Even though contemporary theories about Shakespeare's Hamlet often overlook its historical context, opting instead for a psychoanalytic read of its title character, it can also be read as a psychomachic exploration, building multiple cultural anxieties into a single psyche. Hamlet is a character of great sympathy, but one, perhaps, unfit for kingship, and not for the reasons he himself lays out (that he should be more like Fortinbras, acting for the sake of action). Difficulties of legitimate succession set the play within a constellation of political struggles that plagued England at the time of its writing, but that were illegal to openly discuss. A reading of Hamlet through this lens can therefore provide insight both into the play and into the political climate of Shakespeare’s day. Fin de siècle Elizabethan anxieties about succession predated Elizabeth I. They weren’t resolved (were perhaps intensified) by the end of her rule. She was, after all, the issue of the unpopular Anne Boleyn, who had been put to death for treasonous incest; she never married or conceived an heir; and she presided over a country deeply divided over religion. Hamlet, it could be argued, becomes a scapegoat for succession anxiety itself, presenting an inner debate that safely—that is, without threat of treason—explores issues of rightful kingship.
Hamlet is naturally squeamish about his mother’s “o’erhasty marriage” (II.ii.57). The play evinces an almost prurient fixation on the couple’s “enseamed bed” (III.iv.94), driving home again and again the incest of the union. The former squeamishness can of course be explained away by grief for the lost father and the latter by the reality that marrying a sibling’s former spouse was legally forbidden at the time. But to an early modern audience the question must have cut deeper, resonating on a more proximate and politically dangerous level. Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII, used the incest excuse on two separate occasions, first to sever from his wife Catherine (his brother’s former wife), and second from Elizabeth’s mother, whom he executed for the crime of incest. She may or may not have bedded her own brother, but in “The Fall of Anne Boleyn,” G. W. Bernard notes that the detailed voyeurism of the court transcripts show a country obsessed with the “rank sweat” of the antecedent of Gertrude’s “enseamed bed” (584). Hamlet overflows with language both fascinated and disgusted by incest. Contemporary theorists read Oedipal obsession into this detail, but front-and-center in an early modern consciousness was the incest trial of Anne Boleyn. Elizabeth’s legitimacy, it goes without saying, was compromised by the accusations against her mother, and continued to plague her during her rule. Her dying father wrote her back into the line of succession while still maintaining her illegitimacy—an old man’s last-ditch attempt to keep his own blood in the throne of England (Bernard 586). Hamlet’s Denmark has what England had been longing for: a savvy, intellectually astute, legitimate male heir of marriageable age. But Hamlet does not, mysteriously, inherit the throne. Rather, some sort of under-explained voting process has led to his murderous uncle’s ascendancy.
Thus the play confronts the reader with the question: why isn’t Hamlet king? In Saxo Grammaticus’ source material for the play, Geste Danorum, the hero Amleth kills his fratricidal uncle and assumes the crown. The restoration of bloodline sets all to rights (Grammaticus 128). Even if Hamlet had acted in time, the play does not assure us he would have been a strong leader. Hamlet is a puer aeternis, battling, literally, with the ghost of a dead father. He is far more obsessed with death and the dead than with life and the living. Further complicating the issue is the fact that Shakespeare renders Claudius as a shrewd politician, capable of intelligent decisions (where Hamlet’s father slaughters his enemies, Claudius avoids war through diplomatic avenues). Claudius gives Hamlet the pragmatic warning that “to persever / In obstinate condolement is a course / Of impious stubbornness. ‘Tis unmanly grief” (I.ii.92-4). He might be heartless and self-serving, telling Hamlet to stop mourning his dead father, but his advice to look forward instead of backward is politically appropriate: were Hamlet to become king, his solipsistic grief would conflict with affairs of state.
Hamlet’s refusal to give up the mien of grief appeals to our present-day sensibilities. In the Oxford lecture series “Approaching Shakespeare,” Emma Smith discusses how Hamlet is more comfortable in our contemporary world than in his own. Many critics, she says, credit Hamlet’s 20th century success to Shakespeare’s prescience: he was anticipating the existential angst of the modern psyche. She describes Hamlet’s soliloquies, in today’s conception of them, as the “completely overdetermined articulation of man caught in the process of emotional and intellectual formation” (Smith). She notes that this is not an early modern read: to the Elizabethan, Hamlet’s unhealthy and backward-looking preoccupation with the “golden age” of his father make him a poor choice for leadership, since a sovereign was the only one allowed to look forward. To imagine an “after” in the rule of a king was to imagine his death and thereby to commit treason (Bernard 601), whereas a king needed to make the arrangements for his own succession. Hamlet cannot look forward. Were he to inherit the crown, he could not do what a king must do. The play spends a lot of airtime on Hamlet’s ghost-fueled fantasy of a prelapsarian paradise wherein the play’s other “Hamlet,” the dead king, could sleep, unafraid, in a garden (an obvious biblical allusion, complete with serpent). This until, equally biblically, Claudius befouls the paradise by committing a crime with “the primal eldest curse upon’t / A brother’s murder” (III.iii.37-8). The “hyperion” father so overshadows the young Hamlet that he finds himself unable to succeed, both in the sense of legal succession and in the sense of personal success. Tellingly, Shakespeare deviates from the source material by doubling the name “Hamlet.” The first time we hear Horatio refer to “valiant Hamlet” (I.i.84) he is speaking of the dead king, not the living son, and this doubling is mirrored in the play’s foils, Fortinbras and his son. The younger Hamlet, we come to see, is paralyzed with hero-worship. Young Fortinbras' flaw is unreflecting. At a time in history when generations of monarchs were failing to produce legal heirs, and legal justifications were needed to name a successor (almost never without bloodshed), the play calls into question the notion that blood determines legitimacy. It does this within a well-established theatrical idiom that almost always makes the opposite point: the revenge play.
Finally, the play explores, in a circumspect way, themes of religion, creating a religious tension between a father whose very existence is “illegal” and a son struggling for legitimacy. The ghost returns to earth, “Doomed for a certain term to walk the night, / And for the day confined to fast in fires, / Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature / Are burnt and purged away” (I.v.10-3). In Shakespeare’s day, purgatory was a banned belief. Hamlet must struggle with what must have been a recognizable conundrum to an English audience: Catholic fathers and their Protestant sons privately struggling to reconcile the enforced worldview shift—for to struggle publicly with it was to commit treason. Though Shakespeare needn’t name the university Hamlet attends, he goes out of his way to put him in school in Wittenberg, a city inextricably linked to Martin Luther and the protestant revolution. Horatio, too, is a student at Wittenberg, and warns Hamlet not to fall for the ghost’s tricks: “What if it tempt you toward the flood, my lord, / Or to the dreadful summit of a cliff” (I.iv.69-70). He sees the ghost as the potentially dangerous vestige of a forbidden practice. Early modern audiences, too, would have been acutely aware of the issues of conflicting religions and the political dangers therein.
Shakespeare renders up Hamlet as a sort of sacrificial lamb to the prevailing anxieties of the day. He does so in part to get around the Bishop’s Ban, which prevented the exploration of similar themes reserved for the history play genre (Smith). Poor Hamlet dies for our sins. But he can rest easier in his grave: his suffering over the course of the play does for audiences what all great art does: it allows us to wrestle with our angels without threat to our persons, working through the tough questions in a kind of “trial run” in which no real person is sacrificed. He takes the fall for the anxieties of his time. And as with truly great art, he also allows contemporary audiences the same benefit: what we see in Hamlet is not what the early moderns saw, but as a character he provides as much grist for our contemporary mill as he did for our predecessors’, and who knows? Maybe Shakespeare was prescient enough to anticipate more issues of generations yet to come. Maybe Hamlet will reveal yet more of heaven and earth than is dreamt of in our philosophy…
Bernard, G. W. “The Fall of Anne Boleyn.” The English Historical Review: Vol. 106, No. 420 Jul., 1991. 584-610.
Grammaticus, Saxo. Gesta Danorum, Book 3-4. Tr. Oliver Elton. David Nutt, 1894.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Signet Classics, 1998.
Smith, Emma. “Approaching Shakespeare: Hamlet.” University of Oxford Podcasts. Mediapub, 2012. https://podcasts.ox.ac.uk