Hamlet from the Beginning

Hamlet is most likely the best-known play in the world - it is certainly one of the most performed, filmed, quoted, and written about. Thinkers including Hegel, Marx, and Freud have drawn upon it in developing their theories. The play’s influence is so widespread some consider its title character, along with his contemporaries Faust, Don Juan, and Don Quixote, to have the status of a myth.

Notes on Hamlet by Dramaturg Walter Bilderback
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We know Shakespeare’s Hamlet was popular from the beginning, although we’re uncertain just when Shakespeare wrote it. Most critics place its composition between 1599 and 1602, based on internal evidence and its first publication in 1603; the first recorded performance was on an English ship off the coast of Africa in 1607. As usual with Shakespeare’s writing, little in the story is original. Hamlet-like legends abound across Europe and the Mideast. One is the Roman tale of Brutus (ancestor of the one in Julius Caesar), who murdered the tyrant Tarquin, a tale Shakespeare tackled early in his career with The Rape of Lucrece). Many of these elements came together in the 13th Century “Life of Amleth” by Saxo Grammaticus, which introduces many of the main plot points: an avenging son feigning madness (“Amleth” means “fool” or “stupid;” interestingly, so does “Brutus”), his mother marrying the usurper, the prince murdering a spy, even the execution of two retainers. In 1570, Francois de Belleforest translated Saxo’s tale into French, giving the hero the fashionable humanist characteristic of melancholia. By the late 1580s or early 1590s the story had been dramatized for the London stage in a version now lost (possibly even written by Shakespeare), the so-called Ur-Hamlet. This version may have introduced the father’s ghost to the mix: “Hamlet, revenge!” seems to have become a catchphrase.

Do you have a favorite production of Hamlet - from the stage or screen?

CHECK BACK! We will have more notes from Walter, PLUS a ton of behind-the-scenes content from the rehearsal room!

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