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Chapter One

How Many Years Had Hamlet the Dane?

Aside from the two old chestnuts of Hamlet criticism—Hamlet’s character and Hamlet’s delay—probably no other topic has engaged Shakespeare fans more than the thorny problem of his age: is Hamlet sixteen or thirty? Whether you’re wandering through classes discussing Hamlet, lurking the boards at rehearsal, eavesdropping in the bar after a performance, or perusing the online discussions, you find people of all stripes tangling with this key contradiction.

In two blatant references in the accepted text that most people have read, the gravedigger says Hamlet is thirty. But the original texts are far less definitive (downright contradictory is more like it). And 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 Critics

When I first tackled this problem, the obvious course was to see if the critics had already solved it. Not surprisingly, I’m not the first to dig through these old bones. Every major critic in the last century and a half has noted the oddly obtrusive discrepancy between the gravedigger’s lines and the overall impression of Hamlet’s youth given throughout the play. At least a dozen critics have addressed the issue, with comments ranging from lengthy discourses to terse footnotes to dismissive asides. (You’ll find a rundown of their discussions in Appendix A, and transcripts of some commentaries at princehamlet.com.)

It’s important to realize that there are actually three texts of Hamlet, and that they disagree in many particulars, large and small. In his 1932 Manu­script of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, J. D. Wilson finds more than 2,000 variants between the two main texts alone—1,300 of which he considers to be “of any importance.” Whole speeches are absent from each of those two versions. So a lot of the discussion inevitably centers on whether and when Shakespeare (and/or others) revised the play. Scholarly consensus is nonexistent. But somewhere in that process, these contradictions arose.

Some have speculated that the gravedigger’s lines were added at some point for Shakespeare’s star partner in The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, Richard Burbage, who was thirty years old when Shakespeare’s Hamlet debuted in 1600/1601. (We know Burbage played Hamlet, but we don’t know when.) Many other equally unproveable speculations are possible.

We do know this: the Elizabethan theater scene was a lot like Hollywood when it came to scripts. Many were created by more than one writer, and many if not most suffered revision at multiple hands—often when old plays were restaged in later years. And Shakespeare was as savvy as any Hollywood script doctor. When it comes to rewriting key passages for Burbage or any other purpose, you can almost hear the call from the director to the writer echoing down those 400 years: “Script!”

But it’s also possible, as explained below, that these 30-year references ended up in the play inadvertently, in the course of revision, editing, copy­ing, proofreading, and publication.

One important recent discussion, for instance, is by Professor Harold Bloom, our current defender of the Western canon, modern-day bardolater, and Hamlet eulogist. He evades the question entirely in his 1998 Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human: “When we first encounter him, Hamlet is a university student who is not being permitted to return to his studies. He does not appear to be more than twenty years old, yet in Act V he is revealed to be at least thirty, after a passage of a few weeks at most. And yet none of this matters: he is always both the youngest and the oldest per­sonality in the drama.”

Put aside Professor Bloom’s faulty calendar arithmetic. (The action encompasses four months, as explained below and detailed in Chapter Two.) “None of this matters”? If not, then for discussions of Hamlet, nothing mat­ters. (This is arguably the case, especially if you adopt Hamlet’s “the rest is silence” existentialism. But like the existentialists, I choose to pretend that this stuff is actually important.) Just saying that Hamlet is “both the youngest and the oldest personality” is...less than satisfying.

So I had to go looking for the answer myself. And I found it. Hamlet is a teen.

Sixeteene Years Had Hamlet the Dane

At this point most of you are scrambling for your Arden or your Riverside, to Act 5, Scene 1, the graveyard scene. “It’s right there!” you’re sputtering. “It says he’s thirty!”

And it’s true; in the accepted, edited texts that almost everyone reads, the gravedigger says that he started as sexton (gravedigger, bell-ringer, church cleaner) the day that young Hamlet was born, and that he’s “been sexton here, man and boy, thirty years.” 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.” If Hamlet rode on Yorick’s shoulders and kissed his lips at age four or seven, Hamlet is 27 or 30. These oddly obtrusive items, plus two others discussed below, seem to bend over backwards to set Hamlet’s age at thirty.

But I just plain knew this was wrong. The play doesn’t make sense if Hamlet is thirty. So I went back to my Riverside, and in the textual notes I discovered what I’d halfway expected. The earliest published version of Hamlet (the First Quarto, a.k.a. “Q1,” published in 1603) omits the gravedigger’s 30-year statement entirely, and has Yorick in the ground only 12 years instead of 23—making Hamlet 16 or 20. G. Blakemore Evans, the Riverside’s textual editor, adds the unembellished comment, “Q1 thus makes Hamlet a very young man.”

The First Quarto

But how reliable is the First Quarto of 1603? It’s definitely one of the “bad” quartos; it’s half the length of the Second Quarto (1604) and First Folio (1623). (Scholars disagree on which of these is the most authoritative.) And what’s left in Q1 is in many cases a travesty rather than a tragedy, probably set down from memory by the actor who played Marcellus and perhaps other roles, including Voltemand. (“To be, or not to be, I there’s the point,/To Die, to sleepe, is that all? I all:” It just gets worse from there.)

Given how badly many scenes are savaged in Q1, the tendency of critics is to throw most of it out as garbage. (Many find interest in the stage directions, as presumed accounts of actual performances.) But there are hundreds of lines that vary by only a word or spelling here, or a punctuation mark there. If the text’s from memory, it’s from an actor’s memory. And that actor—Shakespeare’s fellow player and Hamlet’s first editor—clearly thought that Hamlet was a youth.

Q1 is a contemporaneous report from an active and memory-trained participant in some of the earliest performances of Hamlet. It doesn’t have the authority of Shakespeare’s pen, but it has a third-party authority on the play’s early presentations that the rewrite artist and his editors, proofreaders, and correctors can’t claim. Professor Jenkins disagrees: “the only conclusion to be drawn...is that the reporter had a poor memory for numbers.” But given the additional evidence from the more authoritative texts detailed here, that is not the only conclusion.

The First Folio

This discovery in Q1 led to another contradiction in the far more authoritative First Folio text. In F1, the gravedigger’s line reads, “Why heere in Denmarke: I have bin sixeteene heere, man and Boy thirty yeares.” This “sixeteene” is ignored or at best buried in the textual footnotes in every modern edition.

The line as printed seems at first to make no sense; it embodies the very contradiction this chapter discusses. But it’s quite easily and reasonably parsed: “I have been gravedigger here for sixteen years, and I’ve been living here in Denmark man and boy for thirty.” (Thanks to Christopher Gauntt for putting me on this track.) Replacing the comma with a dash in modern editions would make it quite clear for today’s readers. (All modern-spelling editions make free with changes to punctuation in aid of clarity.)

“Why here in Denmark. I have been sixeteene here—man and boy thirty years.”

It’s the gravedigger who’s 30, not Hamlet. His apprenticeship in the trade started at the normal age for Elizabethans, about fourteen.

The only way to make the line read otherwise is to replace “sixeteene” with “sexton” (which is what somebody, at some point, seems to have done in Q2, which reads “sexten”). But “Sixeteene” is patently not a variant spelling of “sexton.” Only 72 lines before F1’s “sixeteen,” “Sextons Spade” is spelled quite correctly (though typically without the apostrophe). In Much Ado, where “sexton” appears more than a dozen times, neither the quarto nor folio versions include any variant like this.

In a search of publications between 1590 and 1625 in Chadwyck-Healy’s Literature Online (LION) full-text database of early modern texts, there’s not a single instance of “sexton” spelled even vaguely like this one. Out of a couple of dozen (wildly) variant spellings for “sexton” cited in the Oxford English Dictionary, only one usage begins with “six”—this one. There are many usages of “sixeteene” in LION, though (see examples at princehamlet.com). They all mean “sixteen.”

In Osric and Hamlet’s wager count of Barbary horses and French rapiers in F1, “sixe” is used three times while “six” is used once. And Hamlet speaks to the First Player of “some dosen or sixteene lines.” The “e” seems to be entirely optional in F1. (Q1 and Q2 use “six...” throughout; Q2 speaks twice of a “sexten,” while Q1 never mentions one.) “Sixeteene” was a quite common spelling in Shakespeare’s day (though “sixteeene” was by far the most common)

“Sixeteene” is a completely unheard-of spelling for “sexton”; in F1 it clearly means “sixteen.”

This is one instance where a simple and obvious reading has been buried in the “accepted” text by dozens of editors’ (largely silent) emendations over the centuries. But it can’t just be ignored if we give F1 the authority it deserves. It says quite clearly that Hamlet is 16. (Though as I argue in Chapter Two, I believe he turned seventeen during his sea voyage.)

Like Q2, F1 does have the 23-year Yorick line, not 12 years as in Q1. How can we account for that? I can only say that given all the evidence in this chapter, Q1’s 12-year reading is more credible; it conforms to everything else in the play.

How did it get changed to 23 in Q2 and F1? There have been many possible (and diverse) speculations about the play’s 20- or 30-year course of emendation, editing, and publication, buttressed by mountains of scholarship, but none rises above the level of surmise and supposition. There’s just not enough evidence to know.

Counting on the Gravedigger

Even the gravedigger puts the lie to his own thirty-year lines, in another of his oddly intrusive date statements. ...

If you'd like to keep reading, you can buy the book here in either print or e-book format (with full hyperlinks in the e-book for all line references and most citations). Take a look at the Table of Contents to see what's next.

Copyright © 2000-20013 Stephen F. Roth


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