How does this quote from Hamlet relate to the political unrest during Shakespeare's time, possibly the Spanish Armada?

Witness this army of such mass and charge,

Led by a delicate and tender prince,

Whose spirit with divine ambitions puffed,

Makes mouths at the invisible event,

Exposing what is mortal and unsure

To all that fortune, death, and danger dare,

Even for an eggshell.... (4.3.47-53)

Expert Answers

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In the above quote from Shakespear's Hamlet,Hamlet reflects upon the character of Fortinbras, who is Norwegian.  He is the son of Fortinbras, whom Hamlet's father, King Hamlet, defeated and killed for "a little patch of ground."

Fortinbras serves as the most important foil to the dilatory Hamlet.  For, as Hamlet notes, he is willing to "expose what is mortal and unsure"--his life-- for "an eggshell"--the battle which he may easily lose.  For, while their situations are similar in that their fathers were killed, unlike Fortinbras who acts upon filial duty, Hamlet is given to excessive self-debate and procrastination. Described by Hamlet as "a delicate and tender prince" (IV,iv,48), Fortinbras is easily incited to fight in the cause of national pride or family duty.

With Fortinbras as a character of national pride, Elizabethan audiences may well have perceived some parallels between the Danish and the English court.  While the Spanish Armada had been defeated in 1588, there yet existed the potential of a renewed invasion attempt, just as Denmark fears an invasion attempt.  In addition, in England, as in Hamlet, anxieties regarding royal succession also exist.  One critic named Kurland in "William Shakespeare's Tragedy as a Political Tragedy Rather than a Political Tragedy," contends that there are echoes of Elizabeth anxiety over succession, accompanied by fear of intervention just as occurs in Hamlet:

...Shakespeare's audience would have been unlikely to have seen in Hamlet's story merely a private tragedy, or in Fortinbras's succession to the Danish throne an unproblematic restoration of order.

Thus, it does seem that Shakespeare's possibly play alerts his audience to contemporary issues. Again, the old question of "Does art imitate life, or life imitate art?" arises.

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