Overthrowing Monarchs

The overthrowing of monarchs provides an interesting, yet often overlooked discourse in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The play centers around Hamlet seeking revenge for his father’s death at the hands of Claudius. Claudius is Hamlet’s brother and killed his brother the king in order to marry his wife, Gertrude, and take the throne. While the act in itself is secret, Claudius still succeeds in usurping the throne. What makes this interesting is that at the time Hamlet was written, Queen Elizabeth was well into the later years of her rule, and there was much speculation over who would succeed her as she had no children.

Over the course of her rule, Queen Elizabeth had been threatened by several attempted overthrows. A play which featured a successful overthrow of the monarchy thus would be hard-pressed to gain the Queen’s favor. Shakespeare attempts to overcome this disdain in his depiction of Claudius. Claudius is often shown to be distraught with guilt over his actions, and in act three we see him pray for forgiveness. Hamlet has an opportunity to kill Claudius while he does so, but decides it would be too good a death for him. Hamlet declares, “A villain kills my father; and for that/ I, his sole son, do this same villain send to heaven/ Why, this is hire and salary, not revenge” (III.iii.77-79). Hamlet deems Claudius’s deeds too terrible to allow him to enter heaven, and thus he doesn’t take the risk of killing him in the middle of a redeeming act. The declaration reveals a lot of Hamlet’s mindset, but it can also serve to muddy the waters when deciding which character to feel sorry for. To remedy this, Shakespeare reveals Claudius’s guilt is not full heartedly felt. Upon Hamlet’s exit and the end of his prayers, Claudius remarks, “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below/ Words without thoughts never to heaven go” (III. iii. 97-98). Thus, it is revealed that Claudius is not willing to truly repent for his deeds and will continue in his sins. As the events of the play unfold, Hamlet finally fulfills his revenge and kills Claudius; a just fate for a usurper.

Another minor tidbit over monarchies in Hamlet revolves around how the successor the throne of Denmark was chosen. Through the usual means of succession, the throne should have been passed to Hamlet upon the death of his father. Contrary to this, the events of the play reveal that the throne was instead passed to Claudius. Hamlet gives us some insight into this when he tells Horatio, “He that hath kill’d my king and whor’d my mother/ Popp’d in between the election and my hopes” (V.ii. 65-66). Hamlet reveals that the successor was chosen by an election of some type; most probably one held by nobles or members of the royal court. This parallels with the political scene in England at the time, as Elizabeth was nearing the end of her rule without a direct heir to replace her. Shakespeare could have very well been aware of the plan to instate James VI to the throne, and possibly incorporated this approach into the play.

Hamlet provides scores of interesting theories and discussions. Some, like Hamlet’s sanity or true intentions, are more widely debated than others. These other avenues of discussion, such as Shakespeare’s treatment of a usurper and royal sucession, still prove to be worth investigating; especially when considering the more historical points of view.

-Justin Kemp

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