1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Hamlet

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HAMLET, the hero of Shakespeare’s tragedy, a striking figure in Scandinavian romance.

The chief authority for the legend of Hamlet is Saxo Grammaticus, who devotes to it parts of the third and fourth books of his Historia Danica, written at the beginning of the 13th century. It is supposed that the story of Hamlet, Amleth or Amloði,[1] was contained in the lost Skjöldunga saga, but we have no means of determining whether Saxo derived his information in this case from oral or written sources. The close parallels between the tale of Hamlet and the English romances of Havelok, Horn and Bevis of Hampton make it not unlikely that Hamlet is of British rather than of Scandinavian origin. His name does in fact occur in the Irish Annals of the Four Masters (ed. O’Donovan, 1851) in a stanza attributed to the Irish Queen Gormflaith, who laments the death of her husband, Niall Glundubh, at the hands of Amhlaiðe in 919 at the battle of Ath-Cliath. The slayer of Niall Glundubh is by other authorities stated to have been Sihtric. Now Sihtric was the father of that Olaf or Anlaf Cuaran who was the prototype of the English Havelok, but nowhere else does he receive the nickname of Amhlaiðe. If Amhlaiðe may really be identified with Sihtric, who first went to Dublin in 888, the relations between the tales of Havelok and Hamlet are readily explicable, since nothing was more likely than that the exploits of father and son should be confounded (see Havelok). But, whoever the historic Hamlet may have been, it is quite certain that much was added that was extraneous to Scandinavian tradition. Later in the 10th century there is evidence of the existence of an Icelandic saga of Amlóði or Amleth in a passage from the poet Snaebjorn in the second part of the prose Edda.[2] According to Saxo,[3] Hamlet’s history is briefly as follows. In the days of Rorik, king of Denmark, Gervendill was governor of Jutland, and was succeeded by his sons Horvendill and Feng. Horvendill, on his return from a Viking expedition in which he had slain Koll, king of Norway, married Gerutha, Rorik’s daughter, who bore him a son Amleth. But Feng, out of jealousy, murdered Horvendill, and persuaded Gerutha to become his wife, on the plea that he had committed the crime for no other reason than to avenge her of a husband by whom she had been hated. Amleth, afraid of sharing his father’s fate, pretended to be imbecile, but the suspicion of Feng put him to various tests which are related in detail. Among other things they sought to entangle him with a young girl, his foster-sister, but his cunning saved him. When, however, Amleth slew the eavesdropper hidden, like Polonius, in his mother’s room, and destroyed all trace of the deed, Feng was assured that the young man’s madness was feigned. Accordingly he despatched him to England in company with two attendants, who bore a letter enjoining the king of the country to put him to death. Amleth surmised the purport of their instructions, and secretly altered the message on their wooden tablets to the effect that the king should put the attendants to death and give Amleth his daughter in marriage. After marrying the princess Amleth returned at the end of a year to Denmark. Of the wealth he had accumulated he took with him only certain hollow sticks filled with gold. He arrived in time for a funeral feast, held to celebrate his supposed death. During the feast he plied the courtiers with wine, and executed his vengeance during their drunken sleep by fastening down over them the woollen hangings of the hall with pegs he had sharpened during his feigned madness, and then setting fire to the palace. Feng he slew with his own sword. After a long harangue to the people he was proclaimed king. Returning to England for his wife he found that his father-in-law and Feng had been pledged each to avenge the other’s death. The English king, unwilling personally to carry out his pledge, sent Amleth as proxy wooer for the hand of a terrible Scottish queen Hermuthruda, who had put all former wooers to death, but fell in love with Amleth. On his return to England his first wife, whose love proved stronger than her resentment, told him of her father’s intended revenge. In the battle which followed Amleth won the day by setting up the dead men of the day before with stakes, and thus terrifying the enemy. He then returned with his two wives to Jutland, where he had to encounter the enmity of Wiglek, Rorik’s successor. He was slain in a battle against Wiglek, and Hermuthruda, although she had engaged to die with him, married the victor.

The other Scandinavian versions of the tale are: the Hrolfssaga Kraka,[4] where the brothers Helgi and Hroar take the place of the hero; the tale of Harald and Halfdan, as related in the 7th book of Saxo Grammaticus; the modern Icelandic Ambales Saga,[5] a romantic tale the earliest MS. of which dates from the 17th century; and the folk-tale of Brjám[6] which was put in writing in 1707. Helgi and Hroar, like Harald and Halfdan, avenge their father’s death on their uncle by burning him in his palace. Harald and Halfdan escape after their father’s death by being brought up, with dogs’ names, in a hollow oak, and subsequently by feigned madness; and in the case of the other brothers there are traces of a similar motive, since the boys are called by dogs’ names. The methods of Hamlet’s madness, as related by Saxo, seem to point to cynanthropy. In the Ambales Saga, which perhaps is collateral to, rather than derived from, Saxo’s version, there are, besides romantic additions, some traits which point to an earlier version of the tale.

Saxo Grammaticus was certainly familiar with the Latin historians, and it is most probable that, recognizing the similarity between the northern Hamlet legend and the classical tale of Lucius Junius Brutus as told by Livy, by Valerius Maximus, and by Dionysius of Halicarnassus (with which he was probably acquainted through a Latin epitome), he deliberately added circumstances from the classical story. The incident of the gold-filled sticks could hardly appear fortuitously in both, and a comparison of the harangues of Amleth (Saxo, Book iv.) and of Brutus (Dionysius iv. 77) shows marked similarities. In both tales the usurping uncle is ultimately succeeded by the nephew who has escaped notice during his youth by a feigned madness. But the parts played by the personages who in Shakespeare became Ophelia and Polonius, the method of revenge, and the whole narrative of Amleth’s adventure in England, have no parallels in the Latin story.

Dr. O. L. Jiriczek[7] first pointed out the striking similarities existing between the story of Amleth in Saxo and the other northern versions, and that of Kei Chosro in the Shahnameh (Book of the King) of the Persian poet Firdausi. The comparison was carried farther by R. Zenker (Boeve Amlethus, pp. 207-268, Berlin and Leipzig, 1904), who even concluded that the northern saga rested on an earlier version of Firdausi’s story, in which indeed nearly all the individual elements of the various northern versions are to be found. Further resemblances exist in the Ambales Saga with the tales of Bellerophon, of Heracles, and of Servius Tullius. That Oriental tales through Byzantine and Arabian channels did find their way to the west is well known, and there is nothing very surprising in their being attached to a local hero.

The tale of Hamlet’s adventures in Britain forms an episode so distinct that it was at one time referred to a separate hero. The traitorous letter, the purport of which is changed by Hermuthruda, occurs in the popular Dit de l’empereur Constant,[8] and in Arabian and Indian tales. Hermuthruda’s cruelty to her wooers is common in northern and German mythology, and close parallels are afforded by Thrytho, the terrible bride of Offa I., who figures in Beowulf, and by Brunhilda in the Nibelungenlied.

The story of Hamlet was known to the Elizabethans in François de Belleforest’s Histoires tragiques (1559), and found its supreme expression in Shakespeare’s tragedy. That as early as 1587 or 1589 Hamlet had appeared on the English stage is shown by Nash’s preface to Greene’s Menaphon: “He will afford you whole Hamlets, I should say, handfulls of tragical speeches.” The Shakespearian Hamlet owes, however, little but the outline of his story to Saxo. In character he is diametrically opposed to his prototype. Amleth’s madness was certainly altogether feigned; he prepared his vengeance a year beforehand, and carried it out deliberately and ruthlessly at every point. His riddling speech has little more than an outward similarity to the words of Hamlet, who resembles him, however, in his disconcerting penetration into his enemies’ plans. For a discussion of Shakespeare’s play and its immediate sources see Shakespeare.

See an appendix to Elton’s trans. of Saxo Grammaticus; I. Gollancz, Hamlet in Iceland (London, 1898); H. L. Ward, Catalogue of Romances, under “Havelok,” vol. i. pp. 423 seq.; English Historical Review, x. (1895); F. Detter, “Die Hamletsage,” Zeitschr. f. deut. Alter. vol. 36 (Berlin, 1892); O. L. Jiriczek, “Die Amlethsage auf Island,” in Germanistische Abhandlungen, vol. xii. (Breslau), and “Hamlet in Iran,” in Zeitschr. des Vereins für Volkskunde, x. (Berlin, 1900); A. Olrik, Kilderne til Sakses Oldhistorie (Copenhagen, 2 vols., 1892–1894).

  1. The word is used in modern Icelandic metaphorically of an imbecile or weak-minded person (see Cleasby and Vigfússon, Icelandic-English Dictionary, 1869).
  2. “’Tis said that far out, off yonder ness, the Nine Maids of the Island Mill stir amain the host—cruel skerry-quern—they who in ages past ground Hamlet’s meal. The good Chieftain furrows the hull’s lair with his ship’s beaked prow.” This passage may be compared with some examples of Hamlet’s cryptic sayings quoted by Saxo: “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....’ Also, as they passed the sand-hills, and bade him look at the meal, meaning the sand, he replied that it had been ground small by the hoary tempests of the ocean.”
  3. Books iii. and iv., chaps. 86-106, Eng. trans. by O. Elton (London, 1894).
  4. Printed in Fornaldar Sögur Norðtrlanda (vol. i. Copenhagen, 1829), analysed by F. Detter in Zeitschr. für deutsches Altertum (vol. 36, Berlin, 1892).
  5. Printed with English translation and with other texts germane to the subject by I. Gollancz (Hamlet in Iceland, London, 1898).
  6. Professor I. Gollancz points out (p. lxix.) that Brjám is a variation of the Irish Brian, that the relations between Ireland and the Norsemen were very close, and that, curiously enough, Brian Boroimhe was the hero of that very battle of Clontarf (1014) where the device (which occurs in Havelok and Hamlet) of bluffing the enemy by tying the wounded to stakes to represent active soldiers was used.
  7. “Hamlet in Iran,” in Zeitschrift des Vereins für Volkskunde, x. (Berlin, 1900).
  8. See A. B. Gough, The Constance Saga (Berlin, 1902).