When Did Hamlet Live?
Hamlet, the hero of Shakespeare’s great tragedy, seems to correspond to a figure called Amleth, who appears in a history of Denmark, written by Saxo Grammaticus late in the 12th Century.
However, it is impossible to say whether he did in fact exist. The figure of the young man whose father was murdered by a brother who later married his victim’s widow appears in many legends. In all of them the son pretends to be mad in order to revenge his father’s death.
He is the Prince of Denmark, nephew to the usurping Claudius, and son of King Hamlet, the previous King of Denmark. At the beginning of the play, he struggles with whether, and how, to avenge the murder of his father, and struggles with his own sanity along the way.
By the end of the tragedy, Hamlet has caused the deaths of Polonius, Laertes, Claudius, and two acquaintances of his from the University of Wittenberg Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. He is also indirectly involved in the deaths of his love Ophelia (drowning) and of his mother Gertrude (poisoned by Claudius by mistake).
Such stories are found as far back as the Icelandic saga of Amlóði, mentioned by the 10th Century poet, Snaebjðrn. The story of Hamlet is told in the fifth volume of ‘Histoires Traigiques’ (1570) by Francois de Belleforest and an English version of this, The Hystorie of Hamblet was published in London in 1608.
Shakespeare’s tragedy was written about 1601, but a play about Hamlet believed to have been written by Thomas Kyd was performed in about 1509. As he often did, Shakespeare borrowed the plot from others and transformed it by his genius into a great work of art.