Hamlet: Differing Interpretations of Claudius' Prayer

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Eddi Esteban
10 May 2013
Hamlet: Differing interpretations of Claudius’ prayer
In the mastery of the art of literary critical analysis, understanding the context and various critical analyses of a piece is foundational. Though the contents of a piece of literature may be immortalized in physical, the actual interpretation of such a piece is subject to the effects of time. As the time gap between then and now increases, more discrepancies between the author’s original context and the context of the present take shape, and so more discrepancies between interpretations also form. Notably, the thoroughly studied works of the great playwright William Shakespeare were written during the Elizabethan era, an era of which was with many notable differences from today. These incongruities are seen in a particular scene Shakespeare’s Hamlet: the interpretation of the passage holding the Danish king Claudius’ prayer (Shakespeare, “Hamlet”, III iii 36-72) by an Elizabethan (1558-1603) (Secara) audience reveals ideas different to that of one by a contemporary modern (circa 1950 – present) audience. Claudius’ references to the venal justice of the temporal world, the limed state of his soul, and the divine justice of heaven are cases within this passage in which such differences in interpretations arise. As stated, Claudius’ passage on the venal justice of the temporal world would be interpreted differently between an Elizabethan and a contemporary modern audience. Said passage goes as follows: “In the corrupted currents of this world / Offence’s gilded hand may shove by justice, /And oft’tis seen the wicked prize itself /Buys out the law.” (Shakespeare, 57-60) This was arguable for an Elizabethan audience whereas it would seem plausible for a contemporary modern audience. For the former audience, it would be known that chances for acquittal in all contexts of social class were slim. In fact, nobility could be convicted of crimes that others could not because of their stature (Alchin, “Elizabethan Crime and Punishment”), and so were more susceptible to the effects of justice. Seeing as Claudius is king of Denmark, he would be most susceptible to the hand of justice, and so the statement of a bribable justice system would seem questionable especially for his case. In contrast, the latter audience would see Claudius’ comment as plausible because of how often it happens during the era. For example, in the contemporary modern case of IBM, a multinational American company, information was disclosed that it was probed by the American Justice Department for international bribery allegations. “It's not uncommon for companies to face scrutiny under the act [of bribery].” (Whittaker) So, Claudius’ comment on the venal nature of earthly justice would be easy for this audience to believe considering that international briberies are a commonality in their era. This discrepancy in the standard of trust of temporal justice based on the comment proves that there is a difference in interpretations of the passage between the two audiences, and so supports the idea that different contexts beget different interpretations. Claudius also speaks on his soul being limed, and this would also be interpreted differently between an Elizabethan and a contemporary modern audience. His comment: “O limed soul, that struggling to be free / Art more engag’d!” (Shakespeare, 68-9) This would be more immediately understood as a metaphor of birdlime, a sticky bird trap used by fowlers, by an Elizabethan audience whereas the meaning of the analogy would be overlooked for a contemporary modern audience. For the former audience, birdliming (using birdlime) was still more readily known, though its use had ceased by the time of their era. This is proven by the fact that birdliming, dating back to ancient Greece, was an important hunting strategy until the widespread availability of firearms, (Platt) and although firearms were made available by the end of the 16th century...
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