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Where was Hamlet at the time of his father's death?

From Shakespearean Tragedy by A. C. Bradley.

The answer will at once be given: 'At the University of Wittenberg.' For the king says to him (I. ii. 112):

For your intent
In going back to school in Wittenberg,
It is most retrograde to our desire.

The Queen also prays him not to go to Wittenberg: and he consents to remain.'

Now I quite agree that the obvious interpretation of this passage is that universally accepted, that Hamlet, like Horatio, was at Wittenberg when his father died; and I do not say that it is wrong. But it involves difficulties, and ought not to be regarded as certain.

(1) One of these difficulties has long been recognised. Hamlet, according to the evidence of Act V. Scene i., is thirty years of age; and that is a very late age for a university student. One solution is found (by those who admit that Hamlet was thirty) in a passage in Nash's Pierce Penniless: 'For fashion sake some [Danes] will put their children to schoole, but they set them not to it till they are fourteene years old, so that you shall see a great boy with a beard learne his A. B. C. and sit weeping under the rod when he is thirty years old.' Another solution ... is found in Hamlet's character. He is a philosopher who lingers on at the University from love of his studies there.

(2) But there is a more formidable difficulty, which seems to have escaped notice. Horatio certainly came from Wittenberg to the funeral. And observe how he and Hamlet meet (i. ii. 160):

Hor. Hail to your lordship!
Ham. I am glad to see you well:
Horatio, -- or I do forget myself.
Hor. The same, my lord, and your poor servant ever.
Ham. Sir, my good friend; I'll change that name with you:
And what make you from Wittenberg, Horatio?
Mar. My good lord --
Ham. I am very glad to see you. Good even, sir.1
But what, in faith, make you from Wittenberg?
Hor. A truant disposition, good my lord.
Ham. I would not hear your enemy say so,
Nor shall you do my ear that violence,
To make it truster of your own report
Against yourself: I know you are no truant.
But what is your affair in Elsinore?
We'll teach you to drink deep ere you depart.
Hor. My lord, I came to see your father's funeral.
Ham. I pray thee, do not mock me, fellow-student;
I think it was to see my mother's wedding.

Is not this passing strange? Hamlet and Horatio are supposed to be fellow-students at Wittenberg, and to have left it for Elsinore less than two months ago. Yet Hamlet hardly recognises Horatio at first, and speaks as if he himself lived at Elsinore (I refer to his bitter jest, 'We'll teach you to drink deep ere you depart'). Who would dream that Hamlet had himself just come from Wittenberg, if it were not for the previous words about his going back there?

How can this be explained on the usual view? Only, I presume, by supposing that Hamlet is so sunk in melancholy that he really does almost 'forget himself'2 and forget everything else, so that he actually is in doubt who Horatio is. And this, though not impossible, is hard to believe.

'Oh no,' it may be answered, 'for he is doubtful about Marcellus too; and yet, if he were living at Elsinore, he must have seen Marcellus often.' But he is not doubtful about Marcellus. That note of interrogation after 'Marcellus' is Capell's conjecture: it is not in any Quarto or any Folio. The fact is that he knows perfectly well the man who lives at Elsinore, but is confused by the appearance of the friend who comes from Wittenberg.

(3) Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are sent for, to wean Hamlet from his melancholy and to worm his secret out of him, because he has known them from his youth and is fond of them (II. ii. I ff.). They come to Denmark (II. ii. 247 f.): they come therefore from some other country. Where do they come from? They are, we hear, Hamlet's 'school-fellows' (III. iv. 202). And in the first Quarto we are directly told that they were with him at Wittenberg:

Ham. What, Gilderstone, and Rossencraft,
Welcome, kind school-fellows, to Elsanore.
Gil. We thank your grace, and would be very glad
You were as when we were at Wittenberg.

Now let the reader look at Hamlet's first greeting of them in the received text, and let him ask himself whether it is the greeting of a man to fellow-students whom he left two months ago: whether it is not rather, like his greeting of Horatio, the welcome of an old fellow-student who has not seen his visitors for a considerable time (II. ii. 226 f.).

(4) Rosencrantz and Guildenstern tell Hamlet of the players who are coming. He asks what players they are, and is told, 'Even those you were wont to take such delight in, the tragedians of the city.' He asks, 'Do they hold the same estimation they did when I was in the city?' Evidently he has not been in the city for some time. And this is still more evident when the players come in, and he talks of one having grown a beard, and another having perhaps cracked his voice, since they last met.

What then is this city, where he has not been for some time, but where (it would appear) Rosencrantz and Guildenstern live? It is not in Denmark ('Comest thou to beard me in Denmark?'). It would seem to be Wittenberg.3

All these passages, it should be observed, are consistent with one another. And the conclusion they point to is that Hamlet has left the University for some years and has been living at Court. This again is consistent with his being thirty years of age, and with his being mentioned as a soldier and a courtier as well as a scholar (in. i. 159). And it is inconsistent, I believe, with nothing in the play, unless with the mention of his 'going back to school in Wittenberg.' But it is not really inconsistent with that. The idea may quite well be that Hamlet, feeling it impossible to continue at Court after his mother's marriage and Claudius' accession, thinks of the University where, years ago, he was so happy, and contemplates a return to it. If this were Shakespeare's meaning he might easily fail to notice that the expression 'going back to school in Wittenberg' would naturally suggest that Hamlet had only just left 'school.'

I do not see how to account for these passages except on this hypothesis. But it in its turn involves a certain difficulty. Horatio, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern seem to be of about the same age as Hamlet. How then do they come to be at Wittenberg? I had thought that this question might be answered in the following way. If 'the city' is Wittenberg, Shakespeare would regard it as a place like London, and we might suppose that Horatio, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were living there, though they had ceased to be students. But this can hardly be true of Horatio, who, when he (to spare Hamlet's feelings) talks of being 'a truant,' must mean a truant from his University. The only solution I can suggest is that, in the story or play which Shakespeare used, Hamlet and the others were all at the time of the murder young students at Wittenberg, and that when he determined to make them older men (or to make Hamlet, at any rate, older), he did not take trouble enough to carry this idea through all the necessary detail, and so left some inconsistencies. But in any case the difficulty in the view which I suggest seems to me not nearly so great as those which the usual view has to meet. 4


1. These three words are evidently addressed to Bernardo.

2. Cf. Antonio in his melancholy (Merchant of Venice, i. i. 6),
And such a want-wit sadness makes of me
That I have much ado to know myself.

3. In Der Bestrafte Brudermord it is Wittenberg. Hamlet says to the actors:
-- Were you not, a few years ago, at the UUniversity of Wittenberg? I think I saw you act there': Furness's Variorum' ii. 129. But it is very doubtful whether this play is anything but an adaptation and enlargement of Hamlet as it existed in the stage represented by Q1.

4. It is perhaps worth while to note that in Der Bestrafte Brudermord Hamlet is said to have been 'in Germany' at the time of his father's murder.

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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