The legend of Hamlet dates to at least 400 years before Shakespeare. In around AD 1200 the Danish scholar Saxo Grammaticus (Saxo the Grammarian) wrote a History of the Danes which included the story of Amleth, a prince of Jutland. The tale was translated from its original Latin into French as part of François de Belleforest’s Histoires tragiques in 1570, and made its first appearance in English in 1608. Shakespeare wrote Hamlet in around 1600, which means that the tale from Saxo would have been available to him only in French.
There was, however, another source, this time in English: a play, now lost, referred to in Shakespearian circles as the ‘ur-Hamlet’. It is often ascribed to Thomas Kyd, the author of The Spanish Tragedy. We know about this early ‘Kydian’ Hamlet through several contemporary references.
These, then, one surviving text and one lost, were Shakespeare’s two known sources. He didn’t add a great deal in plot terms: Saxo/Belleforest has the murder by an uncle, the marriage to a submissive widow, the ghost (only in Belleforest), Hamlet feigning madness, the trip to England accompanied by two courtiers, the letter ordering Hamlet’s execution, the Ophelia-figure and the killing of a hidden spy. The main elements that appear only in Shakespeare’s version — but which themselves could have been taken from the ur-Hamlet — include the murder of Hamlet’s father in secret (in Saxo/Belleforest everybody knows about it), the use of a play ‘to catch the conscience of the king’, and the death of Hamlet in the melee that ends the play.
Such is the general state of scholarship on the sources for Hamlet. But an odd little fact exists. Shakespeare had a son called Hamnet — Hamnet, with an ‘n’. ‘Hamnet’ and ‘Hamlet’ are so close that Shakespeare must either have named his son after his play, or his play after his son. Hamnet was born in 1585, and Hamlet was written fifteen years later in 1600, and so the obvious conclusion is that it must have been the latter. However, complications immediately arise. Hamnet and his twin sister Judith were named after Shakespeare’s neighbours in Stratford, Hamnet and Judith Sadler. The spellings ‘Hamnet’ and ‘Hamlet’ seem to have been interchangeable in the records of the period: Hamnet Sadler was also recorded as ‘Hamlet’ Sadler.
Shakespeare’s son Hamnet died, aged eleven, in 1596. This was four years before Shakespeare came to write Hamlet.
What does this mean? There are several theories concerning the influence of Hamnet on Hamlet. The first is that father and son were not particularly close (Shakespeare spent all of Hamnet’s life away in London) and that the story of the Danish prince was just a random subject for a revenge tragedy: Hamnet was not in his mind. A second theory has Shakespeare turning to the Hamlet legend as a way of exploring his grief over the death of his son. This idea has recently been given a new spin by the critic Stephen Greenblatt, who has pointed out that certain strange features of Hamlet — particularly Hamlet’s protracted indecision about whether or not to act on the ghost’s advice — exist because Shakespeare wished to draw attention to the changeover from Catholic to Protestant burial rites, a changeover he had recently witnessed at his son’s graveside.
A third theory, however, gives Shakespeare as the author — or co-author — of the ur-Hamlet. This has several points in its favour. The chief suspect for the author of an early version of a famous play must be, in the absence of any convincing evidence to the contrary, the author of the famous play himself. The contemporary references would be to a lost play by Shakespeare himself (and, possibly, A.N. Other – Kyd?) called Hamlet. The dates for Hamnet’s birth now fit. Hamnet was born in 1585, and the ur-Hamlet was written some time in the mid 1580s. In this scheme of things, the choice of the Hamlet-legend as a subject for a play would have been made at the same time as Shakespeare named Hamnet after his neighbour. It would have been a christening-present.
It is an intriguing possibility. Shakespeare was twenty-one years old in 1585, just at the beginning of his playwrighting career. If he did indeed write his first Hamlet in that year, in a spirit of celebration at the birth, and perhaps with a happy ending — Saxo and Belleforest both have happy endings — it would probably not have occurred to him that in fifteen years’ time he would feel compelled to re-visit the play with a new, darker understanding of the bond between a father and a son.