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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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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.