Saturday, February 7, 2015

A Response to Steve Roth's "Hamlet: the Undiscovered Country"

I had thought I'd been away longer than this.  Just barely remembered how to log in.  I'm like that.  Indeed, I've been quiescent.  But I have my passions, and the following is a peek at one of them.  I'm currently immersed to bathyspheric depths in Hamlet, looking for the best commentaries etc, and, why, just today finished Steve Roth's Hamlet: the Undiscovered Country. (I really don't care for the ebook format.  What shall we do when there are no more books?) Being me (and I still am), I was overwhelmed with an irresistible compulsion to respond, so as I read through it I jotted down (can one jot when one types? - typped down) some various, um, responses.  I agree that it's a tad obscure for anyone who hasn't read the book, or play, but I refuse to be bound by your petty demands for conformity. (An easy way to get the full text into your brain is Kenneth Branagh's movie Hamlet.)  Anyways, this seemed like something I might as well refresh my little Blog  with, here.  So, the letter I just whizzed off to the author.  La!


Greetings Steve –

 Taking you up on your H:UC ebook invitation to correspond. I had meant something brief regarding only your thesis that Hamlet is aged 16, but, well, look what happened. I just kept going, and decided to note some sundry responses, reading generously but critically – what more can we hope for? I state some of the following in a declarative rather than subjunctive mood, because it’s tiresome to write, and read, a lot of “it would appear,” “it might seem,” “one should think,” “may we suppose” ... it’s tiresome already. Also, I note issues as I go, so this is unconscionably disorganized. Oh well. At least I prof red for topys.

 I expect your opinion is intractable, as is mine, but to begin, this: If Hamlet is sixteen or so, Horatio is also, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and maybe Laertes; you assert that Fortinbras is. So it’s all teens, then? Elsinore 90210? Seems literally incredible. Teenagers, yea, eleventh graders ... high school juniors. Not reliable. Judgment questionable. Foremost on a teen’s mind is not the law’s delay or the insolence of office, but whether that pimple on his nose will be gone in time for the hop, mash, mosh or whatever the kids are grooving to nowadays. Over the decades I have dealt with very many 16 year old boys; never once met one who was a man. Kings do not habitually (or safely) use schoolboys as emissaries, agents and envoys (John Q Adams, and Alexander, and other teen prodigies notwithstanding). There is much more to say, but words words words. (If Romeo was a teen it may support your argument, but Bandello, the apparent source, has him as 20 or 21.)

 You cite Young Fortinbras, his unimproved mettle, his delicate tenderness, the (disputed) time of his father’s death, as corroborative proof of Hamlet’s most extreme youth. It’s not young Hal [Henry V] (age 16 in 1Henry IV) or Essex [sometime favorite of Eliz I] or Edward IV, it’s accomplished Hotspur [in Henry IV] who would be Fortinbras to Hamlet’s Hal. Is that clear? Hamlet is to Hal as Fortinbras is to Hotspur. (Hotspur in actually was some 20 years older than Hal.) Re F’s “unimproved mettle”, it’s not about youth, it’s the ‘heat’ and ‘fullness’ of war – get it? the mettle is hot? ( Ho ho, good one, Shakespeare! ... that young Fortinbras, always spoiling for a scrap, just like his father! Scrap mettle! Very unimproved of him.) “Delicate and tender” can refer to extreme youth only if Hamlet is willing to use the same term of himself, his mettle being “dull and muddy” but as young. Seems more likely that Hamlet is being ironic. Fortinbras, Strong-Arm, warlike, willful, is not tender and delicate, as Hamlet is not dull and muddy.

 Re Caesar and Alexander, it is not their youth that would be foremost in the minds of the Elizabethans, but their world-conquests and their untimely deaths. Essex was “young”, and recently executed at the play’s opening, but aged 35, a year younger than Shakespeare (for some reason you refer to a teen Essex in your first appendix). Youth is relative. To me, 35 is young and 16 is incunabular. Elizabeth was 30 years older than her young paramour.

 Horatio was there on the ice to see Old Hamlet frown when he smote the Polacks, which bespeaks combat experience; how long ago were those Polacks smitten? (That Horatio knows the armor, need not mean much -- perhaps it was on public display.) Likewise, Ophelia states that the mind of Hamlet, courtier, soldier, scholar -- having such an eye and ear and sword -- is overthrown. Soldier: not a metaphor, since Hamlet is a scholar, and at if not in the Privy Council, so a courtier. When list-building for character traits, items should harmonize.

 Re the authority of Quarto 1 [a pirated printing of 1603, which has the Gravedigger/Clown give dates that make Hamlet aged 16] -- the fact that it reproduces the text of many passages in Q2 [authorized, 1604] and F1 [collected works, 1623], in many places word for word, and punctuation -- it seems likely to me that it was compiled via a combination of memory, perhaps note-taking, and certainly some number of actors’ scripts – who were given their own lines only and perhaps entrance cues. So when there are significant differences, it would be, say, an actor (mis)remembering other actors’ lines. I mean, really? -- “To be or not to be, aye, that’s the point...” There it goes. This hypothetical collator probably wasn’t running the numbers, doing the math to figure how old his out-of-his-butt numbers would make Hamlet. Far less authority than you would give it, that version. I suppose I could parse those lines, 3 7 12 sexten sixteen 23 30 [various year numbers that contradict in the different texts] in a variety of not entirely depraved ways. Better to let Hamlet’s conduct etc suggest his age. Not a wispy teen.

 Hamlet is clearly called youthful and young. The age range will be debatable. But when Ophelia cites his “blown youth ” – blown means mature, full-blown, like a fully blossomed flower. This is not age 16, or 17. The maturity of a young man is well out of the teens. Indeed, we would not expect a mid-teen to have a beard to be contemptuously plucked. A figure of speech? He has a pate and a face and a nose and a throat ... but no beard? I suggest the actor, Burbage [lead actor at the Globe, who first played Hamlet] say, had a real or glued-on beard for the part, as he would have worn black. Suit the word to the action.

 A point that seems not to have been noted is in the usage of the terms student, scholar and school. Horatio is Hamlet’s fellow “student”, the only appearance of that word. Horatio is a scholar thrice and Hamlet once. Rosecrans & Guildenstern are called “schoolfellows”, and Hamlet’s intent is to go back to school, at Wittenberg. The point is, what need be they schoolboys? Why not teachers? All references to being a student and schoolfellow lay in the past; Hamlet is NOT a student, at Elsinore; current is “scholar”, which at best reads ambiguously, since staff and students are scholars, and teachers “go back to school”. “Truant” can be, and is, a joke. R&G were sent for, and came to Elsinore, but whence they came is not told – we may, but need not, presume it was from Wittenberg. Thus, R&G have graduated and are available agents; Horatio is an instructor; Hamlet wishes to go back to Wittenberg doing whatever it is he does ... study, or teach, or act in the company of the Players of that City. You outright beg the question on your p.35 (“he’s a student”).

 The Gravedigger/Clown is undeniably a sexton, regardless of variant spellings of 16 or sexton. Gravedigger is a very meaning of the word sexton. So there’s that. Parsimony and Occam’s Razor. When in doubt, settle on what is sure.

 Re the three (or seven – Q1) years of which Hamlet has taken note: an idiom of 7 years denoting, uh, the unspecified passage of a while? – the 3 years since K James I took the throne? – or the passage of the Poor Laws? ... in any case, Hamlet has spent some considerable time taking notice of political and social changes. Not something a boy would do from the perspicacious coign of his pubescent 13, or his ‘tween 9, years. Adolescent means NOT an adult, but becoming one. You would apply the three/seven years to Hamlet’s contemplation of WS’s specific life-details. I refer you to the exegetical precept, and diktat: no scripture is of private interpretation.

 Sadly, any info, chronological or otherwise, that we glean from a know-it-all and logically fallacious Clown is not secure. It is (I don’t want to say absurd, or ridiculous) unrealistic to think Hamlet is 3 years out of puberty. It is bothersome that he be 30. Both irritants come from the clown, an unreliable witness. Argal, shall we dismiss this troublesome pest and go with the many statements that Hamlet is young? Well, no, you would have the data as meaningfully obtrusive, indismissible.

[The Clown as been sexton since the day Old Hamlet overcome Old Fortinbras.  When was that?  Answers the Clown, "Cannot you tell that? Every fool can tell that.  It was the very day that young Hamlet was born..."  Well.  We're told right there: every FOOL will tell you this.  What will someone say who gets his facts straight?  Something else.  And one wonders what church would put a BOY in charge as sexton; there were no adults available?  Did the clown have an assistant then, as he does now?  Was it another boy?  Suggest that he's been employed for 30 years, man and boy, and after he became a man he become sexton.  Denmark is not run by kids.  All chronological data re Hamlet's age come from the Clown.  Hamlet is not 30, and he's not 16.]

Re Yorick and his stench, we take the context to be ‘rotted away’, not ‘just starting’ to rot; somehow we just know that a body doesn’t last 8 wholesome years in the ground, and only then start to rot. If the time be nine years, then the rotting is done, and whether it be 12 or 23 years after his death, the smell will be gone by nine, let alone the 12/23. So Hamlet is making a joke, or Shakespeare is adding verisimilitude for the audience. Nothing to do with 30 years or the Clown’s facility or lack-thereof with numbers.

 Re sexten/16, if you can believe it I’ve put a short but dull discussion in an actual appendix to this letter... call it a PS. But, a reality check: if the wayward memorialist of Q1 had happened to have the Clown say he was a “Foremen” rather than a “Sexten”, would that make Hamlet Foureteene rather than Sixeteene?

 Via punctuation you can make the sexton say he’s been at it 16 years, and he’s 30 years old. Via idiosyncratic and highly elliptical punctuation (not at all natural to the text, despite contrary assertions), which amounts to a dialect and a soliloquy. Why not then a dialect of pronunciations? First and second clown, after all. Comical rustic bumpkin and so on. Look at how they pronounce words! What a scream! I’m just saying.

 Given that his six known signatures have five spellings, none of which are “Shakespeare”, that WS should write or permit to be written sexton as sexten etc. is no wild surmise. Kind of seems like what he’d do, in fact. Sixteen certainly can be spelled sexten:

 A shaky sort of backward reasoning allows us to suppose, then, that sexten might be spelled sixteen. Shakespeare wasn’t an antiquarian or a philologist. But he hyperloved wordplay, and didn’t mind being obscure. What might we expect of a man who writes with a feather.

 Re John Shakespeare’s “spiritual testament”, as it is called, I quote Peter Ackroyd’s ‘Shakespeare: the Biography’, p. 25: “It has been shown to be a standard Roman Catholic production, distributed by Edmund Campion, who journeyed to Warwickshire in 1581 and stayed just a few miles from Stratford-upon-Avon. ... It was printed or transcribed, with blanks left for the specific details of the testator. ... In this Catholic testament there is reference to the danger that ‘I may be possibly cut off in the blossome of my sins.’” The boilerplate document was not unique to William’s father, so need have no special resonance with the son. Shakespeare was simply aware of Campion’s document.  [Roth on his p.47 says "blossom(s) of my sin(s) is not a commonplace; my searches reveal no similar usages in any Elizabethan literature."]

 Typo p. 55: you mean “jibe” not “jive”. And you’re too absolute (for your then-adduced evidence) re the “at most two months” at sea ... “longest possible”. How about two and a half months, rounded down? How about something happening Jan 1, and speaking about it March 31? – two months. Hamlet’s “sudden” return may mean unexpected, rather than quick. The voyage was aborted only in that it didn’t end at England; no necessary reference to duration; so “certainly less than a week” simply misstates the case.

 When has Hamlet ever been in a hurry? A couple of months at sea accounts for his teenage attitude adjustment, as you will. The “checking of his voyage” (a falconry term meaning “turned away from the purpose”) may have been noted in Hamlet's letter, which is notable to Claudius. ‘Most Divine Potentate of the Infinite Nutshell Prison! Harken Thou! I, Hamlet the Dane, herein and -with and -al inform Your Puissant and Beautified Glory that the Sacred Envoy to England is aborted, and I hawklike intend not to complete it! Nay, rather, ‘pon the nonce I am suddenly returned to thy Boreal Littorals after lo these several months, maybe a month and half rounded-up, or perhaps two technically-calendar months but really closer to three, I can’t be sure, I’ve been preoccupied, what with all these ghosts and pirates I’m always dealing with!’ Something like that? 

Just playing now, but R&G “hold their course for England” could be King of England, and course meaning ‘fate’ ... they meet their destiny with that king; they vaguely “go to it” because Hamlet doesn’t yet know the outcome. Yeah, I know. But of your questions, most important, and neglected, is How did the English Ambassador arrive 1 day after Hamlet, to announce the deaths? It is impossible that there not have been a significant delay. It’s not a one-day trip by sea, here to there, and back. (It was a three day horse-ride from London to S on Avon; messenger-time from Wittenberg to Elsinore was 7 days.) It is not impossible to interpret the letter as allowing the passage of an infinitude of time. Perhaps I exaggerate slightly. (Laertes may already have been in Denmark, perhaps gathering an army for a coup plotted by spymaster Polonius; and there are weird sisters involved, and calibans.)

 (For linear clarity you might put your evidence for a sudden return in an appendix, not losing the discussion but more clearly supporting your following 38 days with the pirates.)

 Re Caesar’s 38 days with the pirates, if Shakespeare wanted events to transpire between Twelfth Night and Valentine’s Day, it could be at most 39 days – the pirates could have taken Hamlet on the first rather than the second day, and delivered him anytime short of Feb 14. For S to make it a deliberate echo of Caesar, he would have counted off days on the calendar, as you did, and been just as tickled at the opportunity. It’s the kind of thing a clever person might do, but it’s meaningless; it took 400 years for anyone to notice? Ah, the energy I’ve wasted on that sort of game.

 Re Ophelia’s flowers, well when do flowers come, in Denmark. Mid or late March? Then it may be real flowers. Otherwise, “fantastic”. Paper flowers, dried, herbs, twigs, crayon drawings or just crayons ... what is not the case is the mentally ill, pantomiming object interaction. That’s bad theater. The Nicol Williamson film of Macbeth has mad Lady M pushing a phantom-Macbeth out of the room. No. “Glassy stream” means “still”.

 Re Gertrude’s age: Claudius’ public naming of Hamlet as his heir is an artless complication which must later be retracted, if he’s planning to get a dynasty upon a nubile Gertrude. If, at her age, the heyday of the blood is tame – well, her sexual urge is manifest, so what shall this mean but her menopause? – which fits a Hamlet born to a teen mother, 30 years prior. (I have no problem with an, um, impregnable Gertrude. Is it Dover Wilson who so stresses Hamlet as heir?) The Oedipal issue is deeply unconvincing. Shakespeare would have known it only as incest, which Hamlet is so very incensed against. One might suppose this to be a conversion reaction, but Freud was wrong about almost everything.

 You have it that Denmark controlled “a good chunk of Norway’s territory”. This may be true, and is true historically, but the text doesn’t say so. Old Fortinbras lost some holdings under contention, but why must they have been in Norway proper? – if that’s what you mean to imply by “Norway’s territory”. All “those lands which he stood seized of” could be duchies and cities in Poland or Saxony or etc. Had Fortinbras of Norway seized lands in his own Norway? Only maybe; maybe Denmark, maybe Sweden, maybe who knows where. This is just a point of clarity; of course Denmark is an Empire. Claudius is a negotiator, subtle, and my supposition is that the scars upon England were inflicted by Old Hamlet, the warrior. Claudius does not say, “under MY Danish sword,” or “under the sword of MY Danes”. Shakespeare doesn’t show Claudius in such a light.

 That Horatio the outsider should be more tuned in to local politics than are the officers Marcellus and Bernardo, when Hortatio doesn’t even know local custom re incessant wassail-cannon-blasting, tells us that Horatio is there in these instances to allow plot explication for the groundlings. Surely Denmark is unrestful, but soldiers know gossip. It’s a narrative device, not a hint at allegiances. If Hamlet is 16, he is cadet age, and would train with those of like ability; if officer age, with officers. Falconry cries are exchanged between those who know the sport, whether they hunt together or not – Hamlet exchanged such cries with French falc’ners maybe? Swiss Guard were royal guards, de rigueur. (It’s not that you’re wrong, it’s that the strongest case is made by acknowledging and answering objections.)

 Dover Wilson observed long ago that Hamlet was observed during the To Be speech. Hamlet was hardly ever alone. [Hirsh link dead.] If Hamlet knew he was observed, betrayed by Ophelia, prior to the Nunnery outburst, then he’s just being needlessly cruel to her at that point. He is civil until then – which per Wilson is the point the spies are suspected and he tests her by asking where her father is. In “The Heart of Hamet,” Bernard Grebanier has it that “To be” is NOT a contemplation of suicide; I would have it in such a case as an assessment of the deadly risk associated with deadly action: “To get killed, or not to get killed” (which really does work much better). “It lacked form a little” best refers not to Hamlet’s preceding soliloquy, but to his raging with Ophelia ... because, you know, it lacked form a little.

 “The officers join with Horatio in duty to Hamlet, not to Claudius” -- because Horatio is Hamlet’s friend. A friend of Claudius would have reported the ghost to Claudius. Horatio is recruited by the officers not because of his allegiance, but because of his scholarship.

 Claudius committed the perfect crime, and only his conscience accuses him. No doubt the corpse of the viper was produced, a la Antony & Cleopatra. Claudius doesn’t trust Hamlet, but it’s not because he fears “that Hamlet knows something he’s not revealing,” but a coup. Two months prior he’s against sending a merely morose sonephew to Wittenberg; now he will send him mad to England. At no point so far is Claudius malevolent – aside of course from that offstage background stuff, adulterous incest and fratricidal regicide. Point is, the sea air should do Hamlet some good, and it does – if England does him harm, well that would just be a shame.

 There’s no “power play” between Claudius and Hamlet. At most Hamlet is playing quibbling and adolescent word games to unsettle Claudius, which Claudius keeps deflecting. When power is played, Claudius has it all. Off to England, not Wittenberg. That word games are adolescent doesn’t mean people grow out of them ... Shakespeare didn’t.

 Claudius the “cutpurse” isn’t about Hamlet’s ambitions but the killer’s motive – he killed for the crown. Hamlet evolves and upon his return he cites his electoral hopes. Of course Hamlet is aware that his uncle became king. But too much is made of his supposed right. Under an Electoral, non-hereditary Nordic constitution he had no more right than Claudius, and less skill. Sure, all us rabble wanted young King Hamlet, cuz he’s so handsome and popular. But as prudent Electors know, men not boys lead warring kingdoms. More, if Hamlet were underage and had clear rights, Claudius would be regent.

 Polonius’s reference to confinement would never be about prison – banishment to a country estate was the practice, among non-Borgias. Too bad they didn’t confine Ophelia. Laertes is most surely not a natural ally of Claudius, however much Polonius is. He is after retribution, and so makes an alliance. Since Gertrude’s hope was that Ophelia would be Hamlet’s wife, Claudius, so bound to his wife’s pleasure, seems not to have feared an heir from that union. Why Polonius sought to suppress a marriage that would so advance his house does speak to his loyalty to Claudius ... unless P has plans for Laertes. But that’s getting into “children of Lady Macbeth” territory. What is clear is that neither Polonius nor Laertes wants Hamlet as an inlaw. Had WS meant for us to suspect it, Claudius would have been made to imply such a marriage was most retrograde to his desire.

 A pregnant Ophelia is much stronger speculation than a 16 year old Hamlet. Lots of sexual innuendo; only one “sixeteene”. If Ophelia’s death were witnessed, as by Gertrude, there would be no doubt re suicide. If G were a witness of the broken bough, floating clothes, songs and quick sinking, a queen in her gown may not be expected to jump in after for a rescue.

 Your point re quick marriage disinheriting Hamlet is interesting. But that caudle has already done its besmirching, so what can Laertes mean? – especially if he is so tightly wound in Claudius’s camp? Nothing to do with inheritance.

 In your first appendix you give four reasons for the textual disagreement re Hamlet’s age: a needed revision, meaningless data, WS’s bad memory, or an age revision that wasn’t rationalized in previous acts. A fifth choice is that the clown is a clown who talks just to be talking and is not meant to be taken seriously (meaningless data, but serving to make a fool a fool), and a sixth is the Q1 cobbler just got it wrong, bad memory or bad penmanship or what have you. A seventh is that the obvious disagreement between whatever age the clown would have, and the Hamlet-actor’s manifest age before the audience, got a laugh – you had to be there ... you could see him counting backwards to see how old the clown would make him? the look on his face ... priceless! An eighth, likewise, is that the manifest absurdity of the age 16 was an outright and ever so clever joke, the key to which was lost with the season; or an inside joke by one author for the benefit of some other(s), as per the Theatre War – given the graveside clown-head, such a reference only needs proof to be true! (Ah, those troublemakers, Truth & Proof. How easy everything would be...)

 You may wish to move some of your Appendix D into the text prior to your Hallowmas - 12th Night - Shrovetide discussion. It reframes the discussion from Shakespeare as calendar wonk to him being plugged in to deep tradition and normative practice. [“The Stars of Hamlet” “Usher” “illustration” links dead.]

 I have taken Horatio’s “hundred count”, the officers’ “Longer, longer” and the “Not when I saw it” response to mean: on the previous two nights the officers saw it for longer, but on the third night, when H saw it, only a hundred. Perhaps everyone knows this and I’m being obtuse as to some other mystery. Purpose would be to indicate the ghost had a goal, and could/did hang around all night ... waiting for Horatio or Hamlet no doubt.

 Re the star Alderamin in the shoulder of Cephus, and its being rubbed off on the Globe at Middle Temple: Just playing here, but Middle Temple remains from “The Temple”, headquarters of the Knights Templar, which puts one in mind of the freemasons, which brings us back to Al Deramin, the strong shoulder and forearm of Cephus. (Let’s not think about Fortinbras.) Absolute speculation allows us to assert with overweening certainty that over the centuries freemasons have wrought some solitary rite which entails a right thumb firmly pressed upon such and such a spot of such and such a celestial globe, thereby wearing away a certain star. Who can prove that it’s not true? Argal... (I think Bernardo’s Star is just a poetical conceit.)

 There. I got that off my chest. Some points. Hamlet’s being a mid-teen is not a minor point. You provide many interesting thoughts worthy of discussion, but haven’t I gone on long enough? More of a conversation thing anyway, and given how reclusive I am, well, what an artist the world loses in me.

 Kind Regards,

 Jack H

 And as promised, tah dah:

 PS: Re sexten, your discussion ( certainly proves that 16 had variant spellings. We can be etymologically sure that 16 would never reasonably be spelled sixtOn. The EE sound must be somehow preserved. But SEXTON is another matter. Here Sexton appears to be rendered Sexten. In any case, it could – not need be, but could – be spelled as a phonetic or homonym sixteen. I adduce the history of the word: Medieval Latin sacristanus, Old French segrestien, Norman French segrestein, Middle English sekesteyn (and sacristan).

 What a Stratford dialect might favor I do not know; but what was Shakespeare’s inclination? To go for wordplay, ambiguity and equivocation (for which he was not hanged). The final syllable of sexton is clearly mutable: long A, short A, long I, perhaps long E, and I know not what; was it accented? – was it a schwa?

Surname variants are Sexten and Sextain; Sexstone, Sexon, Seckerson, Secretan, Sekerstein, Segerstein, Sekersteyn, Segrestan and Secrestein - here

 And here

 we have surname variants of Sexten as Saxton; and as Sexdecim, which rolls into Sextenedale and Sixteendale as placenames after Yorkshire families; Sexdecim has the placename S. Valles; Sixtedale, Sixtendale, Sexendale, Sixendale etc. all are troublesome Brit variant of Thixendale, “a village on the wolds in the East Riding.” Hm. Is it valid to analogize surnames, placenames and jobnames? That is the question. If it be, well then. Observe that in this usage, of placenames, sex is rendered six, contra your Kindle p. 29.



Steve Roth said...

Hah! I can't believe I just came across this, searching (as I do periodically) for Alderamin "middle temple". Great thoughts, thanks. I will try to respond carefully soon!

Thanks again,


Jack H said...

How odd. I sent this to your email address some weeks ago. Didn't want to, you know, harass you: "Hey dude! Didjuh git it!?!?! Huh?? Huh????? That email??? Yeah????" I suppose it registered as junk mail. I elect to not be insulted. (Kidding.) Feel free.