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
The earliest reference to Hamlet, by the poet Gabriel Harvey. Geoffrey Chaucer, The Workes, 1598. British Library, Additional MS. 42518, f. 422v. Larger image

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.

Early performances

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 lifetime.

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. (The British Library copy is dated 1605.)
  • 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 of 1622.
  • 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.

British Library copies of Hamlet contains detailed bibliographic descriptions of all the quarto copies of the play.

Shakespeare’s sources

A handful of sources contributed significantly to the creation of Hamlet.

  • 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
    Titlepage. Thomas Kyd, The Spanish Tragedie, 1615. British Library, C.117.b.36. Larger image

  • 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 the Ghost.

Story of the play

The action of Hamlet takes place at Elsinore in Denmark.

(Act 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.

(Act 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 guilt.

John Barrymore as Hamlet, 'Oh what a rogue and peasant slave am I'
Listen  Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2. British Library Sound Archive, 1928

(Act 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 mad.

Herbert Beerbohm Tree as Hamlet, 'To be or not to be'
Listen  Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1. British Library Sound Archive, 1906

Johnstone Forbes-Robertson as Hamlet, 'Speak the speech, I pray you'
Listen  Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 2. British Library Sound Archive, 1928

(Act 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'
Listen  Hamlet, Act 4, Scene 4. British Library Sound Archive, 1931

(Act 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 royal ceremony.

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