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This question is a follow-up to How has knowledge of the Ur-Hamlet evolved over the centuries? in which we learned about how it first came to be postulated that Shakespeare's Hamlet was based on an earlier story of the same name by a different writer. Another question naturally arising out of this is, given the assumption that there was an Ur-Hamlet, whose text is now lost, what can be deduced or at least solidly guessed about its content? Even though the text itself is lost, references to it remain in other pieces of literature, and perhaps there's more evidence to be found in other Hamlet-like stories from around the same time. I don't need certain proof, but clear evidence based on serious studies would be good, not just pure guesswork.

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  • I'm not sure much more can be added to that earlier answer. We know an Ur-Hamlet existed -- it provided S. access to a story not otherwise known to have existed in English. (He is alleged to have known "little Latin & less Greek".) We also know many plays from that period either never were published or all copies of their published versions have been lost. Beyond that is IMHO much speculation, some of which is less convincing or insightful than others.
    – llywrch
    Feb 22, 2021 at 16:44
  • Some people think that the German play Der Bestrafte Brudemord is based on the Ur-Hamlet. But if it is, it was performed for over a century before it was written down, and undoubtedly differs considerably from the original version.
    – Peter Shor
    Feb 27, 2021 at 17:59

1 Answer 1

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The assumption that an Ur-Hamlet existed is based on a passage from Thomas Nashe's preface to Robert Greene's Menaphon. Nashe writes (bold emphasis mine),

It is a commom practise now a daies amongst a soft of shifting companions, that runne through euery arte and thriue by none, to issue the trade of Nouerint whereto they were borne, and busie themselves with the indeuors of Art, that could scarcelie latinise their necke-verse if they should haue neede; yet English Seneca read by candle light yeeldes manie good sentences, as Bloud is a begger, and so foorth: and if you intreate him faire in a frostie morning, he will affoord you whole Hamlets, I should say handfulls of tragical speeches. But ô griefe! tempus edax rerum, what's that will last alwaies? The sea exhaled by droppes will in continuance be drie, and Seneca let bloud line by line and page by page, at length must needes die to our stage: which makes his famisht followers to imitate the Kidde in Aesop, who enamored with the Foxes newfangles, forsooke all hopes of life to leape into a new occupation; and these men renowncing all possibilities of credit or estimation, to intermeddle with Italian translations: (…)

Greene's Menaphone was printed in 1589 and based on the topicality of Nashe's comments, he may be referring to a play called Hamlet from 1588 or early 1589. Thomas Kyd may have been that play's author (or one of its authors). However, Nashe's comments don't tell us much about the play's content other than that it may have been inspired to some extent by Seneca. (Jasper Heywood's translations of Seneca in the 1560s probably contributed to the emergence of the revenge tragedy as a genre a few decades later; Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy (1592?) established the genre.)

One of the things we know about this play is that it had a ghost. Thomas Lodge writes in Wit's Miserie (1596):

(…) & looks as pale as the Visard if ye ghost which cried so miserally at y Theator like an oister wife, Hamlet, reuenge: (…)

According to Lukas Erne, there is very little that can be inferred from the early editions of Shakespeare's Hamlet, with the possible exception of certain passages in the first quarto of 1603 ("Q1", long considered a "bad quarto") that differ from the second quarto ("Q2", 1604) and the first folio ("F1", 1623). In these passages, Hamlet's mother Gertrude is informed about Claudius's plot against Hamlet (i.e. sending him to England with a letter telling Hamlet should be killed) and is clearly on Hamlet's side, whereas in Q2 and F1 she is a much more ambiguous figure. This more sympathetic treatment of the queen is something that Q1 has in common with Belleforest's Histoires tragiques, which may have been Kyd's source. (Belleforest's novella, by contrast, didn't feature a ghost.) However, Shakespeare may also have used Belleforest as a source, so it is also possible to hypothesise that Q1 represents an older version that he later rewrote and that he changed his mind about Gertrude in the process. (The weakness of this hypothesis is that Shakespeare does not appear to have proofread his own plays and thus not have cared much of how they appeared in print.)

This seems to be the extent of what is known about the content of the Ur-Hamlet.


Sources:

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  • Shakespeare wouldn't have rewritten his play for publication; he would have rewritten his play for the stage. If Shakespeare was the author of the Ur-Hamlet, it would have been one of his earliest plays, and if he thought he could improve it greatly, I don't see why he couldn't have rewritten it.
    – Peter Shor
    Dec 20, 2022 at 3:58
  • @PeterShor Perhaps I didn't express myself clearly. I did not mean to imply that Shakespeare was the author of the Ur-Hamlet (that was most likely Kyd); I just tried to find an alternative explanation for the differences between Q1 and Q2. And I also believe Shakespeare would not rewrite his plays for publication, but that still leaves open the possibility that different versions for the stage might have gotten published.
    – Tsundoku
    Dec 20, 2022 at 8:50
  • Since one hypothesis to explain several of the "bad quartos" is that they were plays that Shakespeare wrote early in his career and revised, the idea that Shakespeare wrote the Ur-Hamlet makes sense. And it might be possible to use textual analysis to decide whether Shakespeare or Kyd (or somebody else) wrote Q1.
    – Peter Shor
    Dec 20, 2022 at 11:51
  • @PeterShor "the idea that Shakespeare wrote the Ur-Hamlet makes sense". I am very skeptical about this idea, both because of the Nashe quote and for other reasons that would take too long to discuss here (and which are outside the scope of the question anyway).
    – Tsundoku
    Dec 20, 2022 at 12:38
  • Tsundoku and @PeterShor: should I ask a follow-up question "What is known about the author of the Ur-Hamlet?"?
    – Rand al'Thor
    Dec 20, 2022 at 14:43

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