This is the old, Norse folk-tale of Amleth, a literary ancestor of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The Scandinavian legend was recorded in Latin around 1200 by the Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus and first printed in Paris in this beautiful 1514 edition. It is part of the collection of tales known as Gesta Danorum – a partly mythical history of the Danes.
King Rørik of Denmark appoints two brothers, Horwendil and Fengo, as the rulers of Jutland. Horwendil slays the King of Norway, marries King Rørik’s daughter Gerutha, and they have a son named Amleth. Consumed by envy of his brother, Fengo murders Horwendil and marries his wife Gerutha. Amleth then feigns madness, clothing himself in rags and spouting nonsense, to shield himself from his uncle’s violence. In fact, the name ‘Amleth’ itself means ‘stupid’.
Yet Amleth’s behaviour attracts suspicion, and the King attempts to trap him into admitting he has plans for revenge. First, a beautiful woman is used to lure him into betraying himself, but she proves loyal to Amleth. Then a spy is planted to eavesdrop on Amleth’s conversation with his mother, in which she repents and he confesses his plans for revenge. Amleth detects the spy, kills him in a mad frenzy, throws his mutilated body in a sewer, and leaves it to be eaten by pigs. Fengo then deports Amleth to England with two escorts carrying a letter directing the King there to execute him. Amleth switches the letter with another one, which orders the death of the escorts and asks for the hand of the English Princess in marriage.
Returning to Denmark, Amleth arrives disguised, in the midst of his own funeral, burns down the hall and hunts down his sleeping uncle. Because Amleth had wounded himself on his sword, attendants had made it harmless by nailing it to the scabbard (the sheath used to hold it). Amleth swaps this useless sword with Fengo’s, succeeds in killing his uncle and next day is hailed as the King.
Scholars have debated how Shakespeare encountered the story. It is unlikely that he saw Saxo’s version first-hand, but he may have read a French adaptation in François de Belleforest’s Histoires tragiques (or Tragic Histories) first printed in 1571.
Nevertheless, Saxo’s account has many of the defining features of Shakespeare’s drama:
There are equivalents for Shakespeare’s central characters – old and young Hamlet, old and young Fortinbras, Claudius and Gertrude, Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. But Saxo has no ghost demanding vengeance, and the identity of the murderous uncle is known from the start. There is no Osric, no gravediggers or play within a play. The legend lacks a Laertes character and the young woman does not go mad or kill herself. Perhaps most crucially, Amleth lacks Hamlet’s melancholy disposition and long self-reflexive soliloquies, and he survives after becoming king.