William Shakespeare's "Hamlet" is arguably the most famous play ever written in the English language; it presents the world with questions and characters that have been the subject of thespian and scholarly debate ever since the Prince of Denmark's first appearance on the stage of London's Globe Theatre. Probably written and first performed in 1601 (estimates vary between 1600 and 1602), the play draws on Saxo Grammaticus's late 12th/early 13th century chronicle "Gesta Danorum," which includes a popular legend with a similar plot centering around a prince named Amleth; as well as several more contemporaneous sources, primarily Francois de Belleforest's "Histoires Tragiques, Extraicts des Oeuvres Italiennes de Bandel" (1559-1580), which expands on the story told in the "Gesta Danorum," and a lost play known as the "Ur-Hamlet" (i.e., original "Hamlet"), sometimes also attributed to Shakespeare, but equally likely written by a different author a few decades earlier. Another work frequently cited in this context is 16th century playwright Thomas Kyd's "Spanish Tragedie."
Pursuant to Shakespeare's wishes and like all of his works, "Hamlet" was not immediately published, and the original manuscript did not survive. However, in the absence of copyright laws or other forms of protection of what today would be called the playwright's intellectual property rights, first bootleg copies (so-called quartos) based on transcripts made during or after performances began to appear in 1603. Yet, it would not be until 1623 – seven years after Shakespeare's 1616 death – that his former fellow actors John Hemmings and Henry Condell published 36 of his plays (including this one) in a collection known as the First Folio.
As no print version of any of Shakespeare's plays has a bona fide claim to its author's first-hand blessings, ever since the Bard's death the world is left with numerous questions about his characters' motivations and psychological makeup; first and foremost, in this particular case: who is this Prince of Denmark anyway, and what's driving him – is he a reluctant suicide or reluctant avenger? A Renaissance man? Wrecked by Freudian guilt? Genuinely mad, or merely putting on a clever act of deception? Or is he someone else entirely? – Indeed, we're even left in doubt as to what exactly it was that Shakespeare meant his characters to say, with all attendant interpretative consequences: Does the Prince wish for his "too too sullied" or his "too too solid" flesh to "melt, thaw, and resolve itself into a dew" in his first major soliloquy (Act I, Scene 2)? Does he really contemplate "the stamp of [that] one defect" which may fatally taint the perception of a man's other virtues, "be they as pure as grace," before meeting his father's ghost (I, 4)? Does Polonius, when sending Reynaldo on a spying mission after Laertes, refer to his scheme as "a fetch of wit" or "a fetch of warrant" (II, 1)? Do Hamlet's musings in "To be, or not to be" (III, 1) concern "enterprises of great pith and moment" or "of great pitch and moment," whose "currents turn awry and lose the name of action" by his doubts? Does or doesn't the sight of the Norwegian army while Hamlet is on his way to England (IV, 4) prompt him, who has so far failed to carry out his purpose, to reflect "How all occasions do inform against me," and conclude his soliloquy with the vow "from this time forth my thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth"?