Hamlet Context

Politics • Mary (Queen of Scots) failed to observe a proper period of mourning for Henry Stuart, her second husband, and remarried a few short months after his death. She married the Earl of Bothwell, thought by many to have murdered Henry. The audience may have been struck by the parallels between this and Gertrude’s marriage to Claudius.• For the Elizabethans, the garden was a symbol of order, discipline and beauty. Gardens need constant care if they are not to return to a state of primitive wilderness.• Claudius says that England ‘pays homage to us’. England was, at that time, forced to pay taxes to Denmark – this was called Danegeld.• Polonius’ pomposity might have made Elizabtehans think of Elizabeth’s chief minister, Lord Burghley.• Some monarchs believed in the divine right of kings. That monarchs were God’s deputies, little gods on earth.• The body politic – a popular image of the state. The king, whole ruled by reason, was the head of the body politic (i.e state). If he gave way to passion or misjudgement the consequences would ripple out and cause a breakdown of normal relations at every level: family, court, state.
The Great Chain of Being • Theological concept of a hierarchical chain of being. Every creature has its ordained position on a ladder descending from God at the top through angels, king, man and woman (in that order),animal, vegetable and mineral.• This was applied to the social hierarchy too – kings at the top, then royal family members, noblemen, courtiers, citizens, yeomen, artisans and labourers, rogues and the unemployed.In killing his brother, the king, Claudius disrupts the order and causes devastating consequences for the whole order of things.
Reason and the Renaissance Man • The failure of reason was seen as the cause of the Fall of Man. Adam allowed his love for Eve to overrule his better judgement and obedience to God. Elizabethans believed it was dangerous to let reason be dominated by passion.• Young noblemen aspired to be the perfect Renaissance man: a poet, courtier, scholar, soldier, philosopher and lover. These attributes were said to raise man to his highest level physically, intellectually and spiritually. It would make him a paragon of manly virtues.• The Renaissance was based upon the new belief in the dignity of man. Man was no longer limited by his birth as he was during the Middle Ages. Men were taught to cultivate learning.
The supernatural Evil spirits were believed by Protestants to be within earshot.Ghosts were believed to be a deception of the devil.Catholics, however, believed that ghosts were the spirits of the departed who returned to disclose a crime and that it was a religious duty to help them find rest.
Mourning It was customary for mourning dress to be worn for at least a year following the death of a king.A custom, not observed by the members of Claudius’ court.
Revenge • The Elizabethan philosopher and statesman Francis Bacon condemned revenge as ‘a kind of wild justice’. He said that ‘it doth offend the law’ and ‘putteth the law out of office’.• The Church insisted that vengeance was God’s business.• But the ancient Romans prized family honour above all things. According to them, all that remains of us in death is our reputation. It was a son’s duty to take the law into his own hands if the state failed to see that justice was done.• Roman-style revenge plays were popular at this time – Shakespeare even wrote one years before Hamlet (It was called Titus Andronicus).
Religious context • It becomes clear to the audience that Claudius has broken the fourth commandment (observing the Sabbath) as Denmark builds its army seven days a week. An early indication of his Machiavellian nature.• The marriage between a brother and sister-in-law would have been considered incestuous – a union forbidden in Leviticus XVIII and the Common Book of Prayer.• Wittenberg, the place of Hamlet’s university, was home to Martin Luther and was the lalcr where he launched the Protestant Reformation. The new religion placed emphasis on biblical authority and on individual responsibility – 2 things Hamlet weighs up in his mind throughout the play.• The Ghost said that he was murdered without received last rites which would have absolved him of his sins. Roman Catholics believed that souls can be purified of ordinary human sins through a period of suffering in Purgatory and then enter Heaven. However, Protestants did not believe in the idea of Purgatory and so would have regarded this as proof of the ghost being a devil.• Sudden death was feared. Those about to die were given their last rites of confession, absolution, communion and anointing. It was said that the body was then fit for passage to heaven. It was also advised to beg forgiveness before death and both Hamlet and Laertes secure forgiveness from each other at the end of the play.• The Church forbade suicides Christian funeral rites and burial in consecrated grounds until the 19th century. They were usually buried at crossroads with a stake through their body. The Church did not distinguish between intentional and accidental suicide. According to Gertrude, Opheloa accidentally falls into the river but does not prevent herself from drowning it would seem. This makes her death ‘doubtful’, as the priest says.• The play has many allusions to Cain’s killing of his brother Abel.
Elizabethan language and symbols • ‘Nunnery’ was Elizabethan slang for brothel.• The flowers Ophelia has are symbolic – fennel = flattery, columbine = adultery, rue= repentance, daisy = broken hearts and violet = fidelity.• The skull is a special type of emblem known as ‘memento mori’ – a deliberate reminder of death.• Verse was usually given to noble characters expressing elevated feelings. Prose generally reserved for characters of lower status, for domestic scenes or to indicate secrecy.• Thou – informal – to show intimacy or to address an inferior. Context of the scene will dictate which reading is most valid.• You – formal – a term of respect
Medicine and madness • Illness was said to be the result of an imbalance in the four humours.• An excess of black bile was said to be the cause of melancholy and that excess melancholy was the cause of madness.
Roman traditions In classical Roman and Greek literature, suicide was not viewed as a sin but as a heroic way for someone to end his or her life.
Tragic heroes • Aristotlean model – someone of rank, someone ‘better than we are’, so are shocked by their death, the course thought by hero to lead to success actually leads to destruction, guilty of hubris (excessive pride) which is punished by gods and this punishment evokes pity. The hero makes a fatal error (hamartia).• Yet Hamlet is royal but has the common touch, the original misjudgement is arguably Claudius’, he dies of an accident of fate and not through a defect of character, we sense early on that he cannot win and survive. He does however redeem himself, his parents and his country as well,as humanity itself through his intellectual and emotional honesty.
Revenge tragedies Typical features of revenge tragedy include:• Main action springs from private revenge in the name of family honour• Intrigue and complex plotting• Characters of noble birth• A melancholy hero who needs to take revenge • A villain, whom the hero needs to kill• A suffering heroine • A play within a play• A ghost, often of a murdered person, calling for revenge • Madness, real and feigned • Sexual intrigue and lust• Sensationalism and excitement • Action ends violently with several deaths
The original story • Source for the play a story by Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus in a collection of tragic stories in 1514. A king is murdered by his brother, who ascends the throne and marries the widow (Gerutha). Her son, Amleth, plans to take revenge on his uncle. To protect himself, he pretends to be mad. The king is suspicious and arranges for Amleth to be spied on by a beautiful girl. He is spied on as he talks to his mother and be brutally kills the court adviser hiding in the room. His mother promises to help him. Amleth is exiled to England but changes the letters to the king so his companions are killed instead of him. He returns in disguise a year later. He burns the palace down after getting the court drunk at his own supposed funeral and succeeds to the throne. He dies later in battle. • Shakespeare’s changes: a ghost, Ophelia, Laertes (another revenger), the subplot, the players and the play within a play, poison (which kills all main characters at the end).
Machiavelli • Machiavelli’s The Prince was a highly influential and controversial political treatise written in 1520. • It lays down the major premise that men in general are selfish, treacherous, cowardly, greedy, and, above all, gullible and stupid. It therefore advises a prince, particularly a new prince, to employ hypocrisy, cruelty, and deceit, to make himself feared even at the risk of making himself hated, to divide the people and destroy their natural leaders. Power is the reward of ruthlessness, ferocity, and cunning.• Cunning, scheming, and unscrupulous, especially in politics.

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