Ur-Hamlet

Ur-Hamlet

The "Ur-Hamlet" (the German prefix Ur- means "primordial") is the name given to a theoretical play, believed lost, that may have been extant before 1589, a decade before the earliest known version of Shakespeare's "Hamlet".

In 1589 Thomas Nashe implies the existence of such a play in his introduction to Robert Greene's "Menaphon":

:English Seneca read by candle-light yields many good sentences, as "Blood is a begger", and so forth; and if you entreat him fair in a frosty morning, he will afford you whole Hamlets, I should say handfuls of tragical speeches. [Nashe quoted in Jenkins, p.83]

There is also a record of a performance of "Hamlet" in 1594 in Philip Henslowe's diary and in 1596 Thomas Lodge wrote of "the ghost which cried so miserably at the theatre, like an oyster-wife, Hamlet, revenge!" [Jenkins, p.83] Nashe makes allusions to Thomas Kyd in the same passage and because of this and claimed similarities between the Shakespearean "Hamlet" and Kyd's "The Spanish Tragedy", it has often been posited that Kyd was the author of the "Ur-Hamlet". [Jenkins, p.83-4]

However, with the absence of a copy of the play making stylistic and linguistic comparison impossible, there is no direct evidence of Kyd's authorship, nor is there any evidence the play was not an early version by Shakespeare himself. In this regard, a few Shakespeare scholars, including Harold Bloom, have accepted Peter Alexander's case that Shakespeare himself was the author of the "Ur-Hamlet", and that the later play is a reworking by the author of one of his own earliest works. [Bloom, pp. xiii, 383] This belief was also held by Prof. Alfred Cairncross, who stated that "It may be assumed, until a new case can be shown to the contrary, that Shakespeare's Hamlet and no other is the play mentioned by Nash in 1589 and Henslowe in 1594." [Alfred F. Carincross, The Problem of Hamlet: A Solution, London, Mcmillan, 1936] This view is upheld by anti-Stratfordians, who believe that there was no "Ur-Hamlet", and that the references are merely signs that the Shakespearean "Hamlet" was written earlier than the generally accepted date, and revised on numerous occasions. [Charlton Ogburn Jr., The Mystery of William Shakespeare, Cardinal, 1988, pg 631] Harold Jenkins ["All students of "Hamlet" are in debt to Harold Jenkins for the results of his patient and exacting research." — Edwards, p. ix] dismisses this assertion. [Jenkins, p. 84, note 4] [ As Bloom is basing his opinion on the 1964 "Alexander's Introduction to Shakespeare" there is no reason to assume post-1982 (the year of Jenkins's book) scholarship has changed the terms of the argument.]

How much of the "Ur-Hamlet", regardless of who its author was, survives or is utilised in the Shakespeare play — or if it even existed — is impossible to ascertain. Shakespeare may have ignored the play, using earlier versions of the "Amleth" (or "Hamblet") legend to put together the story (see Sources for "Hamlet"), and in the course of it inventing the ghost and much else. But the surviving references to the "ur-Hamlet" suggest it was well-known, at least to London writers such as Nashe and Lodge — and presumably to their fellow playwright Shakespeare. So it is possible that he used the contemporary play, perhaps in great detail, and took what else he needed from available versions of the old legend. He worked that way in other plays (most notably, "Henry IV, Part 1", where he used Holinshed as well as an extant play).

Saxo Grammaticus wrote of Hamlet, Amleth or Amlóði (Norse for "mad", "not sane") in his Gesta Danorum some 400 years prior. It is believed the original tale was contained in the lost Skjöldunga saga and may have been a traditional Scandinavian tale.

ee also

Notes

References

* Bloom, Harold, "Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human". New York, 1998.
*"Hamlet, Prince of Denmark", Philip Edwards, ed. Cambridge, 2003. Original Edition 1985. (New Cambridge Shakespeare)
*"Hamlet", Harold Jenkins, ed. Methuen & Co., 1982. (The Arden Shakespeare, Second Series)


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