The Renaissance "Hamlet"

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

If a nineteenth century student of Shakespeare had been asked to name William Shakespeare’s greatest drama, he would almost certainly have replied Hamlet; in the twentieth, the answer would probably be King Lear, although Hamlet still ranks among the greatest dramas ever written. An important reason for the relative decline in favor is that Hamlet has grown increasingly remote from modern attitudes and values; there is, for example, the acceptance of revenge as a legitimate motive for action, a viewpoint questionable to most readers. Further, more than any other Shakespearean play, Hamlet re-creates, not always accurately, an aura of Renaissance Catholicism, with references to purgatory, with specific rites, and with a legalistic approach to ethical questions. There is the important question of real or feigned madness of the hero—never, it seems, adequately resolved. While critics generally agree that Hamlet is not mad in the modern sense, it is difficult to account for his behavior by any other assumption and still remain sympathetic, as when he appears to Ophelia and terrifies her, or when he leaps into her grave to struggle with Laertes, later explaining to Laertes that he was experiencing a bout of madness. Roland Mushat Frye attempts to resolve some of the pressing ambiguities and problems by explaining how Shakespeare’s contemporaries would have reacted to them. To this end, he draws upon the history, philosophy, and art of the Renaissance, citing analogies and clarifying responses to them.

Editions of Shakespeare’s plays normally include illustrations depicting Elizabethan culture—from objects such as ordinary tools, weapons, and instruments to the most elaborate civil and religious ceremonies. These contemporary artistic representations of reality enhance readers’ understanding of the dramas. Frye, however, raises this method to a much higher plane, perhaps a unique one, by including eighty-seven illustrations intended to resolve problems and ambiguities in Hamlet. Further elucidation of the cruxes comes from his use of historical and polemic sources of the Renaissance, as he ranges over the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries for parallels to Shakespeare’s tragedy.

According to Frye, Shakespeare’s plays reflect the “form and pressure of the time”—that is, Shakespeare sought the universal in the particular and the particular in the Elizabethan era. A dramatist for all time, he remains firmly rooted in his own time, and therefore it is not surprising that modern responses to Hamlet differ from those of Shakespeare’s contemporaries. Nevertheless, Frye acknowledges that Elizabethan audiences would not have experienced a uniform response. On some subjects, such as incest, they would have agreed; on others, such as the justification of tyrannicide, they would have differed among themselves; on still others, such as the “maimed” funeral rites of Ophelia, they would not have agreed with the interpretation offered in the play.

Frye begins with the initial problem of the drama—reactions to the Ghost. Eleven sightings by four different characters make the Ghost seem real enough, yet the characters as well as the audience would have entertained the possibility that the Ghost represented a demonic apparition. Protestant theology tended to encourage this interpretation of ghosts, since it did not accept belief in purgatory, as citations from theologians make clear. Ghost reports of the time were not normally associated with revenge; those few linked to vengeance were particularly suspected of demonic origin. Thus, the audience would have shared the characters’ fear and doubt of the Ghost, while accepting the possibility of its authenticity. At best, the Ghost is ambiguous, a conclusion that leaves the problem unsolved, for it does not account for Hamlet’s vacillation. To do this, the critic must get beyond Shakespeare’s time by drawing upon psychological theory. Frye’s conclusion that “Shakespeare requires us to be confused” represents an acknowledgment that the problem remains, even after one has viewed it from an Elizabethan perspective.

Since the Ghost incites Hamlet to revenge against Claudius for adultery, incest, and fratricide, its appearance raises questions about the acceptability of vengeance and tyrannicide. In speculations based upon biblical sources, Renaissance thinkers drew a distinction between revenge by private individuals, universally forbidden, and by princes and magistrates—allowable under specific conditions. Frye proceeds to explain how King James VI of Scotland was publicly incited to avenge his father’s death at the hands of the Earl of Bothwell, who shortly after the murder married the widowed mother of James, Mary of Scotland. Even though Bothwell died before the young prince James grew to manhood to carry out the revenge urged by his grandparents, the incident represented a precedent for princely revenge.

It is one thing to justify revenge against a nobleman such as Bothwell, another to sanction it against a king such as Claudius. Elizabethan theory permitted the removal of tyrants,...

(The entire section is 2112 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

Times Literary Supplement. February 22, 1985, p. 208.