How Old Is Hamlet?

I don’ t have much time to get into this at the moment but I didn’t want to forget about the link.  Forget Romeo – how old is Hamlet?  The gravedigger’s scene seems to tell us pretty clearly that he’s about 30.  Does that feel right?  Wasn’t he off at school?  Isn’t he still working out some issues with his relationship to mom?  Doesn’t everything else about the play make him feel younger? The link above comes from the book, Hamlet : The Undiscovered Country, by Steve Roth.  I can’t seem to find any links to the book itself so I’m not sure if it’s already published (perhaps a long time ago), or coming soon.

12 thoughts on “How Old Is Hamlet?

  1. Full disclosure: I only had time to skim the linked to article. But I’ve also never had a problem with Hamlet being 30. [I first read the play at 15, and I’m now 28 and working on my PhD, and each time I’ve read the play Hamlet seems *older* than I am. (Perhaps that I’m a student at 28 is part of why Hamlet as student at 30 doesn’t bother me.) And trust me, while not everyone has the same issues that Hamlet has with his mom, you can still be working out issues with your parents long *after* 30!] Elizabethan schooling tradition is the only thing that throws Hamlet’s age of 30 into question for me.

    I’ve never seen Hamlet played as younger than perhaps 25. And Burbage was probably the first person to play Hamlet, and he would certainly have been older than 17 when it was first performed.

    That said, Roth’s evidence seems pretty convincing (even his work with Q1) and I’d be interested in reading the rest of the book at some point.

  2. Perhaps it’s not been ‘published’ legitimately for a reason?
    To even make the claim, you have to disregard the clear statement of the gravedigger – and the skull of Yorik (just how long does it take for the flesh to rot off the head – add to how old Hamlet was when he remembered Yorik).
    Also the author needs to remember this is a play – not real life.
    Finally – does he behave like a 17 year old?

  3. I decided to take up room on my own blog instead of leaving a page-long comment here, but I did link back to this post.

    It’s a pretty interesting chapter. It’s a subject I’ve pondered over quite a bit. And chapter 2 of the book is available if you look on the Home page under “What’s new.” I’ll be reading that very soon.


  4. A substantial part of my understanding of Hamlet’s character comes from the fact that he _is_ pushing 30–that he is, at least, on the wrong side of 25, even if the gravedigger has had a few flagons of ale and may be a bit off on his math. The point is that Hamlet, who should be getting on with life, taking up his princely duties, etc., is off farting around at university instead. Part of what makes him so bitter about getting passed over in the election when his father dies is that he understands the decision, and it stings. Uncle Claudius has been doing the heavy lifting of statecraft while he’s been off drinking and philosophizing in Germany. So who do the nobles pick to be the next king? You’re damn right–the guy who’s working day and night on the Norway crisis and ties it up with a pretty ribbon in Act I.

    Just as Hamlet can’t get down to the business of starring in a revenge tragedy, he couldn’t get down to the business of being a grownup and taking up his duties before the play started.

    I guess I sound hard on the guy, but of course I find him enormously sympathetic. I imagine a lot of readers of this blog know how comfortable and seductive the idea of hanging around Wittenberg, rich and respected and indulging day and night in the pleasures of reading and writing and debating, could be, especially as compared with the gritty, grinding, endless business of running a kingdom in foggy, soggy Denmark.

  5. Thanks! I once played Claudius in college. I’ve spent a _lot_ of time meditating on Hamlet’s shortcomings…used to have my own little “soliloquies” I did backstage to warm up before my scenes. Ah, method acting…

  6. No, not 17, but I guess I always saw him more as early/mid 20’s. The issues with the parents and girlfriend, the hanging out with his college buddies… Doesn’t everybody go through that whole existential what-is-life-really-all-about-phase right around the time they hit college?

    Alan, I don’t understand your argument at all – Shakespeare needs a scientific basis for how long it takes flesh to rot from a skull, but that the author should remember this is not real life?

    I like Craig’s interpretation because it is entirely new to me, I never thought of it that way at all.

  7. The point i was making (badly) about real life was that Shakespeare has not written a newspaper report but a piece of fiction – and it doesn’t stand up to analysis as if it was ‘real’.

    Re: the rotting – the skull and bones are being dug up (common in those days – to be moved to the Charnel house): For the skull to be totally devoid of flesh will take quite some time – the grave digger says at least 8 years before it rots if the flesh is ‘normal’ – and that wouldn’t be totally clean.
    He adds the skull had been there 23 years.
    To dismiss this statement (which makes Hamlet in his early 30s) you have to have very strong evidence that it was not written by Shakespeare – and written for a reason. The fact that Shakespeare makes it clear that Hamlet IS getting on is significant in itself.

    How many times did the actors play parts ‘outside’ of their age – all the time: How many times does Shakespeare feel the need to mention the age of the character? Hardly ever.

    Hamlet’s age is pointed to because it is significant – and he IS older than adolescence (which is a modern idea anyway).

    He’d have a beard – a sure sign of Manhood.

    On the ‘schooling’ issue – Hamlet is a prince – he would not be entered in the university as an ‘undergraduate’ – his studies would be more in line with Dr Faustus – research is what he is doing.

    Why Wittenburg? – a more interesting question than how old Hamlet is? And early pointed out.

  8. Anonymous says:

    I'm reading hamlet now and I'm 14. It just seems weird to think of hamlet as a 30 year old. I mean he is still having mommy problems, people think he is to young to be king, and he has a girl friend who does NOT seem is around 30 either. I have a uncle who is 30 ish and already has a family. When I first started reading it seemed like hamlet was in his early 20s and that still seems right.

  9. Anonymous says:

    University would have been very different to today, so making comparisons are difficult. We only read Hamlet as younger because (understandably) we draw from our own experiences.
    So if you put that to one side and take the clues in the script (and Shakespeare includes the hints to his actors on how to play the parts in his writing) then Hamlet is 30ish

  10. Anonymous says:

    Well done to the fourteen year old for entering the conversation! It seems to me though that the age of around thirty is just about right. If you look at the ages when people died back then, this would line up roughly with their version of a midlife crisis wouldn't it? And Shakespeare is NEVER unintentional at least that's the rule of charity we have to take in scholarly debate. Hence his reference to age is definitely not a frivolous mistake.

  11. Compare Hamlet to today’s Prince Charles, his ceremonial life, his awaiting the throne,
    what gives purpose to his days, his passion for Camilla, off-limits to him, your thoughts?

  12. Like Alan already pointed out, in the Q2 and Folio versions Hamlet is around 30 years old based on the Gravedigger scene. But when we look at Q1 (the ‘bad quarto’), the Gravedigger says instead ‘here’s a skull that hath been here a dozen year’, which would make Hamlet around 18. Maybe we learn more about the age of the actor who played Hamlet from this scene than about Hamlet’s age. Richard Burbage was in his thirties when he played Hamlet in London. The touring company that supposedly used the Q1 version might have had a younger actor and therefore adjusted the line in the play. (This is only speculation, but it seems logical to me.)

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