Shakespeare Solved ®

Shakespeare Solved ® is a forthcoming series of novels that covers the Bard's entire life and work.

These novels solve the mysteries surrounding Shakespeare by transporting us back in time, to walk in his shoes, and see his world through his eyes.

Only when we see Shakespeare in his original historical context can we understand what his plays and poems really mean.

This blog explains some of my ideas and discoveries, to prepare for this series of novels.

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Thursday, July 3, 2014

Did Shakespeare Write Hamlet Four Times?

Is the Hamlet play actually many different Hamlet plays?

Laurence Olivier

The earliest date for the Hamlet is 1589.

But there is evidence for another Hamlet in 1594, and again in 1596.

And finally, there is evidence of a Hamlet in the period from 1599 to 1602. This is the only version known to have been published, in 1603 and 1604 in Quarto version, and in 1623 in the First Folio -- which have many differences between them.

So, there is a great deal of controversy over which is the real Hamlet.

Ian McKellen

In 1589, Thomas Nashe wrote of a Hamlet play, the text of which has not survived:

"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."

It is interesting that he mentions the many "tragical speeches" which would indicate that this version of Hamlet was as much a tragedy as the Hamlet we know today.

The famous theatre impresario Philip Henslowe wrote in his diary of a Hamlet in 1594.

Playwright Thomas Lodge wrote of another Hamlet in 1596: "the ghost which cried so miserably at the theatre, like an oyster-wife, Hamlet, revenge!"

It is interesting here that Lodge seems to make fun of this performance. Is it just professional jealousy, or could his mockery indicate that the play was not well-received by the audiences in 1596?

Ralph Fiennes

There is a great deal of debate over the Hamlet play in the 1599 to 1602 period. No one knows exactly when this Hamlet was written and performed.

Some scholars think that Shakespeare may have been writing different versions of the same play, while others completely disagree.

I am surprised that these scholars would dismiss what seems to be the most reasonable solution to this mystery.

Let's look at it from another direction, Shakespeare is believed to have first gone to London around 1587-8.

So, it is possible that he could have written a Hamlet play in this time, and staged it in London.

If he did write this 1589 version, it means that it was one of the very first, perhaps the very first play he ever wrote.

If it was the very first play he wrote, then that would suggest that the story was personally important to him. Or, it was just a story he liked.

Why would the story appeal to him personally?

Well, in 1585, his wife Anne gave birth to twins, Judith and Hamnet Shakespeare. Shakespeare had already had an earlier child, Susanna, born in 1583, but Hamnet was his first son.

In a culture like Shakespeare's, a son was all important, especially as far as keeping the Shakespeare name alive. Hamnet would inherit his father's name, wealth, and property, and this son would beget sons who would carry William Shakespeare's legacy into the future.

Daniel Day-Lewis

Why would Shakespeare choose the name Hamnet for his first-born son?

The story of Amleth, the Vita Amlethi or "Life of Amleth" was very popular in Shakespeare's time. It was a story of heroic young prince. 

Shakespeare was not the only one to name their son after this story. His neighbour Hamnet Sadler was named for the same heroic prince.

Hamnet Sadler's name was also spelled Hamlet. So, there is every reason to believe that Shakespeare's son Hamnet could also be called Hamlet.

So, now it becomes clearer. Shakespeare may have written his very first play about a heroic young prince named Hamlet, a name that he gave to his first-born son.

If that is true, then this is arguably the most important story Shakespeare would ever write. He wrote it for his young son.

Let us assume that he did write this 1589 version of the story for his son. We might also assume that this production was not very successful, otherwise there might have been more written about it at the time. Or, it could have been wildly successful, and there is no record that has survived.

Kenneth Branagh

Now let us assume that he also wrote another version of the same story, he dusted it off again and played it in 1594.

Why would he perform it again in 1594?

Well, by 1594 Shakespeare had just become friends with the Earl of Essex and the Earl of Southampton. They also became his artistic patrons.

If they liked Shakespeare, and recognized him as the remarkably talented playwright that he was, they may have wanted to see the most important play he had ever written. They asked him to perform Hamlet.

Would it be the exact same text? Would Shakespeare add a few lines here and there?

Essex, at the time, had ambitions to succeed Queen Elizabeth, who considered him her "favourite."

Would it be surprising then if Essex asked Shakespeare to write lines or scenes that helped him in his effort to become the next King of England? 

It was only one year later that Shakespeare was writing Richard II, which was very political, and clearly propaganda for Essex.

We might assume that this production in 1594 was also not very successful. But we don't know for sure.

Jude Law

Let us assume that Shakespeare next performed Hamlet in 1596. Why 1596?

Well, that is the year that his son Hamnet died. He was 11 years old.

If Shakespeare did indeed write the play for his son in 1589, he may have written a newer, and arguably bleaker and more tragic version in 1596.

It is entirely reasonable to believe that Shakespeare may have wanted to write a new version in order to deal with the tremendous pain of losing his only son.

We might assume that this production was not successful. Thomas Lodge's comment about crying "so miserably, like an oyster-wife" might indicate that audiences did not enjoy a third production of the same play. Was it too melodramatic perhaps?

For the next production of Hamlet, as I mentioned, there are theories that date the play anywhere between 1599 to 1602.

But, let's look at February 1601.

Essex, who had a terrible reversal of fortune, and had lost all of the love of Queen Elizabeth, led a rebellion against her, with the Earl of Southampton. Essex failed, was tried, and executed.

Shakespeare's friend and artistic patron is a traitor and is killed. This is one of the greatest tragedies in Shakespeare's life.

But later that year, Shakespeare's father John dies.

It is hard to imagine how frightened and sad Shakespeare was in that year.

It is one of the most difficult moments in his career. He has lost political protection and favor, now that Essex is dead, and his other patron, Southampton, is locked in the Tower.

David Tennant

He might have asked himself if he should continue with his career, whether he should stop writing and retire to Stratford, or keep writing.

But if he writes anything, what should it be?

What if he writes a new version, a fourth version of Hamlet?

The first was for his son, the second for Essex, the third for his son after his death, and now a fourth after the death of Essex. It makes a certain sense.

This fourth version was probably the one that we know best. It probably represented all of the earlier scenes and lines, to maximize the tragedy that was the Essex Rebellion. Essex was very popular in England, and seeing the play would have been something of a funeral mass.

So, is this Hamlet play we have today, which we read and study and is performed over and over again, some combination of all four versions of the same story?

Hamlet is the longest play of his. Perhaps the length supports this theory that it is a combination of four versions.

Benedict Cumberbatch will play Hamlet later this year

Why Hamlet is his greatest play? There is so much I could write about that.

But what if the answer is very simple. What if it is his greatest play because he wrote it for and about two of the most important people in his life?

Shakespeare with his family, and son Hamnet, standing

Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex

For the heroic prince he imagined his son would become, but whose life was cut way too short, and the heroic young prince whose mad ambition got him killed.

What do you think?


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