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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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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.