Performance history expert Rebecca Brown investigates the stories which inspired Shakespeare's Hamlet.
The immediate source of Hamlet is an earlier play dramatising the same story of Hamlet, the Danish prince who must avenge his father. No printed text of this play survives and it may well been seen only in performance and never in print. References from the late 1580s through to the mid 1590s testify to its popularity and to the presence of a ghost crying out for revenge. There is general scholarly agreement that the author of this early version of Hamlet was Thomas Kyd, famous as the writer of the revenge drama, The Spanish Tragedy. This play did survive in print and was a huge theatrical hit in the late 1580s and 90s, delighting the contemporary taste for intrigue, bloodshed and ghostly presences.
Kyd and Shakespeare were the latest spinners of an age-old yarn originating in the ancient sagas of Scandinavia. It was written down in manuscript form in the twelfth century by the Danish scholar, Saxo Grammaticus, in his Historia Danica and it finally found its way into print in 1514. It is the story of the murder of a Danish ruler by his brother (Fengo), swiftly followed by the marriage of the widowed queen (Gerutha) to the murderous brother, the assumed madness of the dead king's son (Amleth) and his voyage to England during which he alters the letters bearing his death warrant, and his return to avenge himself upon his father's killer.
Elizabethan readers gained access to this story, in French, through its inclusion by Francois de Belleforest in his widely read Histoires Tragiques in 1570. Belleforest made the significant addition of the queen's adultery with her brother-in-law, during her marriage to the king. Kyd's lost dramatic version of Belleforest's account was the next stage in the reshaping of the story until we come to Shakespeare's astonishing transformation of the material into a profound and psychologically-acute investigation of private and public morality and the nature of our dealings with life and death.
As he wrote Hamlet, Shakespeare must have found stimulating reading in the works of Montaigne. Hamlet's intellectual curiosity and wide-ranging philosophical questioning ally him with the French essayist. At the time of Hamlet's composition, Montaigne's Essays were as yet unavailable in translation but we know from other instances of his use of source material that Shakespeare was literate not only in French but in Italian, too.
Hamlet's melancholy would have struck a chord with many Elizabethans - books on melancholy were popular and widely read at the time. One particular example of such a book is Timothy Bright's Treatise on Melancholy, printed in 1586, in which the characteristics of the melancholy man resemble those of Hamlet as he struggles to come to terms with the task of revenge: he is 'doubtful before, and long in deliberation: suspicious, painful in study, and circumspect'.
In Pierce Pennilesse His Supplication to the Devil, written by Thomas Nashe and printed in 1592, Shakespeare could have found a description of the drunkenness of the Danish court that corresponds interestingly with his depiction of Claudius's nightly drunken carousing.
Written by Rebecca Brown © RSC
Photo by Reg Wilson shows left to right: Rosencrantz - John Bell, Hamlet - David Warner, Guildenstern - James Laurenson © RSC