Borrowing Hamlet

July 26: On this day in 1602, printer James Robertes entered in the Stationers’ Register “A booke called the Revenge of Hamlett Prince Denmarke as yt was latelie Acted by the Lord Chamberleyne his servants.” If James Robertes was practicing standard thievery for these pre-copyright times, Shakespeare too had borrowed. As well as various mythic sources for the story, an 11th-12th century Danish saga entitled “Amleth” tells the tale of Feng murdering his brother in order to marry his sister-in-law, causing son Amleth to pretend to be mad in order to save himself. Shakespeare added the play-within-the-play, but he kept other specific twists and turns contained in the Danish story—for example, the Uncle-King sending Amleth to England guarded by two pretend friends carrying an execution letter, which Amleth alters to have, as Shakespeare puts it, “the engineer hoist with his own petard.” Many of Shakespeare’s famous turns of phrase (including the “petard” line) are missing from the 1603 First Quarto Hamlet, which is perhaps based only on an actor’s memory—and not the actor playing Hamlet, judging by the first print version of the famous soliloquy:

To be, or not to be, I there’s the point,

To Die, to sleepe, is that all? I all:

No, to sleepe, to dreame, I mary there it goes,

For in that dreame of death, when wee awake,

And borne before an everlasting Judge,

From whence no passenger ever retur’nd,

The undiscovered country, at whose sight

The happy smile, and the accursed damn’d….

The borrowing continues apace, of course: one website [http://www.barbarapaul.com/shake/hamlet.html] devoted to compiling a list of all book titles alluding to Hamlet has a current grand total approaching 800. Some 150 of these are inspired by the “To be, or not to be” soliloquy alone—the allusion list topped by To be/Not be (24), Undiscovered Country (22), Outrageous Fortune (18), Perchance to Dream (16), No Traveler Returns (11), Slings and Arrows (10)…. Also included on the site is this anagram of the first three lines of the soliloquy, turning “To be or not to be—that is the question: / Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer / the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” into “In one of the Bard’s best-thought-of tragedies, our insistent hero, Hamlet, queries on two fronts about how life turns rotten.”


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.