Shakespeare's Sources for Hamlet
Hamlet is based on a Norse legend composed by Saxo Grammaticus in Latin around 1200 AD. The sixteen books that comprise Saxo Grammaticus' Gesta Danorum, or History of the Danes, tell of the rise and fall of the great rulers of Denmark, and
the tale of Amleth, Saxo's Hamlet, is recounted in books three and four. In Saxo's version, King Rorik of the Danes places his trust in two brothers, Orvendil and Fengi. The brothers are appointed to rule over Jutland, and Orvendil weds the king's beautiful daughter, Geruth. They have a son, Amleth. But Fengi, lusting after Orvendil's new bride and longing to become the sole ruler of Jutland, kills his brother, marries Geruth, and declares himself king over the land. Amleth is desperately afraid, and feigns madness to keep from getting murdered. He plans revenge against his uncle and becomes the new and rightful king of Jutland.
Saxo's story was first printed in Paris in 1514, and Francois de Belleforest translated it into French in 1570, as part of his collection of tragic legends, Histoires Tragiques. An English translation of Belleforest's text appeared in 1608 called The Hystorie of Hamblet, so either Shakespeare was fluent in French or he used another source, because he wrote Hamlet in 1600. Many scholars believe a translated copy of Belleforest existed well before 1608 but there is no proof to support this claim. It is more likely that the The Hystorie of Hamblet is based on Shakespeare's play, not the other way around. For more on this topic, please see the comments of critic Karl Elze in Theories on The Hystorie of Hamblet.
Generally, it is accepted that Shakespeare used the earlier play based on this Norse legend by Thomas Kyd, called the Ur-Hamlet. There is no surviving copy of the Ur-Hamlet and the only information known about the play is that it was performed on the London stage; that it was a tragedy; that there was a character in the play named Hamlet; and a ghost who cried "Hamlet, revenge!"
How to cite this article:
Mabillard, Amanda. Shakespeare's Sources for Hamlet. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2000. < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/sources/hamletsources.html > .
Evans Lloyd Gareth. Shakespeare IV. London: Oxford university Press, 1967.
Granville-Barker, Henry. Prefaces to Shakespeare. New York: Hill and Wang, 1970.
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The first recorded production of Hamlet was by the Chamberlain's Men in 1600 or 1601, so it is likely that Shakespeare composed the play in early 1600. According to contemporary references, Hamlet became an instant hit, and the great Shakespearean actor, Richard Burbage, received much acclaim in the lead role. Hamlet's popularity grew steadily until the closing of the theatres by the puritanical government (1642-1660). During that time it was performed as an abridged playlet at taverns and inns, along with all the other great dramas that suffered at the hands of Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of England. After the theatres re-opened, Hamlet was brought back to the stage by author and entrepreneur, William Davenant, and the play's popularity has been constant ever since. More facts...
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Did You Know? ... The focus of Chapter Three of the The Hystorie of Hamblet is the closet scene and it is fascinating to compare it to Shakespeare's version. To say that Hamblet is more vengeful than our hero is an understatement:
"drawing his sworde thrust it into the hangings, which done, pulled the counsellor (half dead) out by the heeles, made an end of killing him, and beeing slaine, cut his bodie in pieces, which he caused to be boyled, and then cast it into a vaulte or privie, that so it mighte serve for foode to the hogges."
Please see A Note on the Hystorie of Hamblet for a discussion on its connection to Shakespeare.