Page images


The Age of Hamlet

[ocr errors]

The topic of Hamlet's years has given rise to almost as much discussion as the question of the duration of the drama. The Poet deals with the one and the other in the same artful manner. From the opening of the play he seems to convey, in scene after scene, the impression that the Prince, still in the heyday of his youth, is probably not more than twenty or twenty-three years of age. As this skillful legerdemain gives rise to the notion of Hamlet's youthfulness, it is well to consider it before touching upon his actual age.

Ignoring the brief duration of the dramatic action, some critics are led to enlarge unduly on Hamlet's supposed weakness of will, or vacillation. They suppose the action of the tragedy to run on for many months or even a year, and, in consequence, exaggerate the Prince's apparent procrastination. This delusion, says Furness, results from the Poet's skillful method of dealing with the dramatic element of time, a method whereby he conveys, in an artful manner, two opposite ideas: the one of swiftness, and the other of slowness. By one series of illusions, we imagine that the action is driving along in storm, while by the other, we are insensibly beguiled into believing that it extends over many months. Our mind, engrossed by the action of the drama, fails to measure the duration, and accepts without questioning each successive impression as the Poet intended. In illustration, Polonius, who was surely cognizant of the latest court news, expresses as much surprise as Ophelia herself at Hamlet's strange behavior, and yet, from this very interview with his daughter, he goes directly to the king, and speaks of Hamlet's lunacy as a fact well known and of long duration. This and many other instances, which may be multiplied by any careful


reader, are not inconsistencies or oversights on the part of th Poet. They belong to two series of time, the one suggestiv and illusory, and the other visible and directly indicated These two elements have been called by Halpin, the pro tractive and the accelerating series, and by Sir Christophe North, the two clocks of Shakespeare. Counting off the tim by one of these clocks, some have estimated the duration o the dramatic action at seven or eight days, while others as sign at least ten days.'

It may be reasonably asserted that while the action of the drama may be thus possibly compressed into a period of seven days, nevertheless, from certain data given, one may calculate with some precision that the actual time of the en tire drama does not exceed three months, a period of time affording, indeed, scanty room for procrastination in the project of killing a king, under the circumstances in which Hamlet was placed. At the opening of the play, two important events are premised as accomplished; the murder of Hamlet's father and the marriage of his mother. That the former occurred in November and the latter in December, may be inferred from the time of the ghostly apparition; and this time is indicated by Marcellus in the words:

“Some say that ever, 'gainst that season
Wherein our Savior's birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long;
And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad;
The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallowed and so gracious is the time."


1 If Daniel's calculation of time be accepted, the action may, in accordance, be
divided into seven respective days, as follows:
First day,

Act I, Scene I-III.
Second day,

Act I, Scene IV-V.
Here, is supposed an interruption of less than two months.
Third day,

Act II.
Fourth day,

Act III, scene I-IV; Act IV, scene I-III.
Fifth day,

Act III, scene IV.
At this point, a week or more, is thought to intervene.
Sixth day,

Act IV, scene V-VII.
Seventh day,

Act V.


It was not, therefore, till after Christmas-tide that Hamlet heard the secret of the grave from his father's ghost. Before this ghostly visit, and prior to the Christmas season, occurred the queen's marriage, and of its haste the prince com. plains to Horatio :

“Ham. But what, in faith, make you from Wittenberg?
Hor. My lord, I came to see your father's funeral.
Ham. I pray thee, do not mock me, fellow-student;

I think it was to see my mother's wedding.
Hor. Indeed, my lord, it followed hard upon.
Ham. Thrift, thrift, Horatio! the funeral baked-meats

Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables.' Again, in the soliloquy of the same scene, in which Hamlet expresses his strong feelings of disgust at his mother's shameful haste in marrying within a month of his father's death, we learn that Claudius had murdered his brother in the previous month of November: "Ham.

And yet, within a month,-
Let me not think on't,—Frailty, thy name is woman!
A little month, or ere those shoes were old
With which she followed my poor father's body,
Like Niobe, all tears; why, she, even she —
O God! a beast, that wants discourse of reason,
Would have mourned longer — married with my uncle."

In the interim, Hamlet's mind was clouded by suspicion, and only after the Christmas season were his fears confirmed by the revelations of his father's ghost. This season must be measured according to the custom which in Hamlet's day was common to Denmark, as well as to all Christendom. Christmastide was then devoted to religious and social functions which, beginning on the eve of Christmas, continued till the festival of Epiphany and its octave. Epiphany, which signifies the manifestation of the Lord, is a solemn festival, celebrated on January the sixth with great religious pomp and ceremony; it is considered the real Christmas of gentile peoples, who as distinct from the Jews, were, in the person of the Magi, called by the miraculous star to the knowledge of the "New-born King."

If, therefore, the ghost of Hamlet's father could not, according to the text, bring his message from the grave, till after the Christmas holidays; and, if Christmastide, according to Catholic liturgy, always closes on the octave of the Epiphany, which is January the thirteenth, we have the near date of the ghost's first appearance in the opening of the drama, when in midwinter the lonely sentinels complain of the bitter cold and the shrewdly biting air. It was the month of March following, when Hamlet, in the Third Act, slew Polonius, as is indicated by the words of Ophelia: “I would give you some violets, but they withered all when my father died.” Now, if violets bloom in England in March, and wilt in the early part of April, we have again indicated, not only the time of Polonius's death, but also the time of the closing of the drama. Throughout the Fourth and Fifth Acts, which follow closely on Polonius's death, Hamlet was no longer a free agent, but a prisoner of the King; Claudius knew that his own death was intended by the stroke that killed Polonius, and in consequence he kept an anxious and watchful eye upon the Prince, and appointed trusted guards to attend him. The time of the three preceding Acts, beginning towards the middle of January, and continuing till the close of March, runs through a space of little more than two months, and these two months are the sole measure of the delay which is charged to Hamlet's vacillating character.

What did Hamlet do during this time of less than three months? Was he inactive, a dreamer, or a procrastinator, ever immersed in doubt, when duty called to action ? None of these was he, even though his Herculean and seemingly impossible task would have staggered the courage and blighted the resolve of many a brave man. To test the verity and veracity of his preternatural visitor; to prepare a play, and instruct the players in an effort to force from the King an

[ocr errors]


admission of his guilt; to save his mother's honor, and liberate her soul from an incestuous wedlock; to obtain such evident proof of the guilt of Claudius, as to keep his soul untainted by the crime of regicide; and to preserve his own good name untarnished, and justify his bloody deed in the eyes of all Denmark: all these were included in his purpose; and surely, considering his insuperable difficulties, two months were not too long a time to spend in their accomplish ment. They who discredit the Prince's character, by dubbing him a dreamer, a refiner of morals, a vacillator whose overthinking paralyzed his power of action, and all, because he would not murder the king at sight on the unsubstantial word of an immaterial spectre, are refuted by the fact of the insuperable subjective and objective difficulties which confronted him, and in the face of which, “it would have been vice to act, whereas it was virtue to delay.”

From Shakespeare's skillful legerdemain, we turn to consider the more important and substantial view, which, on the dramatist's own express testimony, supposes the Prince to have reached the more mature age of thirty years. There should be, it seems, little room for doubt; in the first scene of the last Act, Shakespeare explicitly affirms in the person of the grave-digger, that Hamlet's age is thirty years. If the Prince was born on the same day on which his father overcame Fortinbras; and, if on that same day, the grave-digger entered upon his office, and continued therein for thirty years, we have indisputable evidence of Hamlet's true age:

Ham. How long hast thou been a grave-digger?
First Clown. I came to't that day that our last king

Hamlet overcame Fortinbras.
Ham. How long is that since?
F. Clown. Cannot you tell that? Every fool can tell that:

it was the very day that young Hamlet was born; he
that is mad and sent into England.

Why here in
Denmark, I have been sexton here, man and boy,
thirty years.

« PreviousContinue »