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The medieval period was a time of violence and upheaval—political, religious and social. In medieval England, there were years of fighting within the country between several royal houses for supremacy. Ultimately, the Tudors defeated the Plantagenets, when Richard III was killed in battle. The medieval period is also associated with a time of religious dominance by the Roman Catholic Church in matters of both religion and politics as there was no separation of church and state. It was also an era when the Church sent soldiers to the Holy Lands to take it back from non-Christians. It was the age of feudalism: there was no middle class, only the poor and the rich. During this time, castles were impregnable and armored knights raged against their adversaries. The poor served landowners in poverty and obscurity. Lastly, the England's medieval period experienced several plagues (the Black Death) that decimated the country's population. Ultimately, with an emerging middle class, a shortage of workers to support feudal lands, advancements in the longbow that could pierce armor, social unrest, and the end of in-fighting within the borders of England, the Middle Ages ended by 1485.
Conversely, the English Renaissance was a time when England's new queen, Elizabeth I, resisted the overt persecution of Catholics and engaged in political maneuvering to make England the most powerful nation in the world. She steered her subjects on a course toward of peace (at least publicly), and also encouraged the "revival" of interest in the arts. In light of the lack of strife and wars, new literature, drama, art and music were created with amazing speed.
First, most scholars agree that Hamlet is set in the later middle ages (at some point in either the fourteenth century or the fifteenth century).
While political intrigue still existed during Elizabeth's reign, public opinion was important in promoting a new age of economic growth and the support of the new monarchy. Elizabeth was ushering in an age of prosperity and peace. So one might wonder why Shakespeare's Hamlet was set in the medieval period. As the setting of any play is an extremely important part of structuring the mood and advancing the plot, Shakespeare's choice provides a comparison between the violent and brutal world of the Middle Ages and a more civilized and promising Renaissance England.
Claudius represents the medieval period. The new king is deceitful and murderously brutal. As royal families once fought on battlefields using any means possible to gain control of England, Claudius has done the same in murdering his own brother. In feeling safe enough to go unguarded within the walls of Elsinore, we can infer that Old Hamlet felt no threat from his brother. Claudius capitalizes on this trust in poisoning Old Hamlet when he was at his most vulnerable, as the Ghost reveals to Hamlet in Act One, scene five:
Now, Hamlet, hear:
'Tis given out that, sleeping in my orchard,
A serpent stung me; so the whole ear of Denmark
Is by a forged process of my death
Rankly abused: but know, thou noble youth,
The serpent that did sting thy father's life
Now wears his crown. (34-40)
Hamlet represents the English Renaissance. He is a young man who has believed in all that is good in his father's kingdom. Through his comments, we see that he still adheres to the traditional values of his country's history. For instance, he is disgusted by his mother hasty marriage to Claudius, heartbroken that his mother has not waited the traditional mourning period before marrying. More than that, he is revolted that his mother married her brother-in-law, for at that time Elizabethans believed that marrying a spouse's sibling was a form of incest. Additionally, we see that Hamlet cares about the reputation of Denmark. When Claudius throws a party to celebrate his marriage to Gertrude (much too soon after Old Hamlet's funeral), everyone becomes drunk—each time the King finishes his drink all at once, the drum and trumpet sound. Horatio asks if it is a custom; Hamlet replies that it is, but rather than following the custom, the new trend has been not to get drunk.
...to my mind, though I am native here
And to the manner born, it is a custom
More honour'd in the breach than the observance. (I.iv.16-18)
Hamlet's concern is that other countries, observing this drunken behavior, will think less of Denmark.
The clash of Claudius and Hamlet is reflective of the clash between activities and behaviors common to England's more ruthless past, and the dawn of a new, more civilized and hopeful era. As the playwrights of the period did all they could to honor the monarch of the day, it can be argued that Shakespeare was lifting Elizabeth I up as a model of civility and patriotism. Those who attempted to interfere with the Queen's vision would be seen as outdated and uncivil.
Shakespeare seems to be presenting a study of two different eras. And if one can infer that such is the case, it could be a logical next step to note that to survive (which Hamlet does not), one must be watchful for those who do not share Elizabeth's vision so that those trusted by the monarchy (like Claudius) could not deceitfully sneak in to destroy Renaissance England.
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