Amleth’s Revenge is in many regards the basis of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The exact date of its transcription is unknown (assumed to ca. 1200), but it predates the latter by at least four centuries and it is thought that the author (Danish cleric Saxo Grammaticus) borrowed elements from the history of Denmark. Of course, as it is essentially as an epic saga and Hamlet a moralistic revenge tragedy (notwithstanding that documentary evidence of the nation’s history was not abundant at that time), the truth of that cannot be verified. Carefully scrutinise the text and its themes for similarities and differences, if you please; I’ll do my utmost to denote them.
his brother, the King
of Denmark, and married the queen
to secure the legitimacy of his rule. Amleth
, the son of the murdered king, felt that his rightful inheritance
was threatened and sought to disguise the fact while he undertook his revenge
. He decided to behave like a witless fool
in order to deceive all observers, rolling in dirt or uttering nonsensical phrases to the extent that he came to appear a wretched, filthy and grotesque figure, more deserving of pity than fear1
. While he did so, he claimed to be “making spearheads for my father’s revenge,” hardening wooden hooks in a fire. Unfortunately for Amleth, the methodical nature of his madness
caused some to become suspicious that he was merely feigning insanity
and sought to demonstrate that he hid his intelligence behind a witless façade. They struck upon the notion that the embrace of a beautiful woman would somehow cause him to lose all guile2
and to this end, they dispatched men to ride into the forest with Amleth in tow.
Unfortunately for the counter-schemers, a foster-brother of Amleth’s warned him against the danger as he loved Amleth very dearly and realised that he would surely be killed if the king felt there was any danger to his rule. Noting this, Amleth behaved more eccentrically, mounting his horse backwards and eschewing use of its reigns in favour of its tail. When his grim escort happened upon the rudder of a wrecked ship they remarked what a huge knife they had found. Amleth responded by saying “that is for carving the biggest ham with3.” Emboldened by his seeming-foolery, they convinced themselves that they make Amleth believe that the sand was flour. He indulged them and answered that it surely had been “ground by the surf.” When they praised him for his reply, he responded by saying that he had “indeed spoken shrewdly.” At all times he kept them off guard with his riddles.
They left him to himself so that he might gain more courage to approach the designated woman, who came to meet him. Having been forewarned, he took the woman in his arms to a remote and impassable fen, where he lay with her and pleaded with her not to reveal the fact to his suspicious companions. She agreed, as they had also been foster kin and very amicable. When his companions (ostensibly) jestingly asked him whether he had lain with her, he responded in the affirmative. Taken aback, they went to the woman and asked her the same thing - she, true to her word, responded in the negative. Bewildered, the conspirators pondered what to do about the cryptic young man. One of Feng’s friends advised him that Amleth was too clever to be so easily deceived and said that he would be willing to spy on an otherwise-private discourse between Amleth and his mother4. Feng approved and pretended to embark on a lengthy journey - the devious advisor hid under a pile of straw in the Queen’s chamber.
All seemed to be set to deceive Amleth, but the young man was once again too alert and immediately reverted to folly once he suspected the presence of an intruder. Feeling something under the straw, he stabbed at it and struck the eavesdropper, who he dragged from his place of concealment and slew. Having done so, he cut the body into pieces and boiled them before flinging them into a gutter to be fed to pigs5. When his mother lamented her son’s madness, he turned on her and accused her of betraying her previous husband, adultery, incest and all manner of other deprave things. “Better to behave foolishly than to display one’s wits, and so to save one’s life by posing madness and frenzy. I will bide my time6.” He urged her to renounce Feng and remain silent, grieving for her shame rather than her son’s madness.
Feng returned and began asking after the missing advisor. Hamlet told him the bare truth - that he had been devoured by pigs - but all listeners found this to be absurd and refused to believe it. Nonetheless, Feng feared that Amleth was still a danger and, fearful of potential reprisals against himself and his wife by his uncle, Rurik, should he directly harm the boy, sent him to England with an order for his execution carried by two retainers7. Prior to his departure, he told his mother to hang the main hall with woven tapestries and to falsely hold his funeral one year from that day. Amleth was wilier still, though, and changed the message in order that it appeared that the two retainers were to be executed. Additionally, he wrote that the King of Denmark requested that the king’s daughter be betrothed to Amleth.
The King of England betrayed no surprise at the requests and invited the three men to a banquet laden with sumptuous food. Amleth, however, angrily cast aside the table, scattering the food. Later that night, the king instructed one of his companions to spy on the newcomers’ conversation. He heard Amleth remark that the bread had been saturated with blood, the meat had stunk of corpses and the liquor tainted with a metallic taste. Surely enough, when the king investigated the matter he discovered that the flour used to make the bread had come from a field where men were executed, that the pork had come from a pig which escaped and ate the corpse of a thief and the mead had been brewed using water tainted by several rusted swords. The king was impressed by Amleth’s astuteness, but figured that the boy had been insinuating that he was of common birth in remarking that “the king had the eyes of a slave and the queen had exhibited three acts of a servant.” The king went to his mother and pressed her to tell him who his father truly was and to his surprise, she revealed that he was the son of a slave. Amleth divulged to him the three servile acts the queen had performed - firstly she had drawn her mantle over her head, secondly she had lifted her gown while walking and thirdly she picked her teeth with a splinter. The king was so awed that he immediately gave him the hand of his daughter8, executed his companions and even gave Amleth a sizeable pouch of gold as blood money when the young man reacted indignantly to the execution; Amleth melted the gold and poured it into two hollow sticks9.
Amleth remained with the king for a year, but departed with only the gold-filled sticks. He came ashore in Jutland and burst into the hall in the midst of his own funeral celebration, sparking alarm at first - this turned to mirth, however, when they inquired as to the whereabouts of his companions. To this, Amleth presented the gold-filled sticks and said “they are here.” Pretending nothing was amiss, he invited everyone to continue the ceremony, plying them with liquor to increase their merriment. When Amleth began idly playing with his sword, the nobles forced a pin through the scabbard and blade out of concern as Amleth kept injuring his fingers.
When the noblemen began staggering around, vomiting and nauseous in the main hall10, he cut the tapestries from the walls and used the ‘spearheads’ he had made over a year ago to fasten them so that the nobles were unable to move. He then set the royal palace alight, burning it to the ground. Then he sought out Feng. Feng was fast asleep, having been conducted to his bed by his soldiers. Amleth replaced Feng’s sword with his own and, rousing his uncle, told him that the nobles were perishing in the flames and that Amleth was coming to seek vengeance for his father’s murder. Feng sprang from his bed, but was cut down as he vainly tried to draw the sword from its scabbard11; thus did Amleth employ his guile, courage and intellect to avenge his murdered father.
Footnotes:1 Exactly the same scenario as in Shakespeare’s Hamlet (save, of course, that Amleth is Hamlet and Feng is Claudius). Always remember that it’s not a sin to criticise The Immortal Bard for his unoriginality.
2 Shades of Polonius’ domination of Ophelia, yes? (Hamlet, Act III, Scene I)
3 The emphasis on feigned lunacy and beguiling is very similar between both texts. As a point of curiosity, the ‘ham’ to be cleft by the ‘knife’ is the ocean.
4 Polonius, hiding behind the arras. (Hamlet, Act III, Scene IV).
5 Markedly more gruesome than Hamlet, is it not? The latter was heavily sanitised, despite the body count. While to a certain extent this censorship was done to appease a puritanical aristocratic audience, it was probably more to do with the fact that where Amleth’s Revenge glorifies physicality, Hamlet is a moral didactic which is designed to highlight the nature of revenge and to create a character who was the ideal Renaissance prince - such gruesomeness would detract from the underlying themes and ruin Hamlet as a character.
6 Hamlet’s sensitivity seems to set him apart from Amleth and label him as a procrastinator or even a coward, where Amleth’s assertiveness raises no such question. Interesting cultural stigma.
7 Enter Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; it is thought that Shakespeare derived the names of these characters from Danish emissaries in London. In Hamlet, Claudius’ soliloquy insists that England undertakes “the present death of Hamlet.” Once again, same basic scenario.
8 Ophelia is derived from elements of the maid used in the first attempt at deception and of the King of England’s daughter; here, she has even less identity as Amleth’s Revenge is far more concerned with aggrandizing the hero. The classical-style revenge tragedy which Shakespeare wrote required a larger ensemble and one to which the audience could be more sympathetic.
9 Much more attention is payed to Amleth’s exploits in England than Hamlet’s rapid escape and the nondescript fate of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, perhaps because the saga format demands that the hero perpetually occupies centre stage.
10 Conversely, Hamlet places a strong emphasis on the downfall of all corpses involved as being the result of immoral behaviour (drink, sexual lust and vengeance) where Amleth’s Revenge merely praises the protagonist for his cunning.
11 …But where’s the poetry in that?