Thursday, November 05, 2009

Hamlet is 16. Discuss.

In my head, the words and works of Shakespeare are … how can I explain this …. they exist outside of time.  They are timeless, and I mean that in all senses of the word.  I could not tell you off the top of my head whether Merchant of Venice is technically supposed to happen in 1275, 1623 or 1941.  It is part of what I love.  It is what enables people to go to the well over and over and over again, keeping the essence while simultaneously changing everything.  If you tried to tell me that there is something about Hamlet that *must* take place in 1601, you’d ruin it for me.

So it is something of an eye opener for me to stumbled across a book like Steve Roth’s “Hamlet : The Undiscovered Country” where he very literally maps the action of Hamlet to actual calendar days, in the process rebuilding many core beliefs about the play. I am not in the least kidding when I say that he discusses which of the action, for example, happens on a Monday.  More so, *what* Monday and why that is important, why Shakespeare chose it.

I first stumbled across Steve’s work on the “Hamlet is 30” topic, which we’ve discussed twice before.  It is his position that the well known “I have been sexton here, man and boy 30 years” – the primary evidence that Hamlet is 30 – is actually a misinterpretation.  He feels that the line actually reads “I (the gravedigger) have been sixteen here (i.e., have been at this job 16 years)…”

It is a bold position to take.  The secondary bit of evidence, that Yorick – who Hamlet played with as a child – died 23 years ago, is harder to contradict.  But Roth finds Q1 evidence that the line was originally 12 years, which would fall right in line.

As I said above, and as my regular readers probably know, this is not how I do it.  There’s a world of difference between just assuming that “some time” elapsed before the nunnery confrontation, and mapping that time out to a number of days, a time of year, everything.  The flowers that Ophelia picked (if she didn’t imagine them), were they in bloom at that time of year? The old king was supposedly sleeping in his orchard… how cold was it?  There are folks that eat that stuff up.  I’m willing to bet that there’s a handful of regular readers of my blog, in fact, who are all over it.

It’s often hard to make the case, and Roth knows that.  When he’s got details he makes his case clear.  When the case is a little weaker on fact, he’s not afraid to say “That sounds about right.”  In particular, Hamlet’s time with the pirates is particularly tricky to nail down.

There are also times where I just don’t plain understand what calendar we’re supposed to be using.  The anachronism of “going back to Wittenberg” is oft cited – it wasn’t there in Hamlet’s time, but would have been in Shakespeare’s time.  Ok, fair enough.  But much of Roth’s calendar calculation is done against the 1601 calendar, when Hamlet would have been *performed*, not when it took place.  Is that too much a convenience?  Did Hamlet really write in jokes and references that would have been out of date a year later, much less 400?

Within all the calendar counting, though, there are still opportunities to learn new things (again, this is part of what I love).  For instance, this book brings up the idea that Hamlet’s harping on Gertrude not going to bed with Claudius is not because he’s got some Oedipal issues, but because (if Hamlet is 16, mind you), Gertrude is clearly still young enough to bear a child by Claudius.  A child that would be next in line to the throne, bumping Hamlet out of the picture.  Maybe that’s common knowledge, but I’d never thought of it.  And if Hamlet is 30, it’s more far fetched.

Roth’s book is small, barely 150 pages, and has it’s fair share of tables taking up space.  So it’s a quick read.  You don’t have to buy the “Hamlet is 16” premise to enjoy it either, though Roth certainly makes a good showing for his case.  This book would be a fine addition to the collection of any Hamlet geeks out there.


American Delight said...

I'm not convinced by the argument that if "young Fortinbras" is a teen, then Hamlet must be a teen.

Shakespeare is far more fluid with ages than that. Remember dear old John of Gaunt, "time honored Lancaster" in Richard II? The historical evidence shows that John was not an old man at that time.

What was it that Walt Whitman said about contradicting himself? It was ok because "I contain multitudes."

So if Shakespeare has me believe two things at once, I'll do it!

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