9 Context


Figure 37. Hamlet und Horatio auf dem Friedhof (1839) by Eugene Delacroix (1798–1863). Oil on canvas. Public domain

Hamlet is the best-known play in English, the most frequently performed and the most extensively studied and critiqued. The multiple retellings and adaptations, the endless stream of productions embodying new ideas and insights, the countless paintings, films, novels and other artworks, confirm that Hamlet is a continually inspiring work. The fascination of Hamlet stems in no small measure from its mysteries, which have engaged play-goers, readers and scholars for centuries. After apologising for not offering their readers  ‘a new or sensational “theory of Hamlet”,’ Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor close their introduction to the revised Arden edition (2016) as follows:

We hope … that we have given our readers a clear sense of why it is still possible for people to disagree about almost every aspect of this play, why those disagreements continue to be interesting, and why they are likely to continue for the foreseeable future. (141)

This section is intended as a companion for readers in their first reading Hamlet. If it provides a clear sense of the context, story and characters, and of some of the philosophical and other questions asked but often not answered in the play, it will have served its purpose.

Early Performances

The title page of the First Quarto of Hamlet (1603) claims to present the text, ‘As it hath beene diuerse times acted by his Highnesse servants in the Cittie of London; as also in the two Vniuersities of Cambridge and Oxford, and else-where.’ That Hamlet was in performance by 26 July 1602 is proven by an entry in the Stationers’ Register recording the right of James Roberts to print ‘The Revenge of Hamlet Prince [of] Denmark as it was lately acted by the Lord Chamberlain his men.’ Internal references to the revived boys’ acting troupes then playing in two private theatres, and to the Globe Theatre, where Shakespeare’s company had moved in late 1599, supports a writing date for the first Quarto from 1599 to 1601. The tensions in Hamlet’s world match the external unrest of these years, which saw the rebellion and downfall of the Earl of Essex and anxiety over who would succeed the aging Queen Elizabeth as monarch. A performance in 1599 by the Chamberlain’s Men of Shakespeare’s Richard II had been interpreted by the Queen and others as an attempt to support the Essex rebellion. The pressure would have been on Shakespeare as theatre owner and entrepreneur to produce a popular play, a play that would distract audiences from current uncertainties. What Hamlet does in practice is to shift uncertainty into the realms of psychology and philosophy.

Early Printings

Transcripts of Shakespeare’s plays from the earliest printed texts, in original and in modern spelling, are available at Internet Shakespeare Editions. Three versions of Hamlet were printed in the early seventeenth century. After centuries of debate, the texts’ inter-relationships and relationships to Shakespeare’s manuscript, or (more likely) manuscripts,  remain controversial. ‘Hamlet is the most complicated textual problem in the Shakespeare canon’ (Taylor, Jowett, Bourus and Egan, eds 1996). Heather Hirschfeld summarises the issues and recent approaches in the introduction to the third Cambridge edition (13-17), in which the textual analysis by Philip Edwards, editor of the 1985 Cambridge edition, appears as an appendix. Edwards writes: ‘We must be prepared for the possibility that the variations in the text of Hamlet are not alternative versions of a single original text but representations of different stages in the play’s development’ (252). Editors therefore face a problem of textual presentation that can be only partially solved, and then by compromise. Most have produced a conflated text, with either Q2 or F given precedence as the copy text, but with access provided to significant alternative readings in the remaining texts.

Figure 38. Hamlet First Quarto (1603) (‘bad quarto’). Public domain

The three surviving early texts of Hamlet are as follows:

  1. The First  Quarto of 1603 (Q1): Sometimes named the ‘bad quarto,’ this short version may have been reconstructed from an actor’s memory (Spencer 149). Other commentators have suggested that Q1 is the work of multiple transcribers working in the audience.  Hibbard (3) proposes that Q1 is a reported version of an abridgement of the revised Folio text. Opposing the consensus, Terri Bourus ‘has revived interest in earlier theories that Q1 is in fact the Ur-Hamlet, written by a young Shakespeare in the late 1580s’ (Hirschfeld 17).
  2. The Second Quarto of late 1604 and early 1605 (Q2). This is the ‘good quarto,’ Newly imprinted and enlarged to almost as much againe as it was, according to the true and perfect Coppie. Q2 is probably close to a Shakespeare manuscript, and may have been printed from it (Spencer 149). While acknowledging that their choice is a compromise, the latest Oxford and Cambridge editors of Hamlet opt for Q2 as their foundation or ‘copy’ text, with varying input from the other two early texts.
  3. The First Folio, a collection of Shakespeare’s plays printed in 1623 (F). Like Q2, the Folio version of Hamlet is probably based on a Shakespeare manuscript, the date of which and process of transmission to F are unknown. The Folio Hamlet contains some 85 lines not found in Q2, lacks about 230 of Q2’s lines, and differs from Q2 in hundreds of individual words.


Unusually for a play by Shakespeare, little is known and that little is difficult to interpret, about the creative sequence, contributed to by Shakespeare and others, that led to the composition of the Hamlet or Hamlets we know. Excerpts from the direct and indirect sources and from contemporary and later comments on the play are provided by Roslyn L. Knudsen at Lost Plays Database. 

Two history books transmitted the Hamlet [Amleth] story to sixteenth-century England:

  1. Gesta Danorum [Deeds of the Danes], by the twelfth-century Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus, gained wide currency in Europe after it was printed in 1514.
  2. Histoires Tragiques, by François de Belleforest (1559-82) publicised the legend preserved by Saxo. Shakespeare had certainly read this version of the story.

A large gap in knowledge separates Amleth’s legend from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. What is clear is that Hamlet uniquely transforms the genre of revenge play, popular among Shakespeare’s predecessors and contemporaries, that originated from the Roman dramatist and philosopher Seneca. Written in the first century CE, Seneca’s revenge tragedies, frequently read and performed in Latin at Oxford and Cambridge universities and published in English translation in 1581, set a fashion in London theatres that persisted into the reign of James I (1603-1625). Ghosts and witches, blood and cruelty, violence and death, madness, spectacle, and soliloquies in these works provide bleak insights into human experience. According to Seneca’s Stoic philosophy the wise man deals with life’s horrors by reason and self-control, an argument that he exemplified by a dignified death. Seneca’s ideas inform the progress of Hamlet’s revenge.

Shakespeare’s immediate source may have been a lost English Senecan play known, for lack of a surviving title, as the Ur-Hamlet, meaning ‘the Hamlet original,’ which was in performance by the Chamberlain’s Men by 1589. The theatrical entrepreneur Philip Henslowe recorded a performance of ‘Hamlet’ south of London on 9 June 1594, when the London theatres were closed because of the plague then raging in the city. Shakespeare may have been (one of) the authors, or even the sole author, of this seminal work, or its author may have been his fellow playwright Thomas Kyd. Six years older than Shakespeare, Kyd helped to popularise the Senecan tragedy in Elizabethan England. Like Hamlet, his play The Spanish Tragedy, which was in performance by the Admiral’s Men (rivals to the Chamberlain’s Men) at the Rose Theatre early in 1592, features a ghost, a debate about human and divine justice, a play-within-the-play, and a Stoic avenger. In the climax, Hieronimo bites off his tongue. Kyd died in 1594, and so was not involved, other than indirectly, in writing Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

First published by Methuen in the Revels Plays series, Philip Edwards’ 1959 edition of The Spanish Tragedy is old but good. You can find out about the Rose theatre and its excavation, beginning in 1989.  Reading The Spanish Tragedy in relation to Hamlet highlights the flexibility of Shakespeare’s verse and his brilliant adaptation of revenge play conventions. Where Hieronimo lives out Senecan responses to crime and betrayal, Hamlet debates the status of revenge as obligation and duty.


Known in Hamlet as Elsinore, Kronberg Castle in Helsingør, on the east coast of the island of Zealand in Denmark, is the tragedy’s main setting. I hope that you will visit the castle online here and that one day you will visit it in person. Will Kempe (the clown of Shakespeare’s company the Chamberlain’s Men from 1594) entertained the Danish court at Kronborg in 1585 and may have alerted Shakespeare to the castle’s architecture. Helen Hirschfeld, editor for the play’s third Cambridge UP edition, comments on nineteenth-century and later productions of Hamlet at Kronborg Castle:

The performers … knew that they could exploit the castle’s imposing architecture in order to accentuate the play’s sense of foreboding, danger, and mystery. (2019)

Figure 39. Kronborg Castle, Helsingør, Denmark by FiskFisk. Public domain

In Hamlet, dark scenes in the castle, its orchard and graveyard, alternate with brightly-lit public scenes presided over by Claudius, the usurping king. The Elsinore we first meet hides horrors behind a façade of joy and drunken revelry. These public scenes fragment and darken as the action proceeds, as members of the court change from festival clothing, celebrating the King and Queen’s coronation and wedding, into mourning black, worn by Hamlet throughout. Plots, suspicion and murder inside Elsinore are matched externally by threats from the Norwegian commander Fortinbras and by pirates and perfidy[1] at sea. Treachery and force of arms determine the outcomes in Hamlet’s world. If justice is ever to be achieved, it will be by chance.

The Death of Ophelia

The painting depicts the scene from Shakespeare's Hamlet, Act IV, Scene vii, in which Ophelia, driven out of her mind when her father is murdered by her lover Hamlet, falls into a stream and drowns. She float, face up, still holding the flowers she picked
Figure 40. Ophelia (1851-1852) by Sir John Everett Millais, (Bt 1829-1896). Presented by Sir Henry Tate 1894  Oil on canvas. Used under CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported) licence © Tate

The quickest way to understand the endlessly debated problem that the three surviving early texts of Hamlet pose, is by comparing a passage that appears in all three. The young Ophelia’s emotional stability is destroyed after Hamlet, her former suitor, kills her father Polonius (Act 3, scene 4). You might be interested to compare Queen Gertrude’s narrative of Ophelia’s suicide (Act 4, scene 7) as it was printed successively in Q1, Q2 and F:

First Quarto (1603)

O my lord, the young Ofelia,
Having made a garland of sundry sorts of flowers,
Sitting upon a willow by a brook,
The envious sprig broke. Into the brook she fell,
And for a while her clothes, spread wide abroad,
Bore the young lady up; and there she sat smiling,
Even mermaid-like, ‘twixt heaven and earth,
Chanting old sundry tunes, uncapable,
As it were, of her distress. But long it could not be
Till that her clothes, being heavy with their drink,
Dragged the sweet wretch to death.

Second Quarto (1604-5)

There is a willow grows aslant the brook
That shows his hoary leaves in the glassy stream.
Therewith fantastic garlands did she make
Of crowflowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples,
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cull-cold maids do dead men’s fingers call them.
There on the pendent boughs her crownet weeds
Clamb’ring to hang, an envious sliver broke,
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide,
And mermaid-like awhile they bore her up,
Which time she chanted snatches of old lauds,
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and endued
Unto that element. But long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.

First Folio (1623)

There is a willow grows aslant a brook
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream.
There with fantastic garlands did she come,
Of crowflowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples,
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do ‘dead men’s fingers’ call them.
There on the pendent boughs her coronet weeds
Clamb’ring to hang, an envious sliver broke,
When down the weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide,
And mermaid-like awhile they bore her up,
Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes,
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and endued
Unto that element. But long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.

The revised Cambridge, the New Oxford, and most modern printed editions of Hamlet are based on the Second Quarto, with varying additions and corrections from the other two texts. The Arden edition prints all three texts, with the Q1 and F versions appearing in a second volume. The Arden edition summarises the continuing debate over the origins and standing of the three early Hamlet texts (2015, 147-54). [2]

The Author

Figure 41. Shakespeare and His Contemporaries (1851) by John Faed (1819-1902). Oil on canvas. Also known as Shakespeare and His Friends at the Mermaid Tavern. Public domain

Shakespeare was in his mid-to-late thirties when a version of Hamlet that modern audiences would recognise was first acted at the Globe. He was then at the centre of his career as a playwright:

Hamlet is the great landmark in Shakespeare’s progress, standing like a rock, conspicuous and unmistakably defined, exactly in the middle of his career and exactly at the turning of the centuries. (Halliday 1961)

Stephen Greenblatt’s essay, ‘The Death of Hamnet and the Making of Hamlet,’ is a sensitive, fact-based reconstruction of Shakespeare’s circumstances in the years of Hamlet’s conception, writing and early performances. What follows is a summary of the connections that Greenblatt makes, not all provable but all compelling, between Shakespeare’s life experience and the writing of Hamlet:

  • Shakespeare’s only son, Hamnet, died in August 1596;
  • The names Hamnet and Hamlet are ‘entirely interchangeable in Stratford records’ of the time;
  • Shakespeare’s King John, written in 1596, depicts a mother frantically grieving the loss of her son;
  • Hamlet contains more than 600 words that were new not only to Shakespeare but also, as far as the surviving written records show, to the English language. Greenblatt attributes this ‘linguistic explosion’ to Shakespeare’s passionate grief over Hamnet’s death;
  • The continuing Catholic beliefs of Shakespeare’s father, John, who was buried in Holy Trinity Church in Stratford on 8 September 1601, may have contributed to the evocation in Hamlet of Purgatory as a place of torment. Catholics believed—and it is still an article of faith—that saved but sinful souls must spend a time of severe suffering to purge their sins before they could enter heaven. Prayers, rituals, pious actions, and donations to the Church by the living could shorten the time that the souls of loved ones spent in Purgatory. Greenblatt traces the history of this doctrine in European literature, with reference to Shakespeare’s play, in Hamlet in Purgatory (Princeton University Press, Princeton New Jersey, 2001; 2013).
  • News of his father’s illness and death probably reached Shakespeare while he was writing Hamlet. Greenblatt suggests: “The death of his son and the impending death of his father—a crisis of mourning and memory—could have caused a psychic disturbance that helps to explain the explosive power and inwardness of Hamlet.”

Ann Thomson and Neil Taylor likewise discuss connections between the play and the deaths of Shakespeare’s son and father and summarise the many theories advanced to explain them.

 Later Performances

In contrast with the ongoing debate over the standing of the three early Hamlet texts, producers and performers have adapted the play in accordance with their creative vision, contemporary concerns and limitations of time. Over the centuries this freedom has produced a long list of  Hamlet presentations. In 1996, Kenneth Branagh starred in and directed the first-ever unabridged film version of Hamlet, running just over four hours. This is one of the best Shakespeare film adaptations ever made, available for purchase online. Especially if watched in short sections, it is hugely helpful for anyone approaching the play for the first time. Many, indeed most, modern performers of Hamlet portray a prince who is mentally disturbed if not mad. This is a suggestion for you to keep in mind as you read the play.

The Value of Hamlet

The ending of Greenblatt’s essay identifies the play’s significance for Shakespeare’s world and our own:

Shakespeare grasped that crucial death rituals in his culture had been gutted. He may have felt this with enormous pain at his son’s graveside. But he also believed that the theater—and his theatrical art in particular—could tap into the great reservoir of passionate feelings that, for him and for thousands of his contemporaries, no longer had a satisfactory outlet … Shakespeare drew upon the confusion, pity, and dread of death in a world of damaged rituals—the world in which most of us continue to live. (‘The Death of Hamnet and the Making of Hamlet’)

Hamlet grapples therefore with non-existence after death, following the fragmentation of an all-encompassing medieval Christian system of belief that had sought to exclude this as a possibility or probability. In Hamlet, Shakespeare welcomes us to modernity.

An annotated list of various editions of Hamlet, as well as the commentaries mentioned in this section, can be found in the Appendix: Hamlet Resources.

additional reading

These link to holdings in the James Cook University Library. Please check your library for these resources.

Cutrofello, Andrew. All for Nothing : Hamlet’s Negativity. The MIT Press, 2014.

Mancewicz, Aneta. Hamlet after Deconstruction. Palgrave Macmillan, 2022.

North, Ryan, et al. To Be or Not to Be : A Chooseable-Path Adventure. Breadpig, Inc., 2013.

Roberts, Kerrie. Hamlet’s Hereditary Queen : Performing Shakespeare’s Silent Female Power. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2023.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. The Floating Press, 2019.

Taylor, Neil. Hamlet : A Critical Reader. Edited by Ann Thompson, Bloomsbury UK, 2020, https://doi.org/10.5040/9781472571410.

  1. deceitfulness, untrustworthiness
  2. See also the summary of editors’ choices in the Folger Hamlet, ed. Mowat and Werstine, pp. xlix-lv; and the more detailed account in Spencer, ed. Hamlet, pp. 146-171.


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