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Home :: Archive :: 2006 :: February ::
Hamlet Puzzles
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 17.0063  Monday, 20 February 2006

From: 		Frank Whigham <
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Date: 		Thursday, 16 Feb 2006 09:06:07 -0500
Subject: 	Hamlet Puzzles

While I share Jim Blackie's sense that Shakespeare was not a "cheap" 
trickster (at least most of the time), I do think that Hamlet is a play 
with more than a usual dose of interpretive mystery. None of the 
problems listed below strike me as arousing silly author's identity 
questions, but the obscurities are puzzling. (Many of these are 
questions that students regularly ask; perhaps the original audiences 
might have done so too. That is, they're not just question from the study.)

(1) Was Gertrude adulterous?

(2) Do we believe that Claudius won her with gifts? What would that 
mean? What kinds of gifts? (Like the ones that Bassanio buys Portia?) Is 
she stupid? Do we trust the Ghost's contemptuous language? Do we trust 
his narcissism?

(3) What does (marrying) Gertrude have to do with the possession of the 
crown? Did Claudius want her for some such reason?

(4) What did the ruling elite (or whoever is addressed in 1.2 as having 
"better wisdoms") "go along" with, regarding Claudius's ascent to the 
throne (or is it Gertrude's re-marriage)? Is it the swift choice of a 
king to replace the dead one? Or is it the incest? Is the relevant 
parallel (in their eyes, as it were) then with Prince Arthur, Henry 
VIII, Katherine of Aragon, and the Pope's dispensation? It's worth 
noting that in the interesting play A Looking Glass for London and 
England (set in Nineveh, 1592?), which begins with a brother (admittedly 
Asiatic) taking his wife to wed, a courtier immediately says (not 
waiting even as long as Kent), "What a terrible idea!"

(5) Why do only the Hamlets father and son talk about incest?

(6) Why is Fortinbras's uncle "impotent and bedrid"?

(7) What has Poland to do with anything (such as Polonius's name)?

(8) "The Murder of Gonzago" and the king's reaction to it do not prove 
that the ghost is not a devil, only that Claudius is guilty. What 
happened to Hamlet's earlier concern about the former?

(9) Why doesn't Hamlet fret about the revenge prohibition "Vengeance is 
mine" (in Deuteronomy, Romans, and Hebrews), when he worries about the 
cognate prohibition on suicide? Has the omission anything to do with 
Hieronymo's lengthy fretting about it in The Spanish Tragedy?

(10) How did Ophelia die?

(11) How are we to understand Hamlet's weird apology to Laertes?

(12) How old is Hamlet? 19 or 30? If the former, then why does the 
gravedigger scene contain the apparent suggestion that he's 30? If the 
latter, why bury the data?

(13) Why does Hamlet give his dying voice to Fortinbras?

(14) Why does Horatio the true and more suicidal friend and skeptic use 
the optative in the "flights of angels" speech? (This seems the only 
survival of Kyd's post-mortem speech where Andrea and Revenge apportion 
out rewards and punishments after the revenge is carried out, in richly 
in favor of the revengers.)

I don't know if any of these amount to Shakespeare's toying with us, but 
they are puzzles on which no consensus exists, so far as I know, and 
many of them seem like they'd be easy to fix, if fixing was appropriate.

Frank Whigham

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