The Mad Prince: A Closer Historical Look at Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”

The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, is a play written by William Shakespeare sometime between 1599 and 1602. Set in Denmark, the play dramatizes the murder of king Claudius by his nephew, Hamlet, who desired to avenge the death of his father. Hamlet is generally considered to be one of the most powerful and influential works of world literature. However, despite its literary and dramatic accolades, the play is not the result of Shakespeare’s original creativity. The story of Hamlet originally appeared in ancient Scandinavian folklore, which was passed down by word of mouth for generations. The first known physical copy of the story in writing appeared in the 12th century AD, by Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus, in his 16-volume record of Danish history, Gesta Danorum (Deeds of the Danes).

"Head of Hamlet, study" by Edwin Austin Abbey (1896)
“Head of Hamlet, study” by Edwin Austin Abbey (1896)

Evidently, the story of Amleth was already popular even before Shakespeare wrote his play. As Saxo Grammaticus’ Latin version was not translated into English for centuries after Shakespeare wrote his play, it is unlikely that Shakespeare could have read Saxo Grammaticus’ version firsthand – unless, of course, he was highly proficient in Latin. However, Shakespeare may also have read a French adaptation of François de Belleforest’s Histoires Tragiques (Tragic Histories), first printed in the early 1570s. This would have been more likely as, although the story itself was fairly accurate compared to its Latin predecessor, Belleforest embellished Saxo Grammaticus’ text and introduced the hero’s characteristic melancholy.

Legendary Swedish Theatre Actor Gösta Ekman (senior) as Hamlet (1934)
Legendary Swedish Theatre Actor Gösta Ekman (senior) as Hamlet (1934)

Cruelty, Vengeance, And Love: The Story Of A Real-Life Prince of Denmark

When Gervendill, the governor of Jutland died, he was succeeded by his sons Horvendill and Fengo. Horvendill killed Koll, the king of Norway and, on his return, married Gerutha, the daughter of Rorik Slyngebond, king of Denmark. Gerutha bore him a son. This son was known only by his nickname, Amleth. However, Horvendill’s brother Fengo murdered Horvendill out of jealousy and persuaded Gerutha to become his wife, by claiming that he had committed the crime to avenge her of a husband who had hated her. Amleth, who by this time was already a young man, feared he would share his father’s fate and pretended to be a madman. He clothed himself in rags and spouted nonsense to shield himself from his uncle’s violence. In fact, the name Amleth itself means ‘stupid’.

“The Mousetrap” in Hamlet by William Shakespeare, Serbian National Theatre, Novi Sad, 1927

Amleth’s behavior raised suspicion in his uncle Fengo, who attempted to trap him into admitting that he planned to avenge his father. Fengo first used Amleth’s beautiful foster sister to lure him into betraying himself. However, the girl proved to be loyal to Amleth. Fengo then planted a spy to eavesdrop on Amleth’s conversation with his mother, in which Amleth confessed his plans for revenge. Fortunately, Amleth detected the spy, killed him in a mad frenzy and threw his mutilated body in a sewer, to be eaten by pigs. In a final desperate attempt, Fengo then sent Amleth to England with two escorts carrying a sealed letter directing the King of England to execute him. Again, Amleth anticipated this plan. He switched the letter with another, which ordered the death of the escorts. He also asked for the hand of the Princess of England in marriage for good measure.

Liebig Pictures 1901, Series 500. Hamlet. Opera by Ambroise Thomas
Liebig Pictures 1901, Series 500. Hamlet. Opera by Ambroise Thomas

Amleth returned to Denmark with his new wife and arrived just in time for a funeral feast held to celebrate his supposed death. During the feast, Amleth plied the courtiers with wine and then promptly killed them in their drunken sleep by fastening them to woolen draperies of the hall with pegs he had sharpened during his feigned madness. He then set fire to the palace. Amleth killed Fengo with his own sword and was proclaimed king. Returning to Britain to fetch his wife, Amleth found that his father-in-law and Fengo had sworn a pact to avenge each other’s death. Unwilling to personally carry out his pledge, the British king sent Amleth as a proxy wooer for the hand of Scottish queen, Hermuthruda. The plot thickened as Hermuthruda, who had put all of her former wooers to death, fell in love with Amleth and married him. On Amleth’s return to Britain, his first wife told him of her father’s intended revenge. In the ensuing battle, Amleth won the day by displaying the fallen dead on stakes and thus terrified the enemy.  Amleth then returned to Jutland with his two wives and encountered the enmity of Wiglek, Rorik’s successor. Amleth’s luck had run out and Wiglek slayed Amleth in battle. Although Hermuthruda had vowed to die with her husband, she consented to marry Wiglek after her husband’s death. Amleth was buried on a plain in Jutland. Wiglek later died of illness but he was the father of Wermund from whom the royal line of Kings of Mercia descended.

Jean-Pierre Dantan (1800–1869), known as Dantan the Younger created this bust caricature of the opera singer Christina Nilsson (1843–1921) as Ophelia in Hamlet by Ambroise Thomas. Patinated terracotta plaster. 1868. Paris, Carnavalet Museum.
Jean-Pierre Dantan (1800–1869), known as Dantan the Younger created this bust caricature of the opera singer Christina Nilsson (1843–1921) as Ophelia in Hamlet by Ambroise Thomas. Patinated terracotta plaster. 1868. Paris, Carnavalet Museum.

Was the Legend of Amleth Older Than Gesta Danorum?

The first books of the Gesta Danorum discuss the distant and mythical past – in fact, a dragon fight that occurs in Book II does not seem out of place. The story of Amleth fits into this legendary section of the text. Saxo Grammaticus argues for the historicity of these stories by attributing them to sources. The Preface gives credit to sources such as Danish oral tradition and the Tylensium Industria (‘diligence of the men of Iceland’) who pursue a steady routine of study and devote all their time to improving their country’s knowledge of history.

Mignon Nevada as "Ophelia", glass negative photograph, circa 1910.
Mignon Nevada as “Ophelia”, glass negative photograph, circa 1910.

As it is not possible to confirm Saxo Grammaticus’s sources, there is no way of knowing what material they covered exactly or what Saxo Grammaticus may have added himself to the narrative. Nevertheless, there is enough evidence to suggest the Amleth legend is rooted in longstanding Scandinavian folklore. Apart from Gesta Danorum, there are five more medieval Danish chronicles that give truncated versions of the life of Amleth, namely Annales Ryenses (The Annals of Ryd), Annales Slesvicensis (The Annals of Slesvig), Runekrøniken (The Runic Chronicle), Gesta Danorum pa danskæ (The History of the Danes in Danish), and Sagnkrøniken (The Legend Chronicle). Dating from around two centuries before the Gesta Danorum, there was also a reference by an Icelandic poet to Amloði’s meal which referred to sand – this mirrors the event in the Gesta Danorum where, in his feigned madness, Amleth refers to the sand on the shore as flour that: “eadem albicantibus maris procellis permolita esse” (had been ground by the foaming billows when it was stormy). There may also be a link between this story and Scandinavian word for ‘fool’. As a common noun, amlóði is currently known in Icelandic as ‘an imbecile’ or ‘a weak person’. This noun survives in Norwegian dialect as amlod (‘a fool’).

Russian actor B. M. Alfonin as Lucianus in the play-within-a-play in Edward Gordon Craig and Constantin Stanislavski's production of Hamlet (1911)
Russian actor B. M. Alfonin as Lucianus in the play-within-a-play in Edward Gordon Craig and Constantin Stanislavski’s production of Hamlet (1911)

Saxo Grammaticus constructed his history by consulting a variety of many sources. However, although the text referenced different sources for the Amleth story, the narrative that is captured in the first books of Saxo Grammaticus, specifically explores the ideology of kingship. Amleth’s story is a text about Danish kings as well as a story that illustrates different principles of good and bad kingship. The text makes no pretense of being objective. In fact, it regularly interjects value judgements about a king’s actions. For example, in summing up Amleth’s actions the text says: “considering the skill with which he preserved himself and the energy with which he exacted atonement, one can hardly decide which to extol more, his courage or his wisdom”, while Fengo, “dyed his hand in blood to satisfy his black desires.”

Richard Valentinovich Boleslavsky as Laertes. Performance "Hamlet", Moscow Art Theater
Richard Valentinovich Boleslavsky as Laertes. Performance “Hamlet”, Moscow Art Theater

The text guides the reader to make judgements about the characters’ actions, when the actions themselves might be interpreted either way. The king of England is treated negatively as having a curam adumbratis (malignant purpose) when he plots to kill Amleth to avenge Fengo. This action is not too different from Amleth’s vengeance, but the text leaves us in no doubt that killing Fengo was justified whereas killing Amleth is an evil plot on the part of the king of England. Gesta Danorum frames the Amleth story as a tale of two kings – one bad and one good – Amleth, the protagonist, is of course a good king. There are no known political reasons as to why Saxo Grammaticus needs to portray Amleth so positively, as he was a minor king of Jutland and did not descended from, nor contributed any descendants to the main Zealand line that Saxo Grammaticus was so keenly interested in.

Nellie Melba as Ofelia in the opera Hamlet. She appeared in four performances at Kungliga Operan (at Svenska teatern) in 1893 with arias from various operas.

The Mad Prince: Even Older Versions

"Kai Khusrau Enthroned Holding a Sword", Folio from a Shahnama (Book of Kings) (c. 1300)
“Kai Khusrau Enthroned Holding a Sword”, Folio from a Shahnama (Book of Kings) (c. 1300)

The 12th century Chronicla of the Kings of Leijre (and the included Annales Lundenses) tells the same story. The Danish king Rorik Slengeborre put Orwendel and Feng in Jutland and gave his daughter to Orwendel as a reward for his good services. Orwendel and the daughter had a son, Ambloth the Jutlander. The jealous Feng killed Orwendel and took his wife. Ambloth understood that his life was in danger and tried to survive by playing insane. Feng sent Ambloth to the king of Britain with two servants carrying a message that the British king should kill Ambloth. While the servants slept, Ambloth carved off the message and wrote that the servants should be killed and himself married to the king’s daughter. The British king did what the message bade him to do. Exactly one year later, Feng drank to the memory of Ambloth, but Ambloth appeared and killed him. He then burnt Feng’s men to death in a tent and became the ruler of Jutland. He returned to Britain to kill the British king, who desired to avenge Feng’s death, and married the queen of Scotland.   When Ambloth returned to Jutland, he was killed in battle upon arrival. Also comparable is the 13th century Hrólfs saga kraka (the Saga of King Hrolf Kraki), where the brothers, Helgi and Hroar, were the heroes. Helgi and Hroar avenged their father’s death on their uncle by burning their uncle in his palace.

painting "Brutus condamnant ses fils à mort" by Guillaume Guillon Léthière, 1811
“Brutus condamnant ses fils à mort” by Guillaume Guillon Léthière, 1811

The similarities of Saxo Grammaticus’ version with the classical tale of Lucius Junius Brutus as told by Livy, Valerius Maximus, and by Dionysius of Halicarnassus, are likely deliberate. The harangues of Amleth and Brutus show marked similarities. According to Livy, Brutus had a number of grievances against his uncle the king. Amongst them was the fact that Tarquin had put to death a number of the chief men of Rome, including Brutus’ brother. Brutus avoided the distrust of Tarquin’s family by feigning slow-wittedness (in Latin, ‘brutus’ translates to ‘dullard’). The usurping uncle was ultimately succeeded by the nephew, who had escaped notice during his youth by a feigned madness.

There are also striking similarities between the story of Amleth and that of Kai Khosrow in the Shahnameh (Book of the Kings) by the Persian poet Firdausi. Kai Khosrow is a legendary king of Iran’s Kayanian dynasty. He was the son of the Iranian Prince Siavash, who married Princess Farangis of Turan, while in exile. Before his birth, Kai Khosrow’s father was murdered by his maternal grandfather Afrasiab. When Kai Khosrow returned to Iran with his mother, his paternal grandfather, Kai Kavus, chose him as his heir.

Bellerophon and the Chimera, edge of an Attic red-figure epinetron (thigh-protector used by a woman when weaving), ca. 425–420 BCE. By (Unknown artist - Marsyas (2005), CC BY-SA 2.5)
Bellerophon and the Chimera, edge of an Attic red-figure epinetron (thigh-protector used by a woman when weaving), ca. 425–420 BCE. By (Unknown artist – Marsyas (2005), CC BY-SA 2.5)

Further resemblances exist in the tales of Bellerophon. The wife of king Proetus took a fancy to Bellerophon. When Bellerophon rejected her, she accused Bellerophon of attempting to rape her. As Proetus did not dare to kill his own guest, he sent Bellerophon to his father-in-law, King Iobates in Lycia, bearing a sealed message in a folded tablet:

“Pray remove the bearer from this world: he attempted to violate my wife, your daughter.”

In Egyptian mythology, a similar tale of a king who is murdered by a jealous brother, but avenged by his son appears in the narrative of Osiris, Set and Horus.

Roman Period Shroud of Osiris, c. 125 CE
Roman Period Shroud of Osiris, c. 125 CE

One Reply to “The Mad Prince: A Closer Historical Look at Shakespeare’s “Hamlet””

  1. Beautifully weaved through so many amazing names & forms. Great read, thank you.


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