This 1930 edition of Hamlet, illustrated by Edward Gordon Craig, is often regarded as the most bold and ambitious example of 20th-century book art. Elegantly put together, with obsessive attention to detail, it uses hand-made paper and decorated binding, fine images and beautiful typefaces to enhance the dramatic effect of Shakespeare’s play.

At the centre of each page is the text of Hamlet, from the second quarto edition (1604–05), interspersed with 80 striking woodcuts designed and carved by Edward Gordon Craig.

In the margins are extracts from two of Shakespeare’s probable sources:

  • A Latin Hamlet story by Saxo Grammaticus (starting on p. 4)
  • An English translation of the Latin by Oliver Elton, 1894 (p. 5)
  • A French Hamlet story by Belleforest , 1582 (p. 56)
  • An anonymous English version of Belleforest’s tale, The Hystorie of Hamblet, 1608 (p. 63)
  • A booklet of explanatory notes by John Dover Wilson, inserted in a pocket at the back

The meticulous design process was overseen by Count Harry Kressler (1868–1937), director of the famous Cranach-Presse in interwar Weimar Germany. As well as Gordon Craig’s woodcuts, Kressler used a typeface designed by Edward Johnston and a title page cut by Eric Gill. The book was first printed in German in 1928 and in English in 1930. This copy is number 131 of a run of only 300, printed with hand-presses on specially-made paper.

Who was Edward Gordon Craig (1872–1966)?

Craig had extensive experience working on Hamlet, as an actor, theorist, set designer and artist. He was born into a theatrical and creative family – the son of the renowned Shakespearean actor Ellen Terry and the architect Edward William Godwin – though he adopted the name of a Scottish island, Ailsa Craig, rather than taking the name of either parent.

From childhood Craig worked as an actor, playing Hamlet in 1894. He then branched into directing and radical theatre design, producing a powerful, minimalist set for the Moscow Art Theatre’s Hamlet in 1911–12. The small wooden figures used to model these sets became the inspiration for the woodcuts in this edition.

The French and Latin sources – Saxo Grammaticus and Belleforest – reproduced in this edition

The outline of the Hamlet tale first appears in the old, Norse folk-tale of Amleth. This Scandinavian legend was recorded in Latin around 1200 by the Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus and first printed in Paris in 1514. It is part of the collection of tales known as Gesta Danorum – a partially mythical history of the Danes.

It is likely that Shakespeare encountered the Amleth legend via an expanded French version, written by François de Belleforest (1530–1583) in his popular Histoires Tragiques (series 3, part 5). This is double the length of Saxo’s version, placing the savage Danish legend within a moral Christian framework. Belleforest strains to justify Amleth’s violence as a form of divine justice against his wicked uncle Fengo. The French writer also develops the role of the beautiful young lady employed to entrap Amleth. She becomes, not just a seducer but a woman more like Ophelia, in her selfless love of Amleth. Significantly also, Belleforest perhaps provides the inspiration for Shakespeare’s ghost through his description of the shade (or in French, ‘ombre’) of Amleth’s father.