The term Ur-Hamlet was first used by Frederick S. Boas in the introduction to his 1901 edition of the works of Thomas Kyd. Discussing a hypothetical play on the Hamlet story predating Shakespeare’s, he wrote:
I have adopted the convenient German title, which tersely distinguishes the Ur, or original, Hamlet-tragedy from Shakespeare’s play. (p. xlv, n.1)
The existence of this earlier play was posited by Edmond Malone in 1790. However, no such work is extant, and so all scholarship on the Ur-Hamlet has been and remains conjectural. Very little is known about the work, and still less is agreed upon. Most scholars claim that it is the chief source on which Shakespeare based his play, but a minority disputes even its existence.
To understand why Malone argued that there must have been a play on the Hamlet theme anterior to Shakespeare's, some background information is necessary:
- The sources of the Hamlet story.
- The date ascribed to Shakespeare's Hamlet.
Let's look at these to see how and why the idea of an Ur-Hamlet arose.
The Sources of the Hamlet Story
As with nearly all his plays, the plot of Hamlet was not original to Shakespeare. The story of Amleth goes back to medieval Scandinavian legend. The first written source is the early 13th C. Latin Gesta Danorum, or Deeds of the Danes, by Saxo Grammaticus. Part of the third and fourth books of the Gesta Danorum tell the story of a prince named Amleth. In broad outline as well as various details, Shakespeare’s play parallels Saxo’s narrative of Amleth:
- A Danish ruler is murdered by his brother, who usurps both his realm and his wife, Gerutha.
- The murdered man’s son, Amleth, feigns madness to protect himself from his uncle/stepfather.
- Intrigues ensue, including attempts to involve Amleth romantically with a young girl and to send him to England to be killed.
- Amleth eventually kills his uncle, but dies soon after, and a Norwegian king takes over the throne.
In 1570, the French author François de Belleforest retold Amleth’s story in volume 5 of his Histoires Tragiques. Belleforest’s version greatly expanded Saxo’s, doubling its length. Some features important to Hamlet but not in Saxo derive from Belleforest: for example, Hamlet’s melancholy nature, or the adulterous relationship between Gertude and Claudius prior to the murder. Belleforest’s narrative was anonymously translated into English in 1608 as The Hystorie of Hamblet, but this translation postdates Shakespeare’s play.
The relevant portions of Saxo's Gesta Danorum, in a dual Latin/German edition, as well as Belleforest's French narrative and its anonymous English translation, can be found in Robert Gericke's Shakespeare's Hamlet-Quellen.
The Date of Shakespeare's Hamlet
Internal evidence shows that Shakespeare’s play was written some time between 1599 and 1601. The terminus post quem of 1599 is established by an exchange between Hamlet and Polonius:
HAMLET My lord, you played once i’ th’ university, you say?
POLONIUS That did I, my lord, and was accounted a good actor.
HAMLET What did you enact?
POLONIUS I did enact Julius Caesar. I was killed i’ th’ Capitol. Brutus killed me. (III.ii.104–110)
Scholars such as Harold Jenkins have pointed out that this is an inside joke (p. 294, n. 103). Shakespeare’s own Julius Caesar is dated 1599. The actors from Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, who played Caesar and Brutus in that play played Polonius and Hamlet respectively in Hamlet. This and other allusions to Julius Caesar prove that Hamlet can be no earlier than 1599 (Jenkins p. 428, n. to I.i.117–123).
A terminus ante quem of 1601 is established by a speech of Rosencrantz’s. When Hamlet asks why the Players are traveling rather than performing in the city, Rosencrantz replies:
ROSENCRANTZ I think their inhibition comes by the means of the late innovation.
HAMLET Do they hold the same estimation they did when I was in the city? Are they so followed?
ROSENCRANTZ No, indeed are they not.
HAMLET How comes it? Do they grow rusty?
ROSENCRANTZ Nay, their endeavor keeps in the wonted pace. But there is, sir, an aerie of children, little eyases, that cry out on the top of question and are most tyrannically clapped for ’t. These are now the fashion and so berattle the common stages (so they call them) that many wearing rapiers are afraid of goose quills and dare scarce come thither. (II.ii.355)
Rosencrantz says that the Players no longer remain in the city because a recent innovation has inhibited their success there. This innovation, he explains further, is the use of child actors, who are now the fashion. This alludes to the Blackfriars Theatre’s staging of plays acted entirely by the Children of the Chapel. This practice began in 1600. Since Rosencrantz calls this innovation late, i.e., recent, it means that Hamlet must have been completed soon after child actors became fashionable, i.e., no later than 1601.
These intertextual allusions establish quite clearly that Shakespeare's Hamlet, in the form that it is best known today, dates to the turn of the 17th century.
Earlier References to a Play about Hamlet
The dating of Hamlet to 1599–1601 is complicated by the existence of three, possibly four, prior references to a play that shares its subject matter: a preface by Thomas Nashe, a diary entry by Philip Henslowe, an allusion by Thomas Lodge, and some marginalia by Gabriel Harvey.
Thomas Nashe, 1589
The first printed reference we have to any play based on the Hamlet story is in Nashe's 1589 preface to Robert Greene’s prose romance Menaphon. Nashe criticizes the contemporary vogue for tragedies in the Senecan mold. Beginning in the 1550s, Seneca’s plays had been translated into English and served as a model for English dramatists. Nashe says that incompetent translators rely on these English translations to come up with melodramatic plots and speeches:
yet English Seneca read by candlelight yields many good sentences, as Blood is a beggar, 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. (p. 9; spelling modernized)
Nashe specifically cites whole Hamlets, then pretends to correct himself by saying handfuls. This is evidently a sideswipe at some Seneca-inspired play entitled Hamlet.
Philip Henslowe, 1594
Henslowe was a theatrical entrepreneur whose diary, noting his expenses on and receipts from various productions, is one of the chief sources of information about the English theatre of Shakespeare’s day. One diary entry reads:
9 of June 1594, Rd. at hamlet ………… viijs (p. 35)
Rd is an abbreviation for Received. Henslowe is recording that he has received eight shillings, or approximately US $147 in 2021 dollars, as proceeds from a staging of Hamlet at the Newington Theatre.
Thomas Lodge, 1596
As noted in the question, Lodge alludes to a Hamlet play in his 1596 tract Wit's Misery. Lodge says of a man who resents another man's success:
he walks for the most part in black under colour of gravity, and looks as pale as the visard of the ghost which cried so miserally at the theatre like an oyster-wife, Hamlet, revenge. (p. 56)
The theatre here probably refers to the Shoreditch Theatre, arguably the first purpose-built theatre in England.
Gabriel Harvey, 1598?
The writer and scholar Harvey had a habit of making copious notes in the margins of books he had purchased. In his copy of Thomas Speght’s 1598 edition of Chaucer, Harvey praises Shakespeare as one of England’s finer poets. He writes:
The younger sort takes much delight in Shakespeare's Venus, and Adonis: but his Lucrece, & his tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, have it in them, to please the wiser sort. Or such Poets: or better: or none.
Here is a facsimile of the note:
This marginal note is the earliest documented evidence of a specifically Shakespearean Hamlet. The Speght edition being issued in 1598, the note might suggest that Hamlet had been in performance before the accepted date of 1599–1601. However, we have no way of knowing when Harvey wrote this note. He might have written it a year or two after purchasing the book. For this and other reasons, dating this note precisely or using it to determine a date for Hamlet is difficult. Jenkins has a detailed discussion of the problem (pp. 3–6).
Between them, these four references (particularly the first three) are critical in making the argument for an Ur-Hamlet. If Shakespeare's play can be firmly dated to 1599–1601, how does one account for a Hamlet play being mentioned nearly ten years prior?
Postulating an Ur-Hamlet
On the evidence of Nashe, Henslowe, and Lodge, Edmund Malone argued that there must have been an earlier, pre-Shakespearean play that told the same story. Malone was the first scholar to attempt a systematic chronology of Shakespeare’s plays. His essay "An Attempt to Ascertain the Order in which the Plays Attributed to Shakspeare were Written” was part of Samuel Johnson and George Steevens's magisterial 1778 edition of Shakespeare's complete works. In this, the first version of the essay, Malone assigns Hamlet the year 1596, assuming that the play Lodge mentions must have been Shakespeare’s. However, he argues that Shakespeare probably revised the play later:
the general air of the play itself, which has not, it must be owned, the appearance of an early composition, might induce us to class it five or six years later than 1596, were we not overpowered by the proof … The piece however, which was then exhibited, was probably but a rude sketch of that which we now possess. (p. 292)
In an expanded version of his essay, included in his own 1790 edition of Shakespeare, Malone first introduces the idea of an older play on the Hamlet story that was based on Saxo and/or Belleforest. Discussing the passage in Nash, he writes:
It is manifest from this passage that some play on the story of Hamlet had been exhibited before the year 1589; but I am inclined to think that it was not Shakespeare’s drama, but an elder performance, on which, with the aid of the old prose History of Hamlet, his tragedy was formed. The great number of pieces which we know he formed on the performances of preceding writers renders it highly possible that some others also of his dramas were constructed on plays that are now lost. Perhaps the original Hamlet was written by Thomas Kyd. (p. 305)
Nevertheless, at this point he still maintained the 1596 date for Hamlet, relying on the mention of a specifically Shakespearean play of that name in Harvey’s marginalia in his copy of the 1598 Speght Chaucer.
Some time later, Malone changed his view on the date of Hamlet. Malone died in 1812, but a revised, 21-volume edition of Shakespeare that he had left incomplete was published posthumously in 1821. This edition, completed by James Boswell the younger with the help of Malone’s papers and directions, included the third version of his essay. In this version Malone asserts, based on the reference to the child actors, that Hamlet was written in 1600. He points out that the Harvey marginalia could have been written any time after Harvey acquired his book, and so does not establish that Harvey had seen Shakespeare’s Hamlet by 1598:
I have been favoured by the Bishop of Dromore [Dr. Percy], the possessor of the book referred to, with an inspection of it; and, on an attentive examination, I have found reason to believe, that the note in question may have been written in the latter end of the year 1600. Harvey doubtless purchased this volume in 1598, having, both at the beginning and end of it, written his name. But it by no means follows that all the intermediate remarks which are scattered throughout were put down at the same time. (p. 369–370)
Malone’s work set the parameters for the discussion of the Ur-Hamlet:
- Shakespeare’s Hamlet is not earlier than 1600 or 1601
- The print references to a Hamlet-like play prior to that date must refer to an earlier play that used material from Saxo and/or Belleforest
- Shakespeare drew upon this earlier play in writing his own Hamlet
- This play was probably by Thomas Kyd.
All subsequent discussion about the Ur-Hamlet has been conducted on Malone's terms.
Taking the Ur-Hamlet for Granted
Malone did not postulate an Ur-Hamlet until 1790, nearly a century and three-quarters after Shakespeare’s death. In later Shakespearean scholarship, his hypothesis has achieved the status of fact. The Ur-Hamlet has become so naturalized that Jenkins, writing in 1982, can say:
It is reasonably and inevitably supposed that the immediate source of Hamlet was an earlier play on the same subject, which scholars have come to call the Ur-Hamlet. This play is not extant and was apparently never printed, but that it did exist is well known from a number of contemporary references. (p. 82)
Without needing to citing Malone, Jenkins can simply assert that the Ur-Hamlet must have existed.
As the quote from Jenkins shows, scholarly discussion of Hamlet takes Malone’s conclusions for granted. His conclusions are not uniformly accepted as settled. For example, some argue that the grounds for his claim that the earlier play are shaky. But the assumptions that (1) an Ur-Hamlet existed, and (2) Kyd wrote it, are so pervasive that even scholars challenging either of those assumptions engage in combat with Malone, whether or not their arguments explicitly invoke him by name.
This answer focuses only on narrow pieces of the question as asked:
- Did scholars of Shakespeare always know about the existence of this previous Hamlet story?
- Is the Ur-Hamlet known only from the above Lodge quote?
A full answer to the question "What is known about the Ur-Hamlet, and how has this knowledge changed over the centuries?" must provide additional information and argument. Some of the questions that it would need to address are:
- What is the print history of Shakespeare's Hamlet?
- Why did Malone identify Kyd as the likely author of the Ur-Hamlet?
- Since the Ur-Hamlet is not extant, are there any other dramatic sources from which we can imagine or reconstruct what it must have been like?
- What is the current state of scholarly discussion about the Ur-Hamlet?
Since this answer is long enough already, I do not intend to go into these issues here. In any case, if I were to try, I'd run into the character limit for Stack Exchange answers. But these are all good questions for Literature Stack Exchange, if anybody cares to ask follow-ups.
Boas, Frederick S., ed. The Works of Thomas Kyd. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1901. archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.53878/page/n5/mode/2up.
Gericke, Robert, compiler. Shakespeare's Hamlet-Quellen: Saxo Grammaticus (Lateinisch und Deutsch), Belleforest, und The History of Hamlet. Leipzig: Barth, 1881. archive.org/details/cu31924013138288/page/n3/mode/2up.
Henslowe, Philip. The Diary of Philip Henslowe, from 1591 to 1609. Ed. J. Payne Collier. London: Shakespeare Society, 1845. dbooks.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/books/PDFs/300031873.pdf.
Jenkins, Harold, ed. Hamlet. By William Shakespeare. 1601? The Arden Shakespeare, Second Series. London: Methuen, 1982.
Lodge, Thomas. Wits Miserie, and the Worlds Madnesse. 1596. The Complete Works of Thomas Lodge, vol. 4. Glasgow: Hunterian Club, 1883. archive.org/details/completeworksth00unkngoog/page/n5/mode/1up.
Malone, Edmond. "An Attempt to Ascertain the Order in which the Plays Attributed to Shakspeare were Written”. In The Plays of William Shakespeare, vol. 1. Ed. Samuel Johnson and George Steevens. 2nd ed. London: Bathurst et al., 1778. pp. 261–346. archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.512119/page/n281/mode/1up.
Malone, Edmond. "An Attempt to Ascertain the Order in which the Plays Attributed to Shakspeare were Written”. In The Plays and Poems of William Shakespeare, vol. 1, part 1. Ed. Edmond Malone. London: J. Rivington and Sons, 1790. pp. 261–386. archive.org/details/playspoemsofwill11shak_0/page/261/mode/1up.
Malone, Edmond. "An Attempt to Ascertain the Order in which the Plays Attributed to Shakspeare were Written”. In *The Plays and Poems of William Shakespeare”, vol. 2. London: F. C. and J. Rivington, 1821. pp. 288–471. archive.org/details/playspoemsofwill02shak_0/page/288/mode/1up.
Nashe, Thomas. “To the Gentlemen Students of Both Universities”. In Menaphon. 1589. By Robert Greene. Ed. Edward Arber. Westminster: Constable, 1895. pp. 5–18. archive.org/details/menaphoncamilas00greegoog/page/n4/mode/2up.