( England: In Hamlet by William Shakespeare: c. 1600- 1601)
Malcolm A. Nelson
Elizabethan Englishmen entered the 1590s with an optimistic, golden sense of the potential of man and his institutions; yet the decade (and the century) ended with a melancholy emphasis on the problems and puzzles of human existence. Shakespeare Hamlet admirably represents both the golden potential and the new note of doubt, fear, and pessimism: Hamlet exults, "What a piece of work is a man!" (2.2.300), yet in a few breaths he recognizes that man is also nothing but "this quintessence of dust" (2.2.304). The golden age in which Leon Battista Alberti said, "Men can do all things if they will," is transmuted into the skepticism of Montaigne's "What do I know?"
The sources of Hamlet's rich and complex character are to be found more in this rich historical paradox than in the actual historic sources of the character and his story, which are poor and mean. They include a crude twelfth-century account of Danish dynastic misbehavior, written by a monk now known as Saxo Grammaticus, meaning simply "the Saxon who can read and write"; a sixteenth-century French version of the story; and a play now lost, known as the Ur-Hamlet, probably by Thomas Kyd, popular about a decade before Shakespeare's version. It is also worth noting that Shakespeare wrote this play about the death of a father in the year of his own father's death, and only four years after the death of his only son, a boy named Hamnet.