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  • 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    Not Peer Reviewed

    Hamlet: Sources and Analogues

    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.