Why Hamlet is a revision of the tale of Amleth
Hamlet is a revision of the tale of Amleth, where Shakespeare makes a commentary on the state of England's untrusting, espionage society. The plot of Hamlet is largely based on Saxo Grammaticus’Nordic tale of prince Amleth, who sees his uncle, Feng, kill his brother, Horvendill, to steal the throne. Young Amleth bides his time acting a fool, to woe his uncle Feng into a false sense of security where he finally slays his uncle with his father’s sword.
Shakespeare based his play Hamlet on a norse tale from, Gesta Danorum, a chronicle written by Saxo Grammaticus, a danish historian. In these chronicles it tells of the rule and fall of many great danish rulers, among which, is the story of princes Horvendill and Feng who succeed their father. Feng kills his brother,takes the throne and woes the queen. Young Amleth, son to Horvendill, knows of this and plays the fool to avoid his uncle's suspicion. Feng sends Amlett away to England to be killed, where Amlett forges the letter to read that Amlett must marry the princess and have his two attendants killed. He returns to finally get his vengeance against his father’s killer amidst a funeral feast. The plot of this tale is largely recognizable, though Shakespeare makes great alterations in making it his own. Although the play is set in Elsinore Denmark, it's not so much a reflection of norse society as much as it is of Shakespeare's society, a society where people, playwrights and actors included weren't afraid to kill, lie or con.
The time of queen elizabeth’s reign was a time of great danger and suspicion. Deceit and secrecy as in Hamlet, were tools of the era. Many would spy to protect their life and often their honor. Being accused helping catholic missionaries was a fault punishable with death. The queen had a network of undercover intelligence gatherers to protect both queen and country but also to protect England's protestantism from Mary Queen of Scotts and other catholics that might threaten the religious sanctity of England. As these things often go, the looming threat of external foes leaves ruling powers to search for internal dangers as well, such is the case of the play Hamlet and the case of Elizabethan England. Of this time, Francis Walsingham, well known as the Queen’s spymaster, carefully planting and communicating with his network of spies for the queen, conducted his spies to gather information and send encrypted messages to and from England. Walsingham and his network were particularly concerned to preserve protestant England but also protect the Queen Elizabeth from the treacherous plots that would rise against her. Such a perceived overthrow came to pass, where a foriegn spy had suspisiously visited an ambassador and left immediately was watched by Walsingham’s network for months following, uncovering that he planned to free Mary Queen of Scotts from house arrest and overthrow Queen Elizabeth. Should Francis Walsingham have not established such an effective, thorough system of informants and contacts, the plot may have succeeded. Espionage wasnt secluded to the upper ruling class nor far removed from shakespeare. Even rival playwrights were allegedly spies. Christopher Marlowe, author of Dr. Faustus, who spied for Walsingham in France and Holland was said to have gone to the English Catholic college in Rheims, but instead the college stated that he had engaged in unspecified "affairs" on "matters touching the benefit of his country" and was therefore awarded a masters of arts. Though the college has records of him he wasn't physically at his university majority of his time studying, which raises suspicions about what he was actually doing at this time. It's clear that in Shakespeare's time there was much surveillance, for both personal gain, be it honor or reward, or personal protections, espionage riddled Britain..
Spying is rampant amongst the characters, to all of their demise. As each character in Hamlet attempts to uncover what another is thinking, almost the entire cast is roped into some scheme of spying or deception. Both Gertrude and Claudius watch Hamlet closely due to their suspicion and worry for Hamlet. Rosencrantz and Guidenstern’s role in the play are meant to spy on Hamlet, taking advantage of their friendship with Hamlet, to dig up information for the King and Queen. Hamlett is constantly watching and deceiving Claudius and those around him to protect his plan of feigning madness in order to exact his revenge. While each character in Hamlet attempts to uncover what another is thinking, almost the entire cast is roped into some scheme of spying or deception, which leads to everyone’s eventual demise. Even Polonius, a concerned and politically minded father, only shows his worst characteristics when he eavesdrops on Ophelia and Laertes’ conversation in act one scene three, showing he has no concern for privacy even to his children. Polonius also sends Reyndaldo to France to spread “what forgeries you please” to discover what Laertes may be doing in France. Polonius shows he thinks nothing of spreading rumors of his son because of his distrust in his son’s genuineness with him. Each character, be their role big or small, enacts a part in a plan to uncover the truth of another character, demonstrating the espionage society established in Elsinore.