Fabled star query
What was the first "Hamlet without the Prince"?
Something to do with Byron, I thought.
No, the answer lies with Dr Johnson, I was told.
I would not have posed the question today if I hadn't been reading Michael Caines' dextrous comparison of two new 'dictionaries of phrase and fable' in the issue of the TLS which goes to press tonight.
The Oxford version of the dictionary (now in its second edition, edited by Elizabeth Knowles) cites an issue of the Morning Post from September 1775.
Its older rival, Brewer's (founded by Ebenezer Cobham Brewer, 1810-1897, and now edited by John Ayto), though strong on the origins of such names as Stonewall Jackson, is weaker on princeless Hamlets.
We have to turn to Nigel Rees' Phrases and Sayings (1995) to be told that Byron did indeed give the gist of the phrase, suggesting that his autobiographical essay would resemble the Tragedy of Hamlet, recited "with the part of Hamlet left out by particular desire".
The Morning Post source is apparently an anecdote about a theatrical manager who has to announce his Shakespeare performance for the night after his principal actor has run off with the inn-keeper's daughter.
No mention of Dr Johnson anywhere.
And neither Oxford nor Brewer's can agree, complains Caines, on how to file 'Something rotten in the state of Denmark'.
Under R for rotten or S for something?
Read the review in our TLS issue later this week and decide.