“Why is Hamlet’s father also named ‘Hamlet’?”

Hamlet running after the ghost_tag_LoC
Image via Wikimedia Commons.

About a week ago, my younger brother asked me quite earnestly why Hamlet and his father have the same name. When I read Hamlet, it never occurred to me that the double name could have any special significance: after all, it was common enough in the Middle Ages and afterward for sons to be named after their fathers. Still, the more I thought about my brother’s question, the more I began to wonder whether there is something behind the two Hamlets and what Shakespeare was trying to say through them, if anything. So, like the “gentle prince” of Denmark, I spent a good deal of time thinking, and like him, I may have gotten lost in my own thoughts without really accomplishing anything. For that reason, I consulted the experts as well.

One critic, Alexander W. Crawford, contends that Hamlet was given the same name as his father to point out the similarities between the two men. Crawford believes that Hamlet’s father represents an ideal king, while Hamlet represents an ideal prince. By having the two characters share a name, Shakespeare encourages the audience to think of them as one and the same.

In his book Hamlet in His Modern Guises, English professor Alexander Welsh claims that the double name is used to establish “a theme of inheritance.” It also helps the reader (or viewer, as the case would have it) to draw a comparison between the younger Hamlet and Fortinbras, whom Welsh sees as Hamlet’s foil. Like Hamlet, Fortinbras  is a young prince whose uncle is a king. Unlike Hamlet, however, Fortinbras is single-minded and shows a dogged determination to right the wrongs committed against his family. Because Fortinbras is named for his father, naming Hamlet for his father serves merely to give the two princes one more trait in common.

Yet another critic, one David J. Gordon, believes that Shakespeare went out of his way to give Hamlet and his father the same name so that Hamlet would be doubly bound to his father’s wishes. Being his father’s namesake tightens “the noose of responsibility around him,” drawing him even further into a fate he wishes to avoid.

See? Vacillating again. // Image via Wikimedia Commons {PD-1923}
See? Vacillating again. // Image via Wikimedia Commons {PD-1923}

Personally, I wonder whether having two Hamlets is not meant to point to one of the great tragedies of the younger Hamlet’s story: that he is wholly unsuited to the roles thrust upon him. By naming the son after the father, Shakespeare forces a comparison between the two, a comparison in which the son does not fare well. By all indications, the first Hamlet was a strong leader and a fearless warrior (1.1.63-66; 1.1.81-96). Even after death, he is eager to see justice visited upon his enemies (1.5.81-83). Juxtapose that with his son Hamlet, the last person to whom the words “strong” and “fearless” could apply. For goodness’s sake, he was so distraught following his father’s death that he hardly even noticed Claudius stealing the throne right out from under him, and since then, he has done nothing to take back what is rightfully his (5.2.65-66). He doesn’t take command of a situation, he lets the situation command him. Clearly, he is no more the bold, confident man his father was than he is the swift avenger his father wants him to be. In a way, the elder Hamlet is his son’s foil: having been a strong person in life, he is everything the prince wants to be and everything he is not. Giving them both the same name only makes the situation more ironic.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that I completely object to the opinions quoted above, or anyone’s opinion for that matter. Likely, I’m far off the mark, but it wouldn’t be a proper blog if I didn’t give my two cents too. 🙂

What do you think? Which of these is true? Are all of them true? Do you have a fifth theory you’d like to advance? Let me know in the comments.

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10 thoughts on ““Why is Hamlet’s father also named ‘Hamlet’?”

  1. The Crawford and Gordon suggestions don’t sound convincing to me. Hamlet was far from an ideal prince, and the “noose of responsibility” is tight enough as it is – I don’t think Hamlet would be much impressed by the fact that he is his father’s namesake. I actually like your explanation the most. The main reason why Shakespeare would make the characters namesakes is to point something out to the audience. I feel that the irony of the names is something characteristic of Shakespearean plays. So, yes, I agree that Hamlet the father is his own son’s foil, being the stronger presence of the two even as a ghost. Sorry for the long comment, I liked the idea of this post! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That’s no problem; I like long comments. 🙂

      I too think the idea of Hamlet as an “ideal prince” is a little far-fetched. Maybe I could see the Gordon interpretation working out (not because it impresses Hamlet with an added sense of duty to his father, but because it reiterates the bond between them–and the loyalty that entails–to the audience). But irony does seem more like the route Shakespeare would take. I feel presumptuous putting up my own interpretation along with those of bonafide scholars and critics, but that’s the impression that I got when I looked at the play again.

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      1. No, no, I loved your interpretation! Engaging with the text independently of scholarship is great and fun :), especially if you are unafraid to disagree/offer alternative explanations. Better than blindly accepting existing versions, although I say this with great respect for scholars and critics, challenging them is sometimes useful. 😛

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I was wondering the other day whether Shakespeare was courting trouble by suggesting that a king (namely Hamlet Sr) was
    “Doomed for a certain term to walk the night
    And for the day confined to fast in fires,
    Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
    Are burnt and purged away.”

    Hamlet Jr certainly doesn’t seem to take after his father much.

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  3. “Few critics have even admitted that Hamlet the play is the primary problem, and Hamlet the character only secondary.”

    So begins T.S. Eliot’s famous “Hamlet” essay written in 1920. Worth reading…google.

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  4. Good to think about, though I have no real response yet… but, to toss out a couple things: anything in the sources? (I can’t remember! – but Shakespeare following, or departing from, a source on the names might add to the interest…)

    Lot’s of foils: Laertes, too! (And Ophelia?) And, what of Rozenkrantz and Guildenstern? I’ve been spending a lot of time with Sir Tom Stoppard’s play, lately (especially via his film version).
    In which context, I think Stoppard’s R & G would have a complex comment on “He doesn’t take command of a situation, he lets the situation command him”!

    Something I’ve been wondering about is, in how far is Hamlet Jr., if considered as rightful king, in fact acting as king to do justice: is it in this special sense a ‘justice’ rather than (simply) a ‘revenge’ play?

    Do you happen to know James Thurber’s “The Macbeth Murder Mystery”, where a detective story lover gets her Penguin series mixed up and having nothing else to read decides to solve Macbeth like a murder mystery, and, finding it enjoyable, thinks to go on to Hamlet (if I recall correctly)?

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    1. Actually, one of the articles I linked to, the one by David J. Gordon, mentions that in the original legend, the Hamlet character does not have the same name as his father. So I suppose that means that Shakespeare’s giving the characters the same name was definitely meant to draw attention?

      Yes, I suppose when I wrote that, I was thinking only of how passive Hamlet seemed with regard to the Claudius situation, instead of thinking also of all the times he manipulated people throughout the play. I’m sure the dead Rosencrantz and Guildenstern would not have underestimated him so!

      I wonder about that too. I’ve heard people say that in the Middle Ages, it was considered honorable to avenge a member of one’s family, but Elizabethan audiences recognized vengeance as a sin. So did Shakespeare intend for his audience to view this play through a medieval lens, or was he attempting to apply Elizabethan sensibilities to a medieval story?

      I hadn’t heard of “The Macbeth Murder Mystery,” but after Googling the title, I found it on a university website. My, but that’s funny!

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