Time of Year
Hamlet is set in the springtime. The dialogue to that effect is abundant, although two lines can be read to imply otherwise.
Evidence for a Springtime Setting
King Hamlet's Nap
It is not sensible to imagine King Hamlet was taking a nap outdoors in cold weather. It must have been a warm day. He is not the one who was supposed to be mad.
The Ghost does tell Hamlet, in Scene 5, that King Hamlet "always" napped in the orchard in the afternoon, but it is not reasonable to take the word "always" literally in a statement like that. Such a statement is an expression of habit (and we see the Ghost does use the word "custom.") The Ghost merely means King Hamlet had the habit of doing that, when he could. It certainly does not imply King Hamlet forcing himself to go out and nap in the orchard during a winter ice storm, or any such mad thing. There is no support in the Ghost's line for the idea of King Hamlet napping outside in winter.
Further, it's revealed in the Dumb Show that King Hamlet was lying on a bank of flowers. A warm day, and a bank of flowers, identify springtime already, when he died, and the play is two months later. The Dumb Show quote, Scene 9#121-DS3 - DS4:
... he takes her up, and declines his head upon her neck; he lies him down upon a bank of flowers; she, seeing him asleep, leaves him. ...
Snakes, being cold blooded, require warm weather to be active. That is common knowledge. Nobody would have believed King Hamlet was bitten by a snake unless the weather was warm enough so that snakes could be active. The implication of a warm afternoon is inescapable, for the snakebite story ever to have been given credence by anybody. The Ghost's mention of the serpent, Scene 5#040 - 041:
'Tis given out, that sleeping in my orchard, A serpent stung me, ...
Spring is the season of flowers. There are so many lines in the play about flowers, it takes a while to list them.
- A violet in the youth of primy nature - Laertes, Scene 3. "Primy nature" is a reference to springtime. (Scene 3#008)
- The canker galls the infants of the spring - Laertes, Scene 3, refers to flower buds, likening Ophelia to a flower bud, and he explicitly says "spring." (Scene 3#042)
- the primrose path of dalliance - Ophelia, Scene 3. "Primrose" is from Latin prima rosa meaning "first rose" (of spring.) (Scene 3#053)
- Cut off even in the blossoms of my sin - Ghost, Scene 5. The Ghost's figure of speech is odd, but he essentially means that he died when his sins were in full bloom, which would be in the "springtime" of his sins, well before his sins matured and were harvested, so to speak, to remove them from him. The Ghost's line goes along, exactly, with King Hamlet dying in the spring, although, being a highly figurative line, it does not literally say that. (Scene 5#080)
- he lies him down upon a bank of flowers - the Dumb Show narrative, Scene 9, mentioned above. That strongly implies spring, it cannot be winter. (Scene 9#121-DS4)
- Larded all with sweet flowers - Ophelia, Scene 16. Ophelia is singing about her father's funeral. The ready availability of flowers, in those days, implies spring or early summer. (Scene 16#039)
- O Rose of May - Laertes, Scene 16. We see the explicit mention of May, a month in spring. (Scene 16#163)
Ophelia names a number of herbs and flowers, Scene 16#180 - 186:
- rosemary ... pansies ... fennel ... columbines ... rue ... daisy ... violets, - all mentioned by Ophelia, in Scene 16, as she speaks to Laertes. It is sometimes interpreted, and played, that the flowers are not really there, and are a figment of Ophelia's imagination. However, that cannot be the case for the rosemary and pansies, because they are flowers from Polonius's funeral that she has saved for Laertes, since Laertes wasn't there. No credible performance could omit those two, at least, as real flowers.
Theater is a visual experience for the audience. Theater is not just words. Nor is it reasonable to suppose Shakespeare's original audience, mostly groundlings, was immediately fascinated with the psychology of the title character, or any other character, and attuned to nuances of the dialogue. They were there, initially, for the show, and to imagine Shakespeare did not know that, is to think a mad thing. The conclusion is that Shakespeare intended the flowers, or some passable imitation of them, to be displayed on stage. It follows that the time of year, we are to understand, is when the flowers would be available (in those days before commercial hothouse culture or the import of a large variety, and quantity, of flowers at any season, as occurs today.) That means springtime, or at the latest, early summer.
Gertrude names specific flowers:
- crowflowers, nettles, daises, and long purples - Gertrude, Scene 18#182. Again, for these flowers to be available, it must be spring, or early summer.
Indirect, subtly implicit allusions to flowers could be listed, as well. The above does not exhaust the flower references in the dialogue, it's only the most obvious ones.
Shakespeare was not writing a factual narrative, he was engaged in fiction, in which stereotypes play a major role, to connect with the general understandings of the audience. Flowers are so characteristic of the springtime, not only in popular understanding but in fact, that a conclusion of springtime, for the play setting, is unavoidable.
Religious Indications of Springtime
In Scene 5, Hamlet says to Horatio:
- Hamlet: Yes, by Saint Patrick, but there is, my Lord. (Scene 5#149)
Saint Patrick's Day is March 17th.
Queen Gertrude is implicitly associated with Saint Gertrude of Nivelles, a patron of gardeners, pilgrims, the recently dead, and against mice and rats. The feast day of St Gertrude of Nivelles is the same as St Patrick's Day: March 17th.
Both that implicit association for a major character, Gertrude, and Hamlet's explicit line, point to a date in springtime.
Spring is the season of Lent. These lines, alluding to Lent, spoken by Rosencrantz to Hamlet, are found in Scene 7:
Rosencrantz: To think, my Lord, if you delight not in man, what Lenten entertainment the players shall receive from you (Scene 7#314-15)
The word Lent goes back to Old English 'lencten' / 'lengten' which meant "spring," and which referred literally to the lengthening of the daytime.
The Graveyard Scene
The point here is simply that the ground is not frozen when the Clown Sexton digs, as it would be in winter in Denmark. Shakespeare certainly had enough general knowledge to know about frozen ground in winter, in northern countries.
So, as we see, a conclusion of springtime, for the play setting, is so strongly indicated, by numerous factors drawn directly from the dialogue, it would take something major to alter that conclusion.
Does any major contradiction exist?
Evidence Against a Springtime Setting
There are two lines, one by Francisco, and one by Hamlet, which speak of the cold, and also, Marcellus alludes to Christmas. Those lines, early in the play, have been interpreted by some to imply the season is winter, or perhaps late autumn.
Early in Scene 1, Francisco says:
- 'tis bitter cold, And I am sick at heart. (Scene 1#008 - 009)
It's clear Francisco is not intending to make a weather report, though. He is talking about how he feels. Even so, according to several sources on the web, the average low temperature in April for Copenhagen is 36 or 37 degrees Fahrenheit, only four or five degrees above freezing, and Helsingor, Shakespeare's Elsinore, is farther north than Copenhagen.
Add to that, or rather subtract from it, as far as temperature goes, the fact that Europe was in the Little Ice Age in Shakespeare's day. The implication is of colder weather in his fictional Denmark than the modern average. The climate Shakespeare knew was somewhat colder than now.
There are three identifiable contributors to Francisco's statement of the "bitter cold":
- The actual temperature - but in Denmark, at night, that can be close to freezing, even well into spring.
- The military situation - Denmark is facing an apparent military threat, their great warrior king, King Hamlet, has recently died, and his replacement, Claudius, is an unproven military leader who has never been held in high regard. (On that last point, see Hamlet's line to Rosencrantz & Guildenstern in Scene 7, about how people would sneer at Claudius, before he became King.) It's a psychologically cold situation for a soldier like Francisco. Human perception of temperature can be substantially altered by psychological factors, as everyone knows. The human body is not a mere thermometer. Remarks like, "it's cold in here, or is it just me?" are a commonplace.
- There's a Ghost in the area, so supernatural forces are at work. Ghosts are a cold phenomenon, in western stereotype, due to their association with the coldness of death. While Francisco has not seen the Ghost, he's in the area where the ghostly influence is most in play at that time.
For those reasons, Francisco's line cannot be used to conclude it's winter, or anything but spring. His line is fully compatible with his point of view, the aura of the Ghost, and a chilly spring night, in Denmark.
Also in Scene 1, Marcellus alludes to Christmas, as follows:
- Some say that ever 'gainst that season comes Wherein our Saviour's birth is celebrated
But Marcellus is obviously saying it is not the Christmas season. He doesn't say how far in time they are from Christmas.
At the beginning of Scene 4, Hamlet says to Horatio:
- ... it is very cold. (Second Quarto version)
- ... is it very cold? (First Folio version)
The reason for the difference in wording is not known as a matter of established fact. Interpretation is required. Either form of the line goes along with a shiver from Hamlet, so the implied stage action is no different. In terms of the language, a declaration of the cold, and a question about the cold, are not at all the same. (Horatio's reply is the same in both versions, except that an inserted "a" in the Folio regularizes the meter; the meaning of Horatio's line doesn't change. Horatio replies to the effect that the air is cold enough to have "bite.")
Although the question form in the Folio has been dismissed in some historical Hamlet commentary, it makes good sense, especially in light of the play overall. There are important instances where Hamlet turns to Horatio for verification. That happens notably in the Mousetrap Play Scene, and before the fencing match. Hamlet tends to verify his judgments and perceptions with Horatio. The Folio's question form can be understood as Hamlet asking Horatio if it feels as cold to him, as it does to Hamlet. Further, a question from Hamlet contributes to dialogue flow, to get the prompt response from Horatio.
So, the Folio difference can not be dismissed as a misprint. It could easily be right, for what Shakespeare intended, which means Hamlet's line can't safely be read as a factual declaration of the cold. It then certainly can't be read as a factual declaration of wintertime.
The indications of springtime, as the play setting, are plentiful, and clear enough, while the contrary evidence is slight, and highly subject to interpretation. The conclusion is: it's Spring.
© 2014 Jeffrey Paul Jordan
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