Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Hamlet: the Agent Fool

      I'm very glad we've waited a bit before starting Hamlet. Coming into this class, I didn't realize several things about society and its norms during the times of Shakespeare's writing. For instance, our focus on ascendance to the crown through hereditary blood lines was something completely new to me, and it has changed the way I look at each new play. The case of Hamlet is an interesting one when examined in this light.
     Hamlet is a displaced king who has been denied his natural right to the thrown. Being a grown man (He's thirty years old), the throne should has passed on to him after the death of his father, regardless of cause. The fact that his uncle Claudius is now king seems to be a very odd situation, given the order of things as established by all the plays we've read thus far. There is little background in the first act about why Claudius is king, but we do learn that he murdered his brother (from the ghost of old king Hamlet) before he could be given last rights. Thus once again, we see a situation out of step with societal procedures for the times. I'm going to be looking for other instances of odd social procedures throughout the rest of the play.
     Hamlet is also foiled against the displaced Norwegian ruler Fortinbras, who lost his father and his land in a duel with old king Hamlet, and has also been denied his seat on the throne. Fortinbras is a central figure in the first act. He is summoning an army and thus has kept the whole kingdom on full alert against potential invasion. In this way he is a very physical agent of change. He is making bold moves to try and reclaim the throne that has been denied to him.
      On the other hand, Hamlet decided to act in a very different manor. He makes his compatriots swear they will report none of what they have seen after their encounter with the ghost. However, he also makes them swear that they will not question him if he begins to act strangely, or seems like a mad man. The reasoning for this seems to be so that Hamlet can enact the same sort of change as Fortinbras (reclaiming the throne) but he's going about it in a much different matter. Under the cover of maddening grief, Hamlet will be allowed to operate outside the realm of the base culture. If this base culture (the culture of the state) is corrupt, then removing oneself from it is of no consequence. And there is little doubt that the society is corrupt as we've had some problem over natural ascension to the realm. Something is indeed rotten in the state of Denmark. Further readings will continue to illuminate more.


Barbara Gallagher said...

Being a lover of history, I will tell you that primogeniture was not always the way that a new king was chosen in all European countries. In fact, often the King was chosen because he was the strongest. Having said that, I never got the impression that Hamlet felt he should have been King, his angst comes from the thought that his mother has been incestuous with his uncle and therefore disrespecting his father. You are correct in seeing young Hamlet and young Fortinbras as foils. This is a political play as well and although Fortinbras has not yet said much, his actions are always in the background, yet Hamlet doesn't concern himself with Fortinbras, his only concern is to revenge his father's murder. I think also that his friends have to swear not only that they have seen the ghost of old Hamlet but also that they won't say anything about Hamlet's "antic disposition." Again, I don't think its a strategy that Hamlet is using to gain the throne (as Fortinbras will more than likely do) but as a way to show Claudius for the murderous villain that he is. What Hamlet doesn't seem to imagine is what will happen to Denmark when he does that. He doesn't yet mention how he will rule, for instance.

Christina Lee said...

Your analysis of the history in Hamlet is very interesting. I agree with the vagueness of how Claudio even became king to begin with, instead of Hamlet. It is quite odd for this play to start off with such a disorder. But, I think that is what makes this play one of the most unusual of all of Shakespeare’s plays. This is a nice crossover between reality and his play. Realistically, Hamlet should have ascended to the throne, but failed to do so, and so the play is in disorder. During the time in which Hamlet was written, King Phillip and Mary I was married, but produced no children, furthermore, King Philip is from Spain and did not know how to read in English. In addition to these unnatural factors, Mary I was not supposed to be queen because her younger brother Edward IV named Lady Jane Grey to take the throne after his death. However, a council usurped this decision and had her executed at the age of 16, prompting his two sisters to eventually take the throne through unnatural lineage, demonstrating the cross between reality and fiction. Hamlet’s insane antics are one of the smartest plays that he can make to kill Claudio. Again, as we discussed in class he cannot speak out without being executed. If he is caught conspiring, he is dead. Acting crazy and grief-stricken is a smart way to not be caught, but most importantly get to the bottom of the truth in which he needs to kill Claudio. I may not like Hamlet all too much because of his selfish and somewhat annoying, brattish attitude, but I still want him to Claudio just to have the natural order back.

Cyrus Mulready said...

You make a very interesting point at the end of the post, Josh, that Hamlet must find an alternative to Danish society in which to operate. Following the cue of your title, I wonder if we could identify the as the theater itself? It's notable that Hamlet uses a play to reveal the guilt of Claudius. Also, he compares himself to a "rogue" and "petty slave," language that might point to the lower class status of actors.