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Shakespeare's Hamlet Through a Historical Lens

By eleve42 Feb 24, 2014 991 Words
Shakespeare’s Hamlet Through a Historical Lens
Writing is largely the product of an author’s desire to say something, to tell a story, or to simply entertain an audience; but it is also a product of the time in history in which it was written, and thus shaped by the standards, expectations, attitudes, limitations, and events of the day. One could read Hamlet merely as a revenge tragedy: Hamlet’s father, the king of Denmark, is killed by his brother, Claudius, who, as a result, arrogates not only the crown, but also his departed brother’s wife, Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude. The ghost of the deceased king reveals the circumstances of his death to his son, leaving Hamlet with a sense of obligation to avenge the murder, the usurpation, and the adultery. In the end, Hamlet does exact revenge by killing Claudius. This leads many to view Hamlet primarily as a revenge tragedy, but it is actually more enlightening as a topical history; in fact, J. Dover Wilson, a scholar of Renaissance drama, particularly on the work of William Shakespeare, regards Hamlet as “the most topical play in the whole corpus” (Rowse 188). Hamlet markedly relates to the era in which it was written. William Shakespeare was born in England in 1564, just eight years after Queen Elizabeth I came into power. Queen Elizabeth’s reign lasted for 45 years, a period in which Shakespeare wrote the vast majority of his plays, including Hamlet, which was written sometime between 1599 and 1602. This was a time of great political instability and turmoil for Queen Elizabeth due to a failed assassination attempt, a failed uprising, and a failed invasion attempt. Shakespeare’s plays were written not only to entertain the lowly masses, but also to appease royal censorship and appease the queen. The protagonist in Hamlet is portrayed as a diplomat and a lover rather than a fighter, possibly to please Elizabeth, who embodied these new modern qualities. Furthermore, Shakespeare may have included the murder of a monarch, a country in crisis, and the threat of invasion in Hamlet in an attempt to arouse sympathy and provide a storyline that would truly resonate with audience members. The Elizabethan era in England was a time of dramatic change, which is exemplified in Hamlet. “During Elizabeth’s reign, England experienced a cultural renaissance” (Spielvogel 373). The mindset of the English was changing from medieval, feudal ideas to a more modern, diplomatic way of thinking, which involved a craving for knowledge and proof. Hamlet personifies this revolution by seeking proof of Claudius’s guilt rather than opting for the feudal option of immediate revenge. The shift in thinking in Elizabethan England was also religious, which is represented in Hamlet as well. “In Elizabethan times, there was a different way of looking at life. People, including Shakespeare believed in a Divine Order, or Great Chain of Being. The Divine Order was the belief that everything in the universe has a specific place and rank in order of their perceived importance and spiritual nature” (Mularski). This natural order was extremely important to Elizabethans. This logic could be used to explain the chaos that ensues as a result of the king’s murder. In the natural order within society, a man such as Old Hamlet was considered closer to god since he was of noble birth, and the assassination of a man of such rank upsets the universe’s balance. It is even noted by Marcellus that “something is rotten in the state of Denmark” after Hamlet follows the ghost of his father (1.5.100). During the creation of Hamlet, a conflict between Elizabethan playwrights, known as the War of the Theatres, was taking place. It covered a period when one of the playwrights was writing for a children’s company of players and the other was writing for another, rival group. The conflict was certainly sharpened by the intense competition that existed between children’s companies at the time. This is a prime example of how knowledge of the historical context of Hamlet can enrich the reading experience and give a reader insights into certain passages that other readers may not have. In this case, a conversation in Hamlet between Rosencrantz and Guildenstern alludes to the War of the Theaters: Rosencrantz: Faith, there has been much to do on both sides; and the nation holds it no sin to tar them to controversy: there was, for a while, no money bid for argument unless the poet and the player went to cuffs in the question.

Hamlet: Is't possible?
Guildenstern: O, there has been much throwing about of
brains. (2.2.352-9).
Shakespeare further alludes to this conflict when Hamlet is discussing how adult actors were forced to undertake provincial tours because of the child actors’ popularity with a player at the end of Act 2. With just a basic knowledge of Elizabethan England, the era in which Hamlet was composed, the text becomes far more enlightening than if it were simply viewed as a revenge tragedy. Hamlet would not have passed the test of time, however, if such historical knowledge was necessary in reading the play. Hamlet is timeless because it addresses themes to which everyone can relate, both in Elizabethan times, and modern day, such as inner conflict, and the questioning of life and death, love, and morality. Reading Hamlet through a historical lens simply adds a sense of depth and understanding. Works Cited

Lavery, Dr. Hannah. “Hamlet and Elizabethan England.” OpenLearn. The Open University, 25 Nov 2009. Web. 13 Dec 2013. .
Mularski, Jessica E.. "The Divine Order of Great Chain of Being." Renaissance. English Department, Brooklyn College, 30 Mar 2009. Web. 7 Jan 2014. .
Rowse, A.L. The Annoted Shakespeare The Tragedies and Romances. 1st ed. Volume 3. New York: Orbis Publishing Limited, 1978. 188-193. Print.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. New York: Pocket Books, 1992. Print. Spielvogel, Jackson J. Western Civilization. 6th ed. Belmont: Thomas Wadsworth, 2006. Print.
Palmer, R.R., Joel Colton, and Kramer Lloyd. A History of the Modern World. 9th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002. Print.

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