Events Before the Opening of the Action in Hamlet
From Shakespearean Tragedy by A. C. Bradley.
In Hamlet's first soliloquy he speaks of his father as being
'but two months dead, -- nay, not so much, not two.' He goes on to refer to the love between his father and mother, and then says (I. ii. 145):
and yet, within a month --
Let me not think on't -- Frailty, thy name is woman! --
A little month, or ere those shoes were old
With which she follow'd my poor father's body,
Like Niobe, all tears, why she, even she --
O God! a beast, that wants discourse of reason.
Would have mourn'd longer -- married with my uncle.
It seems hence to be usually assumed that at this time -- the time when the action begins -- Hamlet's mother has been
married, a little less than a month.
On this assumption difficulties, however, arise, though I have
not found them referred to. Why has the Ghost waited nearly a month since the marriage before showing itself? Why has
the King waited nearly a month before appearing in public for the first time, as he evidently does in this scene? And why has Laertes waited nearly a month since the coronation before
asking leave to return to France (I. ii. 53)?
To this it might be replied that the marriage and the coronation were separated by some weeks; that, while the
former occurred nearly a month before the time of this scene, the latter has only just taken place; and that what the Ghost cannot bear is, not the mere marriage, but the accession of an incestuous murderer to the throne. But anyone who will read the King's speech at the opening of the scene will certainly
conclude that the marriage has only just been celebrated, and also that it is conceived as involving the accession of Claudius to the throne. Gertrude is described as the 'imperial jointress' of the State, and the King says that the lords consented to the marriage, but makes no separate mention of his election.
The solution of the difficulty is to be found in the lines
quoted above. The marriage followed, within a month, not the
death of Hamlet's father, but the funeral. And this makes all
clear. The death happened nearly two months ago. The
funeral did not succeed it immediately, but (say) in a fortnight
or three weeks. And the marriage and coronation, coming
rather less than a month after the funeral, have just taken place.
So that the Ghost has not waited at all; nor has the King,
On this hypothesis it follows that Hamlet's agonised soliloquy
is not uttered nearly a month after the marriage which has so horrified him, but quite soon after it (though presumably he would know rather earlier what was coming). And from this hypothesis
we get also a partial explanation of two other difficulties.
(a) When Horatio, at the end of the soliloquy, enters and greets Hamlet, it is evident that he and Hamlet have not recently met at Elsinore.
Yet Horatio came to Elsinore for the funeral (I. ii. 176). Now even if the funeral took place some three weeks ago, it seems rather strange that Hamlet, however absorbed in grief and however withdrawn from the Court, has not met Horatio; but if the funeral took place some seven weeks ago, the difficulty is considerably
(b) We are twice told that Hamlet has 'of late' been seeking the society of Ophelia and protesting his love for her (I. iii. 91, 99). It always seemed to me, on the usual view of the
chronology, rather difficult (though not, of course, impossible) to understand this, considering the state of feeling produced in him by his mother's marriage, and in particular the shock it appears to
have given to his faith in woman. But if the marriage has only just been celebrated the words 'of late' would naturally refer to a time before it. This time presumably would be subsequent to the death of Hamlet's father, but it is not so hard to fancy that Hamlet may have sought relief from mere grief in his love for
But here another question arises: May not the words 'of late' include, or even wholly refer to 1, a time prior to the death of Hamlet's father? And this question would be answered universally, I suppose, in the negative, on the ground that Hamlet was not at Court but at Wittenberg when his father died. I will deal
with this idea in a separate note, and will only add here that, though it is quite possible that Shakespeare never imagined any of these matters clearly, and so produced these unimportant
difficulties, we ought not to assume this without examination.
1. This is intrinsically not probable, and is the more improbable because in Q1 Hamlet's letter to Ophelia (which must have been written before the action of the play begins) is signed 'Thine ever the most unhappy Prince Hamlet.'
'Unhappy' might be meant to describe an unsuccessful lover, but it probably shows that the letter was written after his father's death.
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. < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/hamlet/beforehamlet.html >.
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