3/10/2017 An Actor's Exploration of Hamlet's Sources Lou Horvath
The Sources of William Shakespeare's Hamlet
Iceland Snorri Sturluson 13th century
Denmark Saxo Grammaticus
France Francois de Belleforest 1576
England Thomas Kyd 1587-1588
England William Shakespeare 1600-1601
The story of a character named Hamlet was based on an old Scandinavian tale, and reference to him in the Prose Edda of Norse myths compiled by Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241) showed that the character of Hamlet was known in Iceland as a legendary figure at the beginning of the 13th century.
About the same time, a learned Danish bishop (or clerk), Saxo (nicknamed Grammaticus) collected the legends of his country in a 16-volume Latin work, Historia Danica (Gesta Donorum, Historiae Danicae). The Amlothi (Hamlet) legend occupied Saxo's 3rd and 4th books.
The Hamlet story was a primitive, savage tale of murder, incest, a pretense of madness, and revenge. Saxo depicted a barbarous time. For example, an unnamed prototype of Polonius had his dismembered body thrown into an open latrine only to be devoured by wild hogs/swine. (Other unnamed prototypes could have been Ophelia, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and perhaps, Horatio).
The Danish King Amlethus (Hamlet) was murdered by his treacherous brother Feng (Claudius). Everyone in the court and most people immediately outside it knew of the murder. Feng seized the throne and married the widowed Queen Gerutha (Gertrude). In those days, such a sexual union was known as incest. And in the most primitive times according to Freud (Totem and Taboo), incest was an offence against the clan punishable by death.
The murdered king's son, Prince Amleth (Hamlet) feigned madness to protect himself against his uncle; and buy the time he needed to plot his revenge by his utmost craft.
Feng failed to pierce the ruse. The Prince was sent sailing to England with letters from Feng which decreed Amleth's death upon arrival. But our hero altered the letters and returned safely to Denmark for his retribution. He murdered Uncle/king and all followers at a banquet. He took the throne and ruled Denmark until he was later killed in battle.
Saxo's Hamlet narrative was printed in France in 1514. In the 5th volume of his Histoires Tragiques (1576), Francois de Belleforest rendered his take on Hamlet making a notable addition to the story: that Queen Gerutha and Feng committed adultery prior to the murder of the king.
The next piece of the Hamlet puzzle was the subject of a play acted in London as early as 1587-1588 and based on the de Belleforest text. That was the so-called Ur-Hamlet. The manuscript was never printed and is irretrievably lost. Still, since the 18th century the Ur-Hamlet has been attributed to Thomas Kyd (1557?-1595?), a scrivener & playwright. Kyd’s play The Spanish Tragedy was first produced between 1585-1587. Master of the revenge play as gleaned from the Roman tragedies of Seneca (c4BC-65AD), Kyd was not a university man, but was able to make translations from Italian and French sources. Kyd could read de Belleforest’s Hamlet in French.
The first reference to the Ur-Hamlet was made by Thomas Nashe in his preface to Robert Greene’s Menophon, 1589. The established writer Greene launched an attack on certain, “Trivial translators” and “shifting companions” who
“Leave the trade of noverint (scribe, copyist) whereto they were born, and busy themselves with the endeavors of art that could scarcely Latinize their neck verse…Yet English Seneca…yields many good sentences…and if you can entreat him fair in a frosty morning, he will afford you whole Hamlets, I should say handfuls of tragical speeches…Seneca, let blood, line by line and page by page, at length must needs die to our stage; which makes his famished followers to imitate the Kid in Aesop…and these men to intermeddle with Italian translations.”
The influence of Seneca on Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy was well-known; and with the pun on Kid, Nashe clearly associated the Ur-Hamlet with the playwright, Thomas Kyd.
Then, in June of 1594, the theatre producer, Phillip Henslowe mentioned in his diary that a play called, Hamlet was performed at the suburban theatre of Newington Butts, south of the river by The Admiral’s and the Chamberlain’s Men. Henslowe recorded that the play was not a new one and its receipts for the performance were only 8 shillings, suggesting that the play’s popularity could have been declining.
Later, Thomas Lodge in his Wit’s Misery (1596) wrote of “The ghost which cried so miserably at The Theatre, like an oister wife, Hamlet, revenge.” Lodge thought the Hamlet play outdated. His reference to The Theatre pinpointed the venue of the Chamberlain’s Men and one of its troupe, William Shakespeare. The Ur-Hamlet had come into the hands of Shakespeare’s acting company, and as their property they could do with the play what they wished. The Theatre in Shoreditch north of the city was built by James Burbage in 1576. It was torn down in 1598, rebuilt a year later on the bankside and called The Globe.
There was no ghost in Saxo’s Hamlet story. King Amlethus was murdered by Feng. That fact was known to everyone. There was no need for a character like the ghost because there was nothing to reveal to the young prince. He knew who killed his father. The ghost was Kyd’s idea. It was unlikely to be found in de Belleforest. Kyd used the Ghost of Don Andrea effectively in his The Spanish Tragedy.
In Saxo, the Hamlet character feigned madness as a weapon to use on his uncle, the murderer. Kyd kept to the pretended madness but to what end is unknown. The Ur-Hamlet ended with Hamlet’s triumph and death in a bloody Seneca/Kyd massacre. Shakespeare went along with not letting Hamlet survive the retribution. Not knowing of Saxo’s original, in which the victorious King Hamlet was granted some final years of peace before the fatal battle, Shakespeare must to have had other reasons for destroying Hamlet with the rest of them?!
From Saxo’s physical, energetic, action-oriented Hamlet, we arrive at Shakespeare’s highly intelligent and introspective Hamlet. It is a very long way, but there was a book published in England in 1586 by Timothy Bright called, Treatise of Melancholy. Perhaps Shakespeare knew it.
Thomas Kyd must have used the adultery theme of de Belleforest, or Shakespeare came up with it himself but:
The ghost calls Claudius, “adulterate”--
“Ay, that incestuous, that adulterate beast,” (I.v.42)
And Hamlet says: “He hath killed my king and whored my mother.” (V.ii.64)
This adultery/incest interest persists in Shakespeare, to cite a few lines of I’m sure many exist: Ghost- “Let not the royal bed of Denmark be
A couch for luxury and damned incest.” (I.v.82-83)
Hamlet-“When he is drunk asleep or in his rage
Or in th’ incestuous pleasure of his bed,” (III.iii.89-90)
Hamlet- “How stand I then,
That have a father killed, a mother stained,” (IV.iv.56-57)
Hamlet- “Here, thou incestuous, murd’rous, damned Dane,” (V.ii.303)
Gertrude and Claudius John Updike AlfredA. Knopf 2000
Hamlet WS R.C. Bald F.S. Crofts & Co. Inc. 1946
Hamlet edited by Edward Hubler Signet Classic 1963
Hamlet edited by Cyrus Hoy WW Norton and Co. Inc. 1963
Shakespeare in Performance/Hamlet Thomas Monsell Holt, Rinehart & Winston 1990
Shakespearean Criticism Laurie Lanzen Mark W Scott editors Gale Research Co. 1984
The Folger Guide to Shakespeare Louis B. Wright and Virginia A. Lamar Washington Sq. Press 1964
The Norse Myths Kevin Crossley-Holland Pantheon Books 1980
The Shakespeare Companion Gareth and Barbara Lloyd Evans 1978
Totem and Taboo Sigmund Freud WW Norton & Co. Inc. James Strachey translation, 1950
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