“Hamlet” is arguably the most famous of William Shakespeare’s plays. It is the source of such famous lines as “To be or not to be—that is the question,” “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” “Brevity is the soul of wit,” “To thine own self be true,” and the list goes on and on.
The famous skull that often appears in caricatures of Shakespeare comes from “Hamlet.” I also find my children watching current TV shows that feature “Hamlet”–themed episodes and, of course, Disney’s “Lion King” takes some plot points from the play. According to the British Council, “Since 1960, there have been publications and productions of ‘Hamlet’ in more than 75 languages.”
For the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, in 2016, famous actors like Benedict Cumberbatch, Ian McKellen, and Judi Dench, as well as Prince Charles, took to the stage to humorously bicker about how best to deliver the famous “To be or not to be” line.
Thus, in the highly picked-over and analyzed world of Shakespeare, and in the even more picked-over and more analyzed world of “Hamlet,” I was certain that there could be nothing new under the sun. This is why, one day, I was quite shocked when I found something very different about “Hamlet” that I’d never expected.
I had taught classical literature at my school before, the works of Homer, Defoe, Tolstoy, and so on, but since our student body includes many people of Chinese ethnicity, I thought I would venture into some of the Chinese classics that semester. “Journey to the West,” by Wu Cheng’en, is regarded as one of the Four Great Novels of China and seemed like the natural choice since, from what I had understood, it was full of fantasy-like adventure as well as profound spiritual themes. It would be both entertaining for students and rich in essay-writing opportunities.
It’s hard to imagine, but “Journey to the West” has undeniably had a bigger influence on Chinese society than “Hamlet” has had on the West. The novel has spawned television series, cartoon series, and a comic book series with which every Chinese child is familiar. In 2015, China even named its Dark Matter Particle Explorer satellite “Wukong” after one of the main characters in “Journey to the West.” Just imagine if the Hubble Telescope was called the Hamlet Telescope—that’s the influence of “Journey to the West.”
The novel tells the story of an unusual group of Buddhist monks traveling from China in the East to India in the West to obtain sacred scriptures from the Buddha. The group includes the monk Sanzang, a character based on a real monk during the Tang Dynasty (618–907) who made the journey, as well as entirely fictional characters: a magical monkey-man known as the Monkey King; a foolish, gluttonous pig-man known as Pigsy; and a relatively minor character named Sandy.
I found myself enchanted when I first read it. It was like a fairy tale that never stopped, with episode after episode of the group running into dastardly trouble and finding a way out, usually thanks to the Monkey King or divine intervention. It was one such episode, found in chapters 37–40, that struck me as curiously similar to “Hamlet.” Like “Hamlet,” the episode began with a visitation from the ghost of a dead king.
The next year, I decided to teach “Hamlet” for the first time and use the “Journey to the West” episode as a story for literary comparison. In rereading the stories and analyzing them with my class, it suddenly dawned on me that there was not simply a fortuitous connection for a high school English teacher to make here; there was genuinely something going on.
Both stories begin with the visitation of the ghost of the dead king, but that is only the beginning. Both dead kings have a specific message to impart to the main characters: essentially that the king was secretly murdered by his brother—in “Hamlet,” a real brother, and in “Journey,” “a sworn brother.”
In “Hamlet,” this brother killed the king while he was in his garden—in “Journey,” it’s technically an orchard—and the brother then becomes the king, marrying the queen. In “Journey,” the sworn brother is a sorcerer who transforms himself into the king’s likeness, but the effect is the same: The queen is now the king-killer’s wife.
In both stories, the murder leaves the prince, who is heir to the throne, at first in the dark about the whole matter. Once the prince becomes aware of the ghost’s message, he sets out to right the wrong. The same overall story arc—justly getting rid of the bad king—is present in both “Hamlet” and “Journey.”
One of the first orders of business for the prince in both stories is to confront the queen. In “Journey,” this exchange of dialogue between the prince and the queen seems as if it is straight out of “Hamlet”—not verbatim but certainly in effect:
To which the Prince replied with a kowtow, “Mother, who is it who now occupies the throne?”
“The boy’s gone mad!” exclaimed the Queen. “It’s your father who’s King. Why do you ask?”
In “Hamlet,” the queen also accuses Prince Hamlet of being mad, and Hamlet similarly tries to awaken his mother to the evil character of the murderous brother sitting on the throne.
Both “Hamlet” and “Journey” end with a plot twist that puts all of the previous story into a new light. In “Hamlet,” just as Hamlet is dying, the Prince of Norway, Fortinbras, who has been in the background of the entire play (so much so that his character is often completely cut out of productions), shows up to claim the throne and leave what seems a happy ending for Denmark.
In “Journey,” a Buddhist god, known as Bodhisattva Manjushri, shows up out of nowhere and sets everything straight. It turns out that the king who was murdered was actually being justly punished for something bad he did (similar to how the ghost in “Hamlet” says he must be “confined to fast in fires, / Till the foul crimes done in my days of living / Are burnt and purged away”), and that the devious “sworn brother” was in fact the Bodhisattva’s heavenly lion magically disguised. The king in “Journey,” who has been brought back to life, is reinstalled on the throne and the tragedy is entirely averted, with this kingdom, like Denmark, also having a happy ending.
If these similarities were not proof enough and, frankly, eerie enough, both works have a publication date that is bizarrely close, considering the geographically opposed and disconnected nature of 16th-century England and China. “Hamlet” is believed to have been first performed at the Globe Theatre around 1600, and the official publication date of “Journey” was just eight years earlier in 1592.
Finally, another similarity that I would be willing to dismiss as coincidental, but that also seems negligent to entirely ignore, is the name of the kingdom in “Journey,” which is Wuji and can be literally translated as “crow cock.” There is no explanation whatsoever why the kingdom has such a silly name in “Journey,” but in “Hamlet” Act 1 Scene 1, several lines mention the crowing of a cock, which scares away the ghost.
The distinct impression one gets is that the author of “Journey,” Wu Cheng’en, or someone else who transmitted the story to China, simply pulled a few words from the very beginning of “Hamlet” to be the name of the kingdom.
What Does It Mean?
There is the obvious explanation that the stories simply were passed around, one way or the other. A common example of such literary exchange is the fairy tale of Cinderella, which has both a common European version and a very similar Chinese version. Which came first? No one knows for sure, and almost no one cares.
However, in this case, the situation is decidedly different since the amount of Shakespeare scholarship is extensive and has built a rather elaborate Shakespeare narrative that is something of a fragile house of cards, with one weak part depending on many other weak parts. “Hamlet” is believed to have been written, at the earliest, around 1599. A little wiggle on 1599 and the whole history of Shakespeare could come crumbling down.
Based on my numerous readings and analysis, it seems likely that some version of “Hamlet”—virtually the same as the “Hamlet” we have now, given the close similarities to “Journey”—actually came before “Journey to the West.” The interweaving plotlines in “Hamlet” and the play’s realism do not give the feeling of something that was artificially adapted. It seems a natural work on its own—though one that we already know has some basis in Western legends of a prince acting mad while plotting to unseat the king.
The “Journey” episode, however, because of its fairy-tale-like nature and greater interest in thematic elements and humor rather than plot and character coherence, does have a feeling of being thrown together with anything possible at any turn. For example, characters transform to look like others, and beings fly back and forth to heaven. Thus, it seems plausible, indeed likely, that the “Hamlet” storyline was simply adapted into the framework that “Journey” follows.
If “Hamlet” did come first, this means that the “Hamlet” we know must have been written a bit earlier, definitely before 1582 when Wu Cheng’en died and probably some five or ten years before that in order for the story to have traveled to China and been incorporated into “Journey to the West.” However, if we even give the generous date of 1578 as the date that “Hamlet” was written and circulated, that would mean that Shakespeare, born in 1564, was only 14 years old. How could that be possible?
Shakespeare Authorship Theory
This leads to the long-existing theory that Shakespeare did not in fact write Shakespeare’s plays. There is a widely held belief that William Shakespeare was merely an actor and that the plays were written by someone else of noble status. The theater was considered too common at that time for a noble to attach his name to a play performed there, so the actor William Shakespeare received the credit.
This may sound preposterous now, but “Hamlet” itself is evidence of the strict code of what was and was not acceptable for the English nobility at that time. When any royalty in “Hamlet” speaks, it is in iambic pentameter. Only when Hamlet is acting mad or is interacting with commoners, including actors, does he switch to speaking in normal prose.
Also, Shakespeare’s plays demonstrate that whoever wrote them had an extensive education in history, languages, and foreign countries that a noble would likely have and William Shakespeare, who was a commoner, most likely did not have.
The strongest candidate for who wrote Shakespeare’s plays is the Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere, who was known as a great playwright but has no plays existing in his name, and who has poems published under his name up until works start appearing under the name William Shakespeare. His life experiences and travels seem to reflect the content of Shakespeare’s plays, and it is famously recorded in history that someone said to him in the royal court, “Thy countenance shakes spears”—quite possibly a tongue-in-cheek reference to the name “Shakespeare.” Indeed, the case is so strong for de Vere that a major 2011 movie, distributed by Columbia Pictures, presented it as fact. The movie was titled “Anonymous.”
De Vere was born much earlier than Shakespeare, in 1550, and would have been 28 at the time that I have hypothesized “Hamlet” could reasonably have been written. The character Hamlet, who was probably to some extent autobiographical, was 30 years old. Therefore, in China, we find another point of evidence for de Vere as the real Shakespeare playwright.
But squabbling about Shakespearean authorship is not what I had in mind when I was shocked by the similarities. Rather, it was a sublime moment when I realized that all of human affairs, as chaotic as they seem, are in fact working in a clear and coherent fashion that is difficult, and usually impossible, for us mere human beings to see.
Strange coincidences that defy chance can be found throughout history. In science, it is actually somewhat common, such as when Sir Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz both invented calculus independently on opposite sides of Europe around the same time. The Russian Dmitri Mendeleev invented the Periodic Table of the Elements at the same time that, according to ThoughtCo., other scientists in Germany and France were doing the same thing.
More inexplicably, there are the simultaneous deaths of U.S. Presidents Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, who had opposing political ideologies and lived far away from each other. Both died on July 4, 1826, exactly 50 years after July 4, 1776.
Looking further back at a wider scope of history, we see that Siddhartha Gautama (circa 566–486 B.C., also known as the Buddha), Laozi (sixth century B.C., the forefather of Taoism), Confucius (551–479 B.C.), Socrates (circa 470–399 B.C.), and the Jewish prophet Daniel (circa 620–538 B.C.) all lived around 2,500 years ago and had profound effects on the spirituality and culture that would exist up to the present.
The fact that this episode of “Journey to the West” and the play “Hamlet” are so similar and were widely circulating around the same time on opposite sides of civilization tells us that there is some force—sublime, divine, heavenly, whatever you call it—that cannot be explained but cannot be denied. It leaves all of our human affairs looking rather shallow in comparison. This is more than literature; it is true wisdom.
Evan Mantyk is the president of The Society of Classical Poets and editor of the book “Prince Hamlet and the Monkey King,” from which the “Journey to the West” quotes are taken.