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“In Hamlet, it is hard to decide whether Shakespeare’s interests lie primarily lie with the personal or political dimensions of his subject.” Explore this point of view with comparative reference to Middleton’s interests in The Revenger’s Tragedy
From the outset, it is clear that Hamlet is a play with overt political themes. Shakespeare’s characters are so politically-motivated that they resort to ploys like spying, deception and murder in order to either obtain power or to remain in the favour of those in power. Denmark, the play’s setting, is presented as a politically corrupt state, and it is likely that this corruption has been caused by the immoral acts of characters seeking political power. Middleton’s play The Revenger’s Tragedy could also be described as politically-based, because multiple characters plan to murder members of their family in order to usurp them.
The opening scene of Hamlet makes the audience aware that Denmark, as a country, is deteriorating. The ghost of the previous king of Denmark is seen in Act One Scene One, and he is described as “valiant” and, later, “so excellent a king”; these praises and the presence of his ghost suggest that Old Hamlet died of suspicious means. The ghost later informs us that his brother murdered him in order to become king, comparing Claudius to snake in the Garden of Eden – “The serpent that did sting thy father’s life/Now wears his crown.” In Act One Scene Four Marcellus says, “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark”, and it could be argued that the ghost is a visible representation of the corruption in Denmark, which was triggered by Claudius murdering his brother in order to usurp him. Later in the play, Claudius confesses that his desire for power was the reason he killed Old Hamlet. While praying he states, “I am still possessed/Of those effects for which I did the murder,/My crown, mine own ambition, and my queen” and that this makes asking for god’s forgiveness seem futile. Both Hamlet and Horatio predict that further deterioration will occur as a result of the ghost’s appearance; in the first scene of the play Horatio says, “This bodes some strange eruption to our state” and a scene later Hamlet states, “All is not well/I doubt some foul play.”
It can be argued that Gertrude’s marriage to Claudius so soon after her husband’s death was politically-motivated. In the Elizabethan era, women had little individual power and as such were often completely dependent on men; it is likely that Gertrude’s “o’erhasty marriage” to Claudius was necessary so that she wouldn’t lose her claim to the throne. Hamlet considers the union between his mother and his uncle to be incestuous, exclaiming in Act One Scene Two, “Oh most wicked speed, to post/With such dexterity to incestuous sheets” and in Act One Claudius himself describes Gertrude as “our sometime sister, now our queen”. This arguably sinful relationship may also be a source of the degeneration of Denmark, as the ghost commands Hamlet to “Let not the royal bed of Denmark be/A couch for luxury and damned incest.” Similarly, some critics suggest that the relationship between Laertes and Ophelia has incestuous implications, pointing to his use of sexual imagery when warning her to be careful of Hamlet – “your chaste treasure open/To his unmastered importunity.” In The Revenger’s Tragedy, the relationship between the Duchess and her husband’s son Spurio could also be seen as incestuous; the Duchess describes it as “no pleasure sweet but it is sinful” in Act Three Scene Five.
Although his primary focus seems to be on the political elements of his subject, Shakespeare also explores his characters’ personal goals and objectives. For example, Hamlet seems to have little concern for his political responsibility as heir to the throne, instead concentrating exclusively on his responsibility as a son to avenge his father. In Act One Scene Five, after the ghost gives him his divine mission Hamlet states, “thy commandment all alone shall live/Within the book and volume of my brain,/Unmixed with baser matter”, implying that Hamlet considers his obligations as Prince of Denmark as unimportant. Like in Hamlet, the protagonist of Middleton’s play is also shown to be motivated by personal goals. Vindice opens the play by describing the Duke as a “royal lecher” and telling the audience that the Duke poisoned his fiancée, swearing “her death/Shall be revenged” in Act Three Scene Five. Some critics may argue that Hamlet’s goal of killing Claudius is in fact politically-motivated; it would allow him to become King of Denmark sooner since Gertrude is a woman and he would have claim to the throne over her. There is little evidence throughout the play, however, that Hamlet has any interest in taking Claudius’ place as King.
In Act One of Hamlet, characters such as Horatio and Claudius inform the audience of Denmark’s unstable relationship with Norway. Horatio explains that “Fortinbras of Norway… Dared to combat” and that King Hamlet defeated him and won his land. Horatio also informs the audience that Fortinbras’ son, “Of unimproved mettle hot and full,” is planning to attack Denmark in order to avenge his father and win back the lands his father lost. Young Fortinbras’ political pursuit is mentioned throughout the play, and in Act One Scene Two Claudius doesn’t seem worried about the threat posed, stating, “So much for him”; in order to deal with the threat, Claudius sends a letter to the King of Norway, informing him of his nephews plans. Young Fortinbras agrees to abandon his plans and instead asks for “quiet pass/Through [Denmark’s] dominions” so that he can attack Poland instead, showing that he is politically-ambitious and intends to exhibit his power and motivation. We can see this in Act Four Scene Four when we are told that Young Fortinbras’ purpose is to “gain a little patch of ground/That hath in it no profit but the name” and when Hamlet describes him as “a delicate tender prince… with divine ambition”. Young Fortinbras’ political drive is rewarded by the end of the play, as he becomes King of Denmark and as such gains control of the lands his father lost.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are shown to be more concerned with their political and social position than their friendship with Hamlet. In Act Two Scene Two Claudius asks them to spy on Hamlet in order to “gather/So much as from occasion you may glean,/Whether aught to us unknown afflicts him thus”. The oxymoron “dread pleasures” shows the audience that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are not completely comfortable fulfilling Claudius’ request, however they reluctantly agree, telling the king, “we both obey,/And here give up ourselves in the full bent/To lay our service freely at your feet/To be commanded.” This reveals that the two men would lie to and betray their friend in order to remain in Claudius’ favour, thus securing their social position. Later in the scene, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern lie directly to Hamlet, as when he asks why they are in Elsinore they tell him, “To visit you my lord, no other occasion.” However, they prove themselves as his friends when they reveal their true reason for being there after Hamlet asks them, “If you love me, hold not off.”
In conclusion, Shakespeare’ main interests seem to lie in the politics aspects of his play. Denmark faces external and internal threats throughout the play, for example from Norway and from Hamlet’s madness, and Shakespeare’s characters seem to completely disregard personal relationships in favour of securing their political positions. However, it can also be argued that Shakespeare explores personal ambitions as well, because his main character is focused on revenge.
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