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Hamlet in His Modern Guises
By Alexander Welsh
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2001 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
Medieval Hamlet Gains a Family
Ignorance about the lost play that was performed on the English stage some years before Shakespeare's Hamlet makes it all the more imperative to compare his play—traditionally the conflation of two texts, the quarto of 1604 and folio of 1623—with the still earlier narrative versions of the hero's story that do survive. This procedure at least apprises us of features not wholly original to Shakespeare, even if it leaves us only with intelligent guesses as to the intervening contributions of an Ur-Hamlet. Comparison with the earlier narratives also yields a positive understanding of ways in which the play is modern, and particularly why Hamlet's family—a little more than kin, if less than kind—seems to us so modern. For good measure, Shakespeare built into his play a second family, that of Polonius, posed novel-like for intermarriage with the younger generation of the first. The word "family" in our sense of parents and children was new in the sixteenth century. Shakespeare rarely uses the word at all, and never in its modern sense. Yet his Hamlet reads like a textbook on the conjugal and patriarchal family.
The present study is concerned with Hamlet in history, more especially Hamlets of the last four centuries. Was there, in the other direction of time, a historical Hamlet with a mother and father who lived and died a violent death six centuries prior to Shakespeare's time? The difficulty of answering this question—apart from my difficulty of collapsing a millennium into a few pages—is that very old histories defy modern belief. Thus when Amleth, in the earliest extant chronicle of Hamlet's story, travels to England and somehow intuits the English king's secrets (without recourse to magic), we seem to be reading of an exercise of wit that never was, though the chronicle does not distinguish between this feat and others more plausible. Like speculations about the Ur-Hamlet, the quest for the historical Hamlet is bound to be frustrating compared to the experience of suspending disbelief in the play, for Shakespeare is among those artists chiefly responsible for our (high) standards of verisimilitude. Notoriously, it is Shakespeare's Hamlet who so unmistakably lived that we can engage in long debates about his character. Even the ghost in the play, who does not arise in the old story, seems all too human—though I for one do not believe in ghosts any more than I believe in Amleth's extraordinary intuitions.
The chronicle in question, Saxo's Historiae Danicae, written in Latin at the end of the twelfth century and printed in 1514, was most likely never seen by Shakespeare; but its elaboration in Francois de Belleforest's Histoires tragiques had been available in five French editions since 1570. Thus the medieval history is the source of the sixteenth-century narrative most likely consulted by Shakespeare along with the Ur-Hamlet. If the French version or an unpublished translation of it had not been familiar to some English playwright, obviously, there would have been no Ur-Hamlet or any Hamlet at all. Saxo's history is both a better read and closer to folklore, whether it be fact or fiction; Belleforest's version, over twice as long but without more action or incident than Saxo's (and a faithful translation in that sense), is already a Renaissance text, with explanations, political and religious reservations, and moralizing, some of which matter is reflected in the play. Even if one refuses the quest for a historical Hamlet and isn't much interested in which details Shakespeare may have lifted from Belleforest, both earlier narratives are important for the perspective they throw on Hamlet in his modern guises.
Saxo's story is compelling in its own right, and not merely dependent—as might be charged of Belleforest's—on the fame of its Shakespearean sequel. There are few wasted words; in the style of northern saga, interest and suspense are characterized throughout by the unspoken, a withholding of explanation that enhances each demonstration of the hero's cleverness. The unspoken irony, in fact, offers a foretaste ofthe ambivalences ofShakespeare's hero. But though Amleth suffers as a boy—roughly, until he slays the uncle who has murdered his father and married with his mother—his suffering and madness are not pitiable as such, but rather disguise his motives and sustain the suspense. Nor is the uncle, Feng, particularly wicked or expressive of something wrong so much as he is simply dangerous. Saxo, called Grammaticus, is proud of his Latin, as his allusions, proper names—Amlethus, Horwendillus, Gerutha, Fengo, Vigletus—and a few incidents show; yet his overt summary or commentary is still very spare, with moralizing confined to the end of each book:
O valiant Amleth, and worthy of immortal fame, who being shrewdly armed with a feint of folly, covered a wisdom too high for human wit under a marvelous disguise of silliness! and not only found in his subtlety means to protect his own safety, but also by its guidance found opportunity to avenge his father. By this skilful defence of himself, and strenuous revenge for his parent, he has left it doubtful whether we are to think more of his wit or his bravery.
Amleth's ingenious revenge, plotted all along by means that are eventually disclosed in the acting but never confided in advance to the reader any more than to Feng, is thus said to merit eternal fame; but this fame boils down to that of a man both tough and smart, fortis and sapiens.
The triumph over Feng completes book 3 of Historiae Danicae, and just about here (with a very different action) terminates the experience of Hamlet dramatized by Shakespeare. For the chronicle, however, the rest is not silence: book 4 commences with the notation "Amlethus rex" in the margin; the prince becomes king in Jutland and enjoys further successes in England and Scotland before his eventual defeat at the hands of another uncle at home. The marked differences between the play and the chronicle, therefore, are the truncation of the career and the alteration of the first triumphant return to tragedy, in which the principal actors all die. Omitted along with the remainder of Amleth's career, significantly, is a long stump speech by which the latter defends his action and calls for his election to the throne: Shakespeare's tragedy, by no means apolitical, is less political and less historically situated than its source, more focused on the personal and familial clash of its antagonists. But the chronicle is not so naïve as to offer mere triumph and congratulation where its famous redaction supplies tragedy. With the play's ending one ought to compare the irony of Amleth's second homecoming in book 4 and his death.
When in England for the first time, Amleth disposes of the two companions bearing a letter begging the favor of his death just as Hamlet disposes of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, but he scores one better than Hamlet by marrying the king's daughter there. On his second visit, when he has told his father-in-law what has become of his uncle back in Jutland, the king inwardly recalls his pact with Feng and—in spite of this marriage—sends Amleth off on a dangerous mission to court on his behalf the queen of Scotland, known for putting to death every suitor to date. Hermutrude the queen is only opposed to older husbands, however; Amleth she embraces with all her kingdom, and after an ingenious victory over the English king his father-in-law, the hero returns to Jutland with much plunder and two wives. Of the (apparently) younger English wife, who has borne him a son, backed him against her father, and put up with Hermutrude, nothing more is told. Amleth dotes on Hermutrude, and meanwhile a new threat has arisen against his mother Geruth—this time from her own brother Wiglek. In the swiftly told end of his days, and now more concerned for Hermutrude's future than for his own life, according to Saxo, Amleth nonetheless cannot shun battle with Wiglek: he loses, and in the last sentence of book 4 this maternal uncle weds Hermutrude. Belleforest, it has to be said, weakens this irony in his version by moralizing and claiming that Amleth's second wife planned in advance her widowhood and remarriage. Given the way Hermutrude proposed to Amleth in Scotland earlier, Saxo's few words suffice to make the point: to Wiglek "she yielded herself up unasked to be the conqueror's spoil and bride."
Amleth's death is not tragic; as with many heroes of northern saga, when his violent life has run out, it is over with. Saxo's two books neatly divide the hero's life course into two parts, in which first a paternal uncle murders the father and marries the mother and then, after the hero copes well with this emergency, a maternal uncle kills the hero himself and marries his widow. There is something about Amleth's choice of women—more nearly their choice of him—that leads to trouble with uncles, in short, while the design of the whole seems to make an ironic statement about clever young men. The moral Saxo has to offer is one long sentence of misogyny—the quod erat demonstrandum, so to speak—which parallels his praise of Amleth at the end of book 3:
Thus all vows of women are loosed by change of fortune and melted by the shifting of time; the faith of their soul rests on a slippery foothold, and is weakened by casual chances; glib in promises, and as sluggish in performance, all manner of lustful promptings enslave it, and it bounds away with panting and precipitate desire, forgetful of old things, in the ever hot pursuit after something fresh.
About ten times longer, Belleforest's restatement of this moral is relieved only by a quaint apology for being so carried away by the subject. Shakespeare evidently was impressed by the whole of Amleth's history and not merely the first half. The irony of Amleth's eventual destiny could be said to reappear in the repeated poisonings of the play, or indeed in the difficulty so many critics have experienced in determining what if anything Hamlet finally achieved. On the playwright's side, it might be said that at least he assigned the misogyny dramatically to the deceased father and to the son rather than endorsing it outright.
That Saxo is closer in spirit to northern saga than is the moralizing Belleforest no one would deny. He is still far from modeling himself on the sagaman, and it seems doubtful that his narrative is a faithful translation from old Danish originals, even if the hazards of translation might account for some of the story's baffling details. Saxo is too much the classicist; he most likely emulated the Roman historians, for it has long been observed that he borrows Livy's account of Junius Brutus seeking vengeance upon his uncle, Tarquin. Homer and Virgil offer famous precedents for such details as the intricate history of his exploits that Amleth has painted on his shield. While Saxo could not have known the carefully orchestrated return to Ithaca of Homer's Odysseus, Amleth's recourse to his former filth-covered self when he returns to Jutland is similar to Odysseus's disguise as a beggar; so too is the scale of the slaughters carried out by the two heroes, which extend beyond their immediate enemies or practical needs. Most of these resemblances to classical epic are generic in the oral tradition. Thus we would expect long set speeches rather than dramatic dialogue: the longest, Amleth's political justification and appeal to the people, fills about one-eighth of the total number of pages of Saxo or Belleforest. That speech Shakespeare has no use for; but another, heralded in Belleforest by a part title, "Harangue d'Amleth a la Royne Geruthe sa mere," supplies many of the verbal borrowings that persuade one that the playwright consulted the French, or an unpublished translation of the French, firsthand. The corresponding scene in Hamlet is by far the longest confrontation of the hero and another character and notoriously, in the closet scene he does most of the talking. Finally, classical allusions appear in Saxo only less frequently than in Belleforest. Possibly the studied comparisons of Amleth to Hercules (twice in Belleforest) provoked Hamlet's wry disclaimer: "My father's brother, but no more like my father / Than I to Hercules" (1.2.152–3).
Amleth's tricks and self-abasement seem closer to folktale. It may be claimed that the wily Odysseus is also a famous trickster, but his ruses are so well advertised and prolonged in the return to Ithaca that the pleasure they afford is quite different. Homer invests Odysseus's disguise as a beggar with high dramatic irony, whereas Saxo provides a low and less certain irony: at times we can only surmise that Amleth knows what he is doing. As a mere youth, he has no heroic past to build our confidence in the part he has to play. To Feng, certainly, the threat arises from below, in the regressive and apparently witless behavior of the younger adversary. The name Amleth appears to derive from a word meaning fool, and the stunts and riddling of this fool afforded Shakespeare material that still baffles but seldom fails to please an audience, material that doubtless fuels the warmth and even exultation that Hamlet inspires, notwithstanding the doubt and cruelty and bloodshed. Shakespeare had already designed high and low scenes for Prince Hal, and he would unforgettably put King Lear through an even greater range of experience and styles, but the creation of Hamlet as clown owes something to the northern saga material. Saxo may afford grounds for answering one famous question about the play: if Amleth's strategy supplied the precedent, Hamlet was not mad but invented his "antic disposition" (1.5.172). Yet the source provokes a similar question: it is not possible to tell where strategy leaves off and madness begins, since Amleth seems not fully in control of himself.
Near the heart of Amleth's seeming madness is his riddling. Notably, when anyone tries to trap him into revealing himself, he speaks the truth but in such a way that his antagonist cannot understand it. The riddling creates a special kind of dramatic irony, since the reader or listener to the story is able to glimpse both meanings while the antagonist is only able to sense that he is being put on. Belleforest feels he needs to gloss the practice as a sort of Aristotelian virtue—"as a generous minde is a mortal enemie to untruth"—but the hero's way is really to tease with the truth, to risk giving himself away without quite doing so, to reply to a challenge with the counterchallenge of a riddle, and to enjoy the upper hand that riddling confers (much as children love to riddle). Language is the medium most used for conveying truth; and language can be used to baffle those who demand the truth. To lie outright forgoes wit and fails to exploit language to the fullest. Shakespeare's Hamlet may be closer to Saxo's filthy child in this respect than he is to Belleforest's generous spirit. Then, too, in the play riddling assumes its modern role of masking the hero's genuine ambivalence, as if he were playing with words from despair of expressing himself. Telling the truth in riddles keeps the game fair; and the sincerity of Hamlet's Montaigne-like doubts is faithful to an aspect of his own story that goes back to Saxo and to folklore.
The prominence of mourning and funeral rites in Hamlet derives mainly from Elizabethan revenge tragedy. Belleforest's uneasiness about using pre-Christian Danish lore, however, may have moved him to omit a long speech on proper burial in Saxo. In the medieval account, when Amleth's father Horwendil proposes single combat to Coller, the Norwegian king, the latter agrees but counters with the proposal that the combatants mutually guarantee a dignified burial for the loser—the speech represented by a single clause in Belleforest's translation. Coller, of course, is the one who wins the funeral so desired, but these are the terms with which Saxo commences the story of Amleth's inheritance. Of a funeral for Horwendil after his brother Feng's treachery, nothing is told (and not much more in Shakespeare). Presumably there was scant ceremony. When Amleth triumphs in turn over his uncle, according to Saxo, he vehemently directs that Feng not be buried at all: "Let no trace of his fratricide remain; let there be no spot in his own land for his tainted limbs; let no neighbourhood suck infection from him; let not sea nor soil be defiled by harbouring his accursed carcase." Belleforest renders this speech more or less faithfully yet softens the thrust of the nephew's words. No exact equivalent exists in Hamlet, but denying burial is a common enough idea in other revenge tragedies including Titus Andronicus; and Hamlet's jokes about dead bodies keep them in view regardless—-just as his parrying of questions about Polonius's body creates an intertextual joke about what happened to the adviser whom Amleth killed, cut in pieces, boiled, and fed down a drain to the hogs. When Amleth returns from England the first time, a funeral is being held for him in absentia; in the play this becomes Ophelia's funeral, a tragic rather than an ironic turn. There is no graveyard scene in the chronicles, either at this point or upon the second return. In his world of violence the saga hero needs no skull to contemplate, no momento mori.
Excerpted from Hamlet in His Modern Guises by Alexander Welsh. Copyright © 2001 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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