Hamlet and the Renaissance Hamlet is a play about Prince Hamlet of Denmark written by English playwright and poet William Shakespeare. Shakespeare lived in England from 1564 to 1616 during the late Renaissance era (Fiero, 2011). He is considered by people across the world and from many different disciplines as the world’s greatest dramatist and poet (Wadsworth, 2007). Shakespeare’s works continue to captivate audiences across the world today the same way they did when he first wrote them some 400 years ago.
This is evident by the number of Hollywood movies that have been produced and playhouses that dedicate themselves to Shakespeare’s works. The reason Shakespeare’s works are still popular 400 years after he wrote them is because he created characters that his audience can relate to in one way or the other. Specifically, Shakespeare used ideals from the Renaissance era relating to Humanism and the Elizabethan society in which he lived in. He understood the ideals of the people he wrote the plays for and used those same ideals and applied them to the characters in his plays.
One play in particular, Hamlet, is a good example of how Shakespeare used Renaissance ideals in his works to gain the sympathy and understanding of his audience. The Renaissance took place from the early 1300’s and ended about 1600 (Hankins, 2007). The movement originated in Italy and spread to England, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain and other countries (Hankins, 2007). Renaissance is a French world with Latin roots meaning “rebirth” (Hankins, 2007).
The Renaissance represented an era of renewed interest in the ancient Greek and Roman cultures after the Middle Ages, an era during which the most important field of study was theology (Hankins, 2007). While the people of the Middle Ages were more concerned with studying theology, the Renaissance thinkers were more interested in the study of humanity (Hankins, 2007). During the Renaissance, an intellectual movement called humanism evolved (“Renaissance,” 2007). Humanism involved the study of mankind.
Durant (1953) has described the study of humanism and how it examines mankind: The proper study of mankind was now to be mankind, in all the potential strength and beauty of his body, in all the joy and pain of his senses and feelings, in all the frail majesty of his reason; and in these as most abundantly and perfectly revealed in the literature and art of ancient Greece and Rome. This was humanism (pp. 77-78). Staying true the humanist movement, Shakespeare makes Hamlet neither a Protestant nor a Catholic work (Bloom, 1998).
Shakespeare experienced the Renaissance and humanism in England during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, a period known as the Elizabethan Age (Wadsworth, 2007). Many historians consider this period the peak of English culture (Wadsworth, 2007). Hamlet was probably first performed in 1601 and was first published in 1603 (Wadsworth, 2007). Shakespeare’s plays have traditionally been divided into three categories- comedies, histories, and tragedies (Wadsworth, 2007). Hamlet falls into the category of tragedies. The story of Prince Hamlet of Denmark is well known by many people.
The play is one of Shakespeare’s most popular works. It is continuously acted out in plays and has been made into several Hollywood movies. Hamlet is also Shakespeare’s most quoted play (Fiero, 2011). The plot of Hamlet revolves around Prince Hamlet and how he deals with avenging his father’s murder. Throughout the play, Hamlet criticizes himself and often contemplates suicide. He criticizes himself due to his inability to kill his uncle who, as Hamlet finds out from his father’s ghost, is responsible for his father’s death.
He contemplates suicide in his famous soliloquies where he describes his grief relating to his father’s murder and the anger he feels towards his uncle, and even himself for not being able to kill him. The reason he is so torn apart about killing his uncle is because Hamlet understands the difference between good and evil. Hamlet has an education in theology which he received at Wittenberg in England (Foster, 1976). Having had an education in theology, Hamlet is aware of apparitions such as ghost and so does not know whether the ghost of his father is evil or not.
Foster (1976) describes Hamlet’s indecision pertaining to killing his uncle as, “not an indication of weakness, but the result of his complex understanding of the moral dilemma with his is faced” (p. 2460). Foster (1976) confirms the complexity of Hamlet’s predicament by saying that, “Hamlet’s intelligence has transformed a stock situation into a unique internal conflict” (p. 2460). Throughout the course of the play, Hamlet accidently kills one person and actually murders two more. He is indirectly responsible for quite a few deaths but the audience still manages to feel sympathy towards him.
Bloom (1998) ultimately concludes that, “It might be better to call Hamlet a villain-hero, because his transcendence finally triumphs, even though pragmatically he is the agency of eight deaths, his own included. A stage left empty…is the final consequence of the pragmatic Hamlet. ” (pp. 406-407). Shakespeare’s works appealed to the people that watched them during the Elizabethan age because he integrated the cultural and social conditions in which they lived in into his work (Wadsworth, 2007).
During the period that Shakespeare was alive, London was a large city of 200,000 people (Wadsworth, 2007) London’s inhabitants lived in crowded and often unsanitary conditions (Wadsworth, 2007). These conditions often led to frequent epidemics of plague that caused the death of thousands of people at a time (Wadsworth, 2007). Elizabethans were surrounded by death and were well aware of life’s briefness (Wadsworth, 2007). Even though Elizabethans were surrounded by such inhumane and depressing conditions, they were strangely fascinated by death and violence (Wadsworth, 2007).
They frequently went to public beheadings and lynchings (Wadsworth, 2007). They also enjoyed bloodthirsty sports such as bearbaiting and bullbaiting, a sport in which dogs attack a bear or bull tied to a post (Wadsworth, 2007). The people of the Elizabethan age also believed in and were fascinated by ghost (Wadsworth, 2007). Shakespeare integrates the subject of death and the apparition a ghost into Hamlet. Shakespeare used this to his advantage in his plays and so made his characters more relatable and interesting to his audience.
In conclusion, it is evident that Shakespeare used the ideals of the Renaissance period in Hamlet to captivate his audience. Hamlet speaks of God and the Devil, heaven and hell, love and hate, and also questions himself as a human continually throughout the play. These are prime examples of what the humanist movement embodied. The subject of death was something Elizabethans had to live with on a daily basis and Shakespeare integrated this subject into Hamlet. Ghosts were an interesting subject for Elizabethans and Shakespeare used this knowledge and applied it into Hamlet as well.
In this way, by including ideals that the Renaissance audience could relate to, Shakespeare was able to gain the audience’s sympathy and understanding towards Hamlet. References Bloom, Harold. (1998). Shakespeare: The invention of the human. New York: Riverhead Books Penguin Putnam Inc. Durant, W. (1953). The Renaissance: A history of civilization in Italy from 1304-1576 A. D. New York: Simon and Schuster Fiero, G. (2011) The humanistic tradition: The early modern world to the present. (Vol. 2). (6th ed. ).
New York: McGraw-Hill. Foster, E. (1976) Hamlet. In Frank N. Magill & Dayton Kohler (Eds. ) Masterplots: Vol. 5. New Jersey: Salem Press. Hankins, James. (2007). Renaissance. In The world book encyclopedia (Vol. 16, pp. 232-238). Chicago: World Book. Renaissance. (2007). Shakespeare, William. In The new encyclopaedia Britannica (Vol. 9, pp. 1019-1021). Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica. Wadsworth, Frank W. (2007). Shakespeare, William. In The world book encyclopedia (Vol. 17, pp. 345-367). Chicago: World Book.