Shakespeare is a unique English author whose works speak a universal language that is understood by people of all ages from all over the world. But even though his plays and poems seem to us to be as contemporary and relevant as hip-hop music or street art, they are in fact flesh of the flesh of the English Renaissance which brought them to life. Almost every new epoch had 'its own Shakespeare', its own vision that correlated with its specific aesthetic and ethical demands. And at the same time, Shakespeare's works never stopped speaking the language of the English Renaissance. In his seminal tragedy, Hamlet, Shakespeare managed to grasp and convey the turbulent spirit of the Late Renaissance in England with its skepticism, social mobility and ambivalent worldview of a man torn between faith and freedom of choice, social optimism and profound disappointment with the epoch, doubt and hope.
While the Middle Ages hailed the set and unchangeable social hierarchy, the age of Renaissance was marked by advanced social mobility. This period of changes, innovation, and geographic discoveries respected daring, enterprise and adaptability no less than the ancestry. Reflecting on the Danish predilection for drunkenness, Hamlet ironically says that a certain flaw could spoil the life of a person, in particular his origin, which in no way depends on the person himself: "So, oft it chances in particular men, / That for some vicious mole of nature in them, / As, in their birth - wherein they are not guilty, / Since nature cannot choose his origin ... Their virtues else ... Shall in the general censure take corruption / From that particular fault" (1.4.29). He thus blames the rigidity of a society built upon tradition and norm rather than common sense and practical value. Shakespeare was born in a rich family, yet, his origin was not as noble as he could have wished. Just like many of his contemporaries, he had to fight for his place under the sun and was a self-made man. This is why in Hamlet he often stresses the idea that origin does not define the worth of a man.
Hamlet voices quite skeptical views on the social hierarchy. The Renaissance humanists associated the concept of nobility with the personal virtues of a man rather than his origin. So, Hamlet begins to see a certain advantage in the absence of a high social status and wealth. When talking to Horatio, he says: "Why should the poor be flatter'd? / No, let the candied tongue lick absurd pomp, / And crook the pregnant hinges of the knee / Where thrift may follow fawning" (3.2.62-63). Obviously, here Shakespeare offers his own views upon some of his contemporaries who only too fervently served the court writing plays and poems to suit the needs of the ruling class. The ironic attitude to the social hierarchy is eloquently expressed by the gravediggers who among all the characters of the tragedy were probably the closest to the average Elizabethan audience of the popular theater: "There is no ancient gentlemen but gard'ners, ditchers, and / grave-makers. They hold up Adam's profession. / ... / He was the first that ever bore arms" (5.1.30-34). In this humorous dialogue, one of the gravediggers mocks the notion of a coat of arms used to signify noble origin. The joke demonstrates the attitude of the lower strata of the population to such 'formalities' as heraldry. Though Shakespeare himself strived to become a part of the higher society, in Hamlet he objectively and creatively portrayed the social skepticism of his time.
Another theme widely discussed in the age of the Renaissance and reflected in Hamlet is the aim and purpose of a human life, the correlation of such concepts such as freedom of will and predestination. The famous couplet "The time is out of joint: O cursed spite, / That ever I was born to set it right!" (1.5.210-211) is one of the most revealing fragments in this respect. Its interpretation defines the whole vision of the image of Hamlet, his character and role in the play. The reference to self-sacrifice is obvious: it clearly alludes to the fate of Christ. Yet, at the same time, Hamlet does not see himself as a savior, rather as a judge, which becomes clear in the following lines: "... heaven hath pleased it so, / To punish me with this and this with me, / That I must be their scourge and minister" (3.4.194-196). Hamlet feels that God has sent him to help the people of Denmark, but he has not only to sacrifice himself, he also must punish the sinners. According to I. Ribner, most of protagonists in Shakespeare's tragedies act as "scourges of God" or "messengers of God": their mission is to correct the mistakes of the mankind, but while the former lose their souls, the latter retain their moral touchstones eventually turning into victims (Ribner, 1969, p. 22-27, 67). Hamlet is a combination of both being cruel only to be kind. At the very end of the play, he embraces his destiny and his mission saying, "...there's a special // providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, // 'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be // now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the // readiness is all" (5.2.233-237). According to J.R. Brown, these words resonate simultaneously with several sources that were extremely important for the age of Renaissance: the Sermon on the Mount, Seneca's philosophy of stoicism, and the skeptical sentiment of Montaigne Essais (Brown, 2006, p. 125-126). Hamlet's ambivalent worldview reflects the duality of the Renaissance consciousness, the way this epoch saw a man both as a pinnacle of creation and a quintessence of dust, torn between good and evil, always in doubt as to what his mission was.
The age of the Renaissance changed the way humankind had been developing and lay the foundations for the modern Western culture. It was both a curse and a blessing for the people who lived in those days. In Hamlet, Shakespeare brilliantly conveys this understanding of a change as a painful and yet necessary and productive process informing it with his experience and life philosophy.
Brown, J. R. (2006). Hamlet (Shakespeare Handbooks). Houndmills, Basingstock, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.
Ribner, I. (1969). Patterns in shakespearian tragedy. London: Methuen & Co.
Shakespeare, W. (1994). Hamlet. In Complete Works (pp. 1079-1126). Glasgow: Harper Collins.
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