A Short History on Hamlet: Shakespeare and the Dispatching of the Great Dane

  William Shakespeare, from First Folio: Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories & Tragedies, The British Library

William Shakespeare is the most prolific and recognizable playwright of human history; 400 years after his death (in 1616), he remains the most-performed dramatist and sales of his published work are matched only by those of the Bible.  Hamlet is one of Shakespeare's most notable works, celebrated for its extraordinarily complex characters and conscience-catching drama. However, the story of a Danish prince seeking revenge is not unique to Shakespeare and he was likely inspired by the work Gesta Danorum (History of the Danes), by Saxo Grammaticus. While the exact date of Shakespeare’s play is unknown, most scholars believe that it was written somewhere in the late Elizabethan Period between 1599-1602. Hamlet was originally published as a quarto, a term referring to the size and format of the publication. It was thought that the quarto text was based on actor’s performances, as opposed to written scripts, which would explain the variation between different editions. Three different quartos of the play appeared from 1603-1620. Over the centuries, Hamlet has been read, interpreted, and performed by countless artists.

One of the world’s leading Shakespeare scholars, David Bevington, discusses the vast historical and cultural significance of Hamlet in his book Murder Most Foul: Hamlet through the Ages. Check out this snippet on just how many ways to experience Hamlet there are!

The ever-expanding horizons of Hamlet today can be sampled in many ways: by the role of the play in shaping cultural experience, by its success on film and in television and in Shakespeare festivals world-wide, by the proliferation of spin-offs, parodies, and multitudinous borrowings, by literary quotations, and by the impact Hamlet has had on the very language that we speak. Debates about method acting versus more traditional styles, ethnic and multi-racial casting, and the use of controversial settings that interpret the play in terms of drug dealing and military conflict, all vividly indicate the extent to which Hamlet provides never-ending insight into contemporary culture, as it has done for readers and spectators over the centuries.

If you’re interested in further reading, visit our Additional Reading page.

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