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Hamlet: A Reflection

Hamlet by William Shakespeare is thought by many to be his greatest work. It is certainly one of his best. The popularity of the play about the Danish prince delves deep into the psyche of the protagonist as well as the lesser characters. There are also several political undertones that run throughout the play. It is a play in which the young prince of Denmark, Hamlet must deal with the death of his father, the fact that the throne did not pass to him, his mother’s remarriage to his uncle and new king, and the fact that he now knows that his uncle is also the murderer of his father.

Hamlet, like most literature, has universal themes, but according to New Historicism, it is also a glimpse into Shakespeare’s England. The play Hamlet was first published in 1603. It is one of Shakespeare’s last great plays to be written. It was published in the year that Queen Elizabeth I died. That means that when Shakespeare was writing Hamlet, England was dealing with the fact that her queen was aging, and she had no heir. It was foremost on the minds of the citizens of England of who their next ruler would be. This is also a major topic of Hamlet.

The young prince was the next in line to the throne, but after his father’s death, Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius took the throne instead. Was that to be the case in England? What would happen at the death of the Virgin Queen? Hamlet his plight could become what would happen in the country that would soon loose its queen. England in the early 1600’s was also in conflicts with the countries around her. Queen Elizabeth was a Protestant, and her neighbors still swore allegiance to the Catholic Church which was ruled by the papacy in Rome.

Even when things seemed to be calm on the surface, there was an underlying current of religious warfare that ran through the country. In the play Hamlet, there has been recurring warfare with Norway, and King Hamlet, Hamlet’s father, has killed King Fortinbras, the father of Prince Fortinbras. So the underlying current of warfare is in the play as well. It is just a matter of time until Fortinbras returns to Denmark to avenge his father’s death. With the death of Queen Elizabeth being eminent, it was a deep concern of the country of whether a neighboring country would see this as a time of weakness and try to attack England.

The characters of the two main females in the play linked to feminism. Queen Gertrude and Ophelia are the most important women in Hamlet’s life. Queen Gertrude not only fulfills the role of mother to Hamlet, but she is also represents sexuality. She would have had to have been very young when she had her first and only child. Women married much younger in the 1600’s than they do today. It is quite possible that she is young enough to be attractive to young men.

But Gertrude substitutes “marriage nuptials for mourning rituals”; her marriage to Claudius “violates the father who has not been properly remembered, and it violates the son who is denied his legacy” (Bergoffen, 146). She displays great power throughout the play. Her ability to win the new king and secure her place as queen, her ability to still hold the heart of her dead husband even though he knows that she should not have married his brother and murderer, and her ability to have such control over her son’s sanity shows that she is a very powerful woman.

Yes, Gertrude is destroyed as a result, but she succeeds “in exposing the myth of the male phallus” and “provides us with a glimpse of a signifier placed outside the patriarchal structure of silenced mourning women” (153). Ophelia is the other prominent female in the life of Hamlet. Ophelia is the love interest of Prince Hamlet. He feels an attraction for her, especially in the sexual sense, but cannot find it in himself to trust her. Hamlet is convinced that since his mother has committed such an atrocity, that all women are untrustworthy.

After all, he thought that his parents had a wonderful marriage, and now it is obvious that Queen Gertrude found it quite easy to get over her husband’s death. He then wonders if Ophelia would be capable of such a betrayal. He fails to see Ophelia as a whole person, and therefore, plays games with her mind which eventually lead to her insanity. While the conflicting messages from these male/masculine sources damage Ophelia’s psychological identity, their sudden absence provokes her mental destruction.

Optimistically, Ophelia’s madness offers the capability of speech, the opportunity to discover individual identity, and the power to verbally undermine authority. A thorough analysis of Ophelia’s mad ramblings (and their mutual levels of meaning) provides “a singular expose of society, of the turbulent reality beneath its surface veneer of calm” (Dane, 418) There are many lessons to be learned about the psychology of humans in the play Hamlet by William Shakespeare.

It is also a glimpse into the world of 17th century England during a time of changing powers. Literature has so many purposes and gifts to bring to society and Shakespeare was the master of this craft.

Reference

Bergoffen, D. B. “Mourning, Woman, and the Phallus: Lacan’s Hamlet. ” Cultural Semiosis: Tracing the Signifier. Ed. Hugh J. Silverman. Continental Philosophy VI. New York: Routledge, 1998. 140-53. Dane, G. “Reading Ophelia’s Madness. ” Exemplaria 10 (1998): 405-23.

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