After reading Hamlet or watching the play, how old would you say that Prince Hamlet was at the time? Would you say he was around thirty? Or maybe you would say he was in adolescence, somewhere around the age of eighteen. Whatever age you would say, there would be someone who would argue that you are wrong. I recently attended the play Hamlet at Washington University, directed by William Schvey. Schvey viewed Hamlet as a young college-age student. I think that this type of view on Hamlet’s age is a common thing, but I do not feel that it is the correct view.
Schvey shows Hamlet with his book bag, saying that he is a student and therefore must be young, so the actor playing Hamlet is indeed young. Yes, Shakespeare does say that Hamlet studies, but he does not say anywhere that he was an undergraduate student. Many people well over the age of thirty still study and some even still go to a college to do so; this does not mean that they must be undergrads. There is nothing saying that Hamlet could not have been beyond an undergraduate at the time. With this being said, the argument that Hamlet could not have been thirty based on the fact that he was studying has been given a reasonable doubt.
I feel that through making the characters, especially Hamlet, appear so young Schvey was trying to get younger people to realize the importance of the play. Although he may have achieved his goal of making younger people understand and relate to the importance of the play, I feel that he was still wrong about believing Hamlet was so young. In Schvey’s directors notes provided in the program I received at the play he is trying to justify his take on Hamlet’s age by quoting lines from the play that call Hamlet young. What Schvey does not take into account is that the people that are calling him young are people that are much older than him.
The characters that call Hamlet young are his father and Ophelia’s father. When someone is much older than another he will automatically think of the other as young. For example, my grandmother is nearly sixty-five, but the older people in the church call her child and other things that imply that she is young. In my eyes I would not say that my grandmother is a child, or young. King Hamlet and Polonius calling Prince Hamlet young does not make him an adolescent but simply shows that they are older than him. Schvey was a great director of this play, but he refused to accept the age set by Shakespeare in his play Hamlet.
Shakespeare does not set the age for his characters often so I would say that he must have included Hamlet’s age in this particular play for a reason. For example, Shakespeare tells readers Juliet’s age but not Romeo’s in his play Romeo and Juliet. He does not tell the readers Lady Capulet’s or Nurse’s age or any other characters’ for that matter. It just really is not that often that Shakespeare feels it is necessary to include an age in his play, so when he does it will definitely mean something or is important to the readers understanding, and in Hamlet, Shakespeare does tell the readers Hamlet’s age.
It is not until act five of the play when Shakespeare makes it very clear to us how old Hamlet actually is, but there is a time before that where his age is sort of suggested. In the Mousetrap (the play within Hamlet), the player playing King Hamlet opens the play by saying, “Full thirty times hath Phoebus’ cart gone round Neptune’s salt wash and Tellus’ orbed ground, and thirty dozen moons with borrowed sheen about the world have times twelve thirties been since love our hearts and Hymen did our hands unite commutual in most sacred bands” (3. 2. 176-81).
This is significant because it shows that King Hamlet and Gertrude were married thirty years up to his death. Shakespeare has him say thirty many times, there must be some significance to this. If we assume that Prince Hamlet was born in the first year of marriage, which would have been the most likely considering the time period they were in, he would have been no older than twenty-nine and a quarter when his father died. After six months, he would be twenty-nine and three quarters, this was about the time that he would talk to the grave-digger.
In the first scene of act five, Hamlet asks the grave-digger how long he has been a grave-maker and the grave-digger says that he has been digging graves since the very day that young Hamlet was born. They go on to talk about Hamlet being sent to England and then the grave-digger goes on to say, “I have been sexton here, man and boy, thirty years” (5. 1. 166-67). This tells the reader/viewer that Hamlet was born thirty years ago. This matches up with Hamlet being around twenty-nine and three quarters because nobody would say the exact age; they would round to the nearest age.
The grave-digger would not say I have been here twenty-nine and three fourths years, but he would say I have been here for thirty years. In the very same act and scene, the grave-digger shows Hamlet a skull that he says has been in the ground for twenty-three years. When Hamlet asks who the skull was from, the grave-digger tells him that it was Yorick’s skull, the King’s jester (5. 1. 175-87). Hamlet immediately begins to reminisce about Yorick saying, “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio- a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. He hath bore me on his back a thousand times, and now how abhorred in my imagination it is!
My gorge rises at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft” (5. 1. 190-95). When Hamlet tells this in such great detail, it shows that he knew the jester well, that he has very vivid memory of him. For him to remember Yorick so well, he would have had to of been around the age of at least six or seven. Before the age of six or seven those types of details would not have been remembered twenty-three years later. Hamlet remembered the lips that he kissed and being bore on his back, this is not a vague memory, but a vivid one to remember the very lips.
If indeed Hamlet was seven at the time of Yorick’s death, he would be thirty twenty-three years later. Act five scene one of the play does indeed state that Hamlet was thirty. Schvey chose to overlook these undeniable proofs of Hamlet’s age and portrayed him as an adolescent. This is a very common misinterpretation of Shakespeare’s play Hamlet. I do not feel that Schvey was right in portraying Hamlet as an adolescent to the audience. Shakespeare clearly sets the age for Hamlet in his play and I think that this age was given for a reason and should have been considered by the director before producing the play.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Eds. Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine.
New York: Washington Square Press, 1992.