Shakespeare did not invent the story of Hamlet. In fact, Shakespeare made up almost none of his own
plots. That sort of originality was not considered important in his day; what his contemporaries admired
was an improved version of what had been done before. So Shakespeare, like the other poets and
playwrights of the Renaissance, adapted his plots from history, or from popular stories of the day.
In the case of Hamlet, Shakespeare made use of a story that had first appeared in the twelfth-century
Historiae Danicae, or History of the Danes, by Saxo Grammaticus, and was popularized in a sixteenth-
century French tale. The French version was certainly known to Shakespeare, since it was one of Francois
de Belleforest's series of "tragic tales" (Histoires Tragiques) a work that also provided
Shakespeare with the plots for Romeo and Juliet and Othello. Belleforest's version, with a Hamlet who
feigns madness to escape the tyranny of his uncle, escapes to England where he marries the king's
daughter, slaughters the entire Danish court on his return by setting fire to the hall, and finally chops off
his uncle's head, is a good bit cruder than Shakespeare's.
In addition, another Elizabethan play about Hamlet appeared not long before Shakespeare's. We know
about it through various references made at the time, but the play itself has disappeared completely,
eclipsed by Shakespeare's enormously popular version. It may have been written by Thomas Kyd, author
of the popular The Spanish Tragedy, and is referred to by modern scholars as the Ur-Hamlet (original
version of Hamlet).
Both Hamlets belong to a type of play, very popular in Shakespeare's day, known as the Revenge
Tragedy. These plays trace their ancestry back to the ancient Roman tragedies of Seneca. Many of the
elements in Hamlet- the murdered father, the ghostly apparitions, the mad scene, the bloody finale with
the stage strewn with corpses- are common to this genre. However, the depth of the characterizations, the
complexity of the ideas, and the beauty of the poetry found in Hamlet belong to Shakespeare alone.
One last curious coincidence concerns a play, Antonio's Revenge, by John Marston, that appeared
around the same time as Shakespeare's. This shares many devices with Hamlet and was once thought to
have been a source of material for Shakespeare. It is now generally assumed, however, that Shakespeare
came first and that Marston, who uses similar effects with less coherent purpose, was simply copying a
better writer- another sign of Hamlet's tremendous and instantaneous popularity.
Hamlet appears to have been written and produced sometime in 1600 or 1601, roughly the midpoint
of Shakespeare's career. We can date it this way because of the reference in Act II, Scene ii, to the
players suffering from the competition of the "little eyases" of the children's acting company
at the Blackfriars Theater, which began its residence there in the fall of 1600. Also, in 1598 Francis
Meres published a book called Palladis Tamia, Wit's Treasury, in which he praised Shakespeare as
"most excellent" among English poets, and gave a list of his finest plays- a list that does not
include Hamlet, which would certainly have been on it if it had been performed by that time. The
Stationers' Register, a legal record kept for copyright purposes, records the impending publication of
Hamlet on July 26, 1602. Thus, it is safe to say the play was written sometime between 1598 and 1602,
and probably in 1600-01.
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