The Brehon Laws and Hamlet


The Brehon Laws of Celtic Ireland are very ancient, in some ways part Proto-European, as Wikipedia reports, “A past may still be suggested for a certain legal concept based on Irish legal terms’ being cognate with terms in other Celtic languages.” Take a look at my article The Bardic Tradition’s Effect on Elizabethan Casting to see how the Brehon laws affected Shakespeare directly. The Celts of the British Isles had some pretty able and formidable queens. For those of us who’d like to see a woman play Hamlet, but not as a man, as woman, as Hamlette a future queen might be played, the Brehon laws and the history of queens of Celtic British Isles give us good example and fine rational.

Though Hamlet is set in Denmark, Shakespeare’s head remains firmly in the British Isles. If we look at Hamlet through the eyes of the Brehon laws, we find that if we cast Polonius as Polonia, Claudius’s sister, then by Brehon Law, Claudius’s sister’s children are his heirs. As the elder of the two sons (Laertes and Orpheus), Laertes becomes heir to the throne as Claudius’s heir. Also in Celtic history, the king is made king by virtue of being married to the queen. This is why Claudius married Gertrude. Killing his brother was not enough. To be king he had to be married to the queen. The land was tied to the queen. The king was its steward. This gives an explanation of why Hamlette is not automatically crowned monarch when her father dies. Claudius, does not have to kill Hamlette as a political threat. He can simply marry her off to Laertes, which is why Laertes (just before leaving to kick up his heels in la belle Paris) tells Orpheus that Hamlette is not really interested in him. Laertes knows that he is to marry Hamlette.

Things change though with the play within the play. At that point Claudius starts thinking of killing Hamlette. Why? Well, Claudius and Gertrude have now been married three months. Gertrude would now be showing if she were pregnant. Claudius now will have his own heir. Hamlette is a threat to his future child. Hamlette outsmarts Claudius and returns alive. Laertes returns full of vengeance for his mother and brother. Again the Brehon Laws give us insight. A woman could become queen if she had a champion to win a contest of arms for her, or if she could do so herself. The two possible heirs to the throne, Hamlette, as daughter to the murdered king, and Laertes, nephew and heir to the current king are to fence, to duel. Claudius sets up a contest of arms between Hamlette and Laertes. By Brehon Law, the winner of this bout would be the lawful heir.

So other than a few pronouns, I only have to fiddle a bit with Orpheus’s mad scene. The lines and story of Hamlet carry this interpretation of a Hamlette well.

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About Cynthia Clay

I was judged to be a computer program on Shakespeare at the First Loebner Prize Competition of The Turing Test—a truly science fictional experience. I'm an author who likes to write sf, fantasy, updated versions of old myths.
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