The Ur-Hamlet (the German prefix Ur- means "original") is a play by an unknown author, thought to be either Thomas Kyd or William Shakespeare. No copy of the play, dated by scholars to the second half of 1587, survives today. The play has been staged in London, more specifically at The Burbages' Shoreditch Playhouse as recalled by Elizabethan author Thomas Lodge. It includes a character named Hamlet; the only other known character from the play is a ghost who, according to Thomas Lodge in his 1596 publication Wits Misery and the Worlds Madnesse, cries, "Hamlet, revenge!"
What relation the Ur-Hamlet bears to Shakespeare's more commonly known play Hamlet is unclear: it may contain events supposed to have occurred before Shakespeare's tragedy or it may be an early version of that play; the First Quarto in particular is thought perhaps to have been influenced by the Ur-Hamlet.
Thomas Nashe, in his introduction to Greene’s Menaphon (1589), writes in a riddling way that seems to leave clues regarding the identity of playwrights who have left the trade of noverint (lawyer’s clerk) to turn to writing, and who are being influenced by the Roman playwright Seneca, who "if you entreat him fair in a frosty morning, he will afford you whole Hamlets…" Nashe then writes that his followers are like the "kid" in Aesop. The reference to "Hamlets" vouches for the idea that a Hamlet-play existed as early as 1589. Other references are interpreted by some to contribute to the idea that Thomas Kyd, who was a noverint, and a Seneca-influenced playwright, and whose name is a homophone of Aesop’s "kid", might be the author of the Hamlet that Nashe mentions.
Some suggest that the Ur-Hamlet is an early version of Shakespeare's own play, pointing to the survival of Shakespeare's version in three quite different early texts, Q1 (1603), Q2 (1604) and F (1623), and offer the possibility that the play was revised by the author over a period of many years. While the exact relationship of the short and apparently primitive text of Q1 to the later published texts is not resolved, Hardin Craig has suggested that it may represent an earlier draft of the play and hence would confirm that the Ur-Hamlet is in fact merely an earlier draft of Shakespeare's play. This view is held in some form or another by Harold Bloom, Peter Alexander, and Andrew Cairncross, who stated, "It may be assumed, until a new case can be shown to the contrary, that Shakespeare's Hamlet and no other is the play mentioned by Nashe in 1589 and Henslowe in 1594". Harold Jenkins, in his 1982 Arden edition, disagrees with this position.
Eric Sams’s in his 1995 The Real Shakespeare argues that Shakespeare might steal phrases and rarely whole lines from other playwrights, but not entire theatrical treatments; and would not, at such length, have “plagiarized a known and named colleague [i.e. Kyd], least of all without a word of comment, let alone censure, from any of his critics.” Sams analyzes the most detailed account of the UR-Hamlet, by Nashe in Menaphon in 1589, and sees Nashe’s remarks as part of a pattern of jealous attacks upon Shakespeare (and Kyd) by their university-educated rivals. Citing Nashe’s reference to “if you entreat him fair in a frosty morning, he will afford you whole Hamlets, I should say handfuls, of tragical speeches,” Sams argues that this “manifestly defines the first scene of Hamlet ('tis bitter cold I.i.8),” and evokes the touchy yet voluble Ghost of Hamlet Senior (a role that Shakespeare himself is said to have played). Similarly, Lodge’s 1596 reference to the Ur-Hamlet’s ghost “who cried so miserably at the Theatre, like an oyster-wife, Hamlet, revenge!” was “surely intended as an affront to the author and actor of that role”. Summing up, Sams offers a list of 18 reasons for his belief that the Ur-Hamlet was Shakespeare’s earliest version of Hamlet.
Translators with expertise in C16th French have argued that Shakespeare’s expertise and sophistication as a translator of Belleforest's 1570 French version of the story of "Amleth" have been greatly underestimated. In 2014 in her book The First Two Quartos of Hamlet, Margrethe Jolly, speaking of the first three printed texts of Hamlet, argued that "the sequence and evidence that the three texts provide suggests that Shakespeare had access to the French source and Q1 when he redrafted".
In 2016 Professor Terri Bourus, one of three General Editors of the New Oxford Shakespeare, in her paper "Enter Shakespeare’s Young Hamlet, 1589" suggests that Shakespeare was "interested in sixteenth-century French literature, from the very beginning of his career" and therefore "did not need Thomas Kyd to pre-digest Belleforest’s histoire of Amleth and spoon-feed it to him". She considers that the hypothesized Ur-Hamlet is Shakespeare’s Q1 text, and that this derived directly from Belleforest’s French version. Elsewhere Bourus, after referring to Goethe's UrFaust or original version of Faust, argues that, "Like Faust…Hamlet was repeatedly revised by its author. As Faust matured with Goethe, Hamlet matured with Shakespeare. It matters so much to us, in part, because it mattered so much to him."
In 2019 Jennifer E. Nicholson in her University of Sydney PhD thesis, reinforced this view, offering independent evidence from each of the three printed Hamlets, that Shakespeare was responding creatively to subtle hints in Belleforest's French text, and deriving some of his more famous lines, including perhaps the famous "arras" in the stage directions of Act 3 Scene 4, from them. She too contends that, "There is no need for a 'middle man' author for Ur-Hamlet, and no need for an Ur-Hamlet separate from Shakespeare’s own play text."