Archive for the ‘English Lit 101’ Category

Hamlet

Tuesday, June 21st, 2011

After seeing the play a few times, I asked myself, “Why wasn’t Hamlet crowned King of Denmark after the death of his father? What was he doing in college when, by Shakespeare’s telling he was thirty? Why was he so anti-woman? Why was he so hesitant?”

The laws of accession in Denmark at the time favored primogeniture approved by the royal council. Hamlet was intelligent and well loved by the people (“the love the general gender bear him”). Dad dies. Why is son passed over?

Any prince aged thirty or more is not sitting in college. He’s being groomed by the reigning king to take over the throne – that’s if the king is intelligent and the son is not an idiot. We have evidence that Old Hamlet was a good king and young Hamlet fit. Why wasn’t he being sent on increasingly important missions to countries with whom he would have to deal when he became king himself?

Why was he so tizzied about women? Why does a thirty year old man say things like: “Frailty, thy name is woman,” and “You jig, you amble and imitate God’s creatures …” Doesn’t his fret sound like a teenager who finds out that his girlfriend wears falsies?

All these questions are answered if we tag Hamlet’s age at about fourteen, fifteen max. A fourteen year old boy in those days could easily have been a college student. Coming home, at news of his father’s death, passed over by the council … why? Uncle pays off the council and marries Hamlet’s mother, who was not a strong woman. Hamlet is passed over because of age. The reason Old Hamlet had to be killed in the first place was that young Hamlet at fourteen or fifteen was too close to coming of age.

Why was Hamlet so dithered when his mother married Uncle Claudius? The woman was no palace of intellect; she was needy and dependent. Wouldn’t a more mature Hamlet have been somewhat relieved to be safely free of a need to care for her? His complaints sound teenager to me. His over-romanticism of his father follows this idea (Hyperion … on and on).

A thirty year old man would have temporized, made nice, and then gotten away from the court, gone to friend/foe Fortinbras, allied with him, raised an army, and come back to take the country away from the usurper. No one liked Uncle Claudius and there was even an attempted coup. Hamlet had only the clumsy guile of his madman act, and few experiential resources. What teenage has?

A horrible ambiguity is present in the play. The prime motivation of pre-Christian Denmark was a Viking code: personal honor above all. Hamlet is bung full of this idea of manhood, but here is his Ghost-father in purgatory (a Christian place) where he tells his son that his sins must be “burnt and purged away.” That’s Christian, right out of the Christian playbook. What’s the next thing out of the ghost-Kings mouth? Revenge: pure Viking. How is a son, a kid of fourteen, to compute that? I think that conflict was what made Shakespeare set the play in Denmark instead of one of his usual nowhere-places, made up. He makes sure everybody knows it’s Denmark, which is mentioned four or five time. Denmark was Christianized very late, later than most of the other countries of Europe, and it still had its Viking mind-set into the late Middle Ages.

If my take on this is valid, why does Shakespeare go to excruciating detail (the Yorick story) to set Hamlet’s age at thirty-thirty-five? The answer is in the age of his lead actor, Thomas Burbage. Burbage, at that time, was fifty. Fifty can act thirty-five, but not fourteen. Shakespeare had to set an age that wasn’t impossible, and so, I think, had to compromise the validity of his hero. Hamlet isn’t a neurotic; he’s a boy sent to do a man’s job.