I saw the David Tennant Hamlet the other day. Ohmygod, I loved it.
Tennant made his Hamlet conflicted but not an emo mess. Patrick Stewart’s Claudius was ambitious and lusty without being a caricature of odiousness. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, solid, good.
As good as the show was, there was an enormous problem. A smooth, consistent rendering of Hamlet makes it very clear: The dude is NOT thirty years old. That’s unbelievable. Stupid, even.
It is convenient to keep up the pretense that Hamlet is 30, because by the time modern actors are skilled enough to play the part well, the teen years are a distant memory.
It is easy for audiences to settle in to the idea that Hamlet is 30, because by now we’ve either seen Olivier or Gibson in the role.
But he’s NOT.
He’s an emotional, confused teen. In every line he says. In every interaction.
Hamlet is a teen because of himself, because of the setting, and because of the characters around him.
So here goes my justification that Hamlet is 16 or so:
Hamlet is a teenager, because he is sending love tokens to a teenaged girl. No 30 year old, even long ago, would be likely to send cutesy letters.
Hamlet is unmarried. No royal would get to be 30 and unmarried, and Hamlet being made to get married is something both Laertes and Polonius reference. Gertrude laments that Ophelia was supposed to marry her son, which would have happened, even if she were 7 years old, as soon as Hamlet was old enough and maybe even younger—but definitely before age 30. A sixteen year old unmarried Hamlet writing notes to his crush? Possibly. An adult doing this? Never.
By the way, much is made of Ophelia dreaming out of her sphere—but she IS of sufficient rank to marry Hamlet, even if politically it would not have been advantageous. Laertes, her brother, is presumed to be royal enough to be named king when Claudius becomes unpopular, besides the fact that Gertrude wishes Ophelia had lived long enough to marry Hamlet. (OK, you can say anything about a dead person, but still.)
Hamlet is still in college.
Hamlet’s real best friend, Horatio, his presumed best friend, Laertes, and his turncoat buds are all young enough to be college kids. It would be one messed up college full of nothing but score-and-a-half undergrads.
And then there’s that whole thing with Fortinbras. A teenaged Hamlet could conceivably be left out of it. A thirty year old one would, at least, be in on the negotiations.
We who are alive in 2016 are inured to the heir apparent doing rot-all, because Prince Charles is constantly in the paper for doing nothing. But that would not be the situation in either Denmark of that time or Shakespeare’s England.
Hamlet’s mother, if he were in his 30s, would be at least 45, maybe 50. If that were the case, Claudius would look to Hamlet for the succession. Since he doesn’t bring it up, we can be pretty sure that Gertrude is presumed to be young enough to bear children, probably in her mid 30s.
Hamlet’s father would also likely be in his 50s or better if Hamlet were 30. At that age, and in that age, it would not be all that suspicious for him to die unexpectedly. So once again, Hamlet can’t be that old, based on people around him.
So WHY do people think Hamlet is 30?
There’s only one line in the play that supports it—and this line was not in earlier versions. The gravedigger says he’s been doing this job for 30 years, since young Hamlet was born.
I have read that this line was thrown in after the play was already written, to justify an older actor playing the part. I can just see the production meeting:
William: OK, bad news, guys. Hob Gadling dropped out. Richard, can you take on Hamlet?
Richard: What? The kid’s 16! I’m 32! Make Henry do it.
William: It’s too many lines. Henry chokes under pressure.
Henry: Hey! Do NOT! Anyway, Will, you know the lines. You wrote them. YOU do it.
William: I can’t. I’m already playing Hamlet’s dad, because Artie caught plague. Remember? Richard, if you do this, you get a love scene with Jack.
Richard: Oh. But it still looks stupid. The audience isn’t gonna buy it.
William: Look, they don’t care! They are only there for the last scene! Everybody gets a cool death scene after the duel.
Richard: I get to duel? At my age? Kewl. I’ll do it. Just write me a line to make him older. I don’t want them to think I’m vain.
William: Yeah, yeah. Thanks, Rich. You’re a peach.
As I mentioned, by the time you are a skilled enough actor to portray Hamlet, you are probably in your mid twenties. So actors are willing to support the notion of Hamlet being older. This is the same problem we have with Juliet; the reality of BEING 14 years old doesn’t actually mean you can PLAY 14. But with Juliet we tend to pile on the makeup and hope the audience doesn’t notice.
I’ll say it. Hamlet would be a better play if producers cut the gravedigger’s line and let Hamlet be the teen he was meant to be.
But I still love David Tennant.