“Hamlet” study help

Grace Chalhoub

Origins of “Hamlet”

Shakespeare, with the exception of “Love’s Labour’s Lost” and “The Tempest,” borrowed concepts and storylines for his plays from other works, including folk tales, mythologies and histories.

The story of Hamlet is derived from Saxo Grammaticus’ “Gesta Danorum” (“The History of Denmark”), a 13th-century compilation of the mythologies and legends of the Danish people.  “Gesta Danorum” was written only about 200 years after the region’s official conversion to Christianity in the late 10th-century. While Denmark may have officially adopted Christianity, pagan Nordic beliefs still prevailed, including the glorification of violence and revenge. These contrasting pagan and Christian themes are prevalent in “Vita Amlethi” (“The Life of Amleth”), a story about a prince who takes revenge on the killer of his father by faking madness.

In 1572, French author François de Belleforest translated the story of “Vita Amlethi” and included the tale in his compilation of stories “Histoires Tragiques,” embellishing the story with more psychological detail about the characters, heightened language, and clearer Christian influence.

In 1596, Shakespeare’s eleven-year-old son Hamnet died suddenly of illness. Scholars contest about whether Shakespeare may have derived the name ‘Hamlet’ as a variant of the name ‘Hamnet,’ or if ‘Hamlet’ is simply an Anglicization of ‘Amleth’.

One the of first references to “Hamlet” appears in an 1596 essay by Thomas Lodge, in which Lodge had written “Hamlet, revenge!”–5 years before Shakespeare had written or released his ‘Hamlet’ in 1601. Scholars have concluded that Lodge must have been referring to what is now called the Ur-“Hamlet,” the earlier version of “Hamlet,” now lost. Scholars credit several different writers with the authorship of the Ur-“Hamlet,” including Thomas Kyd (a contemporary of Shakespeare who wrote similar tragedies to “Hamlet”), Shakespeare himself, or some other English dramatist now lost to us.

Modern scholars do not know anything about who the author of the Ur-“Hamlet” is and what his views were, and they do not know how much of Shakespeare’s play is based off the Ur-“Hamlet.” If we knew the answers to these questions, we would better understand the intent of and messages in the drama.

Quartos vs. folios

On looking at two different versions of “Hamlet,” readers might find some discrepancies between the different texts. This is because Shakespeare’s plays were printed in two different formats: quartos and folios, both differing in size and content. The first quarto (Q1), or the first publication of the play, sometimes called the “bad” quarto, is considered to be unauthorized and most likely plagiarized. The second quarto (Q2) is sometimes referred to as the “good” quarto, although even Q2 may have inaccuracies. The quartos were published during Shakespeare’s lifetime.

In 1623, seven years after Shakespeare’s death, Shakespeare’s fellow actors and friends John Heminge and Henry Condell published “The First Folio,” a collection of 36 of Shakespeare’s plays which Heminge and Condell sought to preserve and restore as faithfully to the original as possible. The “Hamlet” folio (F) edition comes from “The First Folio.”

Most editions of “Hamlet” will be published in either Q2 or F format, with an index of passages from the other format somewhere in the book.

Religious context and ambiguities in “Hamlet”

The story of “Hamlet” has its roots in brutal Norse paganism, a religion that prioritized physical fortitude over moral strength, and formed the basis of a system of vengeance that would permeate Scandinavian life for centuries after the region’s conversion to Christianity. Vengeance was not only ethically acceptable, it was required by both the moral and social code that a family member avenge the death of their kin, resulting in a cycle of vengeance that could endure for decades.

The Norse heathenism that “Hamlet” inherited from its origins in “Gesta Danorum” is at odds in the text with Christianity and humanism, an intellectual and artistic movement associated with the Renaissance that discouraged brutal medievalism and encouraged elevated thought and philosophy.

In addition to the drama’s heathen origins, Catholicism and Protestantism are constantly at war in the text. Both Denmark and England were Protestant countries at the time that Shakespeare penned “Hamlet,” but no scholar is certain about Shakespeare’s personal religious beliefs. There is some evidence to suggest that Shakespeare’s mother was Catholic, or that Shakespeare was a Catholic sympathizer during a time when Catholicism was illegal to ensure loyalty to the Church of England.

In the drama itself, Hamlet attends Wittenberg, a Lutheran university in Germany, and he exhibits the Lutheran belief that prayer and repentance will save one’s soul when, in the scene when he is about to kill Claudius, Hamlet decides against killing his uncle because Claudius is praying and, being absolved, will go straight to heaven.

Purgatory, on the other hand, is a Catholic concept. Catholics believed that ghosts were souls from Purgatory that had come to speak with the living, and that the living should react kindly to ghosts and pray for them. Lutherans, meanwhile, condemned the idea of Purgatory, and believed that ghosts were demons from hell that had come to trick and damn the living in the form of a deceased loved one. Horatio reflects this belief in Act I.iv when he says to Hamlet regarding the ghost, “What if it tempt you toward the flood, my lord/Or to the dreadful summit of the cliff/That beetles o’er his base into the sea,/And there assume some other horrible form,/Which might deprive your sovereignty of reason/ And draw you into madness?” (I.iv.77-79).

One of the most troubling parts about the ghost is the theological inaccuracy that it poses. In Catholicism, Purgatorial ghosts could ask the living to pray for them, or perform good deeds, but they could not ask that someone avenge them. Revenge is condemned in the Bible, and a Purgatorial ghost could not go against the word of God, being under God’s will in Purgatory. This belief would explain why Hamlet hesitates to kill his uncle, and seeks proof that his uncle truly killed his father.

There are three possible explanations that scholars have entertained about the ghost besides the straightforward view that the ghost is the spirit of old King Hamlet come to demand revenge from his son:

  • Shakespeare included a Purgatorial ghost to make a statement about Catholicism—whether positive or negative.
  • The ghost is actually a demon from hell, tricking Hamlet into sin.
  • The ghost appears, but Hamlet hallucinates the voice. The ghost appears but speaks to no one else except Hamlet, and some scholars have pointed out that the ghost’s speech is similar to Hamlet’s. In the closet scene, Hamlet is the only one who can see and speak to the ghost. Still, this theory doesn’t explain how Hamlet knows that Claudius killed his father.

These are, of course, not all of the theories surrounding the ghost, but are some of the most popular.

Other ambiguities in “Hamlet”

Besides the ghost, there are many points of dispute in the text that have rendered the play controversial, and have also allowed for the endless amount of different interpretations of “Hamlet” since its performance in 1601.

  • Gertrude’s role in the death of her husband is often contested. The passage in Act I.v when King Hamlet’s ghost accuses Gertrude of adultery has often been cited as the proof that she helped kill her husband so that she could marry Claudius. However, adultery in Shakespearean English referred to sexual sins of any kind, and therefore could have alluded to her incestuous marriage. Contrary to Hamlet’s insisting that Gertrude lusts for Claudius, Gertrude never addresses Claudius affectionately in the text, which may suggest that she married him for political reasons rather than personal.
  • The Freudian reading of “Hamlet” suggests the possibility of Hamlet’s Oedipus complex.
  • Ophelia is one of the most controversial characters in “Hamlet,” because of the considerable amount of textual evidence that suggests that she consummated her relationship with Hamlet, which contradicts her traditional representation as a pure, tragic maiden. Hamlet’s “Get thee to a nunnery speech!” in Act III.1, Ophelia’s songs bemoaning the seduced and abandoned maiden in Act IV.5, Ophelia’s rue in the distribution of flowers in Act IV.5, and some of Hamlet’s pointed comments towards Polonius in Act II.2 (“Let her not walk i’ the sun” after Hamlet has already been identified with the sun by the puns on the words “son” and “sun” in Act I.2) have been cited as proof of Ophelia’s seduction and abandonment by Hamlet.
  • Upon reading the gravedigger scene in Q2, many first-time readers are shocked to learn that Hamlet is 30-years-old. However, Hamlet’s stated age contradicts his character. For example, in the play Hamlet is attending Wittenberg University. In Shakespeare’s time, the average age of students attending Oxford University was 17 years-old, and monarchs would begin attending university as early as 12 years-old. Additionally, Polonius, Laertes and other characters constantly emphasize Hamlet’s youth throughout the text. There’s a possibility that the gravedigger, as the fool archetype in the text, is humorously mistaken with his numbers, and has lost track of the years. Or, the age of Hamlet may have been set to 30 years-old to accommodate Richard Burbage, the actor that historians believe portrayed the first Hamlet, and who would have been in his thirties while playing the Dane. It is also worth noting that the quartos and folios contradict each other in age. In Q1 Hamlet is over the age of twelve, in Q2 Hamlet is 30-years-old, and in F Hamlet’s age is indiscriminate.

Importance of names

Hamlet–In 1596, Shakespeare’s eleven-year-old son Hamnet died (possibly from the plague). Scholars contest about whether Shakespeare may have derived the name ‘Hamlet’ from his the name ‘Hamnet,’ or if ‘Hamlet’ is simply an Anglicization of ‘Amleth,’ which means “madness” in Danish.

Claudius–“lame” in Latin. Claudius may have been named after Rome’s fourth emperor Claudius, who incestuously married his beautiful niece Agrippina and was later killed by her on behalf of her son Nero.

Gertrude–anglicization of the name ‘Gerutha,’ the name of the queen in “Vita Amlethi” and Belleforest’s “Histoires Tragiques.” Gertrude means “spear of God” in Old Germanic.

Polonius–“from Poland” in Latin. In the first Quarto Polonius was called Corambis, which is Latin for “reheated cabbage.”

Laertes–the name of the father of Odysseus in “The Odyssey.”

Ophelia–There are various etymological interpretations for the name Ophelia. It may be derived from the Greek word ophelos for “help,” or it may be a combination of the vowel ‘o’ (often signifying pain in Shakespeare) and the Greek word philos for love, meaning love of pain or pain in love.

Horatio—Latin form of the anglicized name “Horace,” which means “orator” in Latin. Horace was a famous Roman poet.

Rosencrantz– “rosary” in Danish. ‘Rosencrantz’ was the name of a Danish noble family.

Guildenstern–”golden star” in Danish. ‘Guildenstern’ was the name of a Danish noble family.

Some scholars claim that some characters in “Hamlet” have Greek or Latinate names to label them as outsiders in Denmark. Hamlet (anglicized form of ‘Amleth’), Gertrude (anglicized form of ‘Gerutha’), Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and Yorick (anglicized form of  Jørg) are the only names of Danish origin in the text.

Plant symbolism

Rosemary–symbolizes remembrance. It was used as a stimulant for the brain and to improve speech and memory. It also symbolizes new life in some areas of Europe, and was given to bridegrooms, or used to adorn marriage beds and corpses at funerals. Named in honor of the Virgin Mary, rosemary is known to grow on the sides of cliffs that lead into the sea (which recalls to mind Horatio’s speech to Hamlet about being tempted by the ghost to tumble down the cliffs into the sea).

Pansies–symbolizes thoughts.

Fennel–symbolizes strength, praiseworthiness and flattery. “To give fennel” was roughly the equivalent of giving a bouquet. It was used as an aphrodisiac and a general panacea, and was known to clear eyesight. It was also said to be a favorite food of snakes.

Daisies–symbolize innocence.

Columbines–symbolizes folly and cuckoldry. They were called ‘“columbines” because people thought that the flowers looked like doves or pigeons gathered together.

Rue–symbolizes regret. Rue was used as an herbal abortifacient.

Violets–symbolizes faithfulness and modesty (although in Elizabethan times violets also symbolized unfaithfulness). In his “ Generall Historie of Plants” (a book that Shakespeare may have been familiar with and consulted for the plant symbolism and uses in his plays), John Gerard claims that it would be a travesty for impure people to handle the beautiful violet.


Works cited