Anon. (1589?, 1594)

Historical Records

The LPD treats the play documented by the entry in Henslowe's Diary and alluded to by Nashe (1589) and Lodge (1596) as the same play; it considers this early version of the Hamlet story—universally and hereinafter called the "Ur-Hamlet"— to be essentially discrete from the Hamlets preserved in Q1 (1603), Q2 (1604-5), and F (1623).

Performance Records (Henslowe's Diary)

F. 9 (Greg, I.17)

In June 1594, Henslowe entered the following heading into his diary:

Jn the name of god Amen begininge at newing
ton my Lord Admeralle men & my Lorde chamberlain
men As ffolowethe 1594

Henslowe then listed the following title as one of six plays given performances from 3 through 13 June 1594 under that rubric:

ye 9 of June 1594 ………. Res at hamlet ………. viijs

Theatrical Provenance

Nashe's reference to "whole Hamlets ... handfuls of Tragicall speeches" implies a public performance, c. 1588 (for the full passage, see References to the Play, below). Nashe does not hint at a company, but even if he did, that clue would not necessarily indicate a venue. Odds are that the play was performed in London; but given the approximate date of 1588-9, at which time companies with London venues were also touring, odds are that it was performed in the provinces.

The entry in Henslowe's Diary, in contrast, is specific on venue and date: the playhouse at Newington, 9 June 1594. The heading names two companies, the Admiral's players and the Chamberlain's players. Scholars have not agreed on whether the companies performed separately or in some ad hoc amalgamation, so it is impossible to say with certainty who the performers on 9 June were. However, this much is certain: the play does not reappear in Henslowe's lists when the Admiral's men return to the Rose. Scholars have therefore deduced that the play became (or remained) the property of the Chamberlain's men. On its provenance before 3 June 1594, Greg opined that it and "Hester and Ahasuerus" had previously belonged to Pembroke's men (II, 105).

Lodge's allusion to the ghost at the Theater that cried out, "Hamlet, revenge," seems to identify the location of the "Ur-Hamlet," c. 1595-6, at the Burbages' Shoreditch playhouse (for the full passage, see References to the Play, below). However, Lodge could have been remembering an earlier run at the Theater, even that which Nashe also remembered.

Probable Genre(s)

Tragedy (Harbage); most likely of the revenge type

Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues

The definitive resource for the Hamlet narrative is Sir Israel Gollancz's The Sources of "Hamlet" (Oxford, 1926); the most accessible resource is Geoffrey Bullough's Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare (London, 1957-75), VII, 3-189.

Saxo Grammaticus, Danorum regum heroumque historiae (1514)

Summaries of the narrative told by Saxo Grammaticus are ubiquitous in the scholarly literature on Shakespeare's Hamlet. Here, because of its relative brevity and freedom from editorial opinion, is the lightly edited summary provided by G. R. Hibbard (7-9).

In Saxo's account two brothers, Horwendil and Feng, are appointed governors of Jutland by Rorik, King of Denmark. Horwendil wins great fame as a Viking, and sets the seal on that fame by killing Koll, the King of Norway, in single combat. Rorik rewards him by giving him the hand of his daughter Gerutha in marriage. Gerutha bears Horwendil a son, Amleth. But Horwendil's success arouses the envy of his brother Feng, who treacherously waylays and murders him, then marries his widow .... Feng glosses over the murder, which is public knowledge, with smooth words and a hypocritical show of concern for Gerutha that find a ready acceptance in the sycophantic court.

Young Amleth, alone and almost friendless but fully aware of Feng's guilt, dedicates himself to revenge. First, however, he must grow up. He therefore seeks to give Feng the impression that he is harmless by pretending to have lost his wits. Filthy and in rags, he talks seeming nonsense which, nonetheless, has its point for those percipient enough to see it. For instance, he spends much of his time in making wooden crooks armed with sharp barbs, and, when asked what he is doing, replies that he is preparing javelins to be used in avenging his father. The answer is greeted with scoffs. All the same, some of the acuter courtiers have their suspicions. Two traps are laid. A beautiful girl, whom Amleth has known from childhood, is ordered to seduce him and worm his secret out of him. The plot fails because Amleth's foster-brother warns him of it. Then a counsellor of Feng's has a bright idea. He suggests that Feng absent himself from the court for a short time, and that, during his absence, Amleth and his mother be brought together in the Queen's chamber where, he is sure, Amleth will speak with complete candour. Before the interview begins, however, the counsellor will have concealed himself in the chamber, and later will reveal to Feng whatever he discovers. The Queen knows no more of this plan than does Amleth. But the wily counsellor has badly underrated the Prince's caution and cunning. On entering the chamber, Amleth, putting on his usual show of madness, crows like a cock, flaps his arms as thought they were wings, and eventually jumps on the straw mattress under which the spy is hiding. Feeling the eavesdropper under this feet the Prince promptly runs him through, pulls him out, finishes him off, chops the body into pieces, boils them, and then sends them down the sewer for the swine to eat. Going back to his mother, whom he finds wailing and grieving over what she sees as her son's folly, he upbraids her bitterly for her disloyalty to his dead father, and reveals the purpose behind his seemingly mad behaviour. His words pierce Gerutha's heart and lead her to … [change allegiances].

Feng, on returning to the court, is surprised by the absence of his agent, and asks Amleth, among others, whether he knows what has become of the man. Thereupon the Prince, who always tells the truth after his own riddling fashion, replies that the counsellor went to the sewer, fell in, was stifled by the filth, and then eaten by the pigs. These words, though Feng can make nothing of them, increase his suspicions. He therefore decides that Amleth must be done away with. But he is deterred from taking direct action himself by his fear of offending Rorik, the Prince's grandfather, and of displeasing Gerutha. So he hits on the plan of making the King of England—the time is that of the Danelaw—do his dirty work for him, and sends Amleth off to that country, under the escort of two retainers. The retainers carry a letter with them containing the order that Amleth be put to death on his arrival. Before he sets off, however, the Prince, divining what is likely to happen, has a word in secret with his mother. He asks her to hang the hall with knotted tapestry, and to hold a funeral for him exactly a year after his departure, adding that he will return at the year's end. Then, during the voyage, he searches the luggage of the retainers while they are asleep, finds the letter, which is carved in runic characters on a piece of wood, erases the original order, and replaces it with another of his own devising calling for the execution of the retainers. To it he adds the entreaty that the King of England grant his daughter in marriage to a youth of great judgement whom Feng is sending to him. The plot works. Deeply impressed, as well he might be, by the preternatural acuteness of Amleth's mind ad senses which the Prince amply displays as soon as he reaches England, the King of that country bestows his daughter on the newcomer, and has the retainers hanged. At this point Amleth, pretending to be offended by the summary execution of his companions demands wergeld for them, receives the appropriate sum in gold, melts it down in secret, and pours it into hollow sticks carefully prepared to hold it.

Arriving back in Jutland on the very day when the funeral rites are being carried out for his supposed death, Amleth puts on his old filthy attire, and enters the banqueting hall. At first his coming creates awe; but this soon changes to mirth, especially when, having been asked what has become of the two retainers, he points to the sticks, and says, 'Here they are.' This strange answer confirms the courtiers in their view that he is a harmless lunatic. Nevertheless, to make their assurance doubly sure, Amleth takes one further step. As he moves about the hall, he fidgets with his sword and pricks his fingers with it. To save him from himself, the courtiers have his sword firmly riveted to the scabbard. Secure in their knowledge that the Prince is unarmed as well as harmless, the courtiers allow him to egg them on to eat and drink until they all lie in a drunken stupor. Then, pulling down upon them the knotted hangings prepared by his mother, Amleth uses the barbed crooks he made long ago to fasten the hangings tightly about them, and sets fire to the hall. Thence he moves on to Feng's own apartment, takes the king's sword from the place where it is hanging by his bed, and substitutes his own useless sword for it. Arousing the sleeping Feng, he tells him the hour of vengeance has come. Feng leaps from his couch and seizes the sword hanging by it, but while he tries in vain to wrench it from the scabbard, Amleth kills him with the King's own sword. On the following day the Prince makes a speech to his countrymen, explaining what he has done and why he has done it. They greet the speech with unrestrained enthusiasm, and make Amleth their new king.

Saxo does not conclude his story here. He goes on to relate further exploits of Amleth—some of them very like his earlier exploits—down to his death in battle. In the course of them Amleth acquires a second wife; and she, after expressing her undying devotion to him and her determination to die in battle with him, promptly marries his conqueror.

Francois de Belleforest, Histoires tragiques, vol 5 (1570)

Summaries of the narrative told by Belleforest are also ubiquitous in the scholarly literature on Shakespeare's Hamlet. Here is the summary provided by G. R. Hibbard, edited as possible to delete interpretative observations directed at Shakespeare's Hamlet (10-11).

Belleforest's version of this tale is, in so far as its action goes, in essence the same as Saxo's ... [with] some additions. Three of these are most important. First having related how Fengon, as he calls him, killed his brother, Belleforest goes on to say that before resorting to parricide Fengon had already incestuously sullied his brothers bed ... by corrupting the honour of that brother's wife .... Secondly, Belleforest remarks that Geruthe's subsequent marriage to Fengon led many to conclude that she might well have inspired the murder in order to enjoy the pleasures of her adulterous relationship with Fengon without restriction or restraint .... Amleth repeats this charge in his passionate harangue to his mother after his discovery of the spy, and draws an absolute denial of it from her. She begs him never to harbour the suspicion that she gave consent to the murder .... Thirdly, Belleforest is much troubled by the powers of divination his hero shows, especially after his arrival in England. Reluctantly he is forced to conclude that in pre-Christian times the North was full of enchanters, and ... that the Prince [had learned magic before his father died]. However, [Belleforest] finds a partial excuse for his hero in the notion that Amleth could well have been rendered highly sensitive to impressions from without [due to being] a victim of melancholy.

The French writer's unease about Amleth's powers of divination is typical of his attitude towards Saxo's story as a whole. He is not happy with it. As a good Christian, he disapproves of private revenge, especially when the object of it is a king; and his reservations on this score lead him into a great deal of special pleading and moralizing. For a solution to his difficulties he falls back on the providential idea of history ... that though God's vengeance may be slow it is absolutely sure.

References to the Play

Nashe, Preface, Menaphon, 1589

Thomas Nashe provided a preface entitled "To the Gentlemen Students of both Uniuersities" to Menaphon by Robert Greene (1589). In that preface, Nashe addressed issues of writing style, in the course of which he said the following:

It is a common practise now a dayes amongst a sort of shifting companions, that runne through euery Art and thriue by none, to leaue the trade of Nouerint, whereto they were borne, and busie themselues with the indeuours of Art that could scarcely Latinize their neck verse if they should haue need; yet English Seneca read by Candle-light yeelds many good sentences, as Blood is a begger, and so forth; and if you intreate him faire in a frosty morning, hee will affoord you whole Hamlets, I should say handfuls of Tragicall speeches. But O griefe! Tempus edam rerum, whats that will last alwayes? The Sea exhaled by droppes will in continuance bee drie, and Seneca, let blood line by line and page by page, at length must needes die to our Stage; which makes his famished followers to imitate the Kid in Æsop, who, enamoured with the Foxes newfangles, forsook all hopes of life to leape into a newe occupation; and these men, renouncing all possibilities of credite or estimation, to intermeddle with Italian Translations: Wherein how poorely they haue plodded, (as those that are neither prouenzall men, nor are able to distinguish of Articles,) let all indifferent Gentlemen that haue trauelled in that tongue discerne by their two-pennie Pamphlets. (McKerrow, 3.315-16) (EEBO)

Lodge, Wits Miserie, 1596

In Wits Miserie, Thomas Lodge provides a taxonomy of "the Deuils Incarnat of this Age," as his sub-title advertises. He names Hate-Vertue as one of Beelzebub's descendants, and the description of this devil includes the following:

… And though this fiend be begotten of his fathers own blood, yet is he different frõ his nature, & were he not sure yt IEALOUSIE could not make him a cuckold, he had long since published him for a bastard: you shall know him by this, he is a foule lubber, his tongue tipt with lying, his heart stéeld against charity, he walks for the most part in black vnder colour of gravity, & looks as pale as the Visard of ye ghost which cried so miserally at ye Theator like an oister wife, Hamlet, reuenge: … (Gosse, 4.56/62) (EEBO)

Critical Commentary

Authorship and Date

The debate about authorship addresses two candidates primarily: Thomas Kyd and William Shakespeare. The evidence concerns the date of the "Ur-Hamlet," the meaning of selected words and phrases in Nashe's reference to it, and the arguments of scholars on related matters including the relationship of the "Ur-Hamlet" to the German text, Der Bestrafte Brudermord and Q1 of Hamlet (1603). Virtually every commentator on Kyd and Shakespeare's Hamlets has expressed an opinion on the authorship of the "Ur-Hamlet"; here, the purpose is to provide a sample that marks the progress of the debate since the turn of the twentieth century.

Thomas Kyd

Freeman provides an overview of scholarly interpretation of the Nashe passage as it relates to Kyd as author of the "Ur-Hamlet"; though leaning toward Kyd's authorship himself (48), he lists the "Ur-Hamlet" among the apocrypha, noting with frustration that "attempts to relate it to Kyd depend on so many independent variants and interdependent conjectures and assumptions that the accumulated uncertainty inherent in what is finally said about Kyd comes close to cancelling the value of the observations" (175). Freeman's survey is quoted here with insets clarifying bibliographic information:

"Boas, after Fleay [BCED, II, 32-33], expresses the extreme Kydian interpretation of [the Nashe] passage: the 'sort of shifting companions' is actually a rhetorical expression for 'one man', and the man is Kyd, by training a Noverint [xxviii-xix]. Boas goes on to identify each of the specific slurs with 'errors' in The Spanish Tragedy, and draw by implication that Kyd was the author of the pre-Shakespearean Hamlet.

With the proper conservatism of an editor of Nashe, R. B. McKerrow took the contrary position: Nashe was 'speaking not of one writer, but of a group—probably, but not certainly, of dramatists. He did know of a Hamlet play, but the passage throws no light upon its authorship. There is no reason for supposing either Kyd or The Spanish Tragedy to be referred to' [Works, IV, 451]. McKerrow's enormous prestige and undeniable familiarity with all facets of Nashe's work carried this opinion far. W. W. Greg accepted it [McKerrow, Works, Supplement, V, 68; but see a reversal, Greg II, 164], Chambers accepted it with reservations [Chambers, IV, 234; William Shakespeare, II, 412], and Philip Edwards, the most recent editor of The Spanish Tragedy [1959], endorsed it completely [xxiii]" (40-41).

Additional observations on issues of authorship and date:

Boas dates Kyd’s “Ur-Hamlet'” in the latter part of 1587 (liii). Rejecting the German text called Der Bestrafte Brudermord as an influence (xlviii), Boas sees much of the "Ur-Hamlet" in the first quarto of Hamlet (1603), especially in "the blank verse in the three later Acts [which] is ... unmistakably pre-Shakespearean" (xlix). To bridge the transition from Kyd's "Ur-Hamlet" to Shakespeare's reworking, Boas invents a stage in textual composition: Kyd's play "underwent, in manuscript form, a certain amount of adaptation to suit the rapid changes of popular taste, or the circumstances of different companies [so that] when Shakespeare ... began to remodel the kindred Ur-Hamlet, he would appear to have had as his basis, not Kyd's play in its primitive form, but a popularized stage version of it" (liii). (Internet Archive)

Editors of Hamlet have supported the authorship by Kyd, with caveats that do not lead to Shakespeare as an alternative. Wilson is considered a bellwether; setting aside his earlier skepticism, he embraced the "Kid" reference as typical of Nashe’s indirect way of saying that "a Danish tragedy on the Hamlet theme by Thomas Kyd was the talk of London in 1589" (Hamlet, xix). Jenkins acknowledges that Nashe is alluding to "a class of writers" but prefers the popular interpretation that Nashe has in mind "one practitioner" (84, 83); Jenkins prefers an earlier date for the Ur-Hamlet" than for The Spanish Tragedy, but he is not specific about what that date might be (97). In comparison with Jenkins's fulsome defense of Kyd as author of the "Ur-Hamlet," Hibbard is cautious, characterizing the debate as "a long drawn out and inconclusive conflict between those who hold that [Nashe's references] identify Thomas Kyd as the author of the Ur-Hamlet and those who think they do not" (13).

Erne concentrates on Nashe's reference to "intermeddle with Italian Translations" and "two-pennie Pamphlets" as the key that identifies Kyd as the author of the "Ur-Hamlet" (147-50). Not concerned with arguments of Shakespearean authorship, he is countering McKerrow’s opinion that Nashe is talking about a group of writers. Dating the "Ur-Hamlet" c. 1588-9 (which is later in his chronology than The Spanish Tragedy), Erne points out a possible topicality in the recent murder of Lord Darnley, which was recalled in a Latin poem in 1587 that featured the appearance of Darnley's ghost to "his son James VI" (147, 154).

William Shakespeare

In order to support an author other than Kyd for the "Ur-Hamlet," scholars have first had to deconstruct the Nashe allusions to "Nouerint" and "Kid in 'Æsop'" as well as combat McKerrow's argument that Nashe uses "whole Hamlets" as an example of what a group of non-university writers does (not one writer specifically). Another vital issue is the start date of Shakespeare's dramatic career.

Honigmann decides that Nashe includes enough non-Kydian references and jumps too "suddenly from one writer to another" for him to be taken as providing a "valid clue for the authorship of the old Hamlet" (299). He then argues by way of an elaborate set of connections between Nashe and Greene's Groatsworth of Wit (1592) that Shakespeare was the author of the "Ur-Hamlet":

When we ... remember that Hamlet must have been the work of a non-University writer, that the writers of this class with sufficient reputation to call forth jealousy were very few in number—and that Shakespeare can be associated with Hamlet at a later date, that Shakespeare was named by Greene as the leader of the enemy in 1592, and that Shakespeare was attacked in 1592 as the author of Hamlet was in 1589—then the Groats-Worth echoes of Nashe seem to be most easily explained by the conjecture that the same man was being attacked on both occasions, and that that man (Shakespeare) wrote the Hamlet of 1589" (300).

Sams is not an easy scholar to summarize (as illustrated by his own attempt on the "Ur-Hamlet" in The Real Shakespeare: Retrieving the Early Years, 1564-1594 [pp. 120-24]). Here are the salient points of his argument for Shakespeare's authorship:

1. when did Shakespeare start writing plays? Sams ferociously endorses an early start for Shakespeare. He ridicules the mindset that leads scholars to insist that Shakespeare "just cannot have started so early" ("Taboo," 13). He asks, quite simply, "why not?"
2. what's in the name, "Hamlet"? Sams links four occurrences of the name: the first addresses the case of the Stratford woman named Katherine Hamlett, who drowned in the Avon in 1579; a second calls attention to the surname of Shakespeare's "best friend" and contemporary in Stratford, Hamlet Sadler; a third is the name for Shakespeare's son in 1585; the fourth is the transformation of "Amleth" (an anagram of "Hamlet") into the name of the character and play. He links these occurrences as follows: Hamlet "would have seemed an apt title for a 1589 Shakespeare play which begins with a father, a son and a best friend, and goes on to describe a woman's death by drowning, an inquest, and a debate about burial in consecrated ground" ("Taboo," 19).
3. who was Nashe pointing to? Sams answer is Shakespeare. He claims that the term "noverint" can refer to Shakespeare because he "probably [worked] as a lawyer's clerk in Stratford" ("Taboo," 20); he declares that "Kyd and Shakespeare were the only notable non-University playwrights of the period" ("Taboo," 20) and that Nashe means them both: Kyd with the Æsop reference, Shakespeare with the "Hamlet" one ("Taboo," 20).
4. when did Harvey annotate his edition of Speght's Chaucer? In 1598, Gabriel Harvey wrote that date in his copy of Speght's Chaucer. Among his marginalia is the following: "The younger sort takes much delight in Shakespeare's Venus, & Adonis: but his Lucrece, & his tragedie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, haue it in them to please the wiser sort" ("Taboo," 16). Contrary to the standard explanation of Hamlet scholars, who claim that there is no necessary relationship between Harvey's dating his copy of Chaucer and making notes therein, Sams argues that the sensible interpretation is that Harvey dated his book and wrote the marginalia close together in time. He notes further that Harvey writes as though Shakespeare's Hamlet were contemporary with Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece ("Taboo," 24). Further, since Harvey appears to be referring to the three Shakespearean works as printed texts, the argument requires Sams to invent a lost edition of the "Ur-Hamlet" so that Harvey can have the book in hand by 1598. Sams dates that lost edition c. 1594 (Taboo, 25; made explicit in Real Shakespeare, 123).
5. why did not Meres include Hamlet in Palladis Tamia? According to Sams, Meres was guided by the rhetorical desire to balance "six examples of excellence in comedy against six in tragedy (including history)" ("Taboo," 26). Additionally, the "Ur-Hamlet," though written (and by another of Sams's arguments, in print), Meres might not have known of the play if it had not been recently played ("Taboo," 26).
6. what happens to texts as they move in time through the hands of changing player organizations? Sams tracks the "Ur-Hamlet" into the company of Pembroke's men in 1592-3, then to the Chamberlain's men. He sees Shakespeare bringing "his own early plays with him, such as Titus, A Shrew and Hamlet, all written c. 1589" ("Taboo," 21). He sees Shakespeare's hand in the conversion of "Ur-Hamlet" into Q1, then Q2 and F ("Taboo," 26ff).

Relation to Der Bestrafte Brudermord oder Prinz Hamlet aus Dännemark (Fratricide Punished)

Bullough gives the specifics on the textual provenance of Der Bestrafte Brudermord as follows: "The extant text comes from a manuscript dated 27 October 1710, not now available" (7, 20). That there were earlier texts is deduced from its putative stage history. Bullough says merely that it is "an English play probably taken over to the Continent by English actors before 1626 (7, 20). Others, depending on their perception of the relationship of the German play to the "Ur-Hamlet" and Q1, conjecture a Continental tour sometime in the 1590s. Chambers describes the touring of Robert Browne, who was perhaps the most peripatetic of the English players, on Continental visits from 1590 into 1620 with much time spent in Germany (II, 273-86). Morgan, who is perhaps the staunchest advocate for the relation of Der Bestrafte Brudermord to the "Ur-Hamlet" (using it, in fact, as its substitute in his parallel-text edition), opines that the "play was performed by English actors in German earlier than the appearance in England of the First Quarto" (xix). Duthie, in contrast, has an investment in the German play's being an off-shoot of Q1, itself an off-shoot of Q2 (at the least). He argues that "the most reasonable working hypothesis [is] the supposition that, when the play to be taken to the continent was compiled, the Q2 text—or a text close to it—was already in existence, and that the compiler or compilers relied mainly upon their recollection of that, from which however they deviated at certain points, incorprating in their version material taken in some cases from the Q1 text and in others from the Ur-Hamlet" (253-4). The main influence of the "Ur-Hamlet" for Duthie is the episode with the bandits (252); Evans clearly sets forth the arguments for much "Ur-Hamlet" matter in the German play, even as he decides against it.

Relation to Q1

The simplest explanation of the relation of Q1 to the "Ur-Hamlet" would be to call it a printing of the lost play, but not even Sams quite does that. Rather, explanations vary across three broad possibilities: (1) Q1 contains fossils of the lost play, and those fossils depend upon on the degree of scholarly projection from the collective Hamlets to the blank script of the "Ur-Hamlet," blank but for the phrase, Hamlet, revenge (which unhelpfully does not occur in the extant Hamlets); Q1 is a memorial reconstruction of the Shakespearean Hamlets of 1604-5 and 1623; (3) Q1 is a stage in the serial revision that texts underwent over time due to authorial choice, textual migration, and/or the demands of performance.

"Fossils" of "Ur-Hamlet" in Q1

Wilson thinks the manuscript of Q1 has "fossils of an old play still embedded in it" (Copy, 16). An example of a fossil is the "To be or not to be" speech, which he calls probably "pure 'ur-Hamlet'" (Copy, 25). (See Boas, above, who considers the last three acts of Q1 not Shakespearean [xlix]). However, Wilson also considers Q1 to be a memorial reconstruction laden with "botched 'ur-Hamlet' stuff" (Copy, 25). Further, he considers it "quite impossible" that Q1 was "printed direct from a manuscript which Shakespeare was in the act of revising years before"; consequently he feels "compelled ... to posit the existence of a tertium quid, some intermediate text which will link" the "Ur-Hamlet" and Q1 (Copy, 31, 33).

Menzer, who is inclined to attribute the "Ur-Hamlet" to Kyd (114, 138), attributes Q1 to Anonymous because it was made out of multiple textual and authorial materials: "the Q1 author has done what many other jobbing playwrights of the period did, which was rework a stock repertory play, patching it with the scraps of other literary artifacts" (114). He imagines Anonymous as constructing the script out of "his entire experience of Hamlet: as an audience member (of Shakespeare's Hamlet, perhaps; of the ur-Hamlet, perhaps; and countless other plays); as an actor (in Shakespeare's Hamlet certainly, in the ur-Hamlet, Spanish Tragedy, perhaps, and in other plays); and as a member of London's professional theater industry" (115). Menzer's argument rests strongly on the claim that, as they moved from one company to another, "players must have brought with them plays in book, plays in part, and play in mind" (136). The "Ur-Hamlet," provably in the repertory of the Chamberlain's men in 1594, was thus not only a "dramatic source" for Shakespeare but also a "memorial" one (138). When constructing his Hamlets, Shakespeare "may never have read or needed to read the book of the old Hamlet .... He had spoken it and heard it time and again. His rewrite braided memory and reading in a tight strand" (138).

"Infinitesimal" Relation

Duthie did not originate the hypothesis that Q1 was a memorial reconstruction of Q2, but his argument is the one to which all subsequent commentators look back. Lengthy as his summary is, it is important to represent him here in his own words:

The Q1 text post-dates [the authentic Shakespearian texts published later], and practically everything in it depends upon the full Shakespearian text of Q2 or upon a stage version of that.1 It is a memorial reconstruction, made for provincial performance by an actor who had taken the part of Marcellus and perhaps another part or parts in the full play, and who was able, when his memory failed, to write blank verse of his own in which he often incorporated reminiscences and quotations of countless passage scattered throughout the full text. The only document to which he had access was the manuscript part of Voltemar, or a copy of that. The reporter's work was revised and to some extent amplified by himself or by a second agent (perhaps an actor too). In at least one particular (the position of the "nunnery" scene) Q1 represents an alteration of the texts published later in Q2 and F1: the reporter may himself have been responsible for this, or it may have appeared in a previous stage version of the Q2 text. At other points the reporter incorporated the phraseology and characteristics of the pre-Shakespearian Hamlet, for the existence of which there is good evidence: he may have done this deliberately or involuntarily. But the debt of the Q1 text to this old Hamlet is infinitesimal when compared with its debt to the Q2 text.

1 But the reporter's knowledge extended beyond the F1 text, since in Q1 xii 3 there is a quotation from a line in Iv iv omitted by F1 as part of a theatrical cut.

Q1 as a stage in the evolution of the "Ur-Hamlet" into the Hamlets of 1604-5 and 1623

This hypothesis implies that the "Ur-Hamlet" is the earliest member of a "Hamlet" family of texts for which specific authorship and date of composition are less relevant that the fact of textual revision by one or many hands over time.

Sams considers the evidence of "title, name, topical controversy, genre, company, theatre and role, … [plus] ordinary common sense" to "lead straight to the expression of U ———> Q1" (""U" is Sams's abbreviation of the "Ur-Hamlet" ["Taboo," 26]). His tireless, relentless efforts to identify the "Ur-Hamlet" and Q1 with Shakespeare suggest that he would not welcome any hand or mind into the authorial process of "Hamlet" texts except that of "the habitual reviser Shakespeare" ("Taboo," 41).

Marino argues that texts with extremely similar names were perceived by "Elizabethan and Jacobean witnesses" as the same play (75). Consequently, he sees "no evidence for any contemporary sense of two separate Hamlets (75). For better or worse, due to serial revision, "the entire surviving text of the ur-Hamlet" (i.e., the ghost's cry) vanished over time (75). He considers the printed versions of Hamlet to be "intermediary stages" of the play-complex, "none [of which] can persuasively be put forward as the ur-Hamlet (76). In sum, "[t]he Hamlet of 1589 and 1594 may have … differed enormously from the Hamlet of 1604, as indeed the Hamlets of 1589 and 1594 may hypothetically have differed from one another, but the so-called ur-Hamlet might also have resembled the later versions too closely to be treated as a separate play" (77).

Projected Content

A popular academic game has been to guess at the nature of the "Ur-Hamlet" by way of the Hamlets published in 1603, 1604-5, and 1623. Scholars have projected backwards elements of narrative, structure, and style, turning it into a dumping grounds for whatever they find problematic in the extant Hamlets. Also, it is commonplace for scholars to declare that contemporaries (i.e., Nashe and Lodge) found the "Ur-Hamlet" "rather ridiculous" (Hibbard, 13) and "a joke" due to its longevity (Marino 75).

Smith, surveying scholarly attempts over time to reconstruct the lost play, addresses "the imaginary status of the Ur-Hamlet" (189-90, n. 3). In that survey, she illustrates the ways in which reconstructions of the lost play have served larger designs in the community of Shakespearean scholars. Her conclusion is excerpted here:

The case of the Ur-Hamlet is … an illuminating case study in the methods of traditional bibliography. In its stress on [physical texts], the New Bibliography sought to return to the idealised and immaterial originals of Shakespeare's plays, stripping away the interventions of printed publication to arrive at a manuscript. In its retrogressive search for the Ur-Hamlet, the hypothetical nature and the seductive, primogenitary allure of all such inferred textual origins and originals are laid bare. The various accounts of the Ur-Hamlet by eminent textual scholars seem to be entirely learned, entirely rational and entirely plausible, yet their foundations are extraordinarily insubstantial. Its presumed crudeness highlights Shakespeare's artistry; its bloodthirstiness explains some vestiges of sanguinariness. The Ur-Hamlet is at once inferior to the greatness of Hamlet, and a prerequisite of that greatness. As this textual foil does not exist, it has been invented. As a scapegoat it can take on itself those qualities from which bibliographers want to dissociate Shakespeare: it functions as an ongoing, even a necessary supplement to the canonic centrality of Hamlet itself. … [T]he Ur-Hamlet is a creature of fantasy dressed in the pseudo-science of late Victorian bibliographic invention and of Bardolatry. It is a ratiocinative aberration, as if the Ur-Hamlet's near contemporary Sherlock Holmes had spun an entirely fallacious deduction on a couple of faint clues.

Morgan and Gray published full texts of the "Ur-Hamlet." Morgan's was actually the German Der Bestrafte Brudermord, provided in parallel text format with Shakespeare's Q1604. In the German play, Morgan claims, "here at last we find a vestige of the very Ur-Hamlet we are searching for; and …, if we translate this BRUDERMORD back into English we will arrive at a very fair conception indeed of what … Ur-Hamlet was like" (xix). Gray takes a different approach. His goal is to recreate Kyd's play, and he proceeds "with confidence [to] assign to Kyd whatever there is in the Fratricide Punished [Brudermord] that is not derived from Shakespeare and clearly not due to the German redactor of the play" (158). He takes the Prologue from the German play and the rest from Belleforest as he imagines Kyd to have done. He provides a synopsis of 24 actions, occasionally providing detail: "Hamlet and Ophelia make love to each other in euphuistic couplets" (271). His redaction bears a striking resemblance to The Spanish Tragedy, which he thinks is a later play than Kyd's "Hamlet" (270, n. 12).

Bullough provides an accessible and thorough commentary on the contents of the "Ur-Hamlet" and thereby documents how very recently it was a scholarly given that the lost play was knowable by way of the Shakespearean Hamlets (VII, 15-59).

For What It's Worth

In Satiromastix (Q1602), Thomas Dekker has Tucca, the blowhard captain whose speech is a patois of theatrical allusions, address Asinius Bubo (Horace-Jonson's creature) with the following line: "My name's Hamlet reuenge: —thou hast been at Parris garden hast not?" (Bowers, Vol. 1; IV.i.121). Since Shakespeare's Hamlet might have been on the stage when Dekker composed the line, it is not possible to determine how many layers the allusion has. At least three are likely: the "Ur-Hamlet," as indicated by the phrase, "Hamlet revenge," which Lodge's allusion made famous; Shakespeare's Hamlet, which by many chronologies was on stage at the Globe, c. 1601; and the precinct of the Swan playhouse (Paris Garden), a venue Tucca ribs Horace-Jonson about having graced in references to The Spanish Tragedy and "The Isle of Dogs" (Bowers, I; IV.i.131-6).

In The NIght-Raven, Samuel Rowlands also uses the one phrase plausibly a feature of the "Ur-Hamlet." In the poem, "Of two euills chuse the least," he presents a scrivener, writing away in his shop, when two villains rob him of his hat and cloak (he chases after the thief with his hat, enabling the other thief to steal his cloak from the unattended shop). His only remedy is to vow revenge: "I will not cry Hamlet Reuenge my greeues,/ But I will call Hang-man Reuenge on theeues" (D2). The publication date of the poems in 1620 separates this use of the famous phrase even farther from the known stage life of in the "Ur-Hamlet" than does Dekker's use in 1601-2.

Q1, Scene xiv, appears to the most troublesome one to those who would disassociate the "Ur-Hamlet" from the acknowledged Shakespearean texts of 1604-5 and 1623. See Duthie, pp. 150-68 as he struggles with the absence of a counterpart in Hamlets dated post-1603.

Works Cited

Boas, Frederick S., ed. The Works of Thomas Kyd. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1901. (Internet Archive)
Bowers, Fredson, ed. The Dramatic Works of Thomas Dekker. 4 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1962.
Bullough, Geoffrey, ed. Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare. 8 vols. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1957-75.
Erne, Lukas. Beyond The Spanish Tragedy: A Study of the Works of Thomas Kyd. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001.
Evans, M. Blakemore. "'Der Bestrafte Brudermord' and Shakespeare's 'Hamlet'." Modern Philology, 2.3 (1905): 433-449.
Freeman, Arthur. Thomas Kyd: Facts and Problems. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967.
Gosse, Edmund, ed. The Complete Works of Thomas Lodge. 4 vols. Glasgow, The Hunterian Club, 1883. (Vol. 4)
Gray, Henry David. "Reconstruction of a lost play." Philological Quarterly, 7 (1928): 254-74.
Hibbard, G. R., ed. Hamlet. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Honigmann, E. A. J. "Shakespeare's 'Lost Source-Plays'," The Modern Language Review, 49.3 (1954): 293-307.
Marino, James J. Owning William Shakespeare: The King's Men and Their Intellectual Property. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.
McKerrow, Ronald B., ed. The Works of Thomas Nashe. 5 vols. London: A. H. Bullen, 1905. (Internet Archive)
Menzer, Paul. The Hamlets Cues, Qs, and Remembered Texts. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2008.
Morgan, Appleton (intr.). Hamlet and the Ur-Hamlet. New York: The Shakespeare Society of New York, 1908.
Sams, Eric. The Real Shakespeare: Retrieving the Early Years, 1564-1594. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.
— — — "Taboo or Not Taboo? The Text, Dating and Authorship of Hamlet, 1589-1623." Hamlet Studies, 10 (1988): 12-46.
Smith, Emma. "Ghost Writing; Hamlet and the Ur-Hamlet" in Andrew Murphy (ed.), The Renaissance Text: Theory, Editing, and Textuality. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000. 177-90.
Wilson, J. Dover. The Copy for 'Hamlet' 1603 and The 'Hamlet' Transcript 1593. London: Alexander Moring, 1918.
— — —, ed. Hamlet. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1936.

Site created and maintained by Roslyn L. Knutson, Professor of English, Emerita, University of Arkansas at Little Rock; created 19 November 2012; updated 9 December 2012.