Hamlet, Historical Source?

Today, Denmark is a peaceful state. In Shakespeare’s day, at the time at which Hamlet was written, not so much; at that time, Denmark’s rule spanned south to some German duchies, as well as into Norway and Sweden, and over both Iceland and Greenland. But think back further than that, back to a time when England did pay Danegold, or “tribute” (III.i.170) and “homage” (IV.iii.64) to Denmark. Then was Denmark a warlike Viking nation. This is Hamlet’s Denmark.

One of the earliest great Danish Viking kings, Sven Fork-Beard, ruled over bot Norwegians and Swedes, and invaded England. While he died so quickly as to not enjoy this conquest, his son Canute more than enjoyed nearly two decades (1016-1035) ruling over north Europe in the first half of the eleventh century. It’s the same texts by Saxo Grammaticus that gives us the historical account of Canute, as gives us the early stories of Amleth that act as one of the literary sources of this play.

At the beginning of Canute’s reign, taking advantage of Canute’s absence from Denmark (as he was conquering the English), Norway’s King Olaf II was able to retake much of his nation from Denmark (1016). When Canute became King of England (also 1016), he put aside his first wife Elfgifu to take to wife Emma, the widow of the defeated king Ethelred, and also banned Ethlered’s children from the line of succession.

Ten years later (1028), Canute had retaken Norway from Olaf, almost without conquest as Norway’s nobles abandoned Olaf (this is somewhat less heroic than Old Hamlet’s single combat victory over Old Fortinbras); during this defeat, Olaf’s illegitimate son Magnus fled the country. Soon after (1031), Canute conquered some of the Pomeranian coastline from the Polish empire (think of Old Hamlet’s “smot[ing] the sledded Polacks on the ice” [I.i.63]).

Upon Canute’s death in 1035, as his son Harold (from Canute’s first marriage to Elfgifu) became King of England, and his son Harthacnut (or Canute III [why III and not II? I haven’t a clue]; from his second wife Emma) was ascending to the throne of Denmark, Magnus (that bastard son of King Olaf) returned to Norway and was crowned king there. When Harold died in 1040, Harthacnut become king of both England and Denmark. Harthacnut and Magnus met and agreed that the first of the two to die would then leave the throne of his country to the other. Harthacnut died in 1042, and Magnus became king of Norway and Denmark (cough, Fortinbras, cough). At the same time, the throne of England reverted to Edward the Confessor, son of Ethelred and Emma.

While there is no one-to-one correlation between this Danish history and Hamlet, there are some striking parallels.

Or at least some good grist for bar-talk over a pint or two.

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