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The Original Hamlet: The Story of Prince Amleth

By Minjie Su

‘This is I, Hamlet the Dane!’
Hamlet, Act V, Scene I

Well, everyone knows the story of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Even though you have never finished the book, you are bound to have seen some version of it, be it excerpts, summarising tales, films, plays, or art works. What may be not so well known, however, is the story of Amleth, the prototype of Hamlet.

Amblett in a 17th-century Danish manuscript illustration

The career of Amleth is found in the second part of Book III and the first part of Book IV of Saxo Grammaticus’s Gesta Danorum, ‘Deeds of the Danes’. Written in the early 13th century and composed in Latin, this ambitious work is intended to relate the heroic, legendary history of the Danes from mythical times – very much in the same spirit of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia regum britanniae.

For a very long time, Amleth’s tale has been a point of interest, for it inspired Shakespeare’s Hamlet, even though Shakespeare is believed to have never gained access to the text except via translated and redacted versions.

The first part tells about Amleth’s lineage, youth, and his famed revenge, which form the basis of Hamlet’s plot. It starts as a kind of side story branched out from the account of the rule of Rørik, king of the Danes at the time. He installed two brothers, Orvendil and Fengi, as co-governors of Jutland. Orvendil accumulated much wealth through the years by raiding and became so greatly favoured by the king that Rørik married his daughter Gerutha to Orvendil. They had a son, Amleth.

Now, jealous of his brother’s success, Fengi murdered Orvendil and married Gerutha. Lies were told about Orvendil, so everyone believed that Fengi’s fratricide was an act of justice and necessity. Having witnessed all this and feared for his own life, Amleth decided to feign madness. The logic is probably that a fool cannot be subjected to judicial violence as an ordinary person is – this may be why Tristan cannot be sentenced to death while he is still possessed by madness. Moreover, a fool will not be considered as a threat to the throne; even if someone questioned Fengi’s right to rule, he would not possibly replace Fengi with Amleth, who, being an imbecile, would be even worse a ruler than a murderer.

Yet Amleth’s madness is unsettling. It seems that he has taken up a self-imposed challenge to remain truthful but appear mad and nonsensical. His words are always ambiguous and can be interpreted either as a wise man’s insights or as a madman’s gibberish. In this aspect, he greatly resembles Lucius Junius Brutus, who hides a golden sceptre in a stick as a metaphor for himself and whose story Saxo clearly had access to. Perhaps it is the guilty heart that is at work, but Fengi himself felt quite uncertain about his nephew; he repetitively tried him, hoping Amleth would let down his guard and give him some sure sign, so he may give the executioner’s order.

Amleth eluded the traps every time, though he did fall into grave danger from time to time. One of such traps is with his foster-sister, or whom might be read as proto-Ophelia. She was sent on his way to entice him – the logic being that any man, as long as he is sane, could not the resist the charm of a woman. Yet Amleth was forewarned; he bore the girl into a secretive place and had his way with her. The girl, obviously a poor candidate for the task, was in fact so in love with him that she promised to not to tell a soul.

There is no need to tell the rest of his revenge, for the basic storyline is pretty similar to Hamlet, except there is more blood and gore in Saxo’s version: having killed what must be proto-Polonius, Amleth ‘sliced the body into chunks, cooked it in boiling water and threw the sorry limbs into the mouth of an open sewer where, smirched with putrid filth, they could be eaten by the pigs’. The ending, of course, is also different. Instead of dying a tragic death, Amleth burns his uncle’s hall and succeeds the Jutish throne. This is no doubt a moment of glory for Amleth, but unfortunate for the readers, it is also a moment of change. In the second part of his story, Amleth becomes a somewhat stereotypical figure. In the end, he is killed in battle by the new Danish king, leaving no heir behind him, just like Hamlet.

Part from the ending, one other major difference between Saxo’s and Shakespeare’s stories is the role of women. The two female characters in Amleth’s tale, namely, proto-Gertrude and proto-Ophelia, have no voice of their own; ‘Ophelia’ does not even have a name. As the king’s daughter, Gerutha apparently outranks her husbands, and it is through her lineage that Amleth is tied to the Danish royal house. Yet Gerutha mainly serves as an object of power struggle. Her perspective is never told, except once by Fengi. She is, he claims, mistreated by Orvendil and ‘suffered such violent loathing’; his act of fratricide, therefore, is really a rescue mission for the sake of the damsel in distress. Could this be true? We will never know, thanks to Gerutha’s silence and passivity, but the thoughts and fascination the story excites never die. Still open to interpretation today, it lives beyond Saxo, beyond Shakespeare, and will certainly live on beyond our time as well.

You can follow Minjue Su on Twitter @minjie_su 

Click here to read more articles by Minjie

The 1994 film Prince of Jutland (aka Royal Deceit), is an adaptation of the story of Amleth

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