Early
A note on Hamlet's illegitimacy identifying a source of the "dram of eale" speech (Q2 1.4.17-38)
Steve Sohmer
Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, UCLA.
DRSOHMER@aol.com

Sohmer, Steve. "A note on Hamlet's illegitimacy identifying a source of the "dram of eale" speech (Q2 1.4.17-38)." Early Modern Literary Studies 6.3 (January, 2001): 13.1-7 <URL:
http://purl.oclc.org/emls/06-3/sohmnote.htm>.

  1. In an essay in EMLS 2.1, "Certain Speculations on Hamlet, the Calendar, and Martin Luther," (earlier article, paragraph 1) I suggested Prince Hamlet was conceived and born prior to the marriage of Old Hamlet and Gertrude, and only conditionally legitimated by the subsequent marriage of his parents (earlier article, paragraph 35). I also suggested that young Hamlet's conditional legitimacy explains why Shakespeare's prince had not succeeded to the throne of Denmark immediately on his father's death (earlier article, paragraph 48). To support this thesis I offered a proof of the date of the Old Hamlet - Gertrude marriage (earlier article, paragraph 36) and demonstrated that if Hamlet is thirty years old then he must have been born almost two months before the wedding of his parents (earlier article, paragraph 38). I also drew attention to Hamlet's "dram of eale" speech, which appears only in Q2 (1.4.17-38), which I characterized as Hamlet's meditation on his bastardy (earlier article, paragraph 40):

    So oft it chaunces in particuler men,
    That for some vicious mole of nature in them
    As in their birth wherein they are not guilty,
    (Since nature cannot choose his origin)
    By the ore-grow'th of some complextion
    Oft breaking downe the pales and forts of reason,
    Or by some habit, that too much ore-leavens
    The form of plausive manners, that these men
    Carrying I say the stamp of one defect
    Being Natures livery, or Fortunes starre,
    His vertues els be they as pure as grace,
    As infinite as man may undergoe,
    Shall in the generall censure take corruption
    From that particuler fault: the dram of eale
    Doth all the noble substance of a doubt
    To his own scandle. (1.4.17-34)

    In the present note I propose to identify a previously unrecognized source of this speech in the well-known book of laws, De Laudibus Legum Angliae, written by Sir John Fortescue (1394? - 1476?), Chief Justice of the King's Bench under Henry VI.

  2. Fortescue fought at the battle of Towton (1461) and was subsequently attainted by the victorious Edward IV. In the aftermath, Fortescue accompanied Queen Margaret to Flanders; during their exile Fortescue undertook the education of her son, Edward, Prince of Wales. Fortescue's De Laudibus is a dialogue between a student prince and his teacher; the latter offers many proofs of the superiority of English Common law over the Roman Civil law which was practised on the Continental. Fortescue's De Laudibus was first published in 1537. Over the next two centuries, it became one of the most widely read books on English law. A translation from Latin by Robert Mulcaster appeared in at least six editions between 1573 and 1672. The citations below are from the London edition of 1599.

  3. In that part of his treatise which deals with bastardy and inheritance, Fortescue explains that although Roman Civil law does not permit a child born out of matrimony to succeed to his parents' estate, children may succeed who were either (a) born in wedlock, or (b) conceived out of wedlock but legitimated by the subsequent marriage of the parents: "The Civile law doth legittimate the childe borne before matrimonie aswell as that which is borne after: and geveth untoo it succession in the parents inheritance" (Fol.90r). But in the latter cases Common law differs significantly from Civil law. Under Common law a child conceived out of wedlock continues to carry the stigma of bastardy, and may not inherit even if the parents subsequently marry.

    But to the childe borne out of matrimonye, the lawe of Englande alloweth no succession, affirmynge it to be naturall onely and not lawfull [because] the sinne of the firste carnal accion [premarital coitus] ... is not purged by the matrimonie ensuynge ... whiche doth not onelye judge the childe so gotten to be illegittimate but also prohibiteth it to succede in the parents inheritance... specially in the roialme of England where the eldest sonne only enjoieth the fathers inheritance. (Fol. 90r, 90v, 93r, 94r)

    The "naturall onely" status of a child born out of matrimony may explain why the Ghost challenges Hamlet to revenge his murder saying, "If thou hast nature in thee beare it not" (Q2 1.5.81).

  4. Fortescue next explains that a bastard cannot inherit because, under Common law, a bastard child has no father and is nameless. To support his legal arguments Fortescue quotes a miserable doggerel:

    To whom the people father is, to him is father none and all.
    To whom the people father is, well fatherless we may him call. (Fol. 93v).

    To Fortescue it makes perfect sense that a latter-born child--either born in wedlock to the same parents or, in the event of the death of either partner, born of the remarriage of either father or mother--should take precedence in heritance over a firstborn natural child:

    It were therefore unreasonable that a child afterwarde borne in the same wedlock, whose generation cannot be unknown shoulde be disherited, and that a childe whiche knoweth no father should be heire to the father & mother of the other, specially in the roialme of England where the eldest sonne only enjoieth the fathers inheritance. (Fol. 94r)

    By this logic, a child born in wedlock to Claudius and Gertrude would take precedence over Hamlet in the Danish succession.

  5. Fortescue also provides an assessment of the intransigent stain of bastardy which reads like a prose paraphrase of Hamlet's "dram of eale" speech:

    If a bastard bee good, that cometh to him by chance that is to wytte, by speciall grace but if he be evil that commeth to him by nature. For it is thought that the base child draweth a certein corruption and stayne from the synne of his parentes, without his owne fault, as all we have receaved of the synne of oure first parents much infection, thoughe not somuche. Howbeit the blemish which bastards by the generation do receave ... thereof is immortall: for it is knowen with god and with men ... whom nature in her gyftes severeth, markynge the naturally or bastard chyldren as it were with a certein privie mark in their soules. (Fol. 96r, 96v, 97v).

    This passage and Hamlet's "dram of eale" speech share a noteworthy run of vocabulary and a whole constellation of ideas: chance, grace, nature, corruption, fault, stayne and blemish (mole), "without his owne fault" ("wherein they are not guilty"), "knowen with god and men" ("general censure," i.e. the Last Judgment), "nature ... markynge" ("Nature's livery"), and the assertion that bastards carry "a certain privie mark in their soules" ("Carrying ... the stamp of one defect ... Fortunes starre"). Most compelling is the parallel between Fortescue's assertion that a child "draweth a certain corruption and stayne from the synne of his parentes, without his owne fault" and Hamlet's

    So oft it chaunces in particuler men,
    That for some vicious mole of nature in them
    As in their birth wherein they are not guilty,
    (Since nature cannot choose his origin) …. (1.4.17-20)

    Hamlet's "dram of eale" speech reads like Shakespeare's poetical précis of Fortescue's homily.

  6. To support my thesis that Shakespeare is relying on Fortescue, let me cite another striking linguistic parallel between the two texts. Toward the end of his discourse on the laws of bastardy, Fortescue paraphrases Luke 6:43-4: "For an evil tree saye they can not brynge furthe good fruites, nor a good tree beare evyll fruites (99r)." A few pages later Fortescue amplifies this principle: "And what then if he have graffed a slyppe of a swete nature in a stock of a sower tree: So that the tree be his owne, shall not the fruites, thoughe they ever savor of the stocke, be his owne fruites" (102v). When Hamlet chides Ophelia that "vertue cannot so enoculat our old stock, but we shall relish of it" (3.1.119-120) Fortescue's "savor" becomes Shakespeare's "relish". Indeed, one meaning of "savor" is "to relish" (OED savor v. 11). Reconsidered in light of his bastardy, Hamlet's spurning of Ophelia takes on a new and trenchant coloration. "Why woulds't thou," he demands, "be a breeder of sinners? … I am myselfe indifferent honest, but yet I could accuse me off such things that it were better my Mother had not borne mee" (3.1.123-5).

  7. There is further evidence for Hamlet's illegitimacy elsewhere in the play. Polonius, a longtime courtier, must know that Hamlet's birth was illegitimate. Speaking to Claudius and Gertrude, Polonius declares that when he learned of Hamlet's romantic interest in Ophelia, he warned his daughter not to encourage Hamlet's advances, saying

                             I went round to worke,
    And my young Mistris thus I did bespeake,
    Lord Hamlet is a Prince out of they star, This must not be (2.2.139-41).

    Here Polonius is speaking to Hamlet's mother - and either being politic or delicate or both. But we heard Polonius caution Ophelia (1.3.88-135)--and he said nothing of the kind. It was naďve, young Laertes who warned Ophelia that Hamlet's "greatness wayd, his will is not his owne ... for on his choise depends The safty and health of this whole state" (1.3.18-21). For her part, Gertrude knows her Hamlet's unroyal condition makes Ophelia a satisfactory match. Strewing flowers into Ophelia's grave, Gertrude laments, "Sweets to the sweet, farewell, I hop't thou should'st have been my Hamlets wife" (5.1.266-7). With Fortescue as a gloss to Hamlet's "dram of eale" speech, we can now recognize Gertrude's lament as an implicit confession of her own sins.

Works Cited

Editor's Note

Since this note appears in a special issue on women's writing, it is perhaps worth observing that the idea that "a latter-born child--either born in wedlock to the same parents or, in the event of the death of either partner, born of the remarriage of either father or mother--should take precedence in heritance over a firstborn natural child" was by no means purely theoretical but did in fact occur in the family of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, whose eldest brother was born before the marriage of their parents. They appealed to James I to recognise him as their heir, but to no avail, and he was therefore disinherited in favour of the second son.


Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.


© 2001-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS)