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A Brief History of Hamlet


William Shakespeare’s Hamlet precedes its own reputation. It was Shakespeare’s most popular play during his lifetime and remains the most produced work of his to date. In fact, it is speculated that Hamlet is performed somewhere every minute of every single day. Most people unknowingly quote Hamlet with phrases such as “in my mind’s eye” or “what a piece of work.” The play has even been translated into Klingon and featured in an episode of Star Trek (in case you were curious “To be or not to be” in Klingon is, “taH pagh taHbe.”)

While Hamlet reigns as a cultural staple, the play’s origin is often contested. There are several theories about the inspiration for Hamlet, from 12th century Danish literature to Indo-European character tropes. Scholars can trace a similar story to a 9th century Scandinavian folktale of Amleth, a prince who feigned madness to exact revenge on his uncle for killing his father. “Amleth” or “Amlóði” actually is translated into “mad” or “not sane” in Norse. Beyond just the similarity between the names, the themes of madness and revenge are concrete plot points in each story and it becomes relatively easy to see how Amleth was the predecessor to the Elizabethan tragedy. Eventually, the legend of Amleth was translated into French during the 16th century, which is where Shakespeare would likely have first encountered this story and character. While the lore of Amleth is certainly appears analogous, historic literature is riddled with interpretations of mad princes, including Icelandic sagas and Roman legends. Knowing precisely where Shakespeare found his inspiration for Hamlet is practically impossible, but these glimpses into history give us some possible context clues.

Beyond historical influences, Shakespeare may have taken inspiration from his own life. In 1596, Shakespeare’s only son, Hamnet, passed away at only eleven years old. Hamlet’s own struggle with grief mirrors Shakespeare’s, each traversing through the after effects of loss, not to mention the similarity between the titular character and his son’s name. However, most scholars argue that the origin story of Hamlet is too obviously derived from legend and that Hamnet’s death was auxiliary in Shakespeare’s writing process.

It is difficult to discern what truly motivated Shakespeare to write his famous epic, but we can agree that Hamlet has certainly transformed theatre and English. From introducing new idioms into the English language to The Lion King, even to a Calvin and Hobbes comic strip, Hamlet is pervasive throughout history and in our current culture. While trying to uncover the mysteries of Hamlet remains significant, it is thrilling to see where the play has taken us and where it will continue to go as we adapt and experiment with the Bard’s magnum opus.

Bedlam’s rendition of Hamlet leads in innovation, as four actors play around twenty five different characters, even switching character mid scene. The quick pace re-energizes the 400 year old script, leaving no room for a relaxed breath or slight error. Edging on frantic, Bedlam is able to capture the swirling madness of Hamlet while maintaining the essence of the language. Their innovation is astounding and we hope that you’ll join us for Bedlam’s Hamlet and Saint Joan in repertory March 7-25 at the Cutler Majestic Theatre and witness what truly can be accomplished with a legendary script performed by a daring theatre company.

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