Sunday, October 09, 2011

Was Hamlet Celtic?

-- Did 'Hamlet' derive from an older, now-lost Celtic manuscript source?
A press story surfaced, or rather resurfaced, in August (cf picked up by the News For Medievalists blogsite 6-08-11) that the most famous character in Shakespeare was not Danish at all, but Irish. Or to put it another way, what is usually cited as English Lit’s greatest play was in fact of Celtic origin. As the original source would thus be a Celtic codex, it's within our remit to take a look at the controversy. This matter is also related to another longstanding controversy regarding Shakespearean authorship which is about to go wide with the release this autumn of a big-budget film about literary intrigues at the Elizabethan court, titled Anonymous.

Like most such press stories based on scholarship, the was-Hamlet-Irish story is not altogether new, being picked up by some papers earlier this year [cf "Was the great Dane Irish? That is the question," Guardian 3-3-11]. The press source seems to be an article in Oxford University Press's Review of English Studies (I can't find the article online) by a mediaeval Scandinavian scholar at Aberdeen University, Dr Lisa Collinson, who argues the name Hamlet derives from Dark Ages Irish literature.

Shakespeare's source is always given as a c1200 compilation, the Gesta Danorum (Deeds Of The Danes), by Danish scholar Saxo Grammaticus. But the story differs from the play in many ways, there's no other evidence Saxo's Vita Amleti was actually historically based i.e. that there was a real Prince Hamlet; and there is an older Scandinavian folktale of a similar-sounding hero called Amlothi. Supposedly Shakespeare got the "Hamlet" spelling from a then-current [c1570] French translation of Saxo. Dr Collinson argues the name derives from Admithi, which is found as the name of a walk-on character in the old Irish saga The Destruction of Da Derga's Hostel, part of the so-called Ulster cycle. (There was also a 10th-C king-slayer figure called Amhlaide in the Irish Annals, though Irish mh is pronounced more as v.) She says the Irish root refers to grinding and the Scands adapted this word a metaphor for the 'grinding' sea, grinding in the ancient sense of a quern-style millstone being turned to grind down wheat, or in this case presumably, boats. (The early-mediaeval Icelandic work the Prose Edda also quotes an old poem wherein a local name for the sea is AmloĆ°i's Mill.) Quite why the seafaring Scands would need to borrow a name from Irish legend for the sea escapes me, as they had their own terminology. We still have the wonderful Nordic-Germanic term maelstrom for a whirlpool-like effect at sea, literally a grinding stream. Like all oral (what we now call illiterate) cultures, they also had a rich poetic storytelling language, as did their Anglo-Saxon cousins of the Beowulf era who gave us metaphors (known as kenning) like "the whale's way" for the open sea.

But let's follow the argument, as reported, a bit further. There is an earlier [1969] academic 'fringe' text called Hamlet's Mill, a comparative-myths study which made an etymological argument that ancient myths have an astronomical 'key.' This is to do with the so-called precession of the equinoxes, an effect of the earth wobbling around on its axis so that the Pole Star is in a different astrological or zodiacal 'house' every 2,000-odd years, in a 12-part cycle completed every 25,000-odd years. It's a theory best known through popular culture, as in 'This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius.' The two co-authors gave the name Amlodhi's Mill (or variants) to this astronomical effect, attempting to reconstruct a lost master-myth of a heavenly mill, run by Amlodhi the Titan, whose instability causes what we might call sea changes - great political and cultural changes – on earth. This work has always been a bit much for me to buy, with a £25+ textbook pricetag, but you can now read it (or a potted version of it) online free, here.

Now we have the added press confusion implying the original Hamlet was an Irish nobleman, which might make for a provocative press headline but misrepresents the underlying academic argument about the grinding sea. But if you don't buy the academic argument of an Irish etymological origin of Hamlet as astro master-myth, is that the end of the matter as far as a possible Celtic source goes? I would argue: not necessarily. There may be more to it.

Shakespeare evidently wrote more than one version of his play, and there is thought to be a lost original source, designated the Ur-Hamlet, which if it could be located would betray its sources in earlier literary works. (Shakespeare always based his plays on existing legends etc.) But even if we don't have the lost Ur-Hamlet, we still have clues pointing to a British - not Irish - source for much of the play's plot. Others better placed than me have made the argument that much of Shakespeare's Hamlet derives from an old British source, with comparisons made with other British mediaeval romances like Guy of Warwick and Bevis of Hampton. For instance the Encyclopaedia Britannica 1911 edition argued “The close parallels between the tale of Hamlet and the English romances of Havelok, Horn and Bevis of Hampton make it not unlikely that Hamlet is of British rather than of Scandinavian origin.” This theory does not appear in the modern EB and may seem just old-fashioned patriotism at work in 1911. The earlier sagas of course were formative-national in their outlook, so where a story is set is always significant. And while the play’s setting is limited to one place, a Danish castle, the older versions venture farther abroad. Even the earliest surviving Scandinavian version of the Hamlet legend oddly has him going to Britain and spending much of the story there. Here's the basic story from an older (note the now-strange names like Feng) surviving pre-Saxo Danish version, called in Latin Chronicon Lethrense and in English the Chronicle Of Lejre:

Then [king] Rorik ... set up Orwendel and Feng as rulers in Jutland. The king gave Orwendel his sister, for the good work he'd done. With her he had a son called Amblothe. Then Feng killed Orwendel out of envy and took his woman to wife. Then Amblothe devised a plan to save his life, and acted the fool. Then Feng was wary of Amblothe and sent him to the king of Britain with two of his servants and a letter saying Amblothe should be put to death. He scraped it off while they slept and wrote saying that the two servants should be hanged and Amblothe marry the king's daughter; and that's what happened. A year to the day, as Feng drank to the memory of Amblothe, he came to Denmark and killed Feng, his father's murderer, and burned all Feng's men in a tent, and so was king of Jutland. Then he went back to Britain and killed his father-in-law who wanted to avenge Feng's death. Then he took the queen of Scotland to wife. As soon as he came home, he was killed in battle.

In the play, Hamlet survives similarly when sent to Britain with a sealed death-warrant letter, but this takes place offstage, whereas in the earlier version[s], a considerable amount of the action happens in Britain, with a marriage to a British king's daughter followed by a return as king to Britain, including a possible visit to Scotland. This is despite the fact both this and Saxo's version are thought to have been Danish-nationalist (anti-German) in their spirit, but Saxo's more elaborate version is also set largely in Britain. Here's a plot summary from Wikipedia:

Gervendill, governor of Jutland, was succeeded by his sons Horvendill and Feng. Horvendill ... married Gerutha, daughter of [the] king of Denmark; she bore him a son, Amleth. But Feng, out of jealousy, murdered Horvendill, and persuaded Gerutha to become his wife .... Amleth, afraid of sharing his father's fate, pretended to be an imbecile, but the suspicion of Feng put him to various tests ... Feng was assured that the young man's madness was feigned. Accordingly he dispatched him to Britain in company with two attendants, who bore a letter enjoining the king of the country to put him to death. Amleth surmised the purport of their instructions, and secretly altered the message on their wooden tablets to the effect that the king should put the attendants to death and give Amleth his daughter in marriage.
After marrying the princess, Amleth returned ... to Denmark. ... He arrived in time for a funeral feast, held to celebrate his supposed death. During the feast he plied the courtiers with wine, and executed his vengeance during their drunken sleep by .... setting fire to the palace. Feng he slew with his own sword. ... Returning to Britain for his wife he found that his father-in-law and Feng had been pledged each to avenge the other's death. The English king, unwilling personally to carry out his pledge, sent Amleth as proxy wooer for the hand of a terrible Scottish queen Hermuthruda, who had put all former wooers to death but fell in love with Amleth. On his return to Britain his first wife, whose love proved stronger than her resentment, told him of her father's intended revenge. In the battle which followed Amleth won the day .... He then returned with his two wives to Jutland, where he ... was slain in a battle against Wiglek, and Hermuthruda, although she had promised to die with him, married the victor.

There are more British parallels with the romance Bevis of Hampton. The comparison is not usually made as the hero has a different name, but the story is surprisingly similar and this was the most popular single version of it. The oldest surviving version is an Irish Gaelic translation whose scholarly Dublin translator believed was based on a lost English original. (The oldest surviving version in English is a 15th-C. metrical romance meant to be read aloud at court.) While Bevis is obscure today, it remained a popular story for centuries. It was the favourite book of the Puritan writer John Bunyan, and its use of transparently symbolic character names may have influenced his Pilgrim's Progress, and the underlying tale may also have inspired Shakespeare.

What may have interested Shakespeare in the tale was some odd parallels between the misadventures of Bevis and those of his patron Henry 3rd Earl of Southampton [1573-1624]. Indeed, some have speculated he actually was the real ‘Shakespeare,’ who as author used a Stratford actor as a front lest the political ramifications of the plays affect his position at Elizabeth’s court. The Earl also had his father (Henry VIII's godson) die in suspicious circumstances in the wake of a political intrigue (possibly poisoned like Hamlet's father). Like the displaced young count Bevis, the young Henry fell into political intrigue, went on sea voyages, lost his estates and spent years in prison before being eventually restored to his rightful status (though this last part probably post-dates the writing of Hamlet). Like Bevis, he too was banished from court over an affair, fought in several campaigns, and attempted to overthrow the reigning king. When James I was crowned, Southampton was able to return, being made a Knight of the Garter and governor of the Isle of Wight in 1603. A tale featuring an earlier 'Count of Hampton' triumphing over exile and adversity may thus have struck a chord with young playwright or young Earl.

A film being released this autumn, Anonymous, is likely to broaden awareness of the issue of Shakespearean authorship.

The older version of the legend as it survives in Danish sources was dramatised in 1994 in the film Prince Of Jutland [aka Royal Deceit], made in Denmark with a British cast.

The plot has Bevis sold to 'heathen' (Moorish?) pirates after the murder of his father the Count of Hampton by an old royal rival. This is done at the behest of Bevis's mother, daughter of the King of Scotland, who had forced her into marriage with the ageing Count to bolster a political alliance. Traumatised, the ten-year-old Bevis is unable to contain his anger. To get rid of him before he can take revenge (he is of a violent nature), he is ordered secretly killed; instead, he is despatched in a different sense by less ruthless courtiers, sent away by ship to a (variously named) remote kingdom as apprentice labour at a distant fictional court. (The details here are Crusader-era: Saracens etc.) Later, he survives an attempt to have him killed there, in an intrigue that involves altering the contents of a letter to the court.

Eventually, he returns to take his revenge, slaying his stepfather and massacring the courtiers. As in every older version, from the Irish saga The Destruction of Da Derga's Hostel on, this involves burning men alive inside their dwelling [palace/hostel/tent etc.]. He resumes his rightful place, but soon afterwards is driven back into exile.

The odd overlaps and interplay of details suggest Saxo's Vita Amleti, the Chronicon Lethrense/Chronicle Of Lejre, Sir Bevis, and Shakespeare's play all draw on a common origin in folktale. Telltale details indicating an early origin include the death-warrant letter being inscribed on wooden tablets, a lack of Christian motifs, pagan symbolism like “talisman” crown jewels, and the naming of the hero in one version as “Bogo” – an ancient name for a trickster figure, who might typically act “mad.” The hero-acting-mad motif, which occurs elsewhere in primitive literature, became the basis of the brooding introspection and veiled-menace wordplay which distinguishes Shakespeare’s take on the legendary story. Later versions would emphasize martial valour and stoicism more than sly tricksterism. The story would thus more likely be pre-Celtic in origin, but could be classed as Celtic by the time literacy arrived with the English settlements. Such a tale could at first be transmitted orally by court bards etc, but as literacy spread, written down by clerics in Latin or some Celtic language such as Erse [Irish], Pictish or Brittonic. (Despite what some have claimed, all these were written as well as spoken languages.)

The geographic settings indicate not an Northern-Irish (Ulster) provenance but a British one, a southern British one at that. (Though many parts of Britain were settled by the Irish before the Anglo-Saxon Advent.) The northerly Scottish (Pictish?) setting with its ferocious queen remains vague, but the southerly setting is firmly localised around Southampton and the adjacent New Forest, Avon Valley, and Isle of Wight. Sir Bevis actually become the official founder of Southampton (originally called just Hampton). Henry V, who sailed for Agincourt from the port, had tapestries representing the deeds of Sir Bevois [sic], as did Henry VIII, the 2nd Earl of Southampton’s godfather.

There were earlier connections between Denmark and England, dating back to the time when the king of Denmark was also king of most of England. The most powerful prince of Denmark, Cnut or Canute, in 1017 landed in Wessex and fought the English king Edmund Ironside to a standstill, taking eastern England and leaving Wessex to his defeated counterpart. (Canute’s palace was said to be at Southampton, on the eastern edge of Wessex; the famous no-man-can-turn-back-the-tide incident where he supposedly got his feet wet to impress his courtiers, supposedly taking place on Southampton Water above the Isle of Wight.) A surviving anonymous Elizabethan drama titled Edmund Ironside is thought by some, like Peter Ackroyd, to be Shakespeare's first play. When Ironside died within weeks of his peace treaty with Cnut, of unknown causes, Canute did something which would be echoed in the plot of Hamlet, the romance Sir Bevis, and another Shakespeare play, The Winter’s Tale. He sent his two orphaned infant princes (now heirs to Wessex) to his neighbour and ally the Swedish king to be secretly murdered. Here’s a literal transcription of the earliest account, from the early-12C Chronicon by Florence and John of Worcester, quoted by Hakluyt (a contemporary of Shakespeare’s and possible source) in his prose-epic of English seamanship, Principal Navigations [etc] (1589-):
The voyage of Edmund and Edward the sonnes of King Edmund Ironside into Hungarie, Anno D 1017
Edric counselled king Kanutus to murther the young princes Edward and Edmund the sonnes of King Edmund. But because it seemed a thing very dishonourable vnto him to haue them put to death in England, hee sent them, after a short space, vnto the king of Sweden to be slaine. Who, albeit there was a league betweene them, would in no case condescend vnto Canutus his bloody request, but sent them vnto Salomon [sic] the king of Hungarie to be nourished and preserued aliue. … Edmund in processe of time there deceased. But Edward receiued to wife Agatha daughter vnto the Germane Emperour Henry of whom he begot Margaret the Queene of the Seots, and Christina a Nunne, and Clito Edgar.

Prince Edward, nicknamed Edward the Exile, finally returned four decades later, in 1057, but died within days of his landing in England. (Another suspiciously convenient death here.) But Edward the Exile’s Hungarian-born son, called “Clito Edgar” in the quote above, became another legendary displaced princeling, Edgar The Atheling, whose surprisingly long life saw many adventures which would fit into a courtly romance (and probably did). Slightly too young to be elected by the Witan to lead the English army against the Norman invasion of 1066, he was elected king after Harold’s death at Hastings, and fought on for many years as a rebel against the Normans, using his family connections to the Scottish court as a power base. He went on the First Crusade and then was offered a place (which he declined in order to return to England) at court by the German Emperor (another figure who appears as a character in the Bevis version of the legend). Scotland and Jutland were neighbours in the sea-province sense (i.e. on a direct east-west trade route across the North Sea), while the Scots-English link became closer after 1100 when the last king Edgar served under, Henry I, married into the same Scots dynasty that had backed Edgar. So here we have a historical background with various motifs which surface in the Hamlet/Amleth/Bevis stories. This may be no coincidence, but find an explanation in geo-politics.

Though we speak of the Anglo-Saxon Conquest, the father of English history, Bede, writing c725, said a third part of England was settled by the Jutes - settlers from Jutland. This was the New Forest / Isle of Wight enclave, where Bevis is partly set. The New Forest was known until the Norman Conquest as the Forest Of Ytene, meaning “of the Yuten” ie the Jutes [German J is pronounced Y]. According to Bede, Wight was settled in the 6th C. by settlers from Jutland, who remained pagan. The Jutes seem to have integrated more peacefully than the Saxons and likely intermarried with the local Celtic tribe, so that stories could easily have been shared, even if there was not already a common European folktale version. (Sons who cleverly outwit cruel stepfathers by pretending to be simple-minded, only to take their revenge later, would make a suitable subject for campfire folktale, judging by other surviving examples.)

In 685-6, Wight became the last British province to be Christianised, when Saxon King Caedwalla of Wessex and his bishop, Wilfred (who also worked among the Picts), forcibly converted “the Island which was still entirely devoted to idolatry and by merciless slaughter endeavoured to destroy all the inhabitants thereof, and to place in their stead people from his own province.” Last to die were two young princes, brothers of the late local king, Arwald, who had both just been crowned and had fled across the Solent to the “the neighbouring province of the Jutes”, i.e. the Forest Of Ytene (New Forest after 1066). A local abbot betrayed the two young princes and they were captured. He insisted they first be “saved” – i.e. catechized and baptised - before being killed. Bede says these two last young survivors of this now obscure Jutish pagan people submitted happily to execution (though he may have misunderstood the reason) and that with this, all the British provinces were officially Christian. But he concludes with the odd remark that until his time (early 8th C.), there was no local bishop, “because of the mystery of foreign subjection.” … Perhaps not everyone was killed after all, but were left alone as they could not speak the Saxon language? And there is no claim of massacre re the Jutes in the adjacent [i.e. across the Solent] Forest Of Ytene /New Forest. They may also have preserved their language and legends, and kept in touch with the ancestral home in Danish Jutland.

These circumstances could explain how a now-lost Celto-Brittonic tale got back to the courts of Denmark, to be written up in Danish chronicles which became the official source of English Lit’s greatest play.

For background on the Shakespearean authorship controversy, the October issue of Fortean Times has a cover feature on it [below].