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Home :: Archive :: 1999 :: September ::
Re: Hamlet and Marriage Practices
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 10.1606  Thursday, 23 September 1999.

[1]     From:   Arthur D L Lindley <
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        Date:   Friday, 17 Sep 1999 09:32:40 +0800
        Subj:   Re: SHK 10.1589 Hamlet and Marriage Practices

[2]     From:   Bruce Young <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 22 Sep 1999 15:45:05 +0000
        Subj:   Re: SHK 10.1589 Hamlet and Marriage Practices


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Arthur D L Lindley <
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Date:           Friday, 17 Sep 1999 09:32:40 +0800
Subject: 10.1589 Hamlet and Marriage Practices
Comment:        Re: SHK 10.1589 Hamlet and Marriage Practices

I don't have the book to hand, but doesn't Roland Mushat Frye have a
discussion of this issue in The Renaissance Hamlet?

Arthur Lindley

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Bruce Young <
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Date:           Wednesday, 22 Sep 1999 15:45:05 +0000
Subject: 10.1589 Hamlet and Marriage Practices
Comment:        Re: SHK 10.1589 Hamlet and Marriage Practices

Yvonne Bruce wonders why, in Hamlet, Shakespeare doesn't address the
issue of "the divine 'divided opinion'" on marrying a brother's widow
and whether he may have been reticent because the situation in the play
echoes that of Henry VIII.  I don't know that Shakespeare refers
specifically to "the divine 'divided opinion'" (i.e., Leviticus vs.
Deuteronomy on whether such a marriage is incestuous).  But of course
the possible incestuousness of Claudius and Gertrude's marriage is an
issue, and I think the situation of Henry VIII is relevant to the play.

Much was written around the time of Henry VIII's divorce, on the
Continent as well as in England, about whether his marriage was
incestuous.  I don't know how much of the debate would have been
remembered 60+ years later, but certainly some sense of the issues
involved must have survived.

There was of course in Shakespeare's day a standard way of determining
the incestuousness of a marriage: the list of "forbidden degrees" of
affinity and consanguinity.  Claudius's and Gertrude's marriage would
have been incestuous by that standard.  Yet nobody in the Danish court
in the play seems to have objected to the marriage except for Hamlet.

Here (part of a chapter in a forthcoming book) are my musings on the
marriage:

Claudius and Gertrude . . . illustrate as well as any of the characters
the Renaissance commonplace that "Man and Wife are . . .  the one
ingraffed into the other, and so fastned together, that they cannot
againe be sundred" (Gataker 5).  But, of course, this commonplace also
helps explain Hamlet's view that his mother's second marriage is
incestuous.  After reviewing the text for references to incest, I ask my
students why they think Hamlet and the Ghost make the charge and why the
two characters find this kind of incest so abhorrent.  Some notice how
Gertrude's second marriage has confused the structure of family
relations, especially for Hamlet, who refers to his stepfather and
mother as "uncle-father and aunt-mother" (2.2.376).  For most, it is
obvious that Hamlet's and the Ghost's intimate connection with Gertrude
heightens their sense of the horrors of incest.  But many are baffled as
to why marriage with a brother-in-law would be considered incest in the
first place.

At this point I tell my students about "the forbidden degrees of
marriage," and I sometimes recount the story of Henry VIII and the
contemporary debate about whether his marriage to his brother's widow
was incestuous.  But the best aide I have found for helping students
understand the issue is in Hamlet itself.  When Hamlet explains his odd
insistence on calling Claudius "mother" by saying "father and mother is
man and wife, man and wife is one flesh" (4.3.49-52), he is expressing
the standard view, derived from the Bible, on which much in "the
forbidden degrees" is based: that by marrying, a man and woman become so
united as to become virtually indistinguishable (see Genesis 2:24;
Matthew 19:5-6).  Those to whom a husband and wife are related by
affinity-their in-laws-may therefore be considered virtual blood
relations.  Gertrude is not merely Claudius's sister-in-law, but his
virtual sister, since she has become "one flesh" with his brother.
Marriage with her is therefore as incestuous as marriage with his own
sister would be.

The above thoughts don't answer all the questions related to incest in
Hamlet, but they show, I think, that Shakespeare does take on the issue
of whether the Claudius-Gertrude marriage is incestuous and if so, why.

Bruce Young
 

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