This important source, Wits Miserie and the Worlds Madnesse (1596), contains a well-known reference to a play about Hamlet that appeared before Shakespeare’s tragedy was written in 1600–01. Here, Thomas Lodge (c. 1558–1625) describes a ghost calling for vengeance – a figure that seems (even in 1596) to have been familiar on the Elizabethan stage. The pale-faced devil is compared to the ‘ghost which cried so miserably at the Theator… Hamlet, revenge’ (p. 56).
Thomas Lodge was the son of the Lord Mayor of London and became a versatile playwright, poet, prose-writer and literary critic. His best-known work was Rosalynde (1590), a pastoral, prose romance and key source for Shakespeare’s As You Like It.
The play containing the ghost is now lost, but is known as the ur-Hamlet (‘ur’ meaning ‘original’ or ‘earliest’). It is often seen as a key source for Shakespeare’s drama on the same theme. The author of the ur-Hamlet is unknown, though many critics think it must have been Thomas Kyd who wrote The Spanish Tragedy (c. 1582–1592). Though the text seems never to have been published, there are two other crucial documents which refer to the lost play and confirm its existence.
- The earliest reference is found in Thomas Nash’s (or Nashe's) famous preface to Robert Greene’s Menaphon (1589). Nash gives a satirical overview of contemporary literature, condemning those who plunder the works of Seneca for ‘whole Hamlets – I should say handfulls – of tragical speaches’ (sig. 3r). A punning reference to ‘Kidde’ several lines later has added weight to the theory that Kyd also wrote the ur-Hamlet.
- There is another reference in the so-called ‘Diary’ of the theatrical entrepreneur, Philip Henslowe (1555/6–1616). In his book of accounts and memoranda (now held at Dulwich College), Henslowe says that a play called Hamlet was performed by his company at Newington Butts in June 1594.