Hamlet first appears in the Historia Danica of Saxo Grammaticus. This chronicler lived at the end of the twelfth century, and his work was first printed at Paris in 1514. The story of Hamlet or Amlethus is contained in the third and fourth books, under the reign of King Röricus. Grytha, the daughter of Röricus, was Hamlet's mother. From Saxo the story passed into European literature. Hans Sachs wrote a doggerel German version of it in 1558; and in 1570 it was included in the fifth volume of Francis de Belleforest's Histoires Tragiques, a collection in which the history of Romeo and Juliet is also found. The French versions may have come under Shakespeare's notice, and an English translation of the Historie of Hamblet is in existence. But the only known edition of this was printed for Thomas Pavier in 1608. And though there may have been earlier issues, it is noticeable, as Elze has pointed out, that the translation diverges from the French original in one or two places, and that in these the influence of the play is plainly apparent. In any case only the outlines of Shakespeare's plot are to be found in the novel. "The murder of Hamlet's father," says Mr. Furness, "the marriage of his mother with the murderer, Hamlet's pretended madness, his interview with his mother, and his voyage to England, are nearly the only points in common." With the exception of Amleth and Geruth, the very names are different. In all probability Shakespeare only had before him the earlier plays on the subject already referred to.
Numerous attempts have been made to identify the characters of the play with actual men and women of the Elizabethan age. One critic holds that Hamlet is throughout a satire on the famous essayist Michel de Montaigne. Another believes that the whole tragedy is a veiled picture of the relations between Mary Queen of Scots, Darnley, Bothwell, and James the First. Yet other theorists interpret Hamlet as Sir Philip Sidney; Polonius, Laertes, and Ophelia as Lord Burleigh, Robert and Anne Cecil, Claudius as Sir Nicholas Bacon, Horatio as Hubert Languet; Marcellus, Bernardo, and Lamond as Fulke Greville, Edward Dyer, and Sir Walter Raleigh. The want of definite evidence for these conjectures makes it unnecessary to discuss them at length. They are suggestive to the imagination rather than to the reason.