Too young, too old: Hamlet’s stuck in the middle maybe

How old is Hamlet?

(about 415 years, rim shot)

No, the character.

A few weeks back, I discussed the gravedigger’s timeline: He has been “sexton… (for) thirty years” (V.i.152-3), and he started digging graves “that very day that young Hamlet was born” (V.i.139). Yorick’s been in the ground “three and twenty years” (V.i.63-4), and Hamlet can remember the jester carrying Hamlet “on his back a thousand times” (V.i.176)… so the youngest Hamlet can be is 27 (if he’s got a great memory AND the gravedigger started doing that part of the job after he became a sexton), but more likely he’s closer to thirty.

So Hamlet is a thirty year-old professional student (“back to school in Wittenberg” [I.ii.113])?

One could see how easy it would be for Claudius (with help of Polonius) to sway the electors to make him King (especially given the military excursions of young Fortinbras). And this would be even easier if Hamlet was away at school. It’s completely plausible that Hamlet’s over-thinking of his situation (“paralysis by analysis,” as it were) is a natural result of his constant schooling with no real governmental, political or military experience.

But what if Hamlet wasn’t thirty?

How is this possible, you ask?

Remember a while back when discussion the First (“Bad”) Quarto, I said there are some differences between that text and the one in the Second Quarto, the one on which the one we’re reading is based. In our text, as noted above, Yorick has been buried 23 years, but in the First Quarto, the “scull hath bin here this dozen yeare” (sic, scene 16, unclear line number). If we keep the seven-year gap between Yorick’s death and Hamlet’s age (remember Hamlet can remember playing with the jester), then that makes Hamlet a mere 19 years of age.

How might this change our perception of Hamlet and his inaction?

Now, instead of being paralyzed by thought, it might be sheer inexperience that keeps him from taking immediate action. It is possible that he has been at Wittenberg since he was fifteen (“this three years” [V.i.131]). This would make his courtly inexperience understandable, but still again a valid reason for his non-election.

Too old. Too young.

Hamlet just can’t catch a break.