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The offstage character "Gonzago" is mentioned in Scene 7 and in Scene 9.

Duke of Urbino Francesco Maria I della Rovere, by Titian


In Scene 7, Hamlet says to the Lad of the Players:

Scene 7#512 dost thou hear me "old" friend, can you play the murder of Gonzago?

In Scene 9, Hamlet says:

Scene 9#221 of a murder done in Vienna; Gonzago is the Duke's name, his wife (Baptista)

And later:

Scene 9#241 Hamlet: A poisons him i'th Garden for his estate; his name's
Scene 9#242 Gonzago; the story is extant, and written in very choice Italian;
Scene 9#243 you shall see anon how the murderer gets the love of Gonzago's wife.

The "Gonzago" reference in the play must have been inspired by the death of Francesco Maria I della Rovere, Duke of Urbino, who died in 1538, supposedly from poison being applied to his ears. The Duke was married to Eleonora Gonzaga. Allegedly, the killer of the Duke was his barber-surgeon, Pier Antonio da Sermide, who was persuaded to commit the crime by Luigi Gonzaga, a relative of the Duke's wife.

The Duke's predecessor was also married to a Gonzaga, and his predecessor, in turn, was married to a woman named Battista Sforza, which is notable in relation to Hamlet saying "his wife Baptista." (Hamlet says "Baptista" to Ophelia as an unperceived, tragic omen of her death; baptism is done by immersion in water. Shakespeare probably knew the name "Battista," as the wife of a Duke of Urbino, and modified it to suit his thematic requirement.)

Of course Shakespeare's fictionalization, in Hamlet, is not intended to provide any kind of factual documentation of the death of some Duke far from England. The mention of "Gonzago" is for story purposes, within the play.


The name, Gonzago, is distinctive, and the English ear prefers a name ending in -o for a man, as opposed to an -a. Shakespeare probably knew of the name "Gonzaga" in association with the Duke of Urbino, but changed it slightly for stage performance, for a better sound, and applied the name to the Duke, himself.

So, the death of the Duke of Urbino inspired Shakespeare to include "the murder of Gonzago" in the play, with its associated concepts. Shakespeare applied the name Gonzago to the Duke, himself. Shakespeare changed the location to Vienna to have a more familiar name, to an English audience. (Urbino was, and is, obscure to the typical Englishman, I venture to say. I know it's obscure to the typical modern American.)


In Hamlet, we need to understand the following.

  • There was a "real" murder, which was made known throughout Europe by circulation of descriptions of it, written in Italian, and in other European languages. The murder happened in Vienna. The murdered man was a duke. The Duke's name was Gonzago. His wife's name was, and is, Baptista. In the "real" murder, the killer was the Duke's nephew.
  • The murder was fictionalized in a play. That is what Hamlet means when he says:
Scene 9#220  Hamlet: ... this play is the image
Scene 9#221         of a murder done in Vienna ...

Hamlet means the play "reflects" a real murder, that is, it's based on a real murder.

For dramatic purposes in the play, the Duke and Duchess were "promoted" to become a king and a queen, to make the events seem even more important. (Such "promotion" of characters is very common when an event is fictionalized.)

  • The play included a further "promotion," that of the killer, who was made the king's brother, for dramatic purposes.
  • In Scene 9 line 221, when Hamlet says "Duke," he is speaking of the "real" murder on which the play is based. The character in the play is a king.

Hamlet does not clarify what he means, however, which misleads, or confuses, those who hear him. Probably no one at Elsinore, other than Hamlet, has seen that play. Hamlet knows what he means, which causes him to suppose others will know, too, but they do not.

  • When Hamlet says "nephew," Scene 9 line 225, he is referring to the killer in the "real" murder, the murder of the Duke. In the play, the killer is the brother of the king.

Hamlet again fails to clarify what he means. Once again, he accidentally misleads those who hear him, and we may take it he is speaking loud enough that most of those in attendance hear him.

  • So, that is why Hamlet says what he says, about duke and nephew, even though the characters in the play are a king and his brother. Hamlet is talking about the real news story ("real" in the fictional world of Hamlet) on which the play is based.

By the way, Hamlet at no time gives any thought to where Claudius got the idea for a way by which he might kill his brother. It's clear enough Claudius has never seen that play. However, is Hamlet the only one who has ever read European news reports? Nope.

Themes and Motifs

The Theme most relevant to Hamlet's mention of Gonzago is, of course:

Putting on a Show

On Stage

Gonzago is never onstage, but Hamlet speaks of him in Scene 7 and Scene 9.

© 2014 Jeffrey Paul Jordan

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