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Minto’s Second Commentary on Hamlet’s Age

In The Examiner ("An Independent Weekly Review of Politics, Literature, Science, and Art") of Saturday, March 6, 1875, Professor W. Minto wrote a review of Edward Dowden's Shakespeare: a Critical Study of his Mind and Art. At the end of the review, Minto uses a discussion of Hamlet's age as an example of where Dowden goes wrong.

Dowden replied, disparaging Minto's position, in the December 4 issue of The Academy (in the course of a discussion of Werder's Hamlet , quoted by Furness).

Minto replied to that in the December 18 issue, transcribed in full below.

Dowden replied to that in the December 25 issue (quoted at length by Furness).

From The Examiner, December 18, 1875


3 Danes’ Inn: December 6, 1875.

Considering how "absolute a knave" the Grave-digger in Hamlet is, I was rather startled to find myself pitted against him by Professor Dowden in your last number on the question of Hamlet’s age. "Hamlet’s age," Mr. Dowden says, "is fixed by Mr. Marshall between the Grave-digger’s thirty years and Mr. Minto’s seventeen, at five-and-twenty." And in another passage in his article, after saying that Herr Werder’s general account of Hamlet’s character approaches that which I have ventured to give, he adds: "but on the important point of Hamlet’s age, he does not, like Mr. Minto, dismiss as spurious the evidence of the text in order to give a colour to the incredible theory that Hamlet, the utterer of the saddest and most thoughtful soliloquies to be found in Shakspere, is a boy of seventeen." Now I do not dismiss as spurious the evidence of the text; I have fully admitted that according to the Grave-digger Hamlet’s age is thirty, and I should not have dared for one moment to question so precise an authority had he not been contradicted by certain passages in the body of the play. All that I have done has been to point out these passages, and endeavour to make clear what they seem to imply. Mr. Furnivall, if I mistake not, has admitted that there is an inconsistency in regard to Hamlet’s age. I do not profess to be able to reconcile the inconsistency, but perhaps you will allow me to state once more why in the main design of the play I conceive that Hamlet is intended to be thought of as a youth of seventeen. I am not quite so absolute as the Grave-digger; I am prepared to admit eighteen; I might even, though with reluctance, give in to nineteen; but there I draw the line, and I am quite willing to maintain my original position of seventeen.

Against the weighty authority of the Grave-digger, I place the authority of Hamlet’s youthful rival Laertes. Take the following passage in the third Scene of the first Act, where Laertes is cautioning Ophelia against the advances of Hamlet:—

"Laertes. For Hamlet and the trifling of his favour,
Hold it a fashion and a toy in blood,
A violet in the youth of primy nature,
Forward, not permanent, sweet, not lasting,
The perfume and suppliance of a minute:
No more.
"Ophelia. No more but so?
"Laertes. Think it no more;
For nature crescent does not grow alone
In thews and bulk, but as this temple waxes,
The inward service of the mind and soul
Grows wide withal. Perhaps he loves you now, &c."

What is the natural interpretation of this passage? Does it not imply that Hamlet was a growing youth? In simple prose the brotherly advice of Laertes to his sister was not to trust in Hamlet’s love, because he was at an age of changeful fancies and fleeting attachments. "He loves you now, but when he grows older and bigger, his mind may change; he is at a fickle age." There is something worthy of the son of Polonius in this sage counsel. Would it have any meaning as applied to a man of thirty? A subtle critic might lay stress on the words "thews and bulk," and "grows wide," as implying that Hamlet had attained his full stature, though he had yet to broaden out, but at thirty the only probable increase to his bulk, the only cause of "waxing" to his "temple," would have been fat, and it would be unfair to suspect Laertes of joking at so serious a moment. Again, 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 a fragrance with them when applied to the first love of budding youth. It is not I that do violence to the text of Shakspere; but the Grave-digger, and the German critics and Professor Dowden whom he has misled.

The age of Hamlet and his companions may be gathered with some definiteness from another circumstance. Laertes has just left the University, and is setting out on his travels; Hamlet was summoned there on his father’s death, and wishes to go back "to school in Wittenberg;" Horatio is under suspicion of playing "truant." Of what age would young men at that stage of their education have been had they been connected with Queen Elizabeth’s court? From seventeen to nineteen. That was the usual age at which young noblemen left the University in Shakspere’s time. Sir Philip Sidney set out on his travels at seventeen. Is it probable that Shakspere would have committed what could not but have appeared a gross anachronism to his contemporaries by adding ten or a dozen years to the usual University age of his time?

The play is full of allusions to the youth of the personages coeval with Hamlet. Fortinbras is "Young Fortinbras," Laertes is "Young Laertes," the epithet in both cases being repeated. When the King proposes the fencing bout to Laertes, he 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. Other little circumstances, of small weight in themselves, conspire to the same conclusion. The paternal scolding which the King gives to Hamlet for his gloominess over his father’s death, has the tone of a lecture to a wayward boy. And as for the Queen herself, if Hamlet had been of the age of thirty, would she not have been past the age at which she would have been likely to tempt Claudius to the guilt of fratricide? It may have been chiefly ambition on his part, but we learn that he loved her too—that she was "so conjunctive to his life and soul" that "he could not move but by her." Making Hamlet thirty also adds some improbability to the succession of Claudius to his murdered brother; if at that age Hamlet 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.

Our conceptions of what youth is have considerably changed since the time of Shakspere. At thirty Bacon spoke of himself as "waxing somewhat ancient." Shakspere was not very much older when he described himself as "beaten and chopped with tanned antiquity." A man of thirty was not then looked upon as a young man. Men took part in affairs at an earlier age than now. How old was Sir Philip Sidney when he enjoyed the intimacy of Languet, and did not hesitate to give advice to Elizabeth?

It is incredible to Mr. Dowden that Shakspere could have put his "saddest and most thoughtful soliloquies" into the mouth of a "boy of seventeen." We are apt to underrate very much the precocity of boys of seventeen. I venture to say that sad and thoughtful questionings of the mysteries of life are more common among boys under twenty than among men of thirty. Byron’s Hours of Idleness is sadder and more thoughtful than his Don Juan. Men of mature years take their troubles in a different spirit. Romeo was yet in the springtime of life when he resolved to—

"shake the yoke of inauspicious stars
From this world-wearied flesh."

Not only is it possible for sad thoughts to come to a youth of seventeen, but it is at such an age, when the character is not deeply founded, that the blasting of first hopes and the shattering of first ideals is most overwhelming.

In refusing to believe in the possibility of Hamlet’s soliloquies in a boy of seventeen, Professor Dowden seems to me to leave wholly out of sight the circumstances of the play, and to write as if Hamlet’s thoughtfulness had received no stimulus to its development apart from an increase of years. The fundamental point of difference between Mr. Dowden and myself seems to lie in this, that I recognise more fully the terrible force of the circumstances that "overthrew" Hamlet’s "noble mind." His sadness and despair were forced upon him by the overwhelming crime that met him as he was about to cross the threshold of manhood; this made him loathe himself and his kind. The generous and impetuous current of his youth was suddenly checked by a foul obstruction, broken up and poisoned. 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 paralysed 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 about the philosophic temperament of Hamlet; impulse and passion were more in his 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. It was no weakness or delicacy in the fabric of his being that unfitted him for a great action; such an experience would have shaken the strongest nature, unless dead to all feeling. However much Hamlet’s soul had been fitted for the performance of a great action, the monstrosity of the crime which summoned him to action would have unstrung and distempered it, unless its sensibilities had been absolutely blunt and immoveable. It may be argued that only the man who is, like Horatio, "not passion’s slave," can perform a great action; but I can hardly conceive it to have been Shakspere’s intention to preach such a lesson, because it is only partly true.

Whatever may be our conception of Hamlet’s character, I must say that to my mind the significance of the tragedy is greatly deepened by what seems to me to have been in the dramatist’s original design, the thought of bright youth with fresh untainted faculties suddenly plunged in a bewildering sea of crime and intrigue, and perishing there tragically after a heroic struggle. W. Minto.