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    Not Peer Reviewed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

    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.