Context of Hamlet

Religious Context-

“Go not to Wittenberg” I.ii.119

Wittenberg was the university in which Martin Luther, the father of Lutheran Protestantism who is often considered as the founder of the 16th century religious reformation, wrote his Ninety-Five Theses. They were revolutionary ideas serving as the catalyst from people breaking from the Catholic Church and forming new religions. He called for a full reform of the Catholic Church. Considering that Hamlet is staying in Wittenberg, it is probably fair for the audience to assume that Hamlet is a Protestant, although this could be disputed by the continued references to Catholic beliefs such as purgatory.

“doom’d for a certain term to walk the night” I.v.10

“Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder”

These quotes are references by the ghost to his purgatory, illuminating the conflict between Catholics and Protestants, during the reign of Elizabeth I. Purgatory, where the soul goes before heaven to undergo purification, was a Catholic belief that had been reflected by the Anglican Church in the early 16th century. The first quote shown above is one of the suggestions of Catholicism in the play, whereas the second play is undoubtedly less so. In Catholicism, ghosts return from purgatory so that the living can help them repent their sins. However, in the play, the ghost seems more focused on revenge, suggesting a more anti-Catholic stance within the play. It also suggests that this actually isn’t a ghost but is actually just a reflection of Hamlet’s conscience.

“Adieu, adieu, adieu. Remember me.” I.v.91

This is another reference to purgatory by the ghost. Praying for purgatorial spirits was an important way for the living to deal with an express their grief, so the Anglican church rejected this doctrine in 1563, it eliminated an important social and psychological function for the living, which is similar to Claudius ordering Hamlet to stop grieving, as he does here. This makes the audience empathise more with Hamlet as they can understand his situation better.

“His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter” I.ii.132

“To be or not to be”
‘weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable’

Here, Hamlet is lamenting about how even though death is the most agreeable solution to the pain he is feeling, he cannot kill himself because it goes against the Bible. This is a reflection of the importance of religion in Shakespeare’s time – no matter how Hamlet feels, he cannot go against his religion; this is similar to how people at the time would have felt about their actions – they were very conscious about how their actions would reflect on them, and didn’t want to seem ungodly. Furthermore, the teachings of the bible in relation to suicide will have been imprinted onto the audiences mind, helped by the fact that if you did not attend church every week you would be subject to a 12 pence fine under the provisions of the 1558 Act of Uniformity. This therefore meant the audience would be in tune with Hamlet’s religious fears.

“A brother’s murder” III.iii.38

This is a major religious allusion to the biblical story of Cain and Abel. Here the King is comparing his sin to Cain’s sin of killing Abel. This assures the audience that it was Claudius who killed King Hamlet. With this reference to the first murder to be committed this biblical allusion means that the audience are aware Hamlet does know the repercussions of this actions therefore suggesting some sanity.


Let him go, Gertrude; do not fear our person.
There’s such divinity doth hedge a king
That treason can but peep to what it would.”

Claudius on the divine right of kings.

At the time that Hamlet was written, Christianity was the dominant religion, and it was believed that any monarch was chosen by God to rule. Shakespeare is perhaps using this to portray how Claudius has offended God, as he murdered a divine ruler; two deadly sins.

‘Justice, verity, temperance, stableness,
Bounty, perseverance, mercy, lowliness,
Devotion, patience, courage, fortitude.’   

Qualities a king should have

Shakespeare does this to show how unjust a ruler Claudius is: he fits none of the categories of what is believed to be a good king.

‘A cutpurse of the empire and the rule
That from a shelf the precious diadem stole,
And put it in his pocket?’

Hamlet debating the crime of murdering a king..

This shows how sacred the role of king was: even after Claudius had murdered Hamlet’s father, Hamlet still didn’t know if he should steal from Claudius as he was a king.

“A murderer and a villain;
A slave that is not twentieth part the tithe
Of your precedent lord; a vice of kings.”                                                                                                                                 

Hamlet describing Claudius

The way that Claudius is described completely contrasts with the qualities usually associated with a king. In this instance, Shakespeare further portrays how unjust Claudius’ leadership is.

“The king doth wake to-night and takes his rouse.
Keeps wassail, and the swaggering up-spring reels;
And as he drains his draughts of Rhenish down.”.   

Description of Claudius’ drunken ways- and how he isn’t fit to be a king

The fact that the king ‘Drains his draughts of Rhenish’ implies that he is a drunk, and that he is unfit to be a leader.


“This heavy-headed revel east and west
Makes us traduced and tax’d of other nations;
They clepe us drunkards, and with swinish phrase
Soil our addition.”   

A view on how the other countries viewed Denmark’s royal family.

This quote ties in with the previous quote on Claudius’ drunken tendencies: the other countries ‘clepe us drunkards’. This quote shows how Claudius’ role as monarch is affecting other people’s views of the country, and how his thirst for power is affecting the wellbeing of his subjects.

“A murderer and a villain;
A slave that is not twentieth part the tithe”                                                                                                                     

Hamlet describing Claudius

The fact that Hamlet calls the king a ‘slave’ perhaps implies that Claudius is a ‘slave’ to his own temptations; hence why he murdered his brother to become king.

“offence is rank smells to heaven                                                                                                 

It hath the primal eldest curse upon’t,  A brother’s murder”                                                                                                                       

Claudius admitting that his actions were wrong as a king

The fact that even Claudius admitted that what he did was wrong shows just how sacred the role of king is: even the murderer felt bad for killing, as it was the murder of a king, who has the divine right to rule.

“that incestuous, that adulterate beast”                                                                                                                                  

Hamlet’s views on Claudius contrasting with Malcolm’s previous quote on how a king should be furthermore show how Shakespeare portrays Claudius to be an unjust leader.

“Heaven will direct it”      

Horatio commenting on the poor leadership by the monarchy in Denmark.

This quote shows how religion dictated who should and shouldn’t be leader. However, the plethora of quotes used by Shakespeare to portray Claudius in a bad way contrast with this idea, and is perhaps Shakespeare conveying his own views on the legitimacy of religion.

‘Something is rotten in the state of Denmark’                                                                     

Hamlet accusing the monarchy of being corrupt. Many believe this quote may be in reference to the plague, which perhaps symbolizes the spread of corruption and sin through the government of Denmark.

“A little month, or ere those shoes were old”                                                                                 

Hamlet accusing the queen of adultery this view contrasts with the stereotypical depiction of kings, and ties in with the previous quote: the state of Denmark is so ‘Rotten’, that even the queen is committing treachery.

Philosophy is the study of the general and fundamental nature of reality, existence, knowledge, reason and mind.

Hamlet Philosophical context

there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so

Shakespeare promotes the concept of relativism through Hamlet suggesting that nothing is real except in the mind of the individual, “there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so” this suggests that there are not ‘real’ truths and everything that is believed is relative (effectively everything is a lie). Relativism directly relates to the characters in the play as the Greek sophists believed each man perceived a statement through the senses differently and therefore each character believes a different truth, when in reality nothing is true due to their devious actions.

To be or not to be

Hamlet is used to show existentialism through first scenes of the play. Shakespeare conveys the idea that the individual determines their own development through the acts of will; Hamlet shows this in the famous line of his soliloquy “To be or not to be”. This could portray Hamlets understanding of his predicament as although fate will lead to his death, the choice he makes to not commit suicide allows for the king to be killed.

I do not know, my lord, what I should think” (1.3.103)

The concept of scepticism is shown through Ophelia questioning the existence of truths; Ophelia’s sceptical attitude shows her doubting Hamlets feelings towards her. The audience may believe that Hamlets love is ‘true’, however when Ophelia speaks to Polonius “I do not know, my lord, what I should think”, this shows how she is sceptical of his true desires. It would be common to be sceptical of people in Denmark as each character constantly betrays one another.

Am I a coward?” (2.2.506)

Another philosophical concept that Shakespeare introduces is melancholia from the four temperaments and the four humours, these suggest there are four personalities (one being melancholic) and four humours (bodily fluids that directly affect the individual’s health and temperament).  Hamlet is shown to be melancholic as he is beyond sadness, questioning himself “Am I a coward?” Shakespeare presents the character in this light to highlight how the ‘black bile’ (one of the four humours) is making Hamlet feel melancholic.

My fate cries out”(1.4.83)

Shakespeare uses the idea of fate to show how the tragedy gives each character a role to play and in the end, nothing the character has done despite their attempts to change their fate with acts of will, they will die as that is their destiny. Shakespeare shows this through Hamlets knowledge of his fate “My fate cries out” suggesting that he knows he has to go and see the king Hamlets ghost because it is what he is meant to do.

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” (2.5.166-168)

Arthur Schopenhauer, a German philosopher argues that we see the world in a conjunction of representations; we can only see objects of our desire due to our projection on the world, Hamlet proves this when he speaks to Horatio “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Shakespeare here, in Arthurs eyes, suggests that Horatio cannot perceive anything more than the objects of his desire.

Horatio says ‘tis but our fantasy/and will not let belief take hold of him” (1.1.22-23)

So at this point in the play the soldiers are telling sceptical Horatio about the ghost they have seen. Yet, it seems that Horatio doesn’t want to know and pushes this thought out of his mind.  “’tis but our fantasy”- here it suggests that Horatio is saying its what we want to hear and believe because its something new, exciting and supernatural. In a way, these soldiers are just as sceptical as he is, as they are oblivious to the real world. Probably at the time that this play was set, people had to go off things they had seen or heard, and believed others because they didn’t have any equipment to prove what they had experienced.The idea that nothing is real except in the mind of the individual finds its roots in the Greek Sophists, who argued that since nothing can be perceived except through the senses, and all men felt and sensed things differently, truth was entirely relative. There was no absolute truth.

Is not this something more than fantasy?” (1.1.53)

Barnardo is speaking to Horatio and is questioning him on his previous thought. Since the ghost is visible and existent before the eyes of the soldiers, surely this would mean that it is real. It also suggests that we can’t always be sure about something before we have experienced it for ourselves. Greek philosophers would say that nothing is real except in the mind of the individual, meaning lots of people could see the same thing, however everyone would interpret it differently, so is there truth in what is seen before you?

Then no planets strike/No fairy takes, nor witch has power to charm” (1.1.162)

This meaning, no form of the supernatural exposes itself or comes into view of the living. Referring to the ghost, it doesn’t take on its form and doesn’t interact with the soldiers. This is only in the day and as Marcellus describes “wherein our saviour’s birth is celebrated” this has links to Christianity as the saviour’s birth is about Jesus. There seems to be rules and laws that the supernatural beings have to abide by, and they don’t seem to be in control of they way they can “live”. ‘no planets strike’ is a reference to the old astrological belief in the malignant (spiteful) influence of the stars. This suggest that the supernatural has a good and bad side, so is the ghost really Hamlet’s father?

Bernardo: “Last night of all, when yond same star that’s westward from the pole had made his course to illume that part of heaven where now it burns.” (1.1.34-37)

Scholars have long considered that means Bernardo is referring to a star west of the pole star. The hour has struck twelve and it is cold, so winter is assumed. Astronomers have recently argued that, if Shakespeare had a specific star in mind, he might be referring to the supernova Cassiopeia which was first seen in Wittenberg in 1572 and also discovered independently by the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe. Throughout most of written history the Earth was believed to lie at the center of creation, while the seven Ancient Planets (Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn) revolved about it. The entire arrangement was encased in a shell of stars beyond which was the abode of the Prime Mover.

This same skull, sir, was sir, Yoricks skull, the king’s jester’ (5.1.174)

1590’s Society, physical conditions& plague​

In his first soliloquy, Hamlet says of the world, “things rank and gross in nature / Possess it” (1.2.136-137). He feels that the whole world is diseased, that it is “an unweeded garden / That grows to seed.” A plague swept through London in 1592/93 and wiped out around 20,000 inhabitants.  Shakespeare was perhaps referring to this plague, as just like many others he was afraid it would return.

‘Tis now the very witching time of night, / When churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out / Contagion to this world” (3.2.388-390), Hamlet says to himself, before going to see his mother in her closet. For “contagion” we would say “contagious disease.” Again this is a link to the Plague which was contagious and spread easily and quickly.

It will but skin and film the ulcerous place, / Whilst rank corruption, mining all within, / Infects unseen” (3.4.146-149), Hamlet tells his mother, warning her against thinking that his accusations are only a result of his madness. Most of us are not familiar with the sort of “ulcerous place” that Hamlet has in mind. It’s the kind of thing a drug addict might get from using a dirty needle. The infection under the skin eats away at the flesh, forming a pool of pus, and the skin above the pus gets crusty. These kinds of symptoms are often symptoms of the Plague.

Do it, England; / For like the hectic in my blood he rages, / And thou must cure me” (4.3.65-67). So says the King in a soliloquy at the end of the scene in which he sends Hamlet to England. “The hectic” is a high fever that won’t quit, and the King wants England to execute Hamlet. A fever was a very common and widely recognised symptom of the Plague that Shakespeare was very much aware of.

This is the imposthume of much wealth and peace, / That inward breaks, and shows no cause without / Why the man dies” (4.4.27-29), says Hamlet of Fortinbras’ attack on Poland for a worthless little piece of ground. An “imposthume” is an abscess, and so once again the disease or poison is imagined as working below the surface, unseen, until it becomes deadly.

O, this is the poison of deep grief” (4.5.75), says the King of Ophelia’s madness. In the same speech, the King complains about the people being “muddied, / Thick and unwholesome in their thoughts and whispers” (4.5.81-82), and refers to rumors about Polonius’ death as “pestilent speeches” (4.5.91), meaning that they will spread like the plague.​​

The canker galls the infants of the spring / Too oft before their buttons be disclosed” (1.3.39-40), says Laertes to  Ophelia, warning her of Hamlet and to stay away from hi,. The “canker” is a worm, and to “gall” is to break the skin. “Infants of the spring” is metaphor for early spring flowers, and their “buttons” are their unopened buds. In Laertes’ mind, Ophelia is like a young and unopened bud and the “canker” is her love for Hamlet. Laertes believes that Hamlet, being of royal blood, cannot marry Ophelia and therefore can only break her heart. Then she would be like the flower bud which has been eaten by a canker, hollowing out her heart. Worse, she could go to bed with Hamlet and get pregnant, and so be publicly shamed which was very highly frowned upon in society during Shakespearian times. Then that same worm that had hollowed out her heart would have broken the surface, ruining her reputation.
The King refers to rumours about Polonius’ death as “Pestilent speeches” (4.5.91) meaning they will spread like the plague. ‘Pestilent’ meaning deadly/ destructive to life just as the plague epidemic was.

Or lose your heart, or your chaste treasure open“- Laertes to Ophelia (1.3.27-39)

-Laertes tells her to guard her “chaste treasure”, not because he’s interested in chastity as a moral issue but because he believes Ophelia’s virginity is literally valuable. It’ll determine what kind of marriage offers she’ll get and what kind of family she can align herself with. This was a very important matter in 1590’s society as most women in that time were wives and mothers. Marriages were usually arranged, except for the poorest people, and divorce was unknown. Legally, girls could marry when they were 12 years old.

10.A little later Hamlet sarcastically asks forgiveness of his mother for trying to tell her some truths, “For in the fatness of these pursy times / Virtue itself of vice must pardon beg” (3.4.153-154). “pursy” means puffy or bloated. We might not consider a pursy person to be sick, but we could suspect that they would be a likely candidate for a heart attack. The meaning of “pursy” is echoed a few minutes later when Hamlet refers to Claudius as “the bloat king” (3.4.182),and again expresses disgust at the fact that his mother goes to bed with her husband.

Social Structure and Women in Society

And yet within a month/(Let me not think on’t- frailty, thy name is woman)”- Hamlet

This quote reflects the common misogyny in Shakespeare’s time. Hamlet shows a particular obsession with what he perceives to be a connection between female sexuality and moral corruption. He indicates his disgust at her “sexual appetite” and believes that is why she marries Claudius so quickly. He implies that women are slaves to their desires – “frail”-too weak to be loyal. Hamlet is angrier at his mother initially as he associates with this marriage with her typical needs, rather than from a political point of view.

I shall obey, my lord”- Ophelia

Ophelia has to listen to her father after a lengthy speech about why Ophelia should keep her distance from Hamlet and cannot trust him. As an unmarried daughter in a patriarchal society, Ophelia has no choice but to “obey”. We soon learn she refuses letters and refuses seeing Hamlet – until she gets used as bait to spy on Hamlet. This emphasises, how women were powerless over their own body, relationships or how they even speak (as they were viewed as property).

I have heard of your paintings too, well enough. God has given you one face, and you make yourselves another.”- Hamlet

Hamlet uses the artificiality of cosmetics (paintings) as an analogy for women’s deception. Hamlet implies fake behaviour (acting innocent, walking, talking and dancing in an affected way) is like makeup which covers a “face”- makes a woman appear as something she’s not. In Shakespeare’s time it is evident women are seen as deceitful in many aspects, using Hamlet’s speech to Ophelia to portray that. How roles for women were more constrained…

’For on his choice depends / The safety and health of his whole state.’’ –Laertes

The role of social structure is reflected here. Laertes tells Ophelia that Hamlet cannot marry who he wants to- he has to marry someone for the good of the kingdom. In the 16th century, marriage was an opportunity to forge strategic political, social and economic alliances to get up the social hierarchy. Marrying for love was not very common due to class differences.

‘’Or lose your heart or your chaste treasure open.’’-Laertes

Losing her virginity as a woman will cause her to lose her honour in this context. This is evidently not a moral issue in general, rather about Ophelia’s chances for a future marriage being compromised.

’Do not, as some ungracious pastors do/ Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven/ whiles, like a puffed and reckless libertine/ Himself the primrose path.’’ –Ophelia

Ophelia points out the double standards- Laertes advised her but is soon travelling to Paris and will most likely be promiscuous. This was a very common concept at the time- males generally had more freedom as gambling and prostitutes was acceptable for them. Moreover, this quote demonstrates that women at the time were very aware of this and were not as held back as we think.

’But look where sadly the poor wretch comes reading.’’- Queen

The queen points out that the idea of reading is frowned upon as in the 16th century it was seen as a new activity. Not many people were literate at this time, therefore anyone seen reading was looked at in pity as they were isolated in this aspect. People who were able to read and access education were usually men of higher class so even the queen in Hamlet would have been illiterate.

’I shall obey you.’’- Queen

In Hamlet, the queen shows that even in such a high position her femininity was seen as a hinder to her power, by this she was unable to voice her opinions over the king, showing that even women in monarchy were not as strong. This weakness seen in queens contradicts to the time of Queen Elizabeth I who marched to the coast during the Spanish armada and wore battle armour to face them.

She married. O most wicked speed!”- Hamlet

This shows that Hamlet is upset with the thought that his mother married too fast as she needed another man to depend on. During Shakespeare’s time Elizabeth was very different as she herself never married and used that as an image of control over her people. The fact that Gertrude did marry so quick shows that she didn’t have that control and women in general didn’t.

’You cannot call it love, for at your age/ The heyday in the blood is tame, it’s humble/ And waits upon the judgement’’– Hamlet

Indeed, Hamlet’s reaction of disgust at Gertrude’s marriage to Claudius appears less to do with family honour, which was a big issue in the 16th century, and more to do with the disgust at her decision to enter into a sexual relationship at her age. At this time, the idea of a sexual relationship at that age was scandalous and something to be frowned upon, especially when it is seen as dishonouring the dead.

’Tender yourself more dearly.’’ –Polonius

By this, Polonius implies that Ophelia cannot sell herself too shortly. This idea comes from the 16th century whereby it was important not to lose social status by marrying off the daughter to someone of lower standing. Mothers and fathers spent much time doing the calculations and figuring out the best possible scenario for their family. Normally, families would put a dowry on their daughter which consisted of a good sum of money, as Polonius stated.

’She married. O most wicked speed!’’- Hamlet

Another side to the queen’s quick marriage as opposed to the political side was that in the 17th century divorce was a lengthy and expensive process and although it was mainly reserved for the wealthy, women could not file a divorce. This may have been the reason king Hamlet was killed so Claudius and the queen could be together.

Sources and Influences of Hamlet

“Which might deprive you of your sovereignty and drive you into madness”

Madness – Hamlet is compared to the Earl of Essex and was executed for leading a rebellion against Queen Elizabeth. Essex was largely seen as out of his mind by Elizabethans, and admitted to insanity on the scaffold before his death. Here Horatio is talking of the ghost turning Hamlet insane. “Sovereignty” meaning in this instance the ability to rule his own mind and when Hamlet is “deprived” of it then his madness ensues.

“So excellent a king; that was, to this,/ Hyperion to a satyr”

The character Hamlet perhaps is based upon Hamlets only son Hamnet Shakespeare, who died in 1596 at age eleven. Stephen Greenblatt has argued that the coincidence of the names and Shakespeare’s grief for the loss of his son may lie at the heart of the tragedy. He notes that the name of Hamnet Sadler, the Stratford neighbour after whom Hamnet was named, was often written as Hamlet Sadler and that, in the loose orthography of the time, the names were virtually interchangeable. Sadler’s first name is spelled “Hamlett” in Shakespeare’s will. However, most scholars reject the idea that Hamlet is in any way connected with Shakespeare’s only son, and conventional wisdom holds that Hamlet is too obviously connected to legend, and the name Hamnet was quite popular at the time.

The tragedy of Hamlets father’s death shows the tragedy of losing a love one as he looked up to his father and saw how his Uncle’s jealousy broke down his life which eventually leads to his own his death.

‘He seem’d to find his way without his eyes’’ “But two months dead – nay, not so much, not two.”

We see many aspects of the ‘story-line’ are similar to that of Vita Amlethi (“The Life of Amleth”) written in the 13th century, it reflects concepts of virtue and heroism, and was widely available in Shakespeare’s day. Significant parallels include the prince feigning madness, his mother’s hasty marriage to the usurper, the prince killing a hidden spy, and the prince substituting the execution of two retainers for his own. The first quote shows the parallel of insanity, where it is unusual that he can see without using his eyes. The second quote explains how Gertrude married the King extremely quickly, where Hamlet sees this as distrustful and transient (as would the audience at the time), we might see the action as almost heroic in a way to stabilise the countries situation.

“Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.”

According to a popular theory, Shakespeare’s main source is believed to be an earlier play—now lost—known today as the Ur-Hamlet. Possibly written by Thomas Kyd or even William Shakespeare himself, the Ur-Hamlet would have been in performance by 1589 and the first version of the story known to incorporate a ghost. This is a quote of the ghost talking of the death of Old Hamlet. “Unnatural” suggests murder and “revenge” suggests that there is a need to ‘get back’ at the one who killed him. The ghost explains how it was against nature and that if Hamlet truly loved his father then he should take revenge.

“all but one – shall live”

Explaining Hamlets plot to kill the King. A 17th-century Nordic scholar, Torfaeus, compared the Icelandic hero Amlodi and the Spanish hero Prince Ambales to Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Similarities include the prince’s feigned madness, his accidental killing of the king’s counsellor in his mother’s bedroom, and the eventual slaying of his uncle. In the plot to kill the King, Hamlet mentions his mother too, perhaps showing his growing hatred for her; it does not explicitly say that the King will be killed instead of the Queen. There are many links between the two plays and in the end when the King is killed by Hamlet it will be a parallel to how Ambales killed his uncle.

“A little more than kin, and less than kind.” Iii65 170

This is Hamlet’s first line, and it is an immediate instigation of the tension in the family relationships in the play because of cynical sarcasm. This is similar to the relationship between Hroðgar and Hrólfr in the traditional Danish Hrólfs saga kraka; a damaged relationship between Uncle and Nephew. The legend was later developed into two Old-English poems, Beowulf and Widsith, which do not clarify this feud however they are considered two of the most important works of old English literature. Also, the tension in the royal family of Denmark mirrors the anxiety in England towards the heir of Elizabeth’s throne.

“O cursed spite / that i was ever born to set it right!” Iiiiii186-7 227

This conclusion of the first act is Hamlet becoming aware of his tragical and revengeful yet destined path. The theme of revenge is also apparent in Shakespeare’s 1599 Julius Caesar, and Hamlet’s revenge replicates the character of Brutus (a leading role in the assassination of Caesar). The Spanish Tragedy was also a popular play written by Thomas Kyd around 1583-91, and this introduced a new and alternative theatrical genre of revenge tragedies, and their revolutionary popularity was influential on Shakespeare. Also, the Danish Gesta Danorum could have influenced Hamlet’s revenge, because both plots involve a vengeful Nephew who seeks to overthrow his Uncle in justice for his Father. Moreover, Amleth is an anagram for Hamlet. One final influence upon Hamlet’s revenge could possibly have been Robert Devereux, the Second Earl of Essex: Hamlet is often compared to this man for many reasons, one of which is possibly their shared treasonous affairs.

“Liegemen to the dane” Ii13 149 AND “Where is my Switzers?” IIIIiiiii97 381

In the first scene of the play, the theme of conflict is initiated. This is represented on a wide scale, possibly to incite the audiences patriotism through this war association considering the recent Armada defeat of 1588. Also, the Gesta Danorum is a Danish piece of literature from the 12th century, and it’s detailed accounts of European affairs could have inspired some of the conflict in Hamlet’s Denmark.

“that incestuous, that adulterate beast” Iiiiii42 214

There is much open discontent in Hamlet regarding the relationship between Gertrude and King Claudius, and it often perceived as incestuous. There are resembling relationships to this in Gesta Danorum between the Mother and Uncle: the wed after a brief mourning period, and the similarity between Gertrude of Hamlet and Geruth of Gesta Danorum is also an indication to the sources influence. The play Hrólfs also contains a much brutal incesteous relationship between Uncle and Niece, and the controversy surrounding this could have influenced Shakespeare.

“Can you play The Murder of Gonzago?” IIii474 273

Hamlet is one of Shakespeare’s many piece which include a play within a play. His other plays of this style which came before Hamlet are Love’s Labour’s Lost and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, neither of which are tragedies like Hamlet. His use of a tragedy is similar to The Spanish Tragedy of around 1583, another play within a play whose popularity could have inspired Shakespeare. A final play within a play to consider is Thomas Kyd’s Ur-Hamlet, which is in almost every way closely corresponds with Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

“canon ‘gainst self-slaughter.”Iii132 176

In the second scene when Hamlet disputes suicide, the theme of madness arises in the play. This is the main reason that Hamlet is compared to The Earl of Essex Politically ambitious, and a committed general, he was placed under house arrest following a poor campaign in Ireland during the Nine Years’ War in 1599. In 1601, he led an abortive coup d’état against the government and was executed for treason. He was considered insane by some, and would have definitely been a well known name at that time. Also, this use of suicide indicates towards the impending death of Queen Elizabeth, therefore plays with the anxiety and fear of the audience. The Spanish Tragedy also uses the suicide of a mother to drive Hieronimo to madness.

Shakespeare’s Theatre Context

memory holds a seat/In this distracted globe” – Act1 li96-97

Here Shakespeare is referencing the Globe Theatre – a multisided structure with a central, uncovered “yard” surrounded by three tiers of covered seating and a raised stage at one end of the yard. Spectators could pay for seating at multiple price levels; those with the cheapest tickets simply stood for the length of the plays.

there are more things in heaven” – Act1 li165

Shakespeare displays his views on acting and the role of theatre in society as a way of mirroring the truth. Actors could descend from the “heavens” above the stage or enter and exit from the “hell” below through the trapdoor.

most excellent canopy the air” – Act2 li265

Shakespeare uses this metaphor to reference the Globe. Playgoers in Shakespeare’s day paid a penny to stand in the uncovered yard of a playhouse or two pennies for a balcony seat. Shakespeare may be hinting at the lively atmosphere during these outdoor plays.

majestical roof fretted with golden fire” – li267

Here Shakespeare uses irony with the phrase “golden fire” to refer to the event where the Globe was burnt to the ground when the “majestical roof” caught fire during a performance of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII. A new second Globe was quickly built on the same site, opening in 1614.

a beast that wants discourse of reason” – Act1 li150

Shakespeare uses Hamlet to criticise women as he compares his mother to a wild animal. Most women’s roles in the Globe were played by boys or young men in the all-male casts, comic female parts might be reserved for a popular adult comic actor or clown.

customary suits of solemn black” – Act1 li78

Actors usually did not aim for historically accurate costumes, instead they typically wore extravagant modern clothes, especially for leading parts. Costumes provided the essential “spectacle” of the plays and were often second-hand clothes once owned and worn by real-life nobles.


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