Historical Background

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Last Updated on December 9, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 724

There is general agreement about the sources for Shakespeare’s Hamlet. About 400 years prior to the Elizabethan version, Saxo Grammaticus told a similar tale in his Historia Danica (c. 1200). About 15 years before Shakespeare’s version, François de Belleforest adopted the essential story in his Histoires Tragiques (1576), a popular collection of tales in French. Both of these sources survive as literary manuscripts.

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However, most critics believe that another source, the so-called Ur-Hamlet, is the version most directly responsible for many of the elements which Shakespeare incorporated into his play. Although no written version of this precursor exists, and historians can only work backwards from documents which mention the Ur-Hamlet, it is believed that this play, probably written by Thomas Kyd, was acted in 1594 by the Lord Admiral’s Men and the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the latter of which company Shakespeare belonged to.

While the earlier versions included similar elements to Shakespeare’s Hamlet (the hero’s love interest, fratricide, feigned madness, adultery, spies, and revenge), only Kyd’s version includes the Ghost who seeks revenge. In fact, Kyd’s famous play, The Spanish Tragedy, includes other elements which Shakespeare seems to have incorporated into Hamlet: “a procrastinating protagonist who berates himself for talking instead of acting and who dies as he achieves his revenge; … a play within a play, a heroine whose love is opposed by her family, and another woman who becomes insane and commits suicide” [Boyce, 238–39]. However, if Kyd did not author the Ur-Hamlet, both he and Shakespeare may have borrowed from this same “Ur-” source for their respective works.

There are other sources, both real and fictional, which may have contributed to Shakespeare’s version, including women who killed themselves for love (1577), and a barber who confessed (in 1538) to murdering an Italian duke by putting lotion in his ears. In the second instance, Gonzago was the name of the plotter, rather than of the victim, as in Shakespeare’s “mousetrap.”

Hamlet was most likely performed in 1600, almost exactly at the midpoint of his writing career, which had begun as early as 1588 with The Comedy of Errors, and ended as late as 1613 with Henry VIII. Shakespeare’s allusions to his Julius Caesar (1599) in Hamlet, and references by other playwrights in late 1600 (John Marston’s Antonio’s Revenge) place the performance of Hamlet fairly precisely. However, the Player’s dialogue with Hamlet about the child actors is a direct reference to actual competition between rival theater companies in the spring of 1601; perhaps this scene was added later, or perhaps Shakespeare used Marston’s play as a source rather than the other way around [Boyce, 239–40].

The first performance is held to be that of the Chamberlain’s Men, in 1600 or 1601. Shakespeare’s longtime theatrical associate, Richard Burbage, was the first Hamlet; tradition has it that Shakespeare himself played the Ghost in the original production.

The first publication of Hamlet was in 1603 in a quarto edition known as Q1, and generally regarded as reconstructed from actors’ memories who had performed in the play. In 1604, Q2 was published, most likely from Shakespeare’s own manuscript; however, passages were edited out of Q2 because they were politically sensitive or simply dated. Between 1611 and 1637, Q3, Q4, and Q5 were published as reprints of each foregoing edition.

The First Folio edition of Shakespeare’s plays (1623), known as F, contained Hamlet and seems to have used Q2 as its source. Significant differences include the restoration of the passages cut from Q2, the modernization of words thought by the editors to be out of date, and inclusion of some lines which seem to be actors’ ad libs rather than Shakespeare’s text. Modern editors usually use Q2 because it is closest to Shakespeare’s text, but also because it has the restored passages and other minor improvements [Boyce, 240].

Hamlet is regarded as one of Shakespeare’s finest tragedies, along with Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth, all of which followed in the next five or six years (along with four other major plays). Over the years it has been the most often performed of Shakespeare’s plays, and has been filmed at least 25 times and televised 5 times [Boyce, 241]. Most performances use an abridged text, since the original could take four to five hours. Beginning in 1775 with Sarah Siddons, women began playing the title role, including, in 1971, Judith Anderson at age 73 [Boyce, 240].

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