Shakespeare’s Sources – Hamlet

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Richard Burbage played Hamlet in Shakespeare's day

Last week I discussed Macbeth and the adaptations that Shakespeare made of his sources for the story. This week lets look at Hamlet. There are many versions of the Hamlet story and some scholars think that the most influential of them are now lost. For instance there was probably a dramatic version of Hamlet which pre-dates Shakespeare’s.

However one source which is certainly influential is Saxo Grammaticus’ History of Denmark or as it is properly called Gesta Danorum in which we find the story which we will recognise as Hamlet – here taken from an English translation – with the spelling modernised.

“Horwendil, King of Denmark, married Gurutha, the daughter of Rorik, and she bore him a son, whom they named Amleth. Horwendil’s good fortune stung his brother Feng with jealousy, and behold when a chance came to murder him, his bloody hand sated the deadly passion of his soul. Then he took the wife of the brother he had butchered, capping unnatural murder with incest. Also the man veiled the monstrosity of his deed with such hardihood of cunning, that he made up a mock pretence of goodwill to excuse his crime, and glossed over fratricide with a show of righteousness. Gerutha, said he, though so gentle that she would do no man the slightest hurt, had been visited with her husband’s extremist hate; and it was all to save her that he had slain his brother. Amleth beheld all this, but feared lest too shrewd a behaviour might make his uncle suspect him. So he chose to feign dullness, and pretend an utter lack of wits. This cunning course not only concealed his intelligence but ensured his safety.”

Again Shakespeare makes significant changes to this story, not just the names. Interestingly Shakespeare removes a lot of the back story. If Claudius is stung with jealously  at his brother Hamlet’s good fortune then we are left to imagine that. However the image of stinging is captured by Shakespeare with the image of the serpent stinging Hamlet when Claudius pours poison in his ear. That death is also interestingly less bloody than the one we are invited to imagine in Saxo.

The whole plot about Feng making up a story about how Gurutha was mistreated by Horwendil is missing in Hamlet. Here Claudius makes  no attempt at all to conceal his motivation with cunning, he simply conceals it by not admitting to it. In a way this is the detail I am more surprised that Shakespeare did not include – it adds depth and complexity to the character of Claudius. But perhaps Shakespeare felt his play was sufficiently deep already!

Shakespeare’s prince Hamlet chooses to fake madness as opposed to dullness – which is dramatically much more interesting! But also is made far more complex in that rather than ‘beholding all this’ he remains in some doubt over Claudius’ guilt throughout the play which adds complexity to his character.  So in adapting this story for the stage shakespeare has compacted the time frame, and made the story at once simpler and more complex, focussing on the young Hamlet in great detail and allowing Claudius and his villainy to become something of a backdrop.

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Author:Liz Dollimore

Someone who loves listening to people talk about Shakespeare Liz tweets at @shakespeareBT
  • Jo B Cutler

    I really like the research you are doing.  I am particularly interested in the phrases that Shakespeare uses.  Do you know of any sources that history or influence in the phraseology of Shakespeare’s works?

  • Peter Holling

    Hello Sylvia

    Which other Shakespeare’s characters’ names do you like? Doll Tearsheet? Mistress Overdone? Anthony Dull? Dogberry? There are so many.

    Best wishes.

  • Sylvia Morris

    Interesting how much Saxo Grammaticus focuses on the Claudius story, rather than Hamlet’s,  but I suppose it’s got all the action whereas Shakespeare goes deeper into thought and psychology. Feng’s a great name: I always love Fang and Snare in Henry IV Part 2.

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