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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

  1. Cf . the Introduction to Gollancz's Hamlet in Iceland.
  2. Cf. Hamlet, III. iv.