Perhaps one of the most perplexing problems a modern audience may have with Shakespeare's Hamlet is the obvious question: what takes him so long to act on the Ghost's request for revenge? The obvious but simple answer is that if he did not take his time, we would have 'Hamlet: The Short Story' instead of 'Hamlet: The Classic Play'. There are, however, valid reasons for Hamlet's slow behaviour. Among them are his public role in the monarchy of Denmark, his education, and the environment of Elsinore.
Hamlet is first and foremost the Prince of Denmark. There are no brothers or sisters, and he is the popular, well-liked son of an equally popular and well-liked King and Queen. Not unlike the royal families of today, the royals of Elsinore have two lives—a public one and a private one, both of which are very much interlinked. Their lives as a whole are really not their own, yet their privacy is apparently a sacrifice they are willing to make to render service to Denmark. Hamlet's father, King Hamlet, had done much to ensure that Denmark was well protected. His untimely death was marked by intense mourning at the court, as well it should have been for a man of his position.
However, Gertrude's marriage to Claudius before a month of mourning had passed could be interpreted as a breach of protocol. This is why in the opening scenes, Claudius goes to such lengths to calm and soothe the concerns of the court. When Hamlet returns to the court from school in Wittenburg, Germany, it is impossible that he can escape what awaits him.
The tenants of this castle include the King's minister, Polonius, and his family, Laertes and Ophelia, as well as a coterie of government officials (Cornelius and Voltemand), guards (Marcellus and Bernardo and their companies), and courtiers (Osric, for example). In this environment, to have even a small amount of privacy is almost impossible since there is always someone somewhere. Such a transgression as the apparently unprovoked murder of a royal minister would open all sorts of questions for Claudius that he may be able to answer.
Even Hamlet's private life is of public concern, especially when it comes to his selection of a wife. Laertes tells Ophelia in no uncertain terms that her relationship with Hamlet is fruitless:
Perhaps he loves you now,
And no soil nor cautel doth besmirch
The virtue of his will; but you must fear,
His greatness being weighed, his will is not his own.
For he himself is subject to his birth.
He may not, as unvalued persons do,
Carve for himself, for on his choice depends
The safety and health of this whole state,
And therefore must his choice be circumscribed
Unto the voice and yielding of that body
Whereof he is the head.
The selection of a future queen is an issue at the very core of a monarchy's survival. On the political side, it was common practice to cement peace treaties with a marriage between two ruling houses. A wife's main function as queen was to produce a male heir for the King. In a kingdom like Denmark, which had an elected monarchy, it was doubly important that a future king be suitably matched for the peace and stability of the country.
Gertrude has produced Hamlet; however, the possibility of a direct heir for Claudius is remote, if not impossible, as Hamlet says: 'at your age/ The heyday in the blood is tame' (3.4.1617). The pressure on Hamlet to continue the line and Claudius' desire to keep the Prince off the throne come into direct conflict. Ophelia, as the daughter of a minister, cannot bring either wealth or security to a marriage with Hamlet. Although Hamlet's profession of love at her funeral is moving and sincere, it is unlikely that they would have been allowed to marry...
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Hamlet Act V Questions and Answers
Act V Questions and Answers
- Why is it controversial for Ophelia to be given some form of Christian burial?
- Why does Hamlet comment on Alexander the Great when he is looking at all the skulls in the ground?
- How does Hamlet react when he realizes that the funeral he is watching is Ophelia’s?
- What did Hamlet do when he found out about the king’s secret orders for him to be killed in England?
- What excuse does Hamlet give Laertes for killing Polonius?
- What happens to the poisoned wine during the duel?
- How do both Hamlet and Laertes end up struck by the poisoned sword?
- What prompts Laertes to confess his and Claudius’s plot to Hamlet?
- What does Hamlet do once Claudius’s treachery has been exposed?
- What does Fortinbras do when he arrives and sees the bloody scene?
- It is suspected that Ophelia committed suicide, which would traditionally make her ineligible for a Christian burial.
- Looking at the skulls, Hamlet realizes that all men are equal in death and speculates that the dust of Alexander the Great might now be used in the clay that stops up beer barrels.
- Hamlet is shaken when he realizes that Ophelia is dead, and he interrupts the service to quarrel with Laertes over who loved Ophelia more.
- Upon finding the king’s letter, Hamlet switched it out with a letter calling for the immediate execution of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. He then escaped with the pirates, leaving his former friends to their fate.
- Hamlet tells Laertes that it was his madness that killed Polonius, not him.
- Gertrude drinks the poisoned wine on accident and dies soon after.
- Laertes wounds Hamlet with the sword, causing a scuffle in which they accidentally switch swords. Hamlet then wounds Laertes with the poisoned sword.
- When Queen Gertrude dies, Laertes reveals Claudius’s plot to Hamlet and tells him that, having each been struck with the poisoned sword, they are both about to die.
- Hamlet kills Claudius, running him through with the poisoned sword and then forcing him to drink the remaining poisoned wine.
- Fortinbras mentions his claim to the throne (which Hamlet supported) and orders that Hamlet’s body be carried out like a soldier’s.