Certain Speculations on Hamlet, the Calendar, and Martin Luther
Steve Sohmer

Sohmer, Steve. "Certain Speculations on Hamlet, the Calendar, and Martin Luther." Early Modern Literary Studies 2.1 (1996): 5.1-51 <URL: http://www.library.ubc.ca/emls/02-1/sohmshak.html>.

  1. The recognition that Hamlet owes something to the life and theology of Martin Luther is hardly a novelty. Edmond Malone noted in his edition of 1821,

      In Shakespeare's time there was an university at Wittenberg, to which he has made Hamlet propose to return. The university of Wittenberg, as we learn from Lewkenor's Discourse on Universities, 1600, was founded in 1502, by Duke Frederick, the son of Ernestus Elector: "which since in this latter age is growen famous by reason of the controversies and disputations there handled by Martin Luther and his adherents." Luther and Melancthon, he adds, were both bred there (Malone 7: 200).[1]

    In our time, too, there have been many excursi on the connections between Hamlet, Luther, and the Reformation. In 1941, John Hankins interrogated Hamlet's biblical allusions, and the play's obsessive concern with repentance. Roy Battenhouse saw Old Hamlet's ghost as a spectre of old Catholicism, and Young Hamlet as his reluctant scourge. Fredson Bowers perceived Hamlet as heaven's instrument, both scourge and minister. Likewise did Sister Miriam Joseph. In The Question of Hamlet, Harry Levin explored Shakespeare's extended pun on the "diet" of worms. Georgia Christopher detected allusions to the Old Testament in "Hamlet's Devotional Reading." Roland Frye ambitiously contextualized the play in The Renaissance Hamlet, and examined its portrayal of Protestant penitence. In 1973, Dawn Amott produced an ingenious survey of correlations between Shakespeare's play and the life and theology of Luther. David Kaula produced a brief typological reading of the play's "apocalyptic" passages. Bridget Lyons looked at the typology of Ophelia, and Michael MacDonald and Maurice Quinlan at Ophelia's Catholicism. In 1989, Raymond Waddington published "Lutheran Hamlet," identifying Hamlet's "conversion" with Luther's sola fide, sola gratia. By contrast, Charles Cannon took the view that Hamlet was Shakespeare's sally at Calvinist dogma, while Lisa Gim traced Hamlet's faith in predestination to the Gospel of St. Matthew. Both Jerah Johnson and Stephen Greenblatt have examined the possible connection between the transubstantiation debate and Hamlet's "The body is with the king, but the king is not with the body, etc." In 1994, David Daniell explored the influence of the language of Tyndale's Luther-based Bible on Shakespeare's diction. In the same year our leading expert on the cultural impact of the Renaissance church calendar, R. Chris Hassel, Jr., examined the play's interrogation of original sin. Finally, one must acknowledge the indefatigable Linda K. Hoff, whose Hamlet's Choice provides a virtual line-by-line exegesis of the play before settling on an allegorical reading. The many recent scholarly publications which examine the theological dimensions of Hamlet suggest there is a wealth of religious significance yet to be mined from Shakespeare's play. The present essay takes the view that Shakespeare linked the principal events in Hamlet to particular holy days, and that the play's first audiences could identify these holy days from cues in the text.

    Performance Dates and Holy Days

  2. Scholars have long been aware that Shakespeare's acting company consulted the church calendar when selecting performance dates for their repertoire. Occasionally, the company matched plays to dates with what appears to be a conscious sense of irony. For example, we know that Twelfth Night was performed before Queen Elizabeth on 2 February 1602, the Feast of Candlemas. This Catholic holy day celebrated the purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. But in Twelfth Night a virgin referred to as 'Madonna' attempts a seduction--an irony which could not have escaped an audience comprising the Virgin Queen and her court. This instance of an ironic wedding of play-with-date is not unique. The company performed Henry VIII, which deals with the circumstances leading to that monarch's break with Rome, on the feast of the papacy, St. Peter's Day, 29 June 1613. Dates in the secular calendar were apparently fair game, too. Thomas Platter's famous letter tells us that Julius Caesar, Shakespeare's play about the man who decreed the Julian calendar, was performed on 21 September 1599. This was the "official" date of an autumnal equinox which Londoners had observed on 11 September because the English were still living under Caesar's scientifically discredited Julian calendar, which was then ten days in error.[2]

  3. Thanks to recent publications by Francois Laroque, Richard Wilson, David Wiles, and others, we are beginning to understand that the calendar also plays a defining, structural role within Shakespeare's plays. For example, Laroque argues that in Romeo and Juliet, "when the nurse refers to the Lammastide festival [1 August] to work out Juliet's age, the Elizabethan public would, as it counted back nine months, immediately arrive at the implied festival of Hallowe'en as the likely date of Juliet's conception" (205). Of course, Elizabethan poets routinely exploited the calendar as a structural device. Edmund Spenser's Shepheard's Calendar (1579) comprises twelve eclogues which follow the months of the year, and his Epithalamion (1595) digests the 24 hours of Midsummer Day. But Laroque argues that the built-in religious and cultural resonances of the calendar were more useful to a dramatist who must find "visual and gestural equivalents to the abstract categories of thought and speech" (203). According to Laroque, Shakespeare exploited "the various traditions and games of the major festivals [to] endow his plays with the extra semantic dimension of temporal symbolism" (203).

  4. Elizabethan audiences had reason to be more alert to temporal symbolism than we are. Their dominant calendar was the church calendar, a consecrated state document which regulated the uniform observance of an authorized, precomposed national liturgy. The Book of Common Prayer begins

      with elaborate calendars which prescribe biblical readings not only for each of the Sundays and festival days of the year, but for every single day. So important are these calendars that the two great pulpit Bibles of the day, the Bishops (1568) and the King James (1611), include them in red letters just before Genesis. (Hassel, Church Year 8)

    In a manner of speaking the calendar was the invisible finger turning the pages of the liturgy. Along with the Bible, the Homilies, and the Book of Common Prayer, the Elizabethan church calendar constituted "a coerced formulary of worship intended for 'soul control'-- that is, to force the parson and people in a direction predetermined by their sovereign and Council . . . . The very life of the Elizabethan, his sense of the calendar year as well as his doctrinal and liturgical orientation, was inevitably touched by this dominant cultural force" (Hassel, Church Year 7-8). Correspondence, contracts, leases, liens, and tenancies--all were dated with reference to the church calendar. "In fact, so extensive is this influence that to many [Elizabethans] distinctions between secular and religious calendars would have been unnecessary" (Hassel, Church Year 10).

  5. Like Scripture itself, the church calendar was revelatory. Its orderly succession of lunar- and solar-based holy days "revealed a profound logic of resonances and connections. The meaning of these may escape the modern mind, but their ancient significance was perfectly familiar" to Elizabethans (Laroque 202). "In the liturgy and in the [seasonal] celebrations which were its central movements . . . people found the key to the meaning and purpose of their lives" (Duffy 11). Laroque argues that Shakespeare infused the action in his plays with religious and cultural overtones by connecting scenes with particular holy days which were recognizable to Elizabethan audiences.

    Encountering Old Hamlet's Ghost

  6. As the first scene of Hamlet unfolds, Shakespeare is at pains to provide a series of diminutive clues to the time and date on which the opening action takes place. As to the hour, Barnardo tells us "'Tis now struck twelve." It is after midnight, and deeply dark. Though we can see Barnardo and Francisco, they cannot see each other. They identify each other by sound of voice.

      Bar. Who's there?
      Fra. Nay, answer me. Stand and unfold yourself.
      Bar. Long live the King!
      Fra. Barnardo?
      Bar. He. (1.1.1-5) [3]

    When Horatio and Marcellus enter, Francisco again identifies the arrivals not by sight but by voice:

      Fra. I think I hear them. Stand ho! Who is there?
      Hor. Friends to this ground.
      Mar. And liegemen to the Dane. (1.1.13-15)

    As Francisco makes his exit, Horatio and Marcellus still cannot see Barnardo. Marcellus must ask "who hath relieved you?" and Francisco must explain "Barnardo hath my place" (1.1.18-19). Marcellus then calls out "Holla, Barnardo!" (1.1.20). Even now Barnardo cannot see the arrivals and replies, "Say, what, is Horatio there?" (1.1.21). Such emphasis on overwhelming darkness suggests a moonless night.

  7. It is also cold. Franciso has told us "'Tis bitter cold" (1.1.8). When Hamlet comes to the parapet in 1.4, he will tell us "The air bites shrewdly, it is very cold" (1.4.1). Successive frosty nights suggest a wintry season, perhaps the months September through March. We can be more precise about the season from clues which Shakespeare provides. For example, Marcellus reflects

      Some say that ever 'gainst that season comes
      Wherein our saviour's birth is celebrated
      The bird of dawning singeth all night long;
      And then, they say, no spirit can walk abroad,
      The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,
      No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
      So hallowed and so gracious is the time. (1.1.163-9)

    That is, a ghost cannot be encountered during the season of Advent. So the dates on which Old Hamlet's ghost walks must fall during the cold days prior to 27 November, or after Christmas (Leduc and Baudot 47).[4]

  8. Barnardo also makes reference to a celestial object:

      Last night of all,
      When yon same star that's westward from the pole
      Had made his course t' illume that part of heaven
      Where now it burns, Marcellus and myself,
      The bell then beating one-- (1.1.38-42)

    The very offhandedness of Barnardo's reference--"yon same star that's westward from the pole"--suggests the star is conspicuous enough to be identified by Horatio and, perhaps, by members of the audience who were versed in astronomy or astrology.[5] There are a variety of reasons to conclude the star to which Barnardo refers is Deneb, a bright second magnitude star in the constellation Cygnus, the Swan. Modern readers may be unfamiliar with this constellation. But English Christians knew it as "The Northern Cross" from the time of the Venerable Bede, and held it in awe. Because the Cross stands erect over Europe at 9 p.m. on the night before Christmas, the constellation was regarded as a divine portent of the crucifixion. In the night sky above London, the Northern Cross stands erect, and Deneb lies precisely "westward from the pole," circa 1 a.m. during the period 30 October - 10 November.

    The western sky above London, England The adjacent graphic depicts the western sky above London, England, at 1 a.m. on the night of 2 November 1601 (D=Deneb, V=Vega, P=Polaris).[6] No one who views the sky from the northern hemisphere in this season can fail to be struck by the prominence of this constellation.

  9. The Northern Cross not only signifies the death and resurrection of Christ, but has an even more ancient association with a myth of recrossing the bourne separating the living and dead. Under its pagan designation, Cygnus, the constellation was dedicated to Orpheus--perhaps because of its close proximity to Lyra, the harp or cythera. The lyre was the instrument Orpheus used to enchant the creatures of the underworld in his quest for Euridice.[7] A third, nearby, and related constellation is Draco, the Great Northern Serpent. Orpheus' beloved Euridice died from the poisonous bite of a snake, as did Old Hamlet: "The serpent that did sting thy father's life Now wears his crown" (1.5.38-9). Together, the three constellations present an eternal tableau vivant of the archetypal myth of contact between living and dead.

  10. As the Swan, Cygnus also has a mythological connection with a story of adulterous love. Zeus, king of the gods, desired Leda, wife of Tyndareus. In order to couple with her, Zeus transformed himself into a swan. One issue of this union was Helen, wife of Menelaus, who was abducted by Paris and became his adulterate concubine. Hamlet centers on the adultery of Gertrude and Claudius (1.5.42). The other issue of Zeus-Leda were twins Castor and Pollux. Hamlet is populated with numerous "twins."[8] In astrology, Cygnus is the patron of persons born with an "adaptable, intellectual, contemplative, and dreamy nature. It generates disorderly and unstable relationships" and "causes talents to mature late . . . ." (Sesti 324), qualities which read like a horoscope of Prince Hamlet.

  11. The hypothesis that Barnardo alludes to Deneb and the encounters between sentinels and ghost take place during the period 30 October - 10 November, is supported by a definitive clue, i.e. the name Shakespeare gives to Horatio's companion: Marcellus. In the prevailing Catholic church calendar the feast of "Marcellus the Centurion" fell on 30 October. This Marcellus was a soldier who was converted to Christianity and subsequently refused to engage in violence. He was martyred in AD 298.[9]

  12. To Shakespeare's series of seasonal, astronomical, and calendrical clues--1 a.m., a cold and perhaps moonless night, not in Advent, Deneb westward from the pole signifying the Northern Cross erect, and a namesake of Marcellus--we may add one other. As the action unfolds, we learn the ghost has already walked twice: "this dreaded sight twice seen of us" (1.1.28). In 1.2. Horatio tells us these appearances occurred on successive nights:

      Two nights together had these gentlemen, Marcellus and Barnardo, on their watch In the dead waste and middle of the night Been thus encounter'd . . . . (1.2.196-9)

    Horatio also tells us that the ghost appeared again on a third successive night: "And I with them the third night kept the watch" (1.2.208). On the fourth night the ghost appears again, and discourses with Hamlet (1.4.38ff). In this oblique way Shakespeare informs us that the ghost has walked on four nights in succession. It is no coincidence that the Feast of Marcellus precedes a sequence of successive holy days on which Elizabethans might well have expected unquiet souls to prowl the earth:
         Date          Holy Day
         30 October    Marcellus the Centurion (feast)
         31 October    All Hallows' Eve
         1 November    All Saints' Day
         2 November    All Souls' Day[10]
    Each of the three holy days which follow the Feast of Marcellus is associated with the bond between the living and the dead. The vigil of All Hallows' Eve derived from the Celtic festival of Sambain, on which night the spirits of the dead were thought to return to visit their earthly homes. The first of November was All Saints' Day, an observance which dates from the 7th century and celebrated all dead saints known and unknown.[11] All Souls' Day observances remember baptized Christians believed to be in purgatory because they died without benefit of Extreme Unction.[12] Old Hamlet's ghost appears to speak of purgatory when he describes his circumstances:

      I am thy father's spirit,
      Doom'd for a certain term to walk the night,
      And for the day confin'd to fast in fires,
      Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
      Are burnt and purg'd away. (1.5.9-13)

    He declares the cause of his punishment is that he died unshriven:

      Cut off even in the blossoms of my sin,
      Unhousel'd, disappointed, unanel'd,
      No reck'ning made, but sent to my account
      With all my imperfections on my head. (1.5.75-9)

    Of course, Shakespeare offers a further cue to his audience by providing Horatio's companion with the name "Marcellus." Likewise, the "inky cloak" (1.2.77) which Hamlet wears in 1.2 is appropriate All Souls' Day attire for a son mourning a father who died without benefit of Extreme Unction.

    Dating the Principal Composition of Hamlet

  13. The identification of the four ghost-walking nights with 30 October - 2 November has intriguing implications for dating the principal composition of Hamlet. Scholars differ over whether the play should be referred to 1600 or 1601. All editors have noted the entry in the Stationers' Register of 26 July 1602 which refers to the play as having been "latelie acted" by the Lord Chamberlain's Men, and there are passages commonly cited which appear to date the play's composition to 1601.[13] On the other hand, Gabriel Harvey's praise of Hamlet in his copy of Speght's Chaucer (1598) appears in association with a reference to the Earl of Essex being alive (he was executed in February 1601). But calendrical indicators may support the arguments for 1601 as the year of principal composition (or substantial revision) of the text.

  14. The four-day sequence of holy days 30 October - 2 November did not, however, unfold sequentially in every year. When All Souls' Day fell on a Sunday, the sequence was suspended. Thus, in 1600, the other year suggested for the principal composition of Hamlet, 2 November was a Sunday, and the observance of All Souls' Day was postponed to Monday 3 November. That is, the church calendar for 1600 ran:
         Weekday     Date          Holy Day
         Thursday    30 October    Marcellus
         Friday      31 October    All Hallows' Eve
         Saturday    1 November    All Saints' Day
         Sunday      2 November
         Monday      3 November    All Souls' Day
    On the other hand, in 1601 the four feast days succeeded one another in an uninterrupted sequence:
         Weekday     Date          Holy Day
         Friday      31 October    Marcellus
         Saturday    1 November    All Hallows' Eve
         Sunday      2 November    All Saints' Day
         Monday      3 November    All Souls' Day        
    This perhaps lends weight to the argument that the principal composition of Hamlet and the play's first performances took place in 1601.[14] The relation of the play to this sequence of holy days may also imply a more intense engagement with theological issues than has previously been supposed.

    Hamlet and the Purgatory Debate

  15. The controversy surrounding the existence of Purgatory was certainly not new in 1601. It had been energetically argued since at least the time of Erasmus. The name most notably associated with this debate was that of Martin Luther. In Hamlet, Shakespeare takes pains to stress the Danish setting of the play (Sjogren). Denmark had been a Lutheran country since the accession of Christian III after the civil war of 1534-6.[15] Luther, we know, nailed his Ninety-Five Theses, which principally concern indulgences and Purgatory, to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg on All Hallows' Eve, 31 October 1517. Shakespeare's Hamlet and Horatio were fellow-students in Wittenberg.[16] There are four references to Wittenberg in Hamlet, which are unique in the Shakespeare canon. It is, therefore, perhaps more than coincidence that 1517 and 1601 share a common calendar. In both 1517 and 1601 the four feasts fell on these same four weekdays:
    Year       Weekday   Date          Holy Day
    1517,1601  Friday    30 October    Marcellus 
               Saturday  31 October    All Hallows' Eve
               Sunday     1 November   All Saints' Day
               Monday     2 November   All Souls' Day
    This concordance of weekdays and holy days is extremely rare. It occurred only four times in the 175 years 1517-1691, and only once during Shakespeare's working lifetime: in 1601.[17] This phenomenon raises a series of intriguing questions: Is the 1517-1601 correlation coincidence? Or did Shakespeare take this into account when he undertook the principal composition of Hamlet? Or, perhaps, did Shakespeare turn (or return) to the writing of Hamlet in 1601 because the calendar of holy days was the same as 1517? Before addressing this question, let us first ask whether Shakespeare could have known 1517 and 1601 shared a common calendar. While this knowledge may seem arcane to us, it was easily accessible to literate Elizabethans.

  16. Neither 1517 nor 1601 is divisible by 4. Therefore, neither was a leap year. Both were common years of 365 days. The church calendar for any year can be described by cataloguing the dates and weekdays of the solar and lunar holy days. The solar holy days recur on the same dates each year, e.g. Christmas on 25 December. Therefore, the weekdays on which the solar holy days fall in any common year may be determined by finding the "Dominical Letter." This is the date of the first Sunday in January. Tables of Dominical Letters were provided by the popular almanacs. The Dominical letter for both 1517 and 1601 is D. That is, the first Sunday in both years fell on 4 January, and the solar-based holy days on the same weekday in both years.

  17. To determine the calendar of lunar holy days for a year, it is necessary to identify the date of Easter Sunday from which all other lunar holy days are reckoned. Since the time of the Council of Nicea (A.D. 325), Easter has been observed in the West on the first Sunday following the Paschal moon, i.e. between 22 March and 25 April. To facilitate the dating of Easter, in A.D. 525 the monk Dionysius Exiguus published a table of "Golden" numbers which identify the moon's position in its nineteen-year cycle. To find a year's Golden number, add 1 to the year and divide by 19. The remainder is the Golden number. For 1517 and 1601 the computations are:

    • 1517 + 1 = 1518 / 19 = 79 and 17; Golden number = 17
    • 1601 + 1 = 1602 / 19 = 84 and 6; Golden number = 6

    With Dominical Letter "D" and Golden numbers 17 and 6 in hand, an Elizabethan would next consult the Easter tables in the popular almanacs. Here one would find that Easter Day fell on Sunday 12 April in both 1517 and 1601. Consequently, the calendars for 1517 and 1601 were identical.

  18. As noted, scholars since Malone have detected the glimmer of a connection between Hamlet and Luther from Shakespeare's four allusions to Wittenberg (1.02.113, 119, 164, 168). But--even if Shakespeare knew that 1517 and 1601 had identical calendars--can we demonstrate that the playwright had Martin Luther in mind when he drew his audience's attention to the four ghostly days 30 October - 2 November 1601?

    Luther at Elsinore

  19. Martin Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses on 31 October 1517, the day before All Saints' Day. Our analysis of the four ghost-walking days suggests Hamlet encounters his father's ghost on 2 November, the day after All Saints' Day. To reconcile this apparent anomaly, we need to know what information Shakespeare might have had about the life of Martin Luther.

  20. In fact, there were several "lives" of Luther in print in Shakespeare's lifetime. The earliest in English appears in Sleidanes Commentaries by Johannes Phillipson, published in London in 1560 (STC 19848). Phillipson gives no date for the posting on the Castle Church, but only records that Luther sent "certen questions which he had lately set up at Wittenberg" to the Archbishop of Mainz on the first of November (Fol. B1). Another life of Luther appeared in Foxe's Acts and Monuments (1563). Intriguingly, Foxe gets the date of Luther's posting wrong. He writes that Luther

      published certaine propositions concerninge indulgences, which are in the fyrst Tome of his worckes, and set them openly on the temple that joyneth to the castel of Wittenberg, the morrow after the feast of al sainctes, the yere 1517 (403).

    I have added italics to emphasize that Foxe erroneously states that Luther nailed up his Theses on 2 November, the day after All Saints' Day. In his preamble to his life of Luther, Foxe acknowledges his source:

      The laborious travayles, and the whole processe, and the constant preachinges of this worthy man [Luther], because they are sufficiently and at large in the history of Johannes Sleidane, and shall not neade to stande thereupon, but onely to runne over some briefe touchying, of his life and acttes, as they are briefly collected by Philippe Melanthon (402).

    Philip Melancthon (1497-1560) was Luther's close associate, sometime amanuensis, and successor as leader of Lutheranism. The obscure book to which Foxe refers (STC 1881), is a translation from Melancthon's life of Luther, by one Henry Bennet of Calais, entitled:

      A famous and godly history, contaynyng the Lyves and Actes of three renowned reformers of the Christian Church, Martine Luther, John Oeclampadius, and Huldericke Zuinglius. The declaracion of Martin Luthers faythe before the Emperoure Charles the fyft, and the illuste Estates of the Empyre of Germanye, wyth an Oration of hys death, all set forth in Latin by Phillip Melancthon, Wolfangus Faber, Capito. Simon Grincus and Oswald Miconus, Newly Englished by Henry Bennet Callesian.[18]

    On signature C2r of Bennet's translation, Melancthon recalls that Luther

      published certain proposicions of Indulgences, whych are in the fyrst Tome of hys woorkes, and fixed them openlye on the Temple that joyneth to the Castell of Wittenberg, the morrowe after the feast of all Saynctes, the yeare. 1517.

    I have added italics to emphasize that Bennet gives the wrong date for Luther nailing up his Ninety-Five Theses. Bennet writes that Luther nailed his Theses to the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg on 2 November, the day after All Saints'. Bennet's source, Melancthon, had written

      edidit Propositiones de Indulgentiis, quae in primo Tomo monumentorum eius extant, & has publice Templo, quod Arci Vuitebergensi contiguum est, affixit pridie festi omnium Sanctorum, Anno 1517 (B2r).

    I have italicized pridie to emphasize Melancthon wrote the correct date, i.e. 31 October, the day before All Saints'. Bennet mistranslated pridie as after. Foxe parrots Bennet's error.

  21. To suggest that Shakespeare set Hamlet's encounter with the Ghost on 2 November because his source(s) provided an erroneous date for the posting of Luther's Ninety-Five Theses implies an intimate negotiation between Shakespeare's knowledge of Luther and his creation of Prince Hamlet. This hypothesis may not be as far-fetched as it first appears. Commentators have already identified numerous parallels between Luther's conversion and Hamlet's (Waddington, Hassel, Hoff; Amott 69-74). Young Martin Luther suffered a long period of guilt and depression (anfechtung), and eventually found conversion through humble surrender to God and His preordained providence.[19] Hamlet undergoes a similar course of spiritual development, from lamenting his "too sullied flesh" to believing there's "a special providence in the fall of a sparrow." After returning to Denmark, Hamlet declares he was led by a "divinity that shapes our ends" to discover the perfidious commission of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Hamlet writes to Claudius that he has returned to Denmark "naked" (4.7.50). In this word which so puzzles the king and Laertes, Lutherans of the Elizabethan era and our own recognize an allusion to the keyword Luther employs to describe his conversion through humble surrender to God: nackt.[20]

  22. Elizabethans of all religions would also have recognized another and perhaps more obvious parallel between Hamlet and Luther. In Shakespeare's play, Hamlet confronts a king who has married his dead brother's wife. It was widely remembered that Martin Luther had an exchange of rancorous pamphlets with a king who had married his dead brother's wife, Henry VIII.[21]

    Three Disputed Holy Days

  23. In his preface to Hamlet, Harley Granville-Barker wrote that in performance the five-act play divides itself into three "movements" (1: 73). The first movement, which comprises two days, begins at the opening of the play, and ends after Hamlet's encounter with the ghost and his decision to put on an antic disposition (1.5). According to our calendrical analysis, these scenes unfold in the period 1-2 November.

  24. The second movement begins with Polonius' drill of Reynaldo (2.1). From their conversation we cannot determine how long Laertes has been in Paris. But when Ophelia enters we recognize significant time has elapsed since Polonius enjoined her from sharing Hamlet's company:

      Pol. What, have you given him any hard words of late?
      Oph. No, my good lord, but as you did command
      I did repel his letters, and denied
      His access to me. (2.1.108-11)[22]

    The anxious Polonius determines immediately to report Hamlet's condition to Claudius and Gertrude: "Go we to the king" (2.1.118). On this day Cornelius and Voltemand return from their embassy to Norway. Rosencrantz and Guildernstern arrive, summoned to the court (perhaps from as far away as Wittenberg) on account of Hamlet's antic behavior. The action proceeds seamlessly through Claudius' and Gertrude's interview with Rosencrantz and Guildernstern, the ambassadors' report, Polonius' reading of Hamlet's Valentine to Ophelia, Polonius' conversation with Hamlet ("You're a fishmonger, etc."), the Prince's confrontation with Ophelia, his welcome to Rosencrantz and Guildernstern, and the arrival of the Players. All this takes place on a single day. As the players exit, Hamlet says, "We'll hear a play tomorrow" (2.2.524). On the following night "The Mousetrap" is performed, Hamlet confronts Gertrude in her closet and slays Polonius. Hamlet is dispatched to England before dawn, and passes the army of Fortinbras (4.4). This movement also comprises two days.

  25. The third and final movement of the play begins at 4.5 with Gertrude's interview with mad Ophelia. Again through the agency of Ophelia we learn that significant time has elapsed since the death of Polonius: when Claudius observes Ophelia he demands, "How long hath she been thus?" (4.5.65). A moment later Laertes enters, having journeyed to Elsinore from France seeking revenge. Letters from Hamlet are delivered to Horatio and to Claudius. Claudius and Laertes fall to plotting Hamlet's murder, and Gertrude brings news of Ophelia's death. All this action unfolds continuously on a single day. We know that Ophelia's funeral is held on the following day because Claudius reassures Laertes with a reference to their plotting against Hamlet: "Strengthen your patience in our last night's speech. We'll put the matter to the present push" (5.1.284-5). Claudius and Laertes immediately set the murder plot in motion, and the action runs continuously through to the end of the play.

  26. By this analysis each of Granville-Barker's three movements lasts for two days. Calendrical details in the text suggest Shakespeare ties these movements to three holy days which were sacred to Catholics but disdained by Reformation Protestants: All Souls', Candlemas, and Corpus Christi.[23]

    1. All Souls' Day.

  27. In the play's first movement we have noted that calendrical and astronomical details coupled with reports of a ghost walking on four successive nights would have drawn the attention of an Elizabethan audience to the interval 30 October - 2 November, and that All Souls' Day was devoted to masses for those who had died without benefit of Extreme Unction. Since Reformation theology denied the existence of Purgatory as having no basis in Scripture, Protestants disdained the holy day of All Souls.

  28. I have argued that, for two reasons, the year 1601 is rich in associations with Hamlet. Firstly, because the four ghostly holy days occurred in succession in 1601. Secondly, because 1601 and the first Reformation year, 1517, shared a common calendar. Likewise, it may be significant that the succeeding years, 1602 and 1518, shared a common calendar. In 1602, Candlemas, Good Friday, and the first day of Corpus Christi observances all fell on the second day of the month:
         Candlemas        2 February
         Good Friday      2 April
         Corpus Christi   2-3 June[24] 
    This concordance of holy days and dates is extremely rare. It occurred only twice in Shakespeare's working lifetime--in 1591 and 1602.[25]

    2. Candlemas.

  29. If the ghost-walking scenes of the play's first movement are identified with the four ghost-walking days 30 October-2 November, then the play's second movement--which includes "The Mousetrap," the closet scene with Gertrude, the murder of Polonius, the final appearance of Old Hamlet's ghost, and Claudius decision to banish Hamlet to England--must occur on 2 February, the holy day of Candlemas. We can deduce this date as follows.

  30. Before "The Mousetrap" Hamlet and Ophelia banter about how long Old Hamlet has been dead. Hamlet says "my father died within 's two hours," and Ophelia responds, "Nay, 'tis twice two months, my lord" (3.2.118-9). Ophelia, who is the reliable reporter in this exchange, declares Old Hamlet dead four months on the night of "The Mousetrap." By our reckoning Horatio, Barnardo, and Franscico encounter the ghost on 1 November. They determine to report what they see to Hamlet, and their scene closes as Marcellus says: "Let's do't, I pray, and I this morning know Where we shall find him most conveniently" (1.1.156-7). Therefore, the scene at the court of Claudius (1.2) must take place on the following day, 2 November. Claudius opens this scene: "Though yet of Hamlet our dear brother's death The memory be green . . . ." (1.2.1-2). Old Hamlet's death is recent. But how recent? Hamlet will shortly tell us that Claudius and Gertrude were married within a month of Old Hamlet's death:

      But two months dead--nay not so much, not two--
      . . . . . . . . . .
      A little month . . .
      . . . . . . . . . .
      . . . within a month,
      Ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears
      Had left the flushing in her galled eyes,
      She married. O most wicked speed . . . . (1.2.138~155)

    Just as Hamlet condemns the brevity of Gertrude's period of mourning ("a beast that wants discourse of reason Would have mourned longer"), Claudius remonstrates against the protraction of Hamlet's grief:

      'Tis sweet and commendable in your nature, Hamlet,
      To give these mourning duties to your father;
      But you must know your father lost a father;
      That father lost, lost his; and the survivor bound
      In filial obligation for some term
      To do obsequious sorrow. But to perserver
      In obstinate condolement is a course
      Of impious stubbornness, 'tis unmanly grief,
      It shows a will most incorrect to heaven,
      A heart unfortified, a mind impatient,
      An understanding simple and unschooled . . . . (1.2.87-97)

    When Claudius alludes to a "term" of "filial obligation," an Elizabethan audience would have recognized an allusion to the "Trental," or "month's mind." By the late middle ages, the "term" for which a survivor was "bound In filial obligation" to do obsequies had been conventionally fixed at thirty days. "Corporate intercession for the dead, being one of the most central aspects of late medieval religion, was highly regulated, highly formalized" (Duffy 368).[26] Extended obsequies were proscribed, and Claudius chides Hamlet in strong language. Hamlet's mourning beyond the Trental is "impious . . . unmanly . . . incorrect to heaven." When Claudius adds "unfortified" and "impatient" he comes close to pronouncing Hamlet's behavior heretical. Throughout Hamlet the dead are disposed of with perilous expediency. Old Hamlet's widow remarries before his Trental expires. Polonius is interred "hugger-mugger" (4.5.80). Ophelia is shoveled-under on the day following her questionable death. Claudius' commission had ordered Hamlet be put to death with "no leisure bated, No, not to stay the grinding of the axe" (5.2.24-5). Rosencrantz and Guildernstern are "put to sudden death, Not shriving-time allowed" (5.2.46-7). Like Old Hamlet, all who die in the play go to their graves without shrift. This hasty pace suggests that Old Hamlet's Trental has only just ended when Claudius and Gertrude importune the Prince to give over mourning. Since a Trental commenced on the day after an individual's death, Old Hamlet has been dead 31 days on 2 November. Therefore, Old Hamlet died on 2 October.

  31. As noted above, by Ophelia's reckoning Old Hamlet has been dead four months on the night of "The Mousetrap." Four months after 2 October is 2 February, the date of Candlemas. The dialogue on Mousetrap-night is rife with parodic allusions to St. Luke's account of the Presentation and Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Luke 2:22-39), the Gospel for Candlemas. "Lights" are called for. A mother is purified. A small animal ("A rat, a rat") is sacrificed. Most important, a spirit appears whose "form and cause conjoined, preaching to stones, Would make them capable"--a brazen allusion to Christ's admonishment of the Pharisees on Palm Sunday: "And He answered and said unto them, I tell you that, if these [my adherents] should hold their peace, the stones would immediately cry out" (Luke 19:40). Luther rejected the intercession of saints and the Blessed Virgin Mary. Candlemas was the second major Catholic holy day disdained by Reformation Protestants.[27]

    3. Corpus Christi.

  32. Hamlet's insistence that his father has been dead "two hours" is significant for identifying the holy day associated with the third and climactic movement of the play. When Hamlet speaks these words (ca. line 2000), an Elizabethan audience would have been approximately two hours into the performance of the play.[28] The striking clock of St. Mary Overy in Southwark could certainly have been heard within the playhouse, and the audience would have been sensible to the time elapsed since the performance had begun. If Hamlet began circa 2 p.m. as Thomas Platter tells us Julius Caesar did, the cathedral's tower clock would have just struck four times. A Globe audience must have heard the clock strike, and would have recognized Shakespeare's device.[29] Hamlet's allusion to "two hours," coupled with Ophelia's allusion to four months, conveys that in the dramatic time of Hamlet two hours = four months. The balance of the play, which runs another two hours (ca. 1900 lines), spans another four-month interval, which takes us from 2 February to 2 June. As noted above, in 1602 the two- day festival of Corpus Christi was held 2-3 June.

  33. This calendrical clue to Corpus Christi is supported by numerous details in the playtext. On the first of the two days which close the play, Ophelia performs her mad scene with songs and herbs, Laertes arrives at the door of Elsinore at the head of a mob, and Ophelia's death is announced. On the second day, Ophelia is buried, Claudius and Laertes contrive an elaborate murder-plot, and Hamlet's swordplay with Laertes and its consequences concludes the action. Corpus Christi celebrated the "real presence" of Christ in the Eucharist. From 4.5 through the end of the play, Shakespeare contrives a series of parodies of the principal rituals of the feast. There are two processions, one of the temporality and another of the spirituality, i.e. the mob of commoners following Laertes, and the priest leading the corpse of Ophelia. A pageant or play is staged in the form of the rigged fencing match. The final catastrophe centers on what Henry VIII defended as "the Altare sacrament," i.e. the mystery of transubstantiation parodied through the onixe/union in the lethal chalice (4.7.135). Not incidentally, the defeat of the elaborate Claudius-Laertes murder plot by Hamlet's faith in providence would have been unmistakable to an Elizabethan audience as a triumph of God's predestination over the planning and plotting of unrighteous men.

  34. As noted, these three holy days--All Souls', Candlemas, and Corpus Christi--had a vital connection with the Reformation. These were among the most sacred holy days in the Catholic calendar, but had been discarded by Luther and the Protestants. Just as the four ghost-walking days fell in sequence 30 October - 2 November in the years 1517 and 1601, Candlemas fell on 2 February and Corpus Christi on 2/3 June in both 1518 and 1602.[30] By this reckoning, the visit of "The Dead Man," Lamord ("two months since" 4.7.80) fell on 2 April, which in 1602 was the anniversary of the death of Christ, Good Friday.[31]

    Testing the Calendrical Design of Hamlet

  35. Can we test whether this analysis of the calendrical design of Hamlet is valid, and whether Luther and the Reformation are closely linked to the play? One way might be to examine the event which was the sine qua non of the drama in Hamlet--that is, the marriage of Old Hamlet to Gertrude. We might ask: is the date of the Old Hamlet-Gertrude marriage recoverable from internal evidence in the play? And, if it were, would it prove relevant to Luther?

  36. We are not told anything about the date of the Old Hamlet-Gertrude marriage. However, in "The Mousetrap" Shakespeare provides imagunculae of Old Hamlet and Gertrude, and alludes to the date of the wedding of these puppets, the Player King and Queen.

      Full thirty times hath Phoebus' cart gone round
      Neptune's salt wash and Tellus' orbed ground,
      And thirty dozen moons with borrowed sheen
      About the world have times twelve thirties been
      Since love our hearts and Hymen did our hands
      Unite commutual in most sacred bands. (3.2.150-55)

    The repetitive cadence of this speech--"thirty times . . . thirty dozen moons . . . twelve thirties"--makes it curiously memorable.[32] Its arithmetic tells us that these imagunculae of Old Hamlet and Gertrude were married one solar month of thirty days plus thirty synodic years on the day of the murder.[33] The many obvious parallels between the Player King-and-Queen and Old Hamlet-Gertrude might have tempted Elizabethan auditors to compute the length of this marriage as follows.

  37. "Full thirty times hath Phoebus' cart gone round" describes 30 solar days. "And thirty dozen moons with borrowed sheen About the world have twelve times thirties been" describes 360 synodic months. The synodic period of the moon equals 29 days, 12 hours, and 44 minutes.

      360 X 29.5 days = 10620 days

    To account for the 44 minutes, add:

      360 X 44 minutes = 15840 minutes
      15840 minutes / 60 per hour = 264 hours
      264 hours / 24 per day = 11 days

    Which yields:

      10620 days + 11 days = 10631 days

    To this we must add the 30 solar days:

      10631 days + 30 days = 10661

    According to the Player King's speech, on the day of his murder 10661 days have elapsed since the wedding. If this precisely determines the duration of the Old Hamlet-Gertrude wedding, the computation allows us to answer a question which has haunted scholars for centuries and is, perhaps, the greatest mystery in Shakespeare: why didn't young Hamlet succeed to the throne immediately on his father's death?[34]

    Calculating Hamlet's Nativity

  38. On the vigil of Corpus Christi, 2 June, Hamlet returns to the precincts of Elsinore and engages a Clown in badinage.

      Ham. How long hast thou been a gravemaker?
      Clow. Of all the days I' th' year I came to 't that day that
      our last King Hamlet o'ercame Fortinbras.
      Ham. How long is that since?
      Clow. Cannot you tell that? Every fool can tell that. It
      was the very day that young Hamlet was born . . . .
      I have been sexton here, man and boy, thirty years. (5.1.138-57)[35]

    According to the Clown, Hamlet is thirty (solar) years old on the day of this encounter. Hamlet has already remarked "How absolute the knave is!" (5.1.130), and Dowden insists "we must accept dates so carefully determined" (195). Dover Wilson declares the passage "fixes the age of Hamlet in so pointed a fashion that . . . Shakespeare clearly attached importance to it" (236). Shakespeare's device becomes transparent when we remember that Old Hamlet and Gertrude had been married 29 years plus 69 days when he died on 2 October of the prior year. The interval from Old Hamlet's death on 2 October to young Hamlet's encounter with the Clown on 2 June is eight months (243 days). Consequently, Old Hamlet and Gertrude would have been married 29 years plus 312 days when Hamlet encounters the Clown. But if Hamlet is 30 years old, he must have been born at least 29 years plus 365 days before his encounter with the Clown. Therefore, Hamlet must have been born at least 53 days before the Old Hamlet - Gertrude wedding.

  39. Now we understand why Shakespeare created a grave-digging Clown who is "absolute." Hamlet is illegitimate--which explains why he did not succeed to the throne on his father's death.[36]

    Testing Hamlet's Illegitimacy

  40. Can Hamlet's awareness of his illegitimacy be supported by internal evidence in the playtext? If we accept that the Player King's speech comprises some of the "dozen or sixteen lines" (2.2.529) Hamlet proposed to interpolate in the existing revenge play perhaps no further support is required. On the other hand, Hamlet may also refer to his illicit conception and pre-marital birth as he stands with Horatio and Marcellus awaiting the appearance of the Ghost in Act One. At 1.4.7 the quiet night is disturbed by the trumpets and ordnance of the king's rouse. Horatio asks, "Is it a custom?" and Hamlet responds

      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. (1.4.13-16)

    Harold Jenkins' note on "to the manner born" is useful: "Not merely familiar with the custom from birth, but committed to it by birth. It is part of his heritage" (208, 15n.). In Q1 and the Folio Hamlet's speech ends here and "observance" is the Ghost's cue to enter. But in Q2, Hamlet continues with a speech which picks up the twinned themes of heritage and heredity:

      So oft it chaunces in particuler men,
      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. (1.4.17-38)

    In these sixteen lines Hamlet enumerates three ways in which a man's virtue may be corrupted: by accident of birth; by an imbalance of "humours"; by the practice of an offensive habit. Accident of birth is morally the most intriguing mode since the man is "not guilty." A child "cannot choose" his parentage or the circumstances of his nativity. But Hamlet believes the "vicious mole of nature" so pollutes its victim with "the stamp of one defect, Being Nature's livery" that, were all his other virtues "pure as grace," notwithstanding he "shall in the general censure take corruption From that particular fault."

  41. When Shakespeare wrote these lines the word "vicious" had not achieved its savage modern sense. Rather, it was closely related to the notion of vice. When applied to habit and behavior, the word carried the sense of "vice; contrary to moral principles; depraved, immoral, bad" (OED 3625). Applied to persons, the word meant "addicted to vice or immorality; of depraved habits; profligate, wicked." The word "mole" had two principal meanings: a "spot or blemish on the human skin . . . a fault," or the familiar small mammal (OED 1832). In the latter sense it might be applied to persons who exhibited mole-like qualities, i.e. "one whose (physical or mental) vision is defective" or "one who works in darkness."

  42. As to "the stamp of one defect," this figure is related to coining and coinage. Shakespeare routinely applies the term "stamp" to equate counterfeiting with the begetting of illegitimate children, as in Measure for Measure:

      Ha, fie, these filthy vices! It were as good
      To pardon him that hath from nature stolen
      A man already made, as to remit
      Their saucy sweetness that do coin God's image
      In stamps that are forbid. (2.4.42-46)

    Likewise in Titus Andronicus, when the Nurse presents Tamora's illegitimate child to Aaron: "The Empress sends it thee, thy stamp, thy seal, And bids thee christen it with thy dagger's point" (4.2.69-70). There is also a series of echoes of Hamlet in Posthumus' rant:

      We are bastards all,
      And that most venerable man which I
      Did call my father was I know not where
      When I was stamped. Some coiner with his tools
      Made me a counterfeit; yet my mother seemed
      The Dian of that time: so doth my wife
      The nonpareil of this. O vengeance, vengeance! (2.5.2-8)

    In Hamlet's mind this counterfeit status--the unshirkable livery of bastardy-- confounds a man's other virtues and condemns him to "the general censure," which most editors parse as public odium but may also refer to the Last Judgement.

  43. Hamlet's speech concludes with what Jenkins calls "the most famous crux in Shakespeare" (449):

      . . . the dram of eale
      Doth all the noble substance of a doubt
      To his own scandale. (1.4.36-38)

    No commentator has satisfactorily defined "eale," and "of a doubt" is suspect. But Jenkins conjectures Shakespeare wrote:

      The dram of evil
      Doth all the noble substance often dout
      To his own scandal.

    "Dout" means "put out, extinguish." Jenkins argues that "the general sense is clear: the small amount of evil in some way gets the better of 'the noble substance'" (451).

  44. Shakespeare's diction becomes unambiguous if we remember these words are the summation of Hamlet's response to Horatio's question about the king's rouse. The theme of Hamlet's speech is wine and excessive drinking, and its language is drawn from associated jargon. "Dram" is a word Shakespeare uses elsewhere in both its senses, as a measure of avoirdupois weight (1/8 ounce) and a measure of fluid (1/8 fluid ounce).[37] He also quibbles with the word in an ethical sense dram=scruple=compunction.[38] At the close of Hamlet's speech Shakespeare is using the word "dram" in the sense of a fluid measure and quibbling on an unspoken word: "bastard."[39] In addition to this word's familiar meaning of "born out of wedlock, illegitimate," the homonym "bastarde" described a "sweet kind of Spanish wine, resembling muscadel in flavour; sometimes any kind of sweetened wine" (OED 174).[40] Shakespeare uses the word in this sense in I Henry IV: "Score a pint of bastard[e] in the Half-moon" (2.4.30).[41]

  45. These bastarde sweetened or fortified wines--in the Elizabethan era the list included sherries, ports, muscatels and numerous other defunct variants--differ from "pure" vintages by what the French call dosage.[42] That is, the natural wine--the French term is nature, the German naturwein--is adulterated by the addition of a dollop of foreign substance. In the vinification of Falstaff's favorite, sack (modern: sherry), there are two intrusions into the fermentation and aging process. The first is flor--a mold which is peculiar to the Xeres region of Spain which gives the wine its nutlike flavor. Secondly, sherries are aged (and dated) by the solera method. Small quantities of older sherries are added to young wines. The introduction of a few drams of older wine alters the new wine's character by a remarkable degree--a phenomenon well-known to sherry vintners and drinkers in Shakespeare's time. In an oenological sense then, the dosage procedure adulterates the natural wine by the intrusion of a small quantity of foreign fluid. Wine adulterated in this way forfeits its varietal appellation. It loses its claim to a "name"--and is left a nameless "bastard(e)." Viewed in this context, Hamlet's "dram of eale" is recognizable as a metaphor for semen.[43]

  46. As to the etymology of the mysterious "eale," the word may be a variant derived from "ealdren," an obsolete dialectical form of "elder." "Elder" has two principal meanings. The name of the familiar elder tree, Sambucus nigra, derives from the Old English word "ellfrn," itself derived from an unknown Old Norse word but related to the Danish "hyld" or "hyldetrf" (OED on CD-ROM elder n1). The elder is typically a low tree or shrub, and its young branches are remarkable for their abundance of pith. The qualities of elder wood were well-known to Shakespeare, who refers to its soft, removable pith in Henry V,[44] and to the tradition that it was the tree upon which Judas was hanged in Love's Labour's Lost.[45] We may detect a glance at this quality of the elder tree in Hamlet's "indeede it takes From our atchievements, though perform'd at height The pith and marrow of our attribute" (1.4.20-22).

  47. In the context of Hamlet's speech about excessive drinking, three attributes of the elder are significant. First, the tree produces the elderberry, from which a "wine" has been fermented in England since ancient times. Owing to the low sugar content of elderberries, the juice was "bastardized" with a quantity of sugar or honey as an aid to fermentation. Second, the English vernacular name for the elder is "Danewort," from the tradition that the plant sprang up in places where Danes slaughtered Englishmen or vice-versa.[46] Third, the unfermented juice of the elderberry was employed in English folk medicine as a diuretic from at least medieval times.[47] That is, the elderberry is unique in that its juice can be associated not only with the consumption of fluid but with effluence.[48]

  48. The second meaning of "elder" which is relevant to the "dram of eale" is the comparative of "old," i.e. "one who has lived longer." The epithets "bastard eigne" and "bastard elder" were employed interchangeably in Elizabethan legal documents to describe "the bastard son of a man who afterwards marries the mother" by whom he begets succeeding issue (OED on CD- ROM bastard n1a).[49] Legally, Hamlet would become a "bastard eigne" were a sibling to be born in wedlock to Claudius and Gertrude. A law book of 1536 outlines the prevailing English practice:

      A man hath a sonne of a woman before marriage, that is called a bastarde, and unlawful. And after he marrieth the mother of the bastarde, and they have another sonne, the seconde sonne is called Mulier, that is to say lawfull, and shall be heire to his father; but that other cannot bee heire to any man, because it was not knowen for certaine in the judgement of the law who was his father, and for that cause is said to bee no mans sonne or the sonne of the people, and so without father, according to these old beliefs. (Rastell 131-2)

    Hamlet may have been legitimated by the subsequent marriage of his parents. But, were the Claudius-Gertrude marriage to produce legitimate issue, that child would take precedence in the succession and Hamlet would be disenfranchised from the crown.[50]

  49. "Eale" may be a lost tipplers' colloquialism, or an Elizabethan nonce-word for an alcoholic drink derived from "ealdern." If so, the tiny and inscrutable "eale" is pregnant with a remarkable concordance of ideas appropriate to Hamlet and his circumstances: wine, bastard(e), Danes, diuretic qualities, effluence of fluid, illegitimate conception, a first-born son whose stigma of bastardy was incompletely moderated by the subsequent marriage of his parents, a bastard eigne's lost entitlements.

    Hamlet's Illegitimacy, and Luther's

  50. Hamlet's illegitimacy provides another connection between Shakespeare's prince and Martin Luther. Controversy still surrounds the date of Luther's birth. His leading Catholic opponent, Johannes Cochlaeus (Johannes Dobeneck, 1479- 1552), wrote that Luther was a bastard conceived when his mother copulated with the Devil in a bath-house (Friedensburg v.1.541, 14-18).[51] In fact, Luther's mother swore that she could remember the date of Martin's birth but not the year.[52] Melancthon writes:

      I have some tyme enquired of her [Margarethe Luther] at what time her sonne was borne: she answered, that she remembred the houre and the day of his nativity but of ye yeare she was ignoraunt. She affirmed he was borne the x [10th] day of November at night, about a leven of the clocke. And ye cause why he was called Martin, was for that the morow after he received Baptisme, was S. Martins day. But his brother James, an honest and upryght man, said: the whole famely held opinion, he was borne the yere after the Nativity, 1483. (Bennet B2r-v)

    The date of Luther's parents' marriage is unknown. What is known is that the couple moved house twice in the years 1482-4, first from Eisenach to Eisleben, and thence to Mansfield. A young couple occupying three residences in as many years is remarkable for that era. These movings of house--and the necessity for Luther's mother to conceal the year of his birth--would be understandable if Martin had been conceived out of wedlock. The "official" year of Luther's birth is given as 1483 or 1484. But an earlier birthdate, say 1482, would resolve "definite difficulties in the chronology of Luther's youth, such as his four-year period of schooling in Eisenach, for which it is difficult [i.e. impossible] to account" if a birthdate in 1483 or 1484 is accepted (Brecht 1). Luther's father, George, began his career as a miner. This explains Hamlet's epithet for his own father's ghost: "Well said, old mole. Canst work i'th' earth so fast? A worthy pioner" (1.5.170-1). In Shakespeare's parlance, the term "pioner" or "pioneer" signified a miner.

    In Conclusion

  51. Since 1941--and particularly since 1973--there has been a renewal of interest in reading Shakespeare's Hamlet as a Reformation document. If the calendrical design which this essay alleges is integral to Shakespeare's structure for the play's three "movements," scholars may now address the theological dimensions of the text in a broader context. Each of the scholarly works remembered at the outset of this essay has ingeniously interrogated a particular passage or character or theme in Hamlet for its theological content. In a manner akin to literary archaeology, each scholar has described an individual tile which is part of a larger mosaic. Recognizing the calendrical framework of Shakespeare's Hamlet may provide a matrix in which these tiles of meaning find their places, and in time reveal the playwright's grand design.


Works Cited

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the editor at emls@arts.ubc.ca.

© 1996, R.G. Siemens (Editor, EMLS).
(April 28, 1996)