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Chapter 1

Hamlet Q&A

Hamlet Timeline

Hamlet Links

About the Author

Some Questions and Answers from The Undiscovered Country

How old is Hamlet?

What’s he doing while he’s with the pirates? And how long is he with them?

Why does Hamlet call Polonius a fishmonger, and who is Jephthah?

What does Hamlet mean when he snipes at Claudius about chameleons and capons?

What star is Bernardo pointing to that’s “westward from the pole”?

Why is Hamlet so crazy for that old Hecuba speech?

Why does the gravedigger go on so about Hamlet’s age? Is Hamlet seventeen or thirty? Top

From Chapter One, “How Many Years Had Hamlet the Dane?”
… In the accepted text, the gravedigger says that he started as sexton the day that young Hamlet was born, and that he’s “been sexton here, man and boy, thirty years.” 5.1.69 And not fifteen lines later, the gravedigger says of Yorick, “Here’s a skull now hath lien you i’ th’ earth three and twenty years.” 5.1.73 If Hamlet rode on Yorick’s shoulders and kissed his lips at age four or seven, Hamlet is 27 or 30.

But aside from these and two other items in the text, everything else about the play–including the gravedigger himself–contradicts the gravedigger’s statements. …

... The earliest published version of Hamlet (the First Quarto, a.k.a. “Q1,” published in 1603) omits the gravedigger’s 30-year tenure statement entirely, and has Yorick in the ground only 12 years instead of 23 (Q1:3361)–making Hamlet 16 or 20. But how reliable is the First Quarto? …

Read Chapter One.

From Appendix A, “A Tragicall Hystorie of Hamlet’s Age.”
… All the commentators agree that there’s at least an apparent contradiction between the gravedigger’s lines and the impression of Hamlet’s youth given throughout the play. The question this raises: why are those lines there? …

Some critics (mainly Østerberg and Jenkins) think they have no real import regarding Hamlet’s age. I find this irrelevance theory unsatisfactory given the pervasive and cohesive use of dates and durations detailed in Chapters One and Two. And most other critics agree–those lines for some reason set Hamlet’s age at thirty.

So that leaves two possibilities which we need to plumb in order to discern why those lines are there.

Scenario 1: The lines were in Shakespeare’s 1601 manuscript from the beginning. The Q1 reporter just muffed them. One explanation (Furnivall) is that Shakespeare was writing along in 1601 with this young prince in mind, and he discovered that his hero had become much more mature. So in the last act he decided to make him thirty. Or (Blackstone) he forgot what he’d done in the first four acts. Both of these explanations are, to my mind, ridiculous.

Scenario 2: The reporter got it right. The lines were revised between 1602 and 1604–after Q1 was stolen, but before the publication of Q2. This is what I argue for in Chapter One–that they were revised to accommodate a clearly adult Burbage. But other equally unproveable explanations are possible. …

Also check out The Critics on Hamlet’s Age.

What is Hamlet doing all that time he’s with the pirates? And how long is he with them, anyway? Top

From Chapter Five, “Bear Hamlet Like a Soldier.”
… Looking at the tightly woven chronology laid out in Chapter Two, one thing in particular stands out for me–the six-week gap from January 7 to February 14, when Hamlet was with the pirates. Even before I’d sorted out all the dates, I always wondered what Hamlet was doing all that time. I haven’t found any explicit answers in the play, but there’s much about Hamlet and the pirates that illuminates both Hamlet the prince and Hamlet the play. …

Nobody that I’ve read seems to have noticed that Hamlet was the first and only one unto the breach. The compelled valor he and his compatriots put on must have been vigorous for the pirates to break off so quickly.

And Hamlet seems to have gotten along famously during his time with the pirates. They keep him with them for some weeks, deliver letters for him to Horatio, Claudius, and the Queen (though we never learn the contents of the letter to Gertrude, or the other letter to Claudius, unless they serve to “do the good turn” for the pirates that Hamlet has promised), deliver him back to Denmark, and take Horatio to meet him. When he tells Horatio in the final scene that “I have been in continual practice” 5.2.143 at fencing, I can only assume that since he left Marcellus and the other officers of the guard in Denmark, he’s been at practice with the pirates. ...

After Hamlet leads men and faces death in battle with the pirates, and after he spends weeks with those pirates–men of his father’s timber–he no longer speaks flippantly of the strumpet Fortune, or rails against her slings and arrows, but accedes to the powers of fate: “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends,/Rough-hew them how we will.” 5.2.12 “Even in that was heaven ordinant.” 5.2.54 “There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow.…let be.” 5.2.147

Compare Hamlet’s flippant “I will prophesy, he [Polonius] comes to tell me of the players” 2.2.277 to his commanding “I do prophesy th’ election lights/On Fortinbras, he has my dying voice.” 5.2.300 The Hamlet of that final act might take Fortinbras’ words as his own: “I embrace my fortune.” 5.2.338

Why does Hamlet call Polonius a fishmonger, and why does he prattle on about Jephthah? (And who is Jephthah, anyway?) Top

From Chapter Three, “A Certain Convocation of Politic Worms.”

Polonius: Do you know me, my lord?

Hamlet: Excellent well, you are a fishmonger.

Polonius: Not I, my lord.

Hamlet: Then I would you were so honest a man.

“Fishmonger” is Elizabethan cant for “fleshmonger”–a pimp, procurer, or bawd. In Hamlet’s view, Polonius treats Ophelia as so much flesh for barter–and rightly so, given Polonius’ “I’ll loose my daughter to him” 2.2.175, as if she’s a mare for the breeding. But Polonius is even less honest than a bawd; he manipulates Ophelia for political capital, not just time-honored pecuniary reasons.

Later, in the scene when the players arrive, Hamlet confounds Polonius with his ramblings on Jephthah: 2.2.285

Hamlet: O Jephthah, judge of Israel, what a treasure hadst thou!

Polonius: What a treasure had he, my lord?

Hamlet: Why–
“One fair daughter, and no more,
The which he loved passing well.”

Polonius: Still on my daughter.

Hamlet: Am I not i’ th’ right, old Jephthah?

Polonius: If you call me Jephthah, my lord, I have a daughter that I love passing well.

Hamlet: Nay, that follows not.

Polonius: What follows then, my lord?

Hamlet: Why–
"As by lot, God wot,"
and then, you know,
"It came to pass, as most like it was"–
the first row of the pious chanson will show you more, for look where my abridgement comes.

Enter the players.

Hamlet’s reference is to a story in Judges 11 (in the Geneva Bible version), and to a then-current ballad on the subject (and to a recently performed play on the subject; see Appendix B). Jephthah promised the Lord that if he would give Jephthah victory over the Ammonites, Jephthah would offer up the first person to come out his front door as a burnt offering. His daughter and only child is the lucky winner. Before she’s sacrificed, though, she begs leave for, and receives, permission to spend two months in the mountains with her “companions” to bewail her eternal virginity. She gets herself to a nunnery. Then Jephthah “did with her according to his vow which he had vowed: and she had known no man.”

Hamlet is chiding Polonius for similarly sacrificing his own virgin daughter–barring her marriage and procreation (and ultimately sacrificing her life). And he is also jabbing an insult at Polonius (and commenting slantingly on his own situation): Jephthah was “the son of a harlot.” …

What does Hamlet mean when he snipes at Claudius about chameleons and capons? Top

From Chapter Three, “A Certain Convocation of Politic Worms.”
… In his first scene with the king since the opening court scene–when Claudius enters for the mousetrap–Hamlet plays on Claudius’ “fares,” and jabs at his own displacement, with his very first line: 3.2.58

King: How fares our cousin Hamlet?

Hamlet: Excellent, i’faith, of the chameleon’s dish: I eat the air, promise-cramm’d;–you cannot feed capons so.

As all the editions tell us, chameleons were thought to live on air, and Hamlet, likewise, is living on “heir”–surviving on nothing but Claudius’ promise that “you are the most immediate to our throne.” 1.2.112 The “capons” line, on the other hand, goes unexplained in all the editions I’ve perused. It’s unfortunate, because I find in it a treble entendre (at least): it plays on the provender needed to fatten a bird (succession as sustenance), but also on capons being gelded: young Hamlet is both starved and unmanned by his position. And it hints of Hamlet being fattened for the slaughter. (“We fat all creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for maggots.” 4.3.26) …

What star is Bernardo pointing to that’s “westward from the pole”? Top

From Appendix E, “Yond Same Star That’s Westward from the Pole.”
At the risk of dancing on pinheads, I’d like to take a closer look at an item in Chapter One that some readers may agree bears further discussion: Steve Sohmer’s identification of Bernardo’s star as Deneb. While his discussion of Deneb and the Northern Cross is quite convincing, other possibilities have been raised in the past, and are summarized in a 1998 Sky and Telescope article entitled “The Stars of Hamlet.” The authors, Olson, Olson, and Doescher (who I’ll refer to as “the Olsons”) rule out several possibilities that have been raised in the past, including Deneb, on the grounds that those stars are not “westward of the pole” at one AM in early November. (They agree with Sohmer, and myself, in placing the opening scenes around that time.) …

… At this point we should take a look at the night sky at the time in question.

The northwestern sky from London at one minute past midnight on November 2. (The view from Denmark is almost identical.) The horizon is at the bottom. At one AM the constellations will have rotated downward, counterclockwise, by fifteen degrees. For simplicity, this chart shows only those stars of magnitude 3 or less. (Lower magnitude numbers are brighter. Vega is the brightest on this chart, with magnitude 0.) ….

... The only star I can see above magnitude 3 that’s pretty much “to the left” of Polaris is Alderamin. … It’s the brightest star in the constellation Cepheus–“the king” and head of the royal family that includes Cassiopeia and Andromeda. …

... Cepheus didn’t seem much of a prospect until I came across the following discussion of Cepheus rising in Marcus Manilius’ Astronomicon

… Offspring of Cepheus will also furnish words for the buskin of tragedy, [Goold’s note: On the Farnese globe Cepheus is depicted in the garb of a tragic actor.] whose pen, if only on paper, is drenched in blood; and the paper no less [Goold: Than the audience at a performance] will revel in the spectacle of crime and catastrophe in human affairs. …

Why is Hamlet so crazy for that old Hecuba speech? Top

From Chapter Four, “The Age Is Grown so Pick’d.”
… When he first encounters the players, Hamlet begs a speech of them, a speech that is Senecan to the core–old-fashioned narrative verse reporting, not showing, lofty and bloody deeds of the Greeks and Trojans. (Hamlet and the First Player are actually speaking in the role of Aeneas, who is reporting to Dido the events that happened in Troy; we’re deep in Plato’s cave here.)

And Hamlet launches into a panegyric for the speech that would make the university wits proud: 2.2.303

“I heard thee speak me a speech once, but it was never acted, or if it was, not above once; for the play, I remember, pleas’d not the million, ’twas caviary [caviar] to the general, but it was–as I receiv’d it, and others, whose judgments in such matters cried in the top of mine–an excellent play, well digested in the scenes, set down with as much modesty as cunning. I remember one said there were no sallets [seasoned passages] in the lines to make the matter savory, nor no matter in the phrase that might indict the author of affection, but call’d it an honest method, as wholesome as sweet, and by very much more handsome than fine.”

For some reason, even the most conservative critics have been unable to resist the idea that Hamlet’s views on theater are Shakespeare’s own. A. L. Rowse’s execrable biography of Shakespeare is a great example. Speaking of Hamlet, he says, “Everyone sees that he is the most autobiographical of all the characters.” And of Hamlet: “It is fullest of what Shakespeare himself thought of the theater.”

But listen to Hamlet’s words. The play was written with “as much modesty as cunning”? “No sallets in the lines to make the matter savory, nor matter in the phrase”? “As wholesome as sweet”? “More handsome than fine”? It’s completely beyond me how anyone can view this “caviary to the general” passage as anything but a parody of Hamlet’s elitist views on playwriting–a parody written by an unfailingly populist playwright. …

... But Hamlet is much more than a glib courtier or supercilious teenage patron. He is, in Ophelia’s words, “The courtier’s, soldier’s, scholar’s, eye, tongue, sword.” That complexity of character is what makes him so fascinating. And it’s that greater character that comes to the fore in the remarkable scenes of the final act—the graveyard, the “interim,” and the swordfight. ...

See also “The Croaking Raven Doth Bellow for Revenge.

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