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Play of Politics or Inner Drama?

  • Category: Literature
  • Subcategory: Plays
  • Topic: Hamlet
  • Pages: 5
  • Words: 2319
  • Published: 11 April 2018
  • Downloads: 261
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In ‘Hamlet’, Shakespeare develops his various characters through the balance of two specific dimensions. He uses these two perspectives to give his audience the opportunity to view his play through two distinct scopes. Shakespeare chooses to do this in a variety ways, which not only affects the overall meaning of the theatrical piece and his characters’ relationships, but to ultimately establish how these two interpretations coincide.

One way in which Shakespeare overlaps these two dimensions is through Polonius. Although he is ‘traditionally played as a comic character’[1] more recent productions, such as Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 adaptation, have chosen to ‘emphasise his sinister side’[2]. This is because until his murder, his domestic affairs collide heavily with the political due to him applying his conniving surveillance methods to maintain a watchful eye upon his son, Laertes. Such as in Act 2 Scenes 1 when Polonius consults with Reynaldo, an agent who is to be sent to Paris to ‘inquire of [Leartes’] behaviour’ and spy on his personal life. This would have been humorous for an Elizabethan audience for here Shakespeare alludes to a popular rumour that Queen Elizabeth’s chief minister, Lord Burghley, had sent spies to Paris to keep watch over his son. This link is Shakespeare’s way of commenting on the obscenity of statesmen’s actions and how Polonius is a politician who is incapable of trusting his own son.

Nevertheless, the most prominent overlap is presented through the relationship Polonius shares with his daughter, Ophelia. Given that her association with her father is mostly dominated by Polonius’s patriarchal values, it is evident that she is continuously victimised by her father’s need to protect the ‘family honour’, something that was, and still is, seen as quite a delicate principle especially for civil servants in a position of power. An example of this is when Polonius lectures Ophelia about her relations with Hamlet, “Affection? Pooh! You speak like a green girl, unsifted in such perilous circumstances”. Polonius’ use of the word “unsifted” here connotes strongly to the idea of being unrefined and naive, which is incredibly ironic given his oppressiveness as a father. Also, Shakespeare’s reference to a ‘green girl’ serves as a metaphor to describe Ophelia as inexperienced and lacking knowledge, comparing her to the imagery of a ‘green flower’ not yet in bloom. He is contradicted when Ophelia accounts of Hamlet’s displays of ‘antic disposition’ in act 2 scenes 1, which Polonius concludes is the consequence of his daughter’s lack of affection for him. Despite this, it is as if Polonius assumes ‘a position of unquestioned authority over her’, and continuously regards her feelings as irrelevant. But Ophelia’s only response, “I shall obey my lord” clearly displays her lack of choice as the daughter of “an authoritarian father who demands unconditional obedience”.[3] Indeed, throughout the play Ophelia is constantly used as a tool for Polonius’ surveillance and investigation methods, which on certain occasions such as in Act 3 Scene 1 she is abused by Hamlet, yet Polonius does not interfere. Her unconditional obedience and submissive responses are vital in the audience’s perception of her and in understanding their family dynamics. As for Polonius, the exploitation of his daughter in order to achieve success politically makes him a true Machiavellian and the idea that one will do whatever it takes to achieve their goal, no matter how morally wrong, is reflected through him at large. Thus, Polonius’ situation proves that the two dimensions have a strong relation to one another.

Claudius is Shakespeare’s most controversial, yet most dominant political figure within ‘Hamlet’. Claudius’ aim as king is to keep, as he says, “My crown, mine own ambition, and my queen”, which are the essentials that throughout the play he strives to preserve. His devious yet cunning ways as a politician serve him well not only when deciding how to run the state of Denmark, but also in terms of controlling his personal life. It is through Claudius’ usurping and deviousness that Shakespeare creates the corruption and deceit that remains “rotten in the state of Denmark”. It is in the initial stages of the play that we are able to see how Claudius carefully balances his familial affairs in order to consolidate his political ones, “’Tis sweet and commendable in your nature, Hamlet, to give these mourning duties to your father”. At this stage no one is aware that Claudius is the one responsible for the murder of his brother. So in the presence of council, Claudius uses flattery and to make those around him believe he too share’s “grief” and “sorrow” for the king’s death, and that he cares for prince Hamlet. He does this by sustaining a façade of innocence, which for the audience can be frustrating as they watch characters fall under his deceitful ‘spell’. Furthermore, we notice the antithesis in Claudius’ speech as he explains that “With an auspicious and a dropping eye” the king may be dead but on the brighter side Gertrude is now his queen. In Elizabethan times this saying would have “signified a duplicity”[4] in the person’s character, which Shakespeare would have included in order to hint Claudius’s ‘two-faced’ manner to the audience. Shakespeare’s intention is therefore to present Claudius as part of a new ‘breed’ of corrupt political statesmen, to contrast sharply with the previous king and Claudius’s brother, Hamlet. Although Claudius is skilled politically, King Hamlet managed to maintain not only his popularity domestically at home but also politically in terms of Denmark’s respect abroad, thus making him “both feared and loved” [5]. Claudius goes against this principle choosing to be loved rather than be a source of terror, in order to retain his queen. Therefore one could argue that under Claudius, Denmark seems to lose its power and prestige as a nation. One of the main reasons being that he is too bothered with Hamlet’s activities and “still possess’d” by a tormented conscience for his fratricidal murder, which he makes clear to the audience in the repentance scene of Act 3, “O, my offence is rank, it smells to heaven”. Thus Claudius is immersed deep in the political aspects of the play and Shakespeare highlights that for him to remain a strong political figure he must appease his domestic associations, and of course his queen, in order to maintain stable in his position as king.

In the domestic light of the play, on the whole Shakespeare presents several father-son scenarios in Hamlet that are deliberately set within a political context. This includes Hamlet’s connection to Claudius and his father King Hamlet, Laertes’ to Polonius and Fortinbras’ to his late father. Shakespeare’s portrayal of each of these father-son relations pursue a very similar pattern; they are made problematical following the death of each of the fathers and sparking the son’s need to avenge their father’s death. An example of this is in the events surrounding the ‘Temptation Scene’. To the audience’s relief, Hamlet is alive and Claudius has been informed that he has returned to Denmark, thus “the arrow returned to plague the inventor (Claudius)”. This imagery signifies that Claudius’ plot to execute Hamlet in England has failed, and his presence in Denmark is worrying for him seeing as he knows of Claudius’ crime. So, in Act 4 Scene 7 Claudius uses the death of Polonius to question Laertes’ devotion to his father, which Laertes then proceeds to respond with “To cut (Hamlet’s) throat i’ th’ (in the) church”. Given the extreme sanctity of religion during Shakespeare’s time, an Elizabethan audience would have been shocked by such a statement, which Shakespeare would have used as effect to communicate the bloodthirstiness of Laertes’ desire to murder Hamlet. Claudius success in convincing Laertes’ proves that he solemnly stands by the Machiavellian belief that “If an injury has to be done to a man” it should done so that “his vengeance need not be feared.”[6] Evidence of this can be seen in the murder of his brother and his plan to kill Hamlet by poison, which in Elizabethan times was seen as the most terrible form of murder. Despite this, Claudius’ political genius reveals itself as his demise. Although he is consistent with his plans throughout the play and an unwavering character, his downfall is triggered by Gertrude’s lack of support. In other words, Shakespeare uses Claudius as a purely political character, but who nonetheless remains heavily tied to his domestic dealings that eventually drag him down to his ruin.

Prince Hamlet is a continuously shifting character that throughout the play goes through a spiritual metamorphosis in which he transforms as a man. Therefore “categorising Hamlet” as a mainly political or domestic character would be “virtually impossible” [7]. Indeed, Hamlet is continuously submerged in both the political and domestic quarrels of the play, whether it is with Gertrude, Claudius, Ophelia or even himself. The events that transpire in Act 3 Scene 1 are a perfect example of the role he has within the play’s domestic dramas. Hamlet challenges himself and considers whether “To be, or not to be”, thus questioning his entire existence and contemplating the philosophical issues of life while also applying this to his own situation. In my view, Hamlet is clearly suicidal, but suicide was a sin in Elizabethan times so one could argue that his internal conflict and “weakness of character”[8] is the source of this madness. Shakespeare uses Hamlet’s soliloquy to give the audience an insight into Hamlet’s mentality at this time, which influences his actions thus forth. For example in the same scene, Hamlet converses with Ophelia but once he senses that he is being watched he turns on her abusively, “get thee to a nunnery!” This is evidence of how Hamlet is trapped under the pressure to fulfil the ghost’s wishes and kill the man who “hath killed [his] father, and whored [his] mother”. But given that “Shakespeare never lets us forget [that] he [Hamlet] is a failure”[9], his displays of “antic disposition” are a result of his need to perform but his inability to do so given the domestic and political challenges he faces.

Also Hamlet’s relationship with Claudius and Gertrude is one of great importance within the play. To maintain his place on the throne Claudius must essentially eliminate the threat of Hamlet. However, he cannot do so because he does not want to disrupt his marriage to Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother. Therefore Hamlet is the target of the majority of the undercover surveillance carried out by Claudius and Polonius. Hamlet is not only fully aware of this, but from his first presence on stage the audience is aware of Hamlet’s hatred for Claudius’ “incestuous” marriage to his mother. Shakespeare develops Hamlet’s obsession with this very strongly in ‘The Queen’s closet’ scene. After Hamlet unintentionally murders Polonius instead of Claudius he says to Gertrude that it is almost as bad “as kill a king and marry with his brother”, referring to her relations with his uncle. Hamlet and Gertrude engage in a verbal sparring match in which Hamlet continues to torment Gertrude who describes her soul as “black and (with) grained spots”. Shakespeare’s use of this imagery to depict the texture of Gertrude’s ‘soul’ symbolises how Hamlet’s words are extracting the guilt from within her. We see a similar scenario when Hamlet publicly satirises Claudius. After Hamlet accidentally kills Polonius, Claudius demands to know where his body lies from which Hamlet answers, “At supper (…) Not where he eats, but where he is eaten. A certain convocation of politic worms are e’en at him”. The worms are ‘politic’ because they penetrate the body, similar to the way the Claudius and Polonius infiltrated Hamlet’s life and the state of Denmark. It’s scenarios such as these in which a domestic issue are counter balanced by a political aspect of the play, as Hamlet challenges his king who is equally his uncle.

Finally, Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’ may differ due to various interpretations but the political and domestic themes of the play are permanent. It is through these dimensions that Shakespeare presents to his audience with the messages that he deems to be most important. For example, Claudius and Polonius alike pursue only the need preserve themselves and their position. Of course, this is a large fault within their characters but an intentional one on behalf of Shakespeare. His presentation of Claudius and those that serve him (Polonius) are key in Shakespeare’s desire to communicate the selfishness and greed of statesmen and how their families are victims of their actions. Similarly with Hamlet and his delaying tactics, but who then uses his relationship with his mother to tackle Claudius but tragically dies himself. Ultimately suggesting that Hamlet is indeed a domestic drama inspired by political struggles.

Works Cited:

1. Marian Cox, Hamlet, Phillip Allan Updates, an imprint of Hodder Education, part of Hachette Livre UK, Market Place, Deddington, Oxfordshire OX15 0SE, P.g 53

2. York Notes, Jeff and Lynn Wood, Hamlet William Shakespeare, York Press, 322 Old Brompton Road, London, Pg. 93

3. <> 2014 Genius Media Group Inc.

4. Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, translated and annotated by Peter Constantine, London, Vintage Books, 2009

5. Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, translated and annotated by Peter Constantine, London, Vintage Books, 2009

6. Harold Bloom, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human [SH], New York, Riverhead Books, 1998

7. Dover Wilson, What Happens In Hamlet (Paperback), United Kingdom at University Press Cambridge, 1959

[1] Marian Cox, Hamlet, Phillip Allan Updates, an imprint of Hodder Education
[2] ibid
[3] York Notes, Jeff and Lynn Wood, Hamlet William Shakespeare
[4] <> 2014 Genius Media Group Inc.
[5] Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, translated and annotated by Peter Constantine, London, Vintage Books, 2009
[6] ibid
[7] Harold Bloom, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human [SH], New York, Riverhead Books, 1998
[8] Dover Wilson, What Happens In Hamlet (Paperback), United Kingdom at University Press Cambridge, 1959
[9] ibid

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