Is the sealed letter that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern carry that orders Hamlet's execution a deliberate reference to the Biblical King David having Uriah the Hittite carry a letter to Joab ordering his death?

In the morning it happened that David wrote a letter to Joab and sent it by the hand of Uriah. And he wrote in the letter, saying, “Set Uriah in the forefront of the hottest battle, and retreat from him, that he may be struck down and die.” So it was, while Joab besieged the city, that he assigned Uriah to a place where he knew there were valiant men. Then the men of the city came out and fought with Joab. And some of the people of the servants of David fell; and Uriah the Hittite died also. (2 Samuel 11:14-18, NIV)

If so, how likely would it have been that Shakespeare's original audience would've understood the reference?


2 Answers 2


I don't believe it's a specific reference to that story in the Book of Samuel.

A message that instructs the recipient to execute the messenger is a well-known old trope that has appeared in many stories. TVTROPES WARNING The TvTropes page “Please Shoot the Messenger” contains many examples.

Possibly the most well-known example is the story of Bellerophontēs from Greek mythology, which is retold in the Iliad chapter 6.

Bellerophontēs was a mortal hero who may have been the son of the god Poseidon. He was once guest of Proitos, king of Tiryns. The wife of the king has lied that Bellerophontēs has offered his love to her. This has angered the king, but as Greeks at that time took hospitality very seriously, he didn't dare to take revenge on his guest Bellerophontēs himself. Instead, Proitos sent Bellerophontēs to Iobathēs, king of Lykia, with a ciphered message asking Iobathēs to kill the hero.

However, Iobathēs also considered hospitality his foremost obligation, so he wasn't willing to outright kill the messenger. Instead, he sent him on a series of dangerous heroic tasks. Eventually, Bellerophontēs has passed all the tests and survived the traps, and also took revenge on Proitos's wife.

I do not know if this particular Greek myth is older than the biblical story, nor what the oldest example is. It is, however, just one example out of many stories that precede Shakespeare, which is why I don't think the letter in Hamlet has to reference the story of Uriah in particular.

  • 1
    Good point - so we don't necessarily have to assume that Shakespeare was referring to Uriah in particular because there were other things he could've been basing it on instead? Commented Apr 1, 2017 at 14:44
  • 1
    @EJoshuaS: at least I don't assume that. But you'll have to wait for other people who know more about Shakespeare and Hamlet and that letter in it, maybe they can analyze the specifics.
    – b_jonas
    Commented Apr 1, 2017 at 15:01
  • Probably not a specific reference for reasons you give. Still, I bet Shakespeare's audience was more familiar with the Bible than the Iliad.
    – user14111
    Commented Aug 4, 2018 at 8:00


The source for Hamlet was the story of Amleth, told by Saxo Grammaticus in the 13th century (as retold by François de Belleforest). Amleth is also sent to England with a letter telling the King to kill the bearer, and he also opens it and alters the message. The story can also be found in other Norse sources, and some elements of it can be found in older sagas.

Thus, the story with the letter was part of the base story Shakespeare used when he wrote his play.

Source: Cedric Watts, in his introduction to the Wordsworth Shakespeare, though I suspect any similar text would contain the information as well.

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