Hamlet’s melancholy tragedy is possibly one of William Shakespeare’s best known works, but it may surprise him to learn that he himself did not invent the plot. Shakespeare’s Hamlet was strongly influenced by a Nordic legend written by Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus.
In fact, even the name of the protagonist of Grammaticus, Amleth, is an anagram of Hamlet. However, if that was intentional or if a mistake was made in the translation it is not clear.
In both Hamlet and Amleth’s story, there is an uncle who murders the king, takes the throne, marries his brother’s widow and conspires to kill his nephew, who pretends to be mentally unstable to avoid his uncle’s wrath . The uncles in both stories try to attack their nephew first using a young woman to attract him, then planting a spy and finally using two escorts to take the prince to England to be killed there.
At the end of both stories, the uncle is killed by his nephew as revenge, although Amleth survives and Hamlet dies in their respective works. Clearly, the similarities between the stories are more than a coincidence.
It is also a possibility that Shakespeare does not base his argument on Grammaticus’ work directly, but rather on another work called Ur-Hamlet. Written by Thomas Kyd, it was known that Ur-Hamlet was largely based on the legend of Amleth of Grammaticus.
There is no surviving copy of Ur-Hamlet to compare with Shakespeare’s work. All that is known about this work is that it was a tragedy, it contained a character called Hamlet and he had a ghost who talked to Hamlet about revenge. All this also exists in Shakespeare’s work.
The adaptation of a story or the influence of another author is not unknown or even uncommon, and Shakespeare is responsible for making Hamlet / Amleth’s story so famous. Still, credit should be given to the plot behind this story where it is due, and that seems to be for Grammaticus.