What values are embodied in Shakespeare's Hamlet and how do they reflect the social conflicts of the period?   

1 Answer | Add Yours

booboosmoosh's profile pic

booboosmoosh | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

There are several aspects of Hamlet, written by William Shakespeare, which reflect the social conflicts and mores of that era. Two comes easily to mind: the first strong social conflict that relates to Elizabethan values deals with committing regicide—the killing of a king.

Killing a king is a weighty matter, and many modern critics have argued that, in his particular circumstances, Hamlet is wise to defer action.

While people of Shakespeare's time would have debated the righteous act of Hamlet killing Claudius, the King, another issue present would be whether it was ever justifiable to kill a king if he was evil and dishonorable, like Claudius, or Macbeth in Shakespeare's play by the same name. Was there ever good reason to commit regicide?

Is Hamlet justified in killing Claudius? or is Macduff justified in killing Macbeth? or Brutus killing Caesar? It would seem not in that Hamlet and Brutus both die. However, Macduff is not killed—and this play was written by Shakespeare to honor James I of England (formerly James VI of Scotland). In writing this Scottish play for his new king, Shakespeare allows Macduff to kill Macduff, who had killed James I's ancestor, Banquo. However, while the play is factual to an extent, Macbeth (in truth) came to the throne honorably in battle. So it would seem that in some circumstances, regicide was acceptable, though this was a highly debated topic at that time.

This would also have been seen when Elizabeth I had her cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots, executed for treason after repeatedly plotting to overthrow Elizabeth's reign. Elizabeth did not want to kill Mary, but was convinced by her advisers that it was the only way to guarantee that she would not eventually be deposed and/or killed. This would have been an area of debate over historical events.

The presence of the supernatural, the witches especially, would have represented a common value that things and people in the service of the devil should be brought to God, and/or killed. It would seem that there might be some concern about the Ghost in Hamlet, as the young Prince himself worried that the Ghost might not be "honest," but be sent by the powers of darkness to steal his eternal soul. This was a time when the audience would have been much aware of the concept of Satanic evil:

Beliefs in witchcraft...[were seen] notably in Early Modern Europe of the 14th to 18th century, where witchcraft came to be seen as a vast diabolical conspiracy against Christianity, and accusations of witchcraft led to...[witch hunts].

The audience would have been greatly concerned by Hamlet's decision to act on the information provided by the Ghost. For if he was an emissary of the devil, Hamlet would lose his soul by killing a king (regicide).

It is easy to see that Shakespeare included situations which were of great concern and/or interest to an Elizabethan audience. Not only did these conflicts make the audience much more interested in Shakespeare's work, but more sympathetic to his characters (like Hamlet) or damning, as seen with the character of Claudius, and therefore, more likely to support Shakespeare's work. The conflict over regicide and the supernatural were part of the social fiber of the time.

 

Sources:

We’ve answered 318,915 questions. We can answer yours, too.

Ask a question