Hamlet, the Pirate’s Son

Mary Floyd-Wilson
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>.

  1. In the 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 selfhood.4

  2. For William Lawrence in 1944, the pirate rescue is Shakespeare’s remarkable and original solution to a host of problems posed by Hamlet’s “crude, trivial, [and] ill-motivated” sources (52). Although Shakespeare was “confined” by his sources to include Hamlet’s sea-voyage, he “overcame this technical difficulty” with the pirates (61; 70). The pirates’ rescue allowed Shakespeare to return Hamlet to Denmark more “immediately,” Lawrence contends, thus solving the dramatic obstacle of Hamlet’s absence. Failing to consider that in the pirate-less First Quarto Hamlet manages to get back to Elsinore without delay or explication, Lawrence maintains that the rescue replaces the awkward “old story” found in Saxo Grammaticus and François de Belleforest when Amleth / Hamblet stays for a time at the English court.5 To discern Shakespeare’s originality, Lawrence turns to Der Bestrafte Brudermord, the German play dated 1710, long thought to be indebted to that ghost of a source, the Ur-Hamlet.6 In Brudermord, the ship comes ashore on an island, where two bandits (Banditen) hired by the king attempt to kill Hamlet, who then tricks them into shooting each other. Hamlet discovers in their possession the king’s letter that orders his death in England if the island ambush were to fail. Lawrence remains undecided as to whether this scene derives from the Ur-Hamlet (as other critics have argued), but he does dismiss it as “terrible stuff” that leaves Hamlet “marooned off England” (53). Shakespeare’s pirate rescue, on the other hand, provides a speedy return and shows Hamlet’s capacity for “quick action” (70). The foregone conclusion for Lawrence, despite the “quick action” of Hamlet in Brudermord and the absence of pirates in Q1, is that since Shakespeare had to deal with such graceless sources, his “final achievement” proves all the more admirable.

  3. The most popular reading of the pirates’ capture is that their appearance further underlines the providential intervention that Hamlet associates with his forging of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s letter of execution. As Alan Sinfield has argued, the pirates are “so improbable and so unnecessary to the plot” that we are compelled to read them as symbolic of providence (92). Extending this argument, Richard Ide has suggested that the pirates are “conventional figures (which are not in Belleforest)” derived from prose romance and associated, generically, with supernatural forces (313). In these readings, the thieves of mercy are the final link in a chain of accidents compelled initially by Hamlet’s rashness. At the other end of the spectrum, a handful of critics have claimed that interpreting the pirate incident as accidental misses textual clues that indicate that Hamlet arranged the rescue himself. Most recently David Farley-Hills has taken up this position (which rests a great deal on the earliest definition of the word “craft” as ship); in his assessment, the scholars who identify the pirates with providence also assume that Hamlet “lacks the initiative to finish the task of revenge” on his own—initiative clearly demonstrated by his plotting to meet up with the pirates (328).7 For both sets of critics, the supposed implausibility of the storyline initiates a discussion on what the episode ultimately says about Hamlet’s inner qualities.8

  4. Yet critics who have taken a historical approach to the play directly challenge the assumption that the pirates are patently implausible when they point to England’s relations with Denmark in the late sixteenth century and to the genuine presence of pirates in the North and Baltic Seas (Wentersdorf 436).9 As Gunnar Sjögren notes, the English were more likely to have heard of Elsinore than Copenhagen, since it was the site of the Sound Toll levied by the Danish crown, which approximately one hundred English ships paid twice a year in their travels. The “Sound Toll” was what Denmark charged for their ostensible efforts to keep the Baltic Sea free of pirates (120-21). Despite such efforts, however, the northern waters were full of European pirates, many of them Danish and English in origin (Dollerup 146; Sjögren 121). In other words, the presence of pirates in Hamlet may have been quite credible to an early modern audience. As historian Edward Cheyney observes, in the late sixteenth century, the bitter diplomatic communications between Denmark and England concerned, almost entirely, the English piracy of Danish ships. In reminding us that Elsinore was perceived by the early modern English as a busy cosmopolitan port threatened by pirates, historical accounts suggest the possibility that Hamlet’s external relations are more than accidental occurrences distracting us from Hamlet’s interiority.

  5. Although notoriously anachronistic, Hamlet makes some effort to historicize the relations between Denmark and England, particularly in Claudius’s claim that Hamlet will travel to England to demand Denmark’s “neglected tribute.” Since the Danish sword has left England’s “cicatrice … raw and red,” Claudius assumes the English people will pay him “homage” (4.3.63-65).10 These references situate Hamlet in what later became known as the “Viking Age,” when Denmark regularly extorted payment from England to protect its coasts from Danish pirates—a payment that hardened into the “Danegeld.” As Holinshed’s Chronicles observes, “This money was called Danegylt or Dane money, and was levyed of the people. Although others take that to be Danegylte, whiche was gyuen unto such Danes as king Egelred afterwards reteyned in his service, to defende the lande from other Danes and enimyes” (I.239). In medieval use, “viking” means those who practice piracy, and according the OED, the earliest recorded use of the word “pirate” identifies them as Danes.11 In his discussion of the Danish conquest, William Camden makes these associations apparent:
    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

  6. Recognizing this correlation leads us, I propose, to a new reading of Hamlet’s sources. As scholars have made plain, pirates do not hijack Amleth/Hamblet in Saxo or Belleforest.13 However, both texts do include significant references to piracy. Most prominently, Hamblet’s father, Horwendile is a heroic pirate, who gains renown and power with his sea adventures. Belleforest observes, from a historical distance, that “the greatest honor that men of noble birth could at that time win and obtaine, was in exercising the art of piracie upon the seas” (181). In Saxo, Horwendile’s success as a pirate motivates the King of Norway in his attempt to “transcend him in warfare and cast a shadow over the brilliance of this world-famed sea-rover” (82). When in Hamlet Horatio refers to the compact between Old Fortinbras of Norway and the “valiant” King Hamlet—as “this side of our known world esteem’d him”—it recalls Horwendile’s fame as well as the agreement and subsequent show-down between the pirate kings (1.1.87-88).14 That Horatio wonders whether the Ghost may have “uphoarded in [his] life / Extorted treasure in the womb of earth” (139-40) suggests a life of piracy. Indeed, it is Horwendile’s reputation as a pirate in both sources that prompts his brother Fengon’s murderous jealousy (Saxo 83). The nostalgia of Shakespeare’s Hamlet for his father and for Denmark’s Edenic past has its roots in Amleth/ Hamblet’s many comparisons between the ignoble Fengon and his heroic pirate father. In Belleforest’s closet scene, Hamblet laments to his mother that she has married a man who murdered “the honor and glory of the Danes, who are now esteemed of no force nor valour at all” (211). Thus, in losing Hamblet’s father, the Danes lost their national reputation as worthy heroes of the seas.

  7. If we stress these elements of Hamlet’s sources, Shakespeare’s pirate rescue may still look providential but it also gestures towards Hamlet’s personal and national heritage. Symbolically, perhaps, Hamlet faces another version of his father at sea: not only are the “thieves of mercy” reminiscent of Horwendile but they also bring to mind the pirate conquerors of Denmark’s primitive “Viking” history. The pirates function as the literary and historical ghosts of Hamlet’s ancestors, on the margins of the play, outside the staged action, but crucial to his volte-face. Critics seem to agree that Hamlet returns from his sea-voyage in Act 5 a transformed man, but there is no consensus on why or how he has changed. The soliloquies are gone and Hamlet makes his only public declaration of his status, “This is I, / Hamlet the Dane” (5.1.250-51). The curiosity of this statement is why the prince would be compelled to characterize his royal identity in this way.15 Indeed, what Hamlet literally asserts is the recuperation of his ethnic identity—a recuperation that may be connected to his adventures at sea.

  8. As I have argued elsewhere, Hamlet’s melancholy has estranged him from his “native, northern complexion” (English Ethnicity 78). His genuine mourning exacerbates his melancholy—a foreign infection that alienates him physiologically and emotionally from his former self. And Hamlet’s interiority or inwardness, long celebrated by critics as selfhood or subjectivity, may have been identified as unnatural by some early moderns.16 Hamlet articulates his alienation in ethnological terms early in the play: although born to the Danish custom of drinking, a stereotypically northern vice that leads other nations to “clepe [the Danes] drunkards,” he has lost all mirth and forgoes such practices (1.4.19). But his concern for Denmark’s reputation suggests frustrations with the determinism of a northern birth—for “nature cannot choose his origin” (1.4.26). For Hamlet, “Denmark sits on the margins of the civilized world, ‘traduced and taxed of other nations’ for its ‘heavy-headed’ and barbarous customs” (“English Mettle” 142). The prince adopts here a foreign voice—possibly an Italianate one—ventriloquising continental opinions and distancing himself from his base origins. In “Pierce Penniless his Supplication to the Devil,” Thomas Nashe articulates this purported Italian disdain for Danish culture when his speaker denounces the Danes as “bursten-bellied sots” and celebrates Italianate prejudices against them: “God so love me as I love the quick-witted Italians, therefore love them the more because they mortally detest this surly, swinish generation” (77). Moreover, Hamlet’s disdain for his nativity resonates with England’s own anxiety about its northern roots, epitomized in their particular concern that they inherited drunkenness from the Danes.17

  9. The tension between Hamlet’s disparagement of his low origins and his proud assertion in Act 5—“This is I, / Hamlet the Dane”—mirrors, I want to suggest, a tension at work in the early modern literary and historiographical turn towards northern sources. Throughout the sixteenth century, the English struggled to reconcile themselves to their own northern origins—adopting, on the one hand, foreign “civilizing” customs and embracing, on the other hand, the rugged barbarism of their native roots (English Ethnicity 48-66). The English civilizing process was troubled by the notion that civility originated elsewhere: the very concerns with degeneration that led Roger Ascham to condemn Italianate Englishmen also compelled seventeenth-century antiquarians to celebrate the uncorrupted condition of England’s hearty, warlike northern ancestors. Initiating this historiographical turn northward were the popular histories by the Magnus brothers: Johannes Magnus’s history of the Goths and Swedes, which includes Hamlet’s story, and his brother Olaus Magnus’s Description of the Northern Peoples. In the same way that Saxo’s medieval Amleth tale is a “central national myth” aimed at bolstering the reputation of the Danes, these popular histories sought to resurrect the reputation of the Goths, long denigrated by Italian humanists (Maxwell 520).18 Indeed, these northern histories inspired the seventeenth-century trend in English historiography of identifying the worthy qualities of Germanic settlers in England as “Gothic.”19 As Julie Maxwell has recently argued, it is likely that the Magnus brothers’ histories are long-overlooked sources of Shakespeare’s Hamlet (518-60).20 Given this trend in historiography, it is hardly coincidental that Belleforest, in his efforts to amend French degeneracy, offers ideological reasons for looking to the history of Denmark for inspiring source material:
    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)21
    While 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).

  10. Hamlet’s Denmark proves rotten by internal and external causes. Like the English, the Danes are northerners caught between the humoral excesses of their native complexion (and the customs that feed those humors), and the corruption wrought by the importation of foreign “civilizing” behaviors. Whether we cite Laertes’s Franco-inspired habits, Claudius’s Machiavellian ways, or Hamlet’s melancholy, the Danes in Shakespeare’s play are hardly representative of untainted northern virtue. But chronologically the play situates Denmark between periods, looking back to a heroic medieval past while also invoking an early modern present.22 Hamlet’s dilemma is not only how to play scourge without getting tainted, but also how to play scourge when already tainted (whether by scholarly melancholy, his grief, the ghost, or something else). Remarkably, when faced with the mystery of Hamlet’s “distemperacie” (2.1) in Q1, Claudius suggests a change in environment as a potential cure: he justifies his deportation of Hamlet by reasoning that the “aire and climate of [England] / May please him better than his native home” (11.123-4).23 Although foreign to our concept of selfhood, it was commonplace in the period to suggest that the “external relations” of one’s air and climate had a determining effect on a person’s psychological and physiological health. Travel to foreign countries might purge (or infect) an individual’s native complexion, and a sea-change could imply a material transformation of one’s disposition.24 Shakespeare’s Hamlet, of course, never makes it to England, so technically he fails to benefit from that country’s environment. It is just as well, perhaps, that Hamlet avoids England, which was typically characterized by the English and the continent as problematically northern, too. As the gravedigger jokes:
    Grave: A [Hamlet] shall recover his wits there [in England],

    Or if a do not, ‘tis no great matter there.
    Ham: Why?
    Grave: ‘Twill not be seene in him there. There the men are as mad as he. (5.1.146-50)
    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:
    Haply the seas and countries different,

    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)
    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.

  11. Rather than arguing that the sea-voyage and pirate rescue bring out hidden internal qualities in Hamlet (such as initiative, heroism, or impulsiveness), I am suggesting that external forces—environmental and historical—transform the prince outwardly, thus altering the temperament he presented in Acts 1-4. As Maurice Charney has proposed, it is very likely that the Hamlet of Act 5 has cast off his inky cloak and now appears in the “sea-gown” of his travels (270).25 Hamlet’s message to Claudius indicates that he has arrived on Denmark’s shore “naked,” hinting that he has been stripped of his old belongings and making it likely that he would be dressed in sailing garb (4.7.42). If this is the case, Hamlet’s costuming when he announces himself as “the Dane” would be indistinguishable from the pirates who deliver his letters to Horatio in the previous act. This is not to say that all purported signs of Hamlet’s brooding “subjectivity” have evaporated: as he tells Horatio, he still feels “ill” about his heart (5.2.208). But the soliloquies are gone, and despite his “gaingiving” or pangs of conscience (211), Hamlet responds to the demands of his “external relations” and his external habit, thus retrieving his historically northern role as the son of a heroic Dane.26 In a culture where refinement was understood to decline easily into degeneracy, Shakespeare’s “low Originals” may have helped foster, temporarily, a national fantasy of untainted primitivism—a fantasy that would soon play a significant role in shaping historical and legal thought in seventeenth-century England.27


    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).