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Internet Shakespeare Editions

About this text

  • Title: Hamlet: Sources and Analogues
  • Author: David Bevington
  • General textual editors: James D. Mardock, Eric Rasmussen
  • Coordinating editor: Michael Best
  • Associate coordinating editor: Janelle Jenstad
  • ISBN: 978-1-55058-434-9

    Copyright David Bevington. This text may be freely used for educational, non-profit purposes; for all other uses contact the Editor.
    Author: David Bevington
    Not Peer Reviewed

    Sources and Analogues

    1The ultimate source for Shakespeare's Hamlet is Saxo Grammaticus's Historia Danica, late twelfth century. The portions of Saxo that are most relevant to Shakespeare's play are included in this present edition, in modern spelling, with commentary notes and glosses. A modern spelling of all nine extant books of Saxo's Historia, translated in 1894 by Oliver Elton, is available online at Project Gutenberg Ebook with an extensive discussion by Douglas B. Killings and David Widger of Danish political institutions, customary and statute law, methods of wawr, social life and manners, ideas about the supernatural, funeral customs, magic, folk tales, and mythology.

    The account that follows here of Shakespeare's sources and analogues, beginning with Saxo, includes, in rewritten form, some materials on Hamlet's sources in Chapter I of David Bevington, Murder Most Foul: Hamlet through the Ages (Oxford University Press, 2011).

    Saxo Grammaticus, Historia Danica

    View a selection from the Historia Danica

    Saxo's The Danish History consists of nine books. Beginning with Book Three, Saxo tells the story of Amlethus or Amleth (Hamlet), son of Ørvendil or Horwendil, who is brother of the Danish King Rørik. Amleth's mother is Guruth or Gurutha, the King's daughter. King Rørik has entrusted the governance of Jutland, in central Denmark, to Horwendil and to a younger brother, Feng. The envious Feng, like Claudius in Shakespeare's play, murders his brother Horwendil, takes the widowed Gurutha (compare Shakespeare's Gertrude) as his wife, and rules Jutland alone.

    Amleth, plausibly fearful that Feng wants him dead, adopts the guise of a fool or madman as protective cover, but Feng is too canny to be taken in by such a ruse. Feng tests Amleth's supposed madness by arranging for him to encounter an attractive young woman (compare Ophelia) in the woods. Feng's theory is that if Amleth is sane, he will give in to erotic desire and have sex with the woman. Amleth, having been secretly warned of Feng's malice, spirits the young woman off to a secret place where they can enjoy sex unobserved.

    5Feng then arranges for a foolish old counselor (compare Polonius) to conceal himself under some straw in a dark corner of Gurutha's chambers in order to overhear her conversation with her son. Amleth, suspecting a trap, puts on his mad act, finds the courtier in the straw, stabs him to death, and hacks the body into morsels which he then boils and tosses into an open sewer or outhouse to be eaten by swine. By arraigning his mother of promiscuous behavior, he wins her to repentance and to a promise not to reveal his secrets to Feng. When Feng asks about the spying counselor, Amleth grimly jests that the man fell into an outhouse and was devoured by swine.

    Feng now determines to send Amleth to England with two escorts (compare Rosencrantz and Guildenstern) with a request to the King of England that Amleth be executed. Amleth finds and rewrites the letter of request in such a way that it asks for the execution instead of the two escorts, requesting also that the English King give his daughter in marriage to Amleth. A year later, Amleth returns to Denmark just in time to take part in his own supposed funeral. Once he has plied Feng and his followers with great quantities of alcohol, Amleth flings over them a tapestry knitted for him by his mother and sets fire to the palace. Feng escapes briefly, but is cut down by Amleth with Feng's sword. We are not told what happens to Amleth's mother.

    In a continuation that is not part of the story as dramatized by Shakespeare, Amleth returns to England in order to claim his bride there. He soon discovers that his new father-in-law, motivated by a sense of obligation to avenge the death of Feng, is plotting against Ameth. The English King does so by arranging for Amleth to negotiate on the King's behalf for the hand in marriage of Queen Herminthrud of Scotland, knowing that it is her grim practice to put to death any and all suitors. But Herminthrud is so attracted to Amleth that she sees him as vastly preferable to the King of England as a husband, and thus consents to be Amleth's seond wife. Once he has vanquished the King of England in battle, Amleth returns to Denmark with two wives, where he eventually falls in battle against Viglek, the successor to King Rørik (and thus a distant analogue to Shakespeare's Fortinbras). Herminthrud, despite her vows of eternal loyalty to Amleth even in death, yields herself to Viglek as the victor's spoils, thus confirming the narrator's unshakable conviction that women's vows of fidelity are fatally prone to dissolve in time. Perhaps Shakespeare was thinking of this misogynistic observation in mind when he dramatized the story of Gertrude and the Player Queen in Hamlet, even though Shakespeare did not use the rest of Saxo's continuation.

    Saxo's account thus provides for us the prototypes of Hamlet and his ghostly father, Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern. The story embodies many striking resemblances: the bravery of the hero's father while he was alive, the murder of that chivalric ruler by his own brother, the incestuous marriage of the villainous brother to his own sister-in-law, the hero's use of feigned madness as a device to confuse his enemy, the use of a woman as a decoy, the eavesdropping by a counselor who is thereupon slain by the hero, the hero's confronting of his mother with the sinfulness of her marriage, the trip to England with the substitution in the letter of commission ordering the execution of the escorts instead of the hero, the hero's return to Denmark, his reconciliation with his mother, and his avenging the murder of his father in the play's final scene.

    Of course much is changed, most notably the hero's relationship to the ethic of revenge. Saxo's story of Amleth in History of the Danes is unapologetically a tale of revenge, derived from ancient Norse legends. Amleth must bide his time and feign madness because he is coping with a canny enemy, but the young man has no scruples about killing Feng in cold blood. He plots his course of vengeance and then, assisted by his mother, carries it out with sudden violence. Saxo as narrator applauds the intrepidity of a hero who "not only saved his own life but also managed to avenge his father. Because of his skillful defense of himself and his vigorous vengeance of his father, it is hard to say which was the greater, his courage or his cleverness." Throughout, Amleth is seen as admirably cunning. Saxo's account savors the wit of Amleth's deceptions and half-truths; we take ironic pleasure in knowing the full purport of what the hero is misleadingly saying to his enemies. We are invited to nod approvingly as he takes his sexual pleasure with a young woman employed as a decoy against him. We hear no authorial disapproval of his deliberately stabbing to death the nosey counselor he finds in his mother's chambers; Saxo offers no counterpart to Hamlet's quick regret at his having mistakenly killed the unseen man whom Hamlet plausibly assumed to be his uncle. No pity or revulsion accompanies Amleth's disposing of the counselor's dismembered body in a privy frequented by swine.

    10Amleth never encounters his father's ghost, and has no need to ascertain whether Feng is guilty of murdering his brother; indeed, Feng makes no secret of what he has done. The young woman in Saxo's story is not the old counselor's daughter. She does not go mad and then drown herself, as does Ophelia. She has no brother to seek vengeance for her death. Amleth has no dear friend like Horatio in whom he can confide. The counterparts to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Saxo are only unnamed escorts who convey Amleth to England and are killed in his stead, not his boyhood friends. The whole story of Fortinbras has only a distant connection to the saga as told by Saxo.

    A few other early Scandinavian texts are relevant to the legend of Hamlet. The Chronicon Lethrense or Chronicle of the Kings of Leijre, including the Annales ludenses or Annals of Lund, earlier than Saxo, provides information on Orwendel and Feng, and Orwendel's son Amblothae, who uses the device of pretended insanity to guard himself against Feng. When he is sent to the King of Britain with two servants carrying a message requesting that King to dispatch Amblothae, that hero substitutes a message asking that the servants be executed instead. A year later, when Amblothae has managed get back to Jutland, he burns Feng and his men to death in their tent and becomes ruler of Jutland. For this and other Scandinavian versions, along with some Irish and British analogues, see "Hamlet (legend)," Wikipedia.

    François de Belleforest, Histoires Tragiques

    View a selection from the Histoires Tragiques

    Shakespeare did not go directly to Saxo or to the other Scandinavian legends we have been describing. Other versions had intervened between 1200 and 1599–1601 when Hamlet was probably written. Saxo's work was first printed (in Latin) in Paris in 1514; two more editions appeared in the sixteenth century. And when François de Belleforest translated parts of Saxo into French in his Histoires Tragiques (1572), many new details emerged that point forward to Shakespeare's Hamlet. The murdered Horvendil's ghost or shade makes an appearance on the battlements to his son, as in Shakespeare. The son's name is now spelled Hamlet. His adopting madness as a disguise is taken from Saxo, but Belleforest adds the information that Hamlet also suffers from the genuine melancholy that we find in Shakespeare's play. Hamlet's mother Geruth is now described as having entered into an adulterous relationship with Fengon before the murder of Hamlet's father. Belleforest calls attention to the excessive drinking of the Danes. His setting is, anachronistically, more a Renaissance court than a Scandinavian abode. Its elegant flooring is more suited to the French sixteenth century than to the Danish twelfth or thirteenth centuries. Belleforest sees a Christian justification in Hamlet's killing of his uncle, since Fengon's abominable guilt embraces the twofold impiety of incestuous adultery and parricide murder.

    Belleforest's version is longer than is Saxo's, providing ample room for psychological insights and moralizations. Belleforest's account is more often in dialogue than is Saxo's. It repeatedly stresses the barbarous cruelty and faithlessness of an ancient Danish kingdom not yet having adopted the Christian faith. Belleforest inveighs against bold women who brazenly cast off the sacred obligations of chaste marital love. Hamlet, in Belleforest's account, is genuinely and romantically attracted to the unnamed young woman sent by Fengon to seduce him, but he and the woman virtuously resist the heady pleasures of sexual dalliance that threaten spiritual damnation.

    Shakespeare wisely veers away from Belleforest's heavy moralizations, but he must have seen rich dramatic potential in Belleforest's account of Hamlet's stern lecturing to his mother, his asking forgiveness of her for having done so, his insistence that he has done so for her own good, and her contrite response to what he has said. This Queen is a mother who, despite her lamentable lapse into adultery, fondly hopes to see her son restored to his rights as heir and king, and accordingly agrees to distance herself from her new husband out of loyalty to Hamlet and his cause of rightful revenge. None of this is in Saxo.

    15Most of Belleforest's account is retained in an English version, The History of Hamblet [Hamlet], 1608, an unacknowledged translation of Belleforest. Shakespeare cannot have known this version when he wrote Hamlet some nine years earlier. One or two changes may show that the English translator was instead influenced by Shakespeare's play. Even so, the 1608 text does provide us with an English translation of Belleforest, a work that Shakespeare appears to have known in its French original.

    The changes in Shakespeare's version, assuming that he knew Belleforest, are of course stupendous. The characters are much more fully developed. Ophelia is now named and identified as the daughter of the previously anonymous counselor, who has become Polonius (or Corambis in the first quarto). She now has a brother named Laertes. The two escorts are now Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, with a detailed history of their earlier friendship with Hamlet and their ambitions to serve the new king. Horatio, perhaps faintly adumbrated in the gentleman in Saxo and Belleforest who warn Hamlet of the King's plotting against him, is importantly enlarged in Shakespeare into an intellectual and moral companion with whom Hamlet can share secrets and discuss philosophy.

    The plot is changed as well. Shakespeare could have found hints in Saxo and Belleforest of the young Norwegian Fortinbras who cannily agrees not to invade Denmark, biding his time until the scene of carnage at the end of the play provides him with the perfect opportunity to claim the Danish throne. The murder of the old King of Denmark by his brother is openly acknowledged by the murderer in Saxo and Belleforest; in Shakespeare's play it is a terrible secret. Without a Laertes to return from Paris so intent on avenging his father's death that he conspires with Claudius to poison Hamlet by means of a poisoned sword or cup, as told in Shakespeare's account, the denouement in both Saxo and Belleforest focuses instead on Hamlet's cleverness in outwitting his opponent. Nothing corresponds in the sources to the way in which Shakespeare's Hamlet passively attunes himself to the unknowable intent of Providence. Belleforest's Hamlet is "subtle," like Saxo's.

    On Hamlet's return to England, the overthrow in Belleforest of Fengon and his followers is fully as bloody and savage as in Saxo, even if in the French version the holocaust is morally sanctioned by the flagrant debauchery of those who perish in the flames. To Fengon, as he lies fallen with his head cut clean from his shoulders, Hamlet declares (quoting from the 1608 English translation of Belleforest), "This just and violent death is a just reward for such as thou art. Now go thy ways, and when thou comest in hell, see thou forget not to tell thy brother who thou traitorously slewest that it was his son sent thee thither with the message, to the end that, being comforted thereby, his soul may rest among the blessed spirits and quit me of the obligation that bound me to pursue his vengeance upon mine own blood" (chapter 3). Belleforest's attempt to reconcile the pagan ethic of revenge with Christian idealism of salvation and damnation leads to the assumption here that Hamlet's father's ghost, now in hell, will be transported into heaven once his murder has been revenged. Shakespeare's Hamlet will choose a very different path, that of resigning himself to the will of heaven in the hope and expectation that heaven will know how to fashion a resolution far more satisfactory than Hamlet could devise for himself.

    Stylistically, Shakespeare's Hamlet employs a dramatic mode of presentation instead of the narrative method of Saxo and Belleforest. As a drama, the play has no omniscient narrator. We witness the story from conflicting points of view, and must sort out as best we can its profound ambiguities as we attempt to understand what has happened. The handling of time is recast for dramatic presentation: instead of pursuing a continuous linear narrative, the play begins in the middle of things, after the death of the old King Hamlet. Only later do we learn of the murder, just as Hamlet himself must attempt to discover the secret of his father's death. The secrecy of the murder requires a cunning investigation on Hamlet's part that is not imposed upon the protagonist in Saxo or Belleforest, since in those accounts Feng makes no attempt to conceal the fact of his having assassinated his brother. Time in Shakespeare is foreshortened by compression, especially in the account of Hamlet's journey to England. The play dramatizes the episodes of this voyage through reporting of offstage action, in conversations and by letters, rather than by the straightforward narration in Saxo and Belleforest.

    20Structural design becomes a marked feature of Shakespeare's treatment of the story: by adding Laertes and enhancing the saga of Fortinbras, Shakespeare provides his play with three sons who are called upon to avenge the deaths of their fathers. As a result, the play features more parallels and interactions of related plot lines than in Shakespeare's sources. Shakespeare is more interested in providing a plausible sixteenth-century Danish setting than are Saxo and Belleforest; Saxo's Denmark is of course that of an earlier era. The names of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, not in Shakespeare's sources, are those of aristocratic sixteenth-century Denmark.

    The selection of Belleforest in this present edition is modernized and provided with glosses. It can also be found in The Norse Hamlet (Sources of Shakespeare), in paperback and in a Kindle edition. In addition, this work contains a new translation of Saxo's tale by Soren Filipski.

    An "Ur-Hamlet" and Der bestrafte Brudermord (Fratricide Punished)

    View the text of Fratricide Punished)

    The earliest mention of a so-called Ur-Hamlet occurs in Thomas Nashe's introduction to Robert Greene's Menaphon, 1589. Nashe writes: "English Seneca read by candlelight yields many good sentences, as "Blood is a beggar," and so forth; and if you entreat him fair in a frosty morning, he will afford you whole Hamlets, I should say handfuls, of tragical speeches." The passage further excoriates certain unnamed "famished followers," writers and imitators of Seneca who, having left the trade of "noverint" or scrivener to become hack writers for the stage, have been driven to "imitate the Kid in Aesop." Many commentators have wondered if Nashe is here punning on the name of Thomas Kyd, who had earned a pitiful income at one point as scrivener or copyist of legal documents and the like, and whoseThe Spanish Tragedy, written some time around 1587, quickly became a much-performed and imitated (and parodied) war-horse of the London stage in the 1580s and 1590s. Might Thomas Kyd then have been the author of the lost Ur-Hamlet?

    Without a text of this lost version, we are obviously at a loss to describe its resemblances to the Hamlet legend and eventually to Shakespeare's play of about 1600-1, but we can observe features of The Spanish Tragedy that helped establish the revenge play as a successful dramatic genre and that bear potentially significant resemblances to what Shakespeare wrote. The Spanish Tragedy features a two-person chorus consisting of the ghost of a murdered man (Don Andrea) and a personified representation of Revenge. As these two watch the play itself, Don Andrea's desire for revenge against those who have wronged him intensifies at first as those enemies prosper in their villainy. Revenge reassures Don Andrea, nonetheless, that he will be fully satisfied when the story is completed, and so it turns out. The ending is a glorious bloodbath that brings about the deaths of Don Andrea's enemies as well as the dynastic hopes of Spain and Portugal. The pagan code of revenge is fully at work.

    Kyd could have found a similar device, for example, in Seneca's Agamemnon, in which the ghost of Thyestes urges his son Aegisthus to avenge the crime of Thyestes's old brother, Atreus, in having set before Thyestes a dish containing the flesh of Thyestes's own children. (Seneca's plays were translated early in the English Renaissance and were thus available to playwrights like Kyd.) The Spanish Tragedy's chief character, Don Hieronimo, burdened with the solemn responsibility of revenging the murder of his son, Don Horatio, has difficulties (like Hamlet's) in ascertaining who committed the crime and whether the Ghost's words are believable—another Senecan trait. The motif of madness, derived in good part from Saxo and Belleforest, is a feature also of Seneca's Hercules Furens or The Madness of Heracles, dramatized earlier by Euripides, relating the hero's slaughter of his wife and children; and of Sophocles's Ajax, in which the protagonist slowly recovers from having madly slain a flock of sheep, taking them for his enemies. The use of pretend madness as a stratagem to confuse a dangerous enemy was also to be found in historical and mythological accounts of Lucius Junius Brutus, who led a rebellion against the Tarquins in 509 BC and founded a republican oligarchic form of government for the fledgling city of Rome, becoming on of the city's first consuls in 509 BC. "Brutus" in Latin signifies "stupid." The device of the play within the play, found in Kyd and in Shakespeare, is derived from classical tradition, not Saxo or Belleforest. Hieronimo's eloquent soliloquies, as he agonizes over his inability to find justice in this world despite his being the minister of justice for the Spanish state, are Senecan in tone and rhetorical effect.

    25The Spanish Tragedy was exploiting a tradition of Senecan revenge that had gained currency in English drama of the late sixteenth century in such plays as Gorboduc (1562), Jocasta (1566),Gismond of Salerne (1566–8), and The Misfortunes of Arthur (1588). Kyd's huge success with his play propelled the genre forward into something like the status of a fad. If he also wrote the lost Hamlet, he is even more worthy of being hailed as the great progenitor of Elizabethan revenge tragedy.

    We, of course, cannot know exactly how much Shakespeare took from the lost Hamlet, but its very existence raises the possibility that a number of details found in his Hamlet and not in Saxo or Belleforest were available to him in the lost play. These might include an expanded role for Ophelia as the once-beloved of Hamlet, a more significant role for her father, Polonius, as counselor to King Claudius, an augmented role for Laertes as the dueling antagonist to Hamlet in the play's final scene, a significant increase of Horatio's importance as the confidant of Hamlet, and a more detailed account of young Fortinbras as son and heir of the King of Norway and future ruler of Denmark. Any or all of these, of course, may have been Shakespeare's own contribution rather than what he had found in his sources.

    The lost anonymous Hamlet appears to have been popular enough in its day that it may have been acted by English actors travelling in Germany in 1586. (A later touring production of the play in Germany, in 1626, could obviously have been influenced by Shakespeare's version.) The only surviving evidence of such a touring version is Der bestrafte Brudermord (Fratricide Punished), derived from a now-lost manuscript dated 1710. A text of this work is available in this present edition, modernized and provided with commentary notes.

    Even though the text of Der bestrafte Brudermord could well have been altered in the years between 1586 and 1710, the play we have could still reflect features of the play as acted in Germany in the 1580s. One clue is that the Polonius figure is called Corambus, using essentially the same name as the "Corambis" of the unauthorized first version of Hamlet published in London in 1603. "Corambus" or "Corambis" may mean "cabbage twice cooked," hence a dull dish; "bis" is Latin for "twice." Or perhaps "Coram" is the legal term of art meaning "in the presence of," alluding to the old counselor's windy love of cliches.

    In any event, if the German text we have is anything like the lost Hamlet (and we should allow for the possibility that it reflects some details of Shakespeare's own play, since the 1710 date comes later), the resemblances point to materials that Shakespeare might well have used. In Der bestrafte Brudermord, as in Shakespeare's play, the ghost of Hamlet's father first appears to Francisco, Horatio, and others as they stand watch at night. When Hamlet joins them, the Ghost returns, laments to Hamlet the Queen's hasty re-marriage, describes his own murder by means of hebona poured in his ear, and urges revenge. The Ghost, now unseen, bids the men on guard to swear an oath as they move from place to place. Hamlet confides to Horatio the whole story of the murder. The King, a carouser and smooth deceiver, forbids his stepson to return to Wittenberg, even though the King has granted permission for Corambus's son Leonhardus (compare Shakespeare's Laertes) to return to France. Corambus, persuaded that Hamlet is suffering from love madness, arranges for himself and the King to overhear Hamlet's encounter with Ophelia.

    30When players arrive from Germany, in Der bestrafte Brudermord as in Shakespeare's play, Hamlet instructs them in the natural style of acting and commissions them to perform a play before the King about the murder of King Pyrrus by his brother, again by means of poison poured in the ear. The King's guilty response to this performance convinces Hamlet that the King is indeed the murderer of his brother, Hamlet's father. When Hamlet then finds the King alone at prayer, he postpones killing the King lest the man's soul be sent to heaven. Making his way to his mother's chambers, Hamlet stabs Corambus through a tapestry. Hamlet is sent to England with two unnamed courtiers. On his return to England, he engages in a duel with Leonhardus, who has conspired with the King to employ a poisoned dagger in the duel; a cup of poisoned wine is to be at hand if the poisoned dagger should fail of its purpose. The deaths occur much as in Shakespeare's play. The dying Hamlet urges that the crown of Denmark be bestowed on his cousin, Duke Fortempras of Norway, whose name has not been mentioned earlier in this play.

    These extensive correspondences include many circumstances not in Saxo or Belleforest. At the same time the differences, some of them amusing, are also numerous. The deranged Ophelia in Der bestrafte Brudermord imagines herself to be in love with the foppish Phantasmo, a sycophantic figure who bears a slight resemblance to Hamlet's Osric. This court creature, identified in the list of persons represented as the play's "clown," is tauntingly addressed by Hamlet as "Signora Phantasmo." Later, this court butterfly helps the clownish peasant Jens with a tax problem. Hamlet foils the unnamed persons who are escorting him to England, and who are under orders to kill him, by asking them to shoot him as he kneels between the two; at the critical moment, he ducks and they shoot each other. Having finished them off with their own swords, Hamlet finds on their persons an incriminating letter requesting the English king to execute Hamlet if he is not already dead. The deadly wine cup intended for Hamlet in the play's final scene contains as its fatal ingredient a finely-ground oriental diamond dust. Ophelia is reported to have committed suicide by throwing herself off a hill. And so it goes.