William Nicholson met his future wife Mabel "Prydie" Pryde in 1888 or 1889 at Hubert Herkomer's art school at Bushey, Herts, where both were students. He met her elder brother James, who was also an artist, at about the same time. In 1893, Nicholson and Prydie eloped and were secretly married at Ruislip on 25 April. They went to live in what had been a pub, the Eight Bells at Denham, Bucks. James Pryde soon visited them, and stayed for almost two years. Other visitors to the house included the actor Edward Gordon Craig and his wife May, who had also recently eloped and were living in a cottage in Uxbridge rented from Craig's mother, the famous actress Ellen Terry. In the summer of 1894 Craig was preparing to go on tour with the Shakespearean Company of W.S. Hardy, for whom he was to play, among other rôles, that of Hamlet. The part was an important one for him, and he asked Pryde and Nicholson to design and produce a poster to publicize the production. It was their first collaboration.
The initial design was made partly by collage, the hair and clothing of Craig as Hamlet cut from plain black paper; the life-sized figure in the printed version used to publicise the play was stenciled on brown wrapping-paper by Nicholson, with some details added by hand. The original design is untraced; however, it was reproduced in four publications: in the Magazine of Art of January 1895, on page 117; in La Plume of 1 October 1895, on page 427; in Pictorial Posters by Charles Hiatt, published 1895, on page 239; and in The Poster of February 1899, on page 50. No copy of the theatrical poster used to publicize the play is known to survive, but its appearance is known from its publication in Pan in February 1896, on page 333; it has "W.S. Hardy's Company" lettered across the top and is unsigned. Another version of the poster, signed but without the "Hardy's" lettering, may have been produced for sale to collectors. An example is in the Museum of Modern Art of New York City; this version was printed in facsimile in 1898 in Paris by the Imprimerie Chaix as plate 107 of Les Maîtres de l'Affiche.
The last version of the Hamlet poster is signed, by hand, "J. W. Beggarstaff Denham Uxbridge". According to Nicholson, the Beggarstaff pseudonym was chosen after "Pryde and I came across it one day in an old stable, on a sack of fodder"; Pryde gave a similar, though slightly different, explanation.
At about the same time, the Beggarstaffs designed and printed a poster showing Craig in another of his leading rôles on the same tour with Hardy's company, that of Charles Surface in Sheridan's School for Scandal. It also was probably stenciled on brown paper. It does not survive in any form; Craig described it as "absolutely splendid".
The Hamlet poster was shown at the International Artistic Pictorial Poster Exhibition at the Royal Aquarium in Westminster in November 1894.