Hamlet, written by William Shakespeare, is a play ruled by Hamlet’s conscience. It is his values, attitudes and beliefs that drive the plot and contribute to the understanding of the social, cultural and historical context of Shakespeare’s time. Shakespeare wrote Hamlet in response to Elizabethan culture and life to compare the ideas of the era with the events and characters of the play creating a complex situation. Hamlet’s dilemma becomes the framework of the exploration of fundamental human concerns. Through Hamlet, Shakespeare examines, explores, investigates and questions fundamental and timeless human questions about life, death, loyalty and duty. Within the play, it is through the behaviours of the characters Hamlet, Gertrude and Ophelia that significantly demonstrate the historical, social and cultural contexts of Shakespeare time. Such notions are established through gender roles, sexuality in terms of the roles of both men and women in the Elizabethan era and religion with its many influences on the laws and norms governing the society. Nevertheless, although Shakespeare’s work was written hundreds of years ago, his literal works continue remains to influence contemporary culture and literature as his works outstandingly comment on human nature, condition, truth and life on earth.
By applying a feminist lens, it becomes evident that the social standards of Renaissance life were characterised by misogyny and the influence of the feudalistic chivalric code. This is evidently seen through the behaviours of the characters of Ophelia and Gertrude as both women seem to struggle with their dependence on men. During the Elizabethan era, many women were subjected to inferiority to men. Acts of disobedience to husbands, fathers, and brothers were not only viewed as socially unacceptable but a crime against religion. Women were incapable of living a life of their own as societal influences pressured them to marry, give birth and raise children. Gertrude is a prime example of a married woman who was a mother. According to David Lawrence, “[Ophelia’s] history is an instance of how someone can be driven mad by having her feelings misrepresented, not responded to, or acknowledged only through chastisement and repression. From her entrance on, Ophelia must continually respond to the commands which imply distrust even as they compel obedience.” (1978). The influence of the feudalistic chivalric code is also applicable to Hamlet as men were expected to live bold public lives. The gender roles of the time placed boundaries and restrictions on the ways Hamlet could exercise his grief following the death of his father. “In Hamlet, there are also some personality traits which are generally believed as belonging to women, such as his hesitation, evasion of princely duties and emotional dependence. As Elaine Showalter analyses through the numerous castings of Hamlet on stage, Hamlet is often portrayed as a woman. It is perhaps because Hamlet’s emotional vulnerability can so readily be conceptualized as feminine that this is the only heroic male role in Shakespeare which has been regularly acted by women… (223).” (Dee-Yan, 2009). This may be because Hamlet’s emotional state was confined within the wall of sixteenth-century construction of masculinity ideology which led to his inability to act with the tension between inward and outward expectation. Nevertheless, his misogynistic attitude towards women had been spoiled and places blame on Gertrude’s actions of remarrying after the death of Hamlet’s father. The feminist critical lens reveals the sexist and stereotypical aspect of the play written during the Elizabethan era through the treatment and behaviours that are displayed predominantly through the characters of Claudius and Hamlet because of their mistreatment and lack of respect towards the female characters in the play.
The protestant reformation not only influenced a great amount of the culture in the Elizabethan era but as a religion, significantly influenced the many attitudes to sexuality. “Early modern English women were constructed as the more sexual of the two genders as such men in their constant patriarchal policing by father, brother, and husband (Gajowski).” (Olivas T, 2015). Sex outside of marriage was clearly sinful but so was sex inside of marriage if it was a matter of passion rather than procreating, the informs the audience of the reading of Hamlet’s accusation against his mother in her closet. “Hamlet intends to make his mother see the error she has made in marrying Claudius. Gertrude says, “Hamlet, thou hast thy father much offended.” Hamlet answers with his true feeling by saying, “Mother, you have my father much offended” (III. Iv. 9-10). Hamlet tells the queen that she is being too sexual for her age. He also shows his repulsion of her choice of Claudius over his virtuous father.” (Sharmin S, 2018). Hamlet does this incompletely on the grounds that he is fixated on Gertrude’s sexuality and her new marriage. Hence, when Hamlet says, ‘something is spoiled in the territory of Denmark’ (1.4.90), some would concur that the ‘something’ is Gertrude. Gertrude gives the maternal nearness in Hamlet. She epitomizes the sexuality that makes this tragedy. This furthermore comments on the fact that “Ophelia is subtler in dealing with Hamlet’s sexual puns and mockery. She doesn’t attempt to confront his vicious attack with equally bawdy puns, nor does she succumb to the embarrassing situation. Yet, Ophelia cunningly dissolves Hamlet’s wild rhetorical assaults.” (Chen Y, 2011). The sexuality of many women and some men during the Elizabethan era was expected to be placed under suppression which explores the many roles sexuality played socially and culturally and the many ways it influenced the behaviours of the characters in Hamlet.
Historically, Denmark was a predominantly Protestant nation at the time of the play’s composition therefore, in Hamlet, Christian notions, elements and practices were highly evident. This was displayed through the acts of repentance, as King Claudius is seen praying for forgiveness in Act three, Scene three. Protestantism ideology is also in place as the afterlife and one’s mortality is commented on by Hamlet. The idea of Catholic purgatory should be noted as Hamlet believes it is where the ghost of his father resides. The play has a lot to say about purgatory, for instance, the presence of the ghost suggests a more superstitious world than the apparently rationally protestants wish for which also touches on The Great Chain of Being. In the play, during the ghost scene in Act One, Scene five, Shakespeare does not use iambic petametre inciting a response from the audience given the political and social influence at the time. Shakespeare was writing at a time when many of the population would have had to adapt under different rulers, to different aspects of the Christian faith, and would have held a variety of views – no matter what the current ruler and laws, they expected them to believe. In Act three, Scene one, Hamlet’s hesitation is due to the influence of the Catholic church. Although Hamlet contemplated suicide, the religious beliefs served as an impendent however Ophelia killing herself contradicts such an idea. Hence this illustrates the great impact the Protestant reform had on the characters in Hamlet as well as the influence religion had on Renaissance life.
The use of culture and lifestyles in the play from the Elizabethan era helps create the dramatic complication the characters go through which is transient throughout their behaviour. This gives the modern reader an inside view of the era of Queen Elizabeth the first and life during the Renaissance. Hamlet is universally described now as the play that captures the essence of every new generation. There are many situations the modern audience can relate to such as the divorce and remarriage rates are so high today that Gertrude’s sexual crime seems normal. Nevertheless, factors such as gender roles, sexuality in terms of the roles of both men and women in the Elizabethan era and religion with its many influences on the laws and norms governing the society were significantly influenced by the social, cultural and historical contexts of Shakespeare’s time. The fundamental feminist critical lens reveals the sexist and stereotypical aspect of the play written during the Elizabethan era through the treatment and behaviours that are displayed predominantly through the characters of Claudius and Hamlet because of their mistreatment and lack of respect towards the female characters in the play. The sexuality of many women and some men during the Elizabethan era was expected to be placed under suppression which explores the many roles sexuality played socially and culturally and the many ways it influenced the behaviours of the characters in Hamlet.