Hamlet Context

Shakespeare’s World #

Shakespeare’s life spanned both Elizabethan and Jacobean England, a dynamic period of change, expansion, exploration and enlightenment, yet his view of the world (Weltanshaung) was quite different from ours.

For a general discussion of Shakespeare’s life see:


Philosophy #

Shakespeare embodies the moral relativism of the Post-Modernists. One can never be sure whose side he is on. When Shylock denounces the Christians for their slave trading, he is giving back as good as he got for their abuse of his usury. Despite some leaning towards monarchy, the plays contain more than enough regicide and Bad Kings to satisfy the staunchest Republican. Shakespeare is full of moral and philosophical ambiguities. As John Bell states:

“he doesn’t commit himself to any one stance….he didn’t have to believe anything. His great objectivity leads to ambivalence because life is ambiguous.

We live in a Post-Modern world of subjective values, no absolute truths and a pluralistic world of varied cultures, beliefs and values.
The Western world has accepted empirical knowledge, egalitarianism, feminism and tolerates a wide, diverse form of life styles. To someone from Shakespeare’s time this would appear chaotic, confusing and distressing.

Where he does show his hand is his intolerance of pretence or affectation. He lampoons pomposity and is bigoted towards posturing and all forms of hypocrisy.

His tragedies are is a rich mother lode of layers and layers of meaning. Shakespeare embodies the moral relativism of the Post-Modernists. One can never be sure whose side he is on.

Shakespeare often gives the best lines to his worst characters such as Polonius’ advice to Leartes regarding integrity or Iago (Othello) pontificating on the importance of “reputation”. Some people can “talk the talk”, but fail to “walk the talk” or demonstrate that theory and practice can be quite dissonant.

“This above all, to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man”

Integrity is related to a sense of honour; that of your name or reputation. Shakespeare again addresses this issue in Othello when he has Iago tell Othello,

“Who steals my purse steals trash; …………
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him
And makes me poor indeed.”

Sometimes a throw-away-line can convey profound sentiments as during the Ghost swearing scene Hamlet tells Horatio:

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Is this Shakespeare having a swing at academics, that life has many imponderables not evident to intellectuals in their ivory towers?

Shakespeare was baptised 26^(th) April, 1564 and buried on the 25^(th) April fifty two year later. The death of his son, Hamnet, eleven, in 1595 affected Shakespeare greatly. Soon later a plague killed off half the population. The wrote few light plays in the next nine years and when he began again, they were the dark tragedies of Hamlet, King Lear and Macbeth.

The grieving Constance in King John laments:

Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts, Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form….

Queen Elizabeth I #

Queen Elizabeth I 1558 – 1603

The daughter of Anne Boelyn and Henry VIII, Elizabeth found herself in an extremely precarious position in 1553. Imprisoned and facing imminent death by beheading by the righteous and pious Bloody Queen Mary, she was saved by the monarch’s sudden death, and instead became the next in line for the heavy crown. Elizabeth emerged as one of the world’s best ever monarchs.
Ravaged by the intolerance of Catholic and Church of England disputes, where Henry VIII confiscated all Catholic Church property and strung up hundreds of Catholics who refused to accept him as head of the Church.

Henry was followed by Bloody Queen Mary who reacted by doing the same to those who refused to follow her back to Catholicism. 280 Protestants were burned. When Catherine suddenly died at the age of 42, Elizabeth, under a death sentence, was released from prison and became the new Queen.

From the beginning of her reign, Elizabeth was keenly aware of her tenuous hold on the crown. As a Protestant, she faced threats from England’s Catholic faction, which favored a rival claim to the throne—that of Mary, the Catholic Queen of Scots—over hers. In the eyes of the Catholic Church, Elizabeth was the illegitimate product of an unlawful marriage, while Mary, the paternal granddaughter of Henry VIII’s older sister Margaret, was the rightful English heir.

in … May 24, 1570, John Felton, a well-known Catholic sympathizer nailed a copy of a papal bull issued in Rome on February 25 by Pope Pius V, entitled Regnans in Excelsis (‘Reigning on High’), declaring the excommunication of Elizabeth I.

The bull, condemned ‘Elizabeth, the pretended Queen of England’ for ‘having seized on the kingdom and monstrously usurped the place of Supreme Head of the Church in all England,’ reducing ’the said kingdom into a miserable and ruinous condition, which was so lately reclaimed to the Catholic faith’ under Mary and Philip.

It concluded: ‘We do out of the fullness of our Apostolic power declare the aforesaid Elizabeth as being a heretic and a favourer of heretics, and her adherents in the matters aforesaid, to have incurred the sentence of excommunication, and to be cut off from the unity of the Body of Christ. And moreover, We do declare her to be deprived of her pretended title to the kingdom aforesaid.’

The bull issued one last particularly divisive edict:

‘We do command and charge all and every noblemen, subjects, people, and others aforesaid that they presume not to obey her or her orders, mandates, and laws.’

“For England’s Catholics, the bull created a terrible dilemma, compelling them to choose between religion and country. For Felton, it proved fatal in the most gruesome manner. Within days of posting the bull he was arrested and imprisoned in Newgate, where he declared that Elizabeth ‘ought not to be the queen of England.’ Such treasonous statements landed him in the Tower of London, where he was put on the rack and became the first Englishman to be tortured by the state for his Catholic beliefs. He was found guilty of treason and sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered at the scene of his crime, in St. Paul’s churchyard.

On August 8 he addressed a hostile crowd and a hangman named Bull (a joke not lost on many Protestant observers), insisting that he had done nothing wrong other than promote a solemn papal edict. Refusing the ministrations of attendant Protestant clergy, Felton was hanged, cut down before losing consciousness, and then disemboweled; as the hangman pulled out his still beating heart he is said to have cried out ‘once or twice, “Jesus,” ’ before he finally expired.

Assassination Attempts #

There were at least four attempts to assassinate Queen Elizabeth I, Somerville captured by guards who died by self strangulation in prison.

William Parry addressing the Queen while brandishing a knife, with Parry hanging from the gallows.

The Babington Plot ,in 1586, to assassinate Queen Elizabeth I, a Protestant, and put Mary, Queen of Scots, her Catholic cousin, on the English throne. It led to Mary’s execution, a result of a letter sent by Mary (who had been imprisoned for 19 years since 1568 in England at the behest of Elizabeth) in which she consented to the assassination of Elizabeth. The plot was thwarted by Walsingham with double agents Robert Poley and Gilbert Gifford.

The final one by Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, who used his charisma and charm to curry favour with the Queen who was 34 years his senior.

Essex’s competition for influence with the Queen, combined with his insatiable ambition, lead to a fall from grace that was as dramatic and rapid as his rise to favour. He was also arrogant, ambitious and temperamental.

Leading an army to quell the Irish, he failed to obey the Queen’s orders and so lost all his perks. Outraged he challenged the Queen.

He paid Shakespeare’s troupe to stage a performance of Richard II and next day lead a failed military charge.

Essex and some of his co-conspirators were executed for treason on 25 February 1601. Elizabeth was shocked and devastated by his betrayal.

Her advisors included Sir Francis Walsingham, (1532-1590) the principal secretary to Queen Elizabeth I creating a highly effective intelligence network. He successfully thwarted England’s foreign enemies and exposed domestic plotters who sought to unseat Elizabeth and return a Roman Catholic monarch to the throne. Anticipating methods that would become routine only centuries later in the world’s intelligence services, Walsingham employed double agents, covert propaganda and disinformation, code breaking, and agents provocateurs to advance English interests. His efforts culminated in the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, in 1587.

Catherine Medici had a fraught and complex relationship with Mary, Queen of Scots, but she defended her to Elizabeth I’s courtier Francis Walsingham, telling Walshingham she “knew very well how often people said things of a poor afflicted princess that did not always turn out to be true.”

The denouement of Mary and Elizabeth’s decades-long power struggle is easily recalled by even the most casual of observers: On February 8, 1587, the deposed Scottish queen knelt at an execution block, uttered a string of final prayers, and stretched out her arms to assent to the fall of the headsman’s axe. Three strikes later, the executioner severed Mary’s head from her body, at which point he held up his bloody prize and shouted, “God save the queen.” For now, at least, Elizabeth had emerged victorious.

It’s unsurprising that the tale of these two queens resonates with audiences some 400 years after the main players lived. As biographer Antonia Fraser explains, Mary’s story is one of “murder, sex, pathos, religion and unsuitable lovers.” Add in the Scottish queen’s rivalry with Elizabeth, as well as her untimely end, and she transforms into the archetypal tragic heroine. Elizabeth became the model of tolerance; “we will not make windows of men’s souls”. Most Catholics simply went underground. The vast majority of the nobility remained covertly Catholic, while most of her advisors were “fairweather” Protestants. Most fireplaces harboured holes to hide Priests. Religion meant everything so the wisdom went: “Obey the Pope in religion; the Queen in politics”.

Achievements #

Under her reign England prospered into the “Golden Era” and by defeating the Spanish Armada in 1588 emerged as a powerful naval force – “They who rule the waves, can waive the rules”. Much of its ill gotten wealth came from pirating Spanish gold from South America, but soon England founded its own colonies and under its mercantilist policy became extremely wealthy and expansionist to the point where “the sun never set on the British Empire”. Elizabeth never married, leaving no heirs but was loved by all her subjects and by history.

Elizabeth made herself visible to her subjects, displaying her connection to the people and the magnificence of her power by progressing around the county with her entourage of 400 carriages and wagons, armed outriders, banners and buglers, 2400 horses and a court of about 350. The nobility lived in fear, because any visit by her to your estate could bankrupt you.

Magnificence costs money and Elizabeth did tax the people heavily. Royalty depends on a bureaucracy of comptrollers, treasurers, chaplains, clerks, stewards, private secretaries, lord servants, lord chamberlains, physicians, apothecaries, cooks, pages, and servants to the servants. In court Elizabeth had to make do with only 30 female attendants, many who became frisky and uncontrollable due to lack of duties. Her groom of the stool – literally the supervisor of regal bowel movements, became one of the most powerful, providing great access. Elizabeth’s godson is credited with inventing the first flush toilet. Proximity to power, is itself great power and groom of the stool evolved into one of the gatekeepers. By Charles II’s time, paid 5 thousand pounds per year.

Despite this expense, Elizabeth I is duly acknowledged as England’s most celebrated monarch. She is questionably famous for her inspiring speech to her soldiers as the Spanish Armada threatened: “I may have the body of weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king”.

Robert Cecil succeeded his father as Secretary of State and Lord Privy Seal, two of the highest offices in the land. He also inherited his father’s network of spies across Europe, set up to ward against Catholic plots to depose the Protestant monarch. Robert Cecil smoothed the succession of James VI of Scotland when he became King James I of England after Elizabeth’s death in 1603.

The Elizabethan Age was marked by stability, growth and prolific artistic creativity but her failure to provide an heir returned the Stuarts (Jacobean era) to the throne with their ideas of the Divine right of kings and absolute authority of monarchs. Shakespeare was profoundly affected by the transition of monarchs as many of his plays indicate. His concern is about legitimacy, orderly succession and husbandry.

Shakespeare and History #

Historical Accuracy

How should historians respond to creative works about history? Do historians have a public responsibility to apply their specialist knowledge to contest spurious claims about the past? Or should they simply respect creative licence, and let audiences have their fun?

Historical accuracy matters. But more important for historians should be whether creative works pass the test of authenticity: whether a creative work “rings true” to the historical context as a whole.

The Greatest writer in the history of the world was casual and careless with the facts. His plays are full of errors of fact, careless anachronisms, and little knowledge of geography. He has a clerk in Caesar’s Rome, a billiard table in Cleopatra’s Egypt, no Magna Carta in King John, no Reformation in Henry VIII and casts Joan of Arc as a wanton witch.

He has Hector, a 11th -century fighter, quote Aristotle – a 3rd century philosopher. Coriolanus of the 5th century quotes Cato from the 1st . He has never left England, speaks no French, little Italian yet sets many of his plays in exotic locations he is blissfully ignorant of, giving Bohemia a coastline, and send Valentino from Verona to Milan by sea and has Prospero sail out of Milan. Who cares?

While most of his histories are plagiarized verbatim from reliable source;, Roman history from Plutarch, English history from Holinshed, he is careless with detail and sometime outrageously biased as in Richard III.

Most playwrights share topics and compete with each other for the best version. Romeo and Juliet has many versions, but Shakespeare’s stands head and shoulders above the rest. Several playwrights come up with revenge tales like Hamlet, such as Christopher Marlowe (died 1593) or Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy (1592). Shakespeare’s Hamlet leads the field. Marlowe wrote about antisemitism in The Jew of Malta (1589) but The Merchant of Venice (1598) trumps it.

Shakespeare and the Monarchy #

London’s South Bank was the location for the Rose Theatre, the Curtain, the Theatre and the Globe. It was very fashionable to go to the theatre, with the nobility frequent visitors; indeed the Lord Chamberlain of England was the patron of Shakespeare’s own company of players. The poorer theatre goers would pay one penny to stand in the stalls in front of the stage, whilst wealthier patrons would pay up to half a crown to sit under cover.

Shakespeare and his fellow actors performed before the queen in December of 1594 and, early the following year, were paid 20 pounds for performing in comedies that the queen had enjoyed the previous Christmas. Towards the end of the 1590s, Queen Elizabeth had become very fond of The Lords Chamberlain’s Men and had them regularly performing at her court. However, scholars do not imagine that these performances were mingled with interpersonal warmth between the players and the queen. The performances strictly remained as performances, as they would have been described in the royal schedule. Shakespeare and his fellow actors are believed to have regularly undergone serious rehearsals because they were to perform in front of the queen.

Before the actors’ lines were finalized, the person in charge of the affair, called the Master of the Revels, would have cut out some parts of the dialogue to make sure the queen would not hear anything that would offend her royal tastes.

It is possible that every time The Lord Chamberlain’s Men performed for the queen, they would have been introduced to her first. There is no surviving account that this happened. Still, Shakespeare’s group performed numerous times for such a long time that it is easy to hypothesize that the actors eventually became friendly with the members of the court.

There are no suggestions that Shakespeare and Elizabeth were friends. Scholars who maintain that they were not friends point out that the queen was a Protestant, while Shakespeare had Catholic leanings. Many scholars say that Shakespeare was very careful in depicting the monarchy in his plays.

There is evidence she had some influence on Shakespeare. She was the model in Midsummer Night’s Dream , she expressed concerns about Flalstaff’s impunity and he finally meets his come-uppance in Henry V. In 1594, the Queen’s Jewish physician was accused of trying to poison her and condemned to death. Did Shakespeare write The Merchant of Venice to reprove her?

Some scholars believe that in 1601, Elizabeth complained that one of Shakespeare’s plays was performed 40 times in houses and on the streets. This comment must not have been made in anger but only in annoyance because, in the following winter, The Lord Chamberlain’s Men performed six times at the queen’s court. It is even believed that before she died, she requested that A Midsummer Night’s Dream be performed.

Analysis of his plays by Clare Asquith in her book ‘Shadowplay’ leads her to speculate that Shakespeare was indeed a Catholic and furthermore a political subversive who embedded political messages in his works.

Queen Elizabeth I died in 1603 and was succeeded by James I. The Lord Chamberlain’s Men’s name was then changed to The King’s Men. Shakespeare and his fellow actors continued to perform at the royal court more often than they did at Queen Elizabeth’s.

Hamlet is seen by some as a veiled atempt at representing the overthrow of Catholism.

Macbeth appears to flatter the Scottish King, however its portrayal of tyranny was perhaps too subtle for him to pick up.

King Lear (1606) may be a warning to the new King James I about several issues; the false flattery of courtiers, breaking up kingdoms and whether or not a King is a king forever. All his historical plays explore the relationship of power and good governance.

Ancient wisdom #

Here is Helen Razer on recovered ancient wisdom. This is an opinion piece and so should prompt a thoughtful response, and not necessarily accepted as gospel truth.

Some of us look for a return to the idea of universal truth in art and this, in part, is why Shakespeare has survived for centuries.

Shakespeare was, of course, very good and we can still take authentic pleasure in his filth, his wit and his durable rhythms. But, his works can claim to give us no universal truth; other than those aesthetic ones he himself created. This doesn’t stop everyone, from directors to feminist scholars to earnest teachers of English, making the claim that Shakespeare is universal.

Like everyone, Shakespeare came to us within a sociohistoric context. Talent is not sufficient to deliver anyone from their time and it will not deliver access to those “fundamental” truths we have deluded ourselves we no longer need but chase with unprecedented passion. Still. People go on about how Macbeth is eternal and no fewer than 50 film directors have sought to prove this on screen; perhaps least notably, Australian Geoffrey Wright whose 2005 casting of the witches as sexy schoolgirls show us how a desperation to believe in a noble truth from outside ourselves — in this case, Shakespeare — accidentally reveals an obscene truth from inside ourselves. I.e. I think sexy schoolgirls have mystical powers.

Thomas Bowdler, now rightly reviled as a silly censor, was really just doing the same accidental strip-tease with his famous Family Shakespeare where he turned Ophelia from a vessel for suicidal feminine shame into someone who accidentally fell into a river. Shakespeare was not around to complain but, when his famous work Death of A Salesman was revived for a 50th anniversary production, Arthur Miller was and he did not hesitate to express his revulsion for the director, Robert Falls, who had made Willy Loman into a diagnosed depressive.

”Willy Loman is not a depressive, He is weighed down by life. There are social reasons for why he is where he is.” Miller said.

Falls had, in one sense, performed a reverse Bowldlerisation. Whereas Bowlder had made Ophelia emotionally functional, Falls had given Loman dysfunction. But, they were both “freeing” characters from their sociohistoric moorings in order to say something “universal”.

As Miller said before he died, Salesman was a document of a time. Loman is worn down by social expectation and labour just as Ophelia was extinguished by the impossible idea of the feminine. To suppose that either of these texts can offer us a universal truth about the human condition outside the circumstances of their creation is hooey.

In offering “trigger warnings”, as some English departments in American colleges now do, or in “modernising” Shakespeare as many directors are compelled to — if I had my way, every production of Shakespeare would be performed entirely by men dressed in doublet-and-hose — the contemporary interpreter is at odds with himself. The urge here is to make great works available and palatable to a more diverse audience and to agree, at a very basic and flawed level, that the human experience is social and historic and is not universal.

But, to achieve this by taking the n-word out of Huckleberry Finn or, as is often the case, the anti-Semitism out of Merchant of Venice, seems a bit upside-down. Of course, in the case of these two texts, there is an argument to be made that the authors were decrying and were not endorsing racism but even, and especially, if they were not, why spare Twain or Shakespeare the trouble of being seen as racists?

It is easy to understand the urge of professors to seduce their students from detachment with literature. But, it is not so easy to understand how a discussion of Merchant or Finn would be possible without addressing the racism that informs not only these texts by the eras in which they were produced. Universalising the human condition could itself be seen as the foundation of racism. By the Bowdlerisation of these texts, and former Globe theatre director Mark Rylance has admitted to taking the anti-Semitic references out of Merchant, we permit the idea of the “universal” Shakespeare.

Our era of self-examination leads us to hide our history. We feel we have addressed racism, sexism and other grave ills by redacting them from Shakespeare and other texts. And this approach to “universal” art that exceeds time and social conditions is as good as giving Willy Loman the keys to the car.