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Edinburgh author discovers Hamlet's Book

Edinburgh Castle and Crow from Whinny Hill
Castle and Crow

What is the book Hamlet reads? You know the one? In Act II, Sc 2, he comes onstage quietly reading.

Is it a bible, a book of poetry, an instruction manual for his iPhone? What is it? It’s a reasonable question. In fact, Shakespeare has Polonius ask it:

Polonius: What do you read, my lord?

Hamlet: Words, words, words.

Decided opinion has it that it is not an actual, publication. In fact, in his notes on Hamlet in the Arden edition, Harold Jenkins’s advice on the matter is clear, if not curt: ‘attempts to identify the book are pointless'. He adds that looking for it would be a waste of time and 'anyway it would not add to our understanding of the play.' Lucky, then, that I had the time to make the attempt because it wasn’t (pointless) and it does (add to our understanding of the play). Let’s take that second point first.

Here’s a quick recap of the story up to the moment that this mysterious book appears:

Grief stricken by the recent death of his father, Hamlet has returned to court from university and is in a melancholic state of joyless dejection. His mother, Gertrude, thinks his sadness is, not unnaturally, a reaction to his father’s death but that it may have been exacerbated by, as she herself describes it, her ‘o’er hasty marriage’ She and her former brother-in-law, Claudius, have married. Claudius is Hamlet’s uncle but now also his step-father. Enter Polonius, an adviser to Claudius.

Polonius produces evidence to support his view that Hamlet is mad – madly in love – with his daughter, Ophelia. Gertrude, Claudius and Polonius discuss Hamlet’s recent, and alarming, changes in demeanour. His melancholy seems to have plunged him into an acute state of what looks like lunacy. Seeing him approach, Gertrude says ‘look where the poor wretch comes reading’. Polonius volunteers to question the prince while Gertrude and Claudius withdraw.

Using his disguise of harmless old duffer, Polonius approaches Hamlet and begins what he thinks will demonstrate his proficiency in the art of casual interrogation. What Polonius doesn’t know is that Hamlet is also in disguise.

Hamlet has received information about the manner of his father’s death. If true, it means that Claudius, his uncle, is an assassin and that his mother was complicit in the old king’s murder. Should Claudius strike again, he may be a threat to Hamlet himself. Hamlet’s informant is, however, a ghost.

Claiming to be his father, the ghost says it has returned because it wants revenge.

Hamlet’s companions, including his rational-minded friend Horatio, also see the apparition but they do not hear it speak, nor hear its accusations, and they do not know about its vengeful commands.

Hamlet does not doubt that he has had an encounter with something supernatural, but what? Is it his father? Is it telling the truth? What if it is a malevolent spirit? Understandably wary, he must find a way to test the ghost’s accusations. Not until he finds proof of his uncle’s guilt, will Hamlet act. But how can he spy upon his uncle without endangering himself? He needs a plan and quickly too. He has an idea.

He tells his friends that he will move about the court under a cloak of feigned insanity – an ‘antic disposition’ as he calls it. This will allow him to apply his brilliant, wily intellect to the problem – or so he thinks. (It is the ancient, wise-fool strategy; the genius who plays the idiot to disguise his real intentions.) Hamlet's friends agree to support the plan by not revealing that that they know it is a cunning act of subterfuge.

From the other characters, we soon hear report of Hamlet’s apparent change of demeanour. The first time we, the audience, see him for ourselves in his mad act is when he appears, alone, reading a book. Polonius questions him and, in this exchange, we see that Hamlet’s ruse does not impair his capacity for running intellectual rings around Polonius whom Hamlet regards as a tedious old fool.

Polonius, a counterpoint to Hamlet, is the opposite of the wise fool – the foolish wise man.

In this scene, Shakespeare puts these two characters head to head. Two fools, each confident of their own intellectual superiority, enter into conversation. Both end with their opinion confirmed of the other’s imbecility. Polonius is no imbecile however – and neither, of course, is Hamlet.

Polonius is on a mission to prove Hamlet’s madness comes from his infatuation with Ophelia. Apparently casually, he approaches the prince and asks what he is reading. Hamlet responds with the above quoted flippant remark, implying a low opinion of the writer: ‘words, words, words’. Unsatisfied with that, Polonius persists:

Polonius: What is the matter, my lord?

Hamlet: Between who?

Polonius: I mean the matter that you read, my Lord.

Hamlet could easily flip the thing over and show Polonius the title on the spine. He doesn’t.

Instead, Shakespeare has Hamlet read out a passage in the book on the failings of old men. Thus does Shakespeare identify the book, but only of course to anyone who has read it:

Hamlet: Slanders sir; for the satirical slave says here, that old men have gray beards,

that their faces are wrinkled, their eyes purging thick Amber, & plum tree gum,

& that they have a plentiful lack of wit, together with most weak hams, all which

sir though I most powerfully and potently believe, yet I hold it not honesty to have

it thus set down, for you yourself sir should be old as I am: if like a crab you could

go backward.

Old men have grey beards, wrinkled skin and rheum encrusted eyes. They are very stupid and have weak legs. Hamlet says while he agrees wholeheartedly with the writer about all of that, it is also a deception. Twisting the text to his own ends, he adds that if Polonius could walk backwards like a crab, he would be the same age as himself.

That remark seems, of course, like nonsense. It is generally played, as such. Scholarly attempts to decipher it have arrived at the conclusion that it is nonsensical wordplay invented by Shakespeare to effect Hamlet’s plan of seeming unhinged. As we see it today, the opening of the scene presents us with a picture of a prince in studious contemplation. For that, in line with Jenkins’s enduring advice that the book’s identity is unimportant and unlikely to add anything further to the scene, any old book would do as a stage prop. The matter seems closed. But just as the original Hamlet in the play’s earliest performances knew – and shortly so will you – nonsense it is not.

Nor is it a stage direction, as suggested by renowned Shakespeare editors Edward Capell and John Dover-Wilson. In the absence of any other explanation, Dover-Wilson thought it might be an embedded instruction to the actor to bear down on Polonius and force him to retreat in a ‘demonstration of a crab-like motion.’ To be fair, there’s nothing to stop its being used this way, but the line has yet another and much more secret and intriguing function.

Before reading Harold Jenkins’s opinion on the futility of trying to trace it, I was happy to accept various authoritative conjectures in the book's possible identity. One theory was that it was possibly a book of essays by Michel de Montaigne, or a work by Erasmus: In Praise of Folly. Feeling dissatisfied with either of those, I began to look for other proposals. I hoped it would be the book whose credentials I followed up by email to an academic in Australia, receiving (duplicated with kind permission) the following reply: From: P. B.

"The book Hamlet is reading when Polonius greets him was first identified,

with great plausibility, as long ago as 1845 by one Joseph Hunter, and the

identification has since been confirmed by Lily B. Campbell and Hardin Craig,

among others of lesser fame. The case rests on numerous close verbal parallels

between this book and Shakespeare’s plays, especially Hamlet, including one

quite remarkably long and detailed… "

The word ‘plausibility’ and the phrase ‘close verbal parallels’ told me this was opinion and speculation. It was persuasive. But it was not the book.

Those who have researched the topic might at this point be wondering had I never heard of Charles Wisner Barrell?

‘Playwright Earl Publishes ‘Hamlet’s Book.’ ‘It seems to be the book which

Shakespeare placed in the hands of Hamlet.’

That word ‘seems’ was enough to tell me this was still not it. None of these were correct.

How did I know?

In no publication I had read, no annotated edition of Hamlet I had searched, no academic study of the play I had consulted, had I found anything that went further than opinion or speculation. I had found nothing conclusive or convincing anywhere. Except in, of course – the book itself.

I was on the point of giving up my search. But that’s when, well, it turned up.

The librarian smiled as she placed it on my table. Thinking this was another for the reject pile, I thanked her. As I had done so many times before, with so many similar volumes, I slid it towards myself not knowing that this was the book I sought, nor how important its identity was going to prove. It opened with a gentle crack.

To find an answer and know it to be correct is to go further than ‘seems’ or further than a search engine and one better than intellectual opinion. No matter the reputation of the author, an opinion without a fact is still an opinion, a hunch. That was all I had had too – a feeling that Harold Jenkins’s advice was simply incorrect. But who was I to think such a defiant thought?

My research had been coming up blank. I had all but given up but then a chain of events had unfolded and … here it was. After ploughing through words, words and yet more words – you said it, Hamlet – it lay before me. Its black, crabbed lettering starting to blur, I had been searching through it looking for something like Hamlet’s quotations when, with a jolt, a page snapped into focus. A line leapt out. I am not leading you on, dear reader – this is the book.

So what is it?

Well it is no bedtime story and no harmless book to be found reading alone. To its author’s mind, it was a brave, theological treatise on radical but nevertheless sound ideas for which the Church should have thanked him. It didn’t. To them it was heresy.

At the time of the world premiere of Hamlet, the reputation of the book’s author, and his grisly fate, was well known. As to the book’s effect on the playing of the scene, it would have been significant to notice that the work was unrecognisable to Polonius.

But more important was the cryptic use Shakespeare made of that crab quotation: ‘you yourself sir should be old as I am if like a crab you could go backward.’ It is a riddle. It is also a solution. It is a puzzle nobody, in later years, knew was there. But it would have been recognisable to the cognoscenti of the 1600s.

Shakespeare brings together a trio of wise-fools. He places a book by one of them into the hands of another and creates a dialogue with the third.

The passages quoted by Hamlet to Polonius identify not only what the book is and who wrote it, but something even more astonishing than that.

In Elsinore, Hamlet history hidden in plain sight, you will find the answers but, because it is the key to so much more, let me quote my own book:

"If you simply must have the title right now, use the shelf marks or call

numbers provided in appendix 2. They will bring it before your eyes on any

computer screen. The online catalogue of the National Library of Scotland

will do you that service with either of the numbers listed. The Washington

Library of Congress can be searched by the other call number. With the title

and author, you can then access the many copies and translations in a variety

of languages in your own national library. (Or browse this book’s bibliography.)

You could even order it on Amazon. (Amazon? I know. I was surprised too.)

If you do head off to find the title, please bookmark this page and come back

for an even bigger surprise. There is more to this sixteenth century book than

knowing its title and author. You will not discover what that is, however, by

simply reading it, unless of course you already know what Shakespeare

encrypted in that crab quotation. His reason for doing that is the biggest

revelation of all."

The crab is a reference to a date and a time. To make complete sense of it, I needed a location. And the ability to apply Renaissance Astrology to its interpretation. I had the first three pieces of information. I was able to commission the fourth.

With these coordinates, like a sunken ship locating itself on a treasure map, an identity not only of the book but of a royal figure holding it tightens on an identity for Hamlet himself. While we’re at it, we can find the name of the old man by his side and the couple hiding behind the pillar watching him. Who Ophelia is, or more specifically what, also becomes clear, as well as what message that may convey about Hamlet. We can find the relevance of the names Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and… well it goes on.

It is ironic that a work that goes unrecognised today in possibly the world’s most famous play, was once the better known. Of course, not everyone in Shakespeare’s first audiences would have been familiar with it but the difference between then and now is that a member of that assembly could have easily found out its relevance by asking someone in the crowd what was so interesting about that bit with the book? Four hundred years ago nobody thought to write that answer down, or if they did, modern literary research has not found it. It took someone with an interest in the play and familiarity with the detail of a particular moment in mid-sixteenth century history, to dare to ask Polonius's question again. "What do you read, my lord?"

You can buy Elsinore. History hidden in plain sight on Amazon. You’ll also find it in the larger national libraries of the UK and Ireland. You can write to me for a copy. If I’m unavailable, you can ask someone to lend you their copy. For half the price of the paperback, you can download it as an e-book. I’m making you work. I know. But knowing the actual title of Hamlet’s book matters less than knowing what happened to its author, why he wrote it when he did and how it leads us to ask (and answer) the same questions of Shakespeare: why did he write Hamlet? Why did he write it when he did?

Since he himself is on heavenly sabbatical and we can’t ask him, what we can do is interrogate his source materials and try to find out for ourselves. When my research supervisor told me that I would have to ask myself those two questions, I hardly dared to think I might find answers, let alone ones that would bring so many others in their train: Why did Shakespeare give his queen, Gertrude, that name? If not in Denmark, where does the real Elsinore stand? What else about Hamlet, have we missed?

Where fact and fiction mingle into both history and drama, an actor’s interpretation and a playwright’s skill can make us care about a character’s story and whether to believe it or not. I am an actor. I wanted to recreate the story of what made me take a detour into historical research with Shakespeare as my guide. Usually such journeys happen the other way around, with historical research going in search of Shakespeare, a shadowy figure, elusively moving about in the world of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century. For an actor, however, even today, Shakespeare is not a strange, unknowable figure; he is a presence in the rehearsal room, speaking from the page. Finding subtext is key. As we shall discover, it is not only the key to a good performance, but also the key to deepening our understanding of a play’s historical context too.

What put me in the right place at the right time with the right information was a stroke of luck during a chance meeting in an unlikely place. That story does not belong in this essay but you will find it, along with so much more, in Elsinore. Hamlet history hidden in plain sight.

©Eliza Langland September 2020

This piece has been adapted from a distillation of a few chapters of Elsinore. History hidden in plain sight. To be accessible to a wide readership, the book uses personal memoir to take the reader on the journey from insight to conclusion. Reassuring the reader that this is not unsupported theory or opinion, the research material is fully referenced.



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