AP Literature and Composition
3 April 2013
Socialism and Shakespeare
Throughout the entirety of Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet, if one looks carefully, one can see many aspects of Marxist thought prevalent in the story. To effectively analyze a story through a Marxist critical lens, the reader needs to pay close attention to how characters of different classes interact with one another, especially in respect to class oppression and social inequity, particularly if the actions or words of a character talk of rebellion against the upper classes. “To Marxist critics, a society's economic base determines the interests and styles of its literature; it is this relationship between determining base and determined superstructure that is the main point of interest for Marxist critics” (Abele). The analyst must also recognize to what social class the author belongs and how that might affect the portrayals of certain characters. The way in which different classes in Hamlet interact, along with how the society is actually structured, are the driving forces behind the events in the play.
Within Hamlet, we see a strict representation of the social classes. Every character in the play can, with few exceptions, be placed firmly in one of the three social classes as defined by Marxist theory: Aristocracy, Bourgeoisie, and Proletariat. The aristocracy are usually either in the royal family, or are members of the court. They make all the decisions for society, and as such are usually called the ruling class. The bourgeoisie are just below them, and are wealthy individuals who make their living and wealth by owning and selling resources needed by others in society. The final and lowest class, the proletariat, is known as the working class. These individuals survive by selling their own labor and skills. They usually have no means of influencing policy in society, apart from revolts. Each character in Hamlet can be easily placed in one of these three social classes. Hamlet’s family would all be considered members of the aristocracy, as would King Fortinbras. Important characters in the bourgeoisie include: Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Ophelia, Laertes, and Polonius. The proletariat really only has two notable characters representing it: the gravediggers. This lack of representation in the goings-on in society is important to note, as it demonstrates a key component of the Marxist criticism of the feudal system.
Ophelia, Polonius, and Laertes are said to be placed in the bourgeoisie and not the aristocracy primarily due to the responses given Ophelia when she tells her brother and father of her love for Hamlet. During Laertes’ long speech to Ophelia, he says “… his greatness weighted, his will is not his own [for he himself is subject to his own birth.] He may not, as unvalued persons do, carve for himself…” (Shakespeare 1.3.17-20). Here, Laertes is emphasizing the class difference between Hamlet and Ophelia, and how inter-class marriage is frowned upon in society. He further reaffirms his and Ophelia’s placement in the bourgeoisie with the words “as unvalued persons do” by Polonius substantiates Laertes’ claim further when he says “with a larger tether may he walk than may be given you” (Shakespeare 1.3.125-6). By stating that Hamlet has a larger tether, Polonius firmly places him above Ophelia and states that he has more freedom of marriage than she does. This set determination of the underlying social superstructure is one of the most foundational elements of Marxism. Without it, the entire Hamlet story would not have happened, because there would have been no King to be murdered, and no cross-class love affair to mix things up. This relationship between the two upper classes is key in understanding Marxism
Next, we come to the two gravediggers. In Hamlet, they play a minor, but important role. As manual laborers, firmly set in the proletariat, their point of view on the class interactions is as that of the oppressed. This is...