Analysis of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet Through a Postcolonial Lens

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About this sample


Words: 1158 |

Pages: 3|

6 min read

Published: Dec 3, 2020

Words: 1158|Pages: 3|6 min read

Published: Dec 3, 2020

“Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” (Hamilton). You and I, we both cry, we both bleed, and we will both die. One critical lens that sparked my interest the most while reading William Shakepeare’s Hamlet was the postcolonial lens, especially because of the play’s parallelization with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. This lens is relevant to Hamlet because it highlights the abuse of political power, injustice, and conspiracy; as a result, these factors fuel Hamlet’s desire for vengeance without regard for justice to kill Claudius. In comparison, Hamilton is a commentary on America’s past through the prism of America’s present that uses a cast of African-American and Latinos to retell its own story of history.

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Therefore, by using Hamilton as a catalyst to explain Hamlet through a postcolonial lens, it allows myself to understand how Hamlet’s desires are influenced by his “slave like” oppression by a higher power. In other words, I see Hamlet’s speech, actions, and words as an attempt to avenge his father’s death as a result of the ethical dilemma that takes place in his head. In “Can We Talk about Race in Hamlet?,” author Peter Erickson tackles the idea of race in Hamlet and argues that “the greater ability accorded to race in Jacobean culture does not mean that race was completely absent under Elizabeth… so in keeping with its Elizabethan milieu, touches only obliquely and its racial discourse thus remains latent, implicit”. However, I argue that there is a way to prominently entwine Hamlet with race and discovered a rendition of Hamlet that features an all-black cast similar to as seen in Hamilton, and thus my own perspective on Hamlet was shed a new light. Peter Erickson poses two questions. “How do we define race for the purposes of this inquiry? Is there a historically valid concept of race that can be applied to Hamlet?”. Erickson uses the essays by P.E.H. Hair and Robin Law and by David Richardson from Oxford History of the British Empire and uses their ideas and approaches in his essay on Hamlet, including the British involvement in the Atlantic slave trade. The two ethnic references that Erickson fixates on in his postcolonial analysis is Hamlet’s parenthetical phrase “if the rest of my fortunes turn Turk with me”and when Hamlet compares his real father with Claudius, “Could you on this fair mountain leave to feed, / And batten on this moor?”.

In addition, both quotes carry racial connotations; Hamlet's minor mention to Turk and Moor is symbolic to whiteness. In “Can We Talk about Race in Hamlet?” Erickson argues “the association of whiteness and vulnerability is one of the underlying motifs Hamlet dramatizes”. Whiteness is accessible as an ideal lost that is unrecoverable. This same ideal is what Claudius actively participates in. “At the core of the first act’s climax is a horrifying disfigurement of white identity that makes loss of stature a matter of skin condition”. In contrast, the notion of white identity is further catapulted by Hamlet’s assumption of his father’s murderer as black: The rugged Pyrrhus, he whose sable arms, Black as his purpose, did the night resemble, When he lay couched in the ominous horse, Hath now this dread and black complexion smeared With heraldry more dismal. In addition, the racial insinuation of Claudius as a Moor follows the white and black ambiance. I feel that this feeds the fear that the idea of white identity could only progress by “its racial opposite”. The presence of Claudius’ blackened counterpoint to his father’s violated whiteness, allows Claudius’s confession to come to fruition where he can’t wash his “bosom black as death” with his hand “white as snow”. Another parallel that is present later on in the play is when Hamlet gets a confession from his mother: “Thou turn’st mine eyes into my very soul, / And there I see such black and grained spots / As will not leave their tinct”. The use of “tinct” shows flat out racism where it is impossible to wash the “blackness” of a person so that they become white. I agree with Peter Erickson’s stance on the inherent, indirect racism in Hamlet. This got me wondering, what are ways that Hamlet can overcome these postcolonial struggles of race and power? I then came upon an all-black rendition of the play that highlights Hamlet’s inability to act and pursue vengeance for his father’s murder. The recent Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Hamlet (directed by Simon Godwin), features black actors. The play is set in an unidentified former British colony, but might as well represent Africa, including its colonies that were under British control due to the Atlantic slave trade. However, I believe that the production doesn’t just represent the nation of postcolonial Africa, but the whole world as well. Hamlet played by Paapa Essiedu adds a different flavor to the world renowned play that makes it interesting. Essiedu as Hamlet achieves the idea of a self-sacrificing religious inspiration which aims to avenge his father's death with the use of African drums, dance, and costumes. Hamlet’s clear intention to kill Claudius and to avoid death on the way allows through African art, allows communication and insults towards Claudius, Gertrude, and Polonius through “art.” The use of the spray-painting graffiti portrait of Claudius and Gertrude is another aspect that adds flavor and something different. The spray-painting is different than the typical oil paintings of that time and challenges the social norms back then with a modern day take. Hamlet’s art is his true nature and this rendition of the play perfectly encapsulates that. Hamilton is the perfect postcolonial parallelization for a postcolonial world Hamlet. Hamilton drew criticism from people for the specific need for “non-white” actors. But what makes Hamilton work so well is the fact that it’s a story about America’s past through the story of America’s present. It works because the historically white, male founding fathers who were slave owners are played by a predominantly non-white cast of blacks and Latinos.

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In the times of American slavery, Hamilton has a way of using African Americans as a symbol for justice with injustice which isn't an instance of invert bigotry. Hamilton has created a space on Broadway for black and brown performers that otherwise wouldn’t exist and allows people to understand the rich history of America through the lens of other cultures. It’s amazing that Hamilton figured out a way to reach the hearts of a number of individuals across different cultures and backgrounds. There is inherent racism in Hamlet. Reading Hamlet through a postcolonial lens helps me notice that, although Hamlet takes place before colonial times, Shakespeare’s use of Hamlet’s character highlights racism ahead of its time. This lens is useful when understanding that the end product/ending isn’t directly influenced by the intent of the characters. Those who tell our stories are the ones that live on. Eliza like Horatio lives on to tell their stories after the protagonists’ death.

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Dr. Charlotte Jacobson

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Analysis of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet Through a Postcolonial Lens. (2020, December 10). GradesFixer. Retrieved December 4, 2023, from
“Analysis of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet Through a Postcolonial Lens.” GradesFixer, 10 Dec. 2020,
Analysis of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet Through a Postcolonial Lens. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 4 Dec. 2023].
Analysis of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet Through a Postcolonial Lens [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2020 Dec 10 [cited 2023 Dec 4]. Available from:
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