Time Period

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The time period of the play is primarily Renaissance, contemporary with Shakespeare's England. That conclusion is drawn from the following.

  • Kronborg Castle, upon which Elsinore Castle is based, was completed c. 1585, by Frederick II of Denmark. One might possibly take it that the Elsinore Castle in Hamlet could be modeled on the earlier Danish fortress named Krogen, which preceded Kronborg Castle at its location, however, there is no reason apparent why Shakespeare would have paid much attention to the old Krogen fortress. It's Kronborg Castle, of Shakespeare's own time, which became famous for its magnificence, and fit for a royal palace.
  • King James VI of Scotland was married to Princess Anne of Denmark in a ceremony at Kronborg Castle on August 20, 1589. The ceremony at that time was by proxy, and George Keith, 5th Earl Marischal of Scotland, stood in for King James. James traveled to meet Anne at Oslo, Norway, when weather permitted. The King of Denmark ruled both Denmark and Norway at that time. James's travels with Anne included a visit to Kronborg Castle starting on December 22, 1589, and lasting into March 1590. The visit to Kronborg was made because Danish King Christian IV, only 12 years old then, was in residence there. Thus, it was in Shakespeare's own time that Kronborg/Elsinore Castle was, in fact, a royal Danish residence, and there is no reason to imagine he didn't know that, especially since the fact was associated with notable current events involving the British Isles. Kronborg/Elsinore Castle, as the royal Danish residence, is distinctly Renaissance, and precisely contemporary with Shakespeare's England.
  • The University of Wittenberg was not founded until 1502, and again, there is no reason to imagine Shakespeare did not know that. Even if he never bothered with the exact date, he knew it was relatively recent, and not an ancient university. The university attendance, at Wittenberg, of Hamlet, Horatio, and Rosencrantz & Guildenstern says "Renaissance," loud and clear.
  • The rapier, prominently mentioned in the play, is a Renaissance weapon. Its invention, development, and adoption began in the 1500s, and its widespread adoption in England began not too much before Shakespeare's own day. Some rapiers, especially in the German style, although they have intricate handguards, have a long, obvious crosspiece on the hilt, which can well serve Hamlet using his sword to symbolize the Christian cross (as Hamlet does several times in the play.) It is not necessary to go back to medieval weaponry, the long sword or the broadsword, to have a "cross" hilt. The point there being, there is no conflict between the Renaissance rapier, stated in the play, and the "cross" symbolism also stated. The Renaissance setting is again implied.
  • Effective cannonry is post-medieval, especially when set up as a multi-cannon battery. A multi-cannon battery is implied when Claudius says at the fencing match in Scene 20, "Let all the battlements their ordnance fire."
  • Merely as a practical matter, a contemporary setting is much easier to stage for costuming, since most of the costuming can be based on street clothes. This fact could hardly have escaped Shakespeare or any of his company.

So, the Elsinore Castle location as the royal residence, the University of Wittenberg, the rapier, the topicality of Elsinore Castle, the cannon in batteries, and the simple practicalities of staging all point to Hamlet being a contemporary play, set in the Renaissance era.

Against the above, are the following:

  • Denmark and Norway were united in Shakespeare's day, and had been (in one way or another) since 1379, when they were joined under Olaf IV. To have Denmark and Norway clearly under distinctly separate Kings, as historical fact, with a firm division of the monarchies, it's apparently necessary to go back to medieval times (and to the petty states of the region.) The history of the region is complicated. However, there was political turmoil in the region in the time of Henry VIII of England, when Sweden, (not Norway,) left the Kalmar Union, in 1521. Substituting Norway for Sweden would give a sort of matchup with Hamlet, on the issue of political division, close to Shakespeare's own time. But it's doubtful he worried about all of that, to put a drama on the stage. He probably simply followed the source story of Amleth, to have the national conflict. Following a source to have certain, specific story elements does not make Hamlet a medieval play overall.
  • Kronborg Castle has no classic battlements, "battlements" meaning castellation, crenelated parapets, the stereotypical castle ramparts. So Claudius's line, mentioned earlier, "Let all the battlements their ordnance fire," implies medieval castle design. However, the stereotype of castle battlements is so well known that they are a "must" if an audience is to recognize a structure as a "castle," and not just a big house. The mention of battlements cannot be taken to dictate the time period of the play, because battlements are mandatory for audience recognition of "castle."
  • The Danegeld was medieval, and must be what Claudius means when he speaks, in Scene 8, of the tribute England owes Denmark. However, the functional purpose of the tribute, within the play, is obvious: it gives Claudius a believable reason to send Hamlet to England, without Claudius revealing his true aim. The tribute is not mentioned in order to give the play a medieval atmosphere, it serves a specific story purpose, to create the necessary flow of events. Thus, the tribute cannot be read to dictate a medieval setting, for the play overall. It would be excessive to take it that a specific story element constitutes a general prescription.

In sum, the reasonable conclusion is that the time period of Shakespeare's Hamlet is contemporary with his own time, but some anachronisms are included for story purposes, and as necessary for audience comprehension.

© 2014 Jeffrey Paul Jordan

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