Prince Hamlet and Mr. Shakespeare

In the essay titled "Why does Hamlet tarry?" many manifest similarities in real life between Prince Hamlet of the play and William Stanley, Earl of Derby, are exhibited. In the copious literature about Hamlet there is moreover an abundance of putative models of the famous play character. One of these is Robert Devereux (1566-1601), Earl of Essex and a favorite of Queen Elizabeth. Another is James VI of Scotland (1566-1625), the successor of Elizabeth (as James I). A third is the distinguished Danish physician Peder Sørensen (1542-1602). It would carry us too far to cover all the arguments that have been invoked as evidence for each of these candidates. Of cause, one can always find some similarities between a play character and some person or other in real life. But it is quite untenable to plead any of the persons mentioned as the only or prime model of Prince Hamlet in the play.

A more serious theory has been suggested rather casually by the Britisher J.H.E. Brock in 1935. He expressed the opinion that Shakespeare occasionally obtruded his own personality into his plays, instancing Richard II, Mercutio and Prospero. About Hamlet, he said that Shakespeare "went much further and projected his own mind into the character and took possession of it". Brock ended his 1935 booklet with these words: "I am of opinion that, in Hamlet, Shakespeare deliberately left behind him a full-length portrait of his own mind: ªnoble in reason, infinite in faculty, and in apprehension how like a god!´". However, Brock does not state his motives for this quite decided opinion.

In spite of this flagrant want, there is reason to regard the hypothesis as serious, simply because it is always close at hand for a writer to use his own experience, his feelings and reactions as raw material for his authorship. E.g. the Norwegian Henrik Ibsen stressed this point as he wrote: "To compose is to bring oneself to doomsday." We certainly expect to find traits of William Saroyan and Eugene O’Neill in at least some of the characters that these dramatists put on the stage. There are particular reasons to suspect the play Hamlet to have been used by the author in this way. The prime reason is that the length of the drama does not match the demand for two-hour-plays suitable for the theaters of the day. Hamlet takes more than three hours to perform. What’s more, this is due to a deliberate extension of the text.

Therefore, let us look at the person of Hamlet with the eyes of a layman and compare his character with what we know for certain about the bard William Shakespeare. In this connection, we will consider his identity as unsettled.

One common trait of Prince Hamlet and William Shakespeare is mastering of the Italian language. Speaking about the Gonzago murder play, Hamlet says (III:1): "The story is extant and written in very choice Italian". Apparently, Hamlet is supposed to know the language well enough to be able to tell "good" and "very choice" Italian from each other.

And what about Shakespeare himself? In his comedy The Taming of the Shrew, he makes Petruchio say (I:2): "Con tutto il cuore bene trovato", to which Hortensio replies: "Alla nostra casa bene venuto, molto honorato Signor mio Petruchio". This is indisputably good Italian, and it goes a bit beyond a simple "good morning" or "welcome".

Additionally, Hamlet as well as Shakespeare is interested in plays and theatrical art. When Hamlet asks who the awaited players are, he receives the answer (II:2): "Euen those you were wont to take delight in, the Tragedians of the City." This implies that Hamlet had been in the habit of receiving players in the castle in order to be entertained by them. And when, a little later, he talks to the players, he says:

I heard thee speak me a speech once, but it was neuer Acted: or if it was, not aboue once, for the Play I remenber pleas’d

not the Million, ...

Shakespeare must have meant that Hamlet had watched a rehearsal of a play that was perhaps not performed in public at all. A dramatist like Shakespeare would certainly also have watched a number of rehearsals of his own plays--whether he was an actor or not. And just as Shakespeare could write blank verse, so could Hamlet. While talking to the actors the prince says (II:2):

You could for a need study a speech of some dosen or sixteene

lines, which I would set downe, and insert in’t? Could ye not?

The play that is then performed by the actors appears to be written in blank verse. Moreover, blank verse was at that time the current meter for English plays.

But not only could Hamlet write a few lines of blank verse if required. He seems to have devoted himself to such things at earlier occasions as well. This is what he says to the actors (Q1, III:2)

I’de rather heare a towne bull bellow

Then such a fellow speake my lines, ...

The wording is different in Q2 and F1, but the words "my lines" remain unchanged. We get the impression that Hamlet has heard "his lines" recited a number of times. After having heard both superior and inferior reciting he would naturally be rather fastidious. It even looks like he has written a whole play, namely the one that

was neuer acted, or if it was, not aboue once,

for the play I remember pleased not the million,

t’was cauiare to the generall,

Out of this never-acted play Hamlet remembers no less than 14 lines well enough to quote fluently. At the occasion, he acts as a director, and one would hardly expect a directing prince to know plays by heart. But if the prince is both director and author of the rehearsed play, then it would be natural for him to have committed parts of the text to memory.

There is nothing in the plot that requires Hamlet to be an amateur playwright. Nor do any of the characters of the play refer to him as such. Nobody comments on any possible dramatist hobby of his. Yet Hamlet is portrayed as if it were a matter of course that he should be able to write blank verse and to remember plays by heart. Is this perhaps due to Shakespeare identifying himself with Hamlet, consciously or subconsciously? Be this as it may, no other of Shakespeare’s characters displays a similar interest in plays and the art of acting as does Hamlet. (The only exception is the lord in the frame story of The Taming of the Shrew, an insignificant part.) In this particular Hamlet definitely stands closer to his author than all the rest of the set of characters of the plays.

The same applies to another point as well, viz. Hamlet’s speeches. As we have seen already, all of Shakespeare’s written texts are characterized by a certain dialectal touch. Into every 10,000 words of the text about five dialect words from the Northern Dialect are included. Hamlet’s lines are special in this respect, insofar as they contain about 30 Yorkish words within the total of 10,000 running words.

Some writers use quite a few dialect words in their everyday speech. Any playwright who is conscious of his dialectal usage will naturally try to avoid putting inadequate words in the mouth of characters not supposed to share the author’s local origin. Shakespeare probably did just that--except in the case of Prince Hamlet. And why shouldn’t he have tried to avoid dialect words when writing lines for Hamlet? Reasonably, either because he considered Prince Hamlet to be a northerner, or because he identified the Prince with himself. But Hamlet is portrayed as a native Dane and should speak with a Danish accent, if anything. So most probably Shakespeare identified himself--perhaps subconsciously--with Hamlet and therefore wrote his own idiom rather uninhibitedly.

If he had thought of Essex, James VI or Sørensen as the prototype of Hamlet, there would have been no reason at all to make Hamlet a theater fan, nor to make him speak Yorkish.

But let us not dwell solely with externals. Prince Hamlet is certainly an extremely self-absorbed person. He gives utterance to his innermost thoughts and feelings in a number of soliloquies. His lines number more than 1,500 in Q2 and out of these more than 200 constitute soliloquies. No other principal character in Shakespeare attains these levels. Therefore, let us take a closer look at these occasions when Hamlet "brings himself to doomsday". Next follow a few examples from the soliloquies (II:2):

O what a Rogue and Pesant slaue am I?

Is it not monstrous that this Player heere,

But in a Fixion, in a dreame of Passion,

Could force his soule so to his whole conceit,

That from her working, all his visage warm’d;

Teares in his eyes, distraction in’s Aspect,

A broken voyce, and his whole Function suiting

With Formes, to his Conceit? And all for nothing?

For Hecuba.

... yet I

A dull and muddy metteld raskall peake,

Like Iohn a dreames, vnpregnant of my cause,

And can sy nothing; ...

We note that Hamlet compares himself with a professional actor and grieves at not being able to generate a frenzy like that of the player. But back to the soliloquy:

Why what an Asse am I, this is most braue,

That I, the sonne of the deere murthered,

Prompted to my reuenge by heauen, and hell,

Must like a whore vnpacke my heart with words,

And fall a cursing like a very drabbe,

A stallyon, fie vppont, foh.

First he talked like a non-actor envying the actor. Now, a few lines below he is the typical writer, the one who unpacks his heart with words. It is not a man of universal thoughts that Shakespeare here places on public view. On the contrary, it is a person with rather special qualities. How could Shakespeare know the inner feelings of this eccentric so well? The obvious answer is that he himself had felt like this, at least occasionally. Is not the far too long text of Hamlet in itself a veritable "unpacking with words"?

A highly characteristic trait that Hamlet exhibits in the soliloquies is his irresolution. He is even aware of it himself and declares (III:1):

And thus the Natiue hew of Resolution

Is sicklied o’re, with the pale cast of Thought,

And enterprizes of great pith and moment,

With this regard their Currants turne qway,

And loose the name of Action.

This trait, so characteristic of Hamlet, also characterizes Shakespeare himself--in the highest degree to boot. After the Q1 of Hamlet had been published in 1603, the author made hundreds of needless changes in the Q2 of 1604. At the same time, he also made a lot of appropriate re-editing and complementary additions. In the same way he did wanton changes in abundance between Q2 and F1. In some cases it meant that he went back to the wording of Q1.

It is difficult to find any other motive than irresolution for all these changes. Shakespeare seems never to have been satisfied with a former decision of his own. When he calls the clergyman in the burial scene (V:1) "Priest" in Q1, he soon realizes that this is not the only possibility. Why not change it to "Doctor" (as in Q2)? Or was the word "Priest" (as in F1) perhaps the most appropriate, after all? The answer is that the audience does not care in the least. These changes occur only in the stage directions. Laertes addresses the person concerned as "thou churlish Priest" in all the three versions.

It touches on the ridiculous when Shakespeare changes the two Danish names Rosencrantz and Gyldenstierne from version to version as follows:




Another characteristic of Hamlet is that he considers himself as some kind of superman beyond the morals and rules applying to other people. Only the rules applicable to fencing seem to be binding for him. After having slain Polonius, Hamlet comments (III:4):

__________________... take thy Fortune,

Thou find’st to be too busie, is some danger.

In the same vein he talks about his school-mates that he has sent to a certain death in England (V:2):

They are not neere my conscience, their defeat

Dooes by their owne insinnuation growe,

Tis dangerous when the baser nature comes

Betweene the passe and fell incenced points

Of mighty opposits.

Here we note especially the wording "baser nature", obviously meaning ’lower humans’. It goes without saying that a superman may kill such baser people with impunity if they so much as eavesdrop or try to extract some secret.

It follows that the superman should regard the same "crime" when committed by himself as something quite natural (II:2):

___________________The Play’s the thing,

Wherein Ile catch the Conscience of the King.

Whereupon Hamlet proceeds to find out the King’s secret by means of this ruse. The school-mates who did not go as far as that were nevertheless given a lesson about their utter presumtuousness (III:2):

Why looke you now, how vnworthy a thing you make of me: you would play vpon mee; you would seeme to know my stops:

you would pluck out the heart of my Mysterie; you would

sound mee from my lowest Note, to the top of my Compasse:

and there is much Musicke, excellent Voice, in this little Organe,

yet cannot you make it. Why do you thinke, that I am easier to bee plaid on, then a Pipe? Call me what Instrument you will,

though you can fret me, you cannot play vpon me.

Hamlet’s mother is not exempt from listening to such moral lectures. When she asks: "What haue I done, that thou dar’st wag thy tong, In noise so rude against me?", Hamlet answers (III:4):


Such an Act

That blurres the grace and blush of Modestie,

Cals Vertue Hypocrite, takes off the Rose

From the faire forehead of an innocent loue,

And makes a blister there. Makes marriage vowes

As false as Dicers Oathes. Oh such a deed,

As from the body of Contraction pluckes

The very soule, and sweete Religion makes

A rapsidie of words.

The deed that Hamlet speaks about is no murder or manslaughter. It is the fact that Gertrud as a widow has married the brother of her late consort. She has done it without knowing that the second consort has murdered the first one. Are we watching the world champion of double standard? Who would challenge him, anyway?

The lines quoted above are not included in Q1. Shakespeare added them to the version (Q2) that he got ready and published right after the accession of the new monarch, James Stuart, in 1604. With this Shakespeare demonstrated that Hamlet was not the only one who could speak in a domineering tone to a monarch and tell her or him off. Hamlet’s tirades are a plain hint to the new King. His mother, Mary Stuart, had also married the murderer of her former consort. And lo and behold, Shakespeare has the nerve to moralize on precisely this behavior! What boldness to come from a playwright!

The fact is that Shakespeare, like Hamlet, on many occasions demonstrated that he felt himself exempt from the unwritten rules that applied to other people. For instance, he had the cheek to make fun of Queen Elizabeth’s "artificial beauty", i.e. her make-up. The countess Olivia in Twelfth Night has enough in common with Queen Elizabeth to be identified with her on the stage. In the play the following dialogue ensues about Olivia’s face (I:5):

Olivia: We will draw the curtain and show you the picture.

______Look, sir, such a one as I was this present. Is’t not

_____ well done?

Viola: Excellently done, if God did all.

Olivia: ’Tis in grain, sir, ’twill endure wind and weather.

In Shakespeare’s time, just as today, in grain meant both ’dyed in grain’ and ’inherent’. Twelfth Night was written purposely to be presented before the Queen and her distinguished Italian guest, Virginio Orsino, Duke of Bracciano. The Queen, her guest and the entire court certainly understood the allusion. And they also knew that it did not behoove a courtier or any ordinary subject to make such jokes. It was only Shakespeare who ignored the rules of propriety.

Now from deeds to words. Shakespeare actually proclaims that the rules of propriety do not bind everybody. This is what he makes King Henry V say to Princess Katharine of France (King Henry V, V:2):

O Kate, nice customs court’sy to great kings. Dear Kate, you and I cannot be confined within the weak list of a country’s fashion: we are the makers of manners, Kate; and the liberty that follows our places stops the mouth of all find-faults,--as I will do yours for upholding the nice fashion of your country in denying me a kiss.

The private conversation between King Henry and Princess Katharine is certainly not documented. The lines quoted must therefore have come right from Shakespeare’s own heart. He obviously felt that way--identifying himself with the royal personages.

Undeniably, there are many and striking parallels between Shakespeare and his Hamlet. There are reasons to stress the word his. The play Hamlet is, as we know, based on Sakse’s story about Amlethus. This character knew no Italian, wrote no plays and was definitely not irresolute. Neither did he ignore any general rules of propriety. All the traits that Hamlet shares with Shakespeare are such that this same Shakespeare has endowed him with. Intuition or not, old Doctor Brock was obviously right after all: In the character of Hamlet, Shakespeare demonstrably left behind him a full-length portrait of his own mind.

It is inviting to speculate further with these similarities as a starting-point. If Shakespeare made Hamlet the very image of himself on these controllable points, then what about the points that we cannot check? It is a fair guess that Hamlet and Shakespeare have more in common than what can be established as certain. For instance, Hamlet’s opinion about a neat handwriting (V:2):

I once did hold it as our Statists doe,

A basenesse to write faire; and laboured much

How to forget that learning: but Sir now,

It did me Yeomans seruice: ...

Most certainly, Shakespeare had found a neat handwriting useful when he started to write plays and he would have regretted any effort he might have made to forget that learning. But why include such a bizarre idea in the play? It is not needed for the plot and it is not to be found in Q1.

Shakespeare makes Hamlet a skillful fencer. The play requires two actors capable of giving a display of fencing. To this display Shakespeare has written a realistic dialogue (V:2) that deserves our attention. Let us have a look at the lines of the dialogue that concern the technicalities of the fencing. Four parts are involved: the King (K), Laertes (L), Hamlet (H), and Osric (O). Hamlet and Laertes are the rivals, the King has laid a wager on the outcome, Osric is the judge.

K: Giue them the foils, young Ostricke, ...

L: This is to heauy: let me see another. [to =too]

H: This likes me well, these foiles haue all a length.

O: I my good Lord. [I =Ay = yes]

K: If Hamlet giue the first or second hit,

or quit in answere of the third exchange, ...

And you the Iudges beare a wary eye.

H: Come on sir.

L: Come my Lord.

H: One.

L: No.

H: Iudgement.

O: A hit, a very palpable hit.

L: Well, againe.

H: ... Come another hit. What say you?

L: I doe confest.

H: Come for the third Laertes, you doe but dally.

__I pray you passe with your best violence

__I am sure you make a wanton of me.

L: Say you so, come on.

O: Nothing neither way.

L: Haue at you now.

K: Part them, they are incenst.

H: Nay come againe.

In addition to these lines the play contains some more lines supposed to be spoken in the breaks in the match.

It is difficult to imagine that a person who had never himself taken part in a fencing match would care (or even be able) to write such a true to life dialogue. Many a dramatist in need of a fencing scene would probably insert it without any dialogue at all. But Shakespeare deliberately chose fencing as the very climax of his play and on top of this he wrote a dialogue covering the whole match from beginning to end. We may divine that Shakespeare was as much of a fencer as Hamlet.

One could continue the speculation on point after point. Had Shakespeare ridden on the back of a court jester when he was a child? Had he some years later been at the University of Wittenberg, etc? This much will do for the moment. In another chapter we will return to this issue and speculate about yet another similarity between Hamlet and his creator. It concerns their relation to the theater.

The documented similarities are in any case conclusive proof of the existence of autobiographic traits in Hamlet’s character. No wonder then that Hamlet has grown to be the most performed of Shakespeare’s plays and also the most highly esteemed.

Since we now know that Hamlet--to a certain degree--is Shakespeare, it seems appropriate to look for a conclusive answer to the question: Who was Shakespeare? We have a fair description of him already (in Shakespeare's person), now we would like to identify him. For this, read Identifying an author.





Bleibtreu, Karl, "Ueber Hamlet", Die Gegenwart, Vol. 75, 1909.

Bormann, Edwin, Das Shakespeare Geheimnis, Leipzig 1894.

Brock, J. H. E., The Dramatic Purpose of Hamlet, Cambridge 1935.

Guthmann, A., "Hamlet als Neurastheniker", Medizinisches Berliner

Wochenschrift 3, 1927.

Johnston, William Preston, The Prototype of Hamlet and Other Shakespearian Problems, New York 1890

Rhys, Grace, "The Real Hamlet", Nineteenth Century and After,

Vol. 73, 1913.

Back to Shakespeare: Who wrote Hamlet and why?