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.
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.