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Home :: Archive :: 2005 :: February ::
A Claudius Question
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 16.0290  Monday, 14 February 2005

[1]     From:   Abigail Quart <
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        Date:   Friday, 11 Feb 2005 12:28:32 -0500
        Subj:   RE: SHK 16.0272 A Claudius Question

[2]     From:   Greg McSweeney <
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        Date:   Friday, 11 Feb 2005 16:35:07 -0500
        Subj:   Replies to Claudius Question

[3]     From:   Janet Costa <
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        Date:   Friday, 11 Feb 2005 15:40:54 -0800 (PST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 16.0272 A Claudius Question

[4]     From:   John Ramsay <
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        Date:   Saturday, 12 Feb 2005 04:14:49 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 16.0272 A Claudius Question

[5]     From:   Robin Hamilton <
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        Date:   Saturday, 12 Feb 2005 14:21:34 -0000
        Subj:   Re: SHK 16.0272 A Claudius Question

[6]     From:   D Bloom <
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        Date:   Saturday, 12 Feb 2005 13:46:22 -0600
        Subj:   RE: SHK 16.0272 A Claudius Question

[7]     From:   Larry Weiss <
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        Date:   Sunday, 13 Feb 2005 23:42:33 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 16.0272 A Claudius Question

[8]     From:   Bruce Brandt <
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        Date:   Monday, 14 Feb 2005 12:34:46 -0600
        Subj:   RE: SHK 16.0272 A Claudius Question


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Abigail Quart <
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Date:           Friday, 11 Feb 2005 12:28:32 -0500
Subject: 16.0272 A Claudius Question
Comment:        RE: SHK 16.0272 A Claudius Question

It was an aethling system, wasn't it?  The nobles (rich guys) got
together and decided which one of them would be the leader. The nice
thing about the system, as opposed to primogeniture, is that it assured
that the king would have majority support going in, and that no infant
or idiot would be king.  Historically, the real motive for Duncan's
murder in Macbeth is that Duncan abolished the aethling system, in which
Macbeth had a fair chance of becoming king at Duncan's death, when he
appointed his son, Malcolm, Prince of Cumberland, making it the position
of royal heir, like the Prince of Wales in Britain.

So, yeah, Claudius could have been older. Could have been a twin, too.

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Greg McSweeney <
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Date:           Friday, 11 Feb 2005 16:35:07 -0500
Subject:        Replies to Claudius Question

I just wanted to thank the people who responded off-list to my question
about King Hamlet and Claudius, their ages, and primogeniture. They were
very helpful. Several respondents mentioned the elections, which I was
aware of-especially when the Prince talks about Claudius "popping"
between them and him. So does this sound right? Eligibility for the
monarchy depends on one's status as a royal, and from that eligible pool
of candidates, the population elects a suitable king?

Do we think that Claudius would have been a defeated candidate in the
election won by King Hamlet? In his inaugural speech (1.2) Claudius
seems to believe he has the support of the population; is this just an
example of his smoothing things over with his brilliant rhetoric? Or has
he genuinely won over the rabble by marrying Gertrude? And why aren't
other characters as outraged as Hamlet is at the haste of his mother's
remarriage? Or am I being anachronistic?

Thanks again -

Greg McSweeney
Montreal

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Janet Costa <
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Date:           Friday, 11 Feb 2005 15:40:54 -0800 (PST)
Subject: 16.0272 A Claudius Question
Comment:        Re: SHK 16.0272 A Claudius Question

Greg McSweeney: "a student has asked me why Hamlet's father had been
king instead of Claudius in the first place."

Greg:

Primogeniture was not an issue in Denmark in this period. The earliest
recorded date for an elected monarch is 958 ACE, and Denmark remained an
elective monarchy until 1660-1661. In 1849, Denmark became a
constitutional monarchy.

Now, in this elected monarchy, succession was limited to the royal
house, but not to just the male line. It was possible for nephews,
cousins, and women to gain the crown.

Vague reference is made to these circumstances in two places of which I
am aware. When Hamlet returns from England, he tells Horatio:

He that hath killed my king, and whored my mother;
Popped in between the election and my hopes... (4.2)

Further on, when Claudius explains to Laertes why he has not taken
action with Hamlet, Claudius offers him two reasons, one of which is
Gertrude and the other:

The other motive,
Why to a public count I might not go,
Is the great love the general gender bear him;
Who, dipping all his faults in their affection,
Would, like the spring that turneth wood to stone,
Convert his gyves to graces; so that my arrows,
Too slightly timbered for so loud a wind,
Would have reverted to my bow again,
And not where I had aimed them. (4.7.18-26)

I teach Hamlet quite often, and the family structure and the elected
monarchy are sometimes difficult concepts to understand. I hope this helps.

[4]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           John Ramsay <
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Date:           Saturday, 12 Feb 2005 04:14:49 -0500
Subject: 16.0272 A Claudius Question
Comment:        Re: SHK 16.0272 A Claudius Question

 >I've looked around for the answer to this probably-stupid question, and
 >can't find anything definitive. Perhaps someone here could help me out.
 >
 >I'm teaching Hamlet and Lear this semester, and a student has asked me
 >why Hamlet's father had been king instead of Claudius in the first
 >place. If I'd ever thought about it, which I hadn't, I probably would
 >have assumed that Claudius was the younger brother, and that Hamlet was
 >king through primogeniture. I don't recall textual reference to this in
 >the play, nor can I find the question addressed in critical material.
 >
 >Primogeniture will come up in the discussion of Edmund and Edgar, of
 >course, but I don't want to jump the gun and make a similar statement
 >about Hamlet and Claudius if I'm just speculating.
 >
 >Am I right or wrong?
 >
 >Thanks -
 >
 >Greg McSweeney
 >Montreal

Look in the text. It's clear that 'election' rather than primogeniture
applied in Denmark at that time.

If it did not historically then WS was employing dramatic license.
Something he was rather good at -:)

John Ramsay

[5]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Robin Hamilton <
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Date:           Saturday, 12 Feb 2005 14:21:34 -0000
Subject: 16.0272 A Claudius Question
Comment:        Re: SHK 16.0272 A Claudius Question

Greg:

 >I'm teaching Hamlet and Lear this semester, and a student has asked me
 >why Hamlet's father had been king instead of Claudius in the first
 >place. If I'd ever thought about it, which I hadn't, I probably would
 >have assumed that Claudius was the younger brother, and that Hamlet was
 >king through primogeniture. I don't recall textual reference to this in
 >the play, nor can I find the question addressed in critical material.

Someone else will probably be able to give a better answer than this,
but . . .

The default audience-assumption for those watching _Hamlet_ would be
that title came with (male) primogeniture, thus Old Hamlet as the elder
brother trumped Claudius.

But at points Shakespeare plays with the idea of an elective Danish
monarchy, with the constituency drawn from those close to the throne,
which is why Claudius, rather than Young Hamlet, can succeed Old Hamlet.

 >Primogeniture will come up in the discussion of Edmund and Edgar, of
 >course, but I don't want to jump the gun and make a similar statement
 >about Hamlet and Claudius if I'm just speculating.

Edmund is ruled-out on two counts -- not only (which he makes a big
thing about) is he illegitimate, but even if he *were* legitimate, he'd
be the younger brother.

Robin Hamilton

[6]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           D Bloom <
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Date:           Saturday, 12 Feb 2005 13:46:22 -0600
Subject: 16.0272 A Claudius Question
Comment:        RE: SHK 16.0272 A Claudius Question

You can't find anything definitive because the play is operating in
three worlds at once: the Renaissance (or Late Medieval) world in which
primogeniture is institutionalized; the early Medieval world of the
semi-legendary Amlethus in which kingship is elective within the royal
family (so that King Hamlet was elected ahead of Claudius, Claudius
ahead of Prince Hamlet, and Fortinbras (apparently a cousin) ahead of
some non-royal Dane); and the never-never-land of the stage (or
Shakespeare's imagination, whichever you prefer).

The play makes clear that the early Medieval world is primary since the
election is referred to several times. But Shakespeare and his audience
would have believed firmly that primogeniture was best. I have long
assumed a bias against Claudius even before the Ghost's revelations
because he took advantage of the situation (the existence of the
election and the absence of Hamlet in Wittenberg) to gain a crown that
should rightly have gone to the son, even if custom allowed him to do so.

The Edgar / Edmund business, since it has to do with legitimacy rather
than primacy, is connected to Hamlet / Claudius / Hamlet business only
in the jealousy and viciousness of the usurper.

Cheers,
don

[7]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Larry Weiss <
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Date:           Sunday, 13 Feb 2005 23:42:33 -0500
Subject: 16.0272 A Claudius Question
Comment:        Re: SHK 16.0272 A Claudius Question

Primogeniture is probably a likely assumption, but it is not a necessary
one.  Denmark's kings were elected, as WS reflected in the play.  If
Claudius was in fact the older brother, that would add an interesting
dimension to the council's selection of Old Hamlet and an additional
reason for Claudius to be resentful, especially as he was almost
certainly the abler leader.  But there is no reason to believe he was older.

[8]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Bruce Brandt <
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Date:           Monday, 14 Feb 2005 12:34:46 -0600
Subject: 16.0272 A Claudius Question
Comment:        RE: SHK 16.0272 A Claudius Question

Primogeniture is the wrong assumption. Here are two notes from Harold
Jenkins Arden edition:

1.  "Hamlet our dear brother] On the succession. The succession by a
king's brother rather than his son was permitted by the system of an
elective monarchy, which Denmark in fact had. See G. Sj

 

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