Open lecture: Hamlets and the Jacobean Succession
The research project ”Unearned Wealth” is inviting for an open lecture on inheritance in literature by professor Paulina Kewes, Jesus College, University of Oxford.
Info about event
Scholars of Hamlet have long recognized its broad relevance to the problem of succession, pointing to the topicality of Denmark as setting for the extinction of a royal house and noting the correspondences, however fleeting, between James VI of Scotland (brother-in-law to Christian IV of Denmark-Norway) and both Hamlet and Fortinbras, as also between Robert Devereux, second earl of Essex and, alternatively, Hamlet, Fortinbras, and Laertes. Yet there has been little attempt to consider the implications of textual variation for reading Hamlet’s politics or to relate the handling of the principles of succession in Denmark (and Norway) to the heated if illicit exchanges about the proprieties of the succession to Queen Elizabeth I which unfolded across a range of forms and media in the twilight years of her reign. The concentration on Hamlet’s putative impact in performance, moreover, has obscured its likely impact in print. And that must have been formidable, for the publication of the earliest two editions coincided with the remarkable outpouring of texts written in response to Elizabeth’s death and the proclamation of James as king of England on 24 March 1603.
This lecture offers a fresh interpretation of Hamlet’s – or, rather, Hamlets’ – place in contemporary political culture, as well as a new account of the public perception of the Jacobean succession. Bringing together the perspectives of textual criticism, histoire du livre, and political thought, it explores the strange experience of historical unfixity and malleability which the play creates against a backdrop of its claustrophobic courtly setting at Elsinore. Are we in early medieval Denmark, of whom England is an abject tributary, or in the more contemporary, post-Reformation Denmark, her elite youths being educated in European centres of learning from Wittenberg to Paris? Such hybrid historicity, I shall argue, is especially pronounced in the second quarto of the play (Q2: 1604/5). Revealingly, this version of Hamlet also figures the Danish crown as elective and limited, in sharp contrast to the first quarto (Q1: 1603), where Denmark seems to be a hereditary and absolute monarchy. How and why the two Hamlets’ elusive chronology and historical eclecticism spoke to contemporary concerns about the succession will be the twin themes of this lecture. I shall be suggesting that if we read Q2 Hamlet as a Jacobean rather than an Elizabethan play, we shall understand, as otherwise we would not, its close engagement with both the literary culture and political developments stemming from the elevation of the Scottish king to the English throne.
Hosted by the research project: Unearned Wealth: A Literary History of Inheritance (1600-2015)