Hamlet is one of the most famous pieces of English literature of all time, and Shakespeare’s legendary work reflects many themes and issues present in society at the time. This paper explores the theme of power in Hamlet. This purchased sample essay on Hamlet is provided by Ultius, the global leader in connecting consumers with qualified freelance writers.
Hamlet and power
Universally acclaimed and thoroughly admired by scholars of English literature, William Shakespeare’s (1564-1616) production of Hamlet (±1601) debuted at a time of political transition in the English kingdom. Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603), with no immediate successor, was faced with the very real proposition of turning the monarchy over to James I (1566-1625), son of Mary Queen of Scots, a ruler with none too certain political differences. In Hamlet, Shakespeare addresses a myriad of important tragic themes in life some of which are misogyny, incest, inter-relational dealings between parents and their children, Freud’s Oedipus complex, and of course, revenge.
View Hamlet from the perspective of a seventeenth-century theater patron, and one important theme stands out: power. Who will control the throne? How will they rule from it, and in what manner will that govern the character of the people? None other than Queen Elizabeth I herself would have mulled these possibilities as word of Shakespeare’s genius spread far and wide, by this time a grand reputation indeed.
1990 movie recreation of Hamlet
In his cinematic recreation of Hamlet (1990), director Franco Zeffirelli eliminates this joining of king and country to create the semblance of a family feud among prototypical Shakespearean royalty with limited social implications limited to innocent bystanders in the court. Because of Zeffirelli’s focus on conflicts between individual characters, offhand spying on others, and blatant elimination of the Swedish prince Fortinbras, he eliminates a central point of Shakespeare’s Hamlet: the principles of a country depend on the integrity of its leadership.
This essay will develop by the following sequence: first, it will describe how Shakespeare makes a point of linking the state of affairs in the royal court with the health of the country by using specific examples from the script. Secondly, it will highlight the corresponding scenes from portions of the film where Zeffirelli blatantly chose to shift the focus to the conflicting elements of spying and personal vengeance rather than observe the global state of affairs in Denmark. At the end of this essay, there will be an analysis of what the writer believes Zeffirelli’s interpretation says about the connection between leader and country within a kingdom.
Ghostly revelations in Hamlet
From the beginning act of Hamlet, Shakespeare wastes no time in informing the reader that something is awry in Denmark itself with the appearance of the metaphysical spirit of the dead king Hamlet. After accosting the guards, the young prince Hamlet is summoned in act I, scene v, to bear witness to a dark and dismal revelation from the ghost itself: “‘Tis given out that, sleeping in my orchard, A serpent stung me; so the whole ear of Denmark Is by a forged process of my death Rankly abused . . .” (Shakespeare, 29). In closing, the spirit of King Hamlet exhorts his son to avenge his death: “If thou hast nature in thee, bear it not; Let not the royal bed of Denmark be A couch for luxury and damned incest” (30). The ghost says much in this fifth scene, but his comments relating to Denmark reveal that his life and honor are enveloped in the legacy of his country, even beyond the grave. Standing new Danish leadership corruptly gained casts a shadow over the country reaching from the grave.
Zeffirelli’s treatment of this supernatural father-son meeting eliminates this connection between man and country altogether. In their conversation on top of castle walls at the 28’23” portion of the film, the ghost now relates:
“‘Tis given out that, sleeping in my orchard, A serpent stung me . . . but know, thou noble youth, The serpent that did sting thy father’s life Now wears his crown” (Hamlet).
Gone is any connection to Denmark and the political ramifications of a corrupt king. Instead, Zeffirelli appeals exclusively to the universal human emotion of revenge. This creates an individual conflict for Hamlet where duty to country no longer calls for the death of Claudius, only the vengeance of a murdered father.
The spying of the king on Hamlet plays a significant role in describing the political entanglements of Claudius’s regime and the concern he has for maintaining his power. The king and queen send former Wittenburg colleagues Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to keep watch on Hamlet in an attempt to discover the motives behind his apparent madness at the beginning of act II, scene ii (Shakespeare, 40-41). Later in act III, scene i, Claudius and Polonius listen in on Hamlet’s dark and suicidal musings before rants in front of Ophelia (63). In an unrelated case of spying during act II, scene i, Polonius goes as far as to send his servant Reynaldo to France and report on Laertes’s actions. Reynaldo, ordered to “dishonor” Laertes if his actions should run astray of virtue, dutifully confirms his master’s orders (37). In all of these situations, the reader is left to view states of mistrust and subversive behavior; one may trust noone—everything must be verified in a world of politics and intrigue.
Zefirrelli also employs spying in his recreation of Hamlet, but almost always in the context of love separated from politics. In one notable example, he inserts staging intrigue by placing Hamlet high above and within earshot of Polonius warning Ophelia to stay away from Hamlet (Hamlet, 15’40”). Imagine, a young man spurned by the father of his love interest to be satisfied in acquiescence. To the contrary, Hamlet may want her all the more, as was common in terms of the marginalization of women during this time period. Later, when Polonius and Claudius spy on Ophelia and Hamlet’s meeting, Zefirrelli limits the dialogue to discussions of affection, saving the famous contemplative musing “to be, or not to be: that is the question,” (49’36”) for the proceeding scene where Hamlet ponders life itself in front of his father’s grave. Witty as it may be, Zeffirelli places a mirage in front of the viewer where love becomes the subject of greatest interest to the characters at the expense of displaying political principles.
Geopolitics during Hamlet’s era
Prince Fortinbras’s character in Shakespeare’s play gives the reader a geo-political understanding of the forces at hand beyond the borders of Denmark. The reader first learns of the death of Prince Fortinbras’s father in act I, scene i, where the two guards Horatio and Bernardo discuss the defeat of King Fortinbras’s Norwegian army at the hands of King Hamlet (Shakespeare, 9). This precluding story line fuels young Fortinbras’s desire for revenge on Denmark, an aspiration stunted by the current Norwegian leadership (12). Eventually in act IV, scene iv, Prince Fortinbras acquiesces, agreeing to turn his sights onto attacking a meaningless piece of Polish land in exchange for the right to cross Denmark on his way there (98).
Related Reading: Read more about another famous Shakespearean tragedy involving power – Macbeth.
Hamlet marvels at the mass of humanity moving on behalf of such little apparent gain while he stands unable to move his hand in revenge for his own father’s death (99-100). At the end of the play in act V, scene V, when all of Danish royalty lie dead, it is Fortinbras who enters the stage to bear witness to Horatio’s orations declaiming the valor of the dead prince Hamlet: “Let four captains Bear Hamlet, like a soldier, to the stage; For he was likely, had he been put on, To have proved most royally: and, for his passage, The soldiers’ music and the rites of war Speak loudly for him” (142). In spite of Hamlet’s delusional experiences, feigned insanity, and violent behavior toward the court, Prince Fortinbras recognizes his inner valor to bring justice to the Danes as he calls for Hamlet’s burial as a solider. This sequence, although developed around the perimeters of the main themes, creates a setting where all is not sacrificed in vain. Perhaps, in the sacrifice of Prince Hamlet, integrity would be restored through the reign of Prince Fortinbras.
Zeffirelli chooses to eliminate the character of Fortinbras from his film altogether along with any mention of Sweden or Poland. In fact, the only mention of a kingdom outside Denmark comes at the convenient expulsion of a murderous stepson / nephew sans politics towards the end of the film at 90’11” (Hamlet). The initial discussion between the guards concerning Fortinbras and the kingdom of Sweden is displaced by a nearly wordless scene with the grim burial of King Hamlet. The only monologue comes from the newly crowned King Claudius at the 3’33” mark:
“Hamlet, think of us as a father, for let the world take note you are the most immediate to our throne and with no less nobility of love than that which your dearest father bears his son do I impart towards you.”
This scene expresses the opening of a film focused from the debut on the loss of a father and the uncomfortable introduction of a stepfather rather than the transfer of power and the principles of proper leadership.
As for the Norwegian attack on Poland in crossing Danish land, the viewer misses a great opportunity to witness Hamlet’s inner antagonistic turmoil conflicting him from direct action on behalf of his father as discussed on page four, second paragraph. One supposes that Zeffirelli would have jumped at the opportunity to express Hamlet’s internal conflicts with justice and revenge. He takes measured pains to do so in the church scene where Claudius bemoans his sins as Hamlet looks on, musing (76’09”):
Now might I do it pat, now he is praying; And now I’ll do’t. And so he goes to heaven; And so am I revenged. That would be scann’d: A villain kills my father; and for that, I, his sole son, do this same villain send To heaven. . . . When he is fit and season’d for his passage? . . . O, this is hire and salary, not revenge. (Hamlet).
Alas, opportunity for greater character introspection flees on the trail of Portinbras’s elimination in this significant revision of the original play. Once again, the viewer is left contemplating a fatherless son bent on revenge alone rather than a crown prince struggling with the complexity of action and overarching justice for himself and his country. Click here to read another sample essay on Hamlet: The Youthful Interpretation.
Concluding thoughts on Hamlet
Ultimately, the director was obliged to cut corners rather than show every unpolished facet and motif of the play. With a film length of 134′, Zefirrelli had a limited amount of time and audience attention with which to convey his interpretation of Hamlet, choosing to focus on love, death, and revenge as the overarching themes for his movie. With those concepts in mind, Zefirrelli simply eliminated the political theme altogether in preference of portraying in Claudius a caring and sinful king rather than a conniving and selfish politician, in Gertrude a doting and thoughtful mother rather than a pliable and wanton queen, and in Hamlet an introspective and mischievous prince rather than the lunatic he bordered on evolving to in the play. In my view, the interpretation pays compliment to Shakespeare’s genius more than degrade Zeffirelli’s work. Zeffirelli only cut and pasted lines from the play during the entire film in order to fit his needs and continue the action as he saw fit. In ignoring the politics of the play, nevertheless, Zeffirelli made certain sacrifices. The end of the film left me with the sneaking suspicion that I had watched an elaborate soap opera in an ancient court rather than an epic play concerning the complex principles of justice.
By focusing on issues between individual characters alone, explicitly using spying only in matters of love intrigue, and eliminating the righteous redemption represented by Fortibras, Zefirrelli shifts the focus of Hamlet to revolve around love and revenge. Gone is the three-dimensional structure of character and theme found in dialogues of introspection and political intrigue, themes that certainly must have resonated at the inception of this play. In its place the viewer discovers a world where personal grudges run supreme, where familial ties bond and ruin courts, and where “to be, or not to be” becomes a convenient matter of theme selection.
Hamlet. Dir. Franco Zeffirelli. Perf. Mel Gibson, Glenn Close, Colin Bates. Warner Home Video, 1990. Film.
Shakespeare, William. “The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.” W3. Moby Lexical Tools, 1 Jan. 1999. Web. 9 Dec. 2013. http://www.w3.org/People/maxf/XSLideMaker/hamlet.pdf>.
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