Featuring twelve original essays by leading Beckett scholars and media theorists, this book provides the first sustained examination of the relationship between Beckett and media technologies. The chapters analyse the rich variety of technical objects, semiotic arrangements, communication processes and forms of data processing that Beckett’s work so uniquely engages with, as well as those that – in historically changing configurations – determine the continuing performance, the audience reception, and the scholarly study of this work. Greatly enlarging the scope of earlier discussions, the book draws on a variety of innovative theoretical approaches, such as media archaeology, in order to discuss Beckett’s intermedial oeuvre. As such it engages with Beckett as a media artist and examine the way his engagement with media technologies continues to speak to our cultural situation.
These longer notes treat with topics relevant to this text which have been subjected to intensive scholarly interest and lively debate, but have so far eluded consensus.
Why the bishops burned the books
The bishops’ book-burning of June 1599 is extensively investigated in Cyndia Susan Clegg’s Press Censorship in Elizabethan England.1 Clegg relates the Nashe-Harvey ban to the suppression of John Hayward’s The First Part of the Life and Raigne of King Henrie IV, twice confiscated and burned in 1599, the second instance concurrent with the bishops’ action of 1–4 June.2 Hayward’s book was seen to have touched (perhaps seditiously) on matters of ‘State’. It was dedicated to Robert Devereux, Second Earl of Essex (1565–1601), and detailed the deposition of Richard II by Bolingbroke; anecdotally, Elizabeth is said to have identified with poor Richard, and the Earl was believed to harbour royal pretentions. Perhaps Hayward’s intentions were to encourage Essex in that direction. But why would the same net sweep up a sundry group of satirists, pamphleteers, and epigrammatists? Clegg’s suggestion that certain of the latters’ doggerels could be closely read as comments on Essex’s desultory military campaign in Ireland and/or his royal ambitions only tends to emphasize the scattershot nature of the bishops’ ban.
A more reasonable explanation could be that Elizabeth, incensed by her own and others’ interpretations of Hayward’s Henrie and its link to Essex, baited her bishops into a radical act of suppression. After both Queen and Essex were dead, Francis Bacon published an Apologie, in Certain imputations concerning the late Earle of Essex, which included this tale: ‘For her Majesty being mightily incensed with that booke which was dedicated to my Lord of Essex ... thinking it a seditious prelude to put into the people heads boldnesse and faction, said she had good opinion that there was treason in it, and asked me if I could not find any places in it, that might be drawne within case [lead to a prosecution] of treason.’3 Bacon claims he laughed the old Queen out of it, telling her he found no treason in Hayward’s book, only theft (plagiarism) from Tacitus. That Elizabeth even contemplated a formal prosecution illuminates the height of her dudgeon. Indeed, Hayward – ‘an unlikely traitor and a victim of “strong” reading’4 – was interrogated in Star Chamber, threatened with the rack, and slapped into prison.
Given the tenor of Elizabeth’s response to the book, it’s certainly possible that she could have prodded her bishops to (a) order the dedication to Essex removed (February 1599)5 and (b) confiscate and destroy the dedication-free second edition (after 28 May). Either as cover for these acts, or in the bishops’ desire opportunistically to make a one-time clean sweep, they issued their ban on 1 June which netted Harvey, Nashe, et al., and lit their conflagration. In any case, the ban was an extraordinary act of censorship, one bound to be remembered by London writers for years to come.
Shakespeare’s bad timing
Bad timing may be the simple explanation for Shakespeare’s Oldcastle–Falstaff gaffe. When Henry Carey died on 23 July 1596 he had been patron of Shakespeare’s company for two years and Lord Chamberlain for a dozen. Carey’s son George inherited the former distinction and politicked hard for the latter; he was disappointed. On 8 August 1596 Elizabeth gifted the lucrative and influential post to William Brooke, member of the Privy Council and Warden of the Cinque Ports. But young Carey did not brood long; Brooke died after only seven months in office and George received the white wand on 14 April 1597. In the interim, so we’re told, Shakespeare levelled two broadsides at Brooke.
The first appears in 1 Henry IV (1596), wherein Shakespeare imprudently lampooned Brooke’s illustrious ancestor, Sir John Oldcastle. In 1409, Sir John had assumed the title Baron Cobham on his marriage to widowed Joan, the Baroness. Shakespeare may have found licence for exploiting Oldcastle’s famous name in the old play The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth (ca. 1588), in which Sir John is cast as the misleader of Prince Hal’s youth. Apparently Shakespeare’s caricature of Oldcastle created a flap; some months after the debut of 1 Henry IV Shakespeare altered the name ‘Oldcastle’ to ‘Falstaff’ and appended a disclaiming Epilogue to its sequel, 2 Henry IV (1597?). In his edition of 1709 Nicholas Rowe explained: ‘some of the family being then remaining, the Queen was pleased to command him to alter it; upon which he made use of Falstaff.’6 We have only Rowe’s word for this, and his single-source intelligence is viewed by some with scepticism.
What is held out as Shakespeare’s second swipe at Brooke appears in The Merry Wives of Windsor (1597) via the character of foolish Ford, a husband who cloaks himself in the alias ‘Brooke’ while soliciting his own cuckolding (2.2.152–3). This play is thought to have been purpose-written for the occasion of George Carey’s induction as a Knight of the Garter. If so, the merrymaking lords may have received Ford’s alias as a bit of fun at the expense of Carey’s deceased rival. Curiously, the name ‘Brooke’ in Merry Wives also underwent an Oldcastle-like transformation; when the play appeared in the Folio the impertinent ‘Brooke’ had become an everyday ‘Broome’.
One cannot but wonder why a man of Shakespeare’s admired discretion would intentionally — and so very publicly — twit a powerful court official upon whose good will his own career and the fortunes of his acting company depended.
A more likely explanation for Shakespeare’s Oldcastle-Falstaff gaffe is that 1 Henry IV was written and staged prior to Henry Carey’s death on 23 July 1596 – and Brooke’s appointment as Lord Chamberlain came as an awkward surprise to Shakespeare as it did to George Carey. Regarding the ‘Brooke’ alias in The Merry Wives of Windsor, if (as we’ve been told) this play was written in haste for performance on St George’s Day, 23 April 1597, well, by that date Brooke had been dead six weeks, that is, no harm, no foul.
Brooke’s death and the quarrel of Pistol and Nym
Recovering Shakespeare’s link between of the deaths of Falstaff and Brooke casts a new, dark light on the rivalry between Pistol and Nym in The Life of Henry V. As Falstaff lies dying the pair come near to violence over the hand of Nell Quickly and the lordship of her tavern-whorehouse – two dubious prizes. Their squabbling may have been inspired by events surrounding the death of Brooke. The Chamberlain’s last illness was bruited from at least mid-February; on 18 February 1597 Rowland Whyte reported, ‘My Lord Chamberlain is sayd to be very ill ... My Lord of Hunsdon [George Carey] is thought shalbe Lord Chamberlain by his death, or by resignation if he live, for his body is to weake to brave the burden of the place [post].’7 London society – certainly including Shakespeare and company – were keenly aware that, as Brooke lay dying, swarms of noblemen and arrivistes were shamelessly politicking for the right to succeed to his offices and emoluments. The opportunists included the Earl of Essex, young Brooke, George Carey, Sydney, Whyte, and others. Whyte’s letters amply convey their ugly machinations. Shakespeare’s Eastcheap rivals personify their venality.
On 21 February, Whyte writes to Sydney that Cecil ‘went on Saturday to blackfriars [sic] to see my Lord Cobham’ in his illness while Henry Cobham is reported to be daily pleading with the Queen for his father’s offices. On 25 February: ‘The physicians vary in their opinion of [the survival] of Lord Cobham.’ On 28 February: ‘My Lord Chamberlain grows weaker; his eldest son earnestly sues [the Queen] to be Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports.’ On 1 March Whyte’s letter begins, ‘This day a speach was at Court that my Lord Chamberlain cannot live’, and the following day, ‘It is now held certain Lord Cobham cannot live.’ On 4 March, Essex writes to Sydney, ‘I do believe now that my Lord Chamberlain will dy.’ On that day Whyte reports: ‘Mr. Hen. Brooke, Sir Ed. Wooton and the two Lords Buckhurst and Hunsdon do stand for [have declared their candidacy for warden of the] Cinque Ports.’ On 6 March Whyte reports the death of Brooke and notes: ‘The Court is full of who shall have this and that office; most say Mr. Harry Brooke shall have Eltham and the Cinque Ports ... Lord Hunsdon is named for Lord Chamberlain.’8
No small miracle: the twice-striking clock in The Comedy of Errors
Though commentators have gamely struggled to divine the meaning of Shakespeare’s clock twice striking one o’clock in The Comedy of Errors, none has cracked (or even dented) this crux. But the extraordinary time-event – the phenomenon of a clock moving backwards – could have suggested only one antecedent to Elizabethans who knew their Bible. Of course, the best-known instance of God playing with time occurs in the Book of Joshua, during the Israelites’ conquest of the Amorites (10:12–15). But stopping the Sun is not the same as causing it move backwards in the heavens. That silent but extraordinary miracle occurs only once – in 2 Kings – and concerns an elderly and ailing Hezekiah, a youngish Isaiah, and ‘the sundial of Ahaz’. Both prophets were well known to Elizabethan Christians because both had predicted the coming of the Messiah.
Hezekiah, sometime King of Judah (ca. 715–686 BC), was a religious zealot and reformer. In 2 Kings 20, he is sick to death. Young Isaiah prophesies that God will cure Hezekiah on the third day and give him fifteen more years of life. Hezekiah finds his prophecy incredible and demands a sign. Isaiah replies, ‘This signe shalt thou haue of the Lord ... Wilt thou that the shadowe [on the sundial] goe forwarde ten degrees, or go backe ten degrees? And Hezekiah answered, It is a light thing for the shadowe to passe forward ten degrees: not so then, but let ye shadow go backe ten degrees. And Isaiah called vnto the Lord, and he brought againe the shadowe ten degrees backe by the degrees by the degrees whereby it had gone downe’ (2 Kings 20:8–11).
The function of Shakespeare’s clock twice striking one o’clock is to convey to his auditors that it’s not some pagan Destiny but the divine hand of the Old Testament God that is moving the play’s characters like pieces on a chessboard and giving them the time they need to sort themselves and save Egeon’s life. The motor that drives Shakespeare’s plot in Errors is exactly what Paul promised the Ephesians: the hand of God will lead those cast asunder back to a loving reunion. It is Paul’s great Doctrine of Comfort.
Shakespeare’s Nashe in Love’s Labour’s Lost
In A Cup of News: The Life of Thomas Nashe, Charles Nicholl makes a spirited argument for Nashe as Moth:9 ‘The whole portrait [of Moth] catches Nashe’s physical presence: small, skinny, mercurial, piquant. Moth is a bolde wagg, a handfull of wit, a deere imp: he is little, voluable, quick, acute, well-educated 10 Then there is Armado’s epithet for Moth, my tender Iuvenall (1.2.7–8). The name is repeated three times in the next few lines, and again in Act III, where Moth is a most acute Iuvenall. This clearly echoes the nick-name Greene gave Nashe in the Groats-worth of Wit, young Iuvenall, that byting Satyrist, punning on juvenile and Juvenal, the Roman satirist. Shakespeare had doubtless lingered on this passage in Groats-worth, since young Iuvenall is one of the scholers Green warns about upstart players like William Shake-scene.’11
Having satisfied himself with the Thom–Moth connection, Nicholl recognizes Harvey behind the mask of Don Adriano de Armado. ‘If Moth is Nashe, his master, the ridiculous Armado, is surely Harvey ... At every turn we recognize Gabriel’s “singuler giftes of absurditie and vaineglory”. Armado the braggart is the Harvey whom Nashe calls a “professed poeticall braggart”, a “vaine Braggadochio”, notorious for “intolerable boasting” and “horrible insulting pride”. Holofernes calls Armado “thrasonicall”, referring to the bragging soldier, Thraso, in Terence’s Eunuchus. Nashe also calls Harvey “this Thraso” in Strange News, and speaks of “his Thrasonisme” in Have with you [to Saffron-Walden].’12 Throughout the play, Armado repeatedly reveals himself as a pretentious buffoon and poseur. Boyet describes him as ‘a Phantasime, a Monarcho, and one that makes sport To the Prince and his Book-mates’. And Holofernes declares: ‘He draweth out the thred of his verbositie finer then the staple of his argument. I abhorre such phanatical phantasims, such insociable and point-devyse companions’ (5.1.18–19).
Anyone who has troubled to read Harvey’s published work can recognize this style as his, whether in one of his attacks on Greene or Nashe, or his G. Harvei gratulationum Valdensium libri quatuour (1578). When Armado enters in 5.1 he greets Holofernes, Sir Nathaniel, and the others with the word ‘Chirrah!’, a corruption of the Greek ‘hello’ or ‘good-day’, chaere. This may be a wink at Gratulationes, which begins ‘Gabrielis Harveii χάϊςε, vel Gratulationes Valdinensis Liber Primus’. But why a Spanish Harvey? Perhaps this is Shakespeare’s discretion at work. Nicholl describes Harvey’s appearance as having a ‘Mediterranean cast he was so proud of after the Queen had told him he looked “something like an Italian”’13 Shakespeare may have translated Harvey’s Italianate appearance to Spanish so as to avoid sailing too close to the imperial wind.
On the illegitimacy of Hamlet
Elsewhere I have noted that Hamlet Q2 contains a passage written for a coterie audience with specialized knowledge:14 those and only those who have read law. As a consequence, the passage has been a source of frustration (and despair) to centuries of commentators. It would not be extravagant to say that Hamlet’s monologue in 1.3 is among the least well understood in the entire canon; directors who don’t get it cut it, as in David Farr’s 2013 production at the Royal Shakespeare Company. In fact, the speech may be intentionally opaque to avoid a possible charge of lèse-majesté; Shakespeare’s meaning would have been obscure to the mass audience and transparent only to those who had read law and remembered De Laudibus Legum Angliae of Sir John Fortescue.
In Hamlet Q2 1.3 Shakespeare provided the prince with a long meditation which appears in neither Q1 nor the Folio. It occurs as Hamlet anticipates a confrontation with the Ghost of his father. As the scene begins, Hamlet, Horatio, and Marcellus stand shivering on the platform. The night is shattered by the trumpets and ordnance of the king’s rouse. Horatio asks, ‘Is it a custom?’ and Hamlet replies, ‘Ay marry is’t, But to my mind, though I am native here And to the manner born, it is a custom More honoured in the breach than the observance’15 (13–38). In Q1 and the Folio Hamlet’s speech ends here and ‘observance’ provides a weak cue for the Ghost’s entrance. But in Q2, having commenced with the allusion to his birth, Hamlet continues with a speech about ‘particuler men’ – a glancing reference to himself. We know that Hamlet is a ‘particuler’ man from a prior exchange with Gertrude:
Maddam, it is
Quee: If it be
Why seems it so perticuler with thee? (Q2 1.2.74–6)
In case we missed that particular–Hamlet connection, the Ghost will threaten to make ‘each particuler haire [on Hamlet’s head] to stand an end, Like quils upon the fearfull Porpentine’ (1.5.19–20). Hamlet’s meditation begins:
So oft it chaunces in particuler
That for some vicious mole of nature in them
As in their birth wherein they are not guilty,
(Since nature cannot choose his origin)
By the ore-grow’th of some complextion
Oft breaking downe the pales and forts of reason,
Or by some habit, that too much ore-leavens
The form of plausive manners, that these men
Carrying I say the stamp of one defect
Being Natures livery, or Fortunes starre,
His vertues els be they as pure as grace,
As infinite as man may undergoe,
Shall in the generall censure take corruption
From that particuler fault: the dram of eale
Doth all the noble substance of a doubt
To his own scandle. (1.5.23–38)
Hamlet alleges that ‘some vicious mole of nature ... in their birth’ predisposes ‘particuler men’ to ungovernable appetite (‘complextion’) or ugly ‘habit’ which inevitably brings them to ill repute. Yet the man polluted by this ‘vicious mole’ is ‘not guilty’ since he ‘cannot choose his origin’, that is, his parentage or the circumstances of his conception and birth. Notwithstanding his innocence, the ‘vicious mole of nature’ pollutes him with ‘one defect’ so virulent that were all his other virtues ‘pure as grace’, nevertheless he ‘Shall in the generall censure [the Last Judgement] take corruption From [be damned by] that particuler fault’.
What form of obloquy could cause a man in utero to forfeit any hope of salvation? To the minds of Elizabethans there was such a stain — only one — and it is described in Deuteronomy, an Old Testament book closely read in Henry VIII’s time.16 Deuteronomy 23:2 declares: ‘A bastard shal not entre into the Congregacion of the Lord: even to his tenth generacion shall he not entre into the Congregacion of the Lord.’
When Shakespeare wrote this speech ‘vicious’ had not achieved its modern savage sense; rather, ‘vicious’ alluded to vice – ‘depraved, immoral, bad’ (OED). Applied to persons, it meant ‘addicted to vice or immorality ... profligate, wicked’. The word ‘mole’ signifies a ‘spot or blemish on the human skin ... a fault.’ But it also identifies the familiar small mammal, in which sense OED finds it applied to persons who exhibit ‘mole-like’ qualities, that is, ‘whose (physical or mental) vision is defective’ or those who labour in darkness. We know the identity of the ‘mole’ in Hamlet; in Q2 1.5.161 the prince addresses the Ghost of his father beneath the stage as ‘olde Mole’. Hamlet declares the stain of bastardy to be as unshirkable as livery, indelible as Fortune’s star (destiny); Elizabethans believed bastardy could not be expunged from a newborn infant, not even by the sacrament of baptism. Hamlet’s meditation on illegitimacy concludes with the lines Harold Jenkins nominated as ‘the most famous crux in Shakespeare’17 ‘the dram of eale Doth all the noble substance of a doubt To his own scandale’ (Q2 1.4.33–5). The ‘noble substance’ of the offspring is tainted with ‘doubt’ and scandalized by the injection of the ‘dram’ – that is, a sixteenth of an ounce – of the mysterious ‘eale’. What fluid in such a small quantity could exert this defining power over a man’s character? ‘Scandale’ points to a fault of sexual incontinence; OED cites, ‘O God, that one borne noble should be so base, His generous [engendering] blood to scandall all his race.’18 Shakespeare’s ‘dram of eale’ is surely a recondite reference to semen, an ill-placed dollop of which can render an otherwise noble man a bastard.
One needs to remember that Hamlet is replying to Horatio’s question about the king’s rouse; his cue is excessive drinking, and Hamlet’s diction is drawn from assocated jargon. Elsewhere, Shakespeare uses ‘dram’ in its senses of both avoirdupois weight and a measure of fluid.19 He also quibbles with the word in an ethical sense: dram = scruple = compunction (2 Henry IV 1.2.130; Twelfth Night 3.4.79). But at the close of Hamlet’s speech Shakespeare is using ‘dram’ in the sense of a fluid measure and quibbling on an unspoken word: ‘bastarde’.20 In addition to the familiar meaning of ‘bastard’, ‘born out of wedlock, illegitimate,’ its homonym ‘bastarde’ identified a ‘sweet kind of Spanish wine, resembling muscadel; sometimes any kind of sweetened wine’ (OED), including Falstaff’s favourite, sack.21 Shakespeare uses the word in this sense in 1 Henry IV: ‘Score a pint of bastarde in the Half-moon’ (2.4.30).22
Bastarde wines differ from varietals by what the French call dosage, wherein wine is adulterated by the addition of a foreign substance, usually sugar or honey, as an aid to fermentation. A wine thus adulterated forfeits its varietal appellation, loses its ‘name’, and is left nameless – that is, a ‘bastard(e)’.23
As to the etymology of the mysterious ‘eale’, the word is a variant of ‘ealdren’, an obsolete dialectical form of ‘elder’ (OED) signifying the elder tree. Elders produce the elderberry, from which wine has been fermented in England since ancient times.24 Owing to the low sugar content of elderberries, winemakers invariably ‘bastardized’ the fermenting juice by adding honey. Elderberry wine – eale – is always a bastarde.25
Shakespeare would have known that the elderberry had another close association with Denmark, Danes, and the Danelaw – those areas of eastern England from York to London ruled by Danish invaders, first from AD 867 to 954 and again from 1016 to 1035; Shakespeare’s source, Saxo Grammaticus’s tale of Amelth, is set during this period. The English vernacular names for the elder tree – ‘Danewort’ and ‘Bloodwort’ – derived from a tradition that the elder sprang up in places where Danes slaughtered Englishmen or vice versa26 The name ‘elder’ derives from the Old English word ‘ellfrn’ (OED). Clearly, Shakespeare understood the connections between elders, bastard(e) elderberry wine, eale, and Danes – and so would certain members of Hamlet’s first auditors, particularly those who enjoyed a tipple and had read law.
But if four centuries of scholars have found Hamlet’s ‘dram of eale’ speech inscrutable, who among Shakespeare first auditors could have understood it? The answer is: those who had read law and remembered De Laudibus Legum Angliae (In Praise of the Laws of England), written circa 1470 by Sir John Fortescue (1394?–1476?). The Chief Justice of the King’s Bench composed his treatise for the instruction of Edward, Prince of Wales and son of the deposed king Henry VI.27 The book was long received as a definitive treatise on English law. It was first printed during the reign of Henry VIII (1509–47), and a translation from the Latin by Robert Mulcaster was reprinted six times between 1573 and 1672.28
In Fortescue’s discussion of the laws of inheritance and succession, he explains that a child conceived out of wedlock forever carries the stigma of bastardy, even if the parents subsequently marry:
[To] the childe borne out of matrimonye, the lawe of Englande alloweth no succession, affirmynge it [the child] to be naturall onely and not lawfull [because] the sinne of the firste carnal accion [premarital coitus] ... is not purged by the matrimonie ensuynge ... whiche doth not onelye judge the childe so gotten to be illegittimate but also prohibiteth it to succede in the parents inheritance.29
Fortescue then asserts the intransigent stain of bastardy in language that reads like a prose paraphrase of Hamlet’s ‘dram of eale’ speech:
If a bastard bee good, that cometh to him by chance, that is to wytte, by speciall grace but if he be evil that commeth to him by nature. For it is thought that the base child draweth a certein corruption and stayne from the synne of his parentes, without his owne fault ... Howbeit the blemish which bastards by the generation do receave ... thereof is immortall: for it is knowen with god and with men ... whom nature in her gyftes severeth, markynge the natural or bastard chyldren as it were with a certein privie mark in their soules.30
This passage shares an extraordinary run of vocabulary with Hamlet’s speech: ‘chance’, ‘grace’, ‘nature’, ‘corruption’, ‘fault’, ‘stayne’ and ‘blemish’, without his own fault, known with God (‘generall censure’), ‘nature ... markynge’ (‘Nature’s livery’), and the notion that bastards carry ‘a certein privie mark in their soules’. Indeed, Hamlet’s speech reads like Shakespeare’s poetical précis of Fortescue.31
What does this tell us about Hamlet’s right to royal succession? In that part of his treatise which deals with bastardy and inheritance, Fortescue explains that although Roman civil law does not permit a child born out of matrimony to succeed to his parents’ estate, children may succeed who were conceived out of wedlock but legitimated by the subsequent marriage of the parents: ‘The Civile law doth legittimate the childe borne before matrimonie aswell as that which is borne after: and geveth untoo it succession in the parents inheritance’.32
But English law differs significantly from Roman civil law. Under English law a child conceived out of wedlock continues to carry the stigma of bastardy, and may not succeed even if the parents subsequently marry. The ‘naturall onely’ status of a child born out of matrimony brings a terrific irony to the Ghost’s challenge to Hamlet to revenge his murder: ‘If thou hast nature in thee beare it not’ (Q2 1.5.81).
Fortescue explains that a bastard cannot inherit because, under law, a bastard child has no father and is nameless. To support his legal arguments Fortescue quotes a miserable doggerel:
To whom the people father is, to him is
father none and all.
To whom the people father is, well fatherless we may him call.33
It makes perfect sense to Fortescue that a latter-born sibling – either born in wedlock to the same parents or, in the event of the death of either partner, born of the remarriage of either father or mother – should take precedence in heritance over a firstborn natural child:
It were therefore unreasonable that a child afterwarde borne in the same wedlock, whose generation cannot be unknown shoulde be disherited, and that a childe whiche knoweth no father should be heire to the father & mother of the other, specially in the roialme of England where the eldest sonne only enjoieth the fathers inheritance.34
By this logic, any child born in wedlock to Claudius and Gertrude would take precedence over Hamlet in the Danish succession. This may explain why Hamlet didn’t succeed to the throne of Denmark on the instant of his father’s death; by immediately marrying Gertrude, Claudius ‘popped in between th’ election and my [Hamlet’s] hopes’ (5.2.64).35 The ‘o’er-hasty marriage’ of Claudius and Gertrude had rendered her marriage to Old Hamlet childless. Denmark was without either a ruler or an heir – a perilous condition for a state, and one long prevailing in Shakespeare’s England under the childless Elizabeth.
Though opaque to generations of playgoers and commentators, to those among Shakespeare’s first auditors who read and remembered Fortescue, Hamlet’s soliloquy is unmistakable as a meditation on his bastardy. But why did Shakespeare present Hamlet’s patrimony in language so obscure? Again, his consideration may have been to avoid any hint of lèse-majesté. Two of England’s previous monarchs – Mary and Elizabeth Tudor – had been declared bastards, and controversy surrounded the patrimony of Elizabeth’s most likely successor, James VI of Scotland. Royal legitimacy was not a subject any Elizabethan playwright wished to interrogate openly.