'Irish Hamlet' Mystery Solved?

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Was Hamlet, Shakespeare's Prince of Denmark, actually Irish? That is the question, according to a paper published in the latest edition of the journal Review of English Studies.

Scholars have long agreed that William Shakespeare based his Hamlet on Amlethus, a legendary figure found in the "History of the Danes," a saga written around 1200.

The name Amlethus was then traced back to the word Amlothi, which appears in a 10th- or 11th-century poem by the Icelandic poet Snow Bear.

But according to Lisa Collinson, of the Centre for Scandinavian Studies at the University of Aberdeen, the roots for Hamlet are even deeper and can be traced to a little known Irish tale called the "Destruction of Da Derga's Hostel."

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Written in the 11th century, but based on eighth- or ninth-century materials, the tale recounts the story of a king who is killed in a hall filled with uncanny figures.

Amongst these are three players, Mael, Mlithi and Admlithi.

"As soon as I saw 'Admlithi,' I thought of Hamlet," Collinson said.

According to her etymological investigations, Admlithi of Eire (the "d" is silent) became Hamlet of Elsinore (Helsingør, in Danish) as the Gaelic name traveled to Scandinavia through sailor mouths.

In this context, Snow Bear's Amlothi would have simply been a corruption of Admlithi.

"Snow Bear's verse containing the name Amlothi has been connected to Shakespeare's indirect source, 'The History of the Danes,' because of a grinding sea motif which seems to underlie both medieval Nordic texts," Collinson said.

"But we can take this further, and match Amlethus and Amlothi with the Gaelic player name Admlithi which is related to a Gaelic word for grinding," she said.

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According to Collinson, the Gaelic name was used by sailors to describe grinding seas.

"Although the player Admlithi had only a tiny role in the Irish tale, his strange name had the potential to be used in many different contexts. At an early date, I think it was used by superstitious sailors to refer to a dangerous sea-feature, such as a whirlpool," Collinson said.

Hamlet's Gaelic and nautical roots may provide new insight into Shakespeare's character, according to the researcher.

"What's most exciting to me is the idea that a version of the name Hamlet may once have described not just a man 'as mad as the sea' or threatened by a 'sea of troubles,'" she said.

"Hamlet becomes, by name, a whirlpool incarnate — in essence, a saltwater vortex — somehow made flesh. I couldn't even begin to imagine how that might be played, but I hope that someday, someone, somewhere will try," Collinson said.

Photo: Sculpture of Hamlet (V/Creative Commons)

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