Tricia A. McElroy Jason Powell
University of Michigan Wake Forest University
Yea, from the table of my memory
I'll wipe away all trivial fond records,
All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past,
That youth and observation copied there,
And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain,
Unmixed with baser matter: yes, by heaven!
. . .My tables—meet it is I set it down
That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain;
At least I'm sure it may be so in Denmark. [Writing]
So uncle, there you are. Now to my word:
It is "Adieu, adieu, remember me."
I have sworn't.
After the encounter with his father's ghost, Hamlet swears to forget all trivial subjects that once occupied him, to clear space in the "table of [his] memory" for the more important matter of revenging King Hamlet's murder. As the first step in this process, Hamlet reaches for his "tables" to make a written record of Claudius's hypocrisy. What are these "tables," and what might the clearing of space within them suggest to an Elizabethan audience?
Hamlet's "tables" probably refer to blank, erasable leaves of paper. Also known as "writing-tables" or "table-books," this kind of writing technology developed out of the wax tablets of antiquity and the Middle Ages, on which a writer composed a draft before recording the composition more permanently elsewhere. Even when paper became more widely available, it was still expensive, and erasable tablets remained an economical alternative. In the Renaissance, writing tables were produced by specially coating paper or the skin of an ass so that the words could be easily erased with a little moisture. Such reusable leaves were often bound together with almanacs, annual calendars that included practical information about currencies and local fairs. Several examples of this technology can now be found in the Folger and the British Library.
In the lines above, Hamlet uses his writing tables as a temporary memory aid. Having entered material into similar erasable tables, his contemporaries might later have reorganized and reentered the same material into a second, bound volume, very much like Folger MS V.a.381. This manuscript dates from around the time of Hamlet's first production, and is an octavo, small enough to fit into a back pocket. Still in its original binding, the book retains evidence of two missing ties and of ornamentation such as imitation gilt and stamps on the front and back covers. The 100-odd leaves of Folger V.a.381 reflect the busy minds of its several owners; they are filled with sententiae, short poetry, historical anecdotes, topical advice, and quotations from and commentary on other authors in five or six hands. This kind of material—including the "saws" to which Hamlet refers—is often referred to under the general category of "commonplace wisdom." Such wisdom was so prized in the period that one of Queen Elizabeth's advisors, Sir Nicholas Bacon, decorated the walls of his house with commonplaces, and another, Sir Henry Sidney, advised his son (the young poet Philip), to commit "wise sentences" to his memory whenever he heard them. Young Philip apparently took his father's words to heart, for when, years later, he set out to defend poetry against its detractors, he pointedly enlisted the authority of precepts. The "consideration of mens manners," he writes, is the "supreme knowledge," and the poet can "best breed" this art by combining the philosopher's "precept" with the historians "example," thereby becoming a "right populer Philosopher."
The Folger catalogue identifies V.a.381 as a "commonplace book" compiled roughly between 1600 and 1650. Commonplace books were a product of the humanist educational program—the so-called "new learning" that revolutionized the schools, the universities, and the literature of the period. They encouraged the absorption and application of wisdom acquired through reading or conversation. Categorizing was integral to this process, and can easily be seen in marginal labels (such as "Ambition," "Jealousie," or "Discording brothers") on page 11 of V.a. 381 The same categories are also carefully indexed at the back of the manuscript.
Despite all of the care that was taken in organizing this manuscript, we know very little about the compilers. One has recorded two days on the first leaf: August 6, 1614, which he notes was one week after his thirty-first birthday, and June 1626, when he was 43 years of age. He did not record his name beside these dates, or anywhere else among the surviving leaves of the volume. Perhaps these dates were merely personal notations with a purpose that we can no longer recover (the first leaves of early modern manuscripts were often used as scratch paper). Or, perhaps the owners of the manuscripts were all familiar to one another as friends or multiple generations of the same family, in which case no names were necessary. Even without biographical information about its owners, however, the book itself—meticulously organized, embellished with ties and ornamentation—suggests that it was sometimes a valued companion to rising gentlemen.
The pages of Folger MS V.a. 381 clearly illustrate how fatherly advice could work with humanist pedagogy to transmit proverbial wisdom and to mold the characters of young men. The Folger volume contains the "10 Precepts" (or commandments) that Queen Elizabeth's treasurer, William Cecil, lord Burghley, wrote to his son Robert around 1584. Beginning with a direct address to his "Sonne Roberte" on page 12, the precepts continue for the next nine pages. The popularity of parental advice literature and the prominence of Cecil himself ensured that his "10 Precepts" circulated widely in manuscript; they first reached print in 1617, several years after one anonymous scribe copied them into this book. The "Precepts" fit well with the commonplaces that appear on the pages beside them, for they are concerned with "men's manners" and expressed pithily so as not to "confound" his son's memory. He instructs Robert to follow his advice "next unto Moyses Tables" (page 12), but, unlike the Ten Commandments, his precepts offer pragmatic suggestions for political and social advancement. The seventh of these, beginning "Be sure to keep some great man thy friend, but trouble him not for trifles" (page 18) has little in common with "thou shalt not kill." But the fifth, which advises Robert to "Neither borrow money of a neighbor or a friend" (page 17), strongly evokes the directions that Polonius gave to his own son Laertes early in Hamlet: "Neither a borrower nor a lender be" (1.3.75). In the past, critics have speculated about the possibility that Polonius is a send up of Cecil. (See Bennett, below.) Wedged beside snippets of poetry, history, and proverbial wisdom in a commonplace book, Cecil's "Ten Precepts" became available and reusable for any English son, part of a personalized reference guide to appropriate behavior. Folger MS V.a.381 thus gives us a surviving example of how young men were expected to educate and fashion themselves into figures of social importance—like Cecil or Polonius.
Beal, Peter. "Notions in Garrison: The Seventeenth-Century Commonplace Book," in New Ways of Looking at Old Texts: Papers of the Renaissance English Text Society, 1985–1991, ed. W. Speed Hill. Binghamton, N.Y.: Medieval & Renaissance Texts and Studies, with Renaissance English Text Society, 1993, Vol. 107, 131–47.
Bennett, Josephine Waters. "Characterization in Polonius' Advice to Laertes," Shakespeare Quarterly 4.1 (1953): 3–9.
Helgerson, Richard. The Elizabethan Prodigals. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976.
Hunter, G. K. "Isocrates' Precepts and Polonius' Character," Shakespeare Quarterly 8.4 (1957): 501–6. [A response to Bennett.]
Marotti, Arthur E. Manuscript, Print, and The English Renaissance Lyric. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995.
McCutcheon, Elizabeth. "Sir Nicholas Bacon's Great House Sententiae," English Literary Renaissance, Supplement 3 (1977).
Sir Philip Sidney, ed. Katherine Duncan-Jones. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.
Stallybrass, Peter, Roger Chartier, J. Franklin Mowery, and Heather Wolfe, "Hamlet's Tables and the Technologies of Writing in Renaissance England," Shakespeare Quarterly 55.4 (2004): 379–419.
Ustick, W. Lee. "Advice to a Son: A Type of Seventeenth-Century Conduct Book," Studies in Philology 29 (1932): 409–41.
Watson, Foster. The English Grammar Schools to 1660. London: Cass, 1968.
Woudhuysen, H. R. "Writing-Tables and Table-Books," eBLJ (Electronic British Library Journal), article 3 (2004).
Wright, Louis B., Ed. Advice to a Son: Precepts of Lord Burghley, Sir Walter Raleigh, and Francis Osborne. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1962.