Hamlet and the medieval kingdom

I’ve just been to see Ed Stoppard in Hamlet – a very good production at the New Ambassador’s Theatre in London. One of the things I found though, was that I was automatically analysing the action in terms of medieval kingship and court life, and so I end up with a different perspective on the action than the normal one. For example, I suspect the natural reaction to Claudius marrying his brother’s widow is to see this as a horrible crime. In medieval power politics such an action would certainly have been condemned as incest, but it would also have been seen as a shrewd political move. Marrying a widowed queen gave the new king the political support of both her and her family (presumably influential). There are certainly examples of new kings marrying their royal stepmothers (this happened to Judith of Wessex in the ninth century) and a number of Byzantine emperors got the throne on the strength of their marriages to a dowager queen. Similarly, killing one’s brother was an obvious temptation in a royal family. Competition for thrones and territory meant that royal brothers fighting brothers were commonplace, even as they were condemned for their lack of fraternal love. (All that would be unusual to a medieval audience is that of a murder being successfully disguised as an accident, without apparently anyone suspecting). As for a widow remarrying so soon after her husband’s death, Carolingian laws prevented this happening inside a month of the husband’s death, as a protection against forced marriages. Beyond this period (as Gertrude seems to be), a remarriage might well seem to be either in the widow’s own interests or those concerned about the resources she controlled.

The other noteworthy thing from a medieval perspective is how smoothly and successfully the usurpation has been managed. There is no evidence of a need to banish factions or of unrest at the court. The only portent is the Ghost; there are no other signs of crop failures, comets or the foreign invasions that were the medieval signs of God’s displeasure at a ruler. Nor does the court seem ‘infected’ by the sins of its ruler. If there is ‘something rotten in the state of Denmark’, its effects seem curiously limited. The only real intriguers at the court are Hamlet and Claudius, with their courtiers simply following their wishes. Polonius may be irritatingly sententious to a modern audience, but his shrewdness and successful advice on foreign negotiations would class him as a good royal counsellor by medieval standards.

Yet in the midst of this very medieval kingdom, there stands the extraordinary figure of Hamlet, a man from a totally different moral, emotional, intellectual world. I can think of no medieval parallels for him, real or fictional, and in some ways he does not even seem a Renaissance figure. It’s an extraordinary portrait of intellectual force and confusion. Among many other things, Hamlet’s character also provides the answer to the obvious question: why didn’t he succeed to his father’s throne? He is the heir and of age: even if his uncle had taken advantage of his absence, surely there must have been a faction ready to support him, if he’d wished? Yet once you seem him, it seems obvious that he could never be a king, or even seriously want to be. Einhard, praising Charlemagne, commented on his ‘magnanimitas’ and ‘constantia’; his spirit could never be shaken by adversity or the length of a difficult struggle. Hamlet is not inactive or ultimately indecisive, but he does not have the patience, the persistence or possibly the limited horizons to become a king. Instead, he inadvertently wrecks the kingdom far more comprehensively than Claudius could ever do.

Hamlet derives ultimately from a medieval source, a story from the historian of the Danes Saxo Grammaticus. If I can find the details I will try and post it here, if only to show what a medieval revenge tale looks like before it gets into the hands of a genius.

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One thought on “Hamlet and the medieval kingdom

  1. I imagine all playwrights address their contemporaries with just a nod in the direction of historical accuracy. An obvious example is Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, ostensibly set in C17th Massachussets, but holding up a mirror to McCarthy’s Un American Activites Committee in the 50’s.

    Julius Caesar has trappings of Ancient Rome but the moral dilemmas of Caesar, Brutus and Cassius could actually reflect Elizabethan sensibilities.

    I agree that Hamlet is an extraordinary figure to find in a C15th play as he seems so modern, but then the pieces of literature that become ‘classics’ have a universal appeal.

    Something else I’ve thought about is the transposition of Shakespeare’s work into a different medium and a different culture by Kurosawa. In my time I’ve seen Throne of Blood (Macbeth) and Ran (King Lear) and found them both powerful and moving,

    Like

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