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Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

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Hamlet in History
Oh, Hamlet. It always comes back you to you.

kalimac and I have been having a conversation (interesting to me and I hope to him) about Shakespeare’s historical sense, or lack of it. This post isn’t really a contribution to that discussion, but it grows from it at a tangent.

My feeling about Shakespeare, as I was saying the earlier post, is that he often leaves his settings ambiguous in terms of both time and place. Perhaps he doesn’t care about being specific, or lacking a modern historical sense he doesn’t realize what it would mean to be specific, or perhaps he’s being deliberately unspecific in order to futureproof the text. These possibilities are neither exhaustive not entirely mutually exclusive, of course, nor does the same answer necessarily apply to every text. Whatever Shakespeare’s intention, however, it’s worth considering the effects that historical and geographical ambiguity may have, beyond an aesthetically pleasing (or not) vagueness. Take Hamlet, for example. The earliest major source is Saxo Grammaticus in the twelfth century. His Amleth is a fairly brutal tale with its roots in Denmark’s pre-Christian past, and manifests a largely pre-Christian attitude to such matters as blood-feud, rape, murder, family obligation, etc. Shakespeare got the story from the longer version by Belleforest, and no doubt other sources such as Kyd’s Hamlet. By the time Shakespeare got his hands on it the story bore the mark of Renaissance, twelfth-century and perhaps pre-Christian ways of thinking, which aren’t altogether compatible - though whether that is more apparent to us than it was to him is a debatable point.

So, when is Shakespeare’s Hamlet set? If we seek a definitive answer, we’ll be disappointed. The court looks like a sixteenth-century court in many ways, and Hamlet, like a good Renaissance prince (but very unlike a twelfth-century one), has gone to Germany to get himself a university education. He fences with foils, too, the very model of a modern Prince of Denmark. On the other hand, the Danish king has authority over the King of England, which seems to throw the date back into Viking days. Also, the King is elected rather than succeeding by right of succession – again, a throwback to the days of Amleth. (Despite this, I’ve read in many an essay that Claudius has usurped the throne that should be Hamlet’s by right, so perhaps the play isn’t as clear about this as it might be, or perhaps my students are seeing what they want to.) One could multiply examples: the short answer is that the play is set both in the early medieval period and in the sixteenth-century. Or, if you prefer, in neither, or in some atemporal story-zone. Whatever.

This gets really interesting, though, when you think about the moral universe of Hamlet. If you consider his most notable predecessor as a revenge protagonist, Hieronymo from The Spanish Tragedy, one really striking difference is that Hieronymo is oppressed by (amongst other things) the morality of taking revenge. As a Christian, he knows that God has claimed vengeance for himself – what’s a body to do? What’s remarkable about Hamlet is that, despite wittering for Wittenberg on almost every other subject under the sun, he never once questions the morality of taking revenge. (Again, I’ve seen many essays that claim the contrary, but they just assume he must, I think.) It’s true that Hamlet worries about suicide from a Christian perspective, and it’s true that he gets exercised about whether Claudius is really responsible for murdering his father, but his duty to take bloody revenge should Claudius prove guilty is one thing he neither doubts or questions, even though he appears to be living in a Christian court and has a father apparently suffering in Purgatory. It’s as if Shakespeare took the mind of a Renaissance Christian humanist and grafted onto it a piece of unreconstructed blood-feud morality (or unthinkingly adopted such a juxtaposition from his heterogeneous sources, if you would rather deny him conscious historical awareness). And of course the two don’t fit, even as they are made inextricable in Hamlet and in the ambiguous setting of the play. This is vagueness of the kind I was discussing before, but in addition it’s a way of conveying meaning. Perhaps it’s why Hamlet has bad dreams.
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Do you think Kyd wrote an ur-Hamlet? It seems like he was playing with a lot of Hamlet-ish ideas for the Spanish Tragedy, makes me wonder.

It's pretty certain there was an ur-Hamlet, and Kyd's is the name usually associated with it, but the evidence for that is fairly circumstantial: I should probably have put that more cautiously!

I want to think it was Kyd. I like him.

It's partly Shakespeare's own times. Go back to the 11th century, and the monarchy was elective within the late king's close relatives. Formally encoded, immutable laws of succession were a creation of the late 17th century. In between was an odd time, where the monarchy was basically successive by primogeniture, but this could be overriden when it seemed necessary, a situation asking for some deadly arguments to follow, as sometimes they did.

But partly, yes, it's the mix of times that went into the play.

The thing is, though, that I don't see any of the kind of cognitive dissonance you're describing here in The Merry Wives of Windsor.

I agree The Merry Wives doesn't have this kind of cognitive dissonance; I'd say it has its own less problematic brand of ambiguity. But if you don't find anything dissonant about Falstaff, Mistress Quickly, Shallow, Bardolph, Nym and Pistol all drifting two centuries from their historical moorings, then I don't think I'm going to be able to persuade you. This post is more of a tangent from that debate than a contribution to it.

The "moorings" are entirely in some other play. If you don't see the timelessness of it all, I don't think I'm going to be able to persuade you.

I'm happy to see timelessness - I can't bring myself to see an unambiguous Elizabethan setting.

It's the kind of timelessness that collapses on to the author's own time. Fantasy writers writing time travel stories do this all the time; I'm surprised you don't recognize the same technique at use here. The "tavern between the worlds" usually defaults to the pub down the street from the author's house. So it is with Shakespeare.

I'm not sure I understand what technique you're referring to here, or how far you wish to draw the parallel with Merry Wives. However, "a tavern between the worlds" seems on the face of it to be significantly different from an unambiguous contemporary setting.

A tavern between the worlds is only necessarily significantly different from an unambiguous contemporary setting in the sense that a group of characters who also appeared in a play about Henry V is also necessarily significantly different from an unambiguous contemporary setting.

The setting itself, however, divorced from that fact, is umambiguously contemporary, and so are many of these taverns between the worlds - in both cases, regardless of who's in them.

Divorced from that fact, perhaps so - but I see no grounds for divorce. Those characters are there, part of the text, and their being there has an effect. They too are part of the play's setting, if you like - rather than the setting being a set in the Hollywood sense, that anyone from film-stars to tourists can wander through.

Picking up from your comment below, I've not heard the term "real decade", nor have I read much SF, but I'm dubious of it, precisely because it appears to imply this kind of easy separability of different elements of the text. I suppose the "real decade" of Nineteen Eighty-Four must be the 1940s, by Clute's definition - reportedly Orwell even considered calling it 1948 - but I think that would have made it a very different book, even if every other word had remained unchanged.

Not in this case. They've been detached from their original setting, and put in a kind of timeless state - and the characteristics of that timeless state, as they usually do in this kind of story, default to the author's own time. If I try to see Merry Wives as taking place sometime in the early 15C, it clangs. It feels Elizabethan, even as the tavern scenes in the H4 plays feel Elizabethan, and this time there's no historical 15C events to moor it at the intended time. Because these characters are the least 15C part of the actual 15C play, their ability to thus moor it is even more compromised.

By the way, if you are going to set MWW in the 15C, when does it go? Is there anything in the text addressing that question? Is it before or after H4/1? It can't be after H4/2.

I don't see this as "easy separability," but as refusing to let a misleading label blind you to what the text is actually intended to say. Perhaps this principle would be clear if the example is a roman a clef, a novel that is intended as a realistic depiction of a real person, but through reasons either of legality, coyness, or just not wanting to be held responsible for complete factual accuracy, pins a fictional name on the character and changes a few insignificant background details. For added deniability, there may be a casual mention of the actual person by name, as assurance that the protagonist must be somebody else.

Good example, though it doesn't take that last step, is "Primary Colors". To deny that it's about Bill Clinton because the character's name is Jack Stanton and some of the events have no real-life parallel would be absurd.

"1984" is a trickier case. The futuristic elements and settings are not just trappings, they're deeply embedded. And it would not be credible for the text as it stands to be titled "1948", though I have seen that position held; and it would be credible (though I have not seen any evidence that this happened) that Orwell began with the idea of writing a book called "1948" and then decided to distance it.

Nevertheless, it is an essential element of the book's power that it can be, though it doesn't necessarily have to be, read as a slightly surreal depiction of actual Soviet life in 1948 (in which case the British setting, the protagonist's name "Winston" etc. would be no more than misleading trappings, because they aren't in that way essential), and indeed many veterans of Soviet life have indeed read it exactly that way and praised it thereby.

Oh, and getting back to trappings and misleading settings? News flash: "Animal Farm" isn't about pigs.

If I had claimed that MWW is set in the early-15thC, much of this would have greater relevance; but not only have I not claimed that, I've already had occasion to reiterate that I haven't claimed it.

I do agree with you that there are other factors that should probably be taken into account in reading settings, and generic considerations (e.g. whether it is a roman a clef, an allegory, etc.) can be important to that. The former is actually relevant to Falstaff, since there's evidence that he was taken as a portrait of the historical Sir John Oldcastle (as indeed he almost certainly was), to the extent that Shakespeare had to issue a denial in 2 Henry IV: "Oldcastle is not the man". If we turned the volume up on this aspect, making it central to our reading of him, then Falstaff would become even less plausible as a character in a sixteenth-century setting. But I don't go so far: I merely say that his presence and that of the other characters from the Henriad means that the sixteenth-century setting of MWW is ambiguous.

As for Animal Farm, I'm not going down the path marked "Here be allegories" here - I spent three years of a PhD on that! - but similar considerations apply. These aren't black and white issues: if Orwell had had the animals harvesting wheat in April because that fitted better with his allegorical schema, it would matter a lot to some people, much less to others. It wouldn't be useful to argue that one or other group was wrong. Probably that's where we are wft Merry Wives as well.

If, as you keep claiming, the time setting of MWW is ambiguous, what is it ambiguous between, or ambiguous among? Obviously, between Shakespeare's own time, which is what the text points to, and the early 15C, which is what the presence of characters who also appear in the H4&5 plays points to. Therefore there is an aspect, or facet, or point of view, by which MWW can be argued to take place in the early 15C. If there weren't, it wouldn't be ambiguous. It is to that aspect, or facet, or point of view, or what you will, that my points are addressed.

For example, if the presence of these characters gives a 15C hint, it is because the other plays established them as having a fictive timeline in the 15C. Falstaff's minions played with Hal in the Eastcheap tavern in Henry IV's time and served in France in Henry V's. That's a fictive timeline for them. Therefore it is entirely reasonable to ask, at what chronological point in that timeline does MWW fit?

My opinion is that it doesn't fit anywhere, and that is part of my evidence that this [facet or aspect or point of view] is entirely illusory and takes no account of Shakespeare having unmoored them from time in this play and placed them in a timeless spot which defaults to the characteristics of his own time. Now there's already another [aspect or facet or point of view] which does take that into account, but we still have to address the first one.

I'd forgotten about "Oldcastle is not the man" or I'd have cited it. I don't think there's anywhere else we see Shakespeare in a flopsweat, lying through his teeth. His argument that Falstaff isn't Oldcastle is based on their deaths being different, but genuine romans a clef change parts of the story all the time without being any less romans a clef for it.

If I wished to place MWW in the fifteenth century (which I don't), it would clearly have to go before 1 Henry IV, since there's certainly no time for the events to have taken place later than that. I'd have to go back to the play to see whether this is technically possible, but I'm not going to do so because I've no interest in making that case. I agree that it clangs.

It clangs no less resoundingly for me as a sixteenth-century play, because of all those fifteenth-century figures in it, several of whom are strongly associated in my mind - and, I suggest, that of Shakespeare's audience - with important historical events such as Agincourt (and one perhaps with the historical Oldcastle). You may feel that the audience would have been able to disregard these elements to a lesser or greater extent, but off hand I can't think of a single other play of the period (by Shakespeare or anyone else) where this kind of unremarked transplantation takes place - except where figures such as Gower or Machiavelli are used as Prologues, but there they are clearly outside the temporal frame of the plot. I don't think we can claim it as a convention.

So, I agree that it doesn't fit anywhere - which is perhaps a better way of putting it than to say it's ambiguous (which may imply that it fits in more than one place), and that in that sense it may indeed be called timeless. In my opinion, this is sufficiently different from its being "a play set in contemporary England" to justify what I said to vschanoes - where I was distinguishing it from plays such as A Chaste Maid in Cheapside and The Alchemist, which clearly are set in contemporary England.

Are you familiar with John Clute's concept of the "real decade"? That's what I mean here. An SF story written in, say, the 1940s may say that it's taking place in 1999 AD, or 9999 AD, or 20 Million AD, but it's still really the 1940s. That's what I mean when I say Merry Wives has a contemporary setting, and even more so because, unlike these SF stories, it isn't filled with future trappings. Don't let a label - in this case the label that the characters also appeared in a play nominally [but, in this sense, also not really] set two centuries earlier - fool you.

I wonder about differences in ideas of revenge by class and geography... A humanist scholar may be oppressed by the problem of Christian morality, but would one of Castiglione's courtiers not take revenge as an imperative? Where in 16th-c. Europe is the idea of blood-feud and an obligation to take personal vengeance strongest?

I think you're right that the obligations of blood feud get stronger as you travel towards the Med - and certainly that would have been the stereotypical Elizabethan view.

Perhaps that is why the Tragedy was Spanish (and Portuguese)

I would guess so.

...or perhaps he’s being deliberately unspecific in order to futureproof the text.

I really can't imagine he would think of that. So far as we know, he didn't even bother with preserving the text. (Heminges and Condell saw to that.0 Plays were as mayflies. Or banquets--eaten and gone.


"So far as we know" is the key phrase, because we know so little. It's true that plays were seen by many as ephemeral, and quite possibly Shakespeare buggered off to Stratford with a full purse and a sheaf of property deeds, happy in the thought that his literary immortality had been assured by The Rape of Lucrece. It's also possible that he knew his plays' worth, though, and put arrangements in place for their eventual publication in the First Folio - a move that may have been encouraged by the sight of your man Jonson's preparation of his own folio Works. (Jonson got mocked for his pains, but perhaps because he was publishing himself as much as because he was publishing plays.) What's indisputable is that the company thought Shakespeare's plays sufficiently worth preserving to keep the texts not just of the perennial favourites that might have been revived at some future date but of superannuated pieces like 2 Henry VI and uncommercial oddities like Timon. Perhaps Loves Labour's Won ended up as pie-bottoms, but quite an effort seems to have been made to preserve the oeuvre entire. Who's to say that the effort was not in part Shakespeare's - a man whose concern with literary futurity is amply evidenced in the sonnets?

That's not to say that Shakespeare adopted temporal and geographical vagueness as a conscious futureproofing strategy. Of the three "perhaps"s I list in the entry this is probably the least likely. But neither do I think it impossible. He was a subtle chap.

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I think this is persuasive, and I like your barbarism/civilization division (paganism/Christianity being an aspect of this). It occurs to me that Shakespeare's other "classic" revenge tragedy, Titus Andronicus, which also raises acute problems of setting, shows civilization in transition to barbarism. This may not be coincidental.

The whole question of which historical markers writers and viewers/readers are going to be sensitive to is itself a historical question, and not a simple one because even within individual plays there's a lot of variation. On the previous post the point's been made that Shakespeare is more historically careful in representing elites than lower-class characters (clowns being especially likely to appear contemporary, to the point of breaking the fourth wall). Some effort may be made with the historical aspects of costumes and props, but little with language - that had to wait for Walter Scott. And, of course, not everyone's historical senses were in lock step: Jonson was far more pernickety than Shakespeare.