Hamlet: On the Actual and Literary Contexts of Monarchial Opposition


The representation of monarchy in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet is of the most prevalent elements of the plot, in particular to the characterization of Prince Hamlet’s willful revenge motivations against King Claudius. There are moments throughout the text that are significant in relation to the opposition of monarchial authority. These moments are directly related to the contexts of social discourse in the period, as illustrated in William C. Carroll’s chapter Treason and Resistance,found in his William Shakespeare: Macbeth Texts and Contexts. The texts that are discussed in Carroll’s chapter contrast and harmonize with opinions laden within Shakespeare’s Hamlet and it is from this evidence that the assertion that Shakespeare particularly contributed to monarchial rebellion by illustrating a monarch in peril due to his own wrong doings can be made, subsequently calling into to question the morality of monarchies and ultimately the validity of the divine right of monarchs.

There are a significant number of documents that Carroll makes reference to that temper European discourse of the late sixteenth century, spilling over into the early seventeenth century; however, for the sake of brevity there are two documents for which close attention can be given that comprehensively contrast with Shakespeare’s dramatization of the authority of a monarch, and support his textually laden assertions. The excerpts From An Homily against Disobedience and Willful Rebellion and George Buchanan’s On Limited Kingship From The Powers of the Crown in Scotland contend in discourse and are appropriate for the sake of analyzing Hamlet’s representations of monarchy and the relevance of those representations in the context of the periods discourse.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet produces lines that have a distinctly ironic quality about them because of the situations surrounding the characters, in particular Prince Hamlet and King Claudius. From the opening of Hamlet, it is clear that the allegiances of the characters, with the exception of Prince Hamlet, are to King Claudius. A minor character named Valtemand says in response to King Claudius, “In that and all things will we show our duty” (Line 40 p.1701). This line directly conjures the images propagated in Buchanan’s On Limited Kingship From The Powers of the Crown in Scotland; it is a document that is in opposition of monarch making the primary observation that monarchs are human, and suffer from human error and hubris. “For I bear in mind that the ruler is not a king only, but is, as well, a man; mistaken in many cases through ignorance […] He is, in fact an animal easily moved by every breath of good or ill will” (Buchanan p.243). The reason the assertion that Valtemand’s loyalty is ironic can be made is because it specifically highlights the negativity in blindly following a monarch simply because they are a monarch. It is clear that King Claudius is not the type of monarch that people should have such genuine devotion to, considering he is a liar and murderer. It speaks to the discourse Buchanan is writing about; the fact that rulers are not elevated characters without sin or on a higher echelon of degree in relation to the relation with God. Shakespeare uses Prince Hamlet to illustrate a disdain for monarchy when Prince Hamlet say’s “I shall in all my best obey you, madam,” to his mother, but in response to King Claudius request that Gertrude only reciprocates. The tone of the line is thick with opposition. The language suggests that Prince Hamlet is very much disturbed by King Claudius and any assertions he makes as king. It is moments like this that speaks to an audience operating under the governance of a monarchy that the relevance is obviously there, in the contexts of dominate and alternative discourses of the period.

In contrast, it is necessary to note the references of loyalty to monarchy as characterized within the character Polonius in Hamlet. Polonius is distinctly devoted to the monarchy which not surprisingly, leads him ultimately to his death. If Polonius were a real person he would most definitely subscribed to the Scottish monarch Queen Mary’s sanctioned document An Homily against Disobedience and Willful Rebellion which was first published and issued in 1570, in support of her sovereignty. The document was a response to rebellions in the region at the time against the monarchy; it emphasized the divine right of monarchs paying particular attention to the power of obedience. The document referenced obedience in the sense of being obedient to a ruler who is “obedient” to God, and therefore through the trickling down effect of power from God, to monarchs, to aristocrats, to specialist like blacksmiths and so forth.“[Man] who kept their obedience unto God: in the which obedience if man had continued still, there had been no poverty, no diseases” (Homily p. 238), the text is re-aligning the supreme right of the monarch, which is why the document was placed into the Anglican Church.

Polonius is devoted to the king and not necessarily to the Price Hamlet which can be determined from his conversations with his daughter Ophelia. “This is for all- I would not, in plain terms, from this time forth Have you [Ophelia] so slander any moment leisure As to give words or talk with the Lord Hamlet” (Line 131 p. 1709). What this entails in a deep admiration for kings, and not for Princes that have gone “mad” and are likely not to become kings. This is developed further when King Claudius and Polonius orchestrate a plot to determine the cause of his madness using Ophelia as bate. Polonius would subject his own daughter to the whims of a madman to please the king and not think twice upon it. It is here that Shakespeare is isolating the dangers of monarchial supremacy, and the sacrifices that must be made, including but not limited to one’s safety.Shakespeare uses Prince Hamlet once more to contrast Polonius’ devotion with the vileness of a king he is so devoted to. In Act three scene four, Prince Hamlet confronts his mother Gertrude about her incestuous marriage to King Claudius, “Such an act That blurs the grace and blush of modesty, Calls virtue hypocrite” (Line 39 p. 1748). Shakespeare is noting for his readers the true face of any human, and that is imperfection. He is saying that, monarchs can be dramatized to be these facets of humanity that are elevated, pure, and divine, but what happens behind closed chambers is anything but.

The opposition to monarchial sovereignty as depicted in Shakespeare’s Hamlet is rife with exaggeration of what is likely to have occurred in the periods prior to and during Shakespeare’s publication of the play. The play itself, though not blatantly opposes monarchies, is a critique of the right of monarchs regardless because of the implications that can be garnered about such from the fiction. The mere fact that the royal family is sovereign but attained that state through immoral acts and even once they are elevated to their state, continue to act in such detestable ways, suggests for the reader that perhaps they should evaluate their own and actual monarch, that perhaps they are loyal to a system that is hypocritical and unjust.

Works Cited

Shakespeare, Williams. "The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark." The Norton: Based on The Oxford Edition Shakespeare. New York: Norton, 2008. 1696-784. Print.

Carroll, William C. "Treason and Resistance." William Shakespeare: Macbeth Texts and Contexts. Boston: Bedford/St.Martin's, 1999. 231-70. Print.

An Homily against Disobedience and Willful Rebellion London: 1570. 238-241

Buchanan, George. “On Limited Kingship.” The Powers of the Crown in Scotland. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1949. 242-43

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