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Hamlet and Elizabethan England

Updated Friday, 1 March 2019
Explore the historical context of Shakespeare's 'Hamlet' in Elizabethan England with Dr Hannah Lavery, Associate Lecturer at The Open University,

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Portrait of Elizabeth I

At the time when Hamlet first appeared on stage, questions about loyalty and national security, and the figure of the aging female monarch, were current in Elizabethan England. By looking at two topics – the concept of ‘revenge’, and the historical figure of Elizabeth I – we can explore the play further.


Revenge actions dominate the play, but it is worth taking a closer look at the significance of these. The concept of revenge relates to very basic concerns about the relationship of the individual to the state, and about justice and the legality of violent action.

Private revenge acts were understood at that time to be actions taken by an individual in response to a wrong committed on themselves or their family group. Often these ‘blood feuds’ would be settled by a duel or other violent retributive action. Francis Bacon describes revenge actions as ‘a sort of wild justice’, connoting these as out of control, or as transgressing regulated human society. Even as late as 1773, Dr Johnson talks about revenge as ‘an act of passion; vengeance is justice’. This seems to separate an individual’s private revenge actions (as an emotional response), from divine or state ‘vengeance’ as more clearly linked to ideas of legality (therefore ‘justice’).

The old concept of the family blood feud harked back to a past where smaller self-governing units controlled local power. However, a blood feud was entirely subjective: the person being avenged could have been right or wrong, and yet violent revenge would still be justified. This is because it is the external threat to a family’s honour and reputation, not the ethical significance of an individual’s actions, which is in question.

Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I Under the Tudors, the move towards a more centralised understanding of power under a monarchy was developed. In this conception, the idea of the monarch as divinely appointed was established, and so too her earthly governing bodies. In this context, private revenge actions as linked to concepts of blood feud would be seen as deeply disruptive. Quite apart from the threats to public order presented by an individual seeking justice for themselves, such actions presented both a theoretical and a literal challenge to Elizabeth I’s legislative bodies.

On the other hand, what happens when the judicial systems break-down, or are shown to be unworkable? What happens if you believe that those who make the laws are misguided or corrupt? In the play, Hamlet grapples with his position in a corrupt court, where surveillance intrudes on individual’s lives, and there is an apparent lack of justice: ‘Denmark is a prison’ (2.2.239). Violent revenge appears to be the only way to achieve resolution for his anger and frustration.

Indeed, even though there were efforts to ensure it was the judicial system which handled crimes and punishment, the idea of self-government was in fact so deeply embedded in the English psyche that blood feud and duelling continued in England until the latter part of the century, and in Scotland until well after 1600. The idea of the blood feud is raised in the play through the retributive actions of both Hamlet and Laertes, and their private revenge acts are ultimately shown as entirely destructive.

Tellingly, of course, the question of justice and authority are inextricably bound up with the figure of Hamlet: as a member of the governing family of the country his private revenge has both microcosmic and macrocosmic consequences. It is useful to note the tensions between the domestic focus of much of the action in the play with the wider political world described therein, and think about how this is resolved through revenge actions. Finally, the court of Hamlet is won by Fortinbras, not through war, but through internal schism and corruption.

The Queen’s Authority

In the late sixteenth century, questions of family and politics were inextricably linked. England came under repeated threat of attack by external and internal bodies. Since Henry VIII’s decision to break with Rome and establish the English monarch as head of the Church of England (1533), England had faced external threats from the Holy Roman Empire.

Mary I, had reunited with Rome during her brief reign (1553-1558) and married the Spaniard Philip II (1554), which did not prove popular with the people. Elizabeth I on acceding to the throne faced pressure to maintain a peace, both internally and externally, and so protect the English throne. However, a woman at that time would be considered as inferior to men both physically and intellectually. Elizabeth manipulated her image to prove that not only was she the rightful and divinely appointed monarch to the English throne, but that she was also a fit warrior and political leader, able to lead and protect the nation.

Equally, however, she had to answer the question of the succession. If she made a marriage alliance with a European prince, England would be lost. On the other hand, if she died childless, the threat of civil war and a further shift in religion loomed. To maintain her political power, Elizabeth would need to remain single; but to ensure England’s safety she would need to marry.

Queen Elizabeth I addressing troops at Tilbury Her femininity and sexuality were therefore important elements in the control of her image. She conducted her relationships at court in the style of a Petrarchan lover: a stereotypical romantic love relationship, in which the woman is an untouchable and perfect beauty. But she maintained her political sway by professing her ‘masculinity’: ‘I know I have but the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart of a king, and of a king of England, too’ (Speech to the troops facing the Spanish Armada, 1588). That she needed to construct herself in this way suggests the deeply rooted misogyny she faced as a female figure of authority in a patriarchal system. She could not be a strong, politically shrewd woman; she had to be a man in head and heart, but play up to her physical female role.

However, as the Queen aged, this representation of herself as the sexually desirable maiden became harder to manage. By the time of Hamlet’s first performance in c.1600 (approximately three years before Elizabeth’s death in 1603), Elizabeth was sixty-eight years old. De Maisse, a French ambassador to the English court, noted in 1597 that:

‘She was strangely attired in a dress of silver cloth, white and crimson… She kept the front of her dress open, and one could see the whole of her bosom [gorge], and passing low, and often she would open the front of this robe with her hands as if she was too hot… Her bosom [or throat] is somewhat wrinkled as well as {one can see for} the collar that she wears around her neck, but lower down her flesh is exceeding white and delicate, so far as one could see. As for her face, it is and appears to be very aged. It is long and thin, and her teeth are very yellow and unequal, compared with what they were formerly… Many of them are missing so that one cannot understand her easily when she speaks quickly. Her figure is fair and tall and graceful in whatever she does…’

Also in 1600, the Rainbow portrait of Elizabeth was released. Comparing these two representations of the Queen we can see that, even at this late stage of her reign, Elizabeth still had to make use of her image as a sexual female to maintain her political position. Her gestures towards her bosom in the De Maisse account simultaneously suggest her role as mother to the country, whilst also introducing an eroticism which resonates with her earlier adoption of Petrarchan conventions.

In Hamlet, the figure of an aging, sexual female monarch appears as a troubling figure for the central character. Through her marriage to Claudius, Queen Gertrude maintains a position of political authority within the court, and appears on-stage alongside Claudius in most court scenes. Nevertheless, she is one of the quietest characters in the play, speaking only 3.8% of the lines. Indeed, she spends a surprising amount of the play in silence, considering how important a role she apparently plays in the provocation and development of the revenge action.

Penny Downie playing Gertrude in the BBC TWO production of Hamlet: Image courtasy of the BBC Whereas Oedipal readings of Gertrude’s character often focus on the effects her role as mother has, for the exploration of the young ‘hero’s’ psychology in a domestic sense, we must also consider what kind of political figure she presents in the play. At a time when an aging Queen still sat on the English throne, projecting a sexualised image of herself in order to maintain political power, one context for a reading of Gertrude’s character is Hamlet’s response to her sexuality as an aspect of her position in the political court: ‘Nay but to live/ In the rank sweat of an enseamèd bed,/ Stewed in corruption, honeying and making love/ Over the nasty sty – ’ (3.4.81-4).

Indeed, Hamlet’s reaction of disgust at Gertrude’s marriage to Claudius appears less to do with family honour and more to do with disgust at her decision to enter into a sexual relationship at her age: ‘You cannot call it love, for at your age/ The heyday in the blood is tame, it’s humble,/ And waits upon the judgement’ (3.4.67-9). In the closet scene, we see anxieties at the idea of a sexualised older woman explode in one of the most violent scenes in the play. Gertrude’s position both as mother, sexual woman, and political figure makes her a troubling, silenced figure within the play.

Exploring debates about the nature of justice and retribution as either coming from the individual or the state can help us to think about how Hamlet responds to his position as both prince and son. Similarly, with knowledge of the declining figure of Elizabeth I at the time of the play’s first staging, we have an important political framework in which to interpret the representation of an aging, sexual Queen. Both of these concepts are used to dissect the political and the domestic spheres, and can help to enrich our reading of the play’s action and characters.

Further Reading

Broude, Ronald, ‘Revenge and Revenge Tragedy in Renaissance England’, Renaissance Quarterly, 28.1 (Spring 1975), 38-58

Greenblatt, Stephen, Cohen, Walter, et al, eds. The Norton Shakespeare, (Oxford: Norton, 1997)

Greenblatt, Stephen, ed. Representing the English Renaissance, (Berkeley, 1988)

Harrison, G. B., & Jones, R. A., eds., A journal of all that was accomplished by Monsieur de Maisse Ambassador in England from King Henri IV to Queen Elizabeth Anno Domini 1597, (London, 1931)

Mullaney, Steven, ‘Mourning and Misogyny: Hamlet, The Revenger’s Tragedy, and the Final Progress of Elizabeth I, 1600-1607’, Shakespeare Quarterly, 45.2, (Summer, 1994), 139-162

Ryan, Kiernan, ed. Shakespeare: Texts and Contexts, (Hampshire, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2000)

Smith, R. ‘A Heart Cleft in Twain: The Dilemma of Shakespeare’s Gertrude’. New Casebooks: Hamlet. Ed. M. Coyle. (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1992)





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