January 28, 2010

A bit less art, a bit more Beowulf


Amblett aka Amleth aka Hamlet.

Shakespeare based his tragedy Hamlet on legends regarding a Danish prince Amleth, although the "real" prince, if there was one, was a bit more like Beowulf --or maybe even Vlad the Impaler--than the melancholy proto-existentialist we've come to love.

The earliest known written source about Amleth comes from a work by Saxo Grammiticus on the history of the Danes which was composed around 1200. The story of Amleth took place centuries before Saxo's writing. It was later taken up by Francois de Belleforest, who translated it into French in 1570, as part of his collection of tragic legends, Histoires Tragiques. The book was translated into English in 1608.

Shakespeare's Hamlet was probably written between 1599 and 1601, so this means either that he could read French or that other versions of the story were available.

Saxo's version is much bloodier, although there are some similarities. Short version: Two brothers, Orvendil and Fengi are appointed to rule Jutland. Orvendil marries Geruth and Amleth is their son. Fengi kills Orvendil and marries Geruth.

To survive, Amleth feigns madness. There is a story of him killing a hidden spy while talking to his mother (think Polonius) and of a forced trip to England in which agents of the king carry a secret letter urging the English king to kill him. As in the play, Amleth finds the letter and changes it. Things are more complicated in England, but Fengi's agents are killed (goodbye, Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern).

Amleth's revenge is bloody indeed, but he winds up marrying the king of England's daughter and becoming king of Jutland. The ending isn't all that happy since he is killed in battle thereafter.

If you want to read Saxo's version, click here and here.

There was also an earlier English stage version, possibly by Thomas Kyd, which didn't survive. Known as Ur-Hamlet, it featured the ghost of a slain father who urged Hamlet to revenge.

Whatever really happened, Shakespeare's version is cooler.

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1 comment:

Sometimes Saintly Nick said...

Thanks for introducing me to the Amleth story.