Hamlet in His Modern Guises

By Alexander Welsh | Go to book overview

CHAPTER ONE
Medieval Hamlet Gains a Family

IGNORANCE ABOUT the lost play that was performed on the English stage some years before Shakespeare's Hamlet makes it all the more imperative to compare his play—traditionally the conflation of two texts, the quarto of 1604 and folio of 1623—with the still earlier narrative versions of the hero's story that do survive. This procedure at least apprises us of features not wholly original to Shakespeare, even if it leaves us only with intelligent guesses as to the intervening contributions of an Ur-Hamlet.1 Comparison with the earlier narratives also yields a positive understanding of ways in which the play is modern, and particularly why Hamlet's family—a little more than kin, if less than kind—seems to us so modern. For good measure, Shakespeare built into his play a second family, that of Polonius, posed novel-like for intermarriage with the younger generation of the first. The word “family” in our sense of parents and children was new in the sixteenth century. Shakespeare rarely uses the word at all, and never in its modern sense. Yet his Hamlet reads like a textbook on the conjugal and patriarchal family.

The present study is concerned with Hamlet in history, more especially Hamlets of the last four centuries. Was there, in the other direction of time, a historical Hamlet with a mother and father who lived and died a violent death six centuries prior to Shakespeare's time? The difficulty of answering this question—apart from my difficulty of collapsing a millennium into a few pages—is that very old histories defy modern belief. Thus when Amleth, in the earliest extant chronicle of Hamlet's story, travels to England and somehow intuits the English king's secrets (without recourse to magic), we seem to be reading of an exercise of wit that never was, though the chronicle does not distinguish between this feat and others more plausible. Like speculations about the Ur-Hamlet, the quest for the historical Hamlet is bound to be frustrating compared to the experience of suspending disbelief in the play, for Shakespeare is among those artists chiefly responsible

____________________
1
Harold Bloom, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human(New York: Riverhead, 1998), 395–401, contends that the earlier play must also have been by Shakespeare. The evidence for the Ur-Hamlet consists of a satirical allusion to it by Thomas Nashe in 1589, the record of a performance in 1594, another allusion by Thomas Lodge in 1596, and lesser matter. For a succinct summary see Hamlet, ed. Harold Jenkins (London: Methuen, 1982), 82–85.

-3-

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