The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 28.024 Sunday, 15 January 2017
Date: January 14, 2017 at 1:47:14 PM EST
Subject: From TLS – Hamlet’s Age
August 31 2016
Sooner or later, everyone who thinks about Shakespeare’s Hamlet has to come to a view on how old its eponymous prince is supposed to be. Hamlet is described on several occasions as “young”; he is roughly the same age as Fortinbras, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern; he seems to be a little younger than Horatio and Laertes; he is a student at Wittenberg; he thinks and speaks like one in the midst of a humanistic education. And yet his exchange with the Gravedigger at the beginning of Act Five appears, anomalously but unambiguously, to indicate that he is thirty years old.
In what follows, I argue that the age given in the graveyard scene does not stand up to scrutiny: it emerges from a textual crux and relies on an authority – the Gravedigger – whose arithmetical skills are very much open to question. More broadly, I want to suggest that the exchange between Hamlet and the Gravedigger is intended to mock the urge to quantificatory certainty; that Shakespeare does not tell us how old Hamlet is in calendar years; and that Hamlet does not, somehow or other, age a decade or more in the time between leaving the stage in Act Four and returning to it in Act Five.
After satisfying himself that the Ghost is not purely a figment of Marcellus and Barnardo’s imaginations, Horatio decrees that they should impart what they “have seen tonight / Unto young Hamlet” (I quote from Harold Jenkins’s Arden 2 edition of the play). “Young” here differentiates the son from his father: Hamlet the Younger. But it is also the adjective with which Shakespeare introduces his disaffected prince, and suggests something about his youthful quality of being. Versions of it are reasserted throughout the play. Claudius counsels Hamlet that his enduring display of grief for his father is “unmanly”, a term whose persuasive force depends on Hamlet aspiring to, rather than already having attained, the condition of manliness; Laertes thinks of Hamlet as “A violet in the youth of primy nature”; the Ghost tells Hamlet that if he were to describe the afterlife in detail, the effect would be to “freeze thy young blood”, and addresses him as a “noble youth”; Claudius turns to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern because they are “of so young days brought up with him, / And with so neighbour’d to his youth and haviour”; the fencing match between Hamlet and “young Laertes” is framed with some care as a contest of “youth”. There are many more examples (several of which relate to the comparability of Hamlet and his “delicate and tender” rival, “young Fortinbras”), but the point is incontestable: that Hamlet is “young” should be taken to connote more than his status as the son of a father with the same name.
Hamlet’s status as a student further avows his youthfulness. As Lawrence Stone’s statistical labours make plain, early modern Englishmen went to university far earlier than their twenty-first-century successors. For example, the median age of matriculation at Oxford for the years 1600–02 was 17.1. Among the aristocracy and gentry it was substantially lower, at 15.9 years. Moreover, it was common for the well-educated sons of socially elevated families to enter university as young as eleven or twelve. A good example is Henry Wriothesley, third Earl of Southampton and the dedicatee of Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis and Lucrece. Wriothesley went up to St. John’s College, Cambridge in 1585 at the age of twelve; he graduated before he turned sixteen in 1589, at which point he had already been admitted to Gray’s Inn. In brief, Hamlet’s desire to return to his studies at Wittenberg tells us that he is a teenager. To an audience of theatregoers or readers in late Elizabethan or early Jacobean London, it would have been starkly irregular for an aristocrat, let alone a member of the royalty, to have remained at university beyond the age of about twenty.
Now to the encounter between Hamlet and the Gravedigger. Hamlet asks the Gravedigger when he began his career . . .
[ . . . ]
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 28.022 Sunday, 15 January 2017
Date: January 14, 2017 at 12:25:30 PM EST
Subject: Re: SHAKSPER: MV
To Harry Berger Jr
I quote your concise response to my January 5 post in its entirety: “Omigod!”
Brevity may be the sole of wit, but you overdo it by precluding any dialog. It’s hardly even a log.
I interpret your response to express disagreement with my observations, as well as exasperation that anyone would have the nerve to present such silly notions to a group of serious scholars.
I can understand the disagreement. Your perspective is that of a professional person of Literature. I have acknowledged my ignorance as a student of Literature, and have stated that I am content to let those such as yourself do that sort of work with MV — except for the Trial Scene, concerning which I possess the better training and experience to analyze.
For purposes of this Dialog, I view MV from the perspective of something more like a cultural artifact than a work of Literature (although it certainly is that). The Elizabethans themselves did not consider their contemporary plays to be Literature. Thomas Bodley prohibited his librarian from including any such plays in the Bodleian. I believe that Shakespeare wrote this play for his contemporary English countrymen, concerning important contemporary English issues — chief among them the successive persecutions of the Protestants by the Catholics and vice versa. I do not deny its value as Literature; I’m only describing my own perspective.
You impliedly cast doubt on my identification of Lorenzo as representing Shakespeare, and of Shakespeare writing himself into the play as such and acting the part. One item of textual evidence that I did not include in my post is the following (from the First Folio):
So please my Lord the Duke, and all the Court
To quit the fine for one halfe of his goods,
I am content: so he will let me have
The other halfe in use, to render it
Upon his death, unto the Gentleman
That lately stole his daughter.
Note that Shakespeare capitalized the word "Gentleman." That Gentleman was Lorenzo. Shakespeare was writing MV in 1596, at the same time when he was successful in obtaining for his father (and himself) the coat of arms and the distinction of being a Gentleman (the exact date being October 20, 1596). I grant that this is not what one might call definitive proof, but it is at least some proof. Reliable evidence concerning Shakespeare's life has come mostly in drips and drabs. This drabby evidence was written by Shakespeare himself, and is thus worthy of some consideration.
I am disappointed at what I perceive to be your exasperation. Serious scholars ought to be able to consider new ideas seriously. How else can Shakespeare Studies advance?
I will submit my final post within the next two weeks. I would be very interested in what you — or anyone else — would have to say about the odd interchange between Portia and Bassanio involving the rack, treason, confessions, and the chopping off of various body parts.