Hamlet, the Pirate’s Son
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Mary Floyd-Wilson. “Hamlet, the Pirate’s Son.” Early Modern Literary Studies Special Issue 19 (2009) 12.1-11 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/si-19/floyhaml.html>.
Restoration period, Shakespeare’s plays were regularly censured as
barbaric products of a rude age. Writing in an era that prized
classical models, critics expressed disappointment that Shakespeare’s
plots were often derived from “some old Wretched Chronicler, or
some empty Italian novelist” (“Some Remarks on The Tragedy of
Hamlet” 7). The neo-classicists characterized Shakespeare’s
dramas as antiquated, lacking refinement, and even “Gothic” in
their sensibility (“Hamlet Before Its Time” 358-59).
Hamlet’s delay, for example, was a plot “Absurdity” that
suggested Shakespeare’s failure to rise above the “base and mean”
quality of his “low Originals” (“Some Remarks on The Tragedy
of Hamlet” 7). Tracing Hamlet’s emergence in the
post-Romantic period as a perennially modern play, Margreta de Grazia
has demonstrated how this plot “absurdity” became incorporated
into Hamlet’s character as a sign of his complex interiority and
modernity (‘Hamlet’ Without Hamlet 172).1 But other elements of Hamlet’s plot are less easily absorbed
into Hamlet’s mysterious subjectivity. The Romantics and their
heirs can still find fault with what Goethe identified as Hamlet’s
“external relations,” whereby characters “are taken from one
place to another, or connected together in one way or another, by
accidental incidents.” According to Goethe, these “errors”
function as “props” to the play’s structure, but unlike the
play’s “internal relations,” they do not “stamp themselves
deep in the soul” (Furness 274). The pirates’ rescue of Hamlet at
sea is just this sort of “external relation”—a literal turning
point in the tragedy’s plot that remains stubbornly peripheral and
outward. By removing the Prince from Hamlet, this external
relation fulfills A. C. Bradley’s definition of “extreme
absurdity” (90). Indeed, some scholars have deemed the sea-voyage a
barbaric “folk-tale” relic and a “serious artistic flaw”
(Lawrence 61; Wentersdorf 434).2 And when not ignored, or treated as an awkward contrivance, the
pirates’ off-stage appearance strikes critics as so improbable that
it must signify “the special intentions of providence” (Sinfield
92).3 But what has not been explored is how Hamlet’s sea-voyage succeeds
in locating a seemingly crucial moment of character development
beyond the reaches of psychological inwardness. Moreover, the
stubbornly marginal pirates point us, I will suggest, towards
Shakespeare’s investment in the barbarism of his source material
and to regional identifications obscured by modern interests in
For then, begun they [the Danes] to rove upon the coasts of France and England, and were by the writers, that penned in Latine the histories of England, named Winccingi, for that they practised Piracie: for Wiccinga, in the Saxon tongue, as Alfricus witnesseth, doth signifie a Pirat that runneth from creek to creeke. (142)With James’s accession, piracy became not only increasingly demonized but exoticized as well. The roving pirates of the Atlantic and Mediterranean, English and otherwise, would soon obscure the almost ethnic correlation once made between Danes and piracy.12
that there was never any nation, how rude or barbarous soever, that tooke not some pleasure to do that which seemed good. … I delight to speak of these strange histories, and of people that were unchristned, that the virtue of the rude people maie give more splendor to our nation, who seeming them so compleat, wise prudent, and well advised in their actions, might strive not only to follow (imitation being a small matter), but to surmount them. (311)21While the religious impulses of such philobarbarism prove entangled and complicated, attracting Reformist and Counter-Reformation writers alike, the ethnological implications seem plain: conventionally “Gothic” traits had some merit. Ancient northern barbarism, whether Danish or English in origin, was gaining favor as uncorrupted virtue. When cast in their best light, the Goths represented the rejuvenating forces of “youth, vigor, and moral purity,” capable of reforming cultural decadence (“Gothic Revival” 73).
Grave: A [Hamlet] shall recover his wits there [in England],The Clown may echo the sentiment that the English people’s “natural manners” had been “created perfect” by their climate until the “apish desires for foreign fashions and customs” brought about a decline in their “inwarde condition” (Rankins 3). In Quarto 2 and the Folio, however, Claudius defends his banishment of Hamlet by suggesting that the seas as well as “countries different” have the power to purge intemperance:
Or if a do not, ‘tis no great matter there.
Grave: ‘Twill not be seene in him there. There the men are as mad as he. (5.1.146-50)
Haply the seas and countries different,We need not imagine that Claudius’s concern is genuine to recognize that his assertion about the transformative power of a sea-voyage had purchase in the period. But to take seriously the notion that Hamlet’s internal turmoil—that self-alienating “matter in his heart”—could be relieved by a simple change in external relations threatens a romantic view of Hamlet’s deep subjectivity. We might argue, however, that the romance of Hamlet is the fresh start that his sea-voyage provides, shaking loose that “something settled,” purging him of his post-medieval contamination, and helping him retrieve a quality of “Danishness” that slipped away with his father’s death. Perhaps it is neither an accidental occurrence nor mere indiscretion that instigates Hamlet’s actions at sea, but a physiological and historical recuperation of his former, barbaric self. It is in this state, removed from Denmark and purged by the sea, that Hamlet is rescued by the pirates—figures that embody the qualities of his heroically Gothic ancestors.
With variable objects, shall expel
This something settled matter in his heart,
Whereon his brains still beating puts him thus
From fashion of himself (3.1.173-177)
1 De Grazia observes that the few eighteenth-century readers who complain of Hamlet’s delay see it as a problem of plot, not character (‘Hamlet’ Without Hamlet 172).
2 Ide notes that the pirates “have been the source of some embarrassment for Shakespeareans” (313).
3 See also Kitto, Rose, and Waddington (461).
4 I rely on Charnes’s useful distinction between subjectivity and identity in “So Unsecret to Ourselves” (417-18).
5 Lawrence also acknowledges Plutarch’s Life of Caesar as a potential source, which describes the episode when Caesar was captured by pirates. The well-known story of Alexander’s encounter with the pirate Dionedes may have influenced Hamlet’s adventure, too, especially given that both Alexander and Caesar are on Hamlet’s mind in the graveyard scene. For a consideration of Alexander’s pirate anecdote as a source for Henry V, see Spencer.
6 On the status of Der Bestrafte Brudermord, see Jenkins, 112-122.
7 This argument was initiated by George Miles in 1870 and revived by Martin Stevens in 1975.
8 Yoshioka, for example, argues that the voyage provides Hamlet with a spiritual rebirth.
9 See also Bullough 41-45 and Dollerup, 144-47.
10 Quotations from the play follow the Arden 2 Hamlet, ed. Harold Jenkins.
11 The OED cites John de Trevisa (trans), Polychronicon Ranulphi Higden (1387): VI. 415.
12 For historical considerations of English piracy in the early modern period see Andrews, Lane, and Rediker. In a literary survey of “pirate studies,” Jowitt demonstrates that pirates were often disruptive figures, but most of the material cited is post-Elizabethan in its focus. Fuchs argues that the “English turn to piracy in the Mediterranean established a connection between England and Islam, the satanic other of Christian Europe” (49). On the distinction between Elizabethan and Jacobean attitudes towards piracy, see Lezra, 267.
13 Although I quote the 1608 English translation of Belleforest’s The Hystorie of Hamblet, all of the quotations also appear in French version of 1582, which Shakespeare may have consulted: both are available side by side in Gollancz’s The Sources of Hamlet. To avoid confusion, I am using Belleforest’s spelling of Horwendile and Fengon when citing Saxo as well.
14 Charnes notes that King Hamlet was willing to gamble away his son’s patrimony; see Hamlet’s Heirs, 61. Identifying King Hamlet as a pirate helps make sense of this cavalier act.
15 For a cogent discussion of this pronouncement, see de Grazia’s “Weeping for Hecuba.”
16 The critical status of inwardness or interiority in early modern writing is, of course, complicated and resistant to summary. See in particular the work of Francis Barker, Catherine Belsey, Katherine Maus, David Hillman, and Michael Schoenfeldt. See also Lee for the argument that the “vocabulary of essentialist interiority” does not exist in Hamlet or in the wider culture (158). For a pre-Cartesian reading of Hamlet’s emotions that radically and importantly shifts the terms of the discussion, see Paster, Humoring the Body, 28-50. On the ethnological valences of inwardness, see Floyd-Wilson, English Ethnicity, 132-157.
17 Camden makes the commonplace claim that the English received their “drunkenness” from the Danes (Remains 21). See also A warning-piece to all drunkards, which states: “Edgar king of England perceiving that his people had learned of the Danes (many of which were in this land at that time) to drink excessively” (18).
18 On the philobarbarism of Saxo, see Malone. On the sixteenth-century resurrection of Gothic history (often influenced by readings of Tacitus), see Kliger, “Gothic Revival,” Wolfram, “Gothic History,” and Johannesson, 86-89.
19 See Kliger, The Goths in England. On similar northern trends in English history writing, see Jones, MacDougall, and Shuger.
20 Magnus’s history celebrates the Goths and Swedes, it denigrates the Danes, and vilifies Horvendil, Fengo, and Amlet as Danish tyrants.
21 On Belleforest’s complex religious and political motives for writing, see Maxwell, 544-554.
22 This mixed chronology is, of course, inseparable from the play’s simultaneous representation of pagan, Catholic, and Protestant cultures.
23 See the first quarto in Hamlet: The Texts of 1603 and 1623.
24 On the ethnological significance of such ecological exchanges, see Floyd-Wilson, English Ethnicity. On the constant interactions between the cosmos and early modern subjectivity, see Paster, Humoring the Body. Here and throughout I follow Paster’s approach to historical phenomenology in resolutely resisting the impulse to “find abstraction and body metaphor where the early moderns found materiality and literal reference” (26).
25 Hamlet tells Horatio how he had his “sea-gown” “scarf’d about” him on the ship (5.2.13). Jenkins glosses it as a “coarse, high-collared, and short-sleeved gown, reaching down to the mid-leg, and used most by seamen and sailors” (394). See also Calderwood, 270.
26 Hamlet acknowledges the power of the Aristotelian notion that habit or the adoption of certain practices may alter character (“assume a virtue”)—the intentional deployment of more environmental alterations. For another view of this issue in the play, see Cefalu.
27 On these historical developments, see Pocock.
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© 2009-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).