Hamlet (1917) Yale/Appendix A


Sources of the Play

There are two early references to the name 'Hamlet,' one in The Annals of Ireland by the Four Masters,[1] under the year 917, and the other in Snorri's Prose Edda, about three centuries later. The outline of the story of Hamlet, as we are familiar with it, is first found in the Historia Danica of Saxo Grammaticus, a Danish chronicler who lived at the end of the twelfth century.

Saxo's version contains the following elements in common with Shakespeare's: the murder of Hamlet's father by the latter's ambitious brother; the mother's incestuous marriage with the murderer; the son's feigned madness, or "folly," for the purpose of carrying out his revenge; a foreshadowing of the character of Ophelia by the girl thrown in Hamlet's way that the true state of his mind may be discovered; a foreshadowing of the character of Polonius; the scene between mother and son;[2] the voyage to England with two companions, during which Hamlet alters the letter, and the companions are put to death in his stead; Hamlet's return to kill his uncle, a deed which he accomplishes. The ending differs.

François de Belle-Forest published in 1570 a free translation of Saxo's Hamlet story in French prose in the fifth book of his Histoires Tragiques. Although many editions of this appeared in France before 1600, there is no evidence of an English version before the publication by Thomas Pavier of the Hystorie of Hamblet in 1608. This English translation differs in a few particulars from Belle-Forest, and these differences seem to be due to the influence of Shakespeare's play. Thus, in Belle-Forest the counsellor who acts the spy during Amleth's (Hamlet's) interview with his mother, conceals himself under a bed-quilt, upon which Amleth leaps when entering the room and so discovers the eavesdropper. In the Hystorie, the counsellor hides behind the arras, as in the play. Again, Hamblet, at the moment of this discovery, calls out "A rat! A rat!", of which there is no trace in Belle-Forest.

There is one other conjectural source for Shakespeare's play, viz., an earlier play by another author on the same subject. The evidence for the existence of such a work is as follows: In 1589 was published Greene's Menaphon with a prefatory epistle by Thomas Nash "to the Gentlemen Students of both Vniuersities." In this epistle, Nash briefly reviews contemporary literature and refers to "whole Hamlets, I should say Handfulls of tragical speeches," linking this remark with a reference to Seneca.

The next reference to an early play of Hamlet is from the Diary of Philip Henslowe,[3] the theatrical manager, for the year 1594.

"Ye 9 of June 1594. R[eceive]d. at hamlet, viijs". At this time the Lord Chamberlain's and the Lord Admiral's men were playing for Henslowe at the theatre at Newington Butts. The former company was the one to which Shakespeare belonged.

Lodge's Wit's miserie, and the World's madness, published in 1596, contains this passage: "[Hate Virtue is] a foul lubber, and looks as pale as the wisard of the ghost, which cried so miserably at the theator, like an oyster-wife, Hamlet reuenge."

This cumulative evidence is conclusive of the existence of a play on the subject of Hamlet at an earlier date than any surviving Shakespeare quarto.

The general consensus of opinion is that the earlier play was by Thomas Kyd, the author of the Spanish Tragedie. Nash's preface to Greene's Menaphon, already alluded to, contains a punning reference to "the Kidde in Aesope's fable." Kyd's known plays show marked Senecan influence.[4] The probability that Kyd was the author of the earlier Hamlet is further substantiated by resemblances between the Spanish Tragedie and Shakespeare's Hamlet. In both the motive is revenge; the ghost of the victim relates his story; the hero feigns madness; in each play there is a faithful friend named Horatio; each contains a play within a play; the innocent and guilty alike are involved in the catastrophes.

Although no actual trace of this earlier play has been found, many scholars believe that a German manuscript, dated October 27, 1710, and published in 1781, preserves some material from the original version. This manuscript is possibly a modernized copy of an older one which was first translated when a troupe of English actors visited Germany at the end of the sixteenth century.[5] The German play is entitled, Der Bestrafte Brudermord oder: Prinz Hamlet aus Dänemark. (Fratricide Punished, or Prince Hamlet of Denmark). It opens with an allegorical prologue which shows unmistakable Senecan influence. Likewise Polonius is here called Corambus, which corresponds with his name 'Corambis' in the first Quarto. Otherwise this German play is exceedingly crude and coarse, although the outline of the plot action follows Shakespeare's closely. It is, however, devoid of all literary merit.

To sum up: the story of Hamlet was taken by Belle-Forest from Saxo's chronicle. Shakespeare received it either from Belle-Forest, direct, or from an earlier unknown publication of the translation of Belle-Forest of which the Hystorie of Hamblet is a later edition, or he founded his play on an earlier tragedy which was probably by Thomas Kyd. The traces of Senecan influence in Shakespeare's Hamlet are due either to this earlier play or to the general and common influence of Seneca upon Elizabethan tragic playwrights.

  1. Cf . the Introduction to Gollancz's Hamlet in Iceland.
  2. Cf. Hamlet, III. iv.
  3. The entry differs from those Henslowe made when the play mentioned was a new one.
  4. He was also the translator of a Seneca-like tragedy entitled Cornelia, by the French tragic writer Garnier.
  5. On the other hand, the earliest reference known to a performance of Hamlet by English actors in Germany is in the year 1626.