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Hamlet's Age

From Shakespearean Tragedy by A. C. Bradley.

The chief arguments on this question may be found in Furness's Variorum Hamlet, vol. i., pp. 391 ff. I will merely explain my position briefly.

Even if the general impression I received from the play were that Hamlet was a youth of eighteen or twenty, I should feel quite unable to set it against the evidence of the statements in V. i. which show him to be exactly thirty, unless these statements seemed to be casual. But they have to my mind, on the contrary, the appearance of being expressly inserted in order to fix Hamlet's age; and the fact that they differ decidedly from the statements in Q1 confirms that idea. So does the fact that the Player King speaks of having been married thirty years (III. ii. 165), where again the number differs from that in Q1.

If V. i. did not contain those decisive statements, I believe my impression as to Hamlet's age would be uncertain. His being several times called 'young' would not influence me much (nor at all when he is called 'young' simply to distinguish him from his father, as he is in the very passage which shows him to be thirty). But I think we naturally take him to be about as old as Laertes, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and take them to be less than thirty. Further, the language used by Laertes and Polonius to Ophelia in I. iii. would certainly, by itself, lead one to imagine Hamlet as a good deal less than thirty; and the impression it makes is not, to me, altogether effaced by the fact that Henry V. at his accession is said to be in 'the very May-morn of his youth,' -- an expression which corresponds closely with those used by Laertes to Ophelia. In some passages, again, there is an air of boyish petulance.

On the other side, however, we should have to set (1) the maturity of Hamlet's thought; (2) his manner, on the whole, to other men and to his mother, which, I think, is far from suggesting the idea of a mere youth; (3) such a passage as his words to Horatio at III. ii. 59 ff., which imply that both he and Horatio have seen a good deal of life (this passage has in Q1 nothing corresponding to the most significant lines). I have shown in Note B that it is very unsafe to argue to Hamlet's youth from the words about his going back to Wittenberg.

On the whole I agree with Prof. Dowden that, apart from the statements in V. i., one would naturally take Hamlet to be a man of about five and twenty. It has been suggested that in the old play Hamlet was a mere lad; that Shakespeare, when he began to work on it, 1 had not determined to make Hamlet older; that, as he went on, he did so determine; and that this is the reason why the earlier part of the play makes (if it does so) a different impression from the later. I see nothing very improbable in this idea, but I must point out that it is a mistake to appeal in support of it to the passage in V. i. as found in Q1; for that passage does not in the least show that the author (if correctly reported) imagined Hamlet as a lad. I set out the statements in Q2 and Q1.

Q2 says:

(1) The grave-digger came to his business on the day when old Hamlet defeated Fortinbras:

(2) On that day young Hamlet was born:

(3) The grave-digger has, at the time of speaking, been sexton for thirty years:

(4) Yorick's skull has been in the earth twenty-three years:

(5) Yorick used to carry young Hamlet on his back.

This is all explicit and connected, and yields the result that Hamlet is now thirty.

Q1 says:

(1) Yorick's skull has been in the ground a dozen years:

(2) It has been in the ground ever since old Hamlet overcame Fortinbras:

(3) Yorick used to carry young Hamlet on his back.

From this nothing whatever follows as to Hamlet's age, except that he is more than twelve!2 Evidently the writer (if correctly reported) has no intention of telling us how old Hamlet is. That he did not imagine him as very young appears from his making him say that he has noted 'this seven year' (in Q2 'three years') that the toe of the peasant comes near the heel of the courtier. The fact that the Player-King in Q1 speaks of having been married forty years shows that here too the writer has not any reference to Hamlet's age in his mind. 3


1. Of course we do not know that he did work on it.

2. I find that I have been anticipated in this remark by H. Turck (Jahrbuch for 1900, p. 267 ff.)

3. I do not know if it has been observed that in the opening of the Player-King's speech, as given in Q2 and the Folio (it is quite different in Q1), there seems to be a reminiscence of Greene's Alphonsus King of ArragonAct IV., lines 33 ff. (Dyce's Greene and Peele, p. 239):

Thrice ten times Phoebus with his golden beams
Hath compassed the circle of the sky,
Thrice ten times Ceres hath her workmen hir'd,
And fill'd her barns with fruitful crops of corn,
Since first in priesthood I did lead my life.

How to cite this article:
Bradley, A. C. Shakespearean tragedy; lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth. London, Macmillan and Co., 1905. Shakespeare Online. 2 Aug. 2013. < >.


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