The play ‘Hamlet’ looks at the concept of dysfunctional families. When we first meet Hamlet, he is grieving the recent death of his beloved father. We feel for Hamlet when his mother rather insensitively chastises him for his sadness: ‘cast thy nighted colour off’. Claudius further compounds Gertrude’s insensitivity by telling him ‘But to persever/In obstinate condolement is a course/Of impious stubbornness; tis unmanly grief’. Hamlet struggles with the new dynamics of his family structure as Claudius, his uncle has married his mother with what appears to Hamlet as ‘indecent haste’. Hamlet makes it clear to Claudius that his loyalty belong to his father and not to him through his acerbic pun: ‘I am too much i’ the sun’. In the play ‘Hamlet’ we see a conflict that is reminiscent of an episode from the Jeremy Kyle show. The noble Hamlet is torn between loyalty to his father’s memory and obedience to his mother: ‘I shall in all my best obey you Madam’.
Hamlet revered his father ‘A combination and a form indeed/ Where every god did seem to set his seal/To give the world assurance of a man’. His animosity towards his mother’s new partner is clearly evident in Hamlet’s comparison of him as a ‘satyr’ to his Hyperion-like father.
His revulsion of Claudius and his mother’s relationship is clearly manifested in his employment of bestial and prurient imagery especially when talking about their sex life: ‘Nay, but to live/ In the rank sweat of an ‘enseamed bed,/Stew’d in corruption, honeying and making love/Over the nasty sty’. He feels disappointed and let down by Gertrude. He denigrates her, lamenting that ‘a beast that lacks the discourse of reason would have mourned longer’. This is completely understandable to a modern audience who see Hamlet’s initial struggle as that of a young man whose is forced to come to terms with the recalibration of his family unit.
Hamlet’s bitterness and world-weariness can be understood in terms of a young man whose idealistic perception of his parents’ relationship has been completely undermined by his mother’s recent hasty remarriage to his morally inferior uncle: ‘she would hang on him/ As if increase of appetite had grown’. Doubting something as fundamental as one’s perception of their family inevitably and quite understandably results in Hamlet’s sense of self-doubt, self-deprecation and his place in the world: ‘O! that this too too solid flesh would melt,/Thaw and resolve itself into a dew/Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d/His canon against self-slaughter’. Hamlet’s family is clearly dysfunctional as Claudius and Gertrude in their enrapture with each other, overlook the emotional needs of Hamlet. The moral and social implications of Gertrude’s remarriage are of interest to an audience of today as we are made cognisant of the implication of a remarriage on the children. We see how some children like Hamlet can end up feeling resentful towards their parent. Some might end up feeling displaced within their own family like Hamlet, with them vying with their parent’s new partner, for their parent’s affection.
Another issue of social and moral import that is germane to a modern audience is the abuse of political power. Claudius has usurped his brother and taken the Danish throne unlawfully. As a result, he has no legal or moral legitimacy to the throne and what ensues is a reign of corruption and duplicity. Claudius is a Machiavellian opportunist who uses his power as king to get what he wants. He encourages Polonius to spy on Hamlet and Ophelia for him. He exploits Hamlet’s friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern for his own sinister purposes. It is just too easy for us to dismiss characters like Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as obsequious sycophants who just want to ingratiate themselves with the king. One has to question how much freedom did these characters have to say no to Claudius? After all, Claudius is the king, the purported representative of God on earth whose decrees must be adhered to. Claudius abuses his power as king in order to satisfy his political agenda. This is particularly germane to a modern audience who tend to view politicians with a fair amount of cynicism and mistrust.
The Netflix series ‘House of Cards’ has immortalised this age old problem, of the ruthlessly Machiavellian opportunist, who exploits his political power in a similar fashion to Claudius in the character of Frank Underwood. When Claudius feels that Hamlet is a threat to his reign: ‘I like him not, nor stands it safe with us/To let his madness rage’, Claudius ruthlessly plans to have Hamlet executed: ‘Do it England;/For like the hectic in my blood he rages/And thou must cure me’.
Finally it would be remiss of me if I were not to discuss the concept of revenge and justice as the play ‘Hamlet’ after all, is a revenge play. It would be erroneous for us to think that the pursuit for revenge is an anachronistic concept. One only has to switch on the nine o clock RTÉ news to listen to gruesome tit-for-tat killing connected to the Kinahan/Hutch feud. The pursuit for revenge is as relevant today as it was in Shakespeare’s day. In the play ‘Hamlet’, three sons are seeking revenge for the deaths of their respective fathers. The concepts of filial duty, family honour and loyalty are explored extensively in the play.
Hamlet is charged with the task of avenging his father’s ‘foul and most unnatural murder’. Hamlet knows that it is his duty to seek this vengeance as he promises the Ghost that he will ‘sweep’ to his revenge. However, the noble, introspective and morally scrupulous Hamlet struggles with this task and with this type of vigilantism. Hamlet recoils from the task because of his conscience. Hamlet’s response probably reflects the majority of people when wronged, in that while they may desire revenge and justice, they refrain from taking the law into their own hands. However, in characters like Fortinbras and Laertes, Shakespeare presents us with an uncompromising ruthlessness when honour is at the stake: ‘Rightly to be great/Is not to stir without great argument/But greatly to find quarrel in a straw/When honour’s at the stake’.
We see Laertes’ hardnosed response as he tells Claudius: ‘To hell, allegiance! vows, to the blackest devil/Conscience and grace, to the profoundest pit’. Fortinbras is willing to jeopardise the lives of twenty thousand men for ‘a little patch of ground/That hath no profit but the name’. The desire for revenge and the need for justice though we might be reluctant to acknowledge it, is a deeply innate human response to a wrong perpetuated. Hamlet is cognisant of the fact that he has ample justification for killing Claudius:
‘He that hath killed my king and whored my mother,/ Popped in between th' election and my hopes,/Thrown out his angle for my proper life/(And with such cozenage!)—is ’t not perfect conscience/To quit him with this arm?
Despite this Hamlet vacillates in executing his revenge. The nobility of Hamlet, his intellectual brilliance, his morally scrupulous nature inhibit him from cool-headedly killing Claudius. Hamlet is not by nature a vigilante and he struggles psychologically, moral and emotional with having to take the law into his own hands. It is only in a frenzied attack after Laertes has made him aware of Claudius’ treachery and his attempt on his life, that Hamlet flips it and kills Claudius.
The social and moral issues embodied by the characters in the play ‘Hamlet’ are as germane to a modern audience as they were to those of the Elizabethan era. The success of the play and the enduring appeal of the play lies in the play’s ability to resonate with audiences down through the centuries because of the universality of these human issues. The intricacies and moral ambiguities of these issues are the compelling ingredients for great drama.