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A Brief History of Hamlet


William Shakespeare’s Hamlet precedes its own reputation. It was Shakespeare’s most popular play during his lifetime and remains the most produced work of his to date. In fact, it is speculated that Hamlet is performed somewhere every minute of every single day. Most people unknowingly quote Hamlet with phrases such as “in my mind’s eye” or “what a piece of work.” The play has even been translated into Klingon and featured in an episode of Star Trek (in case you were curious “To be or not to be” in Klingon is, “taH pagh taHbe.”)

While Hamlet reigns as a cultural staple, the play’s origin is often contested. There are several theories about the inspiration for Hamlet, from 12th century Danish literature to Indo-European character tropes. Scholars can trace a similar story to a 9th century Scandinavian folktale of Amleth, a prince who feigned madness to exact revenge on his uncle for killing his father. “Amleth” or “Amlóði” actually is translated into “mad” or “not sane” in Norse. Beyond just the similarity between the names, the themes of madness and revenge are concrete plot points in each story and it becomes relatively easy to see how Amleth was the predecessor to the Elizabethan tragedy. Eventually, the legend of Amleth was translated into French during the 16th century, which is where Shakespeare would likely have first encountered this story and character. While the lore of Amleth is certainly appears analogous, historic literature is riddled with interpretations of mad princes, including Icelandic sagas and Roman legends. Knowing precisely where Shakespeare found his inspiration for Hamlet is practically impossible, but these glimpses into history give us some possible context clues.

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ArtsEmerson Leadership Photo“ArtsEmerson puts the world on stage and screen to help us understand our world, celebrate our place in it, and explore how we each can contribute to its transformation. We are passionately committed to delivering exceptional experiences for our audiences and operate from the belief that the arts belong to everyone. We invite you to come with us to places you have not been and share experiences you could not anticipate but will never forget. And, if you are so inclined, to engage with a room full of fellow travelers (who are your neighbors) to sort it all out. Let us begin to rediscover our community through the shared experience of art and conversation.”

– ArtsEmerson Leadership Team