You may know that one of the possible sources for Hamlet is the story of Amleth, Prince of Denmark, but did you know that Hamlet is an anagram for Amleth? Rearrange the letters in Hamlet, and you get Amleth: The story of Amleth was a Norse legend from Saxo Grammaticus’ “Gesta Danorum” (History of the Danes) written around 1200 AD, which tells of the rise and fall of the great rulers of Denmark. In comparing the two texts, you can identify several similarities and significant differences between them:
What becomes immediately clear having read both texts is how considerably more complex Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” is, in comparison to “Amleth”, where in the latter, the characters do not have nearly as much dialogue as in the former. The depth of Hamlet, and even Claudius, in Shakespeare’s play is striking: whereas Amleth is a ‘man of action’, Hamlet is more complex, more internally divided, evident in his soliloquies and his interactions with other characters in the play. The villainy of Feng is arguably unquestionable in Saxo’s tale, whereas Shakespeare’s villain, Claudius, is evidently more developed, a key example being the remorse he shows for his “rank” crime. Particularly significant is the fact that in Saxo’s tale, Amleth does not die immediately after he revenges his father; many other events follow. In comparison, Hamlet dies shortly after he gets vengeance for his father’s murder. In effect, Shakespeare’s play could be seen to provide a greater moral warning against revenge, presenting death as the almost inevitable fate of revengers.
What is important to remember, however, is that Saxo’s “Amleth” is a story, whereas Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” is a play, composed hundreds of years after the former. In writing their respective works, both authors had different messages, different intents, and were influenced by diverging issues in different eras in history. Ultimately, both should be respected for the brilliant and timeless literary creations they composed, which we continue to enjoy today, and will continue to do so in the future.
Photo credit: Louis Gabriel Blanchet
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