One scholarly book that I particularly enjoy is Hamlet without Hamlet by Margreta de Grazia. In it, de Grazia makes the case that the way we traditionally think of Hamlet — as a play dealing with modern concerns like metaphysics and psychology — misunderstands the play, and it actually deals with Elizabethan concerns, like succession and land. I don’t agree with most of it, but that’s part of why I enjoy it so much.

One element of the book that stands out to me is the way de Grazia deals with the problem of Hamlet’s age. The gravedigger scene would seem to suggest that Hamlet is 30, but readers and directors prefer a younger Hamlet. De Grazia finds a more symbolic purpose to the choice of 30:

Indeed the temporal quantity of “thirty” might be better understood as an indefinite verbal unit, like era or epoch, rather than a precise numerical one. In Shakespeare’s time, it was used interchangeably with generation to stand for the interval of time between parents and their offspring.

In de Grazia’s theory, Hamlet’s angst results from the fact that a generation has passed, but the proper events aren’t accompanying it. The young prince should be ascending the throne, but the old uncle does instead. The maid should be getting married, but she is rejecting marriage, and the old woman is instead getting married.

De Grazia also notes the coincidence of Hamlet’s birth and Old Hamlet’s conquest of Norway in the gravedigger scene. The gravedigger even notes that the conquered lands are to be passed on by law. It seems to indicate that Hamlet was born to rule.

Her theory can be further supported by the opening of the play-within-a-play:

Full thirty times hath Phoebus’ cart gone round
Neptune’s salt wash and Tellus’ orbed ground,
And thirty dozen moons with borrow’d sheen
About the world have times twelve thirties been,
Since love our hearts and Hymen did our hands
Unite commutual in most sacred bands.
(III.ii.150-55)

A generation has passed and the king is preparing to die.

What do you all think? Where else do generations play a role in Hamlet?

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