Hamlet and the Scottish Succession

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Hamlet and the Scottish Succession?

See also Hamlet Criticism (Volume 35), and Volumes 37, 44, 71, 82.

Stuart M. Kurland, Duquesne University

Surveying earlier topical interpretations of Tudor drama, David Bevington observed in 1968 that "Hamlet offers a rich field for topicality … and reveals perhaps most clearly the basic error of the lockpicking sleuth." Among the theories that were no longer "given serious attention" was Lilian Winstanley's, in "Hamlet" and the Scottish Succession, published in 1921. Winstanley maintained that Hamlet employed "historical analogues" that were "important, numerous, detailed and undeniable" in an effort "to excite as much sympathy as possible for the Essex conspirators, and for the Scottish succession." Indeed, Winstanley explicitly identified Hamlet with Essex-and King James VI of Scotland.1

Since Bevington's Tudor Drama and Politics appeared twenty-five years ago, historical criticism of Shakespeare and Renaissance Drama has undergone a transformation and revitalization; as Leah Marcus has observed of the 1980s, "historicism is nearly everywhere." But despite the advent of the "New Historicism,"2 many critics remain uneasy about topicality in Shakespeare: as Marcus points out, "even for Renaissance specialists it carries a faint but distinct odor of disreputability."3 Critics interested in Shakespearean topicality today must attempt to reconstruct what Marcus terms the "local" dimensions of the plays in ways that will inform, rather than determine (or supplant), interpretation.

I would like to suggest that Winstanley's title, though not her thesis, deserves reconsideration. As I will argue, the late Elizabethan succession question—specifically the anticipation that James VI of Scotland might succeed the aging Elizabeth—figures importantly in Hamlet. An awareness of English politics with regard to the succession can help us better comprehend the play, particularly the threat from abroad as personified in Young Fortinbras, and, more generally, the unhealthy political cli-mate of Denmark, which extends beyond the corruption of Claudius.

One could begin at the beginning, on the ramparts out-side Elsinore, where a jittery watch is unsure about what the feverish preparations for war portend. I would like to begin instead at the end, with Hamlet's death and the arrival of Fortinbras, returning from Poland at the head of a conquering army. With his last words Hamlet prophesies that "th'election lights / On Fortinbras. He has my dying voice" (V.ii.360-61).4 And Fortinbras, upon viewing the dismal sight, asserts his claim to the Danish throne:

For me, with sorrow I embrace my fortune. I have some rights of memory in this kingdom, Which now to claim my vantage doth invite me.                                   (V.ii.393-95)

Let us imagine for a moment that the story-if not the play—continues: that Fortinbras succeeds Claudius on the Danish throne, that, indeed, he reigns in peace for over twenty years, during which the memory of the circumstances surrounding his accession grows successively dimmer. And let us imagine that what might be called the Age of Fortinbras has now receded some four hundred years into the past. How difficult would it then be for later students to reconstruct the end of the preceding reign, especially the uncertain atmosphere that surrounded the anticipation of the succession?

What I mean to suggest, of course, is that our knowledge of James I's peaceful accession to the English throne, and the subsequent course of British history, makes it difficult for us to imagine how the prospect of Elizabeth's death and the anticipation of her successor would have appeared to her subjects near the end of the reign-in the period 1599-1601, at the time Hamlet was written and first per-formed.5


The peaceful accession of James VI of Scotland in 1603 may have an air...

(This entire section contains 9085 words.)

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of inevitability when seen in retrospect that it could not have had at the time. Indeed, almost to the end James's prospects of succession were anything but certain. What J. Hurstfield calls "the succession struggle" is an extremely complicated story, only part of which need concern us here. Briefly, although James had what many regarded to be the strongest hereditary claim to the English crown, as a foreigner he faced a common law prohibition against alien land inheritance in England.6 And there were at various points a number of rival claimants, perhaps a dozen, including four other principal ones: Lady Arabella Stuart, Catherine Grey, the Earl of Derby, and Philip II of Spain (or his daughter, the Infanta), each of whom could trace his or her descent to Henry VII. Three of them "received the particular attention of the succession speculators and the chanceries of Europe": James, Arabella, and the Infanta.7 As Thomas Wilson observed around 1600, "this crown is not like to fall to the ground for want of heads that claim to wear it." Of the claimants, he was confi-dent James would succeed, "as very many Englishmen do know assuredly."8

Nevertheless, the succession remained in doubt virtually until the moment of Elizabeth's death, and the uncertainty caused considerable anxiety: many of her subjects "genuinely feared that chaos would ensue when Elizabeth died."9 This uncertainly was exacerbated by Elizabeth's refusal to declare a successor.10 James's quiet accession was largely engineered by Elizabeth's chief minister, Robert Cecil, who had been working discreetly to this end for a number of years. In a secret correspondence with James beginning in 1601, in which he offered assurances of support, Cecil counseled James to be patient and to say or do nothing that might alienate Elizabeth or alarm her subjects.

Throughout her long reign, Elizabeth had been unwilling to name a successor or even to allow the subject to be discussed.11 Towards the end of the reign, as Thomas Wilson noted at the time, speculation about the succession was "to all English capitally forbidden."12 While Elizabeth's unwillingness to settle the succession had been a matter of concern earlier in the reign, the issue became increasingly acute towards the end of the century, with the childless queen's age—she would turn sixty-seven in 1600—an obvious consideration. As Hurstfield observes, there were good reasons for a "policy of refusing to acknowledge a successor" when the strongest claimant was James's mother, Mary Queen of Scots, who was not only a foreigner but a Catholic: "To have acknowledged [Mary] might well have prompted rebellion on behalf of an English candidate against a Catholic Scot." But even after Mary's execution in 1587, Elizabeth still refused to name a successor. This was, as Hurstfield observes, "a dangerous policy," since James, the best-positioned of the claimants, might be tempted to try to seize the crown by force instead of waiting hopefully for a prospect that was not entirely certain.13

Indeed, this danger was almost realized. As Helen Georgia Stafford writes, in pursuit of "the coveted prize" of the English succession James

entered upon a frenzy of preparation. He had semi-official agents on the continent, seemed in touch with factions in England, and directed propaganda in Scotland. At the end of 1599 he was busy with a plan to equip his subjects with arms and armor in case of need on the great day. A "band" circulated among his nobility to insure their support for the occasion. Books were printed in defense of his title. Ambassadors were being sent abroad and received in Scotland in a fashion that implied much.14

In seeking support in England and, especially, in a great many European capitals, James pursued a diplomatic policy that was in D.H. Willson's unsympathetic phrase "tortuous, secretive and dishonest." Posing "in Britain and in northern Europe as the Protestant heir to England," James sought "at the same time to commend himself secretly to Catholic powers."15 However, due to both his own weakness and Elizabeth's opposition, his efforts produced few concrete results.16 James also began a secret intrigue with the rebel Tyrone, in Ireland, and sought to cultivate both Catholics and Puritans in England.17

Crucially, James became involved in the intrigues of the "brilliant but unstable" Essex, Elizabeth's favorite, "whose rivalry with Cecil was dividing the English court." Apparently James hoped that an ascendant Essex might help "force from Elizabeth a recognition" of his title.18 Early in 1600, under Essex's influence, James had encouraged the Scottish nobility to make preparations to ensure his succession. James urged his nobles to join together

for the preservation of his person, and the pursuit of his right to the crowns of England and Ireland. … He also solicited from his Parliament … a liberal grant for warlike purposes in reference to the succession. "He was not certain," he told them, "how soon he should have to use arms; but whenever it should be, he knew his right, and would venture crown and all for it."19

Nothing of substance came of this association of Scottish nobles, which "attracted little attention in England, although well enough known."20 John Chamberlain reported at the time that "The Scottish nobilitie find themselves greeved that theyre kinge is no more respected, and have lately made an association among themselves against all those that shall hinder his right and succession."21

As Essex's situation was becoming more critical in the year or so before the failed rising of February 1601, his followers appealed to James to intervene militarily in England.22 James was assured that he would be "declared and acknowledged the certain and undoubted successor to this crown." Essex reportedly carried the king's response, in cipher, in a purse around his neck and burned it before surrendering. Generally aware of James's dealings with Essex, Elizabeth never allowed them to become public at Essex's trial, apparently because she was unwilling de-spite James's conduct to allow his claim to the throne to be jeopardized.23

After the fall of Essex, in early 1601, James eagerly welcomed the overtures of Essex's former rival, Robert Cecil, who was concerned in the secret correspondence he initiated "to ensure that James was never again tempted to seize power before his time." Assured of support at the highest levels of the English government, James "began to sing a different tune. 'Yea, what a foolish part were that in me,' he wrote, 'if I might do it to hazard my honour, state and person, in entering that kingdom by violence as an usurper.'"24

What we need to remind ourselves, after four hundred years, is that at the time Hamlet was written James's newly conciliatory and nonthreatening attitude towards his rights to the throne, like the peaceful succession itself, lay in the future. What was well known in England at the time was that James, who had been actively cultivating support for his claims in England and across Europe, might be tempted to assert his rights by force.

Not surprisingly, inflammatory rumors of Scottish war preparations circulated in England. Often mere was thought to be a Danish connection, since it was assumed (and reported) that James's claims would be supported by his brother-in-law, Christian IV of Denmark. We may be tempted to dismiss some of these rumors as fantastic, especially those that involved the Spanish Infanta or the French king Henri IV, but even if grossly exaggerated their effect on the population—and on the political climate (as distinct from the diplomatic or military reality)25—could be powerful. In August 1599, for example, Cecil learned of a possible Spanish plot to install James from a writer who felt it his

duty to advertise you of the strange rumours and abundance of news spread abroad in the city, and so flying into the country, as there cannot be laid a more dangerous plot to amaze and discourage our people, and to advance the strength and mighty power of the Spaniard, working doubts in the better sort, fear in the poorer sort, and a great distraction in all, in performance of their service.

According to the writer, the Spanish were said to be preparing a huge armada, carrying 50,000 soldiers, supported by 100 ships from Denmark. It was reported "that the King of Scots is in arms with 40,000 men to invade England, and the Spaniard comes to settle the King of Scots in this realm." The rumor "is so creditably bruited as a preacher, in his prayer before his sermon, prayed to be delivered from the mighty forces of the Spaniard, the Scots and the Danes."26 A month earlier, Coke sent Cecil an account of the interrogation of one Weyman, an Essex supporter, who provided "(amongst much refuse) many things worthy of your observation," including testimony that seemed to "as much prognosticate a mathematical conquest (which yet may be imagined) as mustering, making of armour, expectation of forces from Denmark, hope of and from Ireland, &c."27 Early that year, Cecil had apparently shown his brother Thomas, Lord Burghley a report of a Scottish-Spanish design, which the latter rejected as based "upon false grounds and malicious" despite "the malice of Spain," because "Scotland hath neither a good purse nor a good argument to make her hateful unto England."28

The Calendar of State Papers, Domestic Series contains accounts of a fascinating series of letters, dating from April 1598 through early 1601, from one John Petit in Flanders, often writing under the alias J.B., to Peter Halins (alias Thomas Phelippes) in London, conveying news of rumored designs against England. In them the Scottish king figures prominently. On 22 April 1598 [n.s.], Petit wrote from Antwerp that James was "hastening himself in making friends to attain the Crown of England, and for that purpose sends out many ambassadors." Petit went on to say, "I hope Her Majesty may live many years, and prevent the intentions which all Scots in these parts affirm he has, of attempting it in her lifetime; but she should look well about her."29 In June 1598 Petit reported from Antwerp:

If I were not acquainted with Scottish brags, I might believe England was already more than half theirs. They say that the King of Denmark's brother … is to bring men from Denmark to do wonders in England; that the Queen having promised the King of Scots, at his marriage with the Dane [Anne of Denmark], to declare him her successor, she must perform it; … [and that] the house of Lorraine and other princes have promised assistance.

Petit evidently felt that there must have been some foundation for these rumors ("So great a smoke cannot be without some fire"), but he judged that in relying upon France James would be "deceived," because "the French will never help to join Scotland and England; they would rather divide both into more kingdoms."30 By the end of the year, Petit was reporting (from London), "I am told that in making war for the Crown, the King of Scots builds more on means within England than abroad, and has a great party, especially of Puritans. If he can get money from abroad, he will not wait till the fruit be ready to fall."31

From Antwerp in the spring of 1599, Petit reported news out of Scotland that "the King intends to gather grapes before they are ripe, and his brother of Denmark will assist him with 10,000 men." There were rumors that "for a kingdom" James would "become a counterfeit Catholic, like the King of France." "The Scots here are in great hopes, but all they say need not be believed," Petit wrote, concluding that "Means should be taken to prevent that King cutting the grass under Her Majesty's feet."32 A month later Petit wrote again, from Liege, that James "would attempt to gather fruit before it is ripe, but cannot find friends to assist him; the French King will not … and the Scottish nobility do not desire to see him King of England."33 Again, less than six weeks later, Petit wrote from Liege, "A Scot at the Spa said that his King had a promise from the Queen to succeed her; that if she perform it not, he has made many friends, both in England and abroad, especially in Denmark, and has no doubt of carrying it; and that he would undoubtedly be a Catholic, or give the liberty of religion which he has promised."34

In August 1599, Petit complained from Brussels that his letters were being opened and the contents conveyed to James. He went on to enumerate the arguments against those in England that "will not believe that the King of Scots intends to cut the grass under Her Majesty's feet." Citing "public speeches" by "the King and many in their Parliament … to stir the people to contribute largely to revenge his mother's death, and force Her Majesty to declare him heir apparent," and "many sendings between England and Scotland … to excuse this," Petit noted considerable activity across the Continent in Denmark, Germany, Rome, Spain, Brussels, and Paris, and concluded that the members of Elizabeth's Council who would "not believe known truths" were favorers of the Scot who "will not believe what they see, and want Her Majesty to wink at it, that her enemy may fortify himself." Petit went on to relay the rumor that "some English and French have put it into the head of the King of France … to take England himself." The English at Brussels were reportedly "in factions for and against the Scot, and I hear it is the same at Court," where Cecil and the Lord Admiral "are said to be chief of the Scottish faction." And Petit reported that the Scots "brag of many more friends among the nobility and commons, and that London is wholly theirs, with all the Puritans in England."35 In October 1599 Petit reported, "Rumours fly that the King of Scots is preparing to war against England, and that his brother-in-law of Denmark has broken the ice already."36 Similar reports were dispatched the following month—and throughout 1600.37

Petit's letters may in some measure represent the obsessions of a single individual, but their confused minglings of fact and rumor, tinged with apprehension, suggest something of the climate of uncertainty and fear surrounding the succession issue. And fearfulness about the succession "was linked to a number of other anxieties, concerning sedition, aristocratic factionalism, popular rebellion, and foreign invasion."38 It is against this background, and the many reports of diplomatic intrigue and possible military action in behalf of James's efforts to assure his succession, that I propose we look at Hamlet.


Let us return to Fortinbras and his reappearance at Elsinore in arms at the end of the play. As Eleanor Prosser observes, Fortinbras "reenters Denmark like a conquering hero." Firing off a volley to greet the English ambassadors, he acts "not like a privileged guest in Denmark but like its sovereign." Even before learning that his election has received Hamlet's blessing, Fortinbras calls a council of the Danish nobility and asserts his claim to the throne.39 Horatio's attitude towards Fortinbras reinforces this view. Specifically charged by Hamlet with telling Fortinbras that he has Hamlet's "dying voice" for the succession (V.ii.361-62), Horatio appears to concede Fortinbras's authority:40

     give order that these bodies High on a stage be placed to the view, And let me speak to th'yet unknowing world How these things came about.                                          (V.ii.382-85)

But before Horatio reveals that he intends to address the succession issue, Fortinbras takes the initiative and asserts his "rights … in this kingdom"; Horatio merely adds,

Of that I shall have also cause to speak, And from his mouth whose voice will draw on   more.                                  (V.ii.396-97)

Fortinbras's self-assurance is unmistakable in his next speech, the last in the play, when he gives a series of commands for bearing off the bodies.

Although Fortinbras has been frequently seen as the embodiment of a "restoration of order" at the end of the play,41 he is in many respects a problematic figure. As Prosser notes, he is "a foreign adventurer," anything but a representative of "the rule of reason and integrity."42 And, in Paul Cantor's words, despite courage, which Hamlet admires, he is "presented as a trouble-maker; his own uncle does everything he can to keep him out of Norway and direct his spiritedness against Poland." To Cantor, Fortinbras is a "dubious" choice: Hamlet "seems in fact to undo everything his father was said to have accomplished." Indeed, "the prospect of Denmark falling into Norwegian hands should increase our sense of hollowness and futility at the end."43

A troubling figure, Fortinbras returns to Denmark in circumstances that are themselves deeply unsettling. The stage is strewn with bodies, of course, when he appears at the head of his army and begins to take charge. That Horatio is ill at ease should hardly be surprising, given the scene he has just witnessed. Yet it seems odd that in urging haste so he can relate Hamlet's story he seems primarily concerned with the dangers of an unsettled populace.44 He asks that the disposition of the bodies

       be presently perform'd Even while men's minds are wild, lest more mischance On plots and errors happen.                                        (V.ii.398-400)

Horatio's focus at this moment on the future stability of Denmark may seem all the more perplexing given his previous lack of political ambition or interest. A moment before, declaring himself to be "more an antique Roman than a Dane" (V.ii.346), he had attempted to kill himself. And it is difficult to imagine what "more mischance" might happen; as Fortinbras observes, death has already struck "so many princes at a shot" (V.ii.371-72).45

The apprehension Horatio voices about the instability of "men's minds" can best be understood in the context of a recurring concern throughout the play with popular unrest, an anxiety known to many in the play's original audiences,46 especially as it relates to the succession. As E.A.J. Honigmann observes, Hamlet continually alludes to, and even depicts, "the distraction of the multitude."47 Most striking foments to avenge his father's death: overbearing Claudius's officers "in a riotous head," Laertes leads his followers into the very presence of the king. According to the report of an unnamed messenger,

     The rabble call him lord, And, as the world were now but to begin, Antiquity forgot, custom not known—, The ratifiers and props of every word— They cry, "Choose we! Laertes shall be king." Caps, hands, and tongues applaud it to the   clouds, "Laertes shall be king, Laertes king."                                           (IV.v. 102-108)

Although Claudius manages to avoid danger, co-opting Laertes and redirecting his anger at Hamlet, the threat is real: both the king's life and crown are at risk. So are the principles of antiquity and custom that sustain the crown and its wearer (illegitimately, in the case of Claudius). The Danish monarchy may be elective, but Denmark is not a democracy, and this brief assertion of popular will is as treasonous as it would be in Elizabethan England. A Fortinbras might have seized the opportunity-Claudius's "Switzers," the foreign mercenaries of the palace guard, have been swept aside-but Laertes seems interested only in personal revenge, which Claudius is able to manipulate for his own ends. Nevertheless, Claudius's vulnerability is evident.

Apprehension of such an event has been palpable at the court at least since Hamlet mistakenly stabbed Polonius. Claudius's first reaction upon learning of Polonius's death was to fear for his own safety: "O heavy deed! / It had been so with us had we been there" (IV.i.12-13). But he immediately focuses on the more abstract danger in the likelihood that he will be blamed: "Alas, how shall this bloody deed be answer'd? / It will be laid to us"; and he goes on to say,

          this vile deed We must with all our majesty and skill Both countenance and excuse.                             (IV.i.16-17, 30-32)

It is not clear where Claudius most perceives a danger: from the populace, the Council, or Laertes. But it is clear that he feels compelled to try to avoid the appearance of responsibility. He does so, just as he sought the support of his Council for his hasty marriage, by gathering his "wisest friends" for consultation, to "let them know both what we mean to do / And what's untimely done." His aim is to keep "slander" from himself, so it "may miss our name / And hit the woundless air" (IV.i.38-44). Claudius's strategy fails, however: despite his efforts, the people become

                            muddied, Thick and unwholesome in their thoughts and   whispers For good Polonius' death,

and Claudius realizes that he has "done but greenly / In hugger-mugger to inter him" (IV.v.81-84). And Claudius's anxiety about appearances leaves him vulnerable to Laertes, who concludes from Polonius's "means of death" and "obscure funeral" that Claudius must have been responsible (IV.v.210).48

The dissatisfaction of the people is a source of considerable anxiety at court; Claudius is particularly nervous about how it may affect Laertes, who

   wants not buzzers to infect his ear With pestilent speeches of his father's death, Wherein necessity, of matter beggar'd, Will nothing stick our person to arraign In ear and ear.                                       (IV.v.90-94)

The play never depicts the sort of opposition Claudius imagines, which seems to be a mirror image of the rumormongering and conspiracy we associate with Polonius and the court. Indeed, except for Hamlet and the "rabble" that accompany Laertes (who disappear as abruptly as they burst into the royal presence), Claudius seems remarkably unburdened by domestic opposition, either open or clandestine. His seemingly unfounded fears reinforce the impression of weakness evident from his initial preoccupation with what he imagines to be Fortinbras's "weak supposai of our worth" (I.ii.18).

The "rabble" who follow Laertes against the king may recall Fortinbras's supporters, the "lawless resolutes" he "Shark'd up" to recover the lands his father lost to Old Hamlet (I.i.101, 105-107).49

In both cases, the dangers to Denmark are seen as serious. The threat posed by Fortinbras and his followers is said to explain the extraordinary defensive preparations that open the play: the "strict and most observant watch" every night, the "daily cast of brazen cannon / And foreign mart for implements of war," the "impress of shipwrights" working without respite (I.i.73-79). Again, Fortinbras's threat is

The source of this our watch, and the chief head Of this post-haste and rummage in the land.                                      (I.i. 109-10)

These hurried preparations in the face of a military threat provide the larger context in which the ghost of Old Hamlet appears to the frightened watch, wearing "the very armour he had on / When he th'ambitious Norway combated" (I.i.63-64). (Presumably, Old Hamlet was not so armed when murdered sleeping in his garden.)50 The sight is ominous: to Horatio it "bodes some strange eruption to our state" (I.i.72); when the ghost reappears, Marcellus concludes that "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark" (I.iv.90). Both Horatio and Marcellus interpret the ghost's appearance in political terms, as a sign that the state is troubled. Between the ghost's appearances, the scene shifts to court, the source of the trouble.

With unconscious irony, King Claudius opens his speech to the court by evoking the "green" memory of Old Hamlet's death. The contrast between the old king and his successor is striking; Claudius is in every way a fallingoff. Where Old Hamlet commanded his subjects' affection along with their allegiance, so that his exploits of thirty years earlier are still discussed, Claudius's hold on the crown is not secure. Claudius's kingship depends, as he is well aware, on the support or at least acquiescence of the Danish nobility and commons, hence his elaborate concern in his opening speech to underscore the support of his Council for his hasty marriage to his dead brother's queen:51

      Nor have we herein barr'd Your better wisdoms, which have freely gone With this affair along. For all, our thanks.                                         (I.ii.14-16)

It is in this larger political context that Claudius's apprehensions about Hamlet must be understood. Hamlet's unwillingness in the first court scene to forego his mourning and accept Claudius's clumsy and disingenuous efforts at reconciliation merely complicates a situation that would exist regardless: Hamlet is not only a potential private avenger of a murdered father, as Laertes will be, but a public figure whose very existence poses a challenge to Claudius's kingship. "Hamlet, Prince of Denmark," as he is called on all the early title pages,52 calls himself "Hamlet the Dane" when he jumps into Ophelia's grave after Laertes (V.i.251). Although Claudius seems to have attained election to the throne legitimately, Hamlet is old enough to have succeeded his father.53 As important, he is accomplished, as both Ophelia and Fortinbras testify: he has "The courtier's, soldier's, scholar's, eye, tongue, sword" (III.i.153), and "he was likely, had he been put on / To have prov'd most royal" (V.ii.402-403).

Further, Hamlet is popular, as Claudius constantly worries.54 As he will tell Laertes, Claudius feared to move openly against Hamlet because of Gertrude's doting and because of "the great love the general gender bear him" (IV.vii.18). If Laertes, in pursuit of his private grievance, could rally such support, how might Hamlet have challenged Claudius's hold on power if he had wished?

Claudius is usually taken to be the source of Denmark's ills, and with good reason: he commits the ultimate political sin of regicide, and his efforts to keep the crown lead directly or indirectly to the tragedies that engulf the court and country. Claudius is responsible for the treachery that kills Hamlet, along with Gertrude, Laertes, and Claudius himself. Their service to Claudius results in the deaths of both Polonius and Rosencrants and Guildenstern. Even Ophelia's distraction and drowning follow directly from Hamlet's apparent madness and her father's death.

But Claudius's responsibility has definite limits. While it is not possible to measure precisely the influence of his sins on the behavior of his followers, especially the corrupting influence of the royal murder—of which his creatures are, like Gertrude, presumably innocent—the case of Polonius suggests the limits of Claudius's influence. Polonius appears to be the creature of a novice king who himself acknowledges, in seeking to solidify the support of his Council, that Young Fortinbras holds "a weak supposai of [his] worth" (I.ii.18). But Polonius is also, paradoxically, an experienced minister, whose brain has long hunted "the trail of policy" (II.ii.47). However we may view Polonius's political instincts—he is incapable of discerning the real causes of Hamlet's apparent madness, and he spies on his own son by initiating harmful rumors about his character—it is clear that unlike Osric or, arguably, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Polonius reached political maturity before Claudius murdered Old Hamlet and assumed his crown. Thus, whether or not we can easily imagine Polonius holding sway at the court of Old Hamlet,55 we cannot trace his political and ethical conduct directly to Claudius and the murder of his royal brother.

When Hamlet mistakenly kills Polonius, having taken him for Claudius hiding behind the arras, Hamlet maintains that Polonius must bear responsibility for his own conduct: he is a "wretched, rash, intruding fool" who deserves his "fortune" for having been "too busy" (III.iv.31-33).56 Similarly, Hamlet justifies the deliberate deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, whom he could as easily have spared,57 on the grounds that they "did make love to this employment," which ironically kills them instead of the intended victim:58

They are not near my conscience, their defeat Does by their own insinuation grow.                                           (V.ii.57-59)

The point, for Hamlet, is that these political creatures are free to make other choices.59

As Hamlet is aware, there is something inherently corrupting in the relationship between a king and his courtiers. Hamlet's barbs at Rosencrantz and Guildenstern reveal that he is aware of their ambition; like them, he slyly suggests, he has an aspiring mind. As Polonius jumped to the conclusion that his daughter was the source of Hamlet's distemper, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern may conclude, at Hamlet's suggestion, that Hamlet is distraught because he "lack[s] advancement" (III.ii.331). To Rosencrantz this is incomprehensible, since Hamlet has "the voice of the King himself for [his] succession in Denmark" (III.ii.332-33). Their advancement depends on serving the king in whatever way he commands, which includes their efforts to play upon Hamlet, as he says, like a pipe.60

The courtiers who so disgust Hamlet operate in a climate of corruption that pervades Denmark, where Hamlet is aware that "one may smile, and smile, and be a villain" (I.v.109). It is important to note, however, that as rotten as Denmark is, a similar atmosphere envelops other countries, where there has been no sin of regicide. Norway, governed by a decrepit old man, cannot contain the spirit of Young Fortinbras, who does not feel bound by the legality of his father's forfeiture of lands or by the value of the ground he seeks to win, at terrible human cost, from the Poles. And England, Denmark's tributary, can be counted upon to fulfill Claudius's request for the immediate execution of Prince Hamlet. The climate of corruption at the Danish court—the spying, conspiracy, hypocrisy, and ambition of courtiers like Polonius, Rosen-crantz and Guildenstern, and Osric—should be seen within this larger international context. The political evils depicted in Hamlet cannot all be traced to the sins of Claudius.

The international dimension is crucial for an appreciation of the politics of Hamlet, particularly when considered in the context of the uneasiness surrounding the late Elizabethan succession question. As I have suggested, the political world of the play is informed by the uncertainty engendered by James VI's maneuvers and threats to secure the English succession. This is not to say that there are specific correspondences, that the militaristic Fortinbras is meant to represent James VI on stage. (Nor is Denmark Scotland, as Winstanley maintained, or Hamlet Essex—and James.)61 It is not in such a literal sense that Hamlet may be thought to have held "as 'twere the mirror up to nature" (III.ii.22).

Rather, an awareness of the Elizabethan political scene can serve the task of interpretation by reminding us of the immediacy with which a contemporary audience might have perceived the anxious war preparations of the opening scene, with its rumors and apprehensions; the highly charged political atmosphere throughout the play; and the public dimensions of Hamlet's plight. Unlike some modern readers, Shakespeare's audience would have been unlikely to see in Hamlet's story merely a private tragedy or in Fortinbras's succession to the Danish throne a welcome and unproblematic restoration of order.62


1 David Bevington, Tudor Drama and Politics: A Critical Approach to Topical Meaning (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1968), pp. 21, 22; Lilian Winstanley, "Hamlet" and the Scottish Succession (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1921), pp. 165, 180.

2 Much has been written recently about the "New Historicist" movement in English Renaissance studies, especially about the ideologies and methodologies evident in the work of its diverse practioners. The historical orientation of the "New Historicism," as it has been practiced by Stephen Greenblatt and critics influenced by him, has been called into question recently by a historian who finds the term "a misnomer, for the method has little to do with historicism of any sort," though he "often admire[s] and approve[s] of New Historicist work." According to this view, "'New Historicism' is a text-based form of close reading that relies upon essentially arbitrary comparisons with other texts " (emphasis in original). See Robert D. Hume, "Texts Within Contexts: Notes Toward a Historical Method," PQ 71, 1 (Winter 1992): 69-100, 71.

3 Leah S. Marcus, Puzzling Shakespeare: Local Reading and Its Discontents, The New Historicism: Studies in Gultural Poetics 6 (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1988), pp. xi, xii.

4 Quotations throughout are from the New Arden edition of Harold Jenkins (London: Methuen, 1982); citations are given parenthetically.

5 Although we cannot be absolutely certain about Hamlet's date, I follow the dating in the New Arden edition: the play "belongs to 1601," Jenkins concludes, but "the essential Hamlet, minus the passage on the troubles of the actors … was being acted on the stage just possibly even before the end of 1599 and certainly in the course of 1600" (p. 13).

6 J. Hurstfield, "The Succession Struggle in Late Elizabe-than England," Elizabethan Government and Society, ed. S.T. Bindoff, J. Hurstfield, and C.H. Williams (London: Univ. of London-Athlone Press, 1961), p. 372; David Harris Willson, King James VI and I (London: Jonathan Cape, 1956), p. 138.

7 Hurstfield, pp. 372-73.

8 Quoted in Hurstfield, p. 373.

9 Maurice Lee, Jr., Great Britain's Solomon: James VI and I in His Three Kingdoms (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1990), p. 106. After James's peaceful succession the mood was generally euphoric. Sir George Carew reported, "All men are exceedingly satisfied and praise God who of His goodness hath so miraculously provided for us, contrary to the opinions of the wisest, who for many years past trembled to think of her Majesty's decease, as if instantly upon it the kingdom would have been torn in sunder." According to Lord Burghley, "The contentment of the people is unspeakable, seeing all things proceed so quietly, whereas they expected in the interim their houses should have been spoiled and sacked" (quoted in Lee, pp. 106-107).

10 "It is sometimes said that Elizabeth named James as her heir on her deathbed, but firm support is lacking for this view," according to John Guy (Tudor England [Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1990], p. 453). Rejecting the theory that Elizabeth anointed her successor, Guy writes, "On the contrary, James I succeeded because Cecil and Lord Henry Howard had paved the way, because he was the most realistic alternative, and because fifteen nobles and councillors signed the warrant that ordered proclamation of his style" (pp. 453-54). Lee observes that James "worked long and hard to achieve" the English crown, and "for his ultimate triumph he deserves a great deal of the credit" (p. 95).

According to Willson, Elizabeth promised James in 1586 that "she would do nothing to injure any right or title that might be due him, unless his ingratitude provoked her to the contrary; and beyond these words, with their threatening reservation, she would not go"; Willson believes Elizabeth "[undoubtedly" came to regard James's accession as inevitable" (p. 140).

11 Many sources document the various negotiations for marriage early in the reign and the attempts by Parliament to urge Elizabeth to settle the succession. On efforts to employ drama to advance specific policies and claims see Marie Axton, The Queen's Two Bodies: Drama and the Elizabethan Succession (London: Royal Historical Society, 1977). Bevington notes that from the first Elizabeth "was especially alert to the question of her marriage or establishing a successor to the throne"; however, even late in the reign, and despite her known dislike of talk about the succession, "she still expected … to receive unwelcome advice in her plays" (p. 8).

12 Quoted in Hurstfield, p. 373.

13 Hurstfield, p. 391. Elizabeth may have been "anxious … not to rouse an anti-Scottish faction which might have tried to make things impossible for James—and for Elizabeth." There may also have been a more personal motive, "the understandable personal feelings of an old and popular Queen who hated to see her own shadow lengthen while the sun rose in Scotland" (p. 391). As Lee observes, "The succession to the English crown was the great object of James's life—indeed, an obsession. He would do anything to obtain it, even to the extent of risking the patriotic wrath of his subjects after the execution of his mother" (p. 65).

14 Helen Georgia Stafford, James VI of Scotland and the Throne of England (New York: Appleton-Century, 1940), pp. 196-97.

15 Willson, p. 142; see pp. 142-48. Willson's 1956 biography of James offers a generally negative portrayal, which has been challenged in recent years; as Lee observes, summarizing the changing interpretations of the king's character and ability, Willson's book is "still, alas, the best scholarly biography" (p. xiii).

16 Stafford, p. 124.

17 To observers throughout Europe, James seemed, in Willson's terms, "a kind of irrepressible and erratic bounder whose bizarre diplomacy was crass and uncivilized and whose words and actions offered no basis of confidence" (p. 148). According to Lee, James concluded before the Armada that Elizabeth was unlikely to support any of the English claimants. James waged a "brilliantly successful campaign" to minimize a challenge from foreign, Catholic claimants: he "carried on underhand negotiations with various Continental Catholics, including the Pope, and did so in ways that were so studiously noncommital, vague, and repudiatable as to raise a great many hopes yet commit him to nothing. … There was no Catholic opposition when the great day came, and in Catholic circles on the Continent there was considerable hope of James's conversion" (p. 99).

18 Essex used the succession issue "to lend an appearance of statesmanship to his wild ambitions and to win the King of Scots" (Willson, pp. 149-50). The exact date of Essex's "first overture to James" on the subject of the succession is uncertain, though it was probably in the period 1597-1599 (P.M. Handover, The Second Cecil: The Rise to Power, 1563-1604, of Sir Robert Cecil, Later First Earl of Salisbury [London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1959], p. 152). Essex and James "had exchanged casual letters" at least since 1588 (G.B. Harrison, The Life and Death of Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex [New York: Holt, 1937], p. 45). Beginning at least in 1598, through a series of secret contacts, Essex evidently sought to reinforce James's Protestant leanings and to counter what he believed was sympathy among some English officials for the claims of the Infanta. James apparently answered the letters, but the correspondence is lost. However, it seems clear that Essex "flirted with treason in his secret correspondence" with James, contemplating in 1599 the use of troops "to oust Cecil and his collaborators from the Privy Council" (Guy, p. 448).

There was speculation that Essex sought the crown for himself; Handover cites Thomas Fitzherbert, a Catholic exile in Madrid, writing in early 1599: '"I think … the King of Scots will win the game, if the Earl of Essex be not in his way.' Although the Scots took Essex to be James's 'greatest friend' the writer considered they were deceived, and that Essex 'takes him for his competitor.'" That year Essex was cautioned that James had been told that "the only obstacle" to his title was Essex (Handover, pp. 189, 191).

19 John Bruce, ed., Correspondence of King James VI. of Scotland with Sir Robert Cecil and Others in England … , Camden Society o.s., 78 (London, 1861; rprt. New York: AMS, 1968), p. xlv; see also

20 Bruce, p. xlv, n. b.

21 Chamberlain to Dudley Carleton, 22 February 1600 [cited by Bruce, p. xlv, n. b], in The Letters of John Chamberlain, ed. Norman Egbert McClure, 2 vols. (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1939), 1:87.

22 Although the details are unclear, according to Stafford there appears to have been "a fairly close understanding" between James and the Essex camp. In mid-1599, a messenger from an Essex supporter, Lord Mountjoy, sought "to assure the King that Essex had no thought of rivalry and would countenance no heir to the throne but James, and to discuss some course for his recognition as heir in the Queen's lifetime"; this amounted to "a general invitation to James to back the Earl's efforts to oust his rivals from the government of England." James's response was "cautiously encouraging." Then, in early 1600, it was proposed more definitely "that James should prepare an army 'at a convenient time' and declare his purpose" while Mountjoy would bring troops from Ireland. This time the response was "dilatory" (Stafford, pp. 208-209).

23 Stafford, pp. 216-18.

24 Hurstfield, pp. 392, 393. Hurstfield suggests that Cecil also sought to "instruct James" in his future duties as king; for a contrasting view, that James was left in the dark about English affairs, see Lee, pp. 102-103.

25 I owe this emphasis to an anonymous reader, a historian, who observed that these rumors "were grossly exaggerated, given the weak state of Scottish arms and James's reasonable prospect of succeeding peacefully in the near future" (reader's report).

26 G. Coppin to Sir Robert Cecil, 9 August 1599, Calendar of the Manuscripts of the Most Hon. the Marquis of Salisbury, K.G. … , Historical Manuscripts Commission Reports (London: His Majesty's Stationery Office, 1902), 9:282-83, henceforth HMC Salisbury. I wish to thank James S. Shapiro of Columbia University for calling my attention to this letter.

27 Sir Edward Coke, Attorney General, to Sir Robert Cecil, 9 July 1599, HMC Salisbury, 9:227.

28 Thomas, Lord Burghley to Sir Robert Cecil, 13 February 1599, HMC Salisbury 9:71.

29Calendar of State Papers, Domestic Series, of the Reign of Elizabeth, 1598-1601, ed. Mary Anne Everett Green (1869; rprt. Nendeln, Liechtenstein: Kraus, 1967), p. 39, henceforth CSP Domestic.

30 14 June 1598 [n.s.], CSP Domestic, p. 59. In Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, vol. 7, Geoffrey Bullough reprints a portion of this letter under the heading "Probable Historical Allusions" in Hamlet; the Danish prince was rumored to intend to "demand a certain old payment which England was accustomed to give Denmark" (London: Routledge; New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1973), p. 185.

31 2 December 1598, CSP Domestic, p. 128.

32 8 May 1599 [n.s.], CSP Domestic, p. 189.

33 9 June 1599 [n.s.], CSP Domestic, p. 201.

34 18 July 1599 [n.s.], CSP Domestic, p. 243.

35 28 August 1599 [n.s.], CSP Domestic, pp. 298-99.

36 11 October 1599 [n.s.], CSP Domestic, p. 327.

37CSP Domestic, p. 343, passim.

38 The larger implications of the succession fears are stressed by the anonymous reader cited above, who observes, "There were many reasons to worry about the political stability of England at the time Hamlet was produced, but the danger of a disputed succession provided a focus for all of them, since un unsettled succession provided a potential opening for every other form of rebellion, sedition, and conspiracy" (reader's report).

39 Eleanor Prosser, Hamlet and Revenge, 2nd edn. (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1971), pp. 239, 240.

40 On Horatio's deference to Fortinbras, the text is ambiguous. He has just addressed Fortinbras and the English ambassadors together, and it is possible that he continues to address them jointly:

       since. … You from the Polack wars and you from  England Are here arriv'd, give order that these bodies High on a stage be placed to the view.                                     (V.ii.380-82)

On the other hand, Fortinbras is addressed first, despite Horatio's having just responded to the ambassadors. If Horatio concedes Fortinbras's authority, the cause may be less in Fortinbras's assuming command than in Hamlet's having just explicitly endorsed him.

41 See, e.g., Roland Mushat Frye, The Renaissance "Hamlet": Issues and Responses in 1600 (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1984), p. 268.

42 Prosser, pp. 239, 240. Questioning the "critical commonplace that Shakespeare always reestablishes order at the end of his tragedies," Prosser writes, "Order of a sort is always established, but is the audience necessarily to rejoice that the commonwealth has been healed?" (p. 240, n. 38). At the end of Hamlet, "A strong man has taken over" (p. 240).

43 Paul A. Cantor, Shakespeare, "Hamlet, " Landmarks of World Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1989), pp. 61, 62-63. An extreme view of Fortinbras is expressed by Arthur McGee, who identifies him with the devil: "puffed with 'divine ambition," he has "rebelled against his king … He is clad in armour like the Ghost at the beginning of the play—he not only acts like Satan, he looks like him. Elizabethans would have had no difficulty in seeing the parallel" (The Elizabethan Hamlet [New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1987], p. 173).

44 In his eagerness to assume control, Fortinbras had also urged haste: "Let us haste to hear it" (V.ii.391).

45 Whatever the merits of Fortinbras's "rights" in Denmark, no credible Danish rival is left alive at the end of the play to claim the throne.

46 Fear of unrest seems to have been pervasive throughout the period in England, according to most historical accounts; however, Steve Rappaport challenges the assumption that sixteenth-century London was marked by "chronic instability" and observes that "Not once did the capital experience a popular rising aimed at overthrowing the government or otherwise overturning the established social order" (Worlds within Worlds: Structures of Life in Sixteenth-Century London, Cambridge Studies in Population, Economy and Society in Past Time 7 [Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1989], pp. 6, 18).

47 E.A.J. Honigmann, "The Politics in Hamlet and "The World of the Play," "Hamlet, " ed. John Russell Brown and Bernard Harris, Stratford-upon-Avon Studies 5 (London: Arnold, 1963), p. 141.

48 The uneasiness of the populace is also a factor in the court's response to Ophelia's madness. When she asks to see Gertrude, the reluctant queen is urged to admit her lest Ophelia's plight inflame discontented subjects, who

             aim at it, And botch the words up fit to their own  thoughts:

'Twere good she were spoken with, for she may  strew Dangerous conjectures in ill-breeding minds.                                       (IV.v.9-15)

Exactly what these conjectures might be remains unclear, but they are evidently related to the muddy and unwhole-some whispers about Polonius's death.

49 In urging that we remain aware of the cumulative threat of lawless bands challenging Claudius's rule, I do not mean to identify Laertes's followers with Fortinbras's, as Harold Jenkins does. Noting that as the play proceeds Fortinbras is seen leading not a group of "lawless resolutes" but a well-disciplined army, Jenkins concludes that the "'lawless resolutes' … have attached themselves to Laertes" (p. 100). Such a conclusion seems unsupported by the explicitly Norwegian character of Fortinbras's followers: he gathered them "in the skirts of Norway here and there" (I.i.100), making his "levies," "lists," and "full proportion … / Out of [Old Norway's] subject" (I.ii.31-33); and these are the same soldiers who march across Danish soil to attack Poland (II.ii.74-75), returning at the end of the play. Laertes's followers must have been Danish, given the secrecy and apparent haste of his return from France after Polonius's death (IV.v.88).

50 The ghost's military costume and bearing are repeatedly emphasized: he appears in

     that fair and warlike form In which the majesty of buried Denmark Did sometimes march,

and he appears three times before the watch "With martial stalk" (I.i.50-52, 69). See I.i.l 12-13, where "this portentous figure / Comes armed through our watch."

When the ghost appears to Hamlet in Gertrude's closet, according to Ql he does so "in his night gowne" (III.iv.103 s.d. t.n.), though Hamlet observes later in the scene that he appears "in his habit as he liv'd" (III.iv. 137).

51 Claudius's chief followers are explicitly identified as his Council in Q2 o.s.d. (Jenkins, p. 178, S.D. t.n.).

52 Jenkins, p. 165, Title t.n.

53 There has been extensive critical discussion of the elective nature of the Danish monarchy and its relationship to England, which will not be reviewed here (see, e.g., Honigmann and John Dover Wilson, What Happens in "Hamlet, " 3rd edn. [Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1951; rprt. 1962]; Cay Dollerup, Denmark, "Hamlet, " and Shakespeare: A Study of Englishmen's Knowledge of Denmark towards the End of the Sixteenth Century with Special Reference to "Hamlet, " Elizabethan and Renaissance Studies 47, 2 vols. [Salzburg: Institut fur Englische Sprache und Literatur, 1975]; and Gunnar Sjogren, Hamlet the Dane, Publications of the New Society of Letters at Lund 77 [Lund: Gleer, 1983]). Norway does not provide an exact parallel, since Fortinbras must have been a minor when Old Fortinbras was killed and his brother succeeded him.

As to Claudius's election, it is easy to imagine Claudius working to consolidate his position while Hamlet is at Wittenberg, so that Hamlet returns to Denmark after learning of his father's death to confront a fait accompli. At any rate, Hamlet seems to accept the fact of his uncle's election, raising no objection despite the opportunity Claudius provides in publicly declaring him "the most immediate to our throne" (I.ii.109), at least until the end of the play, when he charges Claudius (to Horatio) with having "kill'd my king and whor'd my mother [and] / Popp'd in between th'election and my hopes" (V.ii.64-65).

54 Although Claudius never offers an explanation for forbidding Hamlet's return to Wittenberg after the funeral/ wedding, declaring simply that "It is most retrograde to our desire" (I.ii.114), his intention of keeping an eye on Hamlet is apparent even before Rosencrantz and Guilden-stern are called for. When keeping Hamlet at court becomes too dangerous, Claudius resolves to send him to England (III.i. 169-72). Even after the death of Polonius, Claudius treats Hamlet with caution—while plotting his "present death" when Hamlet reaches England (IV.iii.68):

How dangerous is it that this man goes loose! Yet must not we put the strong law on him: He's lov'd of the distracted multitude, Who like not in their judgment but their eyes.                                       (IV.iii.2-5)

55 That some courtiers were flexible enough to adapt successfully to the new regime is evident from Hamlet's comment, to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, that "my uncle is King of Denmark, and those that would make mouths at him while my father lived give twenty, forty, fifty, a hundred ducats apiece for his picture in little" (II.ii.359-62). Whether he has Polonius specifically in mind is unclear.

56 Hamlet is aware, of course, that he too must bear responsibility for his conduct: as he says of Polonius,

            For this same lord I do repent; but heaven hath pleas'd it so, To punish me with this and this with me.                                   (III.iv. 174-76)

57 In the forged commission, Hamlet could as easily, and safely, have asked that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern be held secretly in England until Denmark sent further word. At the very least, he could have allowed them shriving time.

58 In both situations, Hamlet judges his victims in similar terms: just as Polonius finds that "to be too busy is some danger," Rosencrantz and Guildenstern find that '"Tis dangerous" to come between the thrusts "Of mighty opposites" (III.iv.33; V.ii.60-62).

59 Indeed, Hamlet repeatedly—though ironically—exhorts his old school fellows to "deal justly" with him (II.ii.276). And he cautions them about the precariousness of their position: Rosencrantz is a "sponge," soaking up "the King's countenance, his rewards, his authorities," a sponge that will be squeezed dry when the king "needs what you have gleaned" (IV.ii. 11-20).

60 In the following scene, eagerly accepting Claudius's commission to take Hamlet to England, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern fawningly endorse his concern for his own safety as "Most holy and religious," since so "many many bodies … live and feed upon" him. Upon the king's

          weal depends and rests The lives of many. …

                        Never alone Did the King sigh, but with a general groan.                                      (III.iii.8-23)

Hamlet sees Fortinbras as a salutary contrast: as wasteful and destructive as his campaign against the Poles is likely to be, his "spirit, with divine ambition puff'd, / Makes mouths at the invisible event." Hamlet is encouraged in his task by the example of Fortinbras, whose greatness can find "quarrel in a straw / When honour's at the stake" (IV.iv.49-56).

61 Winstanley, pp. 7, 180.

62 Some of the ideas presented in this essay were first aired at an NEH seminar on Shakespeare's Politics directed by Paul A. Cantor at the University of Virginia in 1987. An earlier draft of the essay was discussed at the 1990 Shakespeare Association of America seminar "Shakespeare and the Accession of James I," organized by Arthur F. Kinney (respondent: Steven Mullaney). I am grateful to Professors Cantor and Kinney for their interest and encouragement. As the essay approached publication, it benefitted from the critiques of David Scott Kastan and more than one anonymous reader.

Source: "Hamlet and the Scottish Succession?" in Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 34, No. 2, Spring, 1994, pp. 279-300.


Hamlet and A Matter Tender and Dangerous


Hamlet's Ear