Thursday, June 13, 2013

Hamlet had tennis elbow

Shakespeare at Elsinore

I have always been puzzled by Shakespeare’s Hamlet.  If you remember, Claudius was Hamlet’s uncle.  Claudius killed his own brother, Hamlet’s father, and then married Hamlet's mother, Gertrude.  Obviously he did this so he could succeed to the throne, which he did. 

Needless to say, Hamlet was upset.

But what did he do about it? 

Nothing!  He wandered around muttering to himself, even though the ghost of his father told him what had happened.  Any self-respecting prince would have run Claudius through.  But no, Hamlet did nothing.

Why?  That’s the puzzle.

Of course, if Hamlet had just reacted like any hot blooded young man would, the play would have been over before the end of Act 1, which would have ruined Shakespeare’s reputation.  So academics have spent hundreds of years trying to explain Hamlet’s weird behaviour.

Several theories have been advanced over the years trying to explain Hamlet’s reluctance to do Claudius in.  Freud, in his The Interpretation of Dreams, concludes that Hamlet had an Oedipal Complex, and had an Oedipal desire for his mother.  If he killed Claudius, he would then be hurting his mother.  So he held off – and in doing so drove himself mad.

Other interpretations of Hamlet’s behaviour have suggested that he was sexually attracted to his mother.  In the closet scene, where he confronts Gertrude in her private quarters, he is disgusted by her incestuous relationship with Claudius, but is concerned that if he kills Claudius, he would be tempted to sleep with her himself.    

A different type of explanation for Hamlet’s reluctance to kill Claudius suggests that Hamlet is just an ineffectual intellectual.  There is much to support this notion:

“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” (Act 2, scene ii)

“To be or not to be: that is the question.” (Act 3, scene i)

Freud also hints that Hamlet couldn’t make a strong decision because Hamlet thinks “he himself is literally no better than the sinner whom he is to punish.”

And Hamlet himself, when he has the opportunity to kill Claudius when he is praying, hesitates because he thinks that someone killed while praying will go to heaven. 

“A villain kills my father; and for that,
I, his sole son, do this same villain send
To heaven.” (Act 3, scene iii)

Of course he still does nothing.

As a recovering academic, I see that all these explanations are meant to dazzle fellow academics, thus hopefully leading to tenure.  But none of them is correct.

I discovered the real truth yesterday when I visited Kronborg Castle in Helsingør (Elsinore) - where all of the action of Hamlet takes placeto commune with the plethora of ghosts who still hang out there.  

Kronborg Castle (Elsinore)

Kronborg Castle (Elsinore) - Sweden in background

Self-portrait at the top of the castle

“Why didn’t Hamlet kill Claudius right away?” I asked the wispy group.  

It was poor Ophelia (in love with Hamlet, but told to reject him by her father Polonius and brother, Laertes) who gave me the reason.

“Don’t believe any of the academic claptrap,” she said.  “It’s simple.  He had tennis elbow and couldn’t use his sword!”

I gasped at this academic sacrilege.

“We used to play a lot of royal tennis in our outdoor court between the moats,” she continued.  “Hamlet was a fiend and liked to win.  Eventually he had to stop because he got a mild case of sunstroke (“I am too much I’ the sun.” Act 1, scene ii), as well as a painful case of tennis elbow.”

Outdoor real (royal) tennis court building

The real (royal) tennis court itself

What caused Hamlet's pain!

“That’s really painful,” I said.  “I had it once, and it lasted for months.”

“Yes.  He became very impatient with the usual heat treatment because the pain didn’t go away.  He would curse and swear at his arm (“O, that this too too solid flesh would melt, Thaw and resolve itself into a dew.” Act 1, scene ii), but his mother kept telling him to be patient (“Upon the heat and flame of thy distemper Sprinkle cool patience.” Act 3, scene iv).

“He kept testing to see if the arm had healed.  He used to take hold of me and tried to straighten his arm (“”He took me by the wrist and held me hard; Then he goes to the length of all his arm.” Act 2, scene i).  It was pitiful (“And, with his other hand thus o’er his brow, .. . . He raised a sigh so piteous and profound As it did seem to shatter all his bulk.” Act 2, scene i).

“In the end, his mother decided to send him south to the warmer climate of England, where he could convalesce.”

“Then what happened?” I asked.

“It must have worked, because he came back – I wasn’t around then because I'd drowned – and had a fencing match with my brother Laertes.  Poor Gertrude toasted the two of them, but didn’t realize the chalice of wine had been poisoned by Claudius.  So she died.  Laertes didn’t play fair, and tipped his sword with poison.  He scratched Hamlet, who realized what was going on.  He managed to grab Laertes sword and scratch him back.  Then he realized that Claudius was still alive, so he stabbed him and made him drink the poisoned wine just to make sure he died.

"What a mess.  Bodies all over the place!  It would have been much better had Hamlet killed Claudius right away.  Then we would have got married and had kids and lived happily ever after.”

So there you have it – from someone who should know.

Hamlet delayed in killing Claudius, not because of those airy-fairy academic reasons we read about, but because he had tennis elbow.

Stan - Thursday


  1. Stan, I love literary criticism of this order, especially when I learn something new, like for instance that such high grade hallucinogens grow that far north. Play on...

  2. "I do believe you think what now you speak, but what we do determine oft we break." Hamlet Act 3, Scene 2.

    Or are you really in Macbeth? "Give me some wine; fill full." Macbeth Act 3, Scene 4

  3. It is amazing what wine and mushrooms can do to one's mind.

  4. You got to Kronborg just before the weather changed, then ;-) seeing that there is acutally sun in the photos...

  5. Yes! It has been pouring ever since, with wind and cold. So much for a European winter . . . I mean summer.

  6. Ah see, you missed summer - that happened the past fortnight. It may return, though...What are you doing here - holiday? Work?

  7. A little holiday - obviously chose the wrong week! I am meant to play golf today - will probably be blown off the course!