Hamlet (legend)

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17th-century manuscript illustration showing Amblett, on whom Shakespeare's Hamlet is based

Hamlet is a figure in Scandinavian romance and an inspiration for Prince Hamlet, the hero of Shakespeare's tragedy, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.

The chief authority for the legend of Hamlet is Saxo Grammaticus, who devotes to it parts of the third and fourth books of his Gesta Danorum, completed at the beginning of the 13th century. It is not known whether Saxo derived his information in this case from oral or written sources.

Saxo's version[edit]

Briefly Saxo's version of Hamlet's history is as follows: Gervendill, governor of Jutland, was succeeded by his sons Horvendill and Feng. Horvendill, on his return from a Viking expedition in which he had slain Koll, king of Norway, married Gerutha, daughter of Rørik Slyngebond, king of Denmark; she bore him a son, Amleth. But Feng, out of jealousy, murdered Horvendill, and persuaded Gerutha to become his wife, on the plea that he had committed the crime for no other reason than to avenge her of a husband who had hated her. Amleth, afraid of sharing his father's fate, pretended to be an imbecile, but the suspicion of Feng put him to various tests which are related in detail. Among other things they sought to entangle him with a young girl, his foster-sister (the prototype of Ophelia), but his cunning saved him. When, however, Amleth slew the eavesdropper hidden (like Polonius in Shakespeare's play), in his mother's room, and destroyed all trace of the deed, Feng was assured that the young man's madness was feigned. Accordingly he dispatched him to Britain in company with two attendants, who bore a letter enjoining the king of the country to put him to death. Amleth surmised the purport of their instructions, and secretly altered the message on their wooden tablets to the effect that the king should put the attendants to death and give Amleth his daughter in marriage.

After marrying the princess, Amleth returned at the end of a year to Denmark. Of the wealth he had accumulated he took with him only certain hollow sticks filled with gold. He arrived in time for a funeral feast, held to celebrate his supposed death. During the feast he plied the courtiers with wine, and executed his vengeance during their drunken sleep by fastening down over them the woolen hangings of the hall with pegs he had sharpened during his feigned madness, and then setting fire to the palace. Feng he slew with his own sword. After a long harangue to the people he was proclaimed king. Returning to Britain for his wife he found that his father-in-law and Feng had been pledged each to avenge the other's death. The English king, unwilling to personally carry out his pledge, sent Amleth as proxy wooer for the hand of a terrible Scottish queen, Hermuthruda, who had put all former wooers to death but fell in love with Amleth. On his return to Britain his first wife, whose love proved stronger than her resentment, told him of her father's intended revenge. In the ensuing battle, Amleth won the day by setting up the fallen dead from the day before on stakes, thereby terrifying the enemy.

He then returned with his two wives to Jutland, where he had to encounter the enmity of Wiglek, Rørik's successor. He was slain in a battle against Wiglek. Hermuthruda, although she had promised to die with him, married the victor. Saxo states that Amleth was buried on a plain (or "heath") in Jutland, famous for his name and burial place. Wiglek later died of illness and was the father of Wermund from whom the royal line of Kings of Mercia descended.

Chronicon Lethrense and Annales lundenses[edit]

The even earlier source Chronicle of the Kings of Leijre (and the included Annals of Lund) tells that the Danish king Rorik Slengeborre put Orwendel and Feng as his rulers in Jutland, and gave his daughter to Orwendel as a reward for his good services. Orwendel and the daughter had a son, Amblothæ the Jutlander. The jealous Feng killed Orwendel and took his wife. Amblothæ understood that his life was in danger and tried to survive by playing insane. Feng sent Amblothæ to the king of Britain with two servants carrying a message that the British king should kill Amblothæ. While the servants slept, Amblothæ carved off the (probably runic) message and wrote that the servants should be killed and himself married to the king's daughter. The British king did what the message said. Exactly one year later, Feng drank to Amblothæ's memory, but Amblothæ appeared and killed him. He then burnt Feng's men to death in a tent and became the ruler of Jutland. Then he went back to Britain to kill the British king who wanted to avenge Feng's death, and married the queen of Scotland. Amblothæ went back to Jutland and was killed in battle upon arrival.

Prose Edda[edit]

In the Skáldskaparmál section of the Prose Edda, Snorri Sturluson quotes a poem by the skald Snæbjörn, which could be considerably older than the version found in Gesta Danorum and Chronicon lethrense. The mysterious lines are quoted in Skáldskaparmál as an example of Amlóði's churn as a kenning for the sea:

Sem Snæbjörn kvað:
Hvatt kveða hræra Grótta
hergrimmastan skerja
út fyrir jarðar skauti
eylúðrs níu brúðir,
þær er, lungs, fyrir löngu,
líðmeldr, skipa hlíðar
baugskerðir rístr barði
ból, Amlóða mólu.
Hér er kallat hafit Amlóða kvern.
(Guðni Jónsson's edition)
As Snæbjorn sang:
They say nine brides of skerries
Swiftly move the Sea-Churn
Of Grótti's Island-Flour-Bin
Beyond the Earth's last outskirt –
They who long the corny ale ground
Of Amlódí; the Giver
Of Rings now cuts with ship's beak
The Abiding-Place of boat-sides.
Here the sea is called Amlódi's Churn.
(Brodeur's translation, 1916)

Prose translation:

It is said, sang Snæbjörn, that far out, off yonder headland, the Nine Maids of the Island Mill violently stir the host-cruel skerry-quern — they who in ages past ground Amlóði's meal. The good chieftain furrows the hull's lair with his ship's beaked prow. Here the sea is called Amloði's Mill.

Other Scandinavian versions[edit]

The other Scandinavian versions of the tale are: the Hrólfs saga kraka, where the brothers Helgi (known as Halga in Beowulf) and Hroar (Hroðgar) take the place of the hero; the tale of Harald and Halfdan, as related in the 7th book of Saxo Grammaticus; the modern Icelandic Ambale's Saga, a romantic tale the earliest manuscript of which dates from the 17th century; and the folk-tale of Brjam which was put in writing in 1707. Helgi and Hroar, like Harald and Halfdan, avenge their father's death on their uncle by burning him in his palace. Harald and Halfdan escape after their father's death by being brought up, with dogs' names, in a hollow oak, and subsequently by feigned madness; and in the case of the other brothers there are traces of a similar motive, since the boys are called by dogs' names. The methods of Hamlet's madness, as related by Saxo, seem to point to cynanthropy. In the Ambale's Saga, which perhaps is collateral to, rather than derived from, Saxo's version, there are, besides romantic additions, some traits which point to an earlier version of the tale.

Saxo Grammaticus was certainly familiar with the Latin historians, and it is most probable that, recognising the similarity between the northern Hamlet legend and the classical tale of Lucius Junius Brutus as told by Livy, by Valerius Maximus, and by Dionysius of Halicarnassus (with which he was probably acquainted through a Latin epitome), he deliberately added circumstances from the classical story. The incident of the gold-filled sticks could hardly appear fortuitously in both, and a comparison of the harangues of Amleth (Saxo, Book iv.) and of Brutus (Dionysius, iv. 77) shows marked similarities. In both tales the usurping uncle is ultimately succeeded by the nephew who has escaped notice during his youth by a feigned madness. But the parts played by the personages who in Shakespeare became Ophelia and Polonius, the method of revenge, and the whole narrative of Amleth's adventure in England, have no parallels in the Latin story.

There are also striking similarities between the story of Amleth in Saxo and the other northern versions, and that of Kai Khosrow in the Shahnameh (Book of the King) of the Persian poet Firdausi. Further resemblances exist in the Ambale's Saga with the tales of Bellerophon, of Heracles, and of Servius Tullius. That Oriental tales through Byzantine and Arabian channels did find their way to the west is well known, and there is nothing very surprising in their being attached to a local hero.

The tale of Hamlet's adventures in Britain forms an episode so distinct that it was at one time referred to a separate hero. The traitorous letter, the purport of which is changed by Hamlet, occurs in the popular Dit de l'empereur Constant, and in Arabian and Indian tales. Hermuthruda's cruelty to her wooers is common in northern and German mythology, and close parallels are afforded by Þryð, the terrible bride of Offa, who figures in Beowulf, by Brunhilda in the Nibelungenlied, and by Sigrid the Haughty in the Heimskringla.


A burial mound near the tiny Jutlandic village of Ammelhede was reputed to be the historical Hamlet's grave. In 1933 a stone was raised in Amleth's memory on a burial mound which according to local tradition means "Amleth's heath".[1] However, the mound is known to date from the Bronze Age, erected 1,700 years before the time that Hamlet was supposed to have lived according to Saxo.[2]

Parallels in Britain and Ireland[edit]

Despite the fact that Shakespeare set his story in Denmark, and his actors even visited Kronborg in 1586 and seem to have brought details back used by Shakespeare,[1] some theorists have tried to tie Hamlet primarily to Ireland. More likely, however, some of the additional facts not in the Scandinavian legend may have come from these sources.

The argument is that there are close parallels between the tale of Hamlet and the English romances of Havelok, King Horn and Bevis of Hampton -- tales from the Middle Ages that followed years of rule by Danes and other Vikings.[citation needed]. Thus a similar name also occurs in the Irish Annals of the Four Masters -- compiled in the 1600s—in a stanza attributed to the Irish Queen Gormflaith, who laments the death of her husband, Niall Glundubh, at the hands of Amhlaide in 919 at the battle of Ath-Cliath. The slayer of Niall Glundubh is by other authorities stated to have been Sigtrygg Caech. Sigtrygg was the father of that Olaf Cuaran (also known as Anlaf) who was the prototype of the English Havelok, but nowhere else does he receive the nickname of Amhlaide. If Amhlaide may really be identified with Sigtrygg, who first went to Dublin in 888, the relations between the tales of Havelok and Hamlet show other ways that stories paralleled each other. But, whoever the historic Hamlet may have been, it is quite certain that much was added that was extraneous to Scandinavian tradition and some details may have made their way into Shakespeare's final play.

Hugh Kenner has attempted to argue that the Hamlet name originated because the first literate people the Danes encountered were the Irish. The Irish Gaelic spelling of Olaf is Amhlaoibh, which Kenner suggests was mistranscribed into Latin as Amlethus. Thus Kenner claims that "Amleth" or "Amblett" of Saxo also likely derived from this transliteration from Gaelic to Latin.[3] The theory is however contradicted by archeological finds in Denmark, where the name Amlet is recorded on runic artifacts dated ca. 700, before Danes made significant incursions into Ireland.[1] Moreover, Vikings not only visited Ireland and England but ruled both before all of these tales were first written.[4] The tale of Havelok, in fact, is called, "Havelok the Dane"—even indicating its own possible Scandinavian origins.

Belleforest's tragedies[edit]

The story of Hamlet was known to the Elizabethans in the fifth story of the fifth volume of François de Belleforest's Histoires tragiques (Paris, Chez Jean Hupeau, 1572, Fueil 149); an English version, The Hystorie of Hamblet was published in 1608. That as early as 1587 or 1589 Hamlet had appeared on the English stage is shown by Nashe's preface to Greene's Menaphon (see: Ur-Hamlet). The Shakespearean Hamlet owes, however, but the outline of his story to Saxo. In character he is diametrically opposed to his prototype. Amleth's madness was certainly altogether feigned; he prepared his vengeance a year beforehand, and carried it out deliberately and ruthlessly at every point. His riddling speech has little more than an outward similarity to the words of Hamlet, who resembles him, however, in his disconcerting penetration into his enemies' plans.


Public Domain This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. 

  1. ^ a b c Michael Skovmand, Verdens bedst kendte dansker: Hamlet er så levende som aldre før", Kronik, Aarhus Stiftstidende, 1 February 1992, at Department of English, University of Aarhus (Danish)
  2. ^ Hamlets Grav - fiktion og virkelighed at Danske Fortidsminder (Danish)
  3. ^ Kenner, Hugh (1989). A Colder Eye. Baltimore MD: Johns Hopkins Paperbacks. pp. 82–83. ISBN 0-8018-3838-X. 
  4. ^ Pierre Barthélemy's of Viking attacks in 795 – 1098, at Viking Age, reisenett.no, retrieved 27 February 2012.

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