What would have an Elizabethan audience understood by the “natural order” and how is this order disrupted in ‘Hamlet’? The Elizabethan period gave rise to a cultural expansion often referred to as ‘The Golden Age’, which saw literature, theatre, poetry, music, and art prosper; this included the emergence of Shakespeare’s plays. It was a time whereby the upper class would live graceful and sophisticated lives and a sometimes harsh and cruel reality for others – this was the social natural order.
However, the Elizabethans were also very religious and G-d fearing, which made them very cautious of other worldly matters, and those who they believed to be closest to the higher powers. This included the monarch, who as ruler, would be considered as G-d’s representative on earth. Should these other worldly matters be tampered with, they would have taken such offences very seriously. The ‘natural order’, could have supposedly fallen apart due to evil doings, and in the case of ‘Hamlet’ causes “something rotten in the state of Denmark”.
In terms of what Elizabethans considered to be the natural order, any evil doings would have disrupted the ordered structure of the universe. This would be deduced in whether someone had lowered himself in the universal hierarchy being that G-d is higher than man, and man is higher than animal. The idea that harmony is the key to life is based on the idea that whatever happens in one realm is mirrored in the other. This is why the Elizabethans took man-made corruption very seriously, as they feared that it would cause the same corruption in the ‘other realm’.
The play ‘Hamlet’ is a good example of how the natural order of society can be disrupted in that the predominant themes explored throughout are all associated with evil; these include murder, death, incest, vengeance, and deceit. These man-made evils which constitute the majority of the play are combined with supernatural elements e. g. the ghost of Hamlet’s father, making the disruption of the natural order more convincing and relatable to an Elizabethan audience.
The element of evil and corruption is immediately presented from the outset in the form of a ghost appearing outside the castle at night. The ghost of Hamlet’s father seems to represent a physical manifestation of the unbalanced natural order, and an omen of the dire circumstances to come. This is further reinforced in the following scene as Claudius attempts to shadow the sorrow of King Hamlet’s death with the joy of his marriage to Gertrude. “Though yet of Hamlet our dear brother’s death The memory be green, With mirth in funeral and with dirge in marriage, In equal scale weighing delight and dole”.
In addition to the supernatural elements presented in the first scene, Claudius displays two contradictions which represent how the characters of the play have contributed to the unbalance of the natural order; firstly, he speaks of King Hamlet’s death as a “green” memory, which is a contradiction in that green is associated with growth and the development of nature, which is the complete opposite of death. Secondly he attempts to create the image of happiness in order to shade the sadness of King Hamlet’s death with the news of his marriage to Gertrude.
In Elizabethan times and possibly today, Claudius’ incestuous relationship with Gertrude would not only be considered spiritually unnatural, but also physically unnatural. In combination with Claudius’ usurpation of the throne, this presents to the audience a society in which such corruption is concealed and thus made acceptable with their attempts to obscure the malevolent unbalance of the natural order. Moreover, the audience is made aware of the characters’ acknowledgement of the imbalance of the natural order. “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark. ”
The reappearance of the ghost in this scene reiterates the spiritual elements of uncertainty of truth, and this is stressed by the ambiguity of his silence. A particularly pivotal event in Act 1 is when the ghost asks Hamlet to seek revenge for the “most foul and unnatural murder”, as it sets an objective for Hamlet. This is important for the audience, as it also introduces the idea of justice being served, and they now know that Hamlet’s objective is to give punishment to those who deserve it which will result in the restoration of the balanced natural order.
Throughout the play, the connected themes of crime, punishment and justice are vital to motivating the actions of the characters, such as prompting Hamlet to feel he is mad, Claudius to feel guilt, and Laertes to a murderous rage after discovering the deaths of his sister and father. Hamlet is mostly famous for his indecisive nature, which is evident simply from the fact that he takes so long to kill Claudius, even though he knows it is the right thing to do. However, after the play he requests from the players to put on, he is convinced that Claudius is indeed guilty and deserves to be punished.
Once again this is important for the audience as this creates the notion that the natural order is going to be restored, and the play was simply a part of Hamlet’s plan to make sure that Claudius was guilty. This notion is abandoned when Hamlet is about to kill Claudius, but decides to put it off as he finds him praying. In Hamlet’s words, he does not want to kill Claudius whilst he is praying, because he would then go to heaven. “I, his sole son, do this same villain send To heaven. Why, this is hire and salary, not revenge. ”
In the religious context of that time, (and perhaps even today) an Elizabethan audience would have agreed with Hamlet and understood why he decided not to kill Claudius. During that period, people were highly superstitious and very adamant in the belief that the moral spirituality between G-d and mortals, and heaven and earth was very important. Although it has been disputed that Hamlet was merely using this as an excuse for further procrastination, an Elizabethan audience would have sympathised in that killing Claudius at an inappropriate time would have only disrupted the natural order further.
As the play progresses, the state of the natural order remains unbalanced, and Hamlet’s descent into a condition of near-madness reflects on how the imbalance of the natural order is getting more out of control, as he is unclear about so many issues surrounding his father’s murder. This argument is further supported, as Hamlet’s lack of control of the situation causes him to accidentally kill Polonius; this is a result of Hamlet’s procrastination, which has led him to become more irrational, and ultimately upset the natural order more, when he had intended to do the opposite.
However, Hamlet chooses to interpret this accidental murder as an intentional act of G-d, using him as a tool to punish Polonius for his sins, and punish Hamlet for his sins by tainting his soul with this murder. “I do repent: but heaven hath pleased it so, To punish me with this and this with me. ” This is another pivotal point in the play in that Hamlet who may previously have been considered as the hero, can no longer be credited with such an attribute as he too has been tainted by the corrupt society in which he lives.
The situation of restoring the natural order becomes a much more complex issue as now there cannot be one true hero who can seek punish those who deserve it, and still maintain a pure and moral core. In accordance with the social context of the play, the moral legitimacy of society is inextricably linked with its ruler i. e. there is something “rotten in the state of Denmark” because of Claudius’ immoral and corrupt behaviour. Hamlet is gone, Polonius is dead, and Ophelia is mad; even Claudius himself admits to the dark state of the society. “…the people muddied.
Thick and unwholesome in their thoughts and whispers. ” At this point in the play, the relationships between all the characters have become much more complex, especially after the death of Polonius. The death of Polonius almost demonstrates a microcosm of how the death of King Hamlet has disrupted the balance of the natural order, in that his death disrupted the natural order of the court. This further emphasises the troubles created by Hamlet’s indecisiveness, and how they reflect on the lack of control within the society.
Logically, the final scene of the play should involve the restoration of the natural order by dealing out punishment to those who deserve it, and result in the service of justice. Contrarily, almost all of the characters are murdered, and the question as to whether or not the natural order is restored remains unanswered. Hamlet dies by Laertes’ sword, suggesting that Laertes was successful in avenging the death of his father on his murderer, as happens respectively with Hamlet and Claudius.
It can therefore be argued that Hamlet’s death is neither heroic, nor shameful, as although he eventually avenged his father’s death as he had intended, many unnecessary sacrifices had been made due to his delay of choice. In terms of the natural order, although all those who had committed crimes were punished in their deaths, the deaths of innocents like Ophelia emphasises the idea that justice cannot be served only by the punishment of the guilty, and if other moral implications are not taken into account, the natural order cannot be truly balanced.
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