Political Entropy and Ruling Decadence in Hamlet
by Mark Schauer
Even in high school during which my teacher interpreted Hamlet as a psychological drama with a cowardly, indecisive and disturbingly Oedipal main character, I saw Hamlet as primarily a depiction of a political showdown between Hamlet and Claudius. Having reigned for only two months, during which time he has, despite his country’s weakened position, used diplomatic maneuvering to defuse the violent ambitions of the young Fortinbras, married his sister-in-law, and maintained the goodwill of the multitude shows that Claudius is a remarkably crafty and charismatic, even seductive, politician. His furtive murder of his brother also demonstrates his ruthlessness and cunning. As for Hamlet, his profoundest frustration is not the loss of his father or the marriage of his mother to Claudius: It is that Claudius has usurped what Hamlet perceives is his rightful place in the succession for the throne, a fact that he obsessively discusses with most of the play’s principal characters. In their first interaction of the play, Claudius publicly reassures Hamlet that he remains next in line to the throne. To remain heir apparent to a man younger than his father is not satisfactory to him, and he is filled with impotent rage at his mother’s marrying Claudius, an act that surely solidified Claudius in the eyes of the nobles who elected him. The appearance of his father’s ghost and his learning of the true circumstances of his demise present a golden opportunity. Though the elder Hamlet asks his son only to avenge his death, the younger man wants to have his cake and eat it, too: to kill Claudius, and assume the throne himself. The latter is Hamlet’s primary objective, and to achieve it within the conservative royal milieu without upsetting it, he must navigate through complex historical, cultural, and political realities that stack the odds decidedly against his favor. Nonetheless, Hamlet is nearly Machiavellian enough to succeed, though ultimately he is defeated by his towering passions and rage.
The political economy of Hamlet’s time cannot be given due consideration without some prefatory discussion of his forebears, the Vikings, robust and vicious mariners who pursued wealth and glory. These objectives were generally not achieved in battles with similarly appointed armies, but by pillaging and looting coastal or river villages in their path. If they encountered an impassable portion of a river, the men would fell trees and use the logs to roll their ships overland to the next stretch of navigable water. The Vikings terrorized all of Europe, but France in particular endured nearly half a century of repeated raids, including a harrowing siege of Paris that lasted for over a year (Cohat 147). Savvy rulers paid tribute to the Vikings prior to such extreme measures, though, and back home the Danes lived extravagantly, most notably with lavish funerals in which warriors were put to rest buried or cremated in attack ships (Cohat 153). Vestiges of these mores still exist in Hamlet’s own time, as when the kettle drum and trumpets blare as Claudius downs glasses of wine, a custom that Hamlet feels is, “more honored in the breach than the observance,” for, “this heavy-handed revel east and west makes us traduc’d and tax’d of other nations: They clepe us drunkards, and with swinish phrase soil our addition; and, indeed, it takes from our achievements, though performed at height, the pith and marrow of our attribute” (I, iv). Thus the royalty of Hamlet’s day retains much of the excess of the Viking days, though none of the exertion beyond occasional fencing matches.
Hamlet’s Denmark was unquestionably one of extreme decadence. The nation is at risk of invasion by a young prince from Norway. England, one of the prime subsidizers of the Danish royal treasury, has been neglecting to render their annual tribute, most probably because they sense the Danes no longer have the means to force payment. The elder Hamlet, acclaimed for killing the elder Fortinbras, died not in glorious battle, but of poison administered while taking his customary afternoon nap in his orchard. His successor, Claudius, is dependent on unreliable foreign bodyguards for protection. (“Where are my Switzers?” he asks in disbelief as Laertes and his rabble break down the castle door.) (Pupavac 15) The younger Hamlet, though apparently thirty years old according to the gravedigger who has been sexton since the day Hamlet was born, is still a student in Wittenberg. His capture by pirates while being spirited to England by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern epitomizes the degree of softness that has infected the Danes: had unaffiliated pirates challenged a Viking ship in the days of Hamlet’s great-grandfather, their severed skulls would surely have been used as disposable wine gourds later that same day. Though Hamlet puts on “a compelled valor” when the pirates overtake his ship, it is an undisclosed deal that secures his release (IV, vi). Further, the principal characters either have Roman names and/or repeatedly cite Roman emperors and writers in their conversation. This fascination with an ancient, decadent empire, even though its folkways and system of government were both irrelevant to that of the Danes and incompatible with their new religion, Christianity (at least given the Romans they cite, all of whom lived prior to that empire’s adoption of the religion), is further evidence of a royal order that has grown severely alienated from its history and society. It seems the realm is also bedeviled by disease: according to the gravedigger’s testimony, “we have many pocky corses now-a-days, that will scare hold the laying” (V,i). There is no indication that the royals are familiar or concerned with this grim fact of common life. Further, the second gravedigger’s contention that the dead Ophelia would not have been granted burial in Christian ground were she not a noble is even more indication of how far Denmark has come from the brothers-in-arms, meritocratic populism of the Viking days. “The political evils depicted in Hamlet cannot all be traced to the sins of Claudius” (Kurland 293).