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Home :: Archive :: 2001 :: February ::
Re: Hamlet and the Passage of Time
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 12.0296  Wednesday, 7 February 2001

[1]     From:   Kit Gordon <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 6 Feb 2001 13:51:53 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 12.0279 Hamlet and the Passage of Time

[2]     From:   Philip Tomposki <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 6 Feb 2001 14:45:21 EST
        Subj:   RE: Hamlet and the Passage of Time

[3]     From:   Peter Groves <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 7 Feb 2001 12:24:15 +1100
        Subj:   Re: SHK 12.0279 Hamlet and the Passage of Time

[4]     From:   Paul E. Doniger <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 6 Feb 2001 19:47:19 -0800
        Subj:   SHK 12.0279 Hamlet and the Passage of Time

[5]     From:   Annalisa Castaldo <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 7 Feb 2001 07:58:17 -0500
        Subj:   RE: SHK 12.0279 Hamlet and the Passage of Time

[6]     From:   Edward Pixley <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 07 Feb 2001 11:16:42 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 12.0279 Hamlet and the Passage of Time


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Kit Gordon <
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Date:           Tuesday, 6 Feb 2001 13:51:53 -0500
Subject: 12.0279 Hamlet and the Passage of Time
Comment:        Re: SHK 12.0279 Hamlet and the Passage of Time

My reading of it is that King Hamlet has been dead for two months at the
beginning of the play, that Gertrude married Claudius about a month
later (that's what the "within a month" speech refers to, I think,
rather than the death), and that two months pass from Hamlet's encounter
with the ghost to the play-within-a-play. But this is all "theatrical"
time, which means it can be fudged at will.

Chris Gordon

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Philip Tomposki <
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Date:           Tuesday, 6 Feb 2001 14:45:21 EST
Subject:        RE: Hamlet and the Passage of Time

Part of the confusion lies in the fact that several events have
occurred, the King's death, his funeral, the marriage of Claudius and
Gertrude and Claudius's coronation.  If I'm reading the speech right,
the elder Hamlet has died within two months and the marriage took place
less than a month after.  The marriage would naturally take place after
the funeral, which is confirmed by the following exchange:

    Horatio:    My lord, I came to see your father's funeral.

    Hamlet: I pray thee, do not mock me, fellow-student;
            I think it was to see my mother's wedding.

    Horatio:    Indeed, my lord, it follow'd hard upon.

    (Act I, sc. ii, 182-85)

Where the coronation fits in I'm not sure.  Presumably, Claudius would
want it as soon as possible to forestall any challenge by Hamlet to the
throne, but I don't know how long it would take to plan a coronation in
the event of the sudden death of a king.  The ceremony for James I was
held off for about a year because of the plague in London.  I would
assume he held power in the interim.  Someone more knowledgeable on that
topic can perhaps provide a better answer.  In any case, Laertes and
Hamlet would have to wait for a suitable period after these events to
seek permission to return to their respective Universities.

As to the exchange in Act III, I would trust Ophelia's "twice two
months" rather than Hamlets two.  Some time would have to pass for
Hamlet to display his 'antic disposition', for Rosencranz & Guidenstern
to be sent for and arrive at Elsinor, and for the players to rehearse
and stage their play.  Hamlet may be exaggerating how little time has
passed, either intentionally or unconsciously.  On the other hand,
neither has a calendar in front of them at the time, so we could,
perhaps, split the difference.

Philip Tomposki

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Peter Groves <
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Date:           Wednesday, 7 Feb 2001 12:24:15 +1100
Subject: 12.0279 Hamlet and the Passage of Time
Comment:        Re: SHK 12.0279 Hamlet and the Passage of Time

Peter T. Hadorn writes <In 1.2.137, Hamlet says of his father: "But two
months dead--nay, not so much, not two. . . ." Soon it will become
"within a
month" as Hamlet telescopes time. Which is correct? >

As we know, Shakespeare isn't always consistent in these matters (he was
writing for auditors, not readers) but we don't need to exaggerate the
inconsistencies. In soliloquy Hamlet recognises that his father is "But
two months dead: nay, not so much, not two", meaning that the play opens
between four and eight weeks after Hamlet senior's death; "within a
month . . . she . . .married with my uncle" means that the wedding took
place earlier, less than four weeks after the death. No great
contradiction here. By 3.2 it is two months later, or "twice two months"
since the death according to Ophelia; Hamlet's "die two months ago, and
not forgotten yet?" is obviously rhetorical exaggeration, like the
earlier "my father died within these two hours", not serious chronology.

Peter Groves

[4]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Paul E. Doniger <
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Date:           Tuesday, 6 Feb 2001 19:47:19 -0800
Subject: Hamlet and the Passage of Time
Comment:        SHK 12.0279 Hamlet and the Passage of Time

The passage of time is a difficult problem in much of Shakespeare, and
_Hamlet_ is certainly enigmatic. The "Within a month" line from 1.2
suggests only that Gertrude married Claudius within one month of her
husband's death, not the passage of time between his death and Act 1. I
don't see much difficulty accepting two months in Act 1 and then four
months in Act 3. So much happens in between that we can suspend our
disbelief about the passage of tim rather easily. The Reynaldo scene at
the beginning of Act 2, for example, suggests at least enough time has
passed for Polonius to arrange for someone to spy on his son who is
already in France. Dover Wilson suggests that the interval was two
months (based on Ophelia's line in 3.2).

What's more difficult is Hamlet's age -- an issue that has never been
resolved satisfactorily.

Paul E. Doniger

[5]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Annalisa Castaldo <
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Date:           Wednesday, 7 Feb 2001 07:58:17 -0500
Subject: 12.0279 Hamlet and the Passage of Time
Comment:        RE: SHK 12.0279 Hamlet and the Passage of Time

I had this discussion with my class just yesterday. I suggested to them,
and now to you, that the question to ask is not "how much time has
passed?" but "why are there conflicting references to time passing in
the text?" AC Bradley has an entire note devoted to how long Hamlet's
father has been dead, but it doesn't answer any of the questions about
Hamlet's behavior (although he does suggest that the "two months" refers
to the death of his father and the "within a month" the marriage of his
mother, which neatly saves Hamlet from early inconsistency).

I think the references to time in 1.2 are meant to tell the viewer to
how "o'rehasty" this marriage really is, and Horatio's "Indeed my lord,
it followed hard upon" as well as Gertrude's comment later make clear
that Hamlet is not completely out in left field. But Ophelia's reference
to "twice two months" and Hamlet's refusal to accept that time have, I
think, different reasons. Ophelia's offhand comment is a way for
especially alert viewers (and now, obviously, readers) to realize that
some time has passed since the end of Act I. After all, there has to be
time for Ophelia to repulse Hamlet's letters, for him to act strange and
for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to be both sent for and to arrive. This
cannot happen overnight, which is what amount of time appears to pass
between 1.5 and 2.1. On the stage these questions don't often come up,
but it was kind of Shakespeare to mention it.

Hamlet's response is much more important than the exact amount of time
that passes. His refusal to give up on the "two months" shows how
fixated he is on the events of Act 1, and perhaps a touch of real
insanity in that he seems unaware of time passing (although his first
words to the Ghost suggest otherwise).

Since this isn't a novel, or a crime scene, the actual passage of time
matters a great deal less than the confusion the varying reports of time
cause. It is one more place where the play seems to have been created,
or passed down, in a deliberately ambiguous manner.

Annalisa Castaldo

[6]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Edward Pixley <
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Date:           Wednesday, 07 Feb 2001 11:16:42 -0500
Subject: 12.0279 Hamlet and the Passage of Time
Comment:        Re: SHK 12.0279 Hamlet and the Passage of Time

Peter Hadorn asks how much time has passed between Acts I and II of
Hamlet.  I've always thought that, dramatically speaking, that passage
of time was very cleverly manipulated by the playwright.

From the point of view of the audience, Act I has ended with images of a
Hamlet powerfully motivated by revenge ("that I with wings as swift as
meditation . . . may sweep to my revenge"; "Now to my word;/It is,
adieu, adieu, remember me./ I have sworn't.").  Hamlet seems filled with
urgency, and, though he suggests putting on an antic disposition and
gets his friends to swear secrecy, even these distractions have a sense
of urgency.

At the beginning of Act II, we are given no time frame, but gradually
become aware of a considerable passage of time.  1) Polonius is sending
Reynaldo to Paris to spy on Laertes (suggesting that he has been there
for a while); 2) Ophelia reports that Hamlet has been acting very
strangely (presumably as a result of the favors she has returned to
him); 3) the ambassadors have gone to Norway and have returned with
their report; 4) as a result of Hamlet's strange behavior, Claudius has
sent to Wittenberg for his school friends, and they have already
arrived.  In short, everybody else has been busily traveling all over
northern Europe, while, so far as we can tell, Hamlet's "swift wings"
have got him no further than the "lobby," where everyone is worrying
about his strange behavior.

When Hamlet finally does appear on stage, one-third of the way through
the act, he is hardly the picture of urgency.  He is reading, gulling
Polonius with word games, matching wits with R & G, and waxing
philosophical.  The most positive actions he displays in the act are to
get R & G to confess that they were sent for, to perform a theatrical
speech, and to commission a court performance by the Players.  I can't
help thinking that an audience who doesn't already know the play must be
sitting there wondering what on earth happened to Hamlet's urgency for
revenge.  Why hasn't he done something?

Then finally, when he is alone on stage, he reveals to us that this same
question is exactly what is on his mind.  Why has he not done it?  "What
a rogue and peasant slave" soliloquy is his attempt to answer that
question.  His immediate answer is that he must be a coward.  But he
rejects that and decides that it must be because he doesn't trust the
ghost.  Thus, "The Mousetrap" should put him back on track, and, of
course, it will.

This manipulation of time seems to me designed to arouse anticipation in
the audience.  By being made to wonder how much time has passed, an
audience is more likely to be alert to the signs and to notice and
wonder about the disparity in the actions of the different characters in
relation to time.  The more we notice the action of others, the more we
are likely to become curious about Hamlet's lack of action.

But -- "To be or not to be. That is the question."  -- can be read as
his third attempt to answer why he has not done it.  For Hamlet must
always dig one level deeper to "sound" his own mystery, and he realizes
that he really can't carry out the revenge because he is afraid to die
-- afraid to commit to any action that he cannot follow through to its
final consequence. This, of course, will be resolved in his developing
an existential (rather than a consequential) view of action by the end
of the play.

Ed Pixley
 

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