“Hamlet” Origins: The Legend of Amleth

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:

Amleth“King Rørik of Denmark appoints the two brothers, Horwendil and Fengo, as rulers of Jutland (also known as the Cimbrian Peninsula of Denmark/Germany). Horwendil slays the King of Norway, marries King Rørik’s daughter Gerutha, and they have a son named Amleth. Consumed by envy of his brother, Fengo murders Horwendil and marries his wife Gerutha. Amleth then feigns madness, clothing himself in rags and spouting nonsense, to shield himself from his uncle’s violence. In fact the name “Amleth” comes from the Icelandic Amlóði, meaning “fool” or “simpleton”.

“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)






Which Shakespeare roles have the 2017 Tony-nominated actors played?

In recent years, the Tony Awards tend to place more and more of the spotlight on the Musical categories (and we at SF Shakes do love a good musical)! Still, we wanted to focus on this year’s acting nominees for Plays, and  find out how many of them have appeared in Shakespeare productions over the years. Turns out, it’s a pretty impressive list. Wait ’till you see the picture of young Cynthia Nixon as Juliet:


Denis Arndt as King Lear at Kansas City Repertory Company.


Chris Cooper as Antonio in Julie Taymor’s 2010 film The Tempest.


Corey Hawkins as Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet on Broadway.

kevin kline as bottom

Kevin Kline as Bottom in the 1999 film version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.


Jefferson Mays as The Duke in Measure for Measure on Broadway.


Cate Blanchett as Richard II for the Sydney Stage Company.


Jennifer Ehle as Lady Macbeth at the Public Theater.


John Douglas Thompson as Richard III for Shakespeare & Company.


Nominees Condola Rashad AND Jayne Houdyshell as Juliet and the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet on Broadway.


Cynthia Nixon as Juliet for New York Shakespeare Festival in 1988.

Borle Shakespeare

BONUS: it’s not a Shakespearean role, exactly, but musical Best Actor nominee Christian Borle actually played Shakespeare himself in Something Rotten! on Broadway…

So what’s missing from this list? Did we leave out any Shakespearean performances from the other nominees that you know about? Be sure to let us know! And no matter who wins tonight, let’s celebrate a group of actors at the top of their craft.


How to be Part of Our “35 Speeches” Series


Carl Holvick and Lauren Spencer* perform the balcony scene from “Romeo and Juliet” at Yerba Buena Gardens for Speech #3, February 14.

All the World’s a Stage…including San Francisco!

In 2017, we celebrate 35 years of performing Shakespeare in San Francisco. With your help, we’ll keep honoring our favorite playwright, our home city, and the 35th Anniversary of the Festival by presenting 35 of Shakespeare’s most famous speeches and scenes, in 35 iconic San Francisco locations, pop-up style.

Festival Resident Artists, led by Artistic Director Rebecca J. Ennals, are presenting roughly 5 “mini-performances” each month, each lasting 5-10 minutes, from February through August 2017. Each month’s set of speeches is anchored by a famous speech from Hamlet, our 2017 Free Shakespeare in the Park production.


Will Shattuc and David Moore* perform “Now is the winter of our discontent…” from “Richard III” near the Yoda Fountain in the Presidio as Speech #11, May 4.

This project is boosting the Festival’s visibility in the community at a time when we are normally out of the public eye, while also bringing attention to the 35th Anniversary and to our expanding artistic offerings (and newly established cadre of Resident Artists)…all in the lead-up to our annual summer Free Shakespeare in the Park production.

We also see this project as an opportunity to extend a core tenant of our mission: to make the works of Shakespeare accessible to all. By taking the Bard’s words into the neighborhoods of San Francisco, including famous places that are not necessarily tourist destinations but rather beloved local attractions, we want to engage directly with our community and break down barriers to cultural access such as price (performances will be free) and place (we meet the community where they live).


The cast of our Shakespeare on Tour “Twelfth Night” perform “If music be the food of love…” and “Make me a willow cabin at your gate” as Speeches #9 and #10 in Rincon Park, May 1.


You can sponsor part of a speech, a full speech, multiple speeches, or a whole month of performances as part of our 35th Anniversary Campaign!

We encourage producers at any level to publicize their chosen event using photos, video, and social media, to pass out programs at the performance, and to help determine venues and speeches (depending on support level).

35speeches blog


$1,000-$1,500 per speech includes artists’ stipends, photo and video recording, costumes and props, and permits. Total project budget for January – August: $38,500.


If you care to join our efforts, it’s easy to make a contribution to our 35th Anniversary Campaign. Help us take pop-up theatre across San Francisco! And be sure to keep an eye on our Facebook page and website to find out where “35 Speeches” will be heading next…


Sarah Shoshana David* and Julia Rechter perform “These are the forgeries of jealousy…” from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Conservatory of Flowers for Speech #2, February 12.

* Member of Actor’s Equity Association

We Asked Our “Twelfth Night” Tour Cast to Look Back on the Past Year…

AV 3003580-19396-DSC_9421

Between October 15, 2016 and April 5, 2017, our Shakespeare on Tour production of “Twelfth Night” traveled over 10,000 miles across California to perform in schools, community centers, and libraries. Some of the five cast members and their alternates stayed with the tour throughout the school year, while others spent a semester with us. All of them made unforgettable memories. We asked a few cast members to look back on the past year and share their thoughts with us.


1) What’s your favorite memory from the tour?

Andrea Love (Viola/Sebastian): A couple of times I got the sincere question from a younger audience member: Are you a boy or a girl? Which I always took as a huge compliment. I also loved the very memorable performance when our set wouldn’t fit into the lower-level community room in a coffee shop in downtown San Francisco, so we had to improvise by drawing a shipwreck and a box tree on a white-board and doing all of our costume changes off to the side (but still plenty visible to the audience)! Our overnight trip to LA in the fall was great, just because it allowed the cast to bond even more. The venues we got to perform in were amazing. The Cerritos Public library, which we got a short tour of after we performed, has an aquarium wall, a lighthouse, and T-Rex skeleton in the kids’ section, as well as gorgeous architecture. I loved shows where the kids were familiar with the play or had even performed it themselves, and had strong opinions and interesting questions about the show and various relationships within it.

Eliza Boivin (Olivia/Maria, Spring Cast): Working with kids, and the first time I taught a Playshop. I was nervous about teaching, and I remember at the very end of my Playshop how excited all the kids were about the new things they learned, and about the show. They asked me questions about acting and asked for advice, and it felt good to share my experiences and to exchange dialogue about the text. That was when I truly understood not just the entertainment aspect of the tour, but the importance of the educational part as well. The kids are so open and eager to learn from you. It’s endearing and the most rewarding I think.


Salim Razawi (Malvolio, Fall Cast): Being able to perform to a wide variety of ages and communities. Being at an elementary school one day, then a senior center the next, was probably my favorite memory. The fact that we could be the first exposure to Shakespeare to some audiences was so inspiring!

2) What will you miss most about the tour? 

Kieran Beccia (Feste/Sir Andrew, Spring Cast):  I will most miss continually discovering new things in the show, and continuing to explore the characters’ relationships with whatever combination of actors happened to be performing each day.

Andrea: I’ll miss the people! I’ll miss getting to perform regularly, and the adventure of not knowing what kind of space or audience you’ll get on any given day. And getting to explore a piece of text so thoroughly.


Salim: Definitely the cast. Traveling and performing together for so long truly made it feel like family.

Eliza: I’ll miss not being on stage almost every day. When I’m on stage, it’s the only time I’m not thinking about anything else. I’m super focused and in the moment, which is the complete opposite of when I’m not performing and I’m always thinking about a million things. And I always feel really good at the end of every show–sort of like finishing a really good workout, except I feel good mentally and emotionally. I’ll also miss being around my cast mates. They will always have a special place in my heart, as will the play Twelfth Night and SF Shakes. For years it was a goal of mine to perform in a Shakespeare play, and I couldn’t have asked for a better first experience!


Thank you, cast, for all of your hard work this year!

* These interviews have been edited for length and content.

On why SF Shakes supporters are just the best…

Anniversary Campaign Half Way

Okay, so Michael Navarra wasn’t signing Bon Jovi in our 2010 “Two Gentlement of Verona.” But that’s a pretty awesome guitar, right?

In honor of our 35th Anniversary, we’re raising $200,000 to support a range of special projects that will help us connect more deeply with communities all over the Bay Area. And thanks to people who believe in our work and our mission–people like YOU, you reading this right now–we’re thrilled to announce that we’re already halfway to our goal!

The campaign supports crucial capacity and outreach projects for our 35th year in San Francisco, helping us to build and create:

We couldn’t be more excited about all of these projects, and you can expect to hear about them in more detail here over the next few months.

The first phase of our 35th Anniversary campaign has included three leadership gifts of $35,000 each, from incredibly generous individuals who share our desire to make Shakespeare accessible to everyone. That brings us over halfway to our goal, which will supplement the more than $600,000 we raise every year to support core programs like Free Shakespeare in the Park, Shakespeare on Tour, and Midnight Shakesepare, and Bay Area Shakepseare CampsWe want to thank these donors for their leadership, vision, and dedication to SF Shakes! 

They make us feel like this:


Reaching the halfway point toward our goal is an incredible milestone, and we look forward to celebrating both milestone and anniversary at our upcoming 35th Anniversary Gala at the Marines’ Memorial Club on April 22.

We also look forward to continuing this campaign journey with all of you as we keep working toward our goal. We have spent the past 35 years delivering on the Bay Area’s promise of inclusion and diversity, and your support has been a huge part of that success.

We are honored to have you as part of the SF Shakes family.




3 Questions for SF Shakes’ New Technical Director


Neal poses with a newly uncovered harpy head from our 2006 production of “The Tempest,” which now guards our scene shop.

Beyond the other reasons for SF Shakes to be excited this year, we are THRILLED to now have a full-time Technical Director on board! Neal Ormond joined our team in March and will spend his time building sets for Free Shakespeare in the Park and residency productions, organizing/mastering our scene shop, magically helping us to find more space for an ever-growing staff in our tiny administrative offices, and just being an all-around handy and nice guy. 

Although his previous involvements include set design and construction at Dragon Theater of Palo Alto and more recently 4 years in the advertising world as Manager of Art & Tech at Publicis, the majority of Neal’s career has been spent as an independent designer/builder, recklessly pursuing and combining the realms of mobile architecture, pyrotechnics, electric vehicles, lighting and sound design, robotics, graphic and web design, and signage.  He’s currently scheming to build a 70-foot-tall, robotic, all-terrain-covering, crew-transporting, fire-breathing, disco-dancing likeness of William Shakespeare.

We asked Neal to answer three questions to help you get to know the newest member of SF Shakes’ staff. 

What are your initial impressions of SF Shakes, after your first few weeks here? 

I’m relieved and excited to find that this is indeed the type of environment I had sensed and hoped it to be, and one in which I know I’ll fully enjoy my time while being able to contribute some really great things.  Getting to work with other creative-minded people on a daily basis means a lot to me, and we’ve got that here.  In addition, coming off a 4-year stint in the corporate world, I’m impressed and encouraged by the sheer volume of content and engagement produced without the oversized budget, thanks to our widely-talented and dedicated staff as well as all our supporters in the community.

What project are you most excited about working on in your new role as Tech Director? 

The massive undertaking for this summer’s Free Shakespeare in the Park tour of Hamlet looms so large on my horizon, and will be so awesome come opening night, that I’d be remiss to not list that as the project I’m currently most excited about.  The initial purging/cleaning/organizing of the shop has been a rewarding (albeit dusty) process, and the now-underway “new kitchen/green room” project will add some great space to our office. But in another week or two those will be in the rear-view mirror and everything will be 100% Free Shakespeare in the Park for me!

What’s the craziest thing so far that you’ve run across while reorganizing our scene shop and storage? 

I’ve come across an amazing variety of items as I’ve gone about reorganizing the scene shop and storage areas.  The craziest (good) thing I’ve encountered was when I was 23 precarious feet up, on top of a storage rack, and discovered deeply buried what appeared to be a massive prop gargoyle or monster head.  It turns out this was built for the 2006 production of The Tempest, and has sat undisturbed for 11 years since then.  It’s beautiful and is now more appropriately and prominently mounted and displayed in the shop. The craziest (bad) thing was the approximately 17 net pounds of dust that had accumulated across all surfaces and objects in the shop.  But I think i got most of it cleaned up! (*cough sneeze cough*).


Welcome, Neal. We’re so glad you’re here (and sorry about all the dust)!


Just look at this newly organized scene shop. It’s so beautiful.