How Many Years Had Hamlet the Dane?
Aside from the two old chestnuts of Hamlet criticism—Hamlet’s character and Hamlet’s delay—probably no other topic has engaged Shakespeare fans more than the thorny problem of his age: is Hamlet sixteen or thirty? Whether you’re wandering through classes discussing Hamlet, lurking the boards at rehearsal, eavesdropping in the bar after a performance, or perusing the online discussions, you find people of all stripes tangling with this key contradiction.
In two blatant references in the accepted text that most people have read, the gravedigger says Hamlet is thirty. But the original texts are far less definitive (downright contradictory is more like it). And aside from these and two other items in the text, everything else about the play—including the gravedigger himself—contradicts the gravedigger’s statements.
When I first tackled this problem, the obvious course was to see if the critics had already solved it. Not surprisingly, I’m not the first to dig through these old bones. Every major critic in the last century and a half has noted the oddly obtrusive discrepancy between the gravedigger’s lines and the overall impression of Hamlet’s youth given throughout the play. At least a dozen critics have addressed the issue, with comments ranging from lengthy discourses to terse footnotes to dismissive asides. (You’ll find a rundown of their discussions in Appendix A, and transcripts of some commentaries at princehamlet.com.)
It’s important to realize that there are actually three texts of Hamlet, and that they disagree in many particulars, large and small. In his 1932 Manuscript of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, J. D. Wilson finds more than 2,000 variants between the two main texts alone—1,300 of which he considers to be “of any importance.” Whole speeches are absent from each of those two versions. So a lot of the discussion inevitably centers on whether and when Shakespeare (and/or others) revised the play. Scholarly consensus is nonexistent. But somewhere in that process, these contradictions arose.
Some have speculated that the gravedigger’s lines were added at some point for Shakespeare’s star partner in The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, Richard Burbage, who was thirty years old when Shakespeare’s Hamlet debuted in 1600/1601. (We know Burbage played Hamlet, but we don’t know when.) Many other equally unproveable speculations are possible.
We do know this: the Elizabethan theater scene was a lot like Hollywood when it came to scripts. Many were created by more than one writer, and many if not most suffered revision at multiple hands—often when old plays were restaged in later years. And Shakespeare was as savvy as any Hollywood script doctor. When it comes to rewriting key passages for Burbage or any other purpose, you can almost hear the call from the director to the writer echoing down those 400 years: “Script!”
But it’s also possible, as explained below, that these 30-year references ended up in the play inadvertently, in the course of revision, editing, copying, proofreading, and publication.
After reading through all the critics’ wrangling, what surprises me most is that none of them has explored the issue of Hamlet’s age exhaustively. Most items covered in this chapter have been discussed by at least one critic; others have been debated by many. But no one has tackled them all, and some have not been discussed at all. Most critics these days avoid the whole topic.
One important recent discussion, for instance, is by Professor Harold Bloom, our current defender of the Western canon, modern-day bardolater, and Hamlet eulogist. He evades the question entirely in his 1998 Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human: “When we first encounter him, Hamlet is a university student who is not being permitted to return to his studies. He does not appear to be more than twenty years old, yet in Act V he is revealed to be at least thirty, after a passage of a few weeks at most. And yet none of this matters: he is always both the youngest and the oldest personality in the drama.”
Put aside Professor Bloom’s faulty calendar arithmetic. (The action encompasses four months, as explained below and detailed in Chapter Two.) “None of this matters”? If not, then for discussions of Hamlet, nothing matters. (This is arguably the case, especially if you adopt Hamlet’s “the rest is silence” existentialism. But like the existentialists, I choose to pretend that this stuff is actually important.) Just saying that Hamlet is “both the youngest and the oldest personality” is less than satisfying.
So I had to go looking for the answer myself. And I found it. Hamlet is a teen.
At this point most of you are scrambling for your Arden or your Riverside, to Act 5, Scene 1, the graveyard scene. “It’s right there!” you’re sputtering. “It says he’s thirty!”
And it’s true; in the accepted, edited texts that almost everyone reads, the gravedigger says that he started as sexton (gravedigger, bell-ringer, church cleaner) the day that young Hamlet was born, and that he’s “been sexton here, man and boy, thirty years.” And not fifteen lines later, the gravedigger says of Yorick, “Here’s a skull now hath lien you i’ th’ earth three and twenty years.” If Hamlet rode on Yorick’s shoulders and kissed his lips at age four or seven, Hamlet is 27 or 30. These oddly obtrusive items, plus two others discussed below, seem to bend over backwards to set Hamlet’s age at thirty.
But I just plain knew this was wrong. The play doesn’t make sense if Hamlet is thirty. So I went back to my Riverside, and in the textual notes I discovered what I’d halfway expected. The earliest published version of Hamlet (the First Quarto, a.k.a. “Q1,” published in 1603) omits the gravedigger’s 30-year statement entirely, and has Yorick in the ground only 12 years instead of 23—making Hamlet 16 or 20. G. Blakemore Evans, the Riverside’s textual editor, adds the unembellished comment, “Q1 thus makes Hamlet a very young man.”
But how reliable is the First Quarto of 1603? It’s definitely one of the “bad” quartos; it’s half the length of the Second Quarto (1604) and First Folio (1623). (Scholars disagree on which of these is the most authoritative.) And what’s left in Q1 is in many cases a travesty rather than a tragedy, probably set down from memory by the actor who played Marcellus and perhaps other roles, including Voltemand. (“To be, or not to be, I there’s the point,/To Die, to sleepe, is that all? I all:” It just gets worse from there.)
Given how badly many scenes are savaged in Q1, the tendency of critics is to throw most of it out as garbage. (Many find interest in the stage directions, as presumed accounts of actual performances.) But there are hundreds of lines that vary by only a word or spelling here, or a punctuation mark there. If the text’s from memory, it’s from an actor’s memory. And that actor—Shakespeare’s fellow player and Hamlet’s first editor—clearly thought that Hamlet was a youth.
Q1 is a contemporaneous report from an active and memory-trained participant in some of the earliest performances of Hamlet. It doesn’t have the authority of Shakespeare’s pen, but it has a third-party authority on the play’s early presentations that the rewrite artist and his editors, proofreaders, and correctors can’t claim. Professor Jenkins disagrees: “the only conclusion to be drawn...is that the reporter had a poor memory for numbers.” But given the additional evidence from the more authoritative texts detailed here, that is not the only conclusion.
This discovery in Q1 led to another contradiction in the far more authoritative First Folio text. In F1, the gravedigger’s line reads, “Why heere in Denmarke: I have bin sixeteene heere, man and Boy thirty yeares.” This “sixeteene” is ignored or at best buried in the textual footnotes in every modern edition.
The line as printed seems at first to make no sense; it embodies the very contradiction this chapter discusses. But it’s quite easily and reasonably parsed: “I have been gravedigger here for sixteen years, and I’ve been living here in Denmark man and boy for thirty.” (Thanks to Christopher Gauntt for putting me on this track.) Replacing the comma with a dash in modern editions would make it quite clear for today’s readers. (All modern-spelling editions make free with changes to punctuation in aid of clarity.)
“Why here in Denmark. I have been sixeteene here—man and boy thirty years.”
It’s the gravedigger who’s 30, not Hamlet. His apprenticeship in the trade started at the normal age for Elizabethans, about fourteen.
The only way to make the line read otherwise is to replace “sixeteene” with “sexton” (which is what somebody, at some point, seems to have done in Q2, which reads “sexten”). But “Sixeteene” is patently not a variant spelling of “sexton.” Only 72 lines before F1’s “sixeteen,” “Sextons Spade” is spelled quite correctly (though typically without the apostrophe). In Much Ado, where “sexton” appears more than a dozen times, neither the quarto nor folio versions include any variant like this.
In a search of publications between 1590 and 1625 in Chadwyck-Healy’s Literature Online (LION) full-text database of early modern texts, there’s not a single instance of “sexton” spelled even vaguely like this one. Out of a couple of dozen (wildly) variant spellings for “sexton” cited in the Oxford English Dictionary, only one usage begins with “six”—this one. There are many usages of “sixeteene” in LION, though (see examples at princehamlet.com). They all mean “sixteen.”
In Osric and Hamlet’s wager count of Barbary horses and French rapiers in F1, “sixe” is used three times while “six” is used once. And Hamlet speaks to the First Player of “some dosen or sixteene lines.” The “e” seems to be entirely optional in F1. (Q1 and Q2 use “six...” throughout; Q2 speaks twice of a “sexten,” while Q1 never mentions one.) “Sixeteene” was a quite common spelling in Shakespeare’s day (though “sixteeene” was by far the most common)
“Sixeteene” is a completely unheard-of spelling for “sexton”; in F1 it clearly means “sixteen.”
This is one instance where a simple and obvious reading has been buried in the “accepted” text by dozens of editors’ (largely silent) emendations over the centuries. But it can’t just be ignored if we give F1 the authority it deserves. It says quite clearly that Hamlet is 16. (Though as I argue in Chapter Two, I believe he turned seventeen during his sea voyage.)
Like Q2, F1 does have the 23-year Yorick line, not 12 years as in Q1. How can we account for that? I can only say that given all the evidence in this chapter, Q1’s 12-year reading is more credible; it conforms to everything else in the play.
How did it get changed to 23 in Q2 and F1? There have been many possible (and diverse) speculations about the play’s 20- or 30-year course of emendation, editing, and publication, buttressed by mountains of scholarship, but none rises above the level of surmise and supposition. There’s just not enough evidence to know.
Even the gravedigger puts the lie to his own thirty-year lines, in another of his oddly intrusive date statements. Immediately after the sexten/sixeteene line, Hamlet asks him, “How long will a man lie i’ th’ earth ere he rot?” “Eight or nine year,”answers the gravedigger (in all three versions). “A tanner will last you nine year.”
Not thirty lines later, with Yorick’s skull in hand, Hamlet comments that his “gorge rises” and he asks Horatio if Alexander’s skull was similar: “And smelt so? pah!” If a buried corpse decays in nine years, would it reek with the play’s ubiquitous decay after 23? Hamlet is not complaining of the smell of freshly dug earth here. (And Yorick was not a tanner, after all—though one might suppose that his flagons of Renish could have had preservative value.) Yorick can’t have been in the ground more than a dozen years. This little date-laden interchange is directly between the two lines that, in the accepted text, so insistently set Hamlet’s age at thirty. Something rotten here.
To diverge for a moment from the graveyard: There are two other items in the play that strongly suggest Hamlet is thirty—the “Murder of Gonzago” play, and an offhand comment by Gertrude in the swordfight scene.
Gonzago opens with the Player King’s “Full thirty times hath Phoebus’ cart gone round/…/And thirty dozen moons…/About the world have times twelve thirties been,/Since love our hearts and Hymen did our hands/Unite comutual in most sacred bands.”
Since the Player King and Queen are clearly representations of Old Hamlet and Gertrude, this repetitive insistence on thirty years (plus thirty days) since their marriage is hard to ignore in light of the gravedigger’s words. Řsterberg and Jenkins have discounted it as mere formula-speak, but the insistence on thirty years is undeniably there, and you can’t just ignore its echo in the gravedigger’s lines.
Like the gravedigger’s thirty-year statements, though, this snippet doesn’t appear in Q1. The Player King says, “Full fortie yeares are past, their date is gone,/Since happy time ioyn’d both our hearts as one.” This thirty-year parallel tastes of the many direct echoes that pepper the play; it’s likely to have been composed or adjusted—by whom and when is unclear—with the gravedigger’s 30-year lines in mind. (See Appendix C for the source and more on the implications of the “Thirty dozen moons” passage.)
The only other item that suggests Hamlet is beyond his youth—Gertrude’s comment during the swordfight that Hamlet is “fat and scant of breath”—doesn’t appear in Q1 or F1, and it just reeks of a rewrite for a huffing Burbage that would draw a laugh from the pit. It’s also a grim echo, in this death scene, of Hamlet’s “we fat all creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for maggots.”
Several scholars over the years, by the way, have suggested that Burbage’s weight (which some have pegged rather exactly at 250 pounds) made the “fat and scant of breath” line a telling indicator. But on digging, I discovered that the only support those scholars had for Burbage’s supposed corpulence was...this very line. It’s a circular myth that keeps cropping up, but has no legs.
If all we had were the discrepancies between the two gravedigger’s statements in the Q1 and F1/Q2 editions, it would be easy to attribute them to numerical error by the Q1 reporter. But of the four items in the text that set Hamlet’s age at thirty—two by the gravedigger, one by the player king, and one by Gertrude—all are missing from or contradicted by Q1, the most telling (“I have been sexten/sixteene here”) is contradicted by F1, and all are contradicted by the gravedigger himself.
There’s one other mildly persuasive and interesting item supporting Q1’s “heres a scull hath bin here this dozen yeare”: many critics have suggested that Yorick is a subtle elegy to Richard Tarleton, the most famous of Elizabethan comic actors and a favorite jester to the queen. Tarleton died in September, 1588—twelve years before the first performances of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
Only two dozen lines after the gravedigger’s thirty-year references, Hamlet conjures up some of the most haunting imagery of the scene: “Why may not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander….” Alexander’s name is repeated like an incantation, five times in a dozen lines. And a dozen lines later, Hamlet invokes “Imperious Caesar, dead and turn’d to clay….”
Consider: Alexander led his father’s armies into battle at sixteen. He became king at nineteen, following his father’s murder. (And by the time he died at age thirty-one, he had conquered the known world.) Caesar, likewise, was thrust into the machinations of power after his father’s death, at age sixteen, and was leading men into battle at eighteen. (For more on Caesar cum Hamlet, see Chapters 2 and 5, on Hamlet and Caesar’s times with pirates.)
Alexander’s life was common Elizabethan fare, and London theatergoers had been treated to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar multiple times in the years preceding Hamlet’s release. The parallel between young Hamlet and those warlike young sovereigns—lodged here in the scene that so consciously and repeatedly sets times, durations, and ages—is more than suggestive. Certainly the classics-battered Oxford and Cambridge denizens and graduates would have copped to it.
Speaking of young warriors, let’s look to Fortinbras. We know—as we know most things, from the gravedigger—that young Hamlet was born on the day old Hamlet slew old Fortinbras in single combat. Fortinbras must have been conceived before that day, or he’d be hard-pressed to claim his princehood. So he is at most nine months Hamlet’s junior. Ignore Professor Bloom’s reference to “the younger Fortinbras.” If Hamlet’s thirty, Fortinbras is thirty or older.
But of the eight times in the play that Fortinbras is mentioned by name, in four of them he is called “young Fortinbras.” This of a prince whose namesake father died at least sixteen years ago. Of the four instances remaining, in one Fortinbras is referring to himself; in another he’s just been called ‘young Fortinbras’; and in a third, Hamlet is giving him his dying word of succession.
Fortinbras is still under his ailing uncle’s thumb; he and his army are brought up with a round turn after Claudius’s embassy to old Norway via Voltemand and Cornelius: “...he sent out to suppress/His nephew’s levies...sends out arrests/On Fortinbras, which he, in brief, obeys,/Receives rebuke from Norway, and in fine,/Makes vow before his uncle…”
Even more telling, in his “How all occasions do inform against me” soliloquy, as Hamlet watches Fortinbras’s scrounged-together army pass through Denmark, Hamlet refers to Fortinbras as “a delicate and tender prince.”
Now consider that Hamlet is speaking of a roughshod, warlike young prince. Horatio tells us that Fortinbras, “Of unimproved mettle hot and full,/Hath in the skirts of Norway here and there/Shark’d up a list of lawless resolutes/For food and diet…” He’s leading twenty thousand troops to “gain a little patch of ground/That hath in it no profit but the name,” to “fight for a plot/Whereon the numbers cannot try the cause,/Which is not tomb enough and continent/To hide the slain.”
If this warlike Fortinbras were 30, even 25, even 21—in full beard and strength of arms—would Hamlet describe him as “a delicate and tender prince”? Would Horatio speak of his “unimproved mettle”? This Hamlet (and Laertes) alter-ego, this brash young sovereign, brings Hal, Edward IV, and Essex to mind (and Alexander and Caesar), not Brutus or Henry IV. Fortinbras has got to be a teen. And if he’s a teen, so is Hamlet.
Fortinbras isn’t the only one who’s spoken of as a young man. Horatio, Laertes, Polonius, the ghost, all refer to Hamlet as a youth. Hamlet even does it himself. Here are the main examples:
Horatio to Bernardo and Marcellus
“Let us impart what we have seen tonight/Unto young Hamlet.”
Laertes to Ophelia
“For Hamlet, and the trifling of his favor,/Hold it a fashion and a toy in blood,/A violet in the youth of primy nature;”
|Polonius to Ophelia
“he is young”
|Ghost to Hamlet
“I could a tale unfold whose lightest word/Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,”
“but know, thou noble youth,/The serpent that did sting thy father’s life,/Now wears his crown.”
Claudius to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
“being of so young days brought up with him,/And sith so neighbour’d to his youth and havior,”
||“This mad young man”
Every reference to Hamlet in the play that refers to age casts him as a youth. And an elegy to Richard Burbage by Joseph Fletcher, circa 1619, does as well (and shows that Burbage did in fact pull off the personation of youth); it refers to Burbage’s roles as “young Hamlet, old Heironymo…” Laertes, Ophelia, and Osric, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, likewise, are repeatedly referred to as youths. (I won’t bother you with all those citations, though they’re easily compiled.)
All these references to Hamlet’s youth aren’t surprising; we find out in his first scene that he’s a student at Wittenberg, “intent in going back to school.” The student theme is a constant throughout the play—in Hamlet’s relationship to Horatio, to his “schoolfellows” Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, to Laertes, even in his banter with the players.
If nothing else in the play convinced us, this in itself should make clear that Hamlet is a teen. The reference to Wittenberg is anachronistic—it was a center of learning in Shakespeare’s time, not Hamlet’s—but whichever period you’re referring to, princes didn’t go to school at age thirty. To choose one example of many: Henry Wriothesley, the flamboyant young Earl of Southampton, to whom Shakespeare dedicated Venus and Adonis and Rape of Lucrece, entered St. John’s College, Cambridge, at age 12; he was finished with the sober drudgeries of university and carousing at court by age 17. That was an Elizabethan nobleman’s normal pattern. A career more typical of our time, but still accelerated, was playwright Christopher Marlowe’s (from the citizen or artisan class, not the aristocracy): he took his B. A. at age 20, and his M. A. at 23. I’ve compiled many other examples at princehamlet.com.
In 400 years, no critic has given a reasonable explanation that I’ve found of why a 30-year-old Hamlet would still be a student.
J. W. Hales did take a stab at it in 1876, quoting Thomas Nashe’s 1592 Pierce Pennilesse. In the course of vilifying the Danes, Pierce says, “For fashion sake some will put their children to schoole, but they set them not to it till they are foureteene yeere olde: so that you shall see a great boy with a beard learne his A B C. and sit weeping under the rod, when he is thirtie yeeres old.” Given Pierce’s disregard of fact throughout this screed, though (and Nashe’s apparent ignorance of things Danish), this can hardly be taken as reliable historical report. Shakespeare was keenly aware of Nashe’s works (the body of evidence is too extensive to detail here), so Pierce’s extended calumny of the besotted Danes is perhaps the very passage that Hamlet complains of to Horatio: “This heavy-headed revel east and west/Makes us traduc’d and tax’d of other nations./They clip us drunkards, and with swinish phrase/Soil our addition.”
Some critics have tried to explain the student discrepancy by suggesting that the duration of the play is thirteen years. But the text of the play makes this impossible. I explore all these references in detail in Chapter Two, but a summary is useful here. (See the graphical timeline at the end of the book.)
• When the play opens, Hamlet tells us that old Hamlet is “but two months dead.”
• In the mousetrap scene, Ophelia says old Hamlet has been dead “twice two months.” So two months have passed. Hamlet leaves immediately for England (after excoriating his mother and disposing of Polonius).
• When Claudius is conscripting Laertes into his plot to kill Hamlet, he says that Lamord, a gentleman of Normandy, had spoken highly of Laertes’ swordsmanship “in Hamlet’s hearing…two months since.” So Hamlet has been gone on his sea voyage less than two months when he returns in the very next (graveyard) scene—at most six months after his father’s death, four months from the beginning of the play.
• Multiple references in the text (detailed in Chapter Two) show that it’s less than a day between Hamlet’s return in the graveyard scene and the swordfight.
So the action spans four months at most. Hamlet has developed in those four months, but he sure hasn’t turned thirty.
Given that Shakespeare lifted the basic plot of his play from earlier sources (as T. S. Eliot said, “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal”), it’s worth looking at those sources to see how old the prince is.
Shakespeare’s main source, directly or indirectly, was the Amleth story in F. de Belleforest’s five-volume French publication, Le Cinquiesme Tome des Histoires Tragique, published in France in various editions between 1570 and 1582. That story was in turn borrowed from the Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus’s Latin Gesta Danorum, written circa 1200 and published in 1514. Belleforest’s version speaks of the uncle’s concern that if Amleth “once attained to man’s estate, he would not long delay the time to revenge the death of his father.” (This is actually from an anonymous English translation of Belleforest’s version, published in London in 1608—eight years after Hamlet debuted—but perhaps circulating in manuscript or a lost earlier edition prior to that.)
So in Belleforest, the prince is not a man yet. But there is a good chance that Shakespeare did not have (or could not read) Belleforest’s French version—that he took the story from an earlier and now lost play which scholars call the Ur-Hamlet, usually attributed to playwright Thomas Kyd. The Ur-Hamlet was based on Belleforest, and we know from contemporary references that it was played by Shakespeare’s company and perhaps others between 1589 and 1594, and perhaps in late 1599/early 1600.
It’s possible that the Ur-Hamlet playwright changed the hero’s age from pre-adult to 30, and that Shakespeare adopted that when he wrote his play, but there’s no reason to think that happened. And I personally tend to side with Harold Bloom and Peter Alexander in believing the Ur-Hamlet to be Shakespeare’s own early attempt at Hamlet (perhaps co-authored with Kyd), brought to fruition a decade later—in which case we’re back with Belleforest as Shakespeare’s source.
And in Belleforest, the prince has not “attained to man’s estate.”
So there’s all sorts of evidence in and surrounding the play showing that Hamlet is a teen. But beyond all this “hard” evidence, there’s Hamlet’s character. In addition to being brilliant, noble, acceptably eloquent, and all those other things we love about him, at least until the final act he’s naďve (“meet it is I set it down/That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain!”), peevish, petulant, wildly changeable from moment to moment, maddeningly and intransigently judgmental, a know-it-all theater critic, and a shallow philosopher who actually believes he can solve the eternal human problems that nobody else has succeeded at. If that’s not a teenager, what is?
And if Hamlet’s a teen, many other mysteries in the play come clear—from big questions of character and motivation to some seemingly intractable quibbles and puns. That’s where I go in Chapters Three through Five—to the implications of Hamlet’s youth.
But before I get to that, in Chapter Two I track down the dozens of date and time references that are embedded throughout the play. Because there’s new matter there—more than I ever thought possible to find in this oh-so-discovered country.