Shakespeare’s sources - Hamlet, prince of Denmark

Four tragedies - Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Othello, the Moor of Venice, Macbeth and King Lear - David Bevington and David Scott Kastan 1988, 2005

Shakespeare’s sources
Hamlet, prince of Denmark


The ultimate source of the Hamlet story is Saxo Grammaticus’s Historia Danica (1180—1208), the saga of one Amlothi or (as Saxo calls him) Amlethus. The outline of the story is essentially that of Shakespeare’s play, even though the emphasis of the Danish saga is overwhelmingly on cunning, brutality, and bloody revenge. Amlethus’s father is Horwendil, a Governor of Jutland, who bravely kills the King of Norway in single combat and thereby wins the hand in marriage of Gerutha, daughter of the King of Denmark. This good fortune goads the envious Feng into slaying his brother Horwendil and marrying Gerutha, “capping unnatural murder with incest.” Though the deed is known to everyone, Feng invents excuses and soon wins the approbation of the fawning courtiers. Young Amlethus vows revenge, but, perceiving his uncle’s cunning, he feigns madness. His mingled words of craft and candor awaken suspicions that he may be playing a game of deception.

Two attempts are made to lure Amlethus into revealing that he is actually sane. The first plan is to tempt him into lechery, on the theory that one who lusts for women cannot be truly insane. Feng causes an attractive woman to be placed in a forest where Amlethus will meet her as though by chance; but Amlethus, secretly warned of the trap by a kindly foster brother, spirits the young lady off to a hideaway where they can make love unobserved by Feng’s agents. She confesses the plot to Amlethus. In a second stratagem, a courtier who is reported to be “gifted with more assurance than judgment” hides himself under some straw in the Queen’s chamber in order to overhear her private conversations with Amlethus. The hero, suspecting just such a trap, feigns madness and begins crowing like a noisy rooster, bouncing up and down on the straw until he finds the eavesdropper. Amlethus stabs the man to death, drags him forth, cuts the body into morsels, boils them, and flings the bits “through the mouth of an open sewer for the swine to eat.” Thereupon he returns to his mother to accuse her of being an infamous harlot. He wins her over to repentant virtue and even cooperation. When Feng, returning from a journey, looks around for his counselor, Amlethus jestingly (but in part truly) suggests that the man went to the sewer and fell in.

Feng now sends Amlethus to the King of Britain with secret orders for his execution. However, Amlethus finds the letter to the British King in the coffers of the two unnamed retainers accompanying him on the journey, and substitutes a new letter ordering their execution instead. The new letter, purportedly written and signed by Feng, goes on to urge that the King of Britain marry his daughter to a young Dane being sent from the Danish court. By this means Amlethus gains an English wife and rids himself of the escorts. A year later Amlethus returns to Jutland, gets the entire court drunk, flings a tapestry (knitted for him by his mother) over the prostrate courtiers, secures the tapestry with stakes, and then sets fire to the palace. Feng escapes this holocaust, but Amlethus cuts him down with the King’s own sword. (Amlethus exchanges swords because his own has been nailed fast into its scabbard by his enemies.) Subsequently, Amlethus convinces the people of the justice of his cause and is chosen King of Jutland. After ruling for several years, he returns to Britain, bigamously marries a Scottish queen, fights a battle with his first father-in-law, is betrayed by his second wife, and is finally killed in battle.

In Saxo’s account we thus find the prototypes of Hamlet, Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern. Several episodes are close in narrative detail to Shakespeare’s play: the original murder and incestuous marriage, the feigned madness, the woman used as a decoy, the eavesdropping counselor, and especially the trip to England. A translation of Saxo into French by François de Belleforest, in Histories Tragiques (1576 edition), adds a few details, such as Gertrude’s adultery before the murder and Hamlet’s melancholy. Belleforest’s version is longer than Saxo’s, with more psychological and moral observation and more dialogue. Shakespeare probably consulted it. Shakespeare need not have depended extensively on these older versions of his story, however. His main source was almost certainly an old play of Hamlet. Much evidence testifies to the existence of such a play. The Diary of Philip Henslowe, a theater owner and manager, records a performance, not marked as “new,” of a Hamlet at Newington Butts on June 11, 1594, by “my Lord Admiral’s men” or “my Lord Chamberlain’s men,” probably the latter. Thomas Lodge’s pamphlet Wit’s Misery and the World’s Madness (1596) refers to “the vizard of the ghost which cried so miserably at the theater, like an oyster wife, ’Hamlet, revenge!’ ” And Thomas Nashe, in his Epistle prefixed to Robert Greene’s romance Menaphon (1589), offers the following observation:

It is a common practice nowadays amongst a sort of shifting companions, that run through every art and thrive by none, to leave the trade of noverint, whereto they were born, and busy themselves with the endeavors of art, that could scarcely Latinize their neck verse if they should have need; yet English Seneca read by candlelight yields many good sentences, as “Blood is a beggar” and so forth; and if you entreat him fair in a frosty morning, he will afford you whole Hamlets, I should say handfuls, of tragical speeches. But O grief! Tempus edax rerum, what’s that will last always? The sea exhaled by drops will in continuance be dry, and Seneca, let blood line by line and page by page, at length must needs die to our stage; which makes his famished followers to imitate the Kid in Aesop, who, enamored with the Fox’s newfangles, forsook all hopes of life to leap into a new occupation; and these men, renouncing all possibilities of credit or estimation, to intermeddle with Italian translations …

Nashe’s testimonial describes a Hamlet play, written in the Senecan style by some person born to the trade of “noverint,” or scrivener, who has turned to hack writing and translation. The description has often been fitted to Thomas Kyd, though this identification is not certain. (Nashe could be punning on Kyd’s name when he refers to “the Kid in Aesop.”) Certainly Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy (c. 1587) shows many affinities with Shakespeare’s play, and provides many Senecan ingredients missing from Saxo and Belleforest: the ghost, the difficulty in ascertaining whether the ghost’s words are believable, the resulting need for delay and a feigning of madness, the moral perplexities afflicting a sensitive man called upon to revenge, the play within the play, the clever reversals and ironically caused deaths in the catastrophe, the rhetoric of tragical passion. Whether or not Kyd in fact wrote the Ur-Hamlet, his extant play enables us to see more clearly what that lost play must have contained. The unauthorized first quarto of Hamlet (1603) also offers a few seemingly authentic details that are not found in the authoritative second quarto but are found in the earlier sources and may have been a part of the Ur-Hamlet. For example, after Hamlet has killed Corambis (corresponding to Polonius), the Queen vows to assist Hamlet in his strategies against the King; and later, when Hamlet has returned to England, the Queen sends him a message by Horatio warning him to be careful.

One last document sheds light on the Ur-Hamlet. A German play, Der bestrafte Brudermord (Fratricide Punished), from a now-lost manuscript dated 1710, seems to have been based on a text used by English actors traveling in Germany in 1586 and afterward. Though changed by translation and manuscript transmission, and too entirely different from Shakespeare’s play to have been based on it, this German version may well have been based on Shakespeare’s source play. Polonius’s name in this text, Corambus, is the Corambis of the first quarto of 1603. (The name may mean “cabbage cooked twice,” for coramble-bis, a proverbially dull dish.)

Der bestrafte Brudermord begins with a prologue in the Senecan manner, followed by the appearance of the ghost to Francisco, Horatio, and sentinels of the watch. Within the palace, meanwhile, the King carouses. Hamlet joins the watch, confiding to Horatio that he is “sick at heart” over his father’s death and mother’s hasty remarriage. The ghost appears to Hamlet, tells him how the juice of hebona was poured into his ear, and urges revenge. When Hamlet swears Horatio and Francisco to silence, the ghost (now invisible) says several times “We swear,” his voice following the men as they move from place to place. Hamlet reveals to Horatio the entire circumstance of the murder. Later, in a formal session of the court, the new King speaks hypocritically of his brother’s death and explains the reasons for his marriage to the Queen. Hamlet is forbidden to return to Wittenberg, though Corambus’s son Leonhardus has already set out for France.

Some time afterward, Corambus reports the news of Hamlet’s madness to the King and Queen, and presumes on the basis of his own youthful passions to diagnose Hamlet’s malady as lovesickness. Concealed, he and the King overhear Hamlet tell Ophelia to “go to a nunnery.” When players arrive from Germany, Hamlet instructs them in the natural style of acting, and then requests them to perform a play before the King about the murder of King Pyrrhus by his brother. (Death is again inflicted by hebona poured in the ear.) After the King’s guilty reaction to the play, Hamlet finds him alone at prayers but postpones the killing lest the King’s soul be sent to heaven. Hamlet kills Corambus behind the tapestry in the Queen’s chamber, and is visited again by the ghost (who says nothing, however). Ophelia, her mind deranged, thinks herself in love with a court butterfly named Phantasmo. (This creature is also involved in a comic action to help the clown Jens with a tax problem.)

The King sends Hamlet to England with two unnamed courtiers who are instructed to kill Hamlet after their arrival. A contrary wind takes them instead to an island near Dover, where Hamlet foils his two enemies by kneeling between them and asking them to shoot him on signal; at the proper moment, he ducks and they shoot each other. He finishes them off with their own swords, and discovers letters on their persons ordering Hamlet’s execution by the English King if the original plot should fail. When Hamlet returns to Denmark, the King arranges a duel between him and Corambus’s son Leonhardus. If Leonhardus’s poisoned dagger misses its mark, a beaker of wine containing finely ground oriental diamond dust is to do the rest. Hamlet is informed of the impending duel by Phantasmo (compare Osric), whom Hamlet taunts condescendingly and calls “Signora Phantasmo.” Shortly before the duel takes place, Ophelia is reported to have thrown herself off a hill to her death. The other deaths occur much as in Shakespeare’s play. The dying Hamlet bids that the crown be conveyed to his cousin, Duke Fortempras of Norway, of whom we have not heard earlier.

From the extensive similarities between Hamlet and this German play, we can see that Shakespeare inherited his narrative material almost intact, though in a jumble and so pitifully mangled that the modern reader can only laugh at the contrast. No source study in Shakespeare reveals so clearly the extent of Shakespeare’s wholesale borrowing of plot, and the incredible transformation he achieved in reordering his materials.

The following excerpt is from the English The History of Hamlet, 1608, an unacknowledged translation of Belleforest that in one or two places seems to have been influenced by Shakespeare’s play—as when Hamlet beats his arms on the hangings of the Queen’s apartment instead of jumping on the quilt or bed, as in Belleforest, and cries, “A rat! a rat!” It is otherwise a close translation and, although too late for Shakespeare to have used, provides an Elizabethan version of the account Shakespeare most likely used.



How Horvendil and Fengon were made Governors of the Province of Ditmarse, and how Horvendil married Geruth, the daughter to Roderick, chief King of Denmark, by whom he had Hamlet; and how after his marriage his brother Fengon slew him traitorously and married his brother’s wife, and what followed.

You must understand, that long time before the kingdom of Denmark received the faith of Jesus Christ and embraced the doctrine of the Christians, that the common people in those days were barbarous and uncivil and their princes cruel, without faith or loyalty, seeking nothing but murder and deposing or at the least offending each other either in honors, goods, or lives, not caring to ransom such as they took prisoners but rather sacrificing them to the cruel vengeance naturally imprinted in their hearts; in such sort that if there were sometimes a good prince or king among them who, being adorned with the most perfect gifts of nature, would addict himself to virtue and use courtesy, although the people held him in admiration (as virtue is admirable to the most wicked) yet the envy of his neighbors was so great that they never ceased until that virtuous man were dispatched out of the world.

King Roderick, as then reigning in Denmark, after he had appeased the troubles in the country and driven the Swethlanders and Slaveans from thence, he divided the kingdom into divers provinces, placing governors therein, who after (as the like happened in France) bare the names of dukes, marquesses, and earls, giving the government of Jutie (at this present called Ditmarse), lying upon the country of the Cimbrians in the straight or narrow part of land that showeth like a point or cape of ground upon the sea which northward * bordereth upon the country of Norway, to two* valiant and warlike lords, Horvendil and Fengon, sons to Gervendil, who likewise had been governor of that province.

Now the greatest honor that men of noble birth could at that time win and obtain was in exercising the art of piracy upon the seas, assailing their neighbors and the countries bordering upon them; and how much the more they used to rob, pill,1 and spoil other provinces and islands far adjacent, so much the more their honors and reputation increased and augmented. Wherein Horvendil obtained the highest place in his time, being the most renowned pirate that in those days scoured the seas and havens of the north parts; whose great fame so moved the heart of Collere, King of Norway, that he was much grieved to hear that Horvendil surmounted*2 him in feats of arms, thereby obscuring the glory by him already obtained upon the seas—honor more than covetousness of riches in those days being the reason that provoked those barbarian princes to overthrow and vanquish one the other, not caring3 to be slain by the hands of a victorious person.

This valiant and hardy king having challenged Horvendil to fight with him body to body, the combat was by him accepted, with conditions that he which should be vanquished should lose all the riches he had in his ship and that the vanquisher should cause the body of the vanquished (that should be slain in the combat) to be honorably buried, death being the prize and reward of him that should lose the battle. And to conclude, Collere, King of Norway, although a valiant, hardy, and courageous prince, was in the end vanquished and slain by Horvendil, who presently caused a tomb to be erected and therein, with all honorable obsequies fit for a prince, buried the body of King Collere, according to their ancient manner and superstitions in these days and the conditions of the combat, bereaving the King’s ships of all their riches; and, having slain the King’s sister, a very brave and valiant warrior, and overrun all the coast of Norway and the Northern Islands, returned home again laden with much treasure, sending the most part thereof to his sovereign, King Roderick, thereby to procure his good liking and so to be accounted one of the greatest favorites about His Majesty.

The King, allured by those presents and esteeming himself happy to have so valiant a subject, sought by a great favor and courtesy to make him become bounden unto him perpetually, giving him Geruth his daughter to his wife, of whom he knew Horvendil to be already much enamored. And, the more to honor him, determined himself in person to conduct her into Jutie, where the marriage was celebrated according to the ancient manner. And, to be brief, of this marriage proceeded Hamlet, of whom I intend to speak, and for his cause have chosen to renew this present history.

Fengon, brother to this prince Horvendil, who, not only* fretting and despiting4 in his heart at the great honor and reputation won by his brother in warlike affairs but solicited and provoked by a foolish jealousy to see him honored with royal alliance, and fearing thereby to be deposed from his part of the government—or rather desiring to be only governor, thereby to obscure the memory of the victories and conquests of his brother Horvendil—determined, whatsoever happened, to kill him; which he effected in such sort that no man once so much as suspected him, every man esteeming that from such and so firm a knot of alliance and consanguinity there could proceed no other issue than the full effects of virtue and courtesy. But, as I said before, the desire of bearing sovereign rule and authority respecteth neither blood nor amity, nor caring for virtue, as being wholly without respect of laws or majesty divine; for it is not possible that he which invadeth the country and taketh away the riches of another man without cause or reason should know or fear God. Was not this a crafty and subtle counselor? But he might have thought that the mother, knowing her husband’s case, would not cast her son into the danger of death.

But Fengon, having secretly assembled certain men, and perceiving himself strong enough to execute his enterprise, Horvendil his brother being at a banquet with his friends, suddenly set upon him, where he slew him as traitorously as cunningly he purged himself of so detestable a murder to his subjects; for that before he had any violent or bloody hands, or once committed parricide upon his brother, he had incestuously abused his wife, whose honor he ought as well to have sought and procured as traitorously he pursued and effected his destruction. And it is most certain that the man that abandoneth himself to any notorious and wicked action whereby he becometh a great sinner, he careth not to commit much more heinous and abominable offenses; and covered his boldness and wicked practice with so great subtlety and policy, and under a veil of mere simplicity, that, being favored for the honest love that he bare to his sister-in-law—for whose sake, he affirmed, he had in that sort murdered his brother—that his sin found excuse among the common people and of the nobility was esteemed for justice. For that Geruth, being as courteous a princess as any then living in the north parts, and one that had never once so much as offended any of her subjects, either commons or courtiers, this adulterer and infamous murderer slandered his dead brother that he would have slain his wife,5 and that he,6 by chance finding him upon the point ready to do it, in defense of the lady had slain him, bearing off the blows which as then he7 struck at the innocent princess without any other cause of malice whatsoever. Wherein he wanted8 no false witnesses to approve9 his act, which deposed10 in like sort as the wicked calumniator himself protested, being the same persons that had borne him company and were participants of his treason. So that instead of pursuing him as a parricide and an incestuous person, all the courtiers admired and flattered him in his good fortune, making more account of false witnesses and detestable wicked reporters, and more honoring the calumniators, than they esteemed of those that, seeking to call the matter in question and admiring the virtues of the murdered prince, would have punished the massacrers and bereavers of his life.

Which was the cause that Fengon, boldened and encouraged by such impunity, durst venture to couple himself in marriage with her whom he used as his concubine during good Horvendil’s life, in that sort spotting his name with a double vice, and charging his conscience with abominable guilt and twofold impiety, as11 incestuous adultery and parricide murder. And that12 the unfortunate and wicked woman, that had received the honor to be the wife of one of the valiantest and wisest* princes in the north, embased13 herself in such vile sort as to falsify her faith unto him and, which is worse, to marry him that had been the tyrannous murderer of her lawful husband; which made divers men think that she had been the causer of the murder, thereby to live in her adultery without control.

But where shall a man find a more wicked and bold woman than a great personage once having loosed the bonds of honor and honesty? This princess, who at the first for her rare virtues and courtesies was honored of all men and beloved of her husband, as soon as she once gave ear to the tyrant Fengon forgot both the rank she held among the greatest names and the duty of an honest wife on her behalf. But I will not stand to gaze and marvel at women, for that there are many which seek to blaze14 and set them forth, in which their writings they spare not to blame them all for the faults of some one or few women. But I say that either nature ought to have bereaved15 man of that opinion to accompany16 with women, or else to endow them with such spirits as that they may easily support the crosses they endure without complaining so often and so strangely, seeing it is their own beastliness that overthrows them. For if it be so that a woman is so imperfect a creature as they make her to be, and that they know this beast to be so hard to be tamed as they affirm, why then are they so foolish to preserve them and so dull and brutish as to trust their deceitful and wanton embracings? But let us leave her in this extremity of lasciviousness, and proceed to show you in what sort the young Prince Hamlet behaved himself to escape the tyranny of his uncle.


How Hamlet counterfeited the madman to escape the tyranny of his uncle, and how he was tempted by a woman through his uncle’s procurement, who thereby thought to undermine the Prince and by that means to find out whether he counterfeited madness or not; and how Hamlet would by no means be brought to consent unto her, and what followed.

Geruth having, as I said before, so much forgotten herself, the Prince Hamlet, perceiving himself to be in danger of his life, as being abandoned of his own mother and forsaken of all men, and assuring himself that Fengon would not detract 1 the time to send him the same way his father Horvendil was gone, to beguile2 the tyrant in his subtleties (that esteemed him to be of such a mind that if he once attained to man’s estate3 he would not long delay the time to revenge the death of his father), counterfeited* the madman with such craft and subtle practices that he made show as if he had utterly lost his wits, and under that veil he covered his pretense and defended his life from the treasons and practices of the tyrant his uncle. And although4 he had been at the school of5 the Roman prince who, because he counterfeited himself to be a fool, was called Brutus6 yet he imitated his fashions and his wisdom. For, every day being in the Queen’s palace (who as then was more careful to please her whoremaster than ready to revenge the cruel death of her husband or to restore her son to his inheritance), he rent and tore his clothes, wallowing and lying in the dirt and mire, his face all filthy and black, running through the streets like a man distraught, not speaking one word but such as seemed to proceed of madness and mere7 frenzy, all his actions and gestures being no other than the right countenances8 of a man wholly deprived of all reason and understanding, in such sort that as then he seemed fit for nothing but to make sport9 to the pages and ruffling10 courtiers that attended in the court of his uncle and father-in-law.11 But the young Prince noted them well enough, minding one day to be revenged in such manner that the memory thereof should remain perpetually to the world.…

Hamlet, in this sort counterfeiting the madman, many times did divers actions of great and deep consideration, and often made such and so fit answers that a wise man would soon have judged from what spirit so fine an invention might proceed; for that standing by the fire and sharpening sticks like poniards and pricks, one in smiling manner asked him wherefore he made those little staves so sharp at the points? “I prepare,” saith he, “piercing darts and sharp arrows to revenge my father’s death.” Fools, as I said before, esteemed those his words as nothing; but men of quick spirits and such as had a deeper reach12 began to suspect somewhat, esteeming that under that kind of folly there lay hidden a great and rare subtlety such as one day might be prejudicial to their prince, saying that under color of such rudeness he shadowed a crafty policy and by his devised simplicity he concealed a sharp and pregnant13 spirit.

For which cause they counseled the King to try and know, if it were possible, how to discover the intent and meaning of the young Prince. And they could find no better nor more fit invention to entrap him than to set some fair and beautiful woman in a secret place that, with flattering speeches and all the craftiest means she could use, should purposely seek to allure his mind to have his pleasure of her. For the nature of all young men, especially such as are brought up wantonly, is so transported with the desires of the flesh, and entereth so greedily into the pleasures thereof, that it is almost impossible to cover the foul affection, neither yet to dissemble or hide the same by art or industry, much less to shun it. What cunning or subtlety soever they use to cloak their pretense, seeing occasion offered, and that in secret, especially in the most enticing sin that reigneth in man, they cannot choose, being constrained by voluptuousness, but fall to natural effect and working.

To this end certain courtiers were appointed to lead Hamlet into a solitary place within the woods, whither they brought the woman, inciting him to take their pleasures together and to embrace one another—but the subtle practices used in these our days,14 not to try if men of great account be extract15 out of their wits but rather to deprive them of strength, virtue, and wisdom by means of such devilish practitioners and infernal* spirits, their domestical servants and ministers of corruption. And surely the poor Prince at this assault had been16 in great danger, if a gentleman (that in Horvendil’s time had been nourished with him) had not shown himself more affectioned to the bringing-up he had received with Hamlet than desirous to please the tyrant who by all means sought to entangle the son in the same nets wherein the father had ended his days. This gentleman bare the courtiers (appointed as aforesaid of this treason) company, more desiring to give the Prince instruction what he should do than to entrap him, making full account that the least show of perfect sense and wisdom17 that Hamlet should make would be sufficient to cause him to lose his life. And therefore by certain signs he gave Hamlet intelligence in what danger he was like18 to fall, if by any means he seemed to obey or once like the wanton toys 19 and vicious provocations of the gentlewoman sent thither by his uncle. Which much abashed the Prince, as then wholly being in affection to the lady; but by her he was likewise informed of the treason, as being one that from her infancy loved and favored him and would have been exceeding sorrowful for his misfortune, and much more20 to leave his company without enjoying the pleasure of his body, whom she loved more than herself. The Prince in this sort having both deceived the courtiers and the lady’s expectation, that affirmed and swore that he never once offered to have his pleasure of the woman, although in subtlety21 he affirmed the contrary, every man thereupon assured themselves that without all doubt he was distraught of his senses, that his brains were as then wholly void of force and incapable of reasonable apprehension, so that as then22 Fengon’s practice took no effect. But for all that he left not off, still seeking by all means to find out Hamlet’s subtlety, as in the next chapter you shall perceive.


How Fengon, uncle to Hamlet, a second time to entrap him in his politic madness, caused one of his counselors to be secretly hidden in the Queen’s chamber, behind the arras, to hear what speeches passed between Hamlet and the Queen; and how Hamlet killed him and escaped that danger, and what followed.

Among the friends of Fengon there was one that above all the rest doubted of Hamlet’s practices in counterfeiting the madman, who for that cause said that it was impossible that so crafty a gallant as Hamlet, that counterfeited the fool, should be discovered with so common and unskillful practices which might easily be perceived, and that to find out his politic pretense it were necessary to invent some subtle and crafty means more attractive whereby the gallant might not have the leisure to use his accustomed dissimulation. Which to effect he said he knew a fit way and a most convenient mean1 to effect the King’s desire and thereby to entrap Hamlet in his subtleties and cause him of his own accord to fall into the net prepared for him, and thereby evidently show his secret meaning.

His devise was thus: that King Fengon should make as though he were to go some long voyage concerning affairs of great importance, and that in the meantime Hamlet should be shut up alone in a chamber with his mother, wherein some other should secretly be hidden behind the hangings, unknown either to him or his mother, there to stand and hear their speeches and the complots2 by them to be taken3 concerning the accomplishment of the dissembling fool’s pretense; assuring the King that if there were any point of wisdom and perfect sense in the gallant’s spirit, that without all doubt he would easily discover4 it to his mother, as being devoid of all fear that she would utter or make known his secret intent, being the woman that had borne him in her body and nourished him so carefully; and withal5 offered himself to be the man that should stand to hearken and bear witness of Hamlet’s speeches with his mother, that he might not be esteemed a counselor in such a case wherein he refused to be the executioner for the behoof and service of his prince.

This invention pleased the King exceeding well, esteeming it as the only and sovereign remedy to heal the Prince of his lunacy, and to that end, making a long voyage, issued out of his palace and rode to hunt in the forest.

Meantime the counselor entered secretly into the Queen’s chamber and there hid himself behind the arras not long before the Queen and Hamlet came thither, who, being crafty and politic, as soon as he was within the chamber, doubting6 some treason and fearing if he should speak severely and wisely to his mother touching his secret practices he should be understood and by that means intercepted, used his ordinary manner of dissimulation and began to come like a cock,7 beating with his arms (in such manner as cocks use to strike with their wings) upon the hangings of the chamber. Whereby, feeling something stirring under them, he cried, “A rat, a rat!” and presently drawing his sword thrust it into the hangings, which done, pulled the counselor (half dead) out by the heels, made an end of killing him, and, being slain, cut his body in pieces, which he caused to be boiled and then cast it into an open vault or privy that so it might serve for food to the hogs.

By which means having discovered the ambush and given the inventor thereof his just reward, he came again to his mother, who in the meantime wept and tormented herself to see all her hopes frustrate, for that what fault soever she had committed yet was she sore grieved to see her only child made a mere mockery—every man reproaching her with his folly, one point whereof she had as then seen before her eyes. Which was no small prick to her conscience, esteeming that the gods sent her that punishment for joining incestuously in marriage with the tyrannous murderer of her husband (who likewise ceased not to invent all the means he could to bring his nephew to his end), accusing her* own natural indiscretion, as being the ordinary guide of those that so much desire the pleasures of the body, who, shutting up the way to all reason, respect not what may ensue of their lightness and great inconstancy, and how a pleasure of small moment is sufficient to give them cause of repentance during their lives, and make them curse the day and time that ever any such apprehensions entered into their minds or that they closed their eyes to reject the honesty requisite in ladies of her quality.…

And while in this sort she sat tormenting herself, Hamlet entered into the chamber, who, having once again searched every corner of the same, distrusting his mother as well as the rest, and perceiving himself to be alone, began in sober and discreet manner to speak unto her, saying,

“What treason is this, O most infamous woman of all that ever prostrated themselves to the will of an abominable whoremonger, who, under the veil of a dissembling creature, covereth the most wicked and detestable crime that man could ever imagine or was committed! Now may I be assured to trust you that, like a vile wanton adulteress altogether impudent and given over to her pleasure, runs spreading forth her arms joyfully to embrace the traitorous villainous tyrant that murdered my father, and most incestuously receivest the villain into the lawful bed of your loyal spouse, imprudently entertaining him instead of the dear father of your miserable and discomforted son—if the gods grant him not the grace speedily to escape from a captivity so unworthy the degree he holdeth and the race and noble family of his ancestors. Is this the part of a queen and daughter to a king? To live like a brute beast and like a mare that yieldeth her body to the horse that hath beaten her companion away, to follow the pleasure of an abominable king that hath murdered a far more honester and better man than himself in massacring Horvendil, the honor and glory of the Danes? Who are now esteemed of no force nor valor at all since the shining splendor of knighthood was brought to an end by the most wickedest and cruelest villain living upon earth.

“I for my part will never account him for my kinsman nor once know him for mine uncle, nor you my dear mother, for not having respect to the blood that ought to have united us so straitly together, and who neither with your honor nor without suspicion of consent to the death of your husband could ever have agreed to have married with his cruel enemy. O, Queen Geruth! It is the part of a bitch to couple with many and desire acquaintance of divers mastiffs. It is licentiousness only that hath made you deface out of your mind the memory of the valor and virtues of the good king your husband and my father. It was an unbridled desire that guided the daughter of Roderick to embrace the tyrant Fengon, and not to remember Horvendil (unworthy of so strange entertainment),8 neither that he9 killed his brother traitorously, and that she being his10 father’s wife betrayed him, although he11 so well favored and loved her that for her sake he utterly bereaved Norway of her riches and valiant soldiers to augment the treasures of Roderick and make Geruth wife to the hardiest12 prince in Europe. It is not the part of a woman, much less of a princess, in whom all modesty, courtesy, compassion, and love ought to abound, thus to leave her dear child to fortune in the bloody and murderous hands of a villain and traitor. Brute beasts do not so, for lions tigers, ounces,13 and leopards fight for the safety and defense of their whelps; and birds that have beaks, claws, and wings resist such as would ravish them of their young ones. But you, to the contrary, expose and deliver me to death, whereas ye should defend me. Is not this as much as if you should betray me, when you, knowing the perverseness of the tyrant and his intents (full of deadly counsel as touching the race and image of his brother), have not once sought nor desired to find the means to save your child and only son by sending him into Swethland,14 Norway, or England, rather than to leave him as a prey to your infamous adulterer?

“Be not offended, I pray you, madam, if, transported with dolor and grief, I speak so boldly unto you, and that I respect you less than duty requireth; for you, having forgotten me and wholly rejected the memory of the deceased king my father, must not be abashed if I also surpass the bounds and limits of due consideration. Behold into what distress I am now fallen, and to what mischief my fortune and your over-great lightness15 and want of wisdom have induced me, that I am constrained to play the madman to save my life instead of using and practicing arms, following adventures, and seeking all means to make myself known to be the true and undoubted heir of the valiant and virtuous King Horvendil! It was not without cause and just occasion that my gestures, countenances, and words seem all to proceed from a madman, and that I desire to have all men esteem me wholly deprived of sense and reasonable understanding, because I am well assured that he that hath made no conscience to kill his own brother (accustomed to murders and allured with desire of government without control in his treasons) will not spare to save himself with the like cruelty in the blood and flesh of the loins of his brother by him massacred.…

“To conclude, weep not, madam, to see my folly, but rather sigh and lament your own offense, tormenting your conscience in regard of the infamy that hath so defiled the ancient renown and glory that in times past honored Queen Geruth; for we are not to sorrow and grieve at other men’s vices but for our own misdeeds and great follies. Desiring you for the surplus16 of my proceedings, above all things, as you love your own life and welfare, that neither the King nor any other may by any means know mine intent; and let me alone with the rest, for I hope in the end to bring my purpose to effect.”

[The Queen contritely asks Hamlet’s understanding for a marriage that (she insists) she entered into under duress, implores his forgiveness, and declares that her fondest hope is to see her son restored to his rights as heir and monarch of Denmark. Hamlet pledges his faith to her, beseeching her to put aside her attachment to Fengon, whom Hamlet “will surely kill, or cause to be put to death, in despite of all the devils in hell,” along with the flatterers who serve him. In doing so he will act as the true King of Denmark, he avers, killing a traitor, not a legitimate ruler, and crowning virtue with glory while punishing regicide with ignominious death.]

After this, Fengon, as if he had been out some long journey, came to the court again and asked for him that had received the charge to play the intelligencer to entrap Hamlet in his dissembled wisdom, was abashed to hear neither news nor tidings of him, and for that cause asked Hamlet what was become of him, naming the man. The Prince, that never used lying, and who in all the answers that ever he made during his counterfeit madness never strayed from the truth (as a generous17 mind is a mortal enemy to untruth), answered and said that the counselor he sought for was gone down through the privy where, being choked by the filthiness of the place, the hogs meeting him had filled their bellies.


How Fengon, the third time, devised to send Hamlet to the King of England with secret letters to have him put to death; and how Hamlet, when his companions slept, read the letters, and instead of them counterfeited others, willing the King of England to put the two messengers to death and to marry his daughter to Hamlet, which was effected; and how Hamlet escaped out of England.

A man would have judged anything rather than that Hamlet had committed that murder; nevertheless Fengon could not content himself, but still his mind gave him1 that the fool would play him some trick of legerdemain, and willingly would have killed him; but he feared King Roderick, his grandfather, and further durst not offend the Queen, mother to the fool, whom she loved and much cherished, showing great grief and heaviness to see him so transported out of his wits. And in that conceit,2 seeking to be rid of him, he determined* to find the means to do it by the aid of a stranger, making the King of England minister of his massacring resolution, choosing rather that his friend should defile his renown with so great a wickedness than himself to fall into perpetual infamy by an exploit of so great cruelty, to whom he purposed to send him and by letters desire him to put him to death.

Hamlet, understanding that he should be sent into England, presently doubted3 the occasion of his voyage, and for that cause, speaking to the Queen, desired her not to make any show of sorrow or grief for his departure, but rather counterfeit a gladness as being rid of his presence whom, although she loved, yet she daily grieved to see him in so pitiful estate, deprived of all sense and reason; desiring her further that she should hang the hall with tapestry and make it fast with nails upon the walls and keep the brands4 for him which he had sharpened at the points, then whenas5 he said he made arrows to revenge the death of his father. Lastly he counseled her that, the year after his departure being accomplished, she should celebrate his funerals, assuring her that at the same instant she should see him return with great contentment and pleasure unto her from that his voyage.

Now, to bear him company were assigned two of Fengon’s faithful ministers, bearing letters engraved in wood that contained Hamlet’s death, in such sort as he had advertised6 the King of England. But the subtle Danish Prince, being at sea, whilst his companions slept, having read the letters and known his uncle’s great treason, with the wicked and villainous minds of the two courtiers that led him to the slaughter, rased7 out the letters that concerned his death and instead thereof graved others with commission to the King of England to hang his two companions; and not content to turn the death they had devised against him upon their own necks, wrote further that King Fengon willed him to give his daughter to Hamlet in marriage.

And so arriving in England, the messengers presented themselves to the King, giving him Fengon’s letters, who, having read the contents, said nothing as then, but stayed8 convenient time to effect Fengon’s desire, meantime using the Danes familiarly, doing them that honor to sit at his table (for that kings as then were not so curiously nor solemnly9 served as in these our days, for in these days mean10 kings and lords of small revenue are as difficult and hard to be seen as in times past the monarchs of Persia used to be, or as it is reported of the great King of Ethiopia, who will not permit any man to see his face, which ordinarily he covereth with a veil). And as the messengers sat at the table with the King, subtle Hamlet was so far from being merry with them that he would not taste one bit of meat, bread, nor cup of beer whatsoever as then set upon the table, not without great wondering of the company, abashed to see a young man and a stranger not to esteem of the delicate meats and pleasant drinks served at the banquet, rejecting them as things filthy, evil of taste, and worse prepared. The King, who for that time dissembled what he thought, caused his guests to be conveyed into their chamber, willing one of his secret servants to hide himself therein and so to certify him what speeches passed among the Danes at their going to bed.

Now they were no sooner entered into the chamber, and those that were appointed to attend upon them gone out, but Hamlet’s companions asked him why he refused to eat and drink of that which he found upon the table, not honoring the banquet of so great a king, that entertained them in friendly sort, with such honor and courtesy as it deserved? Saying further that he did not well but dishonored him that sent him, as if he sent men into England that feared to be poisoned by so great a king. The Prince, that had done nothing without reason and prudent consideration, answered them and said: “What, think you that I will eat bread dipped in human blood, and defile my throat with the rust of iron, and use that meat that stinketh and savoreth of man’s flesh already putrified and corrupted, and that scenteth like the savor of a dead carrion long since cast into a vault? And how would you have me to respect the King that hath the countenance of a slave, and the Queen, who instead of great majesty, hath done three things more like a woman of base parentage and fitter for a waiting-gentlewoman than beseeming a lady of her quality and estate?” And, having said so, used many injurious and sharp speeches as well against the King and Queen as others that had assisted at that banquet for the entertainment of the Danish ambassadors. And therein Hamlet said truth, as hereafter you shall hear, for that in those days, the north parts of the world, living as then under Satan’s laws, were full of enchanters, so that there was not any young gentleman whatsoever that knew not something therein sufficient to serve his turn if need required, as yet in those days in Gotland11 and Biarmy12 there are many that knew not what the Christian religion permitteth, as by reading the histories of Norway and Gotland you may easily perceive. And so Hamlet, while his father lived, had been instructed in that devilish art whereby the wicked spirit abuseth mankind and advertiseth him (as he can) of things past.

[Hamlet, aided by the devilish power of magic he has learned, amazes the King of England by demonstrating the truth of the riddling and prophetic statements he has just uttered. It turns out that the King’s bread is in fact defiled by human blood shed on the battlefield where the grain was grown, that his pork comes from hogs that have fed on a hanged thief, that his beer is brewed from a water supply polluted by rusty armor, and that, more distressingly, the King is the illegitimate son of a slave and the Queen of no less base parentage. The King thereupon treats Hamlet with the respect that such awesome magical powers deserve.]

The King, admiring the young Prince and beholding in him some matter of greater respect than in the common sort of men, gave him his daughter in marriage, according to the counterfeit letters by him devised, and the next day caused the two servants of Fengon to be executed, to satisfy, as he thought, the King’s desire. But Hamlet, although the sport13 pleased him well, and that the King of England could not have done him a greater favor, made as though he had been much offended, threatening the King to be revenged; but the King, to appease him, gave him a great sum of gold, which Hamlet caused to be molten and put into two staves, made hollow for the same purpose, to serve his turn therewith as need should require. For of all the King’s treasures he took nothing with him into Denmark but only those two staves, and as soon as the year began to be at an end, having somewhat before obtained license of the King his father-in-law to depart, went for Denmark, then with all the speed he could to return again into England to marry his daughter; and so set sail for Denmark.


How Hamlet, having escaped out of England, arrived in Denmark the same day that the Danes were celebrating his funerals, supposing him to be dead in England; and how he revenged his father’s death upon his uncle and the rest of the courtiers; and what followed.

Hamlet in that sort sailing into Denmark, being arrived in the country entered into the palace of his uncle the same day that they were celebrating his funerals, and, going into the hall, procured no small astonishment and wonder to them all—no man thinking other but that he had been dead. Among the which many of them rejoiced not a little for the pleasure which they knew Fengon would conceive for so pleasant a loss,1 and some were sad, as remembering the honorable King Horvendil, whose victories they could by no means forget, much less deface out of their memories that which appertained unto him, who2 as then greatly rejoiced to see a false report spread3 of Hamlet’s death and that the tyrant had not as yet obtained his will of the heir of Jutie,4 but rather hoped God would restore him to his senses again for the good and welfare of that province. Their amazement at the last5 being turned into laughter, all that as then were assistant at the funeral banquet of him whom they esteemed dead mocked each at other for having been so simply deceived, and, wondering at the Prince, that in his so long a voyage he had not recovered any of his senses, asked what was become of them that had borne him company into Great Britain? To whom he made answer (showing them the two hollow staves wherein he had put his molten gold that the King of England had given him to appease his fury concerning the murder of his two companions) and said, “Here they are both.” Whereat many that already knew his humors presently conjectured that he had played some trick of legerdemain, and to deliver himself out of danger had thrown them into the pit prepared for him; so that, fearing to follow after them and light upon some evil adventure, they went presently out of the court. And it was well for them that they did so, considering the tragedy acted by him the same day, being accounted his funeral but in truth their last days that as then rejoiced for his* overthrow.6

For when every man busied himself to make good cheer, and Hamlet’s arrival provoked them more to drink and carouse, the Prince himself at that time played the butler and a gentleman attending on the tables, not suffering the pots nor goblets to be empty, whereby he gave the noblemen such store of liquor that all of them, being full laden with wine and gorged with meat, were constrained to lay themselves down in the same place where they had supped, so much their senses were dulled and overcome with the fire of overgreat drinking (a vice common and familiar among the Almains7 and other nations inhabiting the north parts of the world). Which when Hamlet perceiving, and finding so good opportunity to effect his purpose and be revenged of his enemies, and, by the means to abandon the actions, gestures, and apparel of a madman, occasion so fitly finding his turn and as it were effecting itself, failed not to take hold thereof8 and, seeing those drunken bodies filled with wine, lying like hogs upon the ground, some sleeping, others vomiting the over-great abundance of wine which without measure they had swallowed up, made the hangings about the hall to fall down and cover them all over, which he nailed to the ground, being boarded, and at the ends thereof he stuck the brands whereof I spake before, by him sharpened, which served for pricks,9 binding and tying the hangings in such sort that, what force soever they used to loose themselves, it was unpossible to get from under them. And presently he set fire to the four corners of the hall in such sort that all that were as then therein not one escaped away, but were forced to purge their sins by fire and dry up the great abundance of liquor by them received into their bodies, all of them dying in the inevitable10 and merciless flames of the hot and burning fire.

Which the Prince, perceiving, became wise; and knowing that his uncle, before the end of the banquet, had withdrawn himself into his chamber, which stood apart from the place where the fire burnt, went thither and, entering into the chamber, laid hand upon the sword of his father’s murderer, leaving his own in the place (which, while he was at the banquet, some of the courtiers had nailed fast into the scabbard); and going to Fengon said: “I wonder, disloyal king, how thou canst sleep here at thine ease, and all thy palace is burnt, the fire thereof having burnt the greatest part of thy courtiers and ministers of thy cruelty and detestable tyrannies. And, which is more, I cannot imagine how thou shouldst well assure thyself and thy estate11 as now to take thy ease, seeing Hamlet so near thee armed with the shafts by him prepared long since, and at this present is ready to revenge the traitorous injury by thee done to his lord and father.”

Fengon, as then knowing the truth of his nephew’s subtle practice, and hearing him speak with staid12 mind, and, which is more, perceived a sword naked in his hand which he already lifted up to deprive him of his life, leaped quickly out of the bed, taking hold of Hamlet’s sword that was nailed into the scabbard, which, as he sought to pull out, Hamlet gave him such a blow upon the chine13 of the neck that he cut his head clean from his shoulders, and, as he fell to the ground, said, “This just and violent death is a just reward for such as thou art. Now go thy ways, and when thou comest in hell, see thou forget not to tell thy brother whom thou traitorously slewest that it was his son that sent thee thither with the message, to the end that, being comforted thereby, his soul may rest among the blessed spirits and quit14 me of the obligation that bound me to pursue his vengeance upon mine own blood, that seeing it was by thee that I lost the chief thing that tied me to this alliance and consanguinity.”

A man, to say the truth, hardy, courageous, and worthy of eternal commendation, who, arming himself with a crafty, dissembling, and strange show of being distract out of his wits, under that pretense deceived the wise, politic, and crafty, thereby not only preserving his life from the treasons and wicked practices of the tyrant, but, which is more, by a new and unexpected kind of punishment revenged his father’s death many years after the act committed, in such* sort that, directing his courses with such prudence and effecting his purposes with so great boldness, and constancy, he left a judgment to be decided among men of wisdom, which15 was more commendable in him, his constancy, or magnanimity, or his wisdom in ordering his affairs according to the premeditable determination he had conceived.…

Hamlet, having in this manner revenged himself, durst not presently declare his action to the people, but to the contrary determined to work by policy, so to give them intelligence what he had done and the reason that drew him thereunto; so that, being accompanied with such of his father’s friends that then were rising,16 he stayed to see what the people would do when they should hear of that sudden and fearful action. The next morning, the towns bordering thereabouts, desiring to know from whence the flames of fire proceeded the night before they had seen, came thither, and, perceiving the King’s palace burnt to ashes and many bodies (most part consumed) lying among the ruins of the house, all of them were much abashed, nothing being left of the palace but the foundation. But they were much more amazed to behold the body of the King all bloody, and his head cut off lying hard by him; whereat some began to threaten revenge, yet not knowing against whom; others, beholding so lamentable a spectacle, armed themselves; the rest rejoicing, yet not daring to make any show thereof, some detesting the cruelty, others lamenting the death of their prince but the greatest part, calling Horvendil’s murder to remembrance, acknowledging a just judgment from above that had thrown down the pride of the tyrant. And in this sort, the diversities of opinions among that multitude of people being many, yet every man ignorant what would be the issue of that tragedy, none stirred from thence, neither yet attempted to move17 any tumult, every man fearing his own skin and distrusting his neighbor, esteeming each other to be consenting to the massacre.

[In the last three chapters of the story, Hamlet makes an oration to the Danes in defense of his conduct, wins the loyalty of one and all, and makes good his promise to return to England. There, threatened with a secret plot on the part of the King of England to avenge the death of Fengon, Hamlet slays the English king and returns to Denmark with two wives. He is betrayed by his second wife, Hermetrude, Queen of Scots, in league with his uncle Wiglerus, and is slain.]

Text based on The History of Hamlet [spelled Hamblet in the original]. London: Imprinted by Richard Bradocke for Thomas Pavier, and are to be sold at his shop in Cornhill near to the Royal Exchange. 1608.

1 pill plunder

2 surmounted excelled

3 not caring i.e., not considering it dishonorable

4 despiting entertaining a grudge

5 slandered … wife i.e., made the slanderous accusation that Horvendil intended to slay his wife, Geruth

6 he i.e., Fengon

7 he i.e., Horvendil

8 he wanted i.e., Fengon lacked

9 approve confirm

10 which deposed who testifed

11 as that is, to wit

12 And that i.e., And was the cause that

13 embased lowered, debased

14 blaze proclaim

15 bereaved deprived

16 accompany keep company

1 detract lengthen

2 to beguile in order to beguile

3 man’s estate manhood

4 although inasmuch as

5 been at the school of i.e., studied the method of

6 Brutus (Lucius Junius Brutus assumed the disguise of idiocy in order to escape the fate of his brother, whom their uncle Tarquinius Superbus had put to death. Brutus means “stupid.”)

7 mere absolute

8 right countenances true demeanor

9 make sport serve as the butt of joking

10 ruffling swaggering

11 father-in-law i.e., stepfather

12 reach comprehension

13 pregnant fertile, intentive

14 but … days i.e., machinations used often enough in more recent times. but only

15 extract extracted, removed

16 had been would have been

17 the least … wisdom (Hamlet’s yielding to the lady’s blandishments would be viewed as a proof of sanity and would thus betray him to his uncle.)

18 like likely

19 toys tricks

20 much more much more sorrowful

21 in subtlety in private

22 as then as of that time

1 mean means

2 complots conspiracy

3 taken undertaken

4 discover reveal

5 withal in addition

6 doubting suspecting, fearing

7 come like a cock crow like a rooster

8 entertainment treatment

9 neither that he i.e., nor to remember that he, Fengon

10 his i.e., Hamlet’s

11 although he i.e., although Horvendil

12 hardiest bravest

13 ounces lynxes, wildcats

14 Swethland Sweden

15 lightness wantonness

16 surplus what remains still to be done

17 generous highborn, noble

1 gave him misgave him, made him apprehensive

2 conceit frame of mind

3 presently doubted at once suspected

4 brands i.e., the staves or sticks that Hamlet sharpened as though in his madness; see Chapter 2. (A brand is usually a piece of wood that has been burning on the hearth or is to be used as a torch.)

5 then whenas on that occasion when

6 advertised given notice to, commanded

7 rased erased, or possibly razed, scraped

8 stayed awaited

9 curiously nor solemnly fastidiously or ceremoniously

10 mean insignificant

11 Gotland an area in what is now southern Sweden

12 Biarmy a region in northern Lapland

13 the sport i.e., the execution of his two companions. (Hamlet pretends to be offended at this so that the King will pacify him with a large gift, as he does.)

1 rejoiced … loss i.e., rejoiced greatly to think how Fengon had desired the loss of Hamlet and how he would now be frustrated

2 who i.e., the courtiers who admire Hamlet

3 rejoiced … spread i.e., rejoiced to learn that the rumor was false

4 Jutie Jutland, Denmark

5 at the last finally

6 but in truth … overthrow i.e., a day that was supposed to have been for Hamlet’s funeral but that in truth became the day of doom for those who had rejoiced in his overthrow.

7 Almains Germans

8 take hold thereof seize the opportunity

9 pricks skewers

10 inevitable irresistible

11 assure … estate feel confident about your situation

12 staid steady

13 chine back

14 quit acquit, free

15 which as to which

16 rising arising

17 move set in motion, instigate

In the following, departures from the original text appear in boldface; original readings are in roman.

*northward neithward

*to two two

*surmounted surmounting

*not only onely

*wisest wiseth

*counterfeited counterfeiting

*infernal intefernal

*accusing her accusing his

*he determined determined

*his their

*in such in no such