Choose a passage of about ten lines from Act I, II or III of Hamlet that requires an appreciation of a cultural or political aspect of Elizabethan life to understand. Identify the aspects of...

Choose a passage of about ten lines from Act I, II or III of Hamlet that requires an appreciation of a cultural or political aspect of Elizabethan life to understand. Identify the aspects of Elizabethan life that need to be understood to gain a full appreciation of the lines and name them (allusion, etymological issue etc.)

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

After learning from the ghost of his father, King Hamlet, that he was murdered, Prince Hamlet falls into a deep melancholy and mental disturbance because the Chain of Being has been disrupted by this regicide, for kings hold a divine right to rule as they receive direction from God, not man. 

During the Renaissance, there was belief in the Chain of Being in which everything had its place, beginning with the Creator, the angels, humans, mammals, the lower creatures, plants, and minerals and inanimate objects. If this balance were upset, then the order in the other creatures would be disturbed, as well, since there was a continuity among all things. For example, in Shakespeare's King Lear, the concurrent disorder in family relationships and in the state (child ruling parent, subject ruling king) is reflected in the disorder of Lear's mind. So, too, does this simultaneous disorder occur in Hamlet as young Hamlet's melancholy and despair reflect the disturbance of the Chain of Being by the murder of King Hamlet. Indeed, regicide is a serious violation because of the earthly king's place in the Chain of Being directly under the angels and, also, because of the consequent belief in the divine right of kings held by the Elizabethans.

In Act II, Scene 2, since speaking with his father's ghost, Prince Hamlet has fallen into a deep melancholy and appears to be mentally disturbed. Polonius observes him and remarks to himself:

Though this be madness, yet there is method in't....a happiness that often madness hits on, which reason and sanity could not so prosperous be delivered of....(2.2.201-206)

After Polonius leaves, Hamlet's former classmates, Guildenstern and Rosencrantz enter. When they attempt conversation with Hamlet, he responds with deep melancholy, for he is disturbed by the perversity of the Danish court that has broken the Chain of Being. He tells his classmates that he finds Denmark "a prison" and the heavens above nothing but "a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors." Then, with great irony, Hamlet continues, alluding to the proper order in the Chain of Being:

.... What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving, how express and admirable in action, how like an angel in apprehension, how like a god: the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals. And yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me, nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so.

Having knowledge of the violation of the divine right of kings and the Chain of Being with the murder of King Hamlet, Prince Hamlet of Denmark finds no joy in life.

teachersage eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Act II, scene ii, Hamlet charges Polonius to treat the traveling players well, noting it is

better [to] have a bad epitaph than their ill report while you live.

Polonius responds that he will use them "according to their desert." Hamlet then says, 

God's bodykins, man, much better!

Use every man after his desert and who shall 'scape a whipping?

Use them after your own honor and dignity.

The less they deserve, the more merit is in your bounty.

Take them in.

This passage makes a joke by alluding to the importance (or lack thereof) of actors in Elizabethan culture, and it alludes to the power of traveling players to spread gossip or "ill report." Shakespeare here also has Hamlet mention death in the notion of a bad epitaph. This line may have greater resonance for Elizabethan audiences, who were well aquatinted with the death—especially deaths related to plague.

More importantly, Hamlet alludes to the Bible when he admonishes Polonius to treat the players better than they deserve. Elizabethan audiences were culturally steeped in a Christian worldview and would have understood themselves as sinners deserving of punishment, except for the grace God. In Hamlet's words, "the less they deserve ..." audiences would have heard the echoes of Jesus saying, in Luke 6:33, "And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you?" The Bible and church teachings are often on Hamlet's mind, as comes clear when he refuses to kill Polonius at prayer for fear Polonius will go to heaven. Hamlet's biblical literacy would have seemed natural in Elizabethan culture.