Sources for Hamlet

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Hamlet is based on a Norse legend composed by Saxo Grammaticus in Latin around 1200 AD. The sixteen books that comprise Saxo Grammaticus’ Gesta Danorum, or History of the Danes, tell of the rise and fall of the great rulers of Denmark, and the tale of Amleth, Saxo’s Hamlet, is recounted in books three and four. In Saxo’s version, King Rorik of the Danes places his trust in two brothers, Orvendil and Fengi. The brothers are appointed to rule over Jutland, and Orvendil weds the king’s beautiful daughter, Geruth. They have a son, Amleth. But Fengi, lusting after Orvendil’s new bride and longing to become the sole ruler of Jutland, kills his brother, marries Geruth, and declares himself king over the land. Amleth is desperately afraid, and feigns madness to keep from getting murdered. He plans revenge against his uncle and becomes the new and rightful king of Jutland. Saxo’s story was first printed in Paris in 1514, and Francois de Belleforest translated it into French in 1570, as part of his collection of tragic legends, Histoires Tragiques. Saxo’s text did not appear in English until 1608, so either Shakespeare was fluent in French or he used another English source based on the French translation. Generally, it is accepted that Shakespeare used the earlier play based on this Norse legend by Thomas Kyd, called the Ur-Hamlet. There is no surviving copy of the Ur-Hamlet and the only information known about the play is that it was performed on the London stage; that it was a tragedy; that there was a character in the play named Hamlet; and a ghost who cried “Hamlet, revenge!”