Birdseye View of the Hamlet Argument


The Hamlet argument is in some ways more limited in scope than the Measure for Measure Argument, but its implications are broader.  The argument itself primarily concerns two scenes, in which I contend that Hamlet employed coinage imagery.  The coinage imagery in turn suggests a number of debasement references.  The omission of all of these potential debasement references from the first quarto of Hamlet not only supports the contention that they are debasement references in the first place (in that they seem to have been systematically removed), but also supports the theory that the first quarto is based on a version of Hamlet that was produced to avoid offending King James.


1.         Start by considering the possibility that Shakespeare may have been concerned with economic issues.


a.         He was obviously a successful businessman, having made good money in the cutthroat business of the Elizabethan theater.


b.         He was a penny-pincher, as evidenced by his low-value lawsuits, as well as his real estate investments.


c.         References to coinage in general and debasement of the coinage in general appear in many of his plays.  See sources cited in Paper, n.22.


2.         Consider whether the “picture in little” line and the “two pictures” scene might have involved coins. 


            a.         A coin is a “little picture.”


b.         “Picture” in Shakespeare’s day was slang for coins, as in “whose purse was best in picture” in the scene from the Winter’s Tale, in which Autolycus describes how he knew whose purse to steal.  (See Fischer, Econolingua, for other contemporary references).


3.         Given that Claudius was a debased king, and that the Roman Emperor Claudius’s coins were seen as debased, consider whether any Claudius coins would be debased.


4.         Now look at the “picture in little” line: Hamlet complains that people are paying 20, 40, 100 ducats apiece for Claudius’s “picture in little.”


a.         Understood as a reference to coins (which contain the little picture of the monarch, and which in slang are referred to as “picture”), this can be seen as a biting comment.


b.         The “high” denominations suggest that the coins are debased, consistent with Claudius’s debased character, and the debased condition of the state of Denmark.


c.         The line is better if it refers to coins.  It’s a double entendre, consistent with Hamlet’s character.  If the line ONLY refers to actual pictures, it’s uninteresting, and is referred to no where else in the play, which violates Checkhov’s rule about the gun over the mantel.


d.         The idea that Claudius’s coinage features in the play finds support in a new interpretation of a later line, in which Hamlet tells off Rosencrantz for, like sponge, “soak[ing] up the King’s countenance, his rewards, his authorities.”   This seems to be at least a double entendre on the idea that Rosencrantz is in the King’s pay.


5.         Now look at the “two pictures” scene


a.         Hamlet refers to his presentation of two pictures to his mother as “a counterfeit presentment,” employing the language of coinage.


b.         The queen later in the scene uses “coinage” metaphorically by saying that the vision of the ghost is “the very coinage of your brain.”


                        1.         This line is better if Hamlet has shown her coins.


2.         It is consistent with the Doctor’s statement in Two Noble Kinsmen 4.3 (“How her braine coynes!”), spoken as a double entendre in response to the jailer’s daughter’s use of coinage imagery in her ravings.


c.         The queen’s closet scene has several other references that could be to debasement.


1.         Referring to Claudius’s picture as a “mildewed ear” suggests a debased coin.


2.         Referring to Claudius as a “cutpurse” suggests financial wrongdoing.


3.         Referring the Claudius as the “bloat-king” recalls the inflationary effect of debasement, and resonates with Dante’s use of the same metaphor.


4.         Referring to Claudius as a “king of shreds and patches” also calls to mind the uneven appearance of debased coins, whose veneer is wearing off.


6.         Differences between the versions of Hamlet (Q1, Q2, F) support the theory.


1.         Debasement references are missing from the first quarto (Q1), suggesting that they were removed to avoid offending the debaser King James.


2.         The theory of a “King James” Hamlet (i.e. the first quarto) is supported by the fact that Gertrude’s role has been altered to  make it clear that she was not involved in her husband’s death, avoiding the possible implication that Mary Queen of Scots (James’s mother) was involved her husband’s death..


7.         The theory can go on to suggest additional answers


a.         In Q2, just before Hamlet’s “picture in little” line, Rosencrantz says that the players are traveling because of the recent “innovation.”  If Hamlet is talking about Claudius’s debased coins, then the “innovation” would seem to refer to the debasement itself.


1.         To date, there is no agreement on what the “innovation” is, so this proposal does not contradict an accepted meaning.


2.         Interestingly, in F, there is a lengthy discussion of child actors between the “innovation” and “picture in little” lines.  But F inserts the question “do they grow rusty?” just before the child actor digression, which could be seen as preserving the debasement allusion.  If “innovation” is debasement, this difference between F and Q2 strongly suggests that the text underlying Q2 came first, and the child actor discussion was an addition to that text.


b.         It has been pointed out that it’s silly for Hamlet to be telling the famous tragedians – of all people – how to act.  While Hamlet’s instructions to the actors might truly reflect Shakespeare’s views on acting (although the views expressed are not particularly deep or interesting), one can also read them as carrying forward a debasement metaphor, where the changeable actors are seen as unminted coins.


8.         See also Predictive Value; Shakespeare’s Economics