The problems related to the origin and sources of Hamlet are no less contentious and inconclusive than the philosophical, moral and structural problems traditionally associated with the play. The present day iconic status of Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’ often obscures the mixed reactions that it received in the first two centuries of its existence. The play had, right from its early days, an equal number of admirers and detractors. Generous praises were regularly bestowed on the great passages like the soliloquies and the play within play structure etc.
Never were they thought to be enough to compensate for the general lack of coherence, order and organization in the entire play. The play was considered to be sublime tragedy, but not a perfect one. The gaps in the narrative, the radical mix of the high tragic with the ludicrous and the comic, the series of deaths and bloodsheds in the popular revenge tradition of the Elizabethan stage were thought to seriously mar the merits of an otherwise great play. As such, critics are often forced to conclude that probably many problems associated with the play can be resolved if a clear idea about the sources of the play can be formed.
But that only takes us to the second layer of the problem, the source problem of ‘Hamlet’. Traditionally, it is the Danish History of Saxo Grammaticus that is thought to be the original source of the legend of Hamlet. However, it did not reach Shakespeare in a direct way, but through significant reworking in 16th century works of French writer Belleforest, and its adaptations for the English stage, presumably by Thomas Kyd, which Shakespeare may have used as his model.
This paper will try and trace the origin of Hamlet to its source with dates back to the 12th century Danish History by Saxo Grammaticus, and trace the way in which it may have reached Shakespeare, along with the many narrative strands that it picked up on the way in the later years. It will take close looks at the parallels and contrasts between the original work and Shakespeare’s play and try and understand what actually account for these contrasts to set in.
Sources of Hamlet is not as straight-forward as some of Shakespeare’s other major plays that can be directly traced to Plutarch’s Lives or Holinshed’s Chronicles, or in some cases, Roman playwrights like Plautus or Italian comedies like Gl’Inganniti. Both contemporary references and traditional knowledge about the mad Prince Hamlet are far from concrete. All we know is that the story is an ancient one, first documented in the work of Saxo Grammaticus, the Historiae Danicae in 1186.
The story of Amleth, the revenging grandson of Rorik, the king of Denmark appears in Book III and IV of this magnificent Latin text, which suffered obscurity for at least three centuries after its composition, before being revisited and revived in the early part of the Renaissance Humanism. Erasmus went as far as to express wonder at the sheer eloquence in Latin from a Danish writer. However, Saxo Grammaticus’ version may not correspond to our present sense of chronological historiography with its focus on accuracy.
His was a version that depended as much on fiction and Danish oral tradition and lost Scandinavian sagas, as on purely proven historical truth. Even Saxo’s account appears to be a derived version of an original Norse tale about the mad and revenging prince. It moved from the North to Northern Ireland, took up shades of Celtic history and then returned to Denmark, becoming a part of its official history as recorded by Saxo Grammaticus. In Saxo’s history, Hamlet, (Amleth or Hamleth) is the son of Horvendill, who is a second century BC king of Jutland, and his queen Gerutha.
Hornvendill is killed by his brother Fengo, who then goes on to marry his queen Gerutha. He turns against Amleth, who then continues to be the rightful heir to the throne. Amleth feigns insanity in order to save himself from the wrath of Fengom, acting as a uninetllegent half-wit. However, Gerutha comes to his rescue, and largely influenced by the continuous chiding, reproaches and insane ravings of his son, assists him to carry out the murder of Fengo.
Saxo’s tale itself seems to be in detail, an eclectic combination of a number of tales of the same archetype, beginning with a similar Roman tale that goes back to the sixth century BC, where Lucius Junius Brutus, the founder of the Roman Republic, feigned insanity, ostensibly to plot the overthrow of Tarquin. It is quite possible that the historian Saxo was familiar with this trope and included it in spicing up the story of the mad prince Amleth. However, although Saxo may have found some parallel in the Roman tale, probably his sources were much more immediate, and the most immediate source is found in the Icelandic saga of Amlothi.
Amlothi is equal to Beowulf in antiquity, that is it dates back to the eighth century BC. However, in significant difference to the Beowulf, no written document of the text survives. The only recounting of the saga that we find is the writing of Snaebjorn, the tenth century Icelandic poet. Other possible sources for Saxo also include the work of Firdause, the Persian poet and his monumental work Shah-Nama. The tale of Kei-Chosro corresponds in many aspects to the story of Amleth, and the story of Amhlaide, that the Irish annals record in the year 917.
Kemp Malone has concluded that the source for Saxo’s Amleth is in the Geatish legends that developed indigenously in Jutland. The meaning of the name Amlothi, can be translated into Geatish to mean ‘mad Onela’, apparently the same Onela mentioned in Beowulf. (Holzberger 18) Coming back to Hamlet, there are many similarities in the events as described in Saxo and what we find in Shakespeare’s play, as well as significant differences. Saxo’s account of Hamlet contains all the structural elements that went into the construction of Shakespeare’s narrative.
The killing of the Danish ruler by his brother, the marriage of the brother and the widowed queen, the pretended madness and real craft of the dead king’s son, the son’s evasion of the sanity tests, this voyage to England with letters bearing his death warrant, his alteration of the letters, his return, and the accomplishment of his revenge: he kills his uncle, and he is acclaimed king. Some years later he dies a heroic death in battle against a descendant of an earlier king.
At the same time, Shakespeare’s play leaves out some of the rather gory details of the original Scandinavian tale, like the body of Claudius is not torn apart and thrown to the sewer to be devoured by hungry dogs, like Fengo in Saxo’s tale. Similarly, there is nothing of the moral and chivalric details of Shakespeare’s play in the original. We know that Shakespeare often depended greatly on his sources. Critics often point out Enobarbus’ description of Cleopatra’s barge in Antony and Cleopatra to state the point that Shakespeare did not necessarily shy away from straight forward plagiarism when it suited his purpose.
This usually makes critics conclude that Shakespeare did not receive his source directly from Saxo but some other source retelling of the story. One more reason for denying Saxo the status of being Shakespeare’s original source is that there was no translation of the work except for a poor translated work in 1628, prompted largely because of the popularity of Shakespeare’s play. How Shakespeare received the text thus becomes another important point of conjecture.
It is believed that his most immediate source of reference was not Saxo Grammaticus, but the fifth book of Francois de Belleforest, who recounts the story of Amleth in his histories Histoires Tragiques, published around 1570. Saxo was first translated into French in 1514, and Belleforest may have based his story on that. However, critics opine that Belleforest’s version of the narrative of the mad Prince Amleth owes as much to Saxo as it does to Matteo Bandello, the great sixteenth century storyteller, whose fame as a storyteller was second only to his great countryman and predecessor, Boccaccio.
Shakespeare already had a brush with Bandello in a more direct way in the story of Romeo and Juliet, and his influence on the Elizabethan stage was in no way less than Boccaccio himself. The story of Hamlet, as recounted by Belleforest, was one of adultery, fratricide, vengeance, and feigned madness – elements which all form an important part of Shakespeare’s play. Moreover, it includes a description of a journey to England and an exchange of letters.
As such, we find prototypes of not only the major characters but also Polonius, Resencrantz and Guildenstern, Horatio and even Ophelia already outlined in Belleforest’s history. One reason for believing in Belleforest’s debt to Bandello is his introduction of a very significant narrative element in the play, that of showing the queen in adulterous relationship with the King’s brother. This detail of adultery becomes very significant in Shakespeare’s play.
It accounts for Hamlet’s famous universal distrust of womankind and Bradley develops his entire thesis on the tragic character of Hamlet based more on the adultery of the Queen rather than the revenge on Claudius. It is significant that the Ghost of Hamlet refers to his brother as ‘adulterate’ during his first encounter with his son; this would not have been possible if Shakespeare used as his source directly Saxo’s history. Similarly, Hamlet in Act V, says about Claudius, ‘He that hath killed my king, and whored my mother’. (5. 2. 64)
That brings us to the next question, how Shakespeare may have had access to Belleforest’s Tragiques, which was not translated into English before 1609, well after the writing of the play. Belleforest’s work appeared in England as The Hystorie of Hamblet, a poorly translated work that depended for its popularity largely on the popularity of the Shakespearean play itself. It is at this juncture, this missing link between Belleforest and Shakespeare, that the much conjectured play, possibly by Thomas Kyd, ‘Ur-Hamlet’ appears in the English stage in 1588, or latest in 1589.
There is no evidence of any printed version of this play that survives. No manuscript survives either, and if Shakespeare possessed one, it was one of the artist’s copies that he may have procured during his apprenticeship days in the London stage. At the same time, the fact that there was a play of this name, and in nature similar in many aspects to Shakespeare’s work, is clear from the many references we get to it, none too flattering. Thomas Nash mentions it in his introduction to Menaphon, a prose work by Robert Greene in 1589.
Even in the preface, authorship is not certain, and it is only through conjecture that we can understand Thomas Kyd as the author of the play. Thomas Nash rallies at a certain ‘trivial translators’, who ‘leave the trade of noverint whereto they were born, and busy themselves with the endeavors of art…Yet English Seneca…yields many good sentences…and if you entreat him fair in a frosty morning, he will afford you whole Hamlets…let blood, line by line and page by page, at length must needs die to our stage’. (Barnet 168) The reference to Kyd appears to be quite clear as the general temper of the play.
The play, if at all by Kyd or one of his many imitators of the Elizabethan stage, must have been of the blood and gore revenge tragedies of the Elizabethan stage popularized by Kyd. It must have been somewhat similar to the immensely popular Spanish Tragedy, with plenty of bombast in blank verse, and lots of sensational stagecraft introduced – something very different from Shakespeare’s philosophical treatment of revenge in his Hamlet. In any case, even if there was a version of Hamlet present before Shakespeare, it was never performed after Shakespeare’s Hamlet appeared on stage, and took its place in a perpetuity of obscurity.
It will not be out of place to broach a little longer on this lost play by Thomas Kyd. There have been quite a few attempts to reconstruct the Ur-Hamlet from the different references to it. Apart from Nash’s mention of the play in the preface to Menaphone, we find references in Henslowe’s diary that a play named Hamlet has been presented on the English stage, on the suburban theater of Newington Butts in June, 1594, to be precise by the Admiral’s and the Chamberlain’s men. That Shakespeare’s own theater company, the Chamberlain’s men took over the play is also clear from Lodge’s account of the play.
Thomas Lodge in his Wits Misery, `1596, mentions a ‘ghost which cried so miserably at The Theatre, like an oyster wife, ‘Hamlet, revenge’ “ (Barnet 169) The mention of ‘The Theatre’, and not the playhouse tells us that it was played by the Chamberlaine’s Men, and his satiric treatment of the play also makes it certain that the play was already in a style that has run out of fashion. However, it does point to the fact that Shakespeare’s company had possession of some kind of an earlier version of the Hamlet.
It is in the context of the above possibility that George Santayana maintains Hamlet’s prototype is an earlier play by Shakespeare himself, rather than a play by Kyd, and places numerous instances in his support. In particular he refers to certain incongruities in the play that can be meaningful only if the play is thought to be an extension of an earlier much shorter play. Specific examples include Hamlet’s words when he comes upon the praying Claudius. The reasons for sparing the King are, according to Santayana, “ a remnant of bombast belonging to the old story, far more Christian and conventional in its motives than Shakespeare’s is”.
Santayana uses the same theory to explain away the puzzling mix of the high and the comic, the farcical with the serious that runs throughout the play, baffling critics for centuries. He can see traces of the earlier burlesque in the treatment of the Ghost as well. (Santayana 41-67) It is noteworthy that Shakespeare repeats all these techniques in his own work, and at some places the diction also closely approximates the fiery style of Kyd, though much improved. What conclusion, can we then draw about the source of then Shakespeare’s Hamlet? We can find from the above account that a number of possibilities present themselves.
Shakespeare could not have based his version on the English translation of Historae Danicae, which arrived good many years after the play was written. He most certainly depended on some earlier version of the play in English, probably the conjectured Ur-Hamlet, written in the tradition of Goethe’s Ur-Faust. Ur-Hamlet itself was a Senecan Revenge Tragedy in the Elizabethan tradition, most probably by Kyd on the basis of contemporary references, which did owe the plot to Belleforest’s version of Histoires Tragiques and not Saxo’s version, because the theme of adultery is present there.
The Ghost was present, pointing clear finger at Kyd’s hand behind it, and something that Shakespeare may have carried over from that play. Kyd possibly had a first-hand knowledge of Belleforest’s work which he read in the original and then translated in his own way, as Nash’s Preface clearly refers to ‘scriveners’ and ‘translators’. Kyd, moreover, had a very close and involved knowledge of Seneca, as is evident in his works. We know that this play had lots of killing, murder, treachery and bloodshed; it had a ghost, and the theme of adultery was fitted well into the play, as is the technique of the play within the play.
It was probably on this source that Shakespeare mostly depended for the construction of his tremendous tragedy. However, was the material that Shakespeare used a player’s copy of the script of this lost play, or some earlier play he himself wrote on the basis of an earlier revenge play as Santayana mentions, remains completely in a matter of debate, and we cannot come to any conclusion regarding it, since we have no idea how exactly was the character of Hamlet dealt with in Kyd’s play, other than the plot outlines.