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Notes on Hamlet:
1) Elizabeth’s Greatest Enemy - Revenge
“The Tragical History of Hamlet, Prince of Demark”, like the more obscure Titus Andronicus, is classified as a “Revenge Play”. And like all other so-called Revenge Plays of the Shakespeare variety (such as Titus Andronicus and Othello) it should more properly be called an “Anti-Revenge Play”. The famous line from Hamlet, “To be or not to be - that is the question”, expresses the despair of a lone prince up against the world-wide royal matrix. He might aspire to reform kingship and create a better more equitable world, but that end would hardly be justified by the bloody means necessary to get the opportunity.
2) Rescuing Hamlet from Revenge-Mongers
Hamlet was adapted from an older Danish story about a prince named Amleth/Hamblet who was heir apparent to the throne of Denmark prior to the death of his father and remarriage of his mother to his father’s brother. Hamlet could be called the “Danish Tragedy”, because the main character Hamlet like Horatio in the “Spanish Tragedy” ultimately decides to heed the beckoning of a familiar spirit (of a dead ancestor) and seek a reckoning of his claim to the throne over that of others. Hamlet takes the further un-Christian-like step of making a vow. Hamlet is reduced to the level of desperate Old Testament figure King Saul who lost his election and consulted a medium in order to recover it. As in the Spanish Tragedy the ghostly influence is underworld in nature and therefore implicitly devilish rather than divinely inspired. Titus in Titus Andronicus at first resisted but ultimately yielded to just such an instinct for revenge and power, which results in the “Roman Tragedy”.
Looking for Hamlet by Marvin Hunt:
(Excellent general overview of Hamlet scholarship)
Hamlet and Revenge by Eleanor Prosser:
(Discusses Biblical proscriptions against taking vows and consulting “familiar spirits” and the significance for Hamlet)
Scholars think that there was a slightly earlier Hamlet play, perhaps by Kyd, which they refer to as the “Ur-Hamlet”. The emphasis of that play appears to have been on the glory of taking revenge, and the ruthlessness of Hamlet in exacting it to the fullest. Even if Hamlet had died in the process, it had been a noble death and preferable to accepting his disinheritance and doing nothing. Though undoubtedly popular, this theme would not have been consistent with the agenda of Queen Elizabeth. The play was evidently rewritten and the former version suppressed (along perhaps with El Kyd himself and for reasons that will become clear below.). The play as we now have it is more about the futility of Hamlet’s avengement of his dead father and the madness of his attempt to reclaim his father’s throne.
3) Better as Enemy of Good Enough
In the process of seeking revenge and greater glory, Hamlet ruins any chance of happiness and establishing a collateral royal dynasty with the young and innocent princess Ofelia daughter of the Prime Minister Polonius. Hamlet is blinded by self-promotion and abuses the love of Ofelia. Later Ofelia yields to her own royal ambitions and madness and is put to death by Gertrude. (We previously saw how Queen Elizabeth persecuted young aristocratic women of her realm that pursued equally well-placed husbands. This theme is amplified in the Shakespeare play Love’s Labor Lost in which all such matches are frustrated.)
Note: Ophelia has been called a Mary Magdalene figure.
Note: The character Ophelia was linked to a historical tragic figure, Katherine Hamlet.
4) Transcending England’s Norman Legacy
Hamlet reconnects England to its old Norman roots, some of which remained strong. Disputes and scores in England were still often settled in Norman style, that is, by taking matters into one’s own hands. This was not what Queen Elizabeth wanted. Her will was to be honored without bloodshed. And that will was for James of Scotland to succeed her to the throne of England and for the native princes of England to accept it without civil war.
5) Aye, Claudius
In Hamlet, the new king of Denmark is called Claudius by Shakespeare. In the Danish original the name was Feng or Fengon, a sort of East meets West sounding name with Anglo- and Sino- overtones as well as Norman. As in Titus Andronicus (and other Shakespeare plays) the ethnic diversity of character (and even place) names reflects an ancient globalism presided over by the royal family. The radical change from the intimidating Feng to more benign Claudius demands some explanation. Claudius had been a flawed but surprisingly effective emperor of Rome. He was also revered in England. The name in Hamlet suggests a king that is ungainly but with a positive fate, and one also capable of subduing England by force if necessary, as Emperor Claudius had done through Vespatian. The name Claudius in Shakespeare’s Hamlet made then for an apt representation of the future King James, at least for those who favored the succession of this less than Normanesque figure.
Note in particular the intriguing place name Elsinore (El-sin-ore). Compare also Elsinore with Eleanor mother of King John.
6) Elizabeth and Irene the Byzantine Queen
Elizabeth was ruling England in the manner of former Byzantine Queens, and particularly in the manner of the Byzantine Queen Irene after the death of her husband Leo IV. Consider the main points of her reign as compared with Elizabeth of England:
a. Irene was a native of Athens in Greece and from a family of uncertain origins (as was Elizabeth Tudor who also is strongly identified with Athens in Shakespeare.)
b. Irene was the first Byzantine Queen to rule in her own right. As with Elizabeth of England, others would follow.
c. Irene ruled at a time of violent religious struggle between traditional Greek orthodoxy and determined iconoclastic reformers. Irene took the side of orthodoxy. Elizabeth was placed on the side of reformers, but in private cherished orthodox icons, perhaps in honor of her role model Irene.
d. Irene disinherited her own son Constantine VI in order to rule the Empire herself. Elizabeth refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of native English princes as candidates for succession, and one in particular, the Earl of Essex.
e. Enemies of Irene rallied around her stilted son, particularly the iconoclasts. Irene punished and imprisoned her sons, but he was released by supporters and gained even greater popularity, which he then squandered (through a disgraceful treaty with Caliph Harun al-Rashid and cowardly retreat in battle against Bulgars). He lost all remaining support by divorcing his wife Mary of Amnia for a woman of his own choice. These events allowed Irene to regain power. A disastrous campaign against Ireland (including a cowardly retreat and disgraceful pact with the Irish leader Tyrone) likewise cost Essex his popular support and allowed Elizabeth to retain power.
f. Irene deprived her son of royal identity, putting him to a symbolic (if not literal) death. Elizabeth was also compelled to end the life of Essex and his royal pretensions.
g. Irene prepared herself to accept a marriage proposal from the German/Frank Charlemagne, but was deposed by her court on account of it. Elizabeth flirted with the idea of alliance with another "Charles the Great", the Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor, and his son Philip II.
h. The son of Irene (or a pretender) later led a revolt under the name Thomas the Slav, which has been called the greatest threat ever to the Byzantine Empire (by historian John Julius Norwich).
i. Irene took power after the Umayyid Dynasty was overthrown by the Abassid, founded by Irene’s father-in-law Constantine V (al-Mansur/Dawud). Elizabeth ruled after the Ottoman Empire replaced the Abassid and took possession of Constantinople.
j. After Irene was deposed, a bitter succession battle followed, which nearly resulted in the seat of kingship permanently shifting to the newly created Abassid capital in Baghdad and the fall of Christian Constantinople (as had almost happened in the time of Heraclius and his immediate successors).
Irene provided a clear precedent for a Byzantine Queen disinheriting her son, who later made an ill-fated attempt to reclaim his inheritance. In order to avoid Irene’s fate, Elizabeth rejected a proposed marriage alliance with the Habsburgs, but this only brought on the Spanish Armada. Surviving this, she continued to deny the legitimacy of Essex and other local prospects for succession. Elizabeth may have gone so far as to sabotage the mission of Essex to Ireland, which was followed by his abortive coup attempt. She however managed to avoid being deposed by her own courtiers and the agents of Rome.
7) Playing the Muslim Threat Card
The implicit threat of Elizabeth’s typecasting was that if she were deposed (ala Irene) it would lead to even greater territorial gains by the new Islamic Dynasty under a new Harun al-Rashid, and potentially lead to Rome and even the Holy Roman Empire being overshadowed by that new Islamic power. It might further bring on an even more virulent Islamic branch ala the Seljuk Turks which appeared uninvited and unwelcomed to challenge both Byzantines and Abassids.
8) Elizabeth, Beyond Reproach
According to the Arden Shakespeare commentary on Hamlet (p 38), “Recent interpretations have, in effect, accounted for the apparently excessive focus on Gertrude by identifying her with Elizabeth I and reading the play as a kind of meditation on the ageing and passing of the Virgin Queen.” Gertrude is in fact held innocent of murder in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, even if she has betrayed her own son. Likewise Elizabeth was to be held blameless in the matter of Essex.
9) A Virgin Shall Conceive
Reaching back even further into royal history, Elizabeth as “Virgin Queen” was ruling as a kind of God’s Wife of Amun and female pharaoh. In this capacity, she was considered entitled to bear children to one or more partners without the cover of marriage or losing her virginal status. Hamlet is a literary “smoking gun” in terms of Elizabeth being the mother of Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, if not also his actual murderer. Did Elizabeth truly sell out her own offspring? Was she merely being pragmatic and accepting the inevitable transfer of her throne to an outsider? Or was this the price she was personally willing to pay to break the ancient curse of Cain and of kingship by murder and usurpation? Was Elizabeth conjuring up the ghost of Irene or influenced by another type of spirit?
10) Country Ham (and Bacon)
The name Hamlet can be construed as “little Ham”, and the Biblical name Ham is of course emblematic of the ancient curse of kingship. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the father of Hamlet is also called Hamlet. In the Danish original the father is instead named as Horwendil, which can be interpreted as “Wondering Hor/Horus/Ham”. Horwendil is also a variation on another “Danish” character in the original Hamlet story named Corambis, which is changed to Polonius in Shakespeare’s version. Prince Hamlet was to marry Ofelia the daughter of Polonius, which in the earliest versions of the story may have been his half-sister, the most ancient of royal matches.
Note: In the names Corambis and Horwendil, the roots ambi and wend are synonymous and mean, “itinerant, ambulatory”. Hamlet Sr., the father of Hamlet, is characterized as a wondering Horus and not a pure Dane.
11) The Staged Demise of Elizabeth as Theseus
Shakespeare plays offer the strongest denouncement of kingship possible for its time, but they hardly advocate an immediate end to kingship. Like her role model Theseus, Elizabeth was sporting with a number of partners and it seems having children by at least one of them. And also like Theseus, she recognized the need to yield to a collateral kingly line (thereby accepting defeat by a new Theseus-type “king-killer”, Pittheus/Menestheus), but it would be a surrender of her own design.
Note: Midsummer Night’s Dream commentary.
Note: The myth of Theseus of Athens
12) Orested Development of Revenge
The “new, improved” Hamlet is generally thought to have been written and performed not long before the Essex Rebellion. If so, it proved prophetic. Essex had for years been seeking to earn his place among the gods by Herculean labors, and by most accounts was succeeding at it. In the end, and according to Francis Bacon’s assessment, Essex suffered the fate of Icarus who dared to fly too high toward the sun (only to burn and crash). Glorification of revenge in the Hamlet original story becomes a cautionary tale in Shakespeare. The actions of Hamlet threaten to raise from the earth a new avenging “Odysseus son of Laertes”, Laertes being the name given to the wronged Ofelia’s brother. Shakespeare’s Hamlet also serves to deny the hero status of the tormented Greek Orestes, who killed his mother for the murder of his father (and was later justified for it).
13) Speaking the King James’ English
In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, it is implied that the rejection and overthrow of Claudius would lead to an invasion by Fortinbras (“strong in arm”) of Norway from a line of Fortinbrases. This is a detail that did not exist in the original Danish story. (Arden Shakespeare, p 145) It also begs an explanation. Denmark was still a viable kingdom, although not the powerhouse it had been in the early Crusader period, when it was effectively the Constantinople of the North. It, as England, was vulnerable to attack. The Spanish Tragedy deals with the threat of “Reconquista” from the south, Titus Andronicus from the west, and Hamlet from the North. England is virtually surrounded by potential enemies. The Shakespeare plays are heavy-duty political commentary and psychological warfare. They conjure up a powerful voodoo effect against England’s rivals. Elizabeth’s Department of Defense included a Department of History. In the Elizabethan version of Hamlet a statement is made: rejection of James of Scotland will only lead to another “Norman Invasion” of England and therefore a loss of all strides the country has taken (for a relapse into Norman barbarity).
Note: Fortinbras, French/Varangian or Italian for “strong-in-arm” (a make-believe generic name for Norwegian kings)
14) A Greater Inheritance
England was on the cutting edge of scientific and technical achievement. This was true bond Elizabethan England had with the Denmark of that time (along with a passion for "intelligence work"). The Arden Shakespeare commentary (p 143) states,
“Another possible source for Shakespeare [characters Rosencrantz and Guildenstern] is the portrait of Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe which was published in the 1596 and 1601 editions of his collected astronomical letters: the family names ‘Rosenkrantz’ and ‘Guldensteren’ appear under coats of arms representing Brahe’s ancestors on the arch surrounding the likeness. (For a further possible link between Hamlet and Brahe, see 1.1.35n) Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are introduced as having been brought up with Hamlet at 2.2.11; he addresses them as ‘my excellent good friends’ at 2.2.219 and calls them ‘my two schoolfellows’ at 3.4.200, but they do not seem to be acquainted with Horatio and never exchange any words with him. … They are often designated as ‘Lords’ …”
According to the Arden Shakespeare, the name Hamlet is equivalent to Hamnet (the “son of Shakespeare”) who like Essex son of Elizabeth also died prematurely. The ally of Hamlet named Horatio associates well with the Earl of Southampton, who was not especially dangerous and ultimately pardoned by Elizabeth for his role in the Essex Rebellion. It is tempting to think that Elizabeth required Southampton, as part of his punishment in the Tower of London, to rework the Hamlet story to better reflect the folly of Essex. At the end of the reworked play, Hamlet in fact asks Horatio to tell his sad story, for the benefit of posterity and not for the purpose of being avenged.
Elizabeth (as Shakespeare) had only one son (Hamnet/Hamlet) that could be considered an heir. There were however others, literal or figurative, who carried on the family tradition of progress. Elizabeth’s son Francis Bacon became founding father of a different kind of dynasty, that of the “Enlightenment”. Unlike Tycho, Bacon managed to keep his nose out of trouble.
A reasonable case has been made that Elizabeth was the biological mother of both the Earl of Essex and Sir Francis Bacon.
See the Shakespeare Code by Virginia Fellows:
However, in addition to Bacon, the other leading candidate in the search for Shakespearean authorship is not Essex but the Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere.
These two associate well with the characters Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. They are portrayed as somewhat duplicitous in Hamlet, which may be another clue that Southampton was the primary author/editor of the play's final version.
Note: The later Rosicrucian movement has been linked to Bacon. The name Guildenstern connotes "Stone Guild" and suggests a link to the later Masonic movement.
Note: The name Horatio (Italian, “hour, time, punctual”) derives from the Latin Horace/Horatius or Greek “good eye-sight”. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Horatio is a supportive rather than rival twin Horus to Hamlet. In The Spanish Tragedy Horatio is the avenging son of Hieronimo (Jeronimo). In that work, Horatio is a Spanish courtier (Marshal of Spain) and is murdered after taking the killer of Andrea into custody.
“Horatius was a legendary hero of early Rome, who with two companions held a bridge over the Tiber against an invading army. Horatius also evokes Quintus Horatius Flaccus (Horace), whose detachment and wisdom might have been Shakespeare's model for Horatio. Horatio says late in Ham. that he is ‘more an antique Roman than a Dane’ meaning in context that he can turn to suicide as some of the Roman heroes did. I am tempted to think of the ancient Roman temperament as stoic/Stoic, a dimension of Horatio that is described by Hamlet as not being ‘passion's slave"’.”
The genre of Greek and Senecan “Revenge Literature”
Relation of Hamlet to The Spanish Tragedy:
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