Hamlet a Domestic Play or a Commentary on Power Politics
In the early 1600s, the time that “Hamlet” was written, the themes of power politics related to the domestic would have been far more relevant to the audience as at this time, these two themes intertwined particularly within the monarchy which is hereditary meaning that the power comes from family. Again this link is demonstrated by James I’s 1603 speech to Parliament where he stated that he was “the Husband and the whole Isle [his] lawful wife” showing the domestic view of many political relations and also the idea of James I as a husband ruling over his country which was his wife.
This also brings in another theme of power plays in Hamlet being demonstrated by patriarchal dominance, such as the power Polonius has over Ophelia. We also see the power of men on their families as a whole and how characters us their family links and loyalties to gain power. Throughout “Hamlet” we see a number of sons avenging their fathers’ deaths, including old and young Fortinbras, Laertes and Polonius and old and young Hamlet.
These draw attention to the domestic tragedy element of “Hamlet” and as to whether Hamlet seeks revenge for his father’s death due to his love for his father or because of his duty to him and the power Old Hamlet’s ghost has over Hamlet. When we see Hamlet speaking to the Ghost of Old Hamlet, it seems to be a close relationship with Old Hamlet expressing concerns for his son, stating “taint not the mind” suggesting that Hamlet should not allow the act of revenge to “taint” his morality.
This is a bizarre ask from Old Hamlet as murder will undoubtedly affect Hamlet’s sense of morality. However, within their conversation, Hamlet’s obligation to avenge his father is also made apparent by the ghost himself who tells Hamlet that after hearing what he has to say, Hamlet will be “bound” to revenge. The word “bound” shows how Hamlet’s father expects Hamlet to avenge him and believes this is what he should do, showing Old Hamlet’s power over his son as this is what he eventually does.
We also see Old Hamlet’s dominance in a number of other ways including the fact that he dominates the conversation and his physical dominance as he has been described as a “valiant” man who “smote” his rivals, which contrasts to what we see of Hamlet, who is a scholar relying more upon his brain than his ability to fight. This dominance is finally shown when Hamlet is warned not to go with the ghost but ignores his friends’ advice and states that he “will follow it”.
We also see the power of the father in the relationship between Polonius and his two childrea: Laertes and Ophelia. We see Polonius telling his children how to behave and to “give thy thoughts no tongue”, and yet, ironically, Polonius appears to have a compulsive need throughout the play, giving out a large amount of nonsensical advice and opinions. To add to this irony, Polonius tells them “to thine own self be true”, as all he does is advise and tell people how to behave, this works to somewhat ridicule Polonius’ skills as an advisor.
However, Ophelia must still listen to him as in the 17th century, the daughter was effectively the property of the father until she was married and thus must accept what her father said, as seen when Ophelia says, “I shall obey, my lord”. This obedience opens up Ophelia to be used as a political pawn by Polonius in his own efforts to gain favour and thus power with the King. This manipulation of Ophelia by Polonius suggests that Shakespeare’s play is a commentary of power politics as it infers much about the Renaissance court and its workings, criticising it.
Furthermore, we see the male dominance that Laertes has over his sister, Ophelia, however, unlike Polonius, he does not seem to use this to his advantage or to gain power. He warns Ophelia away from Hamlet as “on his choice depends the safety and health of this whole state”. At this time, powerful families commonly used marriage as a means of forging tactical, political or social allegiences, once again linking the personal to the political.
However, while Laertes has power over Ophelia, it doesn’t appear to be for his own advantage as it is the case with Polonius, thus suggesting that his concerns are genuine and out of love for his sister. As a result, it strengthens the interpretation of Hamlet as a domestic tragedy. To conclude, I believe that in many of the relationships in “Hamlet”, there is a mix of power politics and domesticity with characters using their families as a means of gaining power or using their power to get what they want. All of these contribute to making the line between power plays and domestic relationships more unclear.
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