With regard to Act II, how does the play Hamlet relate to the world from which it comes?

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Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

What was the response of the audience of the day to Lord Polonius' suggestion in Act II, scene i of Hamlet that Hamlet had rushed into Ophelia's "closet" [read "chamber" or "room"] with his stockings unsecured by gaters and crumpled around his anlkes, his doublet unfastened, pale and looking like a devil "loosed out of hell" because he was "mad" for Ophelia's "love"? We, of course, would say something more like "mad for an intimate relationship."

Prior to the upsurge in theatre in Elizabethan England, plays had mostly been about religious topics. However the wars between Catholicism and Protestantism, with the switching between Catholic and Protestant monarchs, had made religious themes unpopular and even life threateningly dangerous: The risk of being executed as a heretic was all too real.

As result, Elizabethan plays trumpeted histories; humanistic themes, like betrayal and friendship; and festival related revelry and fun. Audiences who went to enjoy Hamlet were all accustomed to and, in fact, participants in the revelry that ran rampant during festivals, rather like New Orleans Mardi Gras of today.

Consequently, Shakespearean audiences were at home with sexual innuendo and suggestion. Therefore, Polonius' suggestion and the situation that the suggestion embodied would seem natural and audiences would feel a connection between Hamlet and their own lives through the shared experience of cultural socially prominent sexuality.

mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The play Hamlet relates to the world in which it has been composed as a revenge tragedy. 

The idea of retributive justice in Act II of Hamlet is relevant to the age in which Shakespeare wrote this play, an age in which there were blood feuds and state actions of "vengeance." In these situations, the act of revenge is related to legality and justice rather than an emotional response as in the blood feud.

Moreover, when Hamlet observes "Denmark is a prison" (Act II, Scene 2, line 239), he alludes to the lack of justice he feels exists in his country. Because of the unjust rule in his country, then, Hamlet may well feel that a violent act of revenge is the only way to resolve his conflicts and feelings of anger and resentment.  

At the time of Hamlet, the concept of self-governing was deeply embedded in people despite the judicial system's efforts to deal with crimes and punishments. Blood feuds and dueling were known to continue until nearly the end of the sixteenth century. Unfortunately for Hamlet, he is caught between his desire for vengeance and his grief, a tortured mental state he expresses in his third soliloquy. This hesitation delays action.

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