Hamlet, and his secret names
By Lisa Collinson
‘Few etymologies are perfect. Neither is this one. Yet it may be right.’
So wrote the eminent scholar Anatoly Liberman in 2007, in a beautifully-crafted OUPblog post entitled ‘Hamlet and Other Lads and Lasses: Or, From Rags to Riches’. That post explored the origins of the name of Shakespeare’s Prince of Denmark, and – with wonderful spark and spirit – revived an old theory that ‘Am-lothi … is the correct division [of the name], with Am- and loth- being related to Engl. em(ber), and lad respectively (-i is an ending).’ The name ‘ember boy’ as a whole was, Liberman noted, suggestive of ‘a despised third son of fairy tales, known in British folklore as Boots.’
This wholly Germanic etymology may, indeed, be right. But, in an article published online last week in the OUP journal Review of English Studies, I have set out my own – no doubt even less perfect – theory, which I hope will be of as much interest to artists of various kinds as to scholarly specialists.
In this new article, I conclude that Hamlet probably came ultimately from Gaelic Admlithi: a name attached to a player (or ‘mocker’) in a strange and violent medieval Irish tale known in English as ‘The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel’. If I’m right, this means that some version of the Hamlet-name was associated with players hundreds of years before Shakespeare lived or wrote.
What does Admlithi mean? It has proved tough to translate – particularly for me, as a specialist in Old Norse, rather than Gaelic. But once I’d found the name (sent to me years ago by a friend who knew I had an interest in medieval player-figures), it was impossible to let go. Partly, this had to do with the fact that it clearly had something to do with the concept of grinding, which I knew was a key element in two important early Nordic ‘Hamlet’ texts; but which also seemed to have plenty of powerful cultural potential of its own. (Just think of the range of its contemporary connotations!) In the end, I plumped for not one but three weird-yet-interesting interpretations of Admlithi: Great Grindings; Greatly Ground (plural); Due-To-Be-Greatly Ground.
But what did these really mean, in the Middle Ages? To Gaelic-speakers? To Norse-speakers? To people who spoke bits of both languages?
Once I started asking these questions in earnest, one of the answers I found was that yes, Gaelic words connected with grinding probably did (as we might guess) suggest violence, or sexual activity. But they could also imply low or ambiguous social status: sometimes linked to gender, sometimes to categorization as a ‘fool’ of some kind. In other words, use of the peculiar name Admlithi – grammatically hazy, yet bursting with meaning – could probably have said more about the character tagged with it than lines and lines of straightforward description. Just as well, in fact, for Admlithi has scarcely been mentioned in surviving versions of ‘Da Derga’s Hostel’ before he’s gone – out of the picture entirely.
So … Was this Irish player, Admlithi, Hamlet?
Hamlet is Hamlet!
But, as I discuss in the RES article, I do think there is a fair possibility that Gaelic Admlithi was known as a player-name in medieval Scandinavia, and that this somehow contributed to the development of a riddling figure called Amlethus, long identified as an early version of the character created by Shakespeare.
Perhaps more disturbingly, I’ve argued that another element feeding into the Amlethus-character may have been an alternative identity for ‘grinding’ Admlithi: as a dangerous sea-feature, such as a whirlpool, described in veiled language by anxious sailors. It’s unlikely that the creator of Amlethus could have fully understood this – but such use seems to me to have left faint traces in our medieval sources, just the same.
In the end, of course, faint traces are all we ever really have to work with, when we attempt to understand old, old names, and long-faded figures.
As Liberman so wisely pointed out in 2007: ‘Few etymologies are perfect. Neither is this one. Yet it may be right.’ And that’s why we keep trying – in the hope that somehow, with enough effort and sheer good luck, we’ll at last begin to ‘remember’ the secret names which seem so hopelessly opaque to us, but which we believe someone, somewhere must once have understood.
Lisa Collinson is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Aberdeen. Her doctorate (University of Cambridge) was on representation of royal play and players in Old Norse history-writing. She is currently coordinating the Leverhulme Trust-funded Medieval Nordic Laws project (headed by Stefan Brink). You can read the full text of Dr Collinson’s Review of English Studies paper here.