The Ur-Hamlet (the German prefix Ur- means "primordial") is the name given to a play of unknown authorship mentioned as early as 1589, a decade before most scholars believe Shakespeare composed Hamlet, but also involving the character of Hamlet. Several surviving references indicate that such a play was well known throughout the decade of the 1590s, some time before the first published texts of Shakespeare's play (1603, 1604).
- English Seneca read by candle-light yields many good sentences, as Blood is a begger, and so forth; and if you entreat him fair in a frosty morning, he will afford you whole Hamlets, I should say handfuls of tragical speeches.
Because Nashe apparently alludes to Thomas Kyd in the same passage of his Menaphon introduction, and because of similarities between the Shakespearean Hamlet and Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy, it has sometimes been posited that Kyd is the author of the Ur-Hamlet, and that the play was never published and is now lost.
Other scholars believe that the play is an early version of Shakespeare's own play, and point to the fact that Shakespeare's version survives in three quite different early texts, Q1 (1603), Q2 (1604) and F (1623), suggesting the possibility that it was revised by the author over a period of many years. While the exact relationship of the short and apparently primitive text of Q1 to the later published texts is not resolved, Hardin Craig among others has suggested that it may represent an earlier draft of the play and hence would confirm that the "Ur-Hamlet" is in fact merely an earlier draft of Shakespeare's play. The mainstream view is that Q1 is simply a garbled unauthorised version of the text, which would explain the quick publication of the corrected version, Q2.
This view is held in some form or another by Harold Bloom, Peter Alexander, and Andrew Cairncross, who stated that "It may be assumed, until a new case can be shown to the contrary, that Shakespeare's Hamlet and no other is the play mentioned by Nashe in 1589 and Henslowe in 1594." Harold Jenkins, in his 1982 Arden edition, dismisses this assertion.
- Bloom, Harold (1998). Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. New York: Riverhead. ISBN 1-57322-120-1.
- Edwards, Philip, ed. (1985). Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. The new Cambridge Shakespeare. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-22151-X.
- Jenkins, Harold, ed. (1982). Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. The Arden Shakespeare. London, England: Methuen. ISBN 0-416-17910-X.