"Cold fearful drops stand on my trembling flesh"
October 1, 2004 1:00 PM   Subscribe

The Death of Hamnet and the Making of Hamlet. In the spring or summer of 1596, William Shakespeare received word that his only son Hamnet, 11, was ill. In the summer he learned that Hamnet's condition had worsened and that it was necessary to drop everything and hurry home. By the time the father reached Stratford the boy—whom, apart from brief visits, Shakespeare had in effect abandoned in his infancy—may already have died. On August 11, 1596, Hamnet was buried at Holy Trinity Church: the clerk duly noted in the burial register, "Hamnet filius William Shakspere." It might have been possible that Shakespeare's Catholic father urged his son to have prayers said to speed the child's release from purgatory. The problem was that purgatory had been abolished by the ruling Protestants, and saying prayers for the dead declared illegal. Hence, the possible dilemma for Shakespeare was whether to risk punishment by praying for their deceased loved ones or obey the law and allow those souls to languish in flames. This anxiety regarding one's obligations to the dead, Stephen Greenblatt suggests, lies behind Hamlet's indecision about whether to obey his father's ghost and take revenge on his uncle Claudius.
posted by matteo (21 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

See, THIS is why I love MeFi! Compelling narrative, enough links (but not too many!), a hidden world revealed...

Wonderful post Matteo!
posted by ubi at 1:58 PM on October 1, 2004

Lady Titania was connected to this somehow, I just know it.
posted by homunculus at 2:07 PM on October 1, 2004

[this is good]
posted by headspace at 2:11 PM on October 1, 2004

no, this is excellent. thanks matteo, i heart you for this post.

[frugal, radiance, dwindle, countless, submerged, excellent, fretful, hint, gust, hurry, lonely, summit, homocide, beautified, aggravate, forefathers, snow-white, fragrant, brittle, barefaced, critical, leapfrog, monumental, castigate, majestic, obscene - all words invented by shakespeare]
posted by t r a c y at 2:26 PM on October 1, 2004 [1 favorite]

Best of the web. My faith in human nature is, once again, restored.
posted by chrid at 2:36 PM on October 1, 2004

Matteo, you have led me down the primrose path of dalliance for the afternoon with this spectacular post. Begone, foul deadlines! There are links to follow!
posted by scody at 2:39 PM on October 1, 2004

This thread cannot continue without someone mentioning the Scylla and Charybdis chapter of Ulysses, in which the issue is discussed at considerable length:

Is it possible that that player Shakespeare, a ghost by absence, and in the vesture of buried Denmark, a ghost by death, speaking his own words to his own son's name (had Hamnet Shakespeare lived he would have been prince Hamlet's twin) is it possible, I want to know, or probable that he did not draw or foresee the logical conclusion of those premises: you are the dispossessed son: I am the murdered father: your mother is the guilty queen.
posted by mr_roboto at 2:51 PM on October 1, 2004

Cretainly Shakespeare lived in interesting times. Among other things [b]Tycho and Kepler[/b] by Kitty Ferguson some interesting parallels between Hamlet and Tycho Brahe. Some of the interesting coincidences.

* Both Tycho and Hamlet were educated in Lutheran Germany, an extremely unusual career path for Danish nobility at the time.

* Rosencrantz and Gildenstern were members of the Brahe family and had previously made a diplomatic visit to London in the 1590s.

* Tycho's family had been given command of Elsinore castle.

* Both Tycho and Hamlet became outsiders to Danish court society because of their education.

Of course, as with most of his plays, Shakespeare never lets history get in the way of a good story. But still, there are enough parallels to suggest that Tycho was to some degree a prototype of Hamlet.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 3:27 PM on October 1, 2004

Both Tycho and Hamlet were educated in Lutheran Germany, an extremely unusual career path for Danish nobility at the time.

Isn't Hamlet set considerably before the Reformation? I know the time at which the play is set is imprecise, but it's pretty clear at least that England is a vassal state to Denmark, which would put the play in the eleventh or twelfth century...
posted by mr_roboto at 3:59 PM on October 1, 2004

Wow. Best post in months. I loved this.
posted by Joey Michaels at 4:10 PM on October 1, 2004

mr_roboto: Isn't Hamlet set considerably before the Reformation? I know the time at which the play is set is imprecise, but it's pretty clear at least that England is a vassal state to Denmark, which would put the play in the eleventh or twelfth century...

Shakespeare tends to play fast and loose with his historical timelines. The three witches of Macbeth appear to have been expanded to appeal to King James's obsession with witchcraft. In addition, it contains a rather dubious hook to establish James as the rightful contemporary King of Scotland.

Kronborg didn't become a royal residence until 1585. Wittemberg university was not founded until 1502 and some of Hamlet's philosophical and poetic ramblings are distinctly contemporary to Shakespeare's time. Historically Hamlet as a legend seems to have undergone the same types of appropriation as King Arthur, repeatedly adapted to fit a different context.

Among other anachronisms, the choice of Cladius over Hamlet the younger as heir to the throne of Denmark is treated as problematic in Shakespeare's play. In historical fact, nobles picked their favorite member of the royal family to assume the crown and experienced, traditional Claudius is the obvious choice. But the Elizabethans loved plays with an ursurper as a villian in much the same way that we love movies with terrorists.

Hamlet seems to occupy some sort of weird time warp in that he exists in both the 12th century and the 16th century. It would not surprise me if some of the 16th century details were inspired by the life of Tycho, and the use of known associates of the real life Tycho as comic relief is highly suspicious.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 5:45 PM on October 1, 2004

Stellar! Just as I started plowing through the annotated books from the AskMeFi thread, along comes this! Portland is sunny and beautiful (and awaiting Mr St Helen's ash), and I now scurry around inside my house to see what books I'll need to get now... must remember to go outside... might make it by November...
posted by TomSophieIvy at 5:46 PM on October 1, 2004

great post, matteo.
[and homunculus - i think you're right.]
posted by ubersturm at 7:23 PM on October 1, 2004

posted by scarabic at 7:41 PM on October 1, 2004

A trgedy that the poor dispossessed son hardly knew his immensely gifted father.

One of Mefi's best ever posts. Thanks, matteo.
posted by dash_slot- at 7:41 PM on October 1, 2004

Mr. Greeblatt ils an amazing scholar and I too have read this piece iln The NY Rev Books, as well as his new book. Alas, he ignores a simple fact: if Hamlet killed his uncle as soon as the ghost had asked him to, there would no longer be 5 act play. Previously, Kyd in TheSpanish Tragedy also had a revenge play, not unlike Hamlet but a lot worse in the writing. In that play, the murdered figure (a ghost too) sits on edge of stage and urges the Evenger to stop playing about and get the job done. Whi.ch is to say: theplay filts into a tye rather than reflecting (though this nearly time as the son death, writing comedies

Greeblatt, anxious to use his historical insights in his book notes the absence of women--men so often left alone etc. Here he ignores the simple fact that women did not act on the state and thus wives and mothers difficult to stage but young girls roles played by young boys much easier.
posted by Postroad at 7:48 PM on October 1, 2004

I can't even begin to describe how much I enjoyed this post. Thanks so much, matteo.
posted by .kobayashi. at 8:11 PM on October 1, 2004

I was happy to see this posted to mefi. Another good read is Greenblatt's _Hamlet in Purgatory_. But, if you've followed Greenblatt at all since his days at _Representations_, you have to admit his latest work marks a significant turn, and not just in intended audience. I never thought he'd write a biography. Academic tides are turning, at least in Shakespeare studies, cats and dogs living together, new historicists and biographical criticism...
posted by josephtate at 11:18 PM on October 1, 2004

A wonderful post. Thanks, matteo.
posted by pmurray63 at 11:23 AM on October 2, 2004

A different interpretation of Hamlet.
posted by wobh at 7:06 AM on October 3, 2004

Great post indeed, and I add my thanks.

all words invented by shakespeare

No, all words first attested in Shakespeare. Big difference, though oft ignored. Words are rarely invented by famous authors.
posted by languagehat at 5:13 PM on October 3, 2004

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