Hamlet: a rite of passage for most high schoolers. The play, and the madness surrounding it, has become a phenomenon in the high school classroom. As a British literature teacher and a lover of all things Shakespeare, I look forward to teaching Hamlet every single semester, and I find myself disappointed if someone has already taught it to my seniors. As Shakespeare’s longest play, it lends itself to deep complexities and interesting historical elements, many that are easily passed over or just mentioned in passing for the sake of time. Since time is irrelevant in the world of trivial information, here are five things you may (or may not) know about Hamlet.
The story was not Shakespeare’s.
According to Dr. Marvin Hunt, author of Looking for Hamlet (and former Shakespeare professor of mine), there are several sources for the story that eventually was made famous by Shakespeare. Five hundred years before Shakespeare introduced us to the character we all recognize, Saxo Grammaticus wrote down an account of Hamlet’s story. Saxo’s characters have slightly different names, but the story proceeds down the same basic path. The major difference in the two tales is in Saxo’s account, the general population is aware of the murder; the ghost is an amendment that surfaced perhaps in the 1580s in a play edition. Saxo’s version also has an explanation for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as “henchmen” to the king. The title character, Saxo’s Amleth, feigns madness to plot his revenge, and in the end, there’s an all-engulfing fire, and many more are dead than in Shakespeare’s tragedy. In addition to Saxo, others perpetuated versions of the story and set them to various outlets, especially the play houses. It’s easy to see why Shakespeare would choose this particular storyline as his masterpiece.
The entirety of the plot most likely takes place over the course of around six months, beginning with the murder of old Hamlet in early September, moving to Horatio’s encounter with the ghost around November 1, to Ophelia’s burial and the concluding sword fight on February 14.
According to Shakespearean scholar and author Steve Roth, the chronology of Hamlet is clearly mapped out within the text, indicating the time frame for Hamlet’s indecisiveness was more profound than just a few days. Using references to time (“within a month,” “nay tis twice two months,” etc.), season (“ever ‘gainst that season comes / Wherein our Savior’s birth is celebrated”; “Tomorrow is St. Valentine’s Day”), and basic common sense (trip to London interrupted by subsequent pirate attack), it’s safe to say the play drags on for more than a week.
Shakespeare was not a fan of child acting troupes, and he used Hamlet (as well as other plays) as his soap box.
According to Joseph Quincy, “During the autumn of 1601 Shakespeare and his fellow-players closed up their London theater, the Globe, and traveled in the country… Probably, however, not all the plays that Shakespeare and his troupe forced down the throats of the ‘country people’ were old; for it seems that one of the plays acted on this trip was the recently composed Hamlet.”
Hamlet’s age is arguable.
That famous “To be, or not to be” speech? It wasn’t so great in the first round.
One nugget of fun Q1 offers is a rough draft, if you will, of the most famous speech in all of English literature. The original publication, complete with original spellings, reads almost comically in comparison to the poetic nature of the speech as we know it today (“Internet Shakespeare Editions”):
This clearly isn’t the same voice in all its glory we are accustomed to reading in our classrooms. In fact, in Q1, this speech is an entire act earlier in placement. Thankfully, the First Folio gives us the eloquent Hamlet we know and love today.
While these little trivial pieces of information may not change your approach to reading Hamlet, it is important to remember just how far literature has traveled. From the original story to the polished work of Shakespeare, Hamlet will forever remain a staple of literary education.
Hunt, Marvin W. Looking for Hamlet. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. Print.
“Internet Shakespeare Editions.” Hamlet (Quarto 1, 1603) ::. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Nov. 2014.
Roth, Steve. “Hamlet as The Christmas Prince: Certain Speculations on Hamlet, the Calendar, Revels, and
Misrule.” Early Modern Literary Studies 7.3 (January, 2002): 5.1-89 <URL: http://www.shu.ac.uk/emls/07-