by Cassandra Clark, SF Shakes Literary Intern
Shakespeare’s Hamlet has become a story for the ages. The play, written sometime between 1599 and 1601, has been produced thousands of times on stage and has been adapted into countless musicals, films, ballets, and more over the past four centuries. That being said, the story behind Shakespeare’s Hamlet has been around for far longer than the play, predating it by more than 500 years!
The story of Hamlet originally appeared in an ancient Scandinavian folk tale which was passed down by word of mouth for generations. The first known physical copy of the story, however, was written in the 12th century: Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus transcribed the tale of the Prince known as Amleth (not Hamlet). He published the story in the third and fourth volumes of his larger 16-volume record of Danish history. This Gesta Danorum (“Deeds of the Danes”) tells of the rise and fall of the great Danish rulers. The exact dates of publication are widely disputed, but it is generally agreed upon that the last volume was produced in the year 1208.
Grammaticus’ story, called the Vita Amlethi (“The Life of Amleth”), goes like this:
“However, Amleth’s behavior is met with suspicion, and the King attempts to trap him into admitting he has plans for revenge. First, a beautiful woman is used to lure him into betraying himself, but she proves loyal to Amleth. Then a spy is planted to eavesdrop on Amleth’s conversation with his mother, in which she repents and he confesses his plans for revenge. Amleth discovers the spy, kills him in a mad frenzy, throws his mutilated body in a sewer, and leaves it to be eaten by pigs. Fengo then deports Amleth to England with two escorts carrying a letter directing the King there to execute him. Amleth switches the letter with another one, which orders the death of the escorts and asks for the hand of the English Princess in marriage.
“Returning to Denmark, Amleth arrives disguised, in the midst of his own funeral, burns down the hall and hunts down his sleeping uncle. Because Amleth had wounded himself on his sword, attendants had made it harmless by nailing it to the scabbard (the sheath used to hold it). Amleth swaps this useless sword with Fengo’s, succeeds in killing his uncle and next day is hailed as the King.”
Grammaticus’ tale has many similarities to Shakespeare’s play, the most obvious and significant of which are:
- a villain who kills his brother, takes over the throne and then marries his brother’s wife
- a cunning young hero, the King’s son, who pretends to be mad to shield himself from his uncle
- three plots used by the King to uncover the young man’s secrets: a young woman, a spy planted in the Queen’s bedroom (who is uncovered and killed), and two escorts who take the prince to England (also outwitted and killed)
- a hero who returns home during a funeral and finally achieves his revenge through an exchange of swords.
- Character equivalents: old and young Hamlet, old and young Fortinbras, Claudius and Gertrude, Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
Scholars have debated how Shakespeare encountered the story. It is unlikely that he saw Grammaticus’ latin version firsthand (as it was not translated into English for centuries after he wrote his play), but he may have read a French adaptation in François de Belleforest’s Histoires tragiques (or Tragic Histories), first printed in the early 1570’s. Belleforest embellished Grammaticus’ text substantially, almost doubling its length, and introduced the hero’s characteristic melancholy. The story itself was fairly accurate to its latin predecessor. The main difference was the names: in this version the old King is named Horvendile, his wife is Geruth, his brother is Fengon and his son, Hamlet. Nonetheless, it is still doubtful that Shakespeare ever actually read Belleforest’s text, which also had not yet been translated into English.
The most probable source that inspired Shakespeare’s story was in fact another play about the Danish prince, performed in England right around the turn of the century. We have evidence that there was some form of the Hamlet story on stage at some time before 1589; in that year, playwright Thomas Nashe made reference to Hamlet in a preface for another man’s novel. Although Nashe was fond of obscure literature, it seems this play definitely existed and was popular between 1589 and 1596. Scholars speculate that the play was written by Thomas Kyd, one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries; however, the play itself has been lost. As there is no surviving copy of this “Ur-Hamlet” (as it has come to be known), scholars know very little about it except what they’ve learned from references to it (such as Nashe’s) by other Elizabethan writers. From others such as Nashe, we can put together that it in this lost version some important elements, such as the ghost of old Hamlet, were first introduced to the story.
We do know that Shakespeare soon took an unremarkable revenge tale and made it resonate with the most fundamental themes and problems of his time. He changed the emphasis of the story entirely, making his Hamlet a philosophically-minded prince who delays taking action because his knowledge of his uncle’s crime is so uncertain (unlike in earlier versions, in which he had no doubt of his uncle’s guilt). Shakespeare’s Hamlet became a young student, with all the ideals of the Renaissance and humanist movements that were sweeping England, who was put in an impossible situation. And it’s a story that still has the ability to resonate with audiences today.
Shakespeare: The Complete Works by G.B. Harrison (1968)