It’s well known that Hamlet is a university student at Wittenberg, but I’ve never asked why. Why is Prince Hamlet a university student in the first place? Renaissance princes don’t go to university, at least as far as I can tell. In fact, I just read that the first person in line to hold the English crown and also have a college degree is Prince Charles–yes, our Prince Charles, the dude who waited most of the 20th century for his mother to kick off so he could be king, the dude who got and lost Diana, the dude still alive in 2017–he was the first college degree holder to be this close to the throne [Wikipedia]. Who went to university in the Renaissance? Churchmen and wannabe courtiers, mainly. Those who needed a job. Those who expected to serve kings, not be one.
Obviously, this doesn’t mean English monarchs were uneducated. Some of the greatest minds of their generations home-schooled them, and Henry VIII and his children seemed to have very sharp intellects. This makes the fact that Hamlet was sent to university all the more intriguing. Was he not expected to inherit the throne despite being the only son of the king and queen? Was Prince Hamlet displaced even before the play had begun? If so, does this explain why no one of importance seems to bat an eye when Claudius takes the throne?
As a choice of universities, Wittenberg is interesting. Founded only about a hundred years before the writing of Hamlet, Wittenberg was the university of not only Shakespeare’s most famous creation, but also Christopher Marlowe’s; Doctor Faustus was a student there. Wittenberg was also the center of the Protestant Reformation, another suggestive clue (its grounds apparently at one time included Martin Luther’s house) [and I did get the info about Wittenberg from Wikipedia, so if any former students are reading this, just remember that I said you can’t use it, not that I can’t]. One of the things that makes doubtful the ghost of Hamlet’s father is his very Catholic claim to have come from Purgatory; Shakespeare is thought to have had a complicated relationship with his own father, who not only died around the time Shakespeare was working on Hamlet but also may have been a secret Catholic. The choice of Wittenberg seems to connect Hamlet (and through his quill, Shakespeare) to the “father” of the English Renaissance stage, to the “father” of Protestantism, and against his own apparently Catholic and recently deceased father, Old Hamlet (and John Shakespeare).
I’ve been reading this play for thirty years, and I never thought to question this detail. I just always accepted that Hamlet was a university student, probably because when I first read the play, I (and most of my friends) was a university student. It seemed natural. I noticed it as I was thinking about the play’s most famous line “To be or not to be.” We generally read that line (and the speech which it kicks off) as a contemplation of suicide, yet it’s much deeper I think. It’s not “to live or not to live” or “to die or not to die”; the question is whether or not to exist. In the Renaissance, existence (being) is based largely upon your station in society, your place in the hierarchy, your expectations. Hamlet is a crown prince; his being should be pretty clear cut–his role is to get ready to rule once his kingly father is dead. He’s expected to lead armies (like his father or Fortinbras) and to practice diplomacy (like his uncle). But he’s sent away. He’s given the task to learn, in order to serve; perhaps Eliot was wrong–Hamlet is an attendant lord, or at least he was meant to be. Maybe Hamlet looks at his future and sees not a monarchy, but Polonius. In being sent away to university like a wealthy merchant’s son, his raison d’etre has been called into question, long before the play began, long before his father’s murder, perhaps by his father himself, and when Old Hamlet’s ghost comes back to charge his son to murder his brother/uncle–it’s not so that young Hamlet can take his rightful place upon the throne of Denmark and restore order to the kingdom, but because the dead Hamlet can’t get revenge himself. No wonder he’s depressed.
Of course, this could all be wrong. Shakespeare may have just been following Kyd’s lead (author of the Ur-Hamlet, apparently lost forever), who may have had reasons of his own for sending Hamlet to college. Laertes does say, also, that the safety and health of the whole state depend upon whom Hamlet weds, which suggests Laertes at least expects Hamlet to be king someday. On the other hand, Laertes has a youthful tendency towards exaggeration and, as a university student in France, may not actually know what’s going on back in the home country.
[Addendum: I contacted my former professor, the extraordinary Dr. Stephen Buhler, and asked his thoughts. Dr. Buhler informed me that by the early modern period, the children of elites had started attending universities, particularly in Germany. I’ve since read elsewhere that the 16th-century nobility had warmed up to education at universities, mainly in competition with college-educated bourgeois sons who were pushing them out of administrative court positions. It wasn’t enough anymore to have a name and a sword. I still wonder, though, if this would apply to the heir apparent, assuming that’s what Hamlet is. This might end up being a summer research project.]