Amleth (Latinized Amlethus, Old Icelandic Amlóði) is a figure in a medieval Scandinavian legend, the direct predecessor of the character of Prince Hamlet, the hero of William Shakespeare's tragedy Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.
The chief authority for the legend of Amleth is Saxo Grammaticus, who devotes to it parts of the third and fourth books of his Gesta Danorum, completed at the beginning of the 13th century. Saxo's version is similar to the one given in the 12th-century Chronicon Lethrense. In both versions, prince Amleth (Amblothæ) is the son of Horvendill (Orwendel), king of the Jutes. It has often been assumed that the story is ultimately derived from an Old Icelandic poem, but no such poem has survived; the extant Icelandic versions, known as the Ambales-saga, or Amloda-saga are considerably later than Saxo.
The Old Icelandic form Amlóði is recorded once in the Prose Edda. The 12th-century Amlethus, Amblothæ may easily be latinizations of the Old Norse name. The etymology of the name is unknown, but there are various suggestions.
Icelandic Amlóði is recorded as a term for a fool or simpleton in reference to the character of the early modern Icelandic romance or folk tale. One suggestion is based on the "fool" or "trickster" interpretation of the name, composing the name from Old Norse ama "to vex, annoy, molest" and óðr "fierceness, madness" (also in the theonym Odin). The Irish and Scottish word amhlair, which in contemporary vernacular denotes a dull, stupid person, is handed down from the ancient name for a court jester or fool, who entertained the king but also surreptitiously advised him through riddles and antics.
A more recent suggestion is based on the Eddaic kenning associating Amlóði with the mythological mill grótti, and derives it from the Old Irish name Admlithi "great-grinding", attested in Togail Bruidne Dá Derga. Amlóða kvren ("Amlodi's quern" or "Hamlet's mill") is a kenning for the sea in the Skáldskaparmál section of the Prose Edda, attributed to a skald named Snæbjörn.
In a controversial suggestion going back to 1937, the sequence æmluþ contained in the 8th-century Old Frisian runic inscription on the Westeremden yew-stick has been interpreted as a reference to "Amleth". Contemporary runic research does not support this conclusion.
It has frequently been assumed that the Scandinavian legend ultimately goes back to an Old Norse (Old Icelandic) poem of about the 10th century. But no such poem has survived, and the two 12th-century Latin versions of the story are our oldest source. There is an early modern (17th century) Icelandic version of the tale, and Thormodus Torfæus also asserts that a story of Amlodi was part of popular folklore in his youth (i.e. in the mid 17th century), but it is unclear whether the early modern Icelandic tale is substantially influenced by Saxo's account, or if it represents an independent tradition derived from the unattested Old Icelandic source.
Briefly, Saxo's version of Amleth's history is as follows: Gervendill, governor of Jutland, was succeeded by his sons Horvendill and Feng. Horvendill, on his return from a Viking expedition in which he had slain Koll, king of Norway, married Gerutha, daughter of Rørik Slyngebond, king of Denmark; she bore him a son, Amleth. But Feng, out of jealousy, murdered Horvendill, and persuaded Gerutha to become his wife, on the plea that he had committed the crime for no other reason than to avenge her of a husband who had hated her. Amleth, afraid of sharing his father's fate, pretended to be an imbecile, but the suspicion of Feng put him to various tests which are related in detail. Among other things they sought to entangle him with a young girl, his foster-sister (the prototype of Ophelia), but his cunning saved him. When, however, Amleth slew the eavesdropper hidden (like Polonius in Shakespeare's play), in his mother's room, and destroyed all trace of the deed, Feng was assured that the young man's madness was feigned. Accordingly, he dispatched him to Britain in company with two attendants, who bore a letter enjoining the king of the country to put him to death. Amleth surmised the purport of their instructions, and secretly altered the message on their wooden tablets to the effect that the king should put the attendants to death and give Amleth his daughter in marriage.
After marrying the princess, Amleth returned at the end of a year to Denmark. Of the wealth he had accumulated he took with him only certain hollow sticks filled with gold. He arrived in time for a funeral feast, held to celebrate his supposed death. During the feast he plied the courtiers with wine, and executed his vengeance during their drunken sleep by fastening down over them the woolen hangings of the hall with pegs he had sharpened during his feigned madness, and then setting fire to the palace. He slew Feng with his own sword. After a long harangue to the people he was proclaimed king. Returning to Britain for his wife he found that his father-in-law and Feng had been pledged each to avenge the other's death. The English king, unwilling to personally carry out his pledge, sent Amleth as proxy wooer for the hand of a terrible Scottish queen, Hermuthruda, who had put all former wooers to death but fell in love with Amleth. On his return to Britain his first wife, whose love proved stronger than her resentment, told him of her father's intended revenge. In the ensuing battle, Amleth won the day by setting up the fallen dead from the day before on stakes, thereby terrifying the enemy.
He then returned with his two wives to Jutland, where he had to encounter the enmity of Wiglek, Rørik's successor. He was slain in a battle against Wiglek. Hermuthruda, although she had promised to die with him, married the victor. Saxo states that Amleth was buried on a plain (or "heath") in Jutland, famous for his name and burial place. Wiglek later died of illness and was the father of Wermund from whom the royal line of Kings of Mercia descended.
The 12th-century Chronicle of the Kings of Leijre (and the included Annales Lundenses) tells that the Danish king Rorik Slengeborre put Orwendel and Feng as his rulers in Jutland, and gave his daughter to Orwendel as a reward for his good services. Orwendel and the daughter had a son, Amblothæ the Jutlander. The jealous Feng killed Orwendel and took his wife. Amblothæ understood that his life was in danger and tried to survive by playing insane. Feng sent Amblothæ to the king of Britain with two servants carrying a message that the British king should kill Amblothæ. While the servants slept, Amblothæ carved off the (probably runic) message and wrote that the servants should be killed and himself married to the king's daughter. The British king did what the message said. Exactly one year later, Feng drank to the memory of Amblothæ, but Amblothæ appeared and killed him. He then burnt Feng's men to death in a tent and became the ruler of Jutland. Then he went back to Britain to kill the British king who wanted to avenge Feng's death, and married the queen of Scotland. Amblothæ went back to Jutland and was killed in battle upon arrival.
In Iceland, the early modern Ambale's Saga is a romantic tale (the earliest manuscript dates from the 17th century). Thormodus Torfæus recorded in 1702 that he "often heard the story of Amlod related in Iceland by old women" in his youth. The folk-tale of Brjam was put in writing in 1707. In the Ambale's Saga there are, besides romantic additions, some traits which point to an earlier version of the tale.
Also comparable is the medieval Hrólfs saga kraka, where the brothers Helgi (known as Halga in Beowulf) and Hroar (Hroðgar) take the place of the hero (corresponding to the tale of Harald and Halfdan in the 7th book of Saxo Grammaticus); Helgi and Hroar, like Harald and Halfdan, avenge their father's death on their uncle by burning him in his palace. Harald and Halfdan escape after their father's death by being brought up, with dogs' names, in a hollow oak, and subsequently by feigned madness; and in the case of the other brothers there are traces of a similar motive, since the boys are called by dogs' names.
The similarities of Saxo's version with the classical tale of Lucius Junius Brutus as told by Livy, by Valerius Maximus, and by Dionysius of Halicarnassus are likely deliberate, as the incident of the gold-filled sticks could hardly appear fortuitously in both, and a comparison of the harangues of Amleth (Saxo, Book iv.) and of Brutus (Dionysius, iv. 77) shows marked similarities. In both tales the usurping uncle is ultimately succeeded by the nephew who has escaped notice during his youth by a feigned madness. But the parts played by the personages who in Shakespeare became Ophelia and Polonius, the method of revenge, and the whole narrative of Amleth's adventure in England, have no parallels in the Latin story.
Further resemblances exist in the Ambale's Saga with the tales of Bellerophon, of Heracles, and of Servius Tullius. This concerns especially the episode of the "traitorous letter" (ordering the death of the bearer), also found in the Old French (13th-century) Dit de l'empereur Constant, and further afield in various Arabian and Indian tales.
There are also striking similarities between the story of Amleth and that of Kai Khosrow in the Shahnameh (Book of the King) of the Persian poet Firdausi. In ancient Egyptian mythology, a similar tale of a king who is murdered by a jealous brother but avenged by his son appears in the narrative of Osiris, Set and Horus.
Outside Scandinavia, the story of Amleth or Hamlet was popularized through François de Belleforest's French Histoires tragiques (Paris, Chez Jean Hupeau, 1572, Fueil 149), where it appears as the fifth story of the fifth volume. An English version, The Hystorie of Hamblet, was published in 1608. An English stage version, conventionally known as the Ur-Hamlet, appeared by 1589. The play is lost but is mentioned in a few other sources, the first being Thomas Nashe's 1589 preface to Robert Greene's Menaphon.
William Shakespeare wrote his play Hamlet sometime between 1599 and 1602. The Ur-Hamlet is thought to be his primary source; his version owes but the outline of the story to Saxo. In character, Shakespeare's Prince Hamlet is diametrically opposed to his prototype. Amleth's madness was certainly altogether feigned; he prepared his vengeance a year beforehand, and carried it out deliberately and ruthlessly at every point. His riddling speech has little more than an outward similarity to the words of Hamlet, who resembles him, however, in his disconcerting penetration into his enemies' plans.
The legend, woven together with Shakespeare's play, form the basis for Alan Gordon's novel An Antic Disposition (2004), the fifth novel in Gordon's "Fools' Guild" series.
. . . they who long ago ground Hamlet's meal-ship . . . . Here the sea is called Hamlet's mill.Sturluson, Snorri (2007). Faulkes, Anthony (ed.). Skáldskaparmál (PDF). London: Viking Society for Northern Research. p. 112.
". . . Amlóða mólu. / Hér er kallat hafit *Amlóða kvern."