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Horace Howard Furness’ Footnotes on Hamlet’s Age

In his 1877 Variorum edition of Hamlet, Furness provides two footnotes that discuss Hamlet's age, each quoting discussions by previous critics. Some are hyperlinked to the articles on this site or elsewhere. I've taken the liberty of breaking Furness’ discussions out into more readable paragraph form.

Footnote to 5.1.139, “...it was the very day that young Hamlet was born;...”

BLACKSTONE: By this scene it appears that Ham. was then thirty years old, and knew Yorick well, who had been dead twenty-three years. And yet in the beginning of the play he is spoken of as a very young man, one that designed to go back to school, i.e. to the University of Wittenberg. The poet in the Fifth Act had forgot what he wrote in the First.

TSCHISCHWITZ: Blackstone’s criticism is founded on a very erroneous idea of German Universities and their arrangements. It is well known that A. V. Humboldt, up to an advanced age, attended lectures (Collegia hörte) under his friend Boekh.

Footnote to 5.1.153, “I have been sexton here, man and boy, thirty years.”

The words of the Grave-digger are so explicit that the age of Ham. has been generally accepted as that of thirty years, and none the less generally has it been felt that this age does not accord, as Blackstone says, with the impression of his youth which Ham. in the earlier scenes gives us.

HALLIWELL [see Text. Notes [where Halliwell proposes "twenty" instead of thirty —SFR]] attempts to avoid the difficulty by the aid of Q1, but this aid will hardly bear analysis. In line 1922 of Q1 the Clown says ‘heres a scull hath bin here this dozen yeare;’ the conversation for sixteen lines then turns upon Ham., and his being sent to England. At the end of it Ham. says, ‘whose scull was this?’ It is by no means certain that the former skull is here referred to; the Clown may have just turned up another. It does not follow, therefore, of necessity that it was Yorick’s skull that had lain in the ground a dozen years, and Q1 fails us here a the most important point.

GRANT WHITE, at the beginning of his story of Hamlet the Younger, says that the Prince was twenty years old when the tragedy opens, and at the close his essay, probably overlooking this statement, says that Ham. was thirty years of age in the Fifth Act. No one would impute to so shrewd a scholar as Grant White the supposition that the action of the tragedy lasted ten years.

EDUARD and OTTO DEVRIENT, in their ed. of Sh., contend, and with much force, for Hamlet’s extreme youth [see Appendix, Vol. II], and modify their text accordingly.

FURNIVALL (New Sh. Soc. Trans, Part ii, 1874, p. 494), speaking of the ‘startling inconsistencies’ in regard to Hamlet’s age, says: "We know how early, in olden time, young men of rank were put to arms; how early, if they went to a University, they left it for training in Camp and Court. Ham., at a University, could hardly have passt 20; and with this age the plain mention of youth [in I, iii, 7; I, iii, 11-2; and I, iii, 123-4] agrees. With this, too, agrees the King’s reproach to Ham. for his intent on going back to Wittenberg; and Hamlet’s own revolt-of-nature at his mother’s quick marriage to his uncle. Had he been much past 21, and had he had more experience of then women, he’d have taken his mother’s changeableness more cooly. I look on it as certain, that when Sh. began the play he conceived Ham. as quite a young man. But as the play grew, as greater weight of reflection, of insight into character, of knowledge of life, &c., were wanted, Sh. necessarily and naturally made Ham. A formd man; and, by the time that he got to the Grave-diggers’ scene, told us the Prince was 30,—the right age for him then; but not his age when Laer. and Pol. warnd Oph. against his bloood that burnd, his youthfol fancy for her,—"a toy in blood"—&c. The two parts of the play are inconsistent on the main point in Hamlets state. What matter? Who wants ’em made consistent by the modification of either part? The "thirty" is not in Q1; yet who wants to go back to that?’

MINTO (The Examiner, 6 Mar. 1875) contends that apart from the Grave-digger’s speech and the thirty years of the wedded life of the Player King and the Player Queen (and he is at a loss to understand how these passages came into the play), ‘the natural construction is that Ham. and his associates were youths of seventeen, fresh from the University. That was the usual age in Shakespeare’s time at which young nobles set out on their travels, and there is no reason to suppose that he thought of altering the University age in his play, and no hint that Ham. was so very much older than his companions.’ . . . ‘A proper conception of Hamlet’s age is essential to the understanding of this play. He is a youth called home from the University by his father’s death; a youth of the age of Romeo, or of young Prince Hal at the time of his father’s accession.’ . . . ‘Hamlet’s action is not the weak and petulant action of an emasculated man of thirty, but the daring, wilful, defiant action of a high-spirited sensitive youth, rudely summoned from the gay pursuits of youth, and confronted suddenly with monstrous treachery, with crime that blurs the modesty and grace of nature, that makes the very sunlight fire, and loads the sweet air of heaven with pestilence.’

MARSHALL (p. 181) thinks that Sh. intended Ham. to be nearer twenty than thirty; the general features of his character are those of youth, and the frequent allusions throughout the play to his being very young forbid the belief that he was really thirty years old. The Grave-digger may mean that ‘he began to serve his apprenticeship thirty years before; but he may not have come to the trade of grave-maker till some years later; so that it does not necessarily follow that the day when King Hamlet overcame Fortinbras was thirty years previously.’ . . . ‘The most material objection against Hamlet’s being more than between twenty and twenty-three years of age is that if he were older his mother could scarcely have been the object of such a passion as that of Claudius."

MINTO afterwards (in The Academy, 18 December 1875) expressed his views at greater length. Against the weighty authority of the Grave-digger is to be placed Laer., whose advice to Oph. in simple prose means that she was not to trust Ham., because he was at an age of changeful fancies and fleeting attachments. Who would speak of the love of a man of thirty as ‘a violet in the youth of primy nature’? The very idea is a profanation of words, which carry such fragrance with them when applied to the first love of budding yourth. Again, the University age of young noblemen at that time was from seventeen to nineteen, and Laer. had just left the University; Ham. wanted to go back to it, and Hor. is under suspiction of playing ‘truant.’ The play is full of allusions to the youth of the personages coeval with Ham. Fort. is ‘Young Fortinbras,’ Laer. is ‘Young Laertes,’—the epithet in both cases being repeated. The King speaks of skill with the rapier as a ‘very riband in the cap of youth.’ Hamlet’s envy of Laertes’s fame with the rapier has an almost boyish air. Making Ham. thirty also adds some improbability to the succession of Claudius to his murdered brother; if at that age Ham. had tamely submitted to such a usurpation, and desired to go back to school in Wittenberg, he would have been too contemptible a character to be fitted for any dramatist’s hero.

PROF. DOWDEN having pronounced, in a notice of Werder’s Hamlet (The Academy, 4 Dec. 1875), that theory incredible which ‘makes Ham., the utterer of the saddes and most thoughtful soliloquies to be found in Sh., a boy of seventeen,’ MINTO replies that we are apt to underrate the precocity of boys of seventeen. ‘I venture to say that sad and thoughful questionings of the mysteries of life are more common thoughts to come to a yourth of seventee, but it is at such an age, when the character is not deeply founded, that the shattering of first dieals is most overwhelming. The terrible circumstances that overthrew Hamlet’s noble mind give a stiumul to the development of his thoughtfulness apart from an increase of years. The fresher and brighter our conception of the gay boy-world out of which he was summoned, the deeper becomes the monstrous tint of the horrible ambition, murder, and incest, which appalled his vision and paralyzed the clear working of his mind when he was first called upon to play a man’s part in the battle of life. Too much has been said of the philosophic temperament of Ham.; impuse and passion were more in hus nature than philosophy; his philosophy was not a serene growth, a natural development of a mind predisposed to thought; it was wrung out of him by circumstances terrible enough to make the most obtuse mind pause and reflect.’

Prof. Dowden (The Academy, 25 Dec. 1875) urged the following considerations in condemnation of the theory that Ham. was a youth of seventeen: ‘The poets youngest heroines (children of the South) are aged fourteen (Juliet, Marina) and fifteen (Miranda). The age of Perdita is sixteen. Sh. loved these earliest years of budding womanhood. What is the corresponding period of early mahood that charms the poet’s imagination? At what age does Sh. conceive that boyhood is blooming tino adult strength and beauty? I answer, from twenty-one to twenty-five. The stolen sons of Cymbeline, boys just ready to be men, are aged twenty-three and twenty-two; Florizel looks about twenty-one (Wint. Tale, V, I, 126); Troilus, a beardless youth (two or three hairs upon his chin), is older: ‘he ne’er saw three-and-twenty.’ I am not aware that we can determine Romeo’s age. Prince Hal at the time of his father’s accession was some twelve years old, but Sh. represents him as considerably older. When the battel of Shrewsbury took place (Henry being in fact sixteen years old), Sh., I believe, intends his age to be ‘twenty -two or thereabouts’ (I Hen. IV: III, iii, 212). When Henry V ascended the throne, his age was twenty-six, and there is no reason to suppose that Sh., who had up to that point made him older than the Prince Henry of history, now represented him as younger. The Bishop of Ely says: ‘My thrice puissant liege Is in the very May-morn of his youth.’ Test the theory of Hamlet’s extreme youth by the other plays. Are we to imagine the utterer of the soliloquy, ‘To be or not to be,’ as five or six years the junior of the boys of old Belarius, and that at a period oflife when each added year counts for much? Is Florizel,—one of Shakespeare’s ideals of youthful grace,—four years older than Ham.? Did Ham. begin his observations on society (V, I, 150) at fourteen? Were his schoolfellows,—dispatched on a critical mission to England,—also teen? Can it be proved that any chief male personage in Shakespeare’s plays is aged seventeen, or eighteen, or even nineteen? The dating of the Player-King’s marriage is important in this discussion. His thirty years’ wife (representing Gertrude) is not too old to win a second husband’s love; therefore Gertrude, although the ‘hey-day of her blood’ is ‘tame,’ is not necessarily too old; we may imagine her forty seven. But I am nto greatly concerned to mainain the Player-King’s and the Grave-di9gger’s dates, except for the sake of resisting rash tampering with Shakespeare’s text. I can imagine Ham. As a man in the ‘May-morn of his yourth’ at twenty-six or twenty-five. Iam much concerned, however, to oppose such a misreading of the play as would not only render the conception of Ham. Incoherent, but would pervert our view of an entire group of lovely characters,—the Florizels and Plydores and Ferdinands of Sh. And I would note that Sh. found it possible to think of thirty as a yourthful age. The Grave-digger hiself speaks of ‘young Hamlet.’ In Much Ado we read (of fasions in clothes): ‘How giddily a’ turns about all the hot bloods between fourteen and five-and-thirty.’ Inn the Sonnets Sh. names forty (not thirty) as the age when time as marred the face. In the Elegy on Burbadge, that great actor is praised for his equal success in the part of ‘youn Hamlet’ and of ‘old Hieronymo.’ If Burbadge represented Ham. As thirty years of age, still, in spite of the thrity years, Burbadges Ham. Passed for young. I will, however, yield something, and if any critic will efficiently knock upon the mazzard that ‘absolute’ knave, the Clown, I accept as satisfactory the age assigned by Marshal,—twenty-five.’

In The Academy, 11 March, 1876, J. W. Hales cites the following quotation from a well-known book as noteworthy with regard to Hamlet’s age: ‘For fashion sake some [Danes] will put their children to shoole, but they set them not to it till they are fourteene years old; so that you shal see a great boy with a bear learn his A B C, and sit weeping under the rod when he is thirty years old.’—Nash’s Pierce Penniless’s Supplication to the Devil, ed. Collier, for the Sh. Soc. P. 27. ‘So after all,’ adds Hales, ‘there is perhaps less inconsistency in the play than has been supposed. I do not mean that there is none.’