Hamlet gets his date 400 years later

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The Independent Culture

Today, on William Shakespeare's birthday, one of the most vexing mysteries about the bard's most famous work has been solved.

A leading Shakespearean scholar reckons he has found proof that Hamlet was written in 1600 - four years earlier than previously assumed - and that it was one of the first plays performed at the original Globe Theatre.

No precise dating has been possible before, with the play assigned to the years around 1604. But a detail discovered in an obscure 17th-century poem points firmly to1600, according to Andrew Gurr, English professor at Reading University and the director of research at the rebuilt Globe Theatre in London.

If Professor Gurr is correct then Hamlet would have been one of the first plays performed at the original Globe on the south bank of the Thames.

The find has delighted Mark Rylance, artistic director of the modern Globe, who is staging Hamlet with himself in the title role, opening late next month.

The Globe was first established in 1599 and began celebrating its 400th anniversary last September with Julius Caesar, thought to have been the first play to be performed there.

The detective story begins in the preface to the poem, Diaphantus, in which the author, known only as "An.Sc", says that his poem should be like "Friendly Shake-speares Tragedies... it should please all, like Prince Hamlet".

This has usually been seen as a belated recognition of the fame of Shakespeare's Hamlet, which was registered for printing in 1602.

But Professor Gurr realised that whereas scholars had assumed the poem was written around 1604 - the date when it was published - a reference to book-burning meant it was almost definitely written in 1600, the year after a notorious book-burning incident of the time.

The author writes that his own poem "but for the Lord Mayor, and the two Sheriffes, the Innes of Court, and many Gallants elsewhere, this last yeare might have been burned".

Professor Gurr said: "It was serependity. I went to the preface to this dreadfully bad poem to check on something quite irrelevant and noticed this reference to the burning of the books. It was a major event because lots of playwrights had their works seized and burned by the bishops for being obscene."

To mark Shakespeare's 436th birthday, BBC Radio 3 is running a series of special programmes today.