The Gross and Scope of My Opinion
It’s traditional to begin this preface with the obligatory
question: After 400 years, is there anything left to say about Hamlet? It’s equally obligatory— with 170-odd pages between these words and the
back cover—to answer in the affirmative. It’s probably easiest to quote one of Hamlet’s greatest editors, as he pays homage to another. In
his 1982 Arden Hamlet, Harold
Jenkins says, “Like Dover Wilson before me, I have been surprised at how many
passages in Shakespeare still lack satisfactory exegesis.” In other words—even
after twenty-eight years preparing his edition—he still hasn’t managed to
explain a lot of the jokes.
It’s also traditional to say here that each generation creates
its own Hamlet. That’s true; this
book reflects thinking and sensibilities that might not have occurred to
earlier generations. But that view is also wrong, because our generation isn’t
just seeing Hamlet from a new
perspective. We know more about Hamlet than our predecessors did. (Another, and I hope
final, necessary traditionalism: “they are what we know.”) We understand more about Elizabethan beliefs
regarding ghosts and religion (various and contradictory). There’s been great
work exploring Elizabethan views of medicine, botany, astronomy, rhetoric, and
much else. We know more about how plays were staged, and how they were
published. Anti-Stratfordian authorship contrarians notwithstanding, we know a
heck of a lot more about Shakespeare and his time than scholars did fifty or a
hundred years ago.
Beyond these kinds of facts, though, we also have
interpretations and insights that have arisen over the centuries, some of which
are irrefutably true, and which earlier generations didn’t have benefit of. One
example: John Dover Wilson pointed out in 1935 that when Lucianus poisons
Gonzago in the mousetrap play, Hamlet has just announced that Lucianus is
nephew to the king. So the courtiers don’t see a representation of Claudius’
crime (they don’t even know about the murder); they see a nephew murdering his
uncle the king, in a play put on by the current king’s nephew! That insight is
just plain true, and imparts an accurate understanding of the play that wasn’t
there before. (See Chapter Five for more on this mousetrap business.)
So there’s a lot left to know about Hamlet, and a lot left to say that hasn’t been said before.
As the seminal text of the humanist
religion, it shows every sign of being bottomless. Hamlet himself probably best
answers those who would presume to think otherwise:
“Why, look you now, how unworthy a thing you make of me.
You would play upon me; you would seem to know my stops; you would pluck out
the heart of my mystery; you would sound me from my lowest note to the top of
My aspirations are hardly so lofty. But I have some hope of
adding to what we know, and perhaps speaking a word for my generation.
It wasn’t until I’d almost finished writing this book that I
realized how long it had been growing in me. Going through my old college copy
of the Riverside Shakespeare, I came on
a note I penned twenty-five years ago—a comment on the gravedigger’s line
that pegs Hamlet as a thirty-year-old. That line bothered me then, and over the
ensuing years it kept bothering me—to the point that I started digging through
the centuries of commentary on the play, wondering if others had been similarly
troubled. (They had.) For all those years, I’ve assaulted anyone I could get to
listen with my thoughts on the subject.
Eventually all that reading, pondering, and brooding came to
a head. I’d started to discover such interesting things, I finally said to my
wife one Saturday morning, “I’m leaking,” and started writing. This book
began as an article on the (seemingly) simple subject of Hamlet’s age, and
distended into the fixation you’re reading now.
Hamlet’s age seems like a trivial problem, but like so many
things in this tapestry of a play, as you start to unravel the threads of the
question, it reveals overlapping, interrelated layers and nuances of
sense, meaning, and import. And as I dug even deeper, to my true surprise the
question yielded new discoveries about the play—some just interesting, some
perhaps significant—that have lain hidden within it for four hundred years.
If there’s one thing that’s truly remarkable about Hamlet (and great literature in general), it’s the play’s
seemingly infinite complexity and coherence. Everywhere you look in the play
there are reflections (and reflexions), echoes, allusions, and interrelated
cross-correlations. It’s an endless interweave whose only equal for me is the
complexity of the human mind. That’s why the simple problem that launched this
project—the question of Hamlet’s age—turned into a whole book: if you start
teasing at one thread, it eventually connects to every other. And those threads
connect outside the play in myriad copulas. My pleasure comes from following
those threads—from unpacking that density.
I have to admit that one thing I greatly enjoy is explaining
some of the remarkably involved in-jokes that litter the play, and “puzzle the
will.” This punch-line approach sounds trivial, but (in addition to being fun)
it’s actually an important touchstone for whether a given interpretation,
criticism, or insight is valid—does it explain the jokes? (This also points to
what’s wrong with so many stage and film productions of this play—which is
arguably Shakespeare’s most amusing in its multi-level irony: they’re not
This book is written for everyday readers and Shakespeare
enthusiasts, both professionals and amateurs. Scholars will, I hope, excuse my
going over familiar ground that will not be familiar to the everyday reader.
And everyday readers will, I hope, excuse my occasional obfuscatory nod to the
scholars; sometimes I couldn’t resist.
Speaking of scholars, I need to briefly note here that while
I have great interest in literary theory, I have little interest in most of the
currently fashionable schools of literary “Theory.” To quote David Cressy, one
of the best historians writing today, “It is not necessary to invoke terms like
hierarchical inversion, theatrical mimesis, reaffirmative reintegration, liminal
transgression, or latent control, to demonstrate that Shrovetide was a time for
letting off steam.” (Bonfires and Bells,
But as someone has aptly noted, people who say they don’t
pay attention to theory really don’t know what their theory is. So it’s
probably best to state my prejudices here. If you were to put me in any
critical “camp,” you could probably best describe my approach as
post-new-historicist neo-formalism, which I guess makes me a New New New New
Critic. For those who understand that joke, a kudos. For others, here are some
of my key beliefs.
Prejudice #1. If I can’t make sense of something, the problem is
most likely with me, not the play. I’m not
saying Shakespeare was perfect; there are things in Hamlet that
just don’t make sense. But the coherence of the play is so remarkable—and the
more you look, the more coherent it becomes—I have to start from the assumption
that anything that doesn’t make sense is my problem, not Will’s.
Scholars tend to dismiss discussions of the play that seem
to explain the plot or the characters’ motivations too neatly, arguing that
Shakespeare wasn’t so much concerned with credible plots as with effective
drama. And they’re right; Shakespeare is completely untroubled by improbable
plots. The wacky final scenes in Cymbeline
and Measure for Measure don’t
just strain credulity, they’re absurd. Examples are endless. Even the ghost
wouldn’t have been “credible” to a good chunk of Shakespeare’s audience. But
credibility isn’t the same as coherent narrative and plausible motivation. And
coherent narrative, coupled with plausible motivations, is dramatically effective.
Shakespeare uses that, just as he uses every other technique that comes to
hand. I would argue that he uses it especially well in Hamlet.
Prejudice # 2. Analyzing and understanding a poem makes it more
beautiful, not less. For me, the
platitude “A poem should not mean but be” is little more than a simplistic
romanticism. When you discover that “sallied” in “O that this too too sallied
flesh would melt,/Thaw and resolve it selfe into a dewe,” was common
Elizabethan usage for “sullied,” and find that “sallies” is used in exactly
that sense in Polonius’s directions to Reynaldo, does that damage or enrich
your experience of the play? It gets even richer when you learn that
Elizabethan pronunciation further emphasizes the double-entendre
of “sullied” and “solid.”
Way back in my undergraduate classes and before, I learned
that you have to first get at the sense of a poem—what does it say? Without that basic understanding, you can’t perceive
its full beauty. That’s my main goal in this book: to get at what the play
actually tells us about the events, characters, and relationships. From that
platform, you can stretch to the higher ramparts of meaning, import, and implication.
Prejudice #3. Hamlet
is not just a drama to be played, but literature to be read. One of
the greater ironies of Shakespeare scholarship over the last century is the
ongoing effort by Shakespeare scholars—most of whom spend dozens of hours a
week enjoining, cajoling, and browbeating their students into addressing
Shakespeare's plays as literature—to deny that those plays are literature.
Shakespeare, these scholars say, thought of his plays as disposable, populist
ephemera, like Hollywood scripts; they were created for performance, and that's
all. Views, interpretations, editions, or theoretical schools which posit a
reader are, by this thinking, sadly and anachronistically missing the point.
I think this viewpoint—held even more
widely in the theater community, and only recently (and resoundingly)
challenged in the scholarly community by Lukas Erne’s Shakespeare as
Literary Dramatist—is silly. At least a
dozen of Shakespeare’s plays had been published in the 1590s, prior to the
1600/ 1601 debut of Hamlet as we
know it—at least some of them with Shakespeare’s apparent approval.
Publishers in Elizabethan times published books for one reason: because they
could sell them at the shops in St. Paul’s churchyard. And people bought them
to read—not as prompt books for their home theaters.
Shakespeare also published his then-bestselling works—the
narrative poems Venus and Adonis —in 1593/1594. These
were written and published for reading, silently or aloud. And his
sonnets—which were patently for reading—were circulating in manuscript among
his friends throughout the late 1590s (they weren’t published until 1609).
Shakespeare clearly knew when he wrote Hamlet that his works were not just performed, but were
widely read. And they were read by his best customers—courtiers, inns-of-court
men, and others who populated the higher-ticket galleries of the Globe Theater,
the stage seats at Blackfriars, and the most coveted seats: where Shakespeare’s
company played before the queen at court.
Add to this the repeated injunction from Shakespeare’s
long-time friends and colleagues Heminges and Condell in their introduction “To
the Great Variety of Readers” in the 1623 First Folio collection of
Shakespeare’s plays: “Read him therefore, and again, and again.” (Equally
revealing but more amusing is their earlier injunction: “But, whatever you do,
Buy.”) The opening
page of the Folio is an epistle by Ben Jonson titled “To the Reader.” It’s
clear that the plays were not just for playing, but for reading.
So the arguments you sometimes hear—that these complex
interrelationships within the play can’t have any validity, because nobody
watching a play could possibly catch them—are just foolish. Even the great
Shakespeare scholar John Dover Wilson falls for this angle, but in a
contradictory way. He agrees, right at the beginning of What Happens in
Hamlet, that no audience member could catch
all the complexity:
There is, for instance, Hamlet’s quibbling, much of it,
with double or triple point, beyond the comprehension of even the nimblest-witted
groundlings. Its existing proves that Shakespeare could count upon a section of
the audience at the Globe, nobles, inns-of-court men and the like, capable in
swiftness of apprehension and sustained attention of almost any subtlety he
cared to put them to, and moreover armed like Hamlet himself with their
‘tables’ to set down matters which they could not at once understand or wished
especially to remember.
The tables Wilson refers to are the widely used pocket
tables, or table books, made of erasable waxed cardboard leaves, or “tablets,”
with a brass stylus attached. (Think: Palm Pilots without the batteries.)
Hamlet refers to them after the ghost’s revelation: “Yea, from the table of my
memory/I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records…” A
few lines later he jokes wryly on them, with a nod to the galleries and
the wits at court: “My tables—meet it is I set it
down/That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain!” He jibes on them again
in his ridicule, in the First Quarto edition of the play, of a clownish player
who “keeps one suit of jests, as a man is known by one suit of apparel,” so
“gentlemen quote his jests down in their tables, before they come to the play.”
Or take for another instance this
line from theParnassus plays, a
trilogy written and produced by Cambridge students in the same years as Hamlet. Gullio, a parody of aristocratic patrons, is misquoting
love poetry and threatening more. Ingenioso, an acerbic poet, says in an
exasperated aside, “We shall have nothing but pure Shakespeare, and shreds of
poetry that he hath gathered at the theaters.
Wilson’s insight into Shakespeare’s audience is
incredibly useful—there was a large contingent of brilliantly educated
individuals who paid very close attention, even writing down favorite passages
for later thought, discussion, and misquotation. Shakespeare was not just
writing for a pack of witless groundlings, or just for dramatic effect, as
people often claim, but also for attentive and highly capable listeners and
readers. Shakespeare's ability to write for apprentices and earls, for court
and for courtyard, for the stage and the page, constitutes an
important part of—and demonstration of—the mastery that has transformed him
But in Appendix F of Wilson’s book, where he
takes occasion to savage Salvadore de Madariaga’s On Hamlet, he
takes an opposite and ill-considered tack in his eagerness to embay his
This is to read Hamlet like
a book, a historical monograph or a personal record such as the Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, instead of
being, as it was and is, an elaborate work of dramatic art…the only criticism
relevant to such an art is one that follows these impressions in the order in
which the dramatist released them, and then considers the total impression left
behind upon the audience after the play is finished….to begin in the middle and
then jump forwards and backwards…is like looking down at St Paul’s from an
aeroplane instead of from the ground, which was the only perspective Wren had
This is, indeed, to read Hamlet like
a book, as many of Will’s better-bred contemporaries did. No audience member
watching from beginning to end could possibly cross-correlate all the scattered
descriptions of Hamlet’s sea journey, for instance—the sailor’s words, Hamlet’s
letters to Horatio and to Claudius, and Hamlet’s later spoken report to
Horatio. But for those of patient merit, those references
come together into an incredibly coherent story. The cross-correlations forward
and backward in the play make up a huge part of its interest, power, and
beauty. Saying that “the only criticism relevant to such an art is one that
follows these impressions in the order in which the dramatist released them” is
patently absurd. (This especially as we have no idea in what order he
“released” many of them).
So in the course of this book you’ll find me
quoting some lines and passages more than once. Hamlet being the cross-referential harvest
ground that it is, a single line may serve no less than three dozen avowed
purposes, with spurious interpretations additional. This book is an attempt to
tease out some few of those interrelationships and multiple meanings.
Prejudice #4. It’s fruitless to talk about “the
author’s intentions.” There’s no shortage of places in the text where you have to wonder
what Shakespeare meant, but in general it’s not a useful question. Consider,
for instance, the repeating imagery and ideas in these three passages:
Hamlet speaking of Gertrude:
O God, a beast that wants discourse of
Would have mourned longer
Hamlet, to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern:
What piece of work is a man, how noble
in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving, how express and
admirable in action, how like an angel in apprehension, how like a god: the
beauty of the world; the paragon of animals…
Hamlet, of himself:
What is a man
If his chief good and market of his
Be but to sleep and feed, a beast, no
Sure he that made us with such large
Looking before and after, gave us not
That capability and god-like reason
To fust in us unused…
Did Shakespeare “intend” all these
echoes, scattered throughout the play? On what level of consciousness did he
intend them? Was he even consciously aware of them? Which ones? Whatever
the answer, he created these echoes and thousands of others, and it’s those connections
that make the fabric of the play so rich and dense. It doesn’t serve any
purpose to guess at whether, and on what level, he “intended” them.
Of course you have to rule out anything
that the author couldn’t possibly have intended on any level of consciousness.
(Though poststructuralists will brand me a naïf for saying so.) It
would be useless and spurious, for instance, to suggest an allusion to
something that only appears in “Amleth” legends prior to their telling by Saxo Grammaticus.
It’s unlikely that Shakespeare even knew Saxo’s version, and it’s beyond
unlikely that he knew the earlier legends.
How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth?
The simplistic distinction between what
Shakespeare might have intended and what he could not have masks a much murkier
problem. That problem is expressed beautifully in the article which inspired
the title of Chapter One: L. C. Knights’ seminal 1933 essay, “How Many Children
Had Lady Macbeth?” His title refers to Lady Macbeth’s “I have given suck,
and know/How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me,” and the seemingly
irresistible appeal that lures critics to expand on such statements.
Knights takes arms against this
tendency in Shakespeare criticism, a tendency that emerged in the eighteenth
century and flowered (or in Knights’ view grew like a weed) in the Romantic
era: the tendency to concentrate on Shakespeare’s characters and their
“character” as if they were real historical personages. Nowhere is it more
evident than in Hamlet criticism—the question of Hamlet’s character
has absorbed more ink than any other.
Knights’ position is much similar to mine:
that Shakespeare’s plays are dramatic poems, and that you have to look at their
full effect—poetic, literary, and dramatic—to understand and appreciate them.
This effect emerges through character, action, plot, stage directions, rhythm,
rhyme, imagery, allusion, and a host of other literary and dramatic constructs.
But at bottom, all of these emerge from language, and it’s there that you must
seek first to understand the play—in the depths of the text.
So I’m with Knights in disdaining the
rambling discourses on Shakespeare’s noble characters that are scattered
through the Romantic era and beyond. (Knights speaks of them as
“pseudo-critical investigations that are only slightly parodied by the title of
this essay.”) Shakespeare’s characters are not real people, or our friends, but
dramatic, literary, and poetic entities that illuminate our lives and
thoughts—and each other’s—through their words and actions.
At the same time, in this book I
venture into areas that Knights would no doubt have scoffed at. When I surmise
that Hamlet’s “continual practice” at fencing must have been with the officers
of the guard, and then with the pirates, I’m crossing the line that Knights
draws—entering that area of surmise which assumes a world beyond what the play
states explicitly. (Knights might have given nodding credence to the evidence
from Plutarch that I cite in Chapters One and Five, on young Caesar’s time with
the pirates and its similarity to Hamlet’s.)
But this returns us to the notion of
coherence, and authorial intent. It’s patently clear to me that Shakespeare
conceived a whole world of Hamlet (perhaps over a decade or more),
most of which he
tells us about in the text of the play. There’s no other way he could have
built the cohesive chronology described in Chapter Two, or coordinated the
characters, motivations, and actions of this huge work so convincingly.
But the edges of that world are not
sharp and distinct. When Polonius tells Ophelia that he has heard (from some
unnamed sources) that Hamlet “hath very oft of late/Given private time to you,
and you yourself/Have of your audience been most free and bounteous”, do those
audiences become part of that world, worthy of consideration and discussion?
Can we surmise that those audiences included fond words between the two? When
Hamlet speaks to Horatio of “the
circumstance/Which I have told thee of my father’s death,” don’t we have to
assume they have had a conversation that we weren’t privy to? Or take Hamlet, Rosencrantz, and
Guildenstern’s discussion of the Elizabethan War of the Theaters. The text
doesn’t tell us explicitly that Shakespeare is referring to that war, or
actually engaging in a skirmish, but he is certainly doing both.
So ruling out discussion of anything
that isn’t explicitly stated in the text is a disservice both to the text and
to ourselves. The hints, echoes, suggestions, allusions, and connotations in
the text are emphatically part of that text. They contribute mightily to the
overall literary and dramatic effect that both Knights and I prize most highly.
There’s certainly more than one place
in this book where I’ve skirted the imperfect boundary between what Shakespeare
might and could not have intended. But I hope I’ve stayed on the reasonable
side of certainty. I was more than tempted in more than one case, for instance,
to cite the 1586 sojourn and performances at Elsinore by Kemp, Bryan, and Pope,
who by 1594 were members of Shakespeare’s company. It’s certainly possible that
Will was part of their company by that time, and even accompanied them as an apprentice
on the trip. It’s even more likely that he received direct report from them.
But there’s absolutely no evidence of either. So there’s one lure, at least,
that I didn’t rise to.
This returns us, finally, to the simple
but admittedly not so useful touchstone: what can we reasonably assume, and
what’s on the far side of improbable? That probability arises, like all true
knowledge, not just from the viability of individual facts and statements, but
from the context of those statements—the other facts that surround and support
them. Does the whole weave of conceit cohere, as Hamlet does, into a
pattern that rings true both in its whole and in its individual parts?
I like to think that this book meets
that test, though I have little doubt that some will think otherwise. They will
think that some of my suppositions were “to consider too curiously to consider
so,” or that I’ve gone beyond the pale of probability in some of my
conjectures. I’m enthusiastic to hear those opinions. Please don’t hesitate to
The Journey Is the Reward
This book is written in the inductive mode; I
have a central thesis—that Hamlet is a teen, not an adult—but the conclusions
that arise from that thesis emerge in the course of the argument. I reveal my
discoveries in much the order that I came to them. So this book is as much a
tale of my journey into the undiscovered country as it is a description of the
country arrived at.
That journey is centered on the
framework of chronology that is both blatantly obvious and subtly hidden in Hamlet.
As far as I can
find, nobody has tackled the workmanlike task of sorting out that chronology
systematically. So after exploring the issue of Hamlet’s age in Chapter One, in
Chapter Two I lay out the whole chronology of the play—who does what and when.
Then in the remaining chapters I turn to the really interesting stuff: the implications
of those words and actions. What do they tell us about the play, and ultimately
about ourselves? In the appendices you’ll find more detailed inquiries into
some curious areas that I couldn’t resist, but that would have clogged up the
first five chapters.
For This Relief Much Thanks
I said that when I started writing this book I
felt like I was leaking. And I was—badly. But to quote Monty Python, “I’m
feeling much better.” And for that I must give thanks.
First, to all who came before me. I am not, of
course, the first person to enter this labyrinth. This book could not be if it
weren’t for thousands of critics and commentators who have discovered
connections and explanations that had lain unrevealed to others. I am
hopelessly indebted to all those critics, and have attempted to give credit
where due. But to quote William Minto’s 1875 comment on “the mass of
Shakespearian literature,” “It would take the labor of a lifetime to make quite
sure that a particular view had never been expressed before.” That mass of
literature has grown geometrically since Minto penned those words. And in many
areas, large and small, I could not give credit without digressing into
history-of-ideas essays covering critical discussions that often spanned
decades or centuries.
For all the ideas in this book that
others have come upon before me, many thanks. I hope that those in the future
will use my ideas with as much enthusiasm as I have received those of my
To the late Edmund K. Chambers, who humbly
described himself as “one who only plays at scholarship in the rare intervals
of a busy administrative life.” (His words could have spoken for me as well,
when I began this book.) Professor Chambers’ two-volume Medieval Stage,
four-volume Elizabethan Stage, and two-volume William Shakespeare
are the grounds upon which all Shakespeare critics stand—or should stand, at
any rate. May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.
Dozens of people have taken the time to share
their thoughts with me in conversations and correspondence. I’d like to offer
special thanks to the following, while offering my appreciation and apologies
to any who I have failed to include: Mark Alexander, Cindy Bell, Michael Best,
Sandra Billington, David Bishop, Tony Burton, Jessica Clark, Nick Clary, Ken
Collins, Hardy Cook, Carol Cullen, Ron Drummond, Gabriel Egan, Glenn Fleishman,
Barry Gaines, Christopher Gauntt, Eugene Giddens, Kitty Harmon, Lisa Hopkins,
Stephanie Hughes, Dennis James, Norman Kane, John Kerrigan, Manfred Kiefer, Jan
Kinrade, Bernice Kliman, Graeme Lindridge, Carol Morley, Toke Norby, Vladimir
Pimonov, Anthony Powell, Eric Rasmussen, Rainbow Saari, Matthew Steggle,
William Sutton, Jesus Tronch-Perez, Amy Ulen, Malcom Underwood, Peter Usher,
Henrika Vuorinen, David Wallace, and Robin Williams.
To my parents, Ben and Betsy Roth. Thanks for
teaching me to “read,” even though my grade school told you not to teach me how
And most of all to my wonderful girls, Dia and
Jesse. Thank you for giving me time and space enough to make this work, and
play this play.
Copyright © 2000-2009 Stephen F. Roth
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