you're interested in reading an English translation of Belleforst's Histoires Tragiques that may serve as a source for Hamlet, you can find that here: http://internetshakespeare.uvic.ca/doc/Belleforest_M/complete/
1. Casson admits that the provenance of the copy of Histoires Tragiques is of an unknown provenance before being added to the British library by King George III.
Tony Tambasco is the artistic director of Bad Quarto Productions.