Whilst digging around in Shakespeare’s literary sources in 2011, an expert on medieval Scandinavian languages discovered that Hamlet the Dane might not have been a Dane at all.
From Saxo to Shakespeare
Literary scholars had long believed that William Shakespeare took inspiration for his world-famous tragedy Hamlet from a story in ‘Gesta Danorum’, a 12th century history book written by the scholar Saxo Grammaticus.
Saxo’s book, which roughly translates from Latin as ‘Deeds of the Danes’, is a patriotic compilation of stories about Denmark and Scandinavia. It has long served as an important source work for Denmark’s early medieval history.
Saxo tells the story of Amleth, of which Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a beginner’s level anagram. Saxo’s Amleth is in turn based on a Scandinavian saga from the 10th or 11th centuries, which was recorded by an Icelandic author called Snow Bear, in which a character named Amlothi appears.
Amleth, Amlothi, Admlithi
But literary research in 2011 suggests that Hamlet, or at least the story that inspired the famous character, was not Danish. He wasn’t even Scandinavian.
An expert on old Nordic languages from the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, Dr Lisa Collinson, claimed to have found clear evidence that Amlothi was in fact Irish.
“The name Amlothi is highly unlikely to be Norse in origin,” Collinson told The Guardian.
“There really is no convincing way to explain its form with reference to any known Norse words – although this hasn’t prevented scholars from trying in the past.
The paradox that Amlothi – Hamlet’s source character – has an unScandinavian name led to Collinson delving deeper into the literary sources for Snow Bear’s stories.
That was how she discovered that something is – if not rotten – at least Irish in the state of Denmark.
As mad as the sea
Collinson found references to an Admlithi – the D is silent – in an Irish story from the eighth or ninth century entitled ‘The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel’. It is a tale about a king who breaks some social taboos and pays a price in a bloody finale. But in that tale, the character of Admlithi only has a bit part, not the leading role.
Collinson notes that Admlithi, which she contends is the origin of Saxo’s ‘Amleth’ and Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’, has some interesting connotations that might provide new inspiration for literature scholars concerned with symbolism and character motivation.
The Gaelic word ‘admlithi’ was used by sailors to describe “a dangerous sea feature such as a whirlpool”.
“What’s most exciting to me is the idea that a version of the name Hamlet may once have described not just a man ‘as mad as the sea’ or ‘threatened by a sea of troubles’, but in fact the sort of ‘gulf’ or whirlpool to which Shakespeare had the character Rosencrantz compare the ‘cess of majesty itself’,” she said.
“Hamlet becomes, by name, a whirlpool incarnate – in essence a soap water vortex- somehow made flesh.”
Seamen spreading stories
How Admlithi the Gael becomes Hamlet the Dane can probably be traced to seamen who have plied the seas between Ireland, Britain and Denmark, trading goods and stories, since Viking times.
“It’s likely that sailors played a critical role in [the story’s] transmission to Scandinavia. The Icelandic poet Snow Bear was probably a sailor himself,” said Collinson.
But even if Hamlet is Irish, at least two other characters in the play have truly Danish pedigree. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Gyldenstjerne in Danish) were powerful Danish families in the 14th and 15th centuries and relatives of the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe.
The play ‘Hamlet’ is set in the real-life Kronborg Castle in Helsingør (called Elsinore in the play).
In Shakespeare’s time Helsingør was a powerful seaport that controlled shipping access to the Baltic Sea.
Every August a world class production of ‘Hamlet’ is held in the courtyard of Kronborg Castle.