About Hamlet

by Isabel Gortazar



The Dates of Composition:


Against considerable evidence to the contrary, Academics officially maintain that Hamlet was written between 1599 and 1601. Here are the facts:


A play was entered into the Stationers Register on 26th July 1602 to James Roberts: “A booke called the Revenge of Hamlett Prince Denmarke, As yt was latelie Acted by the Lord Chamberleyne his servantes”.1


The First Quarto did not appear until 1603, but Roberts seems to have lost his rights: “The Tragicall Historie of Hamlet Prince of Denmarke. By William Shakespeare, as it hath been diverse times acted by His Highnesse servants in the Cittie of London, as also in the two Universities of Cambridge and Oxford, and elsewhere. At London printed for NL (Nicholas Ling) and John Trundell”. The mention of “His Highness servants”, places the publication after Queen Elizabeth’s death in March 1603.


For reasons that will be made clearer below, the hypothesis generally accepted by scholars is that the First Quarto (known also as the Bad Quarto) was a cut version of the Second Quarto, such as it was published in 1604/5. But, apart from the fact that this does not explain the changed names, notably that of Corambis who becomes Polonius, it would mean that having the complete MS of the Second Quarto at their disposal, a group of actors went to the trouble of writing down the lines they remembered from their performances, leaving out the lines they did not remember, and neither William Shakespeare whose name was recorded as author, nor the Company of Players who owned the rights, objected.


In the Second Quarto however, (Roberts had recovered his rights apparently) we are told the play was this time “newly imprinted and enlarged to almost as much againe as it was, according to the true and perfect coppie. Printed JR (James) Roberts for NL.” The word “enlarged” would be equivocal if the text of the Second Quarto had been there all along; “enlarged” suggests text newly written. The stated date of publication of the Second Quarto varies between 1604 and 1605; this suggests the copies were perhaps printed in the first months of 1605, which would have been 1604 in the Julian Calendar Year.


One of the arguments used to support the dates of composition is the fact that Hamlet does not appear on the list of Shakespeare’s plays in Francis Mere’s Palladis Tamia (1598); however, neither do the three Parts of Henri VI or The Taming of A Shrew appear on that list. As far as we know the authorship of William Shakespeare is only made officially manifest on the date of entry into the Stationer’s Register, some 4 years after Meres’ publication.


The reference in Henslowe’s Diary to a Hamlet performed on June 9th 1594 has suggested the existence of an Uhr-Hamlet by some unknown author; I find this unconvincing. Though Henslowe does not make clear whether the play in 1594 was performed by “my Lord Admiralle men” or “my Lord Chamberlene men”, either the two Companies had performed two different Hamlets, or the Lord Chamberlain’s Men had two different Hamlets in their repertoire.


In their study of Stylometrics applied to Elizabethan and Jacobean poets, Profs Elliot and Valenza2 established the approximate composition dates of Marlovian and Shakespearian texts based on the average sum of feminine and open-ended lines to be found in them. According to these scholars, “the percentage of both indicators (open lines and feminine endings) tripled over Shakespeare’s lifetime”.


I have studied the two Hamlet Quartos dividing the texts in three different lots: 

1) Speeches that appear in the First Quarto only.

2) Speeches that are common (with minor variations) to the First and Second Quartos.

3) Speeches that appear in the Second Quarto only.

According to these charts, these averages would place dates of composition thus:

1): Speeches in the First Quarto only: Average 27.5%. Would correspond between 1587 (Tamburlaine 2, average 27%), and 1594 (Comedy of Errors, average 28%).

2): Speeches common to both Quartos: average 34%. Corresponding between 1594 (Two Gentlemen of Verona, average 33%), and 1597 (The Merry Wives, 33%).

3) Speeches in the Second Quarto only: average 43.7%. Corresponding approximately to 1604 (Measure for Measure, average 50%).

If we apply the Elliott and Valenza Stylometrics to these dates Marlowe would have written a first version of Hamlet around 1587/8, thus explaining Nashe’s reference to “whole Hamlets” in 1589,3 as well as the coincidence between the reference in Dr Faustus to Sextus Empiricus’ quotation ON KAI ME ON and Hamlet’s To be or not to be 4. Moreover, in the First Quarto such as was published in 1603, we find possible hints to Marlowe’s “death” in Deptford. (See below).


A revision in 1594 might explain the higher average (34%) of feminine ends and open lines in the speeches that are essentially common between the First and Second Quartos. This hypothesis would also explain the appearance of Hamlet in Henslowe’s Diary in June 1594. The performances may have continued for several years because, in 1596, Thomas Lodge wrote: the ghost that cried so miserably at the theatre, like an oyster-wife, Hamlet, revenge!5.


And yet, there are no ghosts in Saxo Grammaticus’ Historiae Danicae, or Gesta Danorum (c.1200), published in Latin in 1514 and adapted in French by Francois de Belleforest, whose Histoires Tragiques was published in 1570.6


That Shakespeare used Grammaticus’ Historiae Danicae as a source is indisputable. Starting with the “strength in arms” (forte-bras) of the King of Norway follows the role of a childhood girl-friend set as a “trap” to discover whether Ambleth is mad or just pretending to be so. There is also the trip to Britain and Ambleth’s subterfuge changing the instructions by which his companions would be executed. Included as well is Ambleth’s stormy scene with his mother and the killing of the hidden “councillor”.  Also, Ambleth chooses to behave like a clown in order to preserve his life.  But, despite all these similarities, Grammaticus does not mention a Ghost.


The idea of a Ghost–Father for Hamlet would have come to the author after 1593, in the revision that appeared perhaps on Henslowe’s stage, in 1594. Let us look at the relevant lines.

1Q Hamlet 7:


’Tis given out that sleeping in my orchard,

A serpent stung me. So the whole ear of Denmark

Is with a forged process of my death

Rankly abused.

         And later:

1Quarto Hamlet:


Thus was I, sleeping, by my brother’s hand

Of crown, of queen, of life, of dignity

At once deprived, no reckoning made of, but sent

Unto my grave with all my accounts and sins

Upon my head. O horrible, most horrible.

2Q Hamlet 8


Thus was I, sleeping, by a Brother’s hand,

Of life, of Crown, of Queen at once dispatchtd,

Cut off even in the blossoms of my sin,


No reckning made, but sent to my account

With all my imperfections on my head.

O horrible! O horrible, most horrible! 9       


If Marlowe wrote an early Hamlet around 1587 (perhaps shortly before he wrote Dr Faustus), this speech from the Ghost could be an addition post-1593, and, therefore, fitting with Henslowe’s performance date and Lodge’s quotation.


Also, in the Ghost scene, only Hamlet talks to his Father; only he knows the secret of the murder, all that Marcello and Horatio could reveal is that they have seen the Ghost of the king who is supposed to be dead. And yet they are made to swear with a lot of insistence and fuss that they will not tell anybody about this vision.


So, who is “Hamlet’s father”? There are two “Hamlet” concepts:

  • 1) The character, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, whose father has been murdered, as in Grammaticus’ History.
  • 2) The Play, “Hamlet, Prince of Denmark”, whose “father” would be its author. From Cervantes, who declares himself to be the “stepfather” of Don Quixote, to Shakespeare who in the Poem Venus and Adonis, announces it to be the first heir of my invention, we find many instances in which the authors of a literary piece refer to such piece as their “heir”or “creature”, and to themselves as the father (or stepfather, in the case of Cervantes), of such work. In The Tempest, for instance, Prospero accuses his brother Antonio of tampering with “the creatures that were mine”. By this rule, the author of the play Hamlet would consider himself the father of such play.


Was there a plausible author the “forged process of (whose) death” had at once deprived him “of queen, of life, of dignity, no reckoning made of, but sent unto (his) grave with all (his) accounts and sins upon his head”, but who was nevertheless able on special occasions to wander about at night and talk to his friends?


Indeed there was such a plausible author: Christopher Marlowe. Needless to say, this scenario would also explain why Shake-speare in 1594, rather than 1602, would give so much importance to one particular speech in Marlowe’s old play, Dido, Queen of Carthage, published coincidentally in 1594.10 

In both Quartos and with some variations, Hamlet addresses the First Player with this (I copy from 2Q):

I heard thee speak me a speech once, but it was never acted, or if it was not above once, for the play I remember, it pleased not the million, t’ was cauiary to the general. (…) one speech in’t I chifly loved, t’was Aeneas talke to Dido- (…), specially when he speaks of Priam’s slaughter. (…) let me see (…), the ragged Pirhus…etc-“            


The curious thing about the relevant lines is that in both Quartos, as well as in Dido, we are told that Priam died as a result of the stroke of wind that resulted from Pyrrhus waving his sword, not by the sword itself:


Dido: scene 1, lines 253 - 4


Which he, disdaigning, whisked his sword about,

And with the wind thereof the king fell down, Etc

Hamlet 1Q - scene 7:

First Player:

Pyrrhus at Priam drives, but all in rage

Strikes wide; but with the whiff and wind

Of his fell sword th’ unnerved father falls.” Etc.

Hamlet 2Q - Act 2, scene 5,


(…) Vnequal matchet,

Pirrhus at Priam driues, in rage strikes wide;

But with the whiffe and winde of his fell sword

Th’ vnnerued father falls.” Etc.


Because Virgil’s Aeneid does not include such detail in its description of Priam’s death, it is generally accepted that Shake-speare was borrowing the idea from Marlowe’s Dido. So, why would the author of Hamlet borrow in 1599-1601 an unrelated idea from a Play written by Marlowe before 1593?


In the anonymous German version: Fratricide Punished, (Das Bestrafte Brudermord oder Prinz Hamlet aus Dannemark), printed 1781,11 Hamlet refers to a past performance mentioning (oddly) “King Pyr –Pyr-something…” as if he had never read Virgil or heard about Pyrrhus.  When questioned by the First Player (Charles), he explains that the speech was “about one brother murdering the other in the garden” thus obliterating the reference to Dido from this Hamlet. By the way, the German translator seems to be using the First Quarto, as the Councellor is named Corambus.


The German Hamlet however, covers some of the most blatant oddities in Shake-speare, such as why doesn’t Hamlet inherit the Crown automatically on his Father’s death? In the German Hamlet, he is made King of Norway, while his uncle keeps the Danish Crown. Shake-speare doesn’t give any explanation for this anomaly even in the Second Quarto when the Gravedigger explicitely says Hamlet is thirty years old, a ripe age by the period’s standards. In fact, the only reason why such usurpation of the heir’s rights might be tolerated by his loving subjects would be if Gertrude herself were Monarch in her own right.  


As usual, Marlowe was leaving clues to his authorship by making references to his known plays. In the First Quarto we find a reference to Dr Faustus (to be or not to be) and a reference to Dido; in the Second Quarto he adds a reference to Edward II.


Mortimer (lines 2637-9):

Farewell, fair queen; weep not for Mortimer,

That Scorns the world, and, as a traveller,

Goes to discover countries yet unknown.      


Compare this with 2Q:


“… The undiscovered country from whose bourns

No traveller returns …


The abysmal difference between Hamlet First and Second Quartos, in length, quality and message, plus the already mentioned change of some names, makes it difficult to believe either that the First Quarto is the result of poor editing, or that the mind of Shakespeare made a truly gigantic leap between 1603 and 1604.  How could the author allow the First Quarto text to be printed in 1603 if the complete Second Quarto text were already available?


The answer must be that the Second Quarto had not been written yet. In the summer of 1603, the Earl of Rutland (a close friend of the late Earl of Essex), was sent by King James to Denmark, to attend the Danish heir’s Christening and to deliver the Order of the Garter to King Christian. It has been suggested that Shake-speare went with Rutland to Denmark. I agree. 


© Isabel Gortázar, Bilbao 2012

1 Geoffrey Bullough: Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, Vol.7

2 Ward Elliott and Robert Valenza: And Then There Were None: Winnowing the Shakespeare Claimants (Computers and the Humanities 30, 1996. Ref: Peter Farey: http://www2.prestel.co.uk/rey/oxfordians1.htm

3 Thomas Nashe: Introduction to Robert Greene’s Menaphon.

4 On kai me on), sometimes translated as “being and not being”, from Gorgias of Leontini’s lost work On the Nature of the Non-Existent, as cited by Sextus Empiricus (c. 160-210 AD, physician and philosopher), in his Adversus Mathematicos (Against the Mathematicians), also known as Against the Professors. The complete works of Empiricus were translated into Latin by Gentian Hervet, and published in 1569.

5 Thomas Lodge: Wits Miserie and the Worlds Madnesse, etc: 1596

6 Ref: G. Bullough: Op. Cit.

7 The First Quarto of Hamlet. Edited by K.O. Irace. Cambrige University Press 1998

8 Shakespeare’s Hamlet, The second Quarto, 1604. Reproduction of the Huntington Library copy.

9  The implication of these lines, including the word reckoning as a possible reference to the Coroner’s Report was already noted by Alex Jack in his book Hamlet, by Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare (2005)

10 The Tragedie of Dido, Queen of Carthage. Played by the Children of Her Maiesties Chappel. Writen by Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Naòe. Gent etc. 1594

11 Ref: G. Bullough. Op. Cit.

NOTE: My special thanks to S. Phelps for her help in the tedious task of counting the endings in both Quartos.