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Hamlet and the Scottish Succession

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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

I

The peaceful accession of James VI of Scotland in 1603 may have an air of inevitability when seen in retrospect that it could not have had at the time. Indeed, almost to the end James's prospects of...

(The entire section is 9,085 words.)