Creation of the play
Hamlet has been dated to 1600, although Shakespeare apparently
added some topical references to his play in 1601. The period of
its creation is determined by its omission from the list of Shakespeare’s
plays given by Francis Meres in Palladis Tamia in 1598,
and its entry on the Stationers’ Register in 1602. The date
can be narrowed by the poet Gabriel Harvey’s note in his copy
of the 1598 edition of the works of Chaucer (now in the British
Library, Additional MS 42518). Harvey refers not only to Hamlet,
but also to the Earl of Essex before Essex’s execution on
25 February 1601.
The earliest reference
to Hamlet, by the poet Gabriel Harvey. Geoffrey Chaucer, The
Workes, 1598. British Library, Additional MS. 42518, f. 422v. Larger
Shakespeare’s play influenced John Marston in his Antonio’s
Revenge, which can be almost certainly dated to the winter
of 1600-1601. The topical reference concerns ‘little eyases’
who are ‘now the fashion’ and have been identified as
the boy actors established at Blackfriars from Michaelmas (29 September)
1600 who drew audiences away from the other theatres. The surviving
texts of Hamlet suggest that Shakespeare added a passage
referring to them after the play had been in performance for a while.
There are no references to early performances of Hamlet.
If the play dates to 1600, it is most likely to have been first
performed by the Lord
Chamberlain’s Men at the Globe.
The original Hamlet was probably Richard
Burbage. His successor in the title role was apparently Joseph
Taylor, who was a member of the company during Shakespeare’s
Publication in quarto and folio
There were seven editions of Hamlet before 1642.
- First quarto, 1603. A ‘bad’ quarto. Printed from
a manuscript believed to be of a memorial reconstruction of the
play by actors. The actor who played the minor role of Marcellus
is generally accepted as the principal source for the text. Despite
its shortcomings, the ‘bad’ quarto throws useful light
on the theatrical and textual history of Hamlet.
- Second quarto, 1604/5. A ‘good’ quarto. Printed
from a manuscript believed to be Shakespeare’s foul papers.
It also apparently used the first ‘bad’ quarto for
parts of the first act. The text is nearly twice as long as that
of the ‘bad’ quarto. The titlepage declares that the
play is ‘Newly imprinted and enlarged to almost as much
againe as it was, according to the true and perfect coppie’.
This quarto was printed over the period of the New Year, so some
copies are dated 1604 and some 1605. (1604 copy from the Folger
Shakespeare Library; 1605 copy from the British Library.)
- Third quarto, 1611. Printed from the second quarto.
- Fourth quarto, 1622. Printed from the third quarto. The titlepage
is undated, but modern scholarship suggests a publication date
- First folio, 1623. Printed from a manuscript thought to be a
transcript of a fair copy prepared from Shakespeare’s foul
papers. The fair copy was apparently intended to become the promptbook,
but was not afterwards used. The folio text also draws on the
second ‘good’ quarto. It omits lines found in the
‘good’ quarto, but adds others.
- Second folio, 1632. Printed from the first folio.
- Fifth quarto, 1637. Printed from the fourth quarto.
Hamlet was entered on the Stationers’ Register by
James Roberts on 26 July 1602. The first ‘bad’ quarto,
printed by Valentine Simmes for Nicholas Ling and John Trundell,
appeared in 1603. James Roberts printed the second ‘good’
quarto in 1604/5 for Nicholas Ling. Ling had established his copyright
in Hamlet by publishing the first quarto, and Roberts seems
to have agreed to the transfer while retaining the right to print
the play. Nicholas Ling passed his copyright to John Smethwick on
19 November 1607. Smethwick published the third quarto of Hamlet,
printed by George Eld, in 1611. He went on to publish the fourth
quarto, printed by William Stansby, probably in 1622, and the fifth
quarto, printed by R. Young, in 1637.
Library copies of Hamlet contains detailed bibliographic
descriptions of all the quarto copies of the play.
A handful of sources contributed significantly to the creation
- Ur-Hamlet. Contemporary references confirm that there
was an earlier play on the subject of Hamlet, although the text
does not survive in manuscript and was apparently never printed.
Its existence is shown as early as 1589, by Thomas Nash’s
reference to it in his preface to Robert Greene’s Menaphon
published that year. Thomas Kyd has been suggested as the author
of the Ur-Hamlet. His play The Spanish Tragedy
has been cited as an influence on Shakespeare’s Hamlet,
although both may depend on the Ur-Hamlet.
Titlepage. Thomas Kyd,
The Spanish Tragedie, 1615. British Library, C.117.b.36.
- Saxo Grammaticus, Danorum Regum Heroumque Historiae
(1514). Although this contains all the principal elements of Shakespeare’s
plot, it is unlikely that he knew Saxo’s work at first hand.
- Matteo Bandello, translated by François de Belleforest,
Le Cinquiesme Liure des Histoires Tragiques (1576). Hamlet
appears in the third story. Belleforest follows closely the events
in Saxo’s story of Hamlet. His version, directly or indirectly,
was a main source for Shakespeare. Belleforest’s account
may have influenced the character of Ophelia, and the role of
Story of the play
Note: the links below will take you to the page in the quarto where
each act begins, according to standard modern editions. (The quartos
themselves have no act divisions.) The quarto shown for each play
is always the earliest in the Library's collection - unless it is
a 'bad' quarto in which case it is the earliest 'good' quarto.
The action of Hamlet takes place at Elsinore in Denmark.
1) The ghost of Hamlet’s father appears to Horatio on
the battlements of Elsinore. Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle, has
married his mother Gertrude after his father’s death. Now
King and Queen of Denmark, they dissuade Hamlet from leaving the
country. Horatio tells Hamlet of the ghost. Hamlet meets the ghost
and learns that his father was murdered by Claudius. He swears revenge.
2) Ophelia tells her father Polonius of Hamlet’s strange
behaviour to her. He interprets it as lovesickness and reports it
to Claudius and Gertrude. Hamlet feigns madness as he seeks an opportunity
for his revenge. A group of travelling players arrive, and Hamlet
asks them to play The Murder of Gonzago to test the King’s
John Barrymore as Hamlet, 'Oh what a rogue and peasant slave am
Act 2, Scene 2. British Library Sound Archive, 1928
3) Hamlet rejects Ophelia cruelly, as Claudius, Gertrude, and
Polonius watch unseen. The Murder of Gonzago is played
before the assembled court, but is interrrupted when Claudius suddenly
rises and leaves. Hamlet is convinced that the King is guilty, but
he does not kill him when Claudius is ostensibly at prayer and vulnerable.
Hamlet visits his mother to persuade her to leave Claudius. He kills
Polonius, who is hiding behind the tapestry. When the ghost appears
again, but is invisible to Gertrude, she believes that Hamlet is
Herbert Beerbohm Tree as Hamlet, 'To be or not to be'
Act 3, Scene 1. British Library Sound Archive, 1906
Johnstone Forbes-Robertson as Hamlet, 'Speak the speech, I pray
Act 3, Scene 2. British Library Sound Archive, 1928
4) Hamlet is arrested and sent to England. Following her father’s
death, Ophelia has gone mad. She visits Claudius, Gertrude, and
her brother Laertes who has just returned from France. Claudius
encourages Laertes to take revenge on Hamlet for killing Polonius.
The Queen reports that Ophelia has drowned.
John Gielgud as Hamlet, 'How all occasions do inform against me'
Act 4, Scene 4. British Library Sound Archive, 1931
5) Hamlet, returned to Denmark, encounters a gravedigger. Ophelia’s
funeral procession arrives. Hamlet reveals himself to Laertes and
the other mourners. Claudius arranges a fencing match between Hamlet
and Laertes, before the assembled court. He puts poison in a cup
of wine, but Gertrude drinks from it before it is passed to Hamlet.
Laertes wounds Hamlet with a poisoned rapier, but Hamlet takes the
weapon and uses it on Laertes. Hamlet then wounds Claudius with
the poisoned rapier. Hamlet dies. Fortinbras, Prince of Norway,
enters to find him dead, surrounded by the bodies of Claudius, Gertrude,
and Laertes. He commands that Hamlet be taken to his burial with