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Home :: Archive :: 2005 :: April ::
Dating Hamlet
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 16.0695  Wednesday, 13 April 2005

From:           Robin Hamilton <
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Date:           Wednesday, 13 Apr 2005 09:51:42 +0100
Subject: 16.0677 Dating Hamlet
Comment:        Re: SHK 16.0677 Dating Hamlet

Larry Weiss <
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 >>Obviously after 1400, as cannons are blasting off right left and centre,
 >>so that makes it (leave aside China) somewhere in Western Europe in the
 >>15thC or later.
 >>
 >Right.  It occurred at about the same time as Julius Caesar, after
 >clocks were invented.

I think the question of the significance of anachronism versus the
temporal setting of a play has to be treated on a case-by-case basis,
and oddly enough, Caesar's clock is about the easiest instance to deal with.

Virtually the entire audience of +Julius Caesar+ would have at least a
general idea of when the action was supposed to take place.  Certainly
mechanical clocks (though not, for example, water clocks or other modes
of telling the hours) didn't exist in 44 BC, so a clock striking the
hour in that particular play is a *simple* anachronism, though not one
which is particularly significant, I feel.

More complex is the question of the New Testament allusions (he who
betrayed the best, for instance) in +The Winter's Tale+, in a play
seemingly set in a clearly pre-Christian time-oracles from Apollo, when
the oracles were supposed to have ceased at the moment of Christ's
birth, for goodness sake!  Add to that the sea coast of Bohemia (is
there a term for geographical "anachronisms"?) and the figure of
Autolycus who could have stepped straight off the Jacobean street and
onto the stage, and you have a play which is deliberately dislocated
from any fixed temporal or geographical locale.

+Hamlet+ is something else again.

It's obviously not set when Saxo Grammaticus' original telling was, in a
pre-Christian time, so an appeal to the source is ruled out.

And now we come back to Larry's clock.

Cannon at the beginning and soldiers being bid to shoot -- what are they
shooting, arrows in the air? -- at the end.  The play makes a fair point
of this, guns and gunpowder.

Mechanical clocks were the least of the four major innovations which
were seen as distinguishing the past from the present, Us Now and Them
Then.  The other three, The Big Three, were the printing press, the
magnetic compass and-gunpowder.

[My thanks to Norman Hinton for correcting me on the date of the origin
of the use of gunpowder in Europe, but we're still looking at about the
fourteenth century on.  Most significantly -- think of the fop who
Hotspur describes near the beginning of 1HIV -- gunpowder was
*recognised* as "recent".]

Where there are no overt indications (as there are in +Julius Caesar+)
as to the temporal location of +Hamlet+, the (assertive) presence of
gunpowder in the play is surely significant.

Then there's Wittenberg, where Hamlet studied.

The university was founded by  Frederick II of Saxony in 1502.

Perhaps equally important, the Wittenberg association would be
relatively fresh for the original audience, with the first performance
of Marlowe's +Doctor Faustus+, shortly followed by an English
translation of the Faustbook, barely ten years before +Hamlet+ was written.

Gunpowder and Wittenberg imply (to put it no more strongly) that
+Hamlet+ would be taken by its original audience as set in a
(relatively) recent point in time, certainly that rather than the remote
past.

Then there's the political situation at the end of the play, where
Denmark is left with no direct lineal ruler and the throne passes to a
relative from a neighbouring country -- who but our cousin of Norway?

Admittedly, Elizabeth's comment wasn't made until after the play was
written and performed, but the succession question was very much in the
air, with James as the obvious and favoured candidate.

Robin Hamilton

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