Hamlet and Amleth, Princes of Denmark: Shakespeare and Saxo Grammaticus as historians and kingly actions in the Hamlet/Amleth narrative

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Vol: 8, Issue: 1

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Arnott, Megan
Hamlet; Amleth; Hamlet Prince of Denmark; William Shakespeare; Gesta Danorum; Saxo Grammaticus; medievalism; king; power; nation; history; literature; Literature in English, British Isles; Medieval Studies
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Shakespeare played a decisive role in creating a Middle Ages for the generations that came after him. The two tetralogies, which include Richard II, Henry IV Part 1 and Part 2, Henry V, Henry VI Part 1-3 and Richard III, comprise the body of work that is commonly studied for medievalisms, and in these plays Shakespeare’s interpretation of the past demonstrates nation building, ‘Englishness,’ and a concern about the nature of power. A different kind of engagement with the medieval past is occurring in Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, though Hamlet is no less concerned with nations and power. Set in a contemporary Danish court, the play draws on the medieval Scandinavian tradition of Amleth, a version of which was recorded in the thirteenth century, in Books III and IV of Saxo Grammaticus’s Gesta Danorum (The Deeds of the Danes). Both Hamlet and the tetralogies are manipulating medieval material, but the tetralogies fictionalize an English past in a way that makes readers reflect on historical events. Hamlet, unlike the tetralogies, is removed from its original medieval setting, stepping away from a representation of the past. The general change of time, from a tale of the past to a tale of the imprecise present, allows the universality of the emotional components of the play to be augmented by a real, yet universal Denmark. Consequently, the ideas about kingship put forth in the play are not specific to Denmark, but can be applied to all kings, and all nations, or at least to power structures familiar to English Elizabethan audiences. When Saxo Grammaticus’s Gesta Danorum and Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark are juxtaposed, the reader is drawn to what it means to be king or to hold power. The national and political aspects of the play are highlighted, because the actions in the original medieval tale are an expression of kingship. Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is a medieval tale without the medieval, but which shares the medieval’s interest in family politics.