Context is a clear reflection of the values of any era, especially in Shakespeare’s canonical play Hamlet. The events and characters in Hamlet embodies the historical context of shifting religions and political uncertainty that lead to a society imploding. Composed in the 1600s, the murder of a king and the encroachment of foreign power would have had particular resonance for the audience as there was an innate failed invasion of Britain by Spain and an attempted assassination in the Court of Queen Elizabeth I. Additionally, the character Hamlet in this Elizabethan era represents the uncertainty of Christian values and the Renaissance need for restoring the ordained hierarchy.
Hamlet was composed in a time of great political uncertainty in English history in which the Queen Elizabeth I had withstood an assassination attempt, a foiled uprising and a failed invasion by Spain. The events of Hamlet , in which a King is murdered and a country ultimately forfeited to foreign power, would have had particular resonance for an Elizabethan audience. This disorder can be seen through the garden imagery woven through the play: “unweeded garden in two months dead”. The disorder of the country is also seen through the incongruity of Gertrude and Claudius’s reunion: “Funeral bak’t meals are coldly furnished forth the marriage tables”
The period in which Shakespeare wrote was one of explosive growth in knowledge. The Renaissance has seen a revival of Classical learning (reflected in references to Vigil in Hamlet), world exploration was challenged and revolutionising peoples’ conceptions of the universe with Ptolemaic heliocentric (sun-centered) model. Though Hamlet is an appropriation of a story told by Saxo Grammaticus, the ‘Revenge Tragedy’ prototype of Thomas Kyd and the Senecan Tragedy, Shakespeare transcends other tragedies by creating a protagonist that is more complex as Hamlet is a revenge hero that is reluctant to avenge. Through his inner conflict arising from his tragic flaw- procrastination, Hamlet represents the dichotomy of Christian values and the Renaissance need for order in the Elizabethan era. This conflict is crystallised in the Prayer Scene (III,iii) when Hamlet is passing through to his mother’s room when he comes upon the kneeling Claudius and recognises that he has an opportunity to kill him.
He decides not to since, he reasons, if he kills his uncle at prayer Claudius will go to heaven and not to hell – that would be poor revenge. However, according to A.C. Bradley, this is Hamlet’s fatal flaw – procrastination as Hamlet tries to convince himself that this is his duty: “Why, this is hire and salary, not revenge”, yet is moral code prevents him from avenging. To this point, the audience is convinced that even if Hamlet was to kill Claudius at prayer, Claudius would not go to heaven like what Hamlet had thought because of Claudius’s ironic couplet: “My words fly up, my thought remain below/ Words without thought never to heaven go”.
Hamlet’s conflict is also caused by his humanitarian self, denoted through his soliloquies and paralleling the age of enlightenment. In his soliloquy, he debates the medieval doctrines that demand for a son to absolve his father’s ‘murder’ with conflicting Christianity. In a bitter tone, his despair is denoted through self-laceration: “lecherous, kindles villain”. Yet this is again an excuse for procrastinating as his frustration at ‘thought’ prevails over any kind of ‘resolution’.
In conclusion, it is obvious that the values of any era are reflected through its context. The events and characters in Hamlet mirrors the innate instability and religious upheaval of the 1600s.