It is probable that Hamlet has its origins in a popular Icelandic saga mentioned
for the first time by Snaebjörn, an Icelandic poet of the tenth century.
The Danish historian and poet Saxo Grammaticus refers to it at the end of
the twelfth century. In this Latin work recounting the history of Denmark
Shakespeare's future character appears under the name Amleth in a story probably
influenced by the classical history of Lucius Junius Brutus. Here is the story:
Horvendill, the father of Amleth, is killed by his brother Feng, who then
marries Gerutha, the widow of his victim. Amleth feigns madness in order to
appear ineffectual and harmless in the eyes of Feng, who would spare him for
these reasons. He evades the snare of a young woman sent by his enemies and
kills a spy concealed in his mother's bedroom. Ophelia and Polonius are already
vaguely sketched, as is the episode concerning a letter ordering the assassination
of Amleth by the king of England. Amleth manages to intercept this letter
and it is the two messengers who are killed instead. Amleth marries the daughter
of the king of England, returns to Denmark and assassinates Feng, whom the
king of England has secretly promised to avenge. He sends Amleth to the court
of the queen of Scotland, who falls in love with him and marries him in her
turn. Amleth then defeats the king of England and returns to Jutland with
his two wives.
However there are controversies concerning the exact origins of Hamlet.
Some see Hamlet as the product of Jutland's folklore, an interpretation supported
by the possible etymology of the name of the protagonist as meaning mad Onela,
suggesting some identification with the Swedish king Onela mentioned in Beowulf.
Others find Oriental (Persian) or Celtic (Irish) origins. Parallels can also
be found in the English romances of Havelock, Horn and Bevis of Hampton.
Saxo's version was translated in the sixteenth century, with the horrific
elements emphasized, by François de Belleforest in his collection Histoires
Tragiques (Vol.5, 1570). An English version of this history was published
in London in 1608 under the title The Historye of Hamblet. At the end of the
1580s a revenge tragedy in the tradition of Seneca about Hamlet, Prince of
Denmark, based on Belleforest, was already popular in London. This Ur-Hamlet
is traditionally attributed to Thomas Kyd and was contemporaneous with Shakespeare's
presence in London. It has similarities with the other predecessors of the
latter's play, which can be dated between 1599 and 1602, in that it is less
psychologically complex concerning the central protagonist, whose prevarications
are essentially due only to the practical problems of assassinating a king
permanently surrounded by guards. This Ur-Hamlet has no soliloquies and no
Another source, this time Italian, The Murder of Gonzago, which Hamlet mentions
in Act 2, Scene 2 and Act 3, Scene 2, might have provided Shakespeare with
the idea of murder by poison poured into the ears.
Not content with merely developing literary sources from the past, Shakespeare
was, as always, concerned with building into his play references to contemporary
events. One amongst several was the alleged suicide of Hélène
de Tournon, a victim of tragic love and either the sister or daughter of one
of Marguerite de Valois' ladies in waiting. Accounts of the circumstances
of her death and of her funeral are sufficiently similar to the fate of Ophelia
to suggest they fathered them. It is reasonable to believe that Shakespeare
reshaped Kyd's play in the final years of the sixteenth century before writing
up his work completely in 1601. Hamlet was deposited in 1602 at the Registry
of the Library and published in quarto form in 1603. The play was subsequently
reworked, adapted and amended down the centuries according to prevailing sensibilities.
Judged barbarous and brutal, some scenes were toned down during the Enlightenment,
whereas the nineteenth century lent the character a Byronic texture. More
recent times have seen Hamlets in Victorian or contemporary dress and regular
film adaptations, the most recent English production having been directed
by Kenneth Branagh.