Death and Revenge in Hamlet, a Play by William Shakespeare
Death and Destruction rain on an empire as chaos runs through the streets like a plagued rat. People scramble as the very thing they trusted collapsed. Throughout time empires have fallen and risen but what has remained constant is the growth of humanity. Even after destruction sweeps through an empire, humanity continues to progress. Societies have progressed through some of the worst tragedies in history and Hamlet is no exception. As the royal family dies and the end of an era commences Hamlet has one final request, “On Fortinbras; he has my dying voice. So tell him, with th’occurents, more and less, which have solicited-the rest is silence.” (Shakespeare 283). With the death of the royal family, the throne goes to Fortinbras? A Norwegian prince whose impulsive temperament can be described aggressive at best. But the consequence of such actions are only to regrow a ruined field. The Kingdom of Denmark had faced levels of corruption throughout its entire dynasty, like a rotten apple looking shiny and pristine on the outside but rotten and corrupt on the inside. Only a person with stability and knowledge in the region could rule such a kingdom, that man was Fortinbras. What Shakespeare has shown us is not only that to grow we must destroy but that to progress as a society we must be willing to start over. In Hamlet, Shakespeare uses continuous death and revenge to show how the death of an entire family can benefit the progress of an empire.
Throughout the beginning of time, humanity has found ways to work together and progress as a society. In the prehistoric era as humans we were a mainly egalitarian society that had mutual relationships with one another. Society was not large empires bent on global domination but small sufficient tribes with the purpose of survival. But of course all of this changed with the neolithic revolution, with the development of the first city (Çatalhöyük) around 6700-5700 BCE, society began to develop and day to day survival was not a major issue.”Many settlements were enclosed by protective stone walls, which testifies to competition between the sedentary agricultural communities and roaming nomad peoples.” (Visual History of the World) But as societies began to civilize, social classes begin to appear and with it the end of egalitarianism. Wealth, Power and Strength dominated these early cities, which was used to create new powerful upper class in society. The upper class become early day rulers, generals and priests. Each with extraordinary power in society, especially religious leaders who were said to be able to talk to the gods. Of course religion was intended for all to be one with divine forces however, privileges came with those with money. As shown throughout history those who have wealth have power, even the power to define the Gods. In Hamlet, this is especially shown in Ophelia’s alleged suicide. As her family prepared for her funeral the allegations of suicide haunted her, as suicide is strictly condemned by the church. However as shown as said by Other “ Will you ha’ the truth on ‘t? If this had not been a gentlewoman, she should have been buried out o’ Christian burial.” (Shakespeare 241). With some financial backdoor deals her family was able to bury Ophelia even though she may have disobeyed God. Inequality, one of the major causes of the destruction of dynasties, was not only found in the prehistoric era, but in Hamlet as well.
As society progressed, a new era was born and with it empires that would last a lifetime. The First Empires have affected society til this day, they have changed how humanity functions. The Egyptians were one of the greatest empires to ever live and as they progressed as an empire from 2660 BCE to 332 BCE, (before Alexander the Great conquered the Egyptians) they were able to create one of longest lasting empire in the world. But one of the biggest reasons for such progress wasn’t just their great architecture and armies but the continuation of rulers throughout the empire. What has plagued empires for generations has been the ability to peaceful transition power to new rulers. What the egyptian empire was able to do allowed it to flourish for another 2000 years. “The chronology of the Egyptian rulers before the arrival of Alexander the Great in 332 BCE is divided into 31 dynasties” (Visual History of the World), These 31 dynasties were established and with it expanded the great Egyptian empire. Empires with peaceful transitions can continue to stand the test of time, however those with insecurities can ruin even the most established regimes. In Hamlet, this is especially shown with the entrance of King Claudius of Denmark. As the mysterious death of King Hamlet was nudged off by the danish nobility, the uneasy take over King Claudius began. However the uneasy transition was ignored as fear from the north faced Denmark, as Claudius said “To Norway, uncle of young Fortinbras,– Who, impotent and bed-rid, scarcely hears Of this his nephew’s purpose,–to suppress.”(Shakespeare 21-22) The Danes had overlooked their fears of Claudius to protect against the rising hostilities against the Norwegians. As history showed with the Egyptians never overlook those who are rising.
Around 670 BCE the Assyrians were launching attacks on Egypt, as they overthrew the Nubian dynasty, they installed Psmatik I (Libyan Prince) to rule Egypt. He was able to eventually unite all of Egypt by 656 BC, and began the 26th dynasty. However, while the Egyptians were concerned with a new threat from the North, the Persians. They did not even consider the true threat that was rising, the ancient Greeks. The Egyptians had married Greek women, used greek currency and become a major trading partner. When King Cambyses of Persia conquered Egypt all had overlooked the threat from Europe. In a vast and swift invasion, Alexander the Great conquered all of Persia by 332 BCE and with it Egypt. The influence of Egypt by the Greeks had made it an easy transition to power for Alexander the Great. Similar to the Hamlet, an outside but knowledgeable force had come to rule a foreign region because of the incompetence of those in power.
As the first empires go towards the sunset, new powerful empires are born in the Ancient World. Learning from the mistakes of those before them, these new empires would make a claim to truly last the test of time. The Romans have made a name for themselves till this day. Aqueducts stretching miles throughout the empire allowing water to spread across is vast fields. The very creation of the mile and an organized road system, that was able to network all across the empire. A vastly superior military which created political stability throughout the Mediterranean region and a representative democracy, the Senate, which allowed the people to rule. The achievements of this empire are too vast to count, however as the empire expanded its troubles did as well. It eventually become an empire under the first emperor, Augustus and with it the a new era for Rome. As the empire faced continuous wars from all sides it decided to split into a dual state, splitting into the Eastern and Western Roman Empire. As problems continued to arise, Emperor Diocletian ordered the end of a centrally governed Rome and began the tetrarchy ( rule of four) in 293 CE. The Tetrarchy was able to provide stability in the region for 20 years allowing the Roman Empire to continue to rule the region. However, “The tetrarchy was already teetering by 305 because Maximian, in contrast to Diocletian, was reluctant to give up power; furthermore, in addition to his adopted son Constantius, Maximian had a biological son, the ambitious Maxentius, who sought power.” ( Visual History of the World). Maxentius, heir to the Western Roman Empire had ambitions that conflicted with the tetrarchy. He decided to claim that he was the ruler of all of Rome. Through the use of deceit he was able to convince the Praetorians to back his claim to the throne. But those that stab others should watch their own backs as well.
Vengeance, the most corrupting of vices had gotten into young Laertes’s heart. He blamed the death of his sister and father on Hamlet and with such vengeance killed Hamlet with a poisoned sword. But as history showed his vengeance got the best of him “I am justly killed with mine own treachery.” (Shakespeare 279) as Laertes gaspes his final words. His deceit and vengeance to not only his country but his conscience was the cause of his death. Similar to Maxentius both treacherous man died of what they had caused, instability in their own realm. Laertes killing of Hamlet let along for a new era for the Kingdom of Denmark. While Maxentius defeat at the battle of Milvian Bridge in 312 CE, allowed Rome to once again stabilize its control in the region. Deceit will always destroy, deconstruct and dismantle an empire. The deceit shown in Rome, not only portrays that of Hamlet, but exclaims the certainty of what mistrust can not only do for a family but an empire.
As the fall of empires descends on Europe, a new era of instability, fear and deceit descent on the once great continent, enter the Middle Ages. While foreign invaders came from many sides it was those from the south and the east who were most feared. From the south came the Arabs, the Abbasids laid their claim into Europe while the Ayyubids maintained the growth of Islam for generations to come. The east saw the rise of the Mongols, generation of great rulers from Genghis Khan to Kublai Khan spread their vast empire from China to Europe. Finally, Europe itself was in an age of constant turmoil, stability that the Roman Empire had created now ceased to exist. But the unifying force of the Papacy attempted to create stability in the ravaged wasteland of Medieval Europe. As the threats from the south grew there was only one solution, find a common enemy and unite Europe against said enemy. Begin, The Crusades. Kings and Knights from across the land galloped triumphantly to the holy land. Their said enemy was Islam, and with it a multitude of Crusades began. But in the 4th crusade, treachery began and with it “revenge” was taken. “The Fourth Crusade, initiated by Pope Innocent III in 1202, showed the corruption of the Crusade idea.” (Visual History of the World). Deceived by Enrico Dandolo the Doge of Venice, the Crusaders sacked Constantinople in one of the greatest deceits in history. Venice in a power play to get rid of any rival in the region was able to not only sack the once great city but install a puppet government, in what was called the Latin Empire. Such treachery was seen as “revenge” against the Byzantine Empire for not paying back debts, but in reality was just a intuitive play by the Doge himself. Treachery and Deceit will only result destruction and death for all those involved.
The act of “revenge” has been constant theme in Hamlet, and throughout the entire play. As Hamlet proclaimed “An earnest conjuration from the King, As England was his faithful tributary, As love between them like the palm might flourish, As peace should stiff her wheaten garland wear And stand a comma ‘tween their amities, And many such like a es of great charge, That, on the view and knowing of these contents, Without debatement further, more or less, He should the bearers put to sudden death, Not shriving-time allowed” (Shakespeare 261). Hamlet’s prideful moment comes to no shock in the Shakespearean novel. He takes pride in the fact he got his “revenge” over Guildenstern and Rosencrantz, his old friends. But, the act of deceit that he has shown is not only an act of destruction but one that similar to the Doge, one of selfish intent. Hamlet, the rightful heir is pridefully displaying the murder of his old friends. While Hamlet, similar to the Doge gained in the deceitful act, both would see there time come in the end. The act of treachery not only destabilized a region but began the end for two treacherous men.
As new ideas bloom and flourish, innovation drives progress and with it comes the beginning of new Modern Era.Those Ideas flooded Europe like the Great Flood that struck in Genesis, wiping with it all old ideals left throughout the Old Continent. With it came a new take on an old tradition. The Power of the Papacy had influenced Europe for generations and with it, came a new conflict. The Papacy’s power had gotten out of jurisdiction, it had strained from piety and faith to wealth and power. What was needed was a Reformation and with it, leaders such as Martin Luther and Johannes Calvin, become revolutionaries on changing Christianity. And so they did, they created something that has revolutionized the world until this day. In Hamlet, the effects of the Reformation are apparent, the Queen says “Let not thy mother lose her prayers, Hamlet. I pray thee, stay with us. Go not to Wittenberg.” (Shakespeare 29) Gertrude uncertainty of Hamlet’s travels, is directly influenced by the reformation itself. “In 1517 in Wittenberg, Martin Luther made public his 95 theses to reform the church” (Visual History of the World). Such events lead the Queen to be worried and also confused about her Son’s ventures abroad. English was in a tricky position as the Reformation had spread but had not won over English hearts. With it came new ideas, in which many monarchs like the Hamlets, were not willing to accept. Similar to those throughout Europe, the monarchies of the time were reluctant to change and for many that was their downfall. However in spirituality both denominations shared much in common. As said by the ghost “Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.”( Shakespeare 57). The act of murder was not only a sin but vastly condemned by both branches of the church. The refusal of new ideas by empires throughout history has set a tone for change that has plagued all from the Hamlets to the Habsburgs.
As ideas flourished throughout the world, the innovation that had progressed throughout the century had still not come to sense of belonging. What had proclaimed progress above all else was not living upon to its full potential. The beginning of the modern era was not enough, what was needed was a revolution that changed the world into a the true Modern Era. Revolutionary ideas had spread like wildfires upon an open forest, as the monarchs of Europe proceed to fly away, new ideologies flourish on a new open pasture. The ideals of progress have carried over from mere state conflicts into a bigger inclusion. The peasantry tired of being oppressed finally have united under one ideal. (“ Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité”) The ideals of the enlightenment had spread to the common man. The French Revolution was a turning point for Europe, and the social structure that had plagued it for generations. “Under the rule of Louis XVI, the serious failings of absolutist monarchy become more pronounced in France than in neighboring states. Wars such as the Seven Years’ War and the war in the American colonies-as well as the financing of the courts- had led to an immense state debt, and even the majority of the aristocracy was no longer willing to tolerate the extravagance of the court of Versailles.” (Visual History of the World). To resolve such conflict King Louis XVI summoned the Estates General (aristocracy, clergy and bourgeoisie) as the negotiations began, the King had attempted to dissolve the National Assembly and end all opposition to the monarchy. The people of Paris had not taken so keenly to this and revolutionaries stormed Bastille on July 14th, 1789. And on August 8th, 1789 the Declaration of Man and of the Citizen was proclaimed. “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions can only be founded on communal utility”(Visual History of the World). However the acknowledgment of equality was not a new concept for Shakespeare.
Through the use of Hamlet he was able to make a similar statement to the Declaration of Man and of the Citizen. As Hamlet stated “That skull had a tongue in it, and could sing once. How the knave jowls it to the ground as if ’twere Cain’s jawbone, that did the first murder! This might be the pate of a politician which this assnow o’erreaches, one that would circumvent God,might it not?” (Shakespeare 243) Hamlet’s realization that regardless of our exterior, all men are the same on the inside are in common with the ideals of the French Revolution. These ideals lead to not only the liberation of a people but the death of a monarch. Similar to the French Revolution, Hamlet’s realization of new his new found morals throughout the play were able to end and destroy a corrupt dynasty which was shown indefinitely in France as well. Similar to Hamlet, the process of revolution was bloody and took an foreign ruler to stabilize a region. The tides of humanity were changing and years of neglect and corruption were beginning to unfold. Hamlet, like the chronology of history was unfolding violently but with progression towards a better tomorrow.
What had flourished into the hands of humanity had progressed throughout all of the Globe and with it an era of uncertainty as new ideologies spread, each with their own consequences. What was about to happen would change the fabric of time, for generations to come. Not only an era of total war, that would affect each man, woman and child in the world. But an age of will, determination and grit. This is the age of the World Wars. The World watched as June 28th, 1919 approached, the Germans had capitulated and with it the end of the war to end all wars. The allies had beaten the old german shepherd all of the way to its doghouse. The Kaiser had left Germany in ruin. After the war, the German people were left with nothing. “Hyperinflation and attempted coups from groups from across the political spectrum kept the republic from finding peace and stability in its early years” (Visual History to the World). Germany was left to obey all that was given to her, she could not return from this downfall. The feeling of Germany is best shown in Ophelia. Polonius stresses “I would not, in plain terms, from this time forth Have you so slander any moment leisure As to give words or talk with the Lord Hamlet. Look to ‘t, I charge you. Come your ways. Ophelia responding with I shall obey, my lord.” (Shakespeare 140-141). Like Ophelia, the German people were trapped, both Ophelia and the German Empire had made major mistakes and as history as shown major mistakes can only end in one way, Death. Both the German Empire and Ophelia had to die for a new era to begin. Similar to Ophelia, when the German Republic took reigns over, after the empire, they were a shadow of themselves. They had lost all hope to continue and even after an attempt of stabilization, quickly spiraled after. It is clear that Shakespeare is making point about the ability to start over. For throughout human history, those who have not rebuilt have been recycled through the history books.
History is not memory but a cycle. Throughout time, the very events and ideas that were portrayed now were relevant thousands and hundreds of years ago. The study of history is not one of that of magnificent regard which has complete comprehension of the basis human theory. But it is the profound interest in the timeline of others, through their mistakes and triumphs which can help achieve current humanity a better tomorrow. The father of history, Herodotus said “Circumstances rule men; men do not rule circumstances.” Humanity is based on events that have been present throughout, and literature is one of the most profound methods to measure such basis of knowledge and intellectual conundrums. Humanity has been on the vast search for knowledge to cure the mistakes of old. From the beginning of time of gathers and hunters, to the pharaohs and their vast pyramids. To the end of rome itself, as plebeians watched in terror of vast foreign invaders and even the sacking of Constantinople, as its men were slaughtered and women raped. From the ideals of the Reformation and Revolutionary France, humanity has always been pioneering in new concepts and ideals. Finally, the end of the glorious Kaiser, and what pity behold upon the german people. The factual presence of history has always been an everlasting change for all. But what better way to tell such a tell, then through the eyes of Hamlet. The tragedy that has lasted a lifetime, beautifully displays the reasons why those who were once kings have now fallen. Hamlet in itself is a representation of the sufferings of man, god and state. What is faced by the characters of Hamlet, has been prevalent in all forms of history. But the result of such actions just like the ones taken by the former examples were beneficial to all. Because, if Egypt had not been conquered or Rome had fallen or the death of French Monarch never been realized, humanity would have never improved. Never progressed and more importantly, never gone on to where humanity is today. Throughout Hamlet the fact of the moment remains, through all the difficulties the characters went through, the state of Denmark will now be restored. Before such tragedies occurred, Marcellus stated “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” Indeed there was, however after the death an entire family, the rotten fruit of Denmark has been thrown out. Enter a new era, as King Fortinbras claims the Hamlet Dynasty throne. As the end of an era commences, what is not to be forgotten is the progress done by the previous rulers and the mistakes taken which will be applied for a stronger Denmark. What Hamlet has taught is that history is an everlasting cycle that listens to know one about herself. However, from what humanity has learned from the past it can most certainly use it to progress towards the future.
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