History of the Text

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Hamlet and the English Renaissance: During the 16th and 17th centuries CE, England underwent a significant artistic and cultural shift, a period often referred to as the English Renaissance. The English Renaissance saw an increased interest in classical antiquity, specifically Greco-Roman art and philosophy. Hamlet, which is thought to have been written around 1601 CE, is filled with allusions to Greek myths and epics, such as the story of Pyrrhus, Hecuba, and Priam. Alongside increased interest in Greco-Roman culture, the English Renaissance also featured a philosophical and artistic shift towards humanism, a movement that brought individual thoughts, feelings, and motivations to the forefront of literary contemplation. 

  • Between 1570 and 1592, French humanist Michel de Montaigne published a series of essays demonstrating the subjectivity of human experience. His essays exemplify the idea that humans lack the ability to discern absolute truths about the world without divine intervention. 
  • Hamlet contains many parallels to this philosophy, portraying Prince Hamlet as someone who is able to recognize the subjectivity of human experiences. His empathy for Laertes and procrastination in killing Claudius showcase both Hamlet’s complex inner workings and the unknowable nature of absolute truth. The play is also filled with subtle contradictions, further highlighting that one’s knowledge of other humans is based on appearances and assumptions, complicating the very notion of a definitive reality. 

The Influence of the Protestant Reformation on Hamlet: In 1517, Martin Luther published his 95 theses criticizing the perceived corruption and commodification of salvation within the Catholic Church. This began the Protestant Reformation and caused the schism between the traditional Catholic Church and the Protestants, who sought to reform the church. Though Hamlet is believed to be set in the 14th or 15th century, predating the Protestant Reformation, the conflict between Catholicism and Protestantism was particularly pressing for Elizabethan audiences. In 1559, Queen Elizabeth I established a religious settlement between the two sects, reaffirming the Protestant Church of England’s independence from papal authority. England was increasingly a Protestant country, but many Catholic traditions persisted in private. 

  • The influences of Protestant thought are especially prevalent in Hamlet’s interactions with the ghost. Protestants rejected the Catholic doctrine of purgatory, where souls destined for heaven were supposedly sent to undergo purification. The ghost claims to be in purgatory, suffering for its crimes in life. From the Catholic perspective, this is a reasonable claim. However, Protestant theology renounced the idea that deceased human souls could return to Earth, and therefore ghosts were seen as evil beings. 

Inspiration and Source Material for Hamlet: Shakespeare’s Hamlet is thought to draw from the legend of Amleth, a figure in medieval Scandinavian folklore. Saxo Grammaticus’s Gesta Danorum, a compilation of myths and histories of the Danish people published in the 12th century CE, details the legend of Amleth. During the 16th century, François de Belleforest translated Saxo Grammaticus’s version into French in his Histoires Tragiques, adding significant prosaic embellishment and introducing Amleth’s melancholic nature. Hamlet is also likely inspired by the genre of the revenge tragedy, popularized in the Elizabethan era by works like Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy (1592). 

  • Based on references by contemporary pamphleteers and critics, Shakespeare scholars believe that there was another play titled “Hamlet” that debuted in London around 1587. Dubbed Ur-Hamlet, no extant manuscripts of the play have been found, and the relationship between Hamlet and Ur-Hamlet is a source of major speculation. Some scholars believe that Ur-Hamlet was an entirely separate play, with many speculating that Thomas Kyd, author of the popular revenge play The Spanish Tragedy, was its author. However, others believe that Ur-Hamlet was simply a draft version of the extant Hamlet that Shakespeare himself wrote before revising it into its final, famous form. 

Hamlet’s Publication History: There are three distinct text versions of Hamlet: the First Quarto (Q1), the Second Quarto (Q2), and the First Folio (F1). Though Q1 was technically the first version released in print, published in 1603, it was not discovered until 1823. The language in Q1 differs significantly from both Q2, published in 1604, and F1, published in 1623. It also runs 1,600 lines shorter than either of the later texts and contains an extra scene, which shows Horatio and Gertrude discussing Hamlet’s return from England. 

  • In Q1, the ambiguities surrounding Gertrude’s involvement in King Hamlet’s death are removed and she is instead an ally to Hamlet’s cause. Most Shakespeare scholars dismiss Q1 as an inferior version of Hamlet, but others have argued that Q1’s stage directions and condensed language offer a practical look at how the play was most likely performed by traveling theatre troupes. 

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