SCHOLARS seeking an inspiration for Hamlet’s ‘What a piece of work is a man’ speech have proposed a variety of suggestions, ranging from the biblical to the classical (Cicero, Seneca, Plutarch), from Petrarch and Pico della Mirandola to Timothy Bright, William Parry, and John Florio’s translation of Montaigne. If none of these has won wide assent, it is because none bears a strong stylistic similarity to Hamlet’s diction. I should like to propose another possibility not yet suggested: specifically, words written by Nicholas Lesse, an obscure figure active in London around the middle of the sixteenth century. Almost all of his work consisted of translation—Franz Lambert, Erasmus, Augustine, Polydore Vergil, and Martin Luther. Lesse was particularly interested in subjects of justification and predestination and so perhaps inevitably was drawn to the work of Philip Melanchthon (1497–1560), Luther’s friend and colleague. In 1548 Lesse translated Melanchthon’s The Justification of Man by Faith Only.1 Appended to this translation is the only original work Lesse ever wrote: An Apologie or Defence of the Worde of God, which contains this passage: O what a goodly pece of worke, and wel framed building wold this be? How even and well proporcioned a matter, how excellent a frame (fol. lxxxiv).2 Compare these words to Hamlet’s: this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy. … What [a] piece of work is a man, how noble in reason … (II.ii.298–304).3 The resemblances are suggestive. First, both passages employ in proximity the words ‘goodly’, ‘frame’ (or ‘framed’), ‘excellent’, and ‘piece of work’. Second, both passages present, with one exception (‘piece of work’), these words in the same sequence. Third, the two passages adopt a similar syntactic pattern, moving from ‘What a …’ to ‘how …’ (Shakespeare uses the ‘how’ clause four times, Lesse twice.) In addition, several of Hamlet’s key words appear elsewhere in Lesse’s paragraph: man (‘How long time would it be if a man wolde thus begyn to buylde an house to dwell in’); earth (‘This lack of fear and love is through all the earth’); and god (‘the only mercy of God’ and ‘word of God’). Why might Shakespeare have read An Apologie or Defence of the Worde of God? During the Elizabethan era Calvinists began to achieve their ascendancy. The notion of predestination gained ever greater favour. Hamlet’s meditation, following his interrupted journey to England, seems to evoke this concern. That is, his encounter with the pirates leads him to revise his understanding of the world. He replaces his sense of victimization with something else entirely, a conviction that he is guided from without. In the graveyard he speaks to Horatio of God’s intercession, allowing him on his voyage to discover the document mandating his death upon arrival in England and to substitute a new document of his own devising: ‘There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, / Rough-hew them how we will—’ (V.ii.10–11); ‘Why, even in that was heaven ordinant’ (48). And when he rejects Horatio’s doubts about the forthcoming fencing contest at court, he invokes divine direction, ‘There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow’ (219–220). When Prince Hamlet was recalled to Denmark for his father’s funeral, he was studying at the University of Wittenberg,4 renowned for theological and philosophical study: ‘During Hamlet’s first appearance on stage, Shakespeare introduces two of his most salient innovations to the variants of the Hamlet story available to him in the late sixteenth century. The first is that, unlike his sources Shakespeare makes the prince a student. The second, a corollary to the first, is that he associates the totality of Hamlet’s earlier life experience with the University of Wittenberg,5 ‘the largest university in Germany’.6 It was the university where both Luther and Melanchthon taught. Footnotes 1 A few years later ‘Edward VI’s government offered to Philip Melanchthon on 8 May 1553 the position at Cambridge University vacant following the death of Martin Bucer’ (J. D. Alsop, ‘Philip Melanchthon and England in 1553’, N&Q, ccxxxv.2 [June 1990], 164). Melanchthon did not accept the appointment, perhaps because the Protestant king died in 1553 and the Catholic Queen Mary succeeded him. 2 Nicholas Lesse, An Apologie or Defence of the Worde of God (London, 1548). 3 Hamlet, in The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans, assisted by J. J. M. Tobin, 2nd edn (Boston, MA, 1997). The 1604/5 Q2 of Hamlet has ‘What piece of work is a man’. The 1623 First Folio has ‘What a piece of work is a man’. 4 This detail is not mentioned in Belleforest’s Histoires Tragiques; his story of Amleth first appeared in 1570. It was translated into English (from the 1582 edition) and published as The Hystorie of Hamblet (1608). We do not know, of course, whether Wittenberg was mentioned in the original play of Hamlet, which must have been Shakespeare’s immediate source. That play, probably written by Thomas Kyd and performed by 1589, does not survive. 5 Suzanne H. Stein, ‘Hamlet in Melanchthon’s Wittenberg’, N&Q, lvi.1 (March 2009), 55. 6 Stephan Rhein, ‘The Influence of Melanchthon on Sixteenth-Century Europe’, Lutheran Quarterly, xii.4 (1998), 384. Rhein continues: ‘As a result, it was no coincidence that William Shakespeare had his Hamlet study in Wittenberg’. © The Author(s) (2018). Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: email@example.com
Notes and Queries – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 1, 2018
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