Shakespeare’s Hamlet – Notes on Introduction by Harold Jenkins

I’m reading the Arden Shakespeare version of Hamlet, edited by Harold Jenkins. Harold Jenkins’ Introduction had a LOT of information, and I highly recommend it to someone who’s serious about reading this play. Jenkins started by discussing the date of original release. Apparently there is some controversy among scholars about when the play first came out. There’s about 2-3 years wiggle room of uncertainty. Apparently, this is an important question since there is a play that was released around the same time called Antonio’s Revenge. Either Hamlet or Antonio’s Revenge was plagiarized. We’re talking the plot, the circumstances, and some of the dialog–all copied. Jenkins comes to the conclusion from his three-paged discussion about dates that Hamlet was released first. Originally, it was generally accepted that Antonio’s Revenge was released first and that it was used as “source material” for Hamlet. I wasn’t entirely convinced by Jenkins’ argument, and am not certain whether most scholars today agree with him or accept the original conclusions that Hamlet was the later play (though I suspect the former). After so much time has passed, and considering that plagiarism wasn’t as big a deal in the 16th century as it is now, I hesitate to give Shakespeare all the credit simply because he’s Shakespeare. However, Jenkins did provide one argument that I found convincing. Shakespeare was basing his play on a well-known Danish tale. He shouldn’t have had any use for an unrelated secondary source like Antonio’s Revenge. On the other hand, Marston would have been searching for ideas for a sequel to his earlier play, Antonio and Mellida, and would have had more need for source material.

Jenkins then spends a good deal of space discussing the publication of Hamlet and the differences between existing manuscripts. I skipped that section, but it certainly contained a good deal of information that a serious scholar would find interesting.

The sources of Shakespeare’s Hamlet are then discussed. Apparently, it is generally accepted that the major source of Shakespeare’s Hamlet was a contemporary play dubbed by today’s scholars as Ur-Hamlet. This play was never printed, so we can’t compare it to Shakespeare’s work, but Shakespeare would certainly have been familiar with the play since it was put out by his own company. The story that we now call Hamlet was first published in Saxo’s Historiae Danicae, written at the end of the twelfth century and published in 1514. The story was then retold by the Frenchman Belleforest–translations (or the original French version) were probably what the author of Ur-Hamlet used when writing his play. It is clear that Belleforest was the source material, rather than Saxo’s original work, because that Belleforest introduced some dramatic elements to the story which were present in Hamlet. For instance, the adultery of Amleth’s mother was Belleforest’s idea. Although it is clear that Belleforest is the source of Hamlet, it is unclear whether Shakespeare read Belleforest himself, or simply inherited the allusions from Ur-Hamlet

There were, of course, elements in Hamlet that were not evident in Belleforest’s work. For instance, the complexity of Hamlet’s character was Shakespeare’s doing. Also, the ghost of Hamlet’s father is only hinted at in Belleforest. During the revenge scene in his tale, Belleforest made passing reference to the shade of Amleth’s father–that it may now rest in peace. The leap between a metaphorical shade and a full-fledged haunting was made somewhere between Belleforest and Shakespeare. Jenkins’ introduction contains a lot more information about the little differences between Belleforest and Shakespeare with some speculation about Ur-Hamlet, but I’ll leave all of that unsummarized so you have a reason to read the Introduction yourself. 😉

Finally, the Introduction ends with a critical analysis of Hamlet. It has been so long since I’ve read Hamlet, that I feel I need to go back and read this critical analysis after re-reading the play. I’ll post more detailed comments on it later. The only thing that really jumped out at me during this first perusal of Jenkins’ critique is that he believes that Ophelia died a virgin. I’d always heard that Ophelia and Hamlet had had relations at some point before the action commenced. The difference between these two interpretations changes Ophelia’s character immensely. I’ll read very carefully this time and come to my own conclusions.

Another thing that struck me while I was reading the introduction (though it wasn’t directly discussed by Jenkins) is that when I first read Hamlet as a teen, I never questioned the reason why people considered the relationship between Gertrude and Claudius to be incestuous. But now I wonder. Why is it incestuous to marry your brother’s widow?

This subject also came up in Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel. There was much discussion about Henry VIII’s relationship with Catherine being incestuous because Catherine MIGHT have consummated her marriage to Henry’s brother Prince Arthur. I don’t recall which Bible passages were quoted in those discussions, but I remember thinking it odd that such a marriage would be considered incestuous. 

I wondered at what point did it become incestuous in Christian culture for a man to marry his brother’s widow? If I recall correctly the Hebrew Bible says that thou shalt not have relations with the wife of your father, but thou must marry the widow of thy brother. Well. Maybe it was phrased differently…but I’m pretty sure that was the general idea. I don’t recall anything in the New Testament saying that a man shouldn’t marry his brother’s widow, so where did this idea of incestuousness come from? 

I asked this question on my LibraryThing thread, and my father came up with this answer: 

Complex subject. First off, reference Leviticus 25:5

“If brethren dwell together, and one of them die, and have no child, the wife of the dead shall not marry without unto a stranger: her husband’s brother shall go in unto her, and take her to him to wife, and perform the duty of an husband’s brother unto her.

The duty of a surviving brother to carry on his brother’s family was very important–but the issue would be his late brother’s child and not his own. Thus the story of Onan in Genesis 36. Onan went to Tamar, the late Er’s wife. But he withdrew early and “cast his seed upon the ground.” For that, Yahweh decreed capital punishment, so Onan died as well. But the brother did not strictly marry his sister-in-law. He just got her pregnant, and it was known as a Levirate marriage. Many readers considered Onan’s crime as masturbation (aka Onanism) and considered masturbation a serious sin for centuries.

As to marriage to a mother-in-law, sister-in-law, etc., these people were considered part of a household, especially if they lived in the same manor. Marriages to such always had overtones of incest, but such overtones were easily overridden among the aristocracy. But then as now, there were strict conservatives, many who held places in the hierarchy who pronounced dire consequences for everyone who did not follow the conservatives’ conscience. Especially if the conservative was opposed to the marriage for politiical or economic (his own economy) reasons. Monks and priests who vowed celibacy (whether they kept their vows or now) tended to look down their Pecksniffian noses at people who did not remain celibate. 

I also wonder (maybe there are some Shakespeare scholars reading this?)…if Shakespeare had strong feelings about the incestuous nature of marrying your brother’s widow, does that imply that he questioned the legitimacy of his king, James I, who was grandson to Henry VIII’s “incestuous” marriage to Catherine?

Things that make you go “hmmmm.”

Edited to add that Alex (in comments below) has pointed out that James I was not the grandson of Henry VIII. That just shows you what I know.

2 thoughts on “Shakespeare’s Hamlet – Notes on Introduction by Harold Jenkins

  1. Hi Rachel, it's Alex from Thinking in Fragments. First before we talk about Hamlet I need to help you through a bit of English history. James wasn't Henry VIII's grandson. He was the great-grandson of Henry's elder sister, Margaret. None of Henry's legitimate children had any children of their own so there were no legitimate grandchildren. The house of Tudor came to an end to be replaced by the house of Stuart. However, in one sense this doesn't really negate your question because my research would suggest that Hamlet was written at least 18 months before Elizabeth died and of course while he might not have been questioning James's legitimacy he could've been seen as questioning that of Elizabeth.

    The clue to the dating of Hamlet lies in those editions that you decided not to read about. We know that the play was entered in the stationers register in 1602 while Elizabeth was still on the throne. Internal evidence however suggests that a date in 1601, possibly very early in 1601, is more likely for the first performance. If you would like, I could send you a copy of the notes I use to teach this aspect of Hamlet. Leave me a note with an email address over on my site and I'll be happy to forward them to you.


  2. Ha! And here I'd always thought Mary Queen of Scots was “bloody Mary” (or Mary I of England). So confusing! But I see they were born 30 years apart.

    I'm not sure I'll ever understand English history properly!

    My complete ignorance aside, I suppose he could have been seen as questioning Elizabeth's legitimacy, but not because she was the product of incest (because she was the daughter of Anne Boleyn)…Though some may have seen Henry VIII's marriage to Anne Boleyn as adulterous if they didn't recognize the second marriage as legitimate.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s