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The Age Old Question...Literally

How Old Is Hamlet?

Shakespeare rarely gives an exact age for his characters, probably for the same reason he usually refrains from giving them specific physical descriptions, as a practical consideration to make the roles playable by a variety of actors. When he does reference a character’s age it is usually because it is relevant to the plot of the play (Juliet’s extreme youth, Lear’s extreme age), while specific physical descriptors are most often played for humor (Hermia’s height, Falstaff’s size).

The specification of Hamlet’s age, almost at the end of the play, does not follow this pattern. Firstly, it raises more plot questions than it answers. It also occurs so late in the play that the audience has already “gotten to know” Hamlet, they’ve formed an opinion on him, and they’ve subconsciously assigned him an age-range based on the actor in the role. They are not likely, so close to the denouement, to reevaluate his behavior and situation in light of this new information. They are more likely not to hear the information at all, offhandedly and rather confusingly tossed off by the closest thing the play has to a traditional clown.

Just a few moment before Hamlet laments over Yorick’s skull, the Gravedigger informs us that he has been a grave-maker since “young Hamlet was born; he that’s mad, and sent into England,” and a few lines later “I have been Sexton here, man and boy, thirty years.” So we know that Hamlet is 30 (and if we’re interested, we can extrapolate that the Gravedigger is in his 40s, assuming by “boy” he means “under 20”).

Richard Burbage, the principal actor of Shakespeare’s company, was likely around 32 when he played Hamlet, so the common assumption is that these lines are a specific reference to him, while in earlier versions (and in some of the suggested source material), Hamlet is a teenager, around 16. However, my pet theory is that Shakespeare is more likely to make a deal of the characters age in the lines when the actor didn’t necessarily match; Burbage would have played Lear only five or six years after Hamlet, and the difference between 80 and 37 is much greater than the difference between 32 and 16.

I’m going to resist the urge to go into more detail on this Hamlet age debate, (but there is plenty of scholarship out there on it if readers are interested!) and focus instead on how it works in performance. The difference between being an actor and a scholar is that while scholars can simply note, enjoy and discuss these kinds of ambiguities, people who are actually performing the plays have to eventually make a decision, as a 16 year old Hamlet is a much different character than a 30 year old Hamlet.

So, how old is Hamlet in this production? The gravedigger says he’s 30, which is conveniently close enough to my own age for me to play it without “acting” an age (as I did when I played Juliet and Falstaff), so in this production, Hamlet is 30. As I said, that raises more questions than it answers, and thinking about those questions offers the opportunity to make some interesting choices about the character.

For example, If he is unequivocally of age, why does he not automatically inherit his father’s throne? Why is he still in school? Why is he not married? Again, questions that there is plenty of scholarship on with no universal consensus, which as an actor, I take as license to speculate at will.

The workings of the royal succession in Shakespeare’s Denmark are left unclear in the play, but it seems that, rather than automatically passing from father to eldest son, the throne passes through a sort of election process where the powerful nobility and members of government chose the best candidate from the royal family. In this scenario, Claudius was chosen over Hamlet because a) he was present in Denmark, campaigning for himself (and able to start his schmoozing before anyone else knew succession was going a be a question) while Hamlet was away and/or b) there was a mutual agreement amongst the heads of state of Denmark that Hamlet was somehow unfit to rule, despite his several-times-mentioned popularity with the common folk.

Now, the Hamlet we see during the course of the play is probably not a guy you’d pick to be in charge of a whole country, but when we meet him he’s in a pretty bad place. We know almost nothing of what he was like before. Ophelia says that he was witty and fashionable. Claudius says he was touchy about his fencing skills. He really liked the theater. That’s about it. But the fact that the adult son of the previous king was so readily passed over for the throne, with barely any comment (and most of it from Hamlet himself), indicates a pretty universal agreement that Claudius was a better, safer choice.

This leads us to the question of why Hamlet wasn’t present to make his case as a viable candidate for the throne, but instead in out of the country studying at Wittenberg. It is not especially unusual now, nor was it in Shakespeare’s period, for the pursuit of a postgraduate degree to extend into a student’s 30s. However, Hamlet’s position as the only son of a royal family sets him apart from the average student (such as his buddy Horatio) in that he wasn’t studying in preparation for some sort of academic career. While his receiving a basic university education is completely reasonable, there’s would be no reason for him to stay as long as he did, and receive as specialized a higher education as the length of study implies, if the expectation was that after finishing at university he would come home and take his place in the government of Denmark.

To me, the fact that at 30 he was still in the midst of his studies at Wittenberg indicates that, even before the death of his father and the ensuing drama, he didn’t want to come home. At the start of the play, Claudius and Gertrude jointly force him to stay in Denmark against his clear wishes, which shows us that his mere desire to stay at Wittenberg would not have been enough to allow him to stay there unless he had the permission of his father the king. So either Old Hamlet was an especially indulgent father (which is not the impression one gets from his ghost) or young Hamlet was allowed to remain at Wittenberg because his absence from Denmark wasn’t a problem. Which is another indication that no one really wanted or expected him to inherit the throne.

Hamlet’s extended university career also provides an explanation of why he wasn’t married, which would’ve been extremely atypical for someone of his age and position. The fact that he wasn’t forced to marry to secure a political alliance and to cement the line of succession is further indication that he was not generally considered a likely heir of his father.

So what does all of this speculation provide that is actually playable onstage? One of the most famously debated questions of the play is what, really, is Hamlet’s mental state? How much of his behavior is governed by his stated plan to “put an antic disposition on”? How much is he actually in control of it? And does it all truly stem from grief over the loss of his father? We have Ophelia’s “true” madness in contrast to Hamlet’s feigned version, and at no point does the play indicate that he is actually delusional. But we know that he is suicidal (which was not considered a symptom of mental illness in the early modern period the same way that it is today), he describes feelings that are readily identifiable as anxiety and depression, and he acts in ways that are irrational both in the real world and in the context of the revenge tragedy in which he is living.

The way that mental health was understood in Shakespeare’s time is so different from our current understanding that there is no real scholarly merit to “diagnosing” Hamlet with any specific condition. But as an actor reading specifically for playable character insights, I find some strong indications that Hamlet’s instability was exacerbated rather than caused by his grief, and that it was notable enough that it affected his place in Denmark’s succession even before his father’s murder.

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