Background to Hamlet

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Shakespeare (1564-1616) wrote plays during the late part of the sixteenth century and in the early part of the seventeenth century.  Hamlet  was written about 1601.  Hamlet was Shakespeare’s longest play.

Elements of the story found in Shakespeare’s Hamlet  are believed to have come from various sources, including an old North European legend; a story by a French author, and a lost play by another English playwright. We do not know for certain, however, which source(s) Shakespeare actually drew upon for his characters and plot, although the lost play by the English playwright is considered the most likely.

In the twelfth century a Danish historian, Saxo Grammaticus, collected many stories and legends of Northern Europe and created a work called

Historia Danica.  In Historia Danica  we find a story  about a character called Amleth, whose background, circumstances and quest for revenge are reminiscent of Shakespeare’s character, Hamlet.

A story by the French author, Francois de Belleforest, also shares some similarities with Shakespeare’s Hamlet.  Francois de Belleforest wrote his story in 1576.  In 1608, it was translated into English under the title The History of Hamblet.

The main influence on the story of  Shakespeare’s Hamlet  is believed to be Ur-Hamlet, a lost play perhaps written by the English playwright, Thomas Kyd (1558-1594). Kyd’s play, Ur-Hamlet, may have been based on Belleforest’s story and is believed to have been performed in London before 1590.  Although lost, some things are known about Ur-Hamlet, including the fact that it shared many similarities with Shakespeare’s Hamlet  such as plot devices and characters.   Kyd was also well known in his time for his very popular play called The Spanish Tragedy.  The Spanish Tragedy  was a story with another revenge plot – this time a nobleman’s revenge for his murdered son. The revival and popularity of the revenge tragedy in Shakespeare’s time has been attributed by some to the The Spanish Tragedy.

The tradition of revenge tragedy in which the central character seeks vengeance for a crime and to which Hamlet  in part belongs, can be traced back much earlier however, to both classical Greek drama (e.g. Oresteia by Aeschylus) and the plays of the Roman philosopher, Seneca.  What makes Shakespeare’s Hamlet  stand out, though, from the popular revenge tragedies of its time, is its depth of characterisation, its psychological insights, its complexities of ideas and issues, as well as its poetry.  Some of the themes and issues Hamlet  explores include madness and sanity; justice and revenge, and the meaning life.

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