The century was coming to an end. The rapidly approaching 1600s marked the end of the long reign of Queen Elizabeth I, and consequently the twilight of the Tudors. William Shakespeare, an unknown man without a formal education from the rural town of Stratford, had exploded onto the London theatrical scene, quickly becoming a star actor and playwright virtuoso. Back in his hometown of Stratford, his ailing father, John Shakespeare, who once was a prominent landowner and magistrate, had squandered the family’s status and riches over a scandal that surely dimmed William’s hopes of ever becoming a proper gentleman. After his fall from grace, John Shakespeare remained under lock and key at home, rarely leaving even to attend church and drinking himself to the grave. He died in September 1601. Meanwhile, William Shakespeare left his wife, Anne, and fled to London where he quickly rose alongside the growing popularity of the English theatre. Anne was left alone to raise the three Shakespeare children in Stratford (including an elder daughter, Susanna, and fraternal twins: Hamnet and Judith). There has been much speculation about Shakespeare’s relationship with his family, why did he abandon his family? His last will and testament seems to indicate a distant and perhaps unpleasant relationship with his wife that likely lasted for much of his life.
The writing of Hamlet coincided roughly with the death of Shakespeare’s father, but also, and more importantly, it coincided with the untimely death of Shakespeare’s only son, Hamnet, who died in 1596 perhaps of the bubonic plague. Hamnet was eleven years old when he died -he was another victim of the high infant mortality rates in England at the time (about one in every three children died before the age of ten). Hamnet and his twin sister, Judith, were both named after friends and neighbors of the Shakespeares in Stratford. After the deaths in the family, Shakespeare found himself with neither a son nor a father, and his relationship with his wife appears to have collapsed. On top of that, the mood of England was dark and conspiratorial. The plague continued to spread through the country. The end of the House of Tudor meant new questions about political stability -would England return to the extraordinary violence and chaos of the Wars of the Roses? The legacy of the Reformation continued to pit ‘radical’ Protestants against ‘Papist’ Catholics -often violently. Puritanical religious fanatics would soon ban theatrical performances and many other ‘worldly entertainments’ that were labeled sinful. The infamous Gunpowder Plot was soon to strike at the heart of the monarchy, amidst other conspiracies. At the time, London had grown into a crowded and growing city where odd superstitions proliferated. The people were quick to believe odd demonic theories and they held fast to grievances and resentments (in some ways the era was not too dissimilar from our own). Within this convoluted milieu, Shakespeare began writing Hamlet. And while Hamlet surely delves into his own personal, as well as political, and philosophical questions, Shakespeare took great labors to disguise himself within his own works, not unlike his predecessor Plato and his successor Nietzsche. Unlike the insatiable Christopher Marlowe, who wound up dead on a bar room floor, or Ben Jonson, who explicitly devoted a public poem in honor of his own deceased son, Shakespeare preferred a much more subtle, mysterious, and esoteric path.
Shakespeare’s personal intentions aside, Hamlet is the essential Renaissance play. It remains comprehensive in its scope -novel and imaginative yet melancholy and ominous- its horizon is both elusive and expansive by exploring universal themes. Details about the origins of the play remain something of a mystery. Unlike Macbeth, the sources for Hamlet are likely varied -from the revenge story of Brutus (the fabled founder of Rome) to a 13th century Norse saga/Danish history (“Geno Danorum”) by Saxo Grammaticus which tells the story of “Amleth,” a vengeful prince. Some literary scholars have suggested there was an earlier ‘Hamlet’ revenge-play by Thomas Kyd called the “Ur-Hamlet.” No copies of this rumored play have survived.
Hamlet was likely first performed at either the end of the 1590s or else at the very start of the 1600s at the Globe Theatre (actually the earliest documented evidence of the play’s performance is from an amusing oceanic voyage by the ship’s crew as they docked off the coast of Africa). In addition, there are three distinct versions of Hamlet that survive today (the First Quarto, the Second Quarto, and the First Folio). Each version contains lines that are not present in the other versions. Hamlet was almost certainly written with Richard Burbage in mind. Burbage was the the leading tragic actor in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. The Globe Theatre apparently opened shortly before the first performance of Hamlet, the first performance at the Globe was likely Julius Caesar.
Hamlet is Shakespeare’s longest and most complex play.