A short essay exploring the political and social themes in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
Political And Social Themes In Hamlet
Hamlet is a play that is driven by social and political elements. Be it between Hamlet and Claudius or Denmark and Norway, it is these social and political feuds that drive the play. There are various themes used by Shakespeare in the play that can be put in these two categories. These themes include, but are in no way limited to; Death, religion, social class, revenge, pride, politics and isolation.
Hamlet, the play, as a whole is very patriarchal. The men seem to wield the power and excert it over not just each other, but also the women in the play. Both Hamlet and Claudius can be seen controling Gertrude at various points in the play. Claudius uses her to try and control Hamlet, where as Hamlet uses her as a pawn in his game of trying to get to the bottom of what actually happened to his father. Gertude is seen less as another human being but more of a prize in Claudius’ eyes, there is no doubt in our minds through out the play that Claudius did not only kill old Hamlet for the throne but also for Gertrude’s hand in marriage.
Unfortunately for Ophelia, Gertrude is not the only women ruled by the men in the play, Ophelia is often controlled also. Polonius uses her as a spy. He send her to spy on Hamlet, hoping to get to find out the cause of his apparant madness. Not only does he send her to spy on Hamlet, but he also says, “I will loose her,” which is not only controling, but also degrading, likening her to an obediant dog or another animal of some sort. This is dehumanising in another way, not only does it appear that he sees her as an animal but also as a an object of possession. Hamlet uses Ophelia more as a love object, but he does see her more as a human being than Laertes and Polonius. It appears that Hamlet is in love with Ophelia as he often talks to her affectionately. But as the play progresses Hamlet begins to distrust Ophelia. “Get thee to a nunnery.” This shows his distrust in her word and her purity, it also makes the audience wonder whether Hamlet cares about Ophelia anymore. She becomes more like someone Hamlet can channel his rage at, rather than someone Hamlet is trying to win over. Laertes treats Ophelia like a child, warning her to beware of Hamlet and he tries to frighten her away from him, saying that Hamlet cannot be trusted and is only interested in her for sexual reasons and once she loses her virginity she will not find another man. “Perhaps he loves you now, And now soil nor cautel doth besmirch, The virtue of his will; but you must fear, His greatness weighed, his will is not his own, For he himself is subject to birth.”
The men throughout the play fall into two categories. There are those like Claudius and Polonius, as Hamlet states about Polonius, which is true also for Claudius, “A man of words.” And then there are those like Hamlet, Fortinbras and Laertes who are men of action. Claudius is more of a politician king, he has a way with words. This is vastly apparant through out the play, but more so at the beginning and also near the end. At the beginning, although unbeknownst to us the audience, Claudius has killed old Hamlet, but whilst speaking in front of his court, he is very Machiavellian, he appears deeply grieved and lets on in no way that he was the one who had killed him and convinces everyone that he is a good person and will make a good king. Near the end of the play, Claudius uses his way with words to rope Laertes and his quest for revenge into doing his bidding and helping him by removing Hamlet. So he and Laertes form a plot to kill Hamlet, which eventually ends in the deaths of them both, Hamlet and Gertrude. Of course, unlike today, in the times where Hamlet is based, it was common place for plots of murder to exist in the constant power struggle. Although Polonius doesn’t appear to do much through out the play except take orders, he is able to talk to Hamlet, whilst Hamlet is in his mad state, and get a little sense out of him.
It is clear that Hamlet is a man of action. From near the very beginning, Hamlet hatches a plan to try and find out if Claudius did in fact kill his father. Also, upon the arrival of the players, he devises a plan to use them to try and get a guilty reaction out of Claudius, ordering them to act out a murder scene and a speech that he himself has written. Laertes, much like Hamlet, is a man of action. He uses his public poupularity to rile the masses and march on the castle, he recruits peasants to help him on his personal quest for revenge. He is able to unsettle the public order and persuade the people to march with him, in a way, he acts a bit like his father here, using his words to persuade people to join his side. Hamlet is also a religious man. Religion stops him from killing Claudius earlier in the play as Claudius is praying, and according to their religion, if you are killed whilst praying you will go to heaven. So Hamlet decides to kill Claudius later.
Fortinbras is another man of action in the play and he is also on a quest for revenge, at least at first. He marches an army firstly, to claim back the land that his father lost in a battle with old Hamlet. This can be seen as an act of pride and revenge, both of which are key themes through out the play. But when the king of norway finds out what Fortinbras is doing he orders him to march against the Polack.
The main victims of class issues in Hamlet are Hamlet himself and Ophelia, although it can be said that Polonius, Laertes, Claudius and Gertrude all fall victim to class issues. Polonius is killed by Hamlet. But this is because whilst he is in Gertrudes room discussing Hamlet improper social behaviour he hides behind a curtain and is slain by Hamlet who mistakes him for Claudius. This leads to Laertes going after Hamlet in order to avenge his father, which leads to the deaths of all characters still alive at this point except Horatio.
It can be said that Ophelia drowns in the expectations of her class. She is not only forced into seeing Hamlet by her father in an attempt to gain the throne, but she is also killed because of her clothing. When she is at the pond, she drowns due to all of the layers of material that she is wearing. It was of course expected at the time for women of her class to wear clothing like this, so she is essentially a victim of social class standards.
Social isolation is another of the key themes in Hamlet. As the play progresses we see both Hamlet and Ophelia become more and more isolated until eventually they are both killed. Ophelia is the one we feel most sorry for. Firstly her brother leaves to go to France. Then a little while later her father uses her as a tool for his own purposes with no reguard for her or her feelings towards hamlet. Hamlet eventually distrusts her and rejects her and then kills her father, leaving her completely alone. With no-one to help her she goes mad and this leads to her death.
As the play progresses we see Hamlet also become more and more isolated. At the start of the play, although his father has been killed, Hamlet still has friends and people he loves. But as the play progesses this all changes. His father has been taken from him, killed. And his uncle has seized the throne and taken his mothers hand in marriage. He has lost his claim to throne, although later, Claudius anounces Hamlet as his heir, and he has also lost his respect for his mother. This leaves Hamlet emotionally isolated, although he still has his friends. His friends however, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, are sent to spy on him by Claudius and are eventually sent with to lead Hamlet to his murder in England. Polonius also commands Ophelia to spurn him. Claudius attempts to have him killed. All of these factors leave Hamlet truly isolated. His only remaining friend is Horatio. Horatio can be seen as the voice of reason and he is the only surviving character from Denmark at the end of the play.
Through out the play the audience are kept informed through Shakespeares use of soliloquies. Soliloquies are used to give the audience an insight into what the characters are thinking and feeling. These thoughts may be kept from the other characters, making the audience omniscient, knowing more than the characters they are watching. Soliloquies also make the audience more sympathetic to the characters, giving them an insight into the characters innermost thoughts creates a sort of bond between audience and character. The audience sees it much like the character trusts them, as the character is sharing these things with them.
I have shown a variety of social and political themes, along with some techniques that Shakespeare uses to create such meaningful and engaging plays. It is clear that without these various themes and techniques Shakespeare’s plays would be a lot less popular today and perhaps we may not have even heard of him.