Latest Possible Date
The following evidence is used to narrow the latest possible date of composition (the terminus ante quem). It is presented here in reverse-chronology:
- The play, in substantially the form in which it is usually printed and performed today, was published in a quarto, usually known as Q2, in late 1604. That evidence is uncontroversial. There is no question that the play existed at that time.
- A shorter form of the play, recognisably Shakespearean, and usually known as Q1, was published in 1603. It is usually called a "bad quarto" and there are several theories for its provenance. It may be:
- a pirated version of the complete play (perhaps a memorial reconstruction); or
- an abdidgement of the complete play (perhaps for touring); or
- an early draft of the complete play.
- If it is the first or second of these, then the complete play was finished before the appearance of Q1.
- A Hamlet play was registered in the Stationers' Register on 26 July 1602. Its full title was "a book called the Revenge of Hamlett Prince Denmarke as yt was latelie Acted by the Lord Chamberleyne his servantes". The reference to The Lord Chamberlain's Men, Shakespeare's company, makes it likely that this was Shakespeare's play. The registrant was James Roberts, the publisher of Q2, so it is likely to have been that version he was registering.
- One Gabriel Harvey bought a copy of the 1598 edition of Chaucer's Workes, and wrote on it, by hand: "The younger sort takes much delight in Shakespeares Venus, & Adonis: but his Lucrece, & his tragedie of Hamlet, prince of Denmarke, haue it in them, to please the wiser sort". What is not known is when he made this note, nor which version of the play he was referring to when he did so. Some authors have asserted that he must have written his marginal notes in 1598 or early 1599, because another marginal note refers to several "florishing metricians" which include Shakespeare and, significantly, Edmund Spenser who died in January 1599. To sustain this argument, "florishing" must mean that the poet's career was flourishing, yet in other places Harvey describes a poet's style as florishing (perhaps meaning "flowery"?) and therefore applicable as much to a dead poet as a living one. If that is the meaning, then Spenser's date of death is irrelevant. The theory is further called into doubt by the fact that the same list includes Thomas Watson, who had died in 1592 - six years before Harvey could have bought the book. It follows that to sustain the "florishing = alive" argument requires us to assume that Harvey wasn't aware of Watson's death. Harvey's marginal note refers to works which "the Earle of Essex commendes" - suggesting it was written before his death on 25 February 1601. Yet there is also a reference to "Owen's new Epigrams" - which did not appear until 1607. Although there has been much speculation, several scholars have concluded, with the editor of the second Cambridge edition, that Harvey "really is of little use in trying to date Hamlet."
- A poet referred to only as "An. Sc." (possibly Antony Scoloker) wrote a poem called Diaphantus. It was not itself published until 1604, but is used as evidence of the existence of Shakespeare's Hamlet in 1600. Appended to the poem was an epistle which contains the hope that the poem might "please all, like Prince Hamlet". The sames epistle claims that the poem "this last year might have been burned". The implication is that the poem (which, incidentally, also refers to "mad Hamlet") was wholly or partly written at the date of the Bishop's ban (1 June 1599) which led to the burning of books, and that the epistle was written around a year after that, i.e. mid-1600.
Earliest Possible Date
The following evidence is used to narrow the earliest possible date of composition (the terminus post quem). It is presented here chronologically:
- There are three pieces of evidence demonstrating that a Hamlet play existed, from the late 1580s:
- In 1589, Thomas Nashe wrote the introduction to Robert Greene's Menaphon. In it, he referred to "whole Hamlets, I should say handfuls, of tragical speeches."
- In 1594, theatrical impressario Philip Henslowe recorded in his diary the performance of a play called Hamlet.
- In 1596, in Wit's Misery, Thomas Lodge spoke of a "ghost that cried so miserably at the Theatre, like an oyster-wife, Hamlet, revenge."
- Stylistic evidence is invariably a blunt instrument in dating works of literature: However, you can usually chart a writer's "journey" and put a work into a general period of his or her artistic development. In this case, the stylistic evidence completely rules out the 1580s' Hamlet being Shakespeare's play, as we know it from Q2.
- Similarly, the reference to "Hamlet, Revenge" seems to rule out the play being Shakespeare's, since his play does not, in any of its forms, contain that line.
- It follows that the 1580s Hamlet play cannot be the one we know, and must be another play, now lost. Scholars call this lost play the Ur-Hamlet.
- There are various theories as to the nature and authorship of the Ur-Hamlet. The most popular theory is that it was written by Thomas Kyd: although evidence is lacking. Some writers have speculated that Shakespeare wrote it, but again evidence is lacking and those who claim to believe this (Harold Bloom, for example) seem to be doing so on faith.
- In 1595, Robert Parry wrote a romance called Moderatus. In it, a letter is opened, read, then resealed with a signet ring. This happens in Shakespeare's play, also, but not in any of Shakespeare's known sources for the Hamlet story. However, this is not conclusive evidence of anything: Shakespeare could have got this idea from Parry or (as scholars seem to consider more likely) Parry may have picked up this plot point from the Ur-Hamlet.
- In 1598, Francis Meres wrote Palladis Tamia: Wit's Treasury, in which he listed a number of Shakespeare's plays. The fact that Hamlet is not mentioned, while not conclusive, suggests that it may not have existed at that date.
- There are verbal echoes of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar in the play. Two examples are:
- Horatio's speech (1.1.112 et seq) starting at: "In the most high and palmy state of Rome / A little ere the mightiest Julius fell / The graves stood tenantless and the sheeted dead / Did squeak and gibber in the roman streets..." etc.
- An exchange between Hamlet and Polonius (3.2.94-102):
- HAMLET: You played once i'th'university, you say?
- POLONIUS: That did I, my lord, and was accounted a good actor.
- HAMLET: What did you enact?
- POLONIUS: I did enact Julius Caesar. I was killed i'th'Capitol. Brutus killed me.
- HAMLET: It was a brute part of him to kill so capital a calf there.
- If (which is unproven) these are borrowed from Shakespeare's play, then Hamlet must have been completed after 1599 since that is the date when Julius Caesar is thought to have appeared. However this brings into question the evidence used for dating Julius Caesar: the strongest evidence for its dating is a performance seen by Thomas Platter on 21 September 1599, which may in fact not have been its first (nor necessarily a very early) performance.
- The second Julius Ceasar parallel mentioned above may have contained an "in-joke" within Shakespeare's company:
- Honigmann points out that it is usually assumed that John Heminges acted both the old-man parts, Caesar in the first play and Polonius in the second, and that Richard Burbage acted both Brutus and Hamlet. "Polonius would then be speaking on the extra-dramatic level in proclaiming his murder in the part of Caesar, since Hamlet (Burbage) will soon be killing him (Heminges) once more in Hamlet." There does indeed seem to be a kind of private joke here, with Heminges saying to Burbage "Here we go again!"
- The above, though plausible, is no more than speculation. It has been argued that Shakespeare's play must have been the source since in Plutarch's Lives (Shakespeare's main source for Julius Caesar) Caesar is killed at the Senate House whereas in both of Shakespeare's plays he is killed at the Capitol. However this is weak evidence since the error also appears in Chaucer's Monk's Tale, and besides, Shakespeare could easily have made the mistake in Hamlet first and THEN in Julius Caesar. It has been also argued, against this reading, that the lines make sense as puns on "capital/Capitol" and "Brutus/brute" without necessarily making any in-joke.
- The general consensus - necessarily speculative - is that Julius Caesar predates Hamlet.
- There are various parallels between Hamlet and John Marston's play Antonio's Revenge. However, using this evidence does not much help us in dating Hamlet because we do not know:
- whether Antonio's Revenge borrowed from Hamlet; or
- whether Hamlet borrowed from Antonio's Revenge; or
- whether both borrowed from the same source (e.g. the Ur-Hamlet); or, perhaps most importantly
- precisely when Antonio's Revenge appeared. Its dating is more problematic than Hamlet's, since there is less evidence to go on (although we know that it was added to the Stationers' Register on 21 October 1601).
- Similar parallels exist with Marston's Antonio and Mellida, and the collaborative Lust's Dominion, but with the same set of questions making this evidence difficult to use in reaching a date.
- A passage in Hamlet appears to refer to events which took place in 1601. Rosencrantz at (F 2.2.337-342) says "But there is, sir, an eyrie of children, little eyases that cry out on the top of question and are most tyrannically clapped for't. These are now the fashion, and so berattle the common stages that many wearing rapiers are afraid of goose-quills and dare scarce come thither." (The whole relevant passage is F 2.2.332-360). This is thought to be a reference to the so-called "war of the theatres" - the rivalry between the public playhouses and the "children of the chapel". However, there is a complication, which is that this passage does not appear in Q2, only in F (not published until 1623, seven years after Shakespeare's death) so it is possible that the passage was added by Shakespeare later, after the play was already complete and being performed.