by William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare was fascinated not only by human nature but also by the tumultuous history of rulers. From the combination of these two interests came a number of plays concerning the corrupting influence of power and ambition. Shakespeare wrote Hamlet in approximately 1600, after completing a series of history plays (Richard II, Henry IV Part I [also covered in Literature and Its Times], Henry IV Part II, and Henry V) in which he detailed the complex and often deadly subject of succession to the throne. By the time Shakespeare created Hamlet, his characters had gained a high degree of realism and he had become adept at portraying both the positive and negative effects of power. Though a Danish prince of the legendary past, Hamlet was developed into a character whom English audiences of the early 1600s could well understand.
Events in History at the Time the Play Takes Place
Historian of Denmark
A mixture of legend and fact, the story of Hamlet harks back to Iceland in the 800s. A poem by Snaebjorn (preserved by Snorri Sturluson in the Prose Edda) mentioned a semi-historical character named Amleth (Hamlet). Two hundred years later, an assistant priest in Denmark, Saxo Grammaticus, included the legend in his history of Denmark (Gesta Danorum, or The Exploits of the Danes). Saxo had set out to record Danish history, a task that he completed up to the year 1185 in sixteen books, the first nine of which dealt with the legendary past and introduced Prince Amleth. Catching the fancy of the public, Saxo’s Amleth tale found its way into popular song at the end of the 1400s. In 1514 a translation of Saxo’s work appeared in English, including the tale of Amleth. Such a prince probably did exist, but there is no positive evidence to prove this; how much of Saxo’s history is fact and how much is fiction remains uncertain. Historians question the accuracy of Saxo’s tale, but there are few other sources from which to glean information.
Scholars date the beginning of the Middle Ages from the 400s A.D., after the fall of the Roman Empire. According to tradition, Prince Amleth came from an area of Denmark known as Jutland around this time. One scholar maintains that Amleth was “in truth a historical character regnant [ruling] in Jutland, toward the close of the sixth century” (Johnston, p. 192). Although less specific about the time in which he lived, similar information about Amleth appears in Denmark outside the castle that served as the model for the one in
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Hamlet. On a sandstone plaque are the following words:
The legend tells of a king’s son Amleth who lived in Jutland before the Viking Age. In the Middle Ages Saxo wrote down the tale about him. In the Renaissance, Shakespeare retold Hamlet’s life and set it at this castle.
(Dollerup, p. 236)
Due to the lack of early sources, little is known about the Danish Middle Ages. The earliest documentation on Denmark concerns the period around 720, when the area included places known as south Jutland, Scania, and the Danish Isles. By 810 it had grown into a kingdom of three main provinces: Jutland, Zealand, and Scania, and some smaller provinces. Especially Scania and Jutland showed a willingness to act independently, suggesting these provinces or portions of them had operated as separate chiefdoms or kingdoms in the past.
The three provinces elected a common king, whose authority and royal family were all that bound them together. While the king became the most important and powerful landowner among the nobles, he did not claim to have a God-given right to rule, for Christianity had not yet been adopted in Denmark. Not until 960 would the Catholic Church become firmly established in the land. Yet Shakespeare clearly includes Christian touches in his play, such as the concept of a hell in which unrepentant sinners suffer everlasting torment. Such touches are but a few of many details from Shakespeare’s own era that the playwright grafted onto the older setting. As noted above, the Elsinore castle in Hamlet was modeled after the palace built under Denmark’s King Frederick II (1559-88). Intended as a fortress, the castle had red brick walls enclosed in sandstone and fine brass guns that sat visibly on the ramparts for protection. The splendidly furnished fortress, called Kronberg Castle, became known far and wide as one of the most marvelous palaces in all of Europe at the time.
In Hamlet, the conflict between Norway and Denmark is a backdrop to the main action of the play. The Danish king—Hamlet’s father—has killed King Fortinbras of Norway in a duel of honor and has confiscated Norwegian land. In response, Prince Fortinbras, the son of the previous king and nephew to the new king of Norway, vows revenge and plans an attack to wrest back the conquered land. He is acting without the knowledge of his uncle. An embassy from Denmark to the king of Norway prevents the prince from carrying out the invasion.
In fact, relations between Denmark and Norway wavered between war and peace over the centuries. Raiders journeyed from one land to Page 138 | Top of Articlethe other, and a long-standing rift between the two lands began around 800 A.D. About the same time, conflict broke out between Denmark and England when Danish Vikings began to raid the English coast about 835 A.D. The Danish Vikings finally conquered part of England in 1014 and for a time they would also rule Norway, but within forty years, after the rule of Canute the Great (1018-1035), their empire collapsed. His son Hardicanute laid claim to the thrones of both Norway and Denmark after his father died. But Norway’s young king, Magnus the Good, threatened to protect his crown by going to war. Noblemen in both lands made the two young kings compromise; it was agreed that each would rule his own country for the time being, but the one who lived longest would be entitled to take over the other’s kingdom. This compromise shows that Hamlet’s pronouncement at the end of Shakespeare’s play was a plausible way to handle the succession to the Danish throne; after the deaths of its king and queen, the dying Prince Hamlet designates Norway’s Prince Fortinbras to take over the rule of Denmark.
Christian/pagan ideals and supernatural belief
Though most of the Vikings had adopted Christianity by 960, and all of the subsequent Danish monarchs declared themselves Christians, the people retained beliefs in mythology and supernatural forces. Because the Danes were generally farmers and fishermen, they were heavily dependent on nature for their livelihood. Hence, even after they adopted Christianity, they retained a strong connection to forces they believed controlled nature—human and otherwise. Like the Romans, the Danes and others in the far North had developed an elaborate mythology based on gods of thunder, the sun, and other natural forces. The people often paid homage to these gods in ceremonies that were held before a fishing fleet set sail or during the crop-planting season. The hope was that such ceremonies would guarantee good returns. In Hamlet Shakespeare refers to pre-Christian myth as well as Christianity, drawing on Roman mythology, which was more familiar to his audiences in England than Danish myths and legends. While there are clear references to Christian ethics throughout Hamlet, such as Queen Gertrude’s imminent judgment by heaven, there are also ample references to figures such as Neptune, the Roman god of the sea. Thus Shakespeare’s character Horatio refers not to the watery empire (the sea) of one of the Norse gods but rather to “Neptune’s empire” (Shakespeare, Hamlet, 1.1.119).
The Play in Focus
Hamlet opens with Prince Hamlet returning from his studies at the University of Wittenberg in Germany. His father, King Hamlet, has recently died. As the play reveals, he was murdered by his brother, Claudius, who has become king and married the older Hamlet’s widow, Gertrude. Young Hamlet is naturally distraught over the events, though at the outset he does not know that his father has been murdered. He only senses, as does his friend Marcellus, that “something is rotten in the state of Denmark” (Hamlet, 1.4.89).
Soon a ghost appears to Hamlet and several of his friends. It is the spirit of Prince Hamlet’s dead father, who has come to inform the prince of his murder. His brother Claudius has killed him by pouring poison in his ear. The spirit declares that Claudius is “the serpent that did sting thy father’s life,” imploring Hamlet to exact revenge (Hamlet, 1.5.40). This news sends Hamlet into a frenzied rage and melancholy depression. He promises to avenge his father’s murder and begins behaving strangely. To others, who do not know the truth, the young Hamlet appears to have gone mad. By pretending to be insane, Hamlet hopes to conceal his knowledge of his father’s murder at his uncle’s hands.
But rather than deflect suspicion, Hamlet’s behavior arouses the curiosity of the king and queen, who try to ferret out the cause of his mad behavior. Polonius, the lord of the treasury, believes the cause is his own daughter, Ophelia, who has on his advice rejected the prince’s advances. Though it is clear that Hamlet once loved Ophelia deeply, he now denies it to her face and rejects her completely, displaying what Ophelia interprets as a distraught noble mind “here o’erthrown” (Hamlet, 3.1.158).
As part of his plot of revenge, Hamlet produces a play about murder to “catch the conscience of the king” (Hamlet, 2.2.606). Hamlet intends to see if the ghost has been truthful about Claudius by watching how the king reacts to the play. But the play yields more than its desired effect. The king becomes so shaken and enraged by it that he begins to plan Hamlet’s murder. Though unaware of the king’s real intent, Polonius offers to aid the king and eavesdrops on Hamlet while he speaks to his mother. Hamlet senses someone’s presence and stabs the figure Page 139 | Top of Articlebehind the curtain in the mistaken belief that it is Claudius. Instead, Polonius is instantly killed by the assault.
Claudius now fears Hamlet and devises a plan to send him to England and have him killed there. Meanwhile, Ophelia, who is already distraught over Hamlet’s rejection of her, learns of her father’s murder and goes insane. Her brother Laertes returns from France, demanding revenge for his father’s death. Claudius, of course, encourages Laertes and helps him develop a plot to kill Hamlet, who manages to return from England unharmed. Laertes will challenge Hamlet to a duel, which honor demands that he accept; to guarantee that Hamlet loses, the conspirators will poison not only his wine but also the tip of Laertes’ sword. The queen then arrives and informs them that Ophelia has drowned; after hearing of his sister’s death, Laertes breaks down weeping.
The duel between Hamlet and Laertes takes place as scheduled with the king, queen, and court watching. The poisoned wine is set out for Hamlet, but the queen accidently drinks some of it. As the fierce duel continues, Laertes and Hamlet wound each other with the poisoned sword, which changes hands during the fight. Hamlet witnesses his mother’s death and learns from Laertes that the king poisoned the wine. Enraged, Hamlet runs the fatal sword through Claudius and forces him to drink the deadly wine. Laertes and Hamlet forgive each other and then die; Hamlet’s dying request is that Horatio explain Hamlet’s motives to the world. Finally aware of Prince Hamlet’s agonized last days, the court mourns him as a hero who has avenged his father’s death.
Shakespeare’s Hamlet is based on the legend of fabled Danish Prince Amleth (also known as Amlodhi), who feigned insanity to veil a plot of revenge against his uncle for his father’s murder. Set down by Saxo Grammaticus at the end of the twelfth century in the Historiae Dan-icae, the legend included two parts: Amleth’s rise to power and his reign. About 1570 Franx00E7;ois de Belleforest published a translation of Saxo’s Amleth story in French in his collection Histoires Tragiques. There is, however, no evidence that Shakespeare came into contact with either of these versions. The most direct source for his drama seems to have been another play of around 1588 now known as Ur-Hamlet, which was based on Belleforest’s version but is now lost. Thomas Kyd is credited with having written Ur-Hamlet as well as The Spanish Tragedy, a revenge play published in 1592 that also influenced Shakespeare’s work.
In Saxo’s version of the tale, Amleth not only killed the eavesdropper (the Polonius character in Hamlet) but also cut “his body into morsels, he seethed it in boiling water, and flung it through the mouth of an open sewer for the swine to eat” (Watts, p. 5). In contrast, Shakespeare’s
Hamlet feels remorse after the murder of Polonius:
I do repent; but heaven hath pleas’d it so,
To punish me with this, and this with me,
That I must be their scourge and minister.
Hamlet’s speech reflects the more Christian viewpoint of Shakespeare’s time. Though his quest for revenge was probably understandable
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to audiences of the early 1600s, Amleth’s barbaric treatment of the eavesdropper would have been condemned. Also Shakespeare’s Hamlet plans to punish only the murderer, Claudius, whereas in Saxo’s version the whole court is marked for destruction.
An actual event inspired the idea of murdering Hamlet’s father by pouring poison in his ear. In 1538 in Italy a barber-surgeon killed the Duke of Urbino by pouring a lotion in his ear. He had been hired to do so by Luigi Gonzaga, whose name Shakespeare uses in the play that Hamlet stages to prick the conscience of the murderer Claudius. It is uncertain whether Shakespeare took the event directly from real life or whether the earlier play Ur-Hamlet used it first.
Hamlet’s ghost and Shakespeare’s time
The presence of a ghost character in Hamlet reflects a general acceptance of the supernatural during the Elizabethan Age. The ghost gives Hamlet an insight into life that cannot be seen or transmitted by others living on this “distracted” globe. Shakespeare’s drama suggests that there are a great many things human beings do not understand and that such things can affect human destiny.
The concept that unseen forces or Fortune have influence or control over human destiny was common in Elizabethan tragedy. Much earlier, the Roman philosopher Seneca had written of the Roman goddess Fortuna’s ability to control destiny with her wheel of fortune. Elizabethan playwrights adapted Seneca’s concepts, combining medieval and classical elements in their tragedies.
Events in History at the Time the Play Was Written
Succession to the throne
Great Britain has a long and violent history regarding succession to the throne. From 1399 to 1485 the Wars of the Roses raged and produced continual political instability throughout England. Then came Protestant, Catholic, and Puritan conflicts as well as Tudor and Stuart rivalries that continued through the reign of Elizabeth (1558-1603). One of the rivalries between the Tudor and Stuart dynasties involved Queen Elizabeth of England (a Tudor) and Queen Mary of Scotland (a Stuart). There were remarkable similarities between the events in Mary’s life and Hamlet. On February 10, 1567, Queen Mary’s husband, Lord Darnley, was murdered by Lord Bothwell. Three months later the queen married her husband’s murderer, Bothwell. He died in 1576 after confessing his crime, and Mary herself came to trial for other alleged crimes ten years later. In 1587 the English convicted and executed her for conspiring to destroy Queen Elizabeth, England, and its commitment to the Protestant faith. The public was
overjoyed. However, her son James, a prince in some ways like Hamlet, expressed indignation. James, however, took no action, and went on to rule England after Queen Elizabeth. Assuming the throne in 1603, he must have reacted emotionally when he saw a performance of Hamlet, whose plot recalled similar events in his own life.
Denmark and England
The sport of fencing was popular in both England and Denmark in the early 1600s. In 1606, during James’s reign, King Christian IV of Denmark visited England. Over the years he and James had corresponded with each other on friendly terms. King Christian watched fencing matches daily while in England. The fencing match in the last act of Hamlet may reflect the popularity of the sport. Other elements of the play that reflect life in Denmark during the early 1600s are names such as Polonius, Page 142 | Top of ArticleRosencrantz, and Guildenstern; the braying of trumpets at certain points in the action; and the idea that nobles would leave Denmark to study abroad at Germany’s University of Wittenberg.
Corruption and ambition in the play
Through the character of Claudius in the play, Shakespeare illustrates the potentially corrupting influence of ambition and power. Claudius’s desire to assume the throne was so great that he was willing to kill his own brother, an action that he regards as terrible.
O, my offense is rank, it smells to heaven;
It has primal eldest curse upon ‘t,
A brother’s murder.
He further confesses that he committed the murder to satisfy his own ambition. But Shakespeare does not place all the blame squarely on Claudius’s shoulders. He hints that an uninvolved and ignorant society is also to blame for corruption. The characters Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are representatives of a society willing to turn a blind eye to evil in order to prosper or to avoid punishment. In the play’s own
words, they are “the indifferent children of the earth” (Hamlet, 2.2.227). Hamlet, on the other hand, struggles to embody the heroic ideal, which stresses fairness in battle and the duty to revenge a lawless killing. He vows vengeance, though he feels tormented by this duty: “O cursed spite,/That ever I was born to set it right” (Hamlet, 1.5.189-90).
From the heroic ideal to humanism
Prince Hamlet reflects, in part, the evolving humanistic attitude of the Renaissance era. In contrast to the earlier medieval belief that death was the proper and necessary punishment to revenge a murder, Hamlet conveys a growing pacifist sentiment that denounces killing in general. In an era that saw rampant human destruction from war and the bubonic plague, the English were beginning to regard killing—even to avenge a lawless murder—as a less heroic action than had the people of the Middle Ages. This changing viewpoint contributes to Hamlet’s delay in avenging his father’s death, which causes the prince much inner turmoil.
Why, what an ass am I! This is most brave,
That I, the son of a dear father murder’d,
Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,
Must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words,
And fall a-cursing, like a very drab,
A scullion! Fie upon ‘t, foh! About, my brain!
Hamlet is torn between the conflicting concepts of vengeance as honorable and murder as sin, a struggle that Renaissance society was grappling with as well. A law called the Bond of Association of 1584, for example, legalized revenge against anyone who attempted to overthrow or malign the queen. Yet when the Earl of Essex was killed under that law for attempting to overthrow the government, society in general condemned his execution, as did Shakespeare. Hamlet’s ongoing indecision reflects the society’s debates about the legitimacy of vengeance and humane treatment of wrongdoers and seems to suggest that there are elements of merit and dishonor in both.
Revenge tragedies became very popular in England during the late 1500s and early 1600s. Stemming back to classical Greek and Roman drama, they were widely introduced to English audiences through the works of the ancient Roman playwright Seneca. His plays became required reading at most universities, and English theater companies performed derivatives of them on stage.
Shakespeare figured among the British playwrights who created new revenge tragedies, a genre that appealed to English audiences, who could easily apply them to history in their own times. England’s Queen Elizabeth publicly condemned the execution of her rival Queen Mary of Scotland, but it was regarded as a prudent measure by many in England and proper revenge due to the rumored plans by the Scots to murder Elizabeth. Similarly, the execution of the Earl of Essex was punishment for his attempt to overthrow Elizabeth, although she, like Hamlet, was uncertain that killing Essex was the proper penalty.
Hamlet also reflects beliefs about sin and damnation that were common to Shakespeare’s time. In the play, Hamlet sets out to kill Claudius in a particular manner. He wishes to ensure his victim’s damnation according to his, and the audience’s, understanding of God’s judgement. It was believed that a sinful person could be sentenced to eternal doom if he or she were killed before they had time to pray or if they were killed in one of the conditions that Hamlet envisions—in the act of drinking, gambling, swearing, or some other disgraceful act. When Hamlet finds Claudius praying, this type of damnation is not possible, and he decides not to kill him at that time. Shakespeare’s audience would have likely viewed this decision as proper.
Reviews and early stage history
In 1604 Antony Skoloker wrote that the play was able to “please all” (Skoloker in Watts, p. xix). Richard Burbage played the role of Hamlet during Shakespeare’s lifetime, and it is thought that in some productions Shakespeare himself performed the part of the ghost. The most popular of all Shakespeare’s plays, Hamlet was performed 358 times through the year 1750. In fact, the play was so popular that it was “pirated” or copied by hack writers and published in what is now known as the bad quarto in 1603. Shakespeare’s own version was first published in response to the illegitimate copy in 1604 or 1605.
For More Information
Dollerup, Cay. Denmark, Hamlet, and Shakespeare. Vol. 2. Salzburg: Institut fur Englische Sprache und Literatur, 1975.
Johnston, William Preston. The Prototype of Hamlet and Other Shakespearian Problems. New York: Belford, 1890.
Lauring, Palle. A History of Denmark. Copenhagen: Host & Son, 1986.
MacDonald, Michael. Mystical Bedlam: Madness, Anxiety, and Healing in Seventeenth-Century England. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1981.
Ogburn, Charlton. The Mysterious William Shakespeare. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1984.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Edited by David Bevington. Toronto: Bantam, 1988.
Watts, Cedric. Twayne’s New Critical Introductions to Shakespeare: Hamlet. Boston: Twayne, 1988.
Wright, Louis B., ed. Shakespeare’s England. New York: Harper & Row, 1964.