The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 17.0063 Monday, 20 February 2006
From: Frank Whigham <
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
(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.
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