William Shakespeare's Hamlet as a Personal Tragedy Rather Than a Political Tragedy

William Shakespeare's Hamlet as a Personal Tragedy Rather Than a Political Tragedy

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William Shakespeare's Hamlet as a Personal Tragedy Rather Than a Political Tragedy
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Watching Hamlet, an Elizabethan audience would feel many resonances
with their own world. England, like Denmark, was a troubled country
with much drama surrounding its political situation. Therefore, an
Elizabethan audience would probably have responded to Hamlet as
essentially a political tragedy. Through studying the contextual
background-surrounding Hamlet, we can understand their immediate
response, however, with the gift of hindsight, the 21st century
audience can see through the political aspect and analyse the personal
one. Therefore, as a member of a 21st century audience, can see both
sides that this argument proposes. Thus, posing a fundamental question
to us: How far is Hamlet a personal tragedy, and how far is it a
political one?

More educated members of an Elizabethan audience may even have seen
Hamlet as an attack on the monarchy and the worrying political
situation in England. It is arguable that Shakespeare intended to use
Hamlet to show his views without the possibility of being labelled
treacherous. From the very beginning of the play even the most
ignorant, unperceptive member of the audience would find it impossible
to ignore the similarities between Denmark and their own Elizabethan
England. As the play opens, Denmark fears a foreign invasion. In
England, although the Spanish Armada had been defeated in 1588, alarms
still persisted about a renewed invasion attempt.

Threats of war from abroad were compounded by threats from within.
Although seemingly stable, Claudius' Denmark, like Elizabethan
England, is dangerously insecure. Only moments after Claudius has
spoken of sorrows coming "not only single spies, but in battalions" a
"rabble" of ordinary citizens break in, demanding that Laertes become
King. England, towards the end of Queen Elizabeth's reign, had even
more powerful battalions of sorrows that threatened internal

There was constant anxiety about the problem of succession: who should
rule England when the monarch died? Whoever, succeeded would inherit a
dangerously discontented country. In Kurland's 'Hamlet and the

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Scottish Succession' (in Studies in English Literature, 34, 1994,
Kurland argues that there are echoes of the Elizabethan-anxiety over
succession, which was accompanied by fear of intervention. Hamlet is a
threat to the King no only as a private avenger but as a possible
alternative ruler. Kurland is confident that "Unlike some modern
readers, Shakespeare's audience would have been unlikely to see in
Hamlet's story merely a private tragedy or in Fortinbras' succession
to the Danish throne a welcome and unproblematic restoration of
order." I agree with Kurland in this view; The Elizabethan audience
could not disassociate their own political fears from the play when
their own personal situation reflects it so precisely.

In contrast, many nineteenth and twentieth century critics have tended
to neglect the political dimension of the play in favour of a personal
one, preferring to see Hamlet as an "intellectual Everyman," an
ineffectual outsider in a corrupt society, rather than a Renaissance
prince, but these dimension need not be mutually exclusive.

The play's opening scene conveys an atmosphere of political
instability and tension The sentinels seem nervous, as if they expect
to be attacked; they feel the need to identify themselves as "Friends
to this ground" and "Liegemen to the Dane" (Act I, scene I, line 15.)
The first few lines consist of short staccato sentences building an
atmosphere of immediate tension.

Bernado: Who's there?

Francisco: Nay, answer me. Stand, and unfold yourself.

Bernado: Long live the King!

Francisco: Bernado?

Bernado: He

The Ghost appears in armour, specifically the armour worn by the late
King in a famous battle with Norway- and Horatio at once assumes that
"This bodes some strange eruption to our state" (Act I, scene I, line
69.), going on to detail the threatened military action of young
Fortinbras, against which urgent and unusual preparation are in hand,
as most likely "fear'd" event to which the Ghost is "prologue" (Act I,
scene I, lines 121-3.)

An audience is likely to anticipate that a political drama is about to
unfold, and this impression will be confirmed by the opening speech of
Act I, scene ii, the new King's formal address to the court,
apparently the first public occasion since his wedding with his
brother's widow.

Many critics have found in this balanced and careful piece of rhetoric
evidence of Claudius' self-assurance and political competence, but
Hamlet's opening speeches reject the language of impersonal ritual and
insist on private feelings as the touchstone for behaviour. His first
soliloquy Hamlet reveals the depth of his pain about his mother's
hasty marriage. This unadulterated communication with the audience may
have been intended by Shakespeare to create sympathy for Hamlet from
the audience. We can learn from historical sources that in the
Elizabethan period, Claudius' marriage would have been considered
unlawful and incestuous by society. It is also a union forbidden in
Leviticus XVIII. His objections also imply that Hamlet is a religious
man which also would have been admired by the audience. However, we
are also shown that he is aware that it is dangerous in the current
climate to reveal his feelings: "But break my heart, for I mist hold
my tongue" (Act I, scene ii, line 159.) This line can also be
interpreted as the first sign of Hamlet's undying affection for his
mother. Many critics follow this line of argument further and apply
Freud's theory of the Oedipus complex to Hamlet's feelings for his
mother (For example, Earnest Jones.) Jones suggests the essence of
Hamlet is about a man who is driven by sexual desire for his mother;
thus supporting the argument that Hamlet is an essentially personal
tragedy. However, I disagree with this interpretation. Unless you read
the text searching for latent desire, you will find nothing that
suggests that Hamlet has an Oedipus complex. We must not forget that
Hamlet is just a character in a play and so cannot be fully
psychoanalysed. We also know that Shakespeare cannot have intended for
Hamlet to be interpreted in this way as Freud was born in the 19th

The arrival of Hamlet's friend Horatio and his news of the Ghost
complicates the issue further. Horatio was portrayed in the previous
scene to be a military man, but now appears as Hamlet's friend and
fellow student on a short visit from Wittenberg. This inconsistency,
or shift in the role of hamlet's chief confidant perhaps signals a
change in emphasis from the political to the more personal
significance of what he reveals. The speculation about the Ghost's
appearance relating to a forth-coming conflict with Norway is not
mentioned again throughout the play.

In earlier versions of the story Hamlet's feigned madness is an
explicitly politically motivated device to protect himself and avert
suspicion from his revenge plot, but his is not so clear in
Shakespeare's text. There are a number of critical approaches to this
question that we as a 21st century audience can take into
consideration when considering the question of whether Hamlet's
feigned madness is politically or personally motivated.

As I mentioned before, Kurland believed it impossible that the
Elizabethan audience could not believe Hamlet's feigned madness to be
politically motivated, and although I agree with this view. There are
other critics which are interesting to explore while formulating my
own opinion. For example Karin S. Coddon (in Renaissance, XX, 1989.)
Coddon relates Shakespeare's Hamlet to the decline and fall of
Elizabeth's former favourite, Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, who was
finally executed in 1601, though he had been falling out of
Elizabeth's favour since 1597 and he had notably lost the Queen's
favour over his disastrous military expedition to Ireland in 1599.
Coddon explores the question of Essex's melancholy or madness, seen at
the time as a product of thwarted ambition which became displaced by
treason. Without wanting to make an exact equation between the
fictional Hamlet and the historical Essex, Coddon sees the
representation of madness in the play as relating to the "faltering
ideological prescriptions to define, order, and constrain
subjectivity." She argues madness is used as "an instrument of social
and political disorder." I believe his interpretation to be
particularly accurate. Hamlet's feigned madness is used to cover his
intentions to disrupt the political system in Denmark, however, his
reason for doing which (avenging the murder of his father) are
personal. Again it is difficult to decide which response one agrees
with more, personal or political?

Another factor that must be taken into account is the associations
with Hamlet's genre. It was a common theme with conventional tragedy
that the events at the top of the social strata reflect on the entire
state. This is emphasised in Act I, scene I, line 69 by Horatio "This
bodes some strange eruption to our state." If the political aspect of
Hamlet was insignificant, why would it by highlighted at the start of
the play?

In conclusion, the Elizabethan audience are less likely to have been
as well informed or educated as a 21st century audience and therefore
may not have been intelligent enough to analyse the relationships
between the characters of the significance of the soliloquies.
However, we can be sure that they could not ignore the fact that
fictional Denmark almost perfectly mirrored their own Elizabethan
England; thus supporting my argument that the Elizabethan audience
were likely to have seen Hamlet as a political tragedy. Even from a 21st
century perspective, the political aspect of the play cannot be
ignored, particularly when we are educated of the historical time
period in which its first audiences would have viewed it. However, as
a member of a 21st century audience, contrasting with my conclusion of
the Elizabethan response, my response is to interpret it as primarily
a personal tragedy rather that a political one.
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