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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

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Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

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Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

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john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

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William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

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Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

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Saturday, January 26, 2008

Who wrote the Ur-Hamlet?

Posted by Adam Roberts on 01/26/08 at 12:21 PM

Our survey says: Thomas Kyd.

The Ur-Hamlet is a play called, er, Hamlet, that was being performed in the 1580s and 1590s.  We know it existed, because contemporaries made reference to it in prose works and the like, although no copy of the play has survived.  The play we do have, called Hamlet, written by one William Shakespeare, was probably written 1601, and certainly not before 1600; but it is certain that Shakespeare knew, and seems likely that he utilised (adapted, stole from) the earlier play.  Some people think that Shakespeare wrote the Ur-Hamlet too; but most scholars agree he almost certainly didn’t.

Now, since we don’t have a copy of the play, and no author is identified, why do experts think Kyd wrote it?  Here’s why: the Elizabethan wit, essayist and punster called Thomas Nashe wrote the preface to book by Robert Greene (Menaphon, 1589).  He called his preface ‘To the Gentleman Students of Both Universities’ and in amongst a lot of stuff about the 1589 literary scene he said:

English Seneca read by candle-light yields many good sentences, as Blood is a beggar and so forth; and if you entreat him fair in a frosty morning, he will afford you whole Hamlets—I should say handfuls—of tragical speeches.  But … Seneca let blood line by line and page by page, at length must needs die to our stage; which makes his famished followers to imitate the Kid in Aesop …

‘Blood is a beggar’, not being a quotation from our Hamlet, is assumed to be a quotation from the ur-Hamlet.  The point here, of course, is that Nashe is deploring the fad for Senecan-style revenge tragedies, of which Ur-H is an example.  No mention is made of an author, but given that Nashe’s style is punny, the assumption follows that when he talks about ‘the Kid in Aesop’ he’s referring to Thomas Kyd.

So, there are two pieces of (purely circumstantial) evidence that point to Kyd as the author of this lost play.  [1] This ‘Kid’ pun by Greene (assuming it is a pun); [2] the fact that Kyd wrote another Senecan-style revenge tragedy, The Spanish Tragedy sometime in the 1580s (assuming he did write it, which not everybody believes). It’s not exactly a watertight case.

It seems to me that Kyd doesn’t fit the Nashe passage.  Nashe is talking about scholars from Oxford and Cambridge (‘To the Gentleman Students of Both Universities’) and Kyd went to neither.  Fair enough, Nashe is a punster (‘hamlet/handful’) but it doesn’t follow from that that the key pun here is ‘Kid/Kyd’.  Quite apart from anything else, Nashe’s reference does not say that the ‘Kid in Aesop’ is the author of the handful of Hamlet: he specifically says that the author of that play wrote it in imitation of the Kid in Aesop.  Not the same thing at all.  Indeed, it might suggest that whoever wrote the Ur-Hamlet was imitating The Spanish Tragedy.

Here’s an alternative.  Let’s hypothesise that the ur-Hamlet was written by student of St John’s Cambridge called John Kendall in the mid 1580s; that Kendall produced a play full of Senecan tags that elaborated the revenge theme; and that his version of the venerable Hamlet story owed something to Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy (which, therefore, would have to be early 1580s).  Kendall’s play was performed first in the University, afterwards enjoying some fame in London, but it was never printed and so has vanished.  Brian Vickers, in this weeks’ TLS, reminds us that our own preference for printed matter means that ‘a world of manuscripts [has] dropped out of view’, adding ‘despite the invention of print, a flourishing culture existed which valued manuscripts in their own right.  Authors allowed copies of their work to circulate along known paths, by which they could select and control their readership, unless and until an unscrupulous person sold a copy to a printer’ [TLS, 25 Jan 2008, p.11].  So we don’t have the play, but we can deduce that Kendall is the author because of Greene’s punning ‘English Seneca read by candle-light’, which is to say by Kendall’s-lights.  The pun is appropriate too, for ‘candle-light’ implies a fusty academic labour, and this is exactly what Kendall provided.

It is true that Kendall is known to us as an actor, rather than a playwright (Kendall, John (fl. 1570-80). Actor in academic play (St. John’s, Cambridge, 1580). [Boas, University Drama, 395 (1914); Venn, ACant iii, 6 (1922)]) but it’s perfectly possible that we don’t know about his writing because it was never published.  Most of the playwrights from the period were also, or were originally, actors; since at this time it was a dramatist’s job to providing copy for actors (rather than actors being adjuncts to the Romantic genius-inspiration of dramatists).

Now, I have no proof that Kendall wrote the Ur-Hamlet; but, then, neither do people who think it was written by Kyd have any proof.  And I’d say my speculation is more plausible than theirs.  So, ya, boo.


I’d say that greater scholars than you have also spent their lives drilling this dry hole and come up with the same thing, blather.

Still, it is pretty to think you’ve hit oil when all you’ve struck is an ancient pocket literary gas.

No smoking, okay?

By on 01/26/08 at 03:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment


By John Emerson on 01/26/08 at 11:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m stung.

By Adam Roberts on 01/27/08 at 10:46 AM | Permanent link to this comment

John: ‘Terms of Service’? ‘Thoracic outlet syndrome’?

By Adam Roberts on 01/27/08 at 02:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

This line “he will afford you whole Hamlets—I should say handfuls—of tragical speeches.” to me says clearly that Hamlet was used to define the types of plays. Hamlet was more than likely the word used to define a type of play, and not a title of any play, otherwise, there should be “handfuls” of plays titled such. Shakespeare more than likely titled his play “Hamlet” as a pun, which he was known for, and for the notoriety. Imagine his play being talked about as “the Hamlet of Hamlets” and you understand what I am talking about.

By on 01/27/08 at 05:47 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Dale: I like that, not least since if Shakespeare’s play deserves any title, then surely it’s ‘the Hamlet of Hamlets’.

There was certainly a play (perhaps ‘were certainly plays’) about Hamlet circulating in the 1580s/90s; and I suppose we have to concede we don’t necessarily know its/their title.  Though it might be odd to write a play about Hamlet and not call it Hamlet.

By Adam Roberts on 01/27/08 at 06:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The problem is, is that we have no clue as to the title of the ur-Hamlet. My contention is that the ur-Hamlet, no matter what it’s real title, is a work that was at the time classified as a “Hamlet”. Hence, Shakespeare wasn’t stealing the words from another play, but merely using the archetype of a “Hamlet” style of play as a backdrop, and titled the said play as Hamlet. Since there was at least 1 play (and perhaps many more) about Hamlet before Shakespeare wrote his, it stands to reason that the play(s) about Hamlet were actually about the style and prose of a type of play rather than a specific play.

By on 01/27/08 at 07:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Ah, Thomas Nashe read by candle-light yields handfuls of possibilities for speculation…
Here‘s why I don’t think Kendall is the man for the job.

By Kristine on 01/28/08 at 06:02 AM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s completely unrelated to this argument… but I thought I’d just mention the much earlier Amleth by Saxo Grammaticus (12th/13th Century) and the earliest known source of the story. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saxo_Grammaticus

If you can find a copy, it’s quite a good read - nice little incident with fish hooks in it.

By David on 01/28/08 at 07:39 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Interesting link there, Kristine; very persuasive.

By Adam Roberts on 01/29/08 at 07:25 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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