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Historical Context

Revenge tragedies were all the rage in Elizabethan England. In the early to mid-1590s, the taste dictated that the bloodier the better: Shakespeare's own early Titus Andronicus, Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy and John Marston's Antonio's Revenge all testify to this. Near the turn of the century, however, audiences were less bloodthirsty than before and thus dramatists began to tone down the brutality a bit. Shakespeare is generally believed to have written Hamlet around 1601, for it seems to allude to his own Julius Caesar (1599) and we have a record of its entry for publication in mid-1602. Furthermore, the strange digression in Act 2, Scene 2 (lines 313-333) about children actors most likely refers to the "war of the theaters" in London dating to 1601; the revived children's acting companies were hugely successful at this time, preferred over the adult players. The exact date of Hamlet's composition and performance is, however, not without dispute among scholars.

In writing Hamlet, Shakespeare drew mostly on the twelfth-century story of Amleth (just move the final "h" to the front of the word and you get "Hamlet"!) which first appeared in Saxo Grammaticus' Historie Danicae of 1514. The similarities of the two versions are striking: Amleth's father is murdered by his brother, Feng, who subsequently marries his brother's widow, Gerutha. Amleth plays the madman, kills a spy who has been overhearing his conversation with Gerutha, and finally is packed off to England with two escorts. Skillfully avoiding execution, Amleth stays in England a while before returning to Denmark hell-bent on revenge. Once back home, Amleth sets fire to the royal palace and kills Feng in his bed. Not long thereafter Amleth is crowned king by the people. This story is, of course, far from tragic, but it nonetheless provided Shakespeare with the basic foundation for his own great tragedy.

This is not to suggest, however, that Shakespeare did not introduce his own innovations to the tale. Quite the contrary. In Shakespeare's version, for instance, the previously public murder becomes a secret, a ghost appears and urges revenge, and figures like Laertes and Fortinbras - completely absent in Grammaticus - add significant depth to the play. The cumulative effect of these alterations is a heightened sense of drama and a new level of character complexity, so extreme and miraculous that some have argued (Harold Bloom, for one) that Shakespeare in fact "invented" humanity. Nevertheless, it remains unclear what Shakespeare might have drawn from other reworkings of the Hamlet story between Grammaticus' version and his own from 1601. We know, for example, that the Lord Admiral's men and the emerging Lord Chamberlain's men - Shakespeare's very own company - performed a play called Hamlet on June 9, 1594. This is only one of many contemporary references to a play called Hamlet that no longer exists and whose author is unknown. Unfortunately almost nothing is known about the contents of this version, traditionally referred to as the Ur-Hamlet because it was a direct predecessor to Shakespeare's later masterpiece. Whatever the case, Shakespeare no doubt reworked the materials in his own brilliant and original way, producing one of the most esteemed and poignant dramas of all time.

Browse all book notes

Historical Context
Main Characters
Points to Ponder
Did You Know
Plot Summary
Scene 1.1
Scene 1.2
Scenes 1.3 and 1.4
Scene 1.5
Scene 2.1
Scene 2.2
Scene 3.1
Scene 3.2
Scene 3.3
Scene 3.4
Scenes 4.1, 4.2, and 4.3
Scenes 4.4 and 4.5
Scenes 4.6 and 4.7
Scene 5.1
Scene 5.2


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