Hamlet and the Jacobean Succession

Hamlet is widely recognised as a succession play but how far is it a play about the Jacobean succession? Performed in Elizabeth’s dying years, the play survives in three distinct versions printed after the accession of James VI of Scotland to the English throne: Quarto 1 (1603), Quarto 2 (1604/5), and the Folio (1623). James claimed indefeasible hereditary right, but his title was fiercely contested before 1603 and variously construed thereafter in an outpouring of print in prose and verse. In this film Professor Paulina Kewes and Professor Andrew McRae discuss the significance of Hamlet’s textual transmission for the understanding of its engagement with the processes of regime change and, specifically, the first Stuart succession.

Key Questions

  • How differently do Q1 and Q2 portray the principles of royal succession in Denmark? In particular, what should we make of Q2’s approach to election?
  • What might have been the topical resonance of the succession of the Norwegian Fortinbras before and after 1603?
  • And what might contemporaries have made of the prospective union of Denmark and Norway both before and after the union of the crowns?

Further Reading

  • Richard Dutton, Richard, ‘Hamlet and Succession’, in Doubtful and Dangerous: The Question of Succession in Late Elizabethan England, ed. Susan Doran and Paulina Kewes (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2014), pp. 173-91.
  • Paulina Kewes, ‘Hamlet and Politics’, forthcoming.
  • Stuart M. Kurland, ‘Hamlet and the Stuart Succession?’, Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, 34 (1994), 279-300.

The texts of Q1 (1603) and Q2 (1604/5) are freely available online.

We are grateful to John Grimston, Earl of Verulam, for permission to reproduce an image of: William Shakespeare, The Tragicall Historie of Hamlet (London, 1605); currently on deposit at the Bodleian Library, shelfmark Dep.e. Unless otherwise noted, images in this film are reproduced by courtesy of the Ashmolean Museum and the Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford.

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