Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Hamlet Was 30. Debate?

Unlike with other Yahoo Answers crossovers, I don’t think Ray Eston Smith Jr is a current contributor here on Shakespeare Geek.  But this seemingly simple question, and his lengthy detailed answer, fascinate me.

Mr. Smith (Eston Smith?) states as fact that Hamlet was 30, and then enumerates all the clear instances within the play where Shakespeare tells us.  Including:

* The "30" is also mentioned in "The Mousetrap," where the Player-King said to his queen, "thirty dozen moons with borrow'd sheen about the world have times twelve thirties been" since their marriage. This is meant to signal 30 years, thus relating the Player-King to Hamlet's father.

* King James VI of Scotland, in his private correspondence, liked to use code-numbers in case his letters were intercepted. His code for himself was "30." There are many parallels between Hamlet and James VI.

* Hamlet wanted to go "back to school in Wittenberg." That doesn't mean he was a student. At age 30, he may have been a tenured professor. (Did they have tenure in those days? It doesn't matter, they didn't even have a university in Wittenberg in Hamlet's days. …Hamlet just wanted to go back to Wittenberg where, at age 30, he was well-settled.

I’d never heard some of those before, particularly the James VI thing.  There is debate in the comments, although people seem to agree that the gravedigger scene clearly says he’s 30.



Gedaly said...

There's so much scholarly debate on this, it's disgusting. The scholarly debate, that is. Not the issue itself, I blogged about it some time ago -

The "instances where Shakespeare tells us" given here aren't great pieces of evidence.

Let's assume that the player kign and queen represent Gertrude and Hamlet Sr. exactly. The lines
"Full thirty times hath Phoebus' cart gone round
... Since love our hearts and Hymen did our hands
Unite comutual in most sacred bands."
Refer to to how long the characters in the play have been married, not when their son was born. Maybe they waited before having a child, maybe they didn't. Who knows? I don't see this example as a convincing argument.

King James liked the number 30? While a nice tidbit, it's not relevant. Coincidence and conjecture, but not a clue in the text.

The gravedigger clue is the only one we have in the text to an actual number.
"Of all the days i' th' year, I came to't that day that our last king Hamlet overcame Fortinbras."
"... It was that very day that young Hamlet was born."
"I have been sexton here, man and boy, thirty years."

Well there you have it. Of course, not everyone is happy with this answer -- myself included. The argument against the age of 30 isn't very strong. It raises questions that don't have satisfying answers.

>Isn't 30 too old not to be married at that time? Maybe, but surely there were exceptions.
>Isn't 30 too old to be a student? I don't think he's a teacher -- he's royalty! He calls Horatio "fellow student" and Ros & Guild "schoolmates." What if he's working on a masters or PhD? Not that those degrees existed at the time, but there were lifelong students back then, too.

I'm a fan of the idea that Hamlet is younger, but for other reasons. I like the drama of a smart college boy at the top of the hierarchy in his country having to face the darker side of politics, love, and life. When I direct the play, I will cut the reference to age. If I direct it several times, I'd love to play around with different actors of different ages to see how it changes the action, and the audience's reaction.

JM said...

The issue never mattered until the almighty cinema made Hamlet into a simpering teeny-bopper in need of a wetnurse..

Also, the maturity it takes to begin to understand and translate the role always argues for an older, much more experienced actor.
Also, I agree with Gedaly. The word "student" doesn't mean what we have to have it mean-especially if the setting is within the period of the story it's based upon. Scholars-and Hamlet is one- were at "studying" at the university their whole lives.
As with many anachronisms or contradictions in Shakespeare, real or invented, if the issue isn't raised beforehand, and the performance is successful, it doesn't become an issue at all.

Worth noting:
Thomas Betterton played it into his 60's I believe, reportedly with the athleticism, grace, and style of a "Hamlet". His acclaimed roles were as diverse as Sir Toby in Twelfth Night to Hamlet. He was no matinee idol at his youngest. Garrick played it from 17 to his retirement at 59. Edwin Booth was 31,Olivier 41 in the film, yet! All famous and accepted Hamlets. If you've ever seen a picture of the original Hamlet, Richard Burbage--not today's "standard" Hamlet by a long shot.
But then, being an "actor" used to mean becoming someone else, rather than merely playing yourself with someone else's name.

Steve Roth said...

Can't really discuss this without looking at the three published texts. Gedaly, quoting modern-spelling conflations as unabrogatable fact leads to embarrassing errors.

F1 has:

Why heere in Denmarke: I have bin sixeteene
heere, man and Boy thirty yeares.

He started in his trade at a normal age for Elizabethans, about 14.

Says pretty clearly that Hamlet is 16. "I have been sixteen here."

Q2 has "sexten," which is quite possibly a compositor's/scribe's/bookholder's error or "correction." Q1 doesn't have this line at all.

I wrassled through all this pretty compulsively (including Elizabethan spelling usages) here: (see Chapter 1)

So I won't repeat it all.

As for Ray Eston Smith Jr,

The "thirty dozen moons" bit sure does ring of the gravedigger. But in an appendix I discuss the speech, and suggest somewhat tentatively that this is more likely an allusion to a spate of high-profile marriages that took place thirty years before the first playings of Hamlet, on December 16–23, 1571. (Including Oxford's marriage to Burghley’s daughter Anne.)

Next: 'Hamlet wanted to go "back to school in Wittenberg." That doesn't mean he was a student.'

Except that he calls Horatio his "fellowe studient". And R&G, and etc.

RJ: "The word "student" doesn't mean what we have to have it mean"

That's not actually true. "Student" back then meant about what it does now. Check LION for usages.

And, aristocrats and nobility didn't hang around university at age 30--mid to late teens is more like it:

I haven't heard the James VI "30" thing. Would S. have known James' private code? Worth exploring.

The role has certainly emerged as an (older) leading man's set-piece. But that doesn't mean it should have.

Duane said...

I just remembered (discovered, more like it) that we discussed this exact same topic over a year ago:

Interesting to see how the arguments have changed. Back then we were debating the scientific accuracy of how long it takes a skull to rot!

(Thanks to Steve for his comment, as I remembered mentioning in the past - turns out it was on this exact subject!)

JM said...

What if they attended the University of Wittenberg? ( founded 1502). In the German system, which incorporates the concept of habilitatus (post Ph D) (habilitation, Middle English 1350-1400, habilitatus, study, ability) a "student"(from the 14th century, a designation interchangeable with "scholar" (professor or pupil) and "philosopher") attendee could be involved for more than a decade and then some; especially if they were involved in the discipline of Philosophy.

Marcellus: Thou art a scholar;speak to it, Horatio. 1.1.49

Hamlet: There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,/Than are dreamt of in our philosophy. 1.5.185-86
(text & numbering RSC edition)

I'm not claiming this as a fact of the play, but Shakespeare wasn't constricted to the Elizabethan mode, definition, or reference for everything, either.
And Burbage, the first Hamlet, would have been somewhere around 22--or not--dependent upon whose projected notion you believe about when it was "most probably" first performed.

Anyway, the most important thing to me is can the actor pull it off--however young or old he is? If he can, it won't matter to the audience at all how young or old aristocratic Elizabethan OR German students were.

Steve Roth said...

JM: "a "student"(from the 14th century, a designation interchangeable with "scholar" (professor or pupil) and "philosopher")"

What's your source on this?



JM said...

Hi Steve,

Specific dictionaries listing etymological reference: Oxford, Oxford Etymological, Random House, and others.

Basically, any dictionary with etymological dating of the word's origin. Also, specific references I have at hand--C. T.Onion's Shakespeare glossary, linguist David Crystal's Shakespeare glossary.

--others used for online etymological sources:
Etymological Dictionary of Modern English-Weekley; Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, Klein; Oxford English Dictionary (OED); Dictionary of Etymology-Barnhardt;

Uses of the words in the Plays themselves; and some common sense as related to their origins and possible extant status in the language at the time, always keeping in mind that Shakespeare may have opted (an understatement) to use a particular word in a less than popular, or even "known" fashion; also his penchant for the functional shift .

scholar- Benedick. I would to God some scholar would conjure her. Much Ado 2.1.235 2.1.235

Pericles: The worst of all her scholars.2.5.31

Antony: Come then; and Eros, Thy master dies thy scholar to do thus/ I learnt of thee. 4.14.101-103.

I may have stretched it a bit including "professor" instead of "teacher", but "professor" (a person who professes to be an expert; teacher of the highest rank--Latin, dating from c. 1380) "professor" having been first used in the religious sense to describe one who professes as in "faith". However those early "Professors" of the church were also "doctors", and hence "teachers".

And "Philosopher" dates 1325 from Old Eng. Also used by Shakespeare to describe an "Alchemist "

Fool: "...sometime like a philosopher, with two stones moe than's artificial one." Timon 2.2.110-111.
Usage of the sense of philosopher as a wise man comes at both 4 and 11 lines later in the same scene.

Certainly Shakespeare knew of Timon of Phlius, an ancient Greek Philosopher and teacher; in fact, it's thought by some that Shakespeare drew on T of Phlius for some of the philosophical thought he translates into words spoken by Timon of Athens. Socrates was a teacher.

All of these words have ancient Latin and Greek derivations, as well as Old and Middle English adaptation. Shakespeare had no other references to draw upon; there was no such item as a "Dictionary" of any stripe-- Elizabethan, English, or otherwise--since such item was yet to see a "first edition"--it simply didn't exist. (He was,though he didn't know it at the time, helping to write it!) He must have "played it by ear" with a great many words--as we all know he was wont to do.

This is not all of what I could offer in a more "comprehensive" undertaking. If you have other sources I don't know about that find or claim otherwise, I'm always open to learning something new.
As I said, I'm not attempting to "prove" anything as a "fact". But I'm not aware of any actual facts, not driven by induction, that could prove any of the above as obtusely wrong-headed.

PS: Saw your email announcement for your book on Shaksper the other day and briefly stopped by your site. I'm sure to eventually own a copy--it looks like what's been needed re:the play.Time for the Goethe and Schlegel schools to take, possibly, a little step back? About time. Cheers, JM

Ray Eston Smith Jr said...

It's essential to the plot and to the theme that Hamlet was born on the same day that his father fought a fatal duel to win a piece of land that Hamlet inherited and "THAT was and IS THE QUESTION of these wars."

So did Shakespeare put that duel 30 years in the past because he wanted Hamlet to be 30 years old? Or did Shakespeare make Hamlet 30 years old because he wanted the duel to be 30 years in the past?

I believe Shakespeare was subtly alluding to somebody else who tried to recover some lost land by "strong hand and terms compulsatory." Phillip II launched the Spanish Armada to recover England for himself and the Catholic Church. The interval from the death of Phillip's wife, Queen Mary of England, until the launching of the Armada was 30 years.