I am not an experienced Shakespeare reader. Not that you need to be one in order to enjoy his plays but I think that the more you read (and reread) his work, the more you’ll be able to read into it. I’m sure this hypothesis can be applied to most literary masterpieces but it is Shakespeare I would like to discuss today, as I have some thoughts on Hamlet that I didn’t share on my previous review.
I already told you on that post that I was fascinated by how Hamlet related to its historical context in the most subtle ways. And it is about these historical connections that I would like to write today. So here we go.
“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” (Act 1, Scene 5)
And perhaps in England too.
Three different versions of Shakespeare’s Hamlet exist (that we know of): the First Quarto, published in 1603, the Second Quarto, published in 1604, and the one in the First Folio, which grouped all of Shakespeare’s plays together and appeared in 1623. Thus the play is at least as old as of 1603, though it is believed that it was first represented between 1599 and 1602. There are also records of an earlier Hamlet – perhaps by some other playwright – that was premiered in the 1590s. Elizabeth I died in 1603 so she was definitely alive by the time Hamlet became a success at The Globe. And even if she never watched the performance herself ¹, as royals did not mingle with commoners at the theatre, she surely heard what the play was about. And drew a parallel or two between Hamlet’s Denmark and her own court.
For modern readers and audiences it is rather puzzling that after the king’s death it was his brother Claudius, and not his son Hamlet, who inherited the throne. Even more baffling that we are given no explanation about why it is so but I don’t think it matters much. Back in the day, this needn’t be an oddity. Particularly not in England after nearly a century of civil war – the now (in)famous War of the Roses that has inspired much of Game of Thrones – and the apparent inability of the Tudor monarchs to produce suitable heirs. And the lack of a heir to the throne was England’s most problematic question at the time Hamlet was first performed ². Elizabeth was already old and childless and yet there was no clear candidate to succeed her.
Her closest relative, and therefore natural candidate for the throne of England, had been Mary, Queen of Scots. But she was already queen of England’s long-time enemy and neighbouring country, Scotland. She was also a foreigner and to make things worse, a Catholic. So it was only natural that she was thought a dangerous liaison by everyone in court. After having accused her of conspiring against England and the queen on several occasions, she was brought to England and kept captive. Late in 1586 she was sentenced to death and on February 1587 she was beheaded.
With Mary out of the way the odds of England having another Catholic monarch were greatly diminished, for the next in line was her son James and he was a Protestant. Besides, Mary’s death also solved another issue about which not many dared say a word but which definitely troubled the English nobility: that yet another woman would hold the throne.
Before Elizabeth, another woman had already ruled England. Alas, not as successfully as her half-sister would do later. Mary ‘the bloody’ Tudor had also died childless, probably because she married late and her best childbearing years were already behind her, though it is also true that she and her husband never spend much time together. Anyhow, she left this world and left no apparent heir to the throne of England, so her half-sister succeeded her and another queen sat on the throne doing what was much believed to be a man’s job.
Actually, Elizabeth was the third female monarch in a row, for before Mary Tudor seized the throne for herself, their cousin Lady Jane Grey had been made queen of England and ruled only for nine days. I’m not going into any further detail of why this was so (perhaps this is a story for another time?) but the reality was that the English were tired of ruling women. And particularly of women who produced no heir to the throne, even though that wouldn’t have been the case of Mary, Queen of Scots, who already ha a son kinging in Scotland and who would, eventually, become king of England as well.
As you see, the rules for royal succession were not set in stone at the time so I don’t think this particular issue of Hamlet that now puzzles scholars was much trouble for the people who enjoyed the first representations of Hamlet at the end of the 16th century or the beginning of the 17th.
It is worth noting, however, that at the end of the play, a foreign prince would seize the crown of Denmark for himself. Perhaps, Shakespeare was preparing the english people for the times to come, when a foreigner would rule England. Though truth being told, James I (VI of Scotland) wasn’t that much of a foreigner. Tudor blood ran in his veins, via her mother and father: both of them were grand-children of Margaret Tudor, sister of Henry VIII, who was the father of Elizabeth I. Ah, things get really convoluted when it comes to the Tudors (or any other European monarchy, for that matter). And that brings us to the next point.
“Let not the royal bed of Denmark be a couch for luxury and damned incest.” (Act 1, Scene 5)
Another issue of Hamlet that fascinates scholars and readers alike is Hamlet’s fixation with his mother’s second marriage. Why did Hamlet’s mother marry her late husband’s brother? Was it a legit marriage? Did she know anything of the murder of her husband? No one knows for sure; speculating is the most we can do.
What I found funny about Hamlet’s doubts, and particularly about that quote, is how well they echoed Henry VIII’s doubts about his own marriage to Katherine of Aragon. These are the exact thoughts that he would voice for the world to hear during the last years of said union. Of course, reality was a bit more complicated than a question of faith or his supposed doubts about the validity of a marriage that could be thought of as incestuous.
Katherine of Aragon had arrived in England in 1501 to marry the Prince of Wales. That was Arthur Tudor, the late brother of the future Henry VIII. They married but Arthur died only five months later and it was agreed that that first marriage had never been consummated. It was then easy to betroth the young widow Katherine to Henry, who was then heir apparent to the throne. After many comings and goings, they did marry immediately after Henry’s father’s death. It was a happy union for many years but Katherine failed in her most important duty: she did not provide Henry with a son, who would then be heir apparent to the throne. Katherine was pregnant time and again but most of the times she only gave birth to stillborn children. Mary ‘the bloody’ Tudor was her only surviving child.
Henry had always been an active player in the game of courtly love and when one of his mistresses, a certain Bessie Blount, gave birth a healthy boy, whom Henry acknowledged by consenting to him being named Henry Fitzroy, he began to believe that he wasn’t the one faulted. He then began to question the validity of his marriage to Katherine and when her childbearing years drew to an end he actively sought a divorce. And his main argument was that he feared the royal bed of England had been (unaware to him) a couch for incest.
When Rome wouldn’t grant him what he desired most – and for the time being Rome would always favour Katherine, for her nephew was the Holy Roman Emperor; plus the marriage was valid – he broke with Rome and proclaimed himself head of the Church of England. And the rest is history.
Henry always said that his conscience couldn’t carry the burden of being trapped in a false marriage. He spoke much like Hamlet does throughout the play. But there was always more on his mind, and almost everyone knew and talked about it. Henry desperately wanted a son, he needed a heir to establish the Tudor dynasty as a lasting ruling dynasty in England. And there was a lady sweet-talking him. Anne Boleyn was cunning, and also educated. She knew of certain pamphlets, abhorred by the Catholic church, that talked of the sovereignty of men and the error it was to subdue to Rome. Time was running out for Anne, she risked being just another mistress to the king of England and increasing the talk of the royal bed of England being a couch for luxury and sin. But her gambles paid off. Henry VIII took justice into his own hands and married Anne Boleyn. And it is certain that she was pregnant by the time they wedded ³.
Once again, it seems that Shakespeare was using Hamlet to tell his contemporaries something about their own world, besides the story of a prince of a distant kingdom. And in doing so, Shakespeare might have been sending a coded message as well. He was echoing Henry VIII’s tribulations about the validity of his marriage, thus reinforcing the idea that his divorce and subsequent marriage were justified. And this, in turn, validated Elizabeth I as the rightful heiress to the throne and, no doubt, this would have pleased the queen.
I hope you have enjoyed this long post and I’d love to read your opinions on it, or on any other issue that Hamlet has brought to your minds.
¹ Did Queen Elizabeth I or any other of the monarchs of the time see any of the comedies or the tragedies staged at The Globe?
³ Game of Queens, by Sarah Gristwood (p. 168)