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In the period of the European Renaissance, scholars wrote extensively on the epistemological concerns regarding literature. Perhaps the most famous example is William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Hamlet is a revenge tragedy set in Denmark in the late middle ages. However, Hamlet was written in c. 1602. At this time humanism, prompted during the Renaissance, set a foundation in art culture. Along with humanism, the Protestant Reformation came about and caused a major shift and reform in religion. With new ways of thinking being introduced and more people thinking for themselves, revolts for change began to rise.
This era of revelations and reformation against beliefs that were set by authority left society carefully inspecting their religious and political leaders. For this reason revenge tragedies, that commonly distrust and challenge authority, became even more interesting and it seems as if this influenced Shakespeare to write a play to resemble English society.
By Shakespeare displaying deceitful and corrupt leaders, he echoes the questions and concerns of the Reformation era and addresses, near the end of the play, what happens when one trusts unlawful authority.
Shakespeare seems to be challenging society to keep authority under skepticism. Although Hamlet reflects a lack of trust in authoritative figures, Shakespeare purposely demonstrates how many people blindly submit to power that is undeserved and often abused. The audience often witnesses characters striving to please those in authority although it conflicts with their own judgment and best interest. This is seen in Polonius’ eager attempt to serve King Claudius by finding out what is driving Hamlet mad.
To do this, he betrays his daughter, Ophelia, by reading the personal love letters that were given to her and using her to fool Hamlet while they spy on the conversation between the two. His only gain from this would be to prove himself as ‘a man faithful and honorable,” as Claudius assumes (2.2.127).
This is also seen in Hamlet’s excellent good friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, spying on Hamlet and eventually playing a part in Claudius’s plan to have Hamlet executed. They abused Hamlet’s love and trust to please Claudius and Gertrude even if it went against their morals and best interest. By doing this, Shakespeare seems to be imitating how most people of sixteenth-century England also blindly obeyed their leaders overlooking their corruption. Through Claudius, he subtly appeals to the audience to stop idolizing their leaders and begin examining their actions. In effort to emphasize the idea that leaders often participate in corrupt activities, Shakespeare uses the ghost to portray characters of authority as blatantly unethical. The audience can sense the flaws of the royal family through the ghost’s criticism of the King and Queen: Ay, that incestuous, that adulterate beast, With witchcraft of his wits, with traitorous gifts– O wicked wit and gifts, that have the power So to seduce! — won to this shameful lust The will of my most seeming-virtuous Queen. (1.5.42-46)
In this quote, the ghost is revealing the multiple sins of Claudius and Gertrude. The ghost alleges that Claudius committed incestuous adultery and through his “witchcraft” or dishonesty, he stole his brother’s Queen and his throne. The ghost also hints toward how Gertrude possibly went along with Claudius’s deceitful plan by calling her his “seeming-virtuous Queen.” Then later on the audience discovers that the ghost was expressing partial truth after witnessing Claudius confess saying, “O, my offence is rank! It smells to heaven … / A brother’s murder. Pray can I not” and this surely exposes the true corruption of Denmark’s King (3.3.36,38). He continues on seeming to be sincerely regretful, but then reveals: That cannot be, since I am still possessed Of those effects for which I did the murder, My crown, mine own ambition and my Queen. May one be pardoned and retain th’offense? (3.3.53-56) This quote concludes that Claudius seemingly feels remorse for murdering his brother, but he does not regret obtaining all of King Hamlet’s possessions. Therefore, he really isn’t sincere which is shown in his closing remarks, “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below. / Words without thoughts never to heaven go” (3.3.97-98).
This reveals Claudius’s true character. He truly is proud, greedy, and selfish. Although it is never revealed whether or not Gertrude played a part in his plot, the audience can assume the possibility due to her quick decision to marry Claudius after the death of King Hamlet. Overall, Shakespeare’s portrayal of the scandalous royal family seems to be what “is rotten in the State of Denmark” (1.5.65). The scene seems similar to the royal drama in England. Henry VIII incestuously married his passed brother’s wife and became King. Thus, it seems as if Shakespeare is again calling his audience on English history and appealing to them to remain vigilant and skeptical of their leaders. Shakespeare then uses the main character, Hamlet, and a few others to represent the lack of trust toward those in authority which seems to be more of a driving theme. Perhaps the best example of this is the ghost resembling Hamlet’s father.
The ghost appears to Hamlet and tells him how Claudius murdered him and urges Hamlet to take revenge so his soul could rest in peace. The ghost certainly demonstrated authority by appearing a father figure and also as a political leader “armed at all points exactly, cap-à-pie” (1.2.197). However, as a result of all the religious uncertainties due to the Protestant Reformation, Hamlet isn’t sure whether or not to trust the authority of a ghost. Hamlet questions whether he is a “spirit of health or goblin damned” (1.4.19). The ghost could potentially be his father’s spirit trying to get out of purgatory or it could be a Protestant ghost, a demon deceiving him to go against Scripture and consequently doom his soul. Regicide isn’t a small matter especially if the person happens to be a family member and more importantly, the King. To be certain, Hamlet goes through the trouble of staging a play to observe Claudius’s reaction to it. Through Hamlet’s internal conflicts about the ghost, Shakespeare continues to evoke the questions and concerns of the Protestant era about authority. Hamlet eventually decides to trust the ghost based off Claudius’s reaction to the play imitating his sin. Now that he gives the ghost authority by trusting him, he now gains the responsibility of killing Claudius. It is not just a responsibility, but a moral duty, to commit a lesser evil to rid the world of a much greater evil — Claudius. However, everything does not go according to plan. The last scene depicts the death of Hamlet by Laertes’ hand and then Hamlet speaks out to Horatio: Had I but time (as this fell sergeant Death Is strict in his arrest) —O, I could tell you— But let it be. Horatio, I am dead. . . (5.2.290-192)
Hamlet realizes he is facing death, but this also causes the audience to question why it all backfired. If Hamlet was really acting with authority and with moral intentions, why did he end up paying the price with his life? Shakespeare seems to implore that in order for there to be true justice, there must be true authority. This brings the authority of the ghost into question. This is also shown through Laertes who accepts Claudius’s authority when he obeyed to be a part of the plot to kill Hamlet in the last scenes. Laertes was also seeking revenge or what he thought was justice but it backfired on his as well. Shakespeare implies an answer by giving an example using Fortinbras’s endeavors to show contrast. Fortinbras and his army planned on passing through Denmark with the intention of conquering Poland. But Fortinbras operated based on lawful authority to conquer and bring honor to his passed father. However, Hamlet acts based on a supernatural, questionable form of authority which doesn’t come from the law and Laertes acts based on corrupt authority. Fortinbras is able to find justice and honor for his father because he acts based on the law. Thus, Shakespeare shows the difference between revenge and justice. Justice comes from a place of authority and revenge is when an individual takes authority into their own hands. It seems as if Hamlet should have been justified, for he was serving justice by expelling Claudius from the throne and also Laertes who seemed justified by slaying Hamlet for killing his father and indirectly killing his sister.
However, the error wasn’t due to Hamlet’s and Laertes’ desire for revenge or justice, it is due to how they fell into the trap of trusting the wrong authority and carrying out their orders. With these interpretations of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, one could conclude that the epistemological concern of if one could truly trust authority due to deception and corruption was certainly a driven theme shown in Hamlet. Shakespeare continually emphasizes the significance of objective criticism of authoritative figures. Also through the investigation of the similarities, we assume that Hamlet was inspired by the humanistic thinking that prompted the Protestant era that brought about a movement that challenged authority. Through this tragedy, Shakespeare challenges each audience to step back and evaluate who they give authority to and displays what dangerous consequences could occur when we put our trust in questionable, corrupt leaders.
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