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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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"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.