Table of Content
2 Saxo’s Historia Danica
3 Belleforest’s Histoires Tragiques
4 The Ur-Hamlet
5 Final conclusion
Like those of many other playwrights of his time, most story-lines of Shakespeare’s plays were not invented by himself. On the contrary, Shakespeare used a wide range of different sources – from ancient myths to historical facts, from northern legends to popular contemporary tales. In this respect, Hamlet is not an exception.
There are two early versions of the Hamlet story that definitely influenced Shakespeare in some way: the Historia Danica (or, The Danish History) by Saxo Grammaticus from the 12th century and the Histoires Tragiques by François de Belleforest from the 16th century. Furthermore, there is said to be another version from the late 16th century named the Ur-Hamlet, which might have had an impact on Shakespeare’s play as well. As there are, of course, countless similarities and differences between Shakespeare’s Hamlet and its predecessors, I will, in the following comparisons, concentrate on a few aspects that I consider essential.
2 Saxo’s Historia Danica
The eight-volume epic of traditional Danish legends by Saxo the Grammarian includes an episode about Amleth (as he is called in the English translation by Oliver Elton), son of Jutland’s King Horwendil. The story’s origin is an ancient nordic legend and the earliest known reference is a 9th-century poem by an author called Snaebjörn.
Similarities to Hamlet are evident at first sight: The king is murdered by his brother (Feng) who marries the widowed queen (Gerutha) and is later killed by Amleth. But maybe ‘the most significant link between Shakespeare’s Hamlet and the Saxo Grammaticus story about Amlethus is to be found in that part of the tale which describes the hero’s feigned madness.’ In Saxo’s tale, Amlethus is tested by a group of men who talk nonsense to him, receiving seemingly equally senseless responses:
Again, as he passed along the beach, his companions found the
rudder of a ship, which had been wrecked, and said they had
discovered a huge knife. “This,” said he, “was the right thing to
carve such a huge ham;” by which he really meant the sea.
Similarly, in the Shakespearean play, Hamlet is tested by Polonius:
Polonius Do you know me, my lord?
Hamlet Excellent, excellent well. You’re a fishmonger.
Polonius Not I, my lord.
Hamlet Then I would you were so honest a man. (2.2.174-177)
Although the scenarios are very different, they have the same meaning: They highlight Hamlet’s superiority to the people testing him and his rhetorical genius. He is not mad, but knows exactly what he is saying. ‘The peculiarity of Hamlet’s madness is that, no matter how insane his ravings may seem to his hearers, without exception they […] make perfect sense from Hamlet’s point of view.’
As a conclusion, one could argue that the Shakespearean version is still quite similar to Saxo’s that was written more than 400 years earlier. But one must not forget an important difference: Saxo’s Amleth knows from the beginning that his father has been murdered. Thus, his feigned madness is a mere attempt to protect himself: ‘Amleth beheld all this, but feared lest too shrewd a behaviour might make his uncle suspect him. So he chose to feign dulness, and pretend an utter lack of wits.’
 Cf. The Nine Books of the Danish History of Saxo Grammaticus, translated by Oliver Elton (New York: Norroena Society, 1905).
 Cf.Raymond Gardette, ‘Hamlet Le Danois: La Légende’, in Maurice Abiteboul (ed.), Lectures d'une œuvre: Hamlet de William Shakespeare (Paris: Edition du Temps, 1996), p. 129.
 Hans Sperber, ‘The Conundrums in Saxo‘s Hamlet Episode’, PMLA, 64 (1949), 864.
 ‘The Danish History of Saxo Grammaticus‘, <http://www.sacred-texts.com/ neu/saxo/>, 17 November 2004
 Harold R. Walley, ‘Shakespeare’s Conception of Hamlet’, PMLA, 48 (1933), 779.