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Home :: Archive :: 2005 :: April ::
Dating Hamlet
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 16.0753  Thursday, 21 April 2005

From:           Steve Sohmer <
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Date:           Wednesday, 20 Apr 2005 11:19:23 EDT
Subject: 16.0735 Dating Hamlet
Comment:        Re: SHK 16.0735 Dating Hamlet

Dear Friends,

Colin Cox errs when he alleges that "Shakespeare makes no bones about
time or setting." Shakespeare filled his plays with scenes set on
specific days of the week, on solar and lunar holy days, even on the
solstice. Moreover, Shakespeare set certain of his plays in specific
years, e.g. the annus praesens of Romeo and Juliet is 1582, of Merchant
of Venice is 1596, and Othello is 1603.

If Wells and Taylor are moderately correct about the dates and sequence
of the writing of the plays, Shakespeare does not seem particularly
interested in the calendar when he writes Two Gents or Taming of the
Shrew (1590-1). But by the time he has battled through a number of
historical dramas (H6, R3, Titus, Lucrece) he emerges with an intense
interest in the calendar and time (and time-keeping) in The Comedy of
Errors (1594). He explores the Gregorian reform and confusion ensuing in
R&J (1595) and writes an occasional, night-specific play in the same
year -- Dream (see David Wiles on this). By the time Shakespeare writes
King John (1596) he's sophisticated enough to refer to a solstice in
order to make a recondite political statement (regarding Magna Carta).

In 1598/9 a remarkable change occurs in Shakespeare's technique. Into
Henry V (set ca. AD 1412), his last play written for performance at The
Curtain, Shakespeare injects a speech clearly referring to Essex's
contemporary adventure in Ireland (March 1599). Into Julius Caesar,
which everyone knows takes place in 44-42 BC, Shakespeare injects a
striking clock; anachronism was a long-established playwright's tactic
for referring onstage events (in this case, in ancient Rome) to
contemporary events in England.

Shakespeare purpose-wrote JC in 1599 to open the new Bankside Globe; in
that venue Shakespeare begins making planes of times slide past and
through each other. In As You Like It the seasons become pied as there
are no clocks in the forest. In Twelfth Night, a Christmas carol conveys
that the English Julian 12th of December was the actual date of
Christmas. In Othello, a group of Gregorian Venetians occupy an island
which keeps the Greek (and English) Julian calendar, and all manner of
time confusion occurs. These plays are artifacts of a master of
time-play at work.

But what of Hamlet? Amleth, if he lived at all, would have been a near
contemporary of Leir. To understand the time-scheme of Hamlet it may be
useful to compare the Danish tragedy with Lear. And there are hints of
the early medieval era in Hamlet; England is a Danish fief. The Player
King's speech reckons the passing of time in moons, i.e. by the lunar
calendar; the calendar in King Lear is also a lunar calendar (Leir
flourished before the founding of Rome). But there are also nagging
anachronisms in Hamlet: cannon, for one, another striking clock, the
prince's Copernican verses to Ophelia. Wittenberg became a place of
learning only in 1507. And Hamlet, returned from Wittenberg where the
Julian calendar prevails to a Gregorian Denmark, cannot remember how
long it's been since his father died -- "But two months dead, nay not so
much, not two ... within a month ... A little month ... within a month"
-- is pondering the calendar confusion ensuing after 1582. The time
really is out of joint.

Shakespeare's time-setting of Hamlet, therefore, seems to be in flux
between medieval and contemporary dates. And that instability is an
unappreciated but elemental aspect of Shakespeare's design for the play.
Shakespeare has incised a hard calendar into Hamlet. It is biological.
Hamlet is thirty. He was born on the day Old Hamlet overcame Old
Fortinbras, the very day on which the absolute Clown became sexton of
the church. That is the calendar which shapes the drama of Shakespeare's
play, and the calendar he wishes us to contemplate.

Hope this helps.

Steve Sohmer

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