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Many, if not most, kingdoms were officially elective historically. An

elective monarchy is a monarchy ruled by an elected rather than
hereditary monarch. The Saxon and Norman kings did not succeed each
other by divine right or even by the principle of inheritance. On the death
of the king, the throne stood vacant until his successor could be named
by the witan, or lords of the council. But the natural preference of
Englishman for an eldest son and a direct lineal descent gradually
brought them to regard the crown as an inheritance. The right to rule
over England had come to be acknowledged as an absolute property in
one or other family, and the only way to settle whose it was was for the
families to fight it out.
However, there is a number of instances in the English history which
show that some factors other than birth right were taken into
consideration in the accession to the throne as no claimant could hold
the throne without the acceptance of the governing elites (eili:ts), which
raised questions about the location and limits of monarchical power in
England. William Rufus, Henry I, Stephen of Blois (a grandson of William
the Conqueror), John II, Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VI, Richard III and Henry
VII had all reigned in defiance of the strict rule of descent.


At the heart of the institution of kingship was an assumption inherited from

biblical times: that kings were set over men by God. Kings got their right to rule
directly from God rather than from the consent or wish of their people. This
doctrine is known as the Divine Rights of Kings. The Tudors adopted the theory
of the Divine Right of Kings in the attempt to maintain a strong government,
and to counter the Papal authority as the state attempted to break away from
the church. Numerous political treatises written in the 1590s argued that
monarchy was a divinely ordained institution and that it was the duty of
subjects to obey the monarch without question because everyone and
everything had its place in the natural order of things. For such theorists of
government the worst of all possible evils was rebellion: this was clearly
expressed in the Homily Against Disobedience and Willful Rebellion (1570/71)
published in the aftermath of the 1569 Northern Rebellion and ordered to be
read out in church services at key intervals throughout the year. Its aim was to
demolish the argument that rebellion can be justified in certain circumstances.
Since man occupies such a crucial position in the Chain of Beign, he must not
rebel against anointed of the Lord. If the sovereign should happen to be a
tyrant, than the subjects' duty is to submit themselves to what God has
ordained. Their only remedy lies in a prayer, or in sighs and tears as James I
was later to suggest. George Buchanon (1506-82) argued that kings were
obliged to serve the people and if they failed in their duties could be
overthrown by any of their subjects without further ado. The first
significant attack upon the doctrine of passive obedience appeared in John
Ponet Shorte Treatise of Politicke Power, printed in 1556 - the king is
responsible to the community and the community is responsible to God.


It is no exaggeration to claim that nearly all of Shakespeare's plays that deal

with the question of kingship are centred on problems of legitimacy and the
succession. A powerful recent interpretation of the history plays argue that
Shakespeare was in favour of a strong leader to unite the factions struggling
for political control throughout Britain, placing little stress on the legitimate
claim of the monarch in question and emphasizing instead the ruler's
personal abilities and charisma. Shakespeare did not invent drama concerned with
political matters. Fulgens and Lucrece, Respublica, Gentleness and Nobility, Health and
Wealth, Gorboduc and Jack Straw _ these are but a handful of the many plays on the
sixteenth-century stage that dealt with right rule, the role of counsel and the
possibility of popular rebellion.We know some 70 English history plays that were
written over the stratch of some 15 years between the Armada and the death of
Elizabeth I. (but only 35 texts have survived) George Chapman, Samuel Daniel and
Ben Jonson, Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville -Writers became fascinated in
and after 1591 by the themes of kingship, authority, and the acquisition of and
retention of the power. Eight out of ten plays Shakespeare wrote on the subject of
English history make up the first and the second tetralogies. Shak's main sources
were, Edward Hall's The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre families of
Lancaster and York (1548), Raphale Hollinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland
and Ireland, A Mirror for Magistrates was one of the most popular works of the
16th century, going through six editions, often involving additions and the
reconfiguration of the text. It had a considerable impact on Shak's history plays. The
Mirror consists of a series of poetic narratives, most of them complaints spoken by
unfortunate or wicked princes and nobles, who have come to a bad end.


The first tetralogy (1589-94?) deals with dynastic struggles known as the Wars of
the Roses. It consists of the plays Henry VI part 1,2 and 3, and Richard III. The
second tetralogy begins with the deposition of Richard II, continues with
the reign of Henry IV, and culminates in the glorious victories of Henry V.
Out of Richard's deposition immediately proceeds, not the cruelest of
England's tyrants, but the greatest of English kings. What Shakespeare and
his contemporaries probably feared most when the Lancastrian plays were being
written was the accession of a weak king, one incapable of maintaining order,
under whose reign powerful noble factions would again wage civil war in England.
Those who support the providential view of history believe that Shakespeare was
influenced by so-called Tudor myth. According to this myth, at the beginning
prosperity is destroyed by the deposition of Richard II, and Gods curse falls upon
England; then follow the conscience-stricken Henry IVs attempts to preserve his
realm, the brief victory of Henry V, followed by the endless rebellions during Henry
VIs reign which culminate in the tyranny of Richard III. And then, at the end of the
cycle, Henry of Richmond appears, Gods curse is removed, and order is
restored.The concept of inherited sin is alien to Shakespeare. The notion that the
whole nation was doomed to suffer for the sin of its monarch is even more alien to
Shakespeare, who is so profound a realist to subscribe to the metaphysics so
characteristic of feudalism.


Not only in his history plays, but also in the Roman plays and
plays such as Hamlet, King Lear, Measure for Measure, Macbeth,
The Tempest and so on, Shakespeare investigates various issues
such as: Who has the right to be king? Can a king do wrong? What
is the nature of kingship? What values are essential in a ruler? Are
all who have power susceptible to abuse of that power and to
what extent?
Hamlet (1600-1) is set at the court of an elective monarchy at
war with its neighbours, where the current king has murdered his
predecessor. Measure for Measure (1602-3) imagines the
issues presented when the legitimate ruler of a city state hands
over the reins of power to a deputy in order to study his realm as
a secret observer; King Lear (1605-6) concerns the disastrous
attempt of one of Shakespeare's most powerful kings, who has
united and pacified Britain, to secure the succession on his own
terms. Macbeth (1605-6) deals with the problems of reestablishing legitimate government after the reign of a bloody
usurper, and directly confronts the question of what gives a
monarch his authority. The Tempest stages a series of issues
relating to the question of the monarch's authority, from Gonzalo's
pious meditation on governing the island, to Prospero's transfer of
power at the end of the play.


Richard is the only monarch represented in the cycle of eight plays

that make up the first and second tetralogies who actually has a
strong claim to be king of England. However, throughout the history
plays Shak makes it clear that rulers depend either on popular
support or on the good will of their mighty subjects, rather than on
inherited titles for their survival in office. These are the sins with
which Richard is charged throughout the play: of being ruled by
"favorites" rather than by truth and justice, of separation from the
commons, and of using the lands and goods of the realm for the king's
benefit rather than the commonwealth's. Although in his conversation
with the Dutchess of Gloucester
John of Gaunt stresses the
importance of the Divine Right of Kings, he condemns the present
misgovernment of England, and foresees additional disasters resulting
from the reckless conduct of the young king. In leasing out his realm,
Richard has become a landlord of England, not king. The king, and
England with him, is placed between John of Gaunt on the one hand
and Bushy, Bagot, and Green on the other; Richard's uncle, the Duke
of York, warns him not to seize the lands of the recently deceased John
of Gaunt for his own benefit because he only holds the throne by fair
sequence and succession. An inherited title which is not bolstered by
more substantial support will never be an adequate basis for


Through greed, complacency, and naivete, Richard loses the support of the
people and incurs their contempt, and, subsequently, leaves himself
vulnerable to plots and attacks. When he returns from Ireland and finds out
that Bolingbroke is in arms against him, Carlisle and Aumerle encourage him
to collect his strength and take action against his enemies. God will aid the
lawful king if he knows how to fend for himself. But Richard will not assert his
power; the sole protection he calls upon is the divinity of his kingship Is
not the kings name twenty thousand names? or:
Not all the water in the rough rude sea
Can wash the balm off from an anointed king.
The breath of worldly men cannot depose
The deputy elected by the Lord. (3.2.53-56)
There is, moreover, in Richard II some evidence that Shakepeare had come to
regard the very notion of the divinity of kings with some degree of
skepticism. Richard repeats the basic doctrines of Tudor absolutism as
accurately and as often as perhaps any other character in the whole range of
Elizabethan drama.
The issue the nobles are faced with is what to do with a monarch who has
committed serious and habitual offenses, on whose crown, A thousand
flatterers sit (2.1.100).


If the anointed king has demonstrated his unfitness to rule, the

alternative to Gaunts passive obedience is a backing of a banished
traitor. In order to maintain the illusion of an unbroken succession,
Bolingbroke does his best to present Richards deposition as an
abdication; and when York arrives to announce that Richard has
agreed to step down, Henry promptly announces, In Gods name, Ill
ascend the regal throne. the Bishop of Carlisle steps forward to
deplore so heinous, black, obscene a deed (4.1.131). If the figure
of Gods majesty (4.1.125) is deposed, he warns:

The blood of England shall manure the ground

And future ages groan for this foul act;

In the drama, Carlisle does not only oppose Henrys assent to the
throne, he prophesies that England shall pay dearly for crowning
Henry. Although Richard acquires a new strength through suffering,
he never shows real awareness of the causes of his downfall. What
Richard has learned by now is that there can be no king
without community. Had not an ear to hear my true time broke: I
wasted time, and now doth time waste me. (V.v.42-49)


Henry IV displays the specific qualities of leadership which Richard lacks. In

putting down the rebellion, he gives evidence of political sagacity the lack of
which costs Richard his crown and life. Bolingbroke is a better king for England than
Richard can ever be. His type of rule would mean justice and mercy (note his pardon of
Aumerle who will live to be the gallant Duke of York of Henry V) and the preservation of
civil order in England. Henry IVs overthrow of Richard makes it possible for any person,
of any bloodline, of any status, to proclaim the king unjust and proceed to challenge the
kings authority to rule. Crucial to the two Henry IV plays is the fact that Henry IV openly
rejects any connection his kingship has with the divine. Henry IVs deathbed speech to his
heir, Prince Henry, describes how Henry IV usurped the throne from Richard rather than
be appointed to the throne by God. Henry describes his ascension to the kingship But as
an honor snatched with boistrous hand/And I had many living to upbraid/My gain of it by
their assistances/Which daily grew to quarrel and to bloodshed (2H, IV.iii.319-323).
One interesting thing about this play is that the deposition scene was never staged
during Elizabeths lifetime. It is presumably the play performed on the eve of the Essex
rebellion, which, in turn, reportedly prompted Elizabeth to say, I am Richard II. Know ye
not that?It was a very difficult problem for Shakespeare to portray the ineffectiveness of
Richard as a king and illustrate that England was better ruled by Bolingbroke without
seeming to support rebellion. Richards fall and the usurpation of Bolingbroke emphasize
between them the necessity of the political qualities for the successful exercise of
kingship. By his possession of these qualities Bolingbroke justifies his otherwise
indefensible seizure of the crown. That Richard's downfall was the inevitable result of his
own conduct is one of the surest political lessons of the play.


The entire play is dominated by the single figure of Richard of Gloucester. In his
great soliloquy in the preceding play,41he had already established himself as the
cynical villain-hero who would "set the murderous Machiavel to school,"advancing
through villainy after villainy until he seized the crown. Richard is the logical
outcome of his society; a hypocrite, yet more sincere in his self-awareness than
those he ruins and deceives; a villain who is also the hero of the chronicle-cycle. In
the Wars of the Roses, Shakespeare shows that men, Richard being one of them,
are governed by their passionsby ambition, anger, animosity and revenge. Henry
VI is the regulating principle of traditional society. He is mercy, pity, love, human
kindness, reinforced by God's ordinating fiat. It is this which Richard kills. Right up
to Henry's murder Richard has been a typical member of the Yorkist group. The
conflict about the throne has been conducted as a dynastic rivalry. The
killing of the King marks the transcendence of this code. The dynastic issue is left
behind, and it is now a question of Richard's personal ambition. Richard's skill at
manipulation can be seen at once, as he maneuvers his brother George, Duke of
Clarence, to the Tower. He then wooes Lady Ann over the corpse of her father-in-law
(Henry VI). Both the Duchess and the Queen have felt, and recognize Richards
demonic nature which will bring about the annihilation of their house. A reflection of
the same presentiment is given in the conversation of the three citizens who are
lamenting the kings death, regretting the extreme youth of the new monarch, and
utterly distrusting Richard of Gloucester, O! full of danger is the Duke of
Gloucester! (2.3.27), says one of these citizens.


The dangers of that society become apparent when we learn that Lord Rivers
(brother) and Lord Grey (son), as well as Sir Thomas Vaughan, have been taken
prisoner to Pomfret Castle, where many others, including Richard II, have died.
Hastings: I'll have this crown of mine cut from my shoulders Before I'll see the
crown so foul misplac'd. Richard has created an atmosphere of mistrust in
which everyone is suspect.
Richard still needs mass support. He knows that the power of the people
should not be ignored by someone who seeks to exercise power of his own.
The commoners may at times warrant contempt, but never should they be
overlooked.The king-making strategy that Richard and Buckingham masterfully
design and then implement is a brilliant example of political manoeuvring and
manipulation. Buckingham records that he is faced with silence when he
proclaims God save Richard, England's royal King, the people like dumb
statues or breathing stones / Star'd each on other, and look'd deadly pale,
hardly an auspicious sign for the prospect of the new reign. This fact exposes
the limits of his political skill, showing that he can succeed in outmanoeuvring
corrupt and naive nobles but cannot deceive the people. Furthermore, it
indicates that without a wider basis of support he will not be able to rule for
any length of time, as the play subsequently demonstrates. If Richard cannot
be made king by popular acclaim, he must be presented in a different light
the devout man reluctant to accept the proffered throne .


Everything which has befallen the House of York is a picture of

what it did to the House of Lancaster. Margaret's curse has been
fulfilled in every particular. The death of his wife Anne has opened
the opportunity for Richard to marry Edwards daughter Elizabeth,
his last challenge to the throne. Only if he manages to secure her
mothers consent will his reign be secure. However, Richmond has
come from France to claim the crown, and he, as the audience will
later learn, has asked for and has been promised the virtuous
and fair Elizabeth, daughter of Edward IV. Richmond as well as
Richard is trying to strengthen his title to the throne by marriage
with the only living representative of the first Yorkist king. The
short speeches of those in Richmonds party revolve around the
idea that Richard has been a murderous and oppressive king who
deserves to be overthrown and that, as a result, Richmonds army
is morally unwavering in its quest to overthrown him. As a plotting
usurper, he was, indeed, thoroughly successful; but as a
sovereign, he seems to have shown far less ability. For the sake of
becoming an absolute monarch, he destroyed all his near
relatives, alienated his chief adherents, forcing them to join his
enemies, and thus increasing the opposition on all sides. Having
exalted Richard, Shakespeare judhed and condemned him
according to his basic political beliefs.


Richard is a scoundrel; such man is not fit to control the reins of state. Shakespeare's
condemnation of Richard indicates a definite political view. Power based on villainy,
violence and usurpation undermines its own roots. The violation of the tradition of
succession to the throne, so dear to the heart of Hastings, is of no importance; in Shak's
days, change sin the law of succession were constantly being formulated and accepted.
Shakespeare was not opposed to such changes. Bolingbroke had at least maintained his
usurpation through the support of the masses, whose hearts he succeeded in winning, but
Richard was forced to rely on his mercenaries and on those lords who were attached to him
for reasons of their own. Immediately after his seizure of the throne, Richard's allies
demand an accounting. New revolts, new wars are imminent. None of Richard's actions
had been dictated by concern for the welfare of the nation, but were all products of his
boundless ambition and egoism. That such man could have ever ruled the English nobility,
or the nation at large, was surely impossible. in Richard III the doctrine of passive
obedience had to be somewhat modified, for the rebellion against Richard had to be
justified. Henry of Richmond was the ancestor of Elizabeth, and his victory had ushered in
the great age which God had granted to England after her atonement for her sins. Tillyard
(p. 212) holds, in explanation, that Richard III, "was so clearly both a usurper and a
murderer that he had qualified as a tyrant; and against an authentic tyrant it was lawful to
rebel."But orthodox Tudor doctrine had never endorsed rebellion against a tyrant.
Although there is no sign of it in Henry VI, in Richard III we have an important
distinction between lawful king and tyrant, and the implicit doctrine that a
tyrant--a usurper who rules for his own aggrandizement rather than the good of
his people and who is destructive of the commonwealth--is not entitled to the
rights and privileges of a lawful king. This doctrine, as we shall see,
Shakespeare was to develop further in Macbeth.


As in Julius Caesar and Macbeth the stage is set by the

murder of a good King. The rightful King has thus been
slain and the throne is occupied by a machiavel. Whatever
might be rotten in the state of Denmark there are no
obvious repercussions in the sphere of public life or of the
general weal. What has happened, of course, is that
Shakespeare is treating the killing of a King as a merely
private murder. To everyone except Hamlet Claudius is as
good as his predecessor. Hamlet's mother certainly thinks
so. He has the machiavel's cunning (the 'witchcraft of his
wits'), the same ability to simulate the appearance of
virtue, and like Richard III he can persuade his victim's
wife to marry him. Like Richard, too, he uses a pair of toolvillains. Hamlet's
role requires him to be the man
entrusted with the task of killing the King, to restore
righteousness to the order of things as well as to revenge
his father. It is a machiavel-King, and a King-slayer,
Hamlet sees himself opposed to. His problem is to devise
a strategy that will circumvent the machiavel's. This
strategy is, of course, that of feigned madness.

The Danish throne itself was not subject to the same rules of
kingship as the English throne. In an elective monarchy, court
officials selected the new king by vote. Although the son of a king
was the prime candidate for the throne, the voting nobles had
the right to choose another candidate if they considered him a
better choice. And that was what precisely happened in Elsinore.
The nobles approved the king's brother, Claudius. The reason
why these lords preferred Claudius over Hamlet might be the
comparative youth of Hamlet and his mental state, and the fact
that the kingdom was at that time threatened by an invasion of
the Norwegians under young Fortinbras. The royal councillors
believed that Claudius was better able to cope with the affairs of
the state. Under King Hamlet the kingdom of Denmark had been
respected abroad. It is evident from the speech of Hamlets
school-fellow Horatio that Hamlets father was a valiant king, For
so this side of our known world esteemd him (1.1.85). When
Fortinbras of Norway challenged him to war, he took up the
challenge, and very speedily overcame and slew him. By this
victory the lands that were in dispute fell to Denmark, and so
long as King Hamlet lived they remained his without question.
However, young Fortinbras, desiring to avenge his fathers death
and regain the lost properties, has scraped together an army of
desperadoes with which to attack Denmark.

Young Fortinbras was not, at any rate, old enough to ascend the
throne at the time of King Fortinbras' death; thus the brother of
King Fortinbras, uncle to the delicate and tender prince, had gained
the crown. In both Norway and Denmark there is an uncle on the
throne to thwart the impulses of a headstrong nephew who is the
royal heir in direct line. On the confession of Claudius himself, it
appears that young Fortinbras thinks the weakness of Denmark
affords him a good opportunity to make war on it, and a fitting time
to seize lands that his father had lost to King Hamlet. Claudius is
clearly a wise politician, great orator, and knows exactly what he
has to do to strengthen his position on the throne. Interestingly,
Hamlet seems unaware of the Norwegian threat. His chief thought,
stressed at the beginning and at the end of his first soliloquy, is the
degradation of the kingdom. It is now enslaved by what he will later
call damned custom (3.4.37). The swift marriage of his mother to
his uncle rounded and perfected his outrage by its complete
disregard of his father's memory, and by the stability it gave to his
uncle's position on the throne. Hamlet's father claims to have been
betrayed by his most seeming-virtuous queen and murdered by
that adulterate beast (1.5.46, 42) his brother Claudius. The
official version of his fathers death was that he was stung by a
serpent while sleeping in the palace gardens.


The Ghost's words Hamlet, remember me (1.5.91) seem to require from

Hamlet the wiping out of all other memories, of the very sense of his own
identity. He has to forget himself. He swears to become a new person, a
revenger. He must erase all ties, bonds, relations. Hypocrisy and
dishonesty now rule in Denmark. The queen is a most pernicious
(1.5.105) person because she is, as the Ghost said, seeming-virtuous
(46). Claudius is damned, not chiefly because of his adultery and murder,
but because he has concealed all his wickedness with a genial, virtuous
smile. Professor Khan says that Hamlet's picture of Claudius does not
correspond to the reality. Claudius has already showed his political
capabilities by saving the country from the war and it is clear by now what
the reasons were for such urgent royal marriage. Hamlet has the most
powerful motives which can urge the human breast to kill the king; his
struggle is with one who has murdered his father, disparaged his mother,
and usurped his throne. King Claudius is, in the eyes of his subjects, a
legitimate monarch and, by killing him, Hamlet would commit high treason
and dispatch an emissary from God at the same time. Hamlet's situation is
made worse by the fact that no one else in the court, except Horatio, is
aware of the murder Claudius has committed. Moreover, Claudius seems to
be a popular ruler, which makes Hamlet's position more dangerous.
Conventional morality, backed by religion, was against any private
revenging. What justice required was a regular impeachment and trial of
the usurper, but Hamlet is tied to the primitive code under which only a
son's sword could wreak sufficient retribution. Apart from Horatio, Hamlet
cannot trust anyone, which further aggravates his sense of isolation.


Claudius is extraordinarily disturbed by Hamlet's transformation, wondering

broodingly What it should be / More than his father's death (2.2.7-8)
Gertrude is convinced that her son's transformation is due to his father's
death and her hasty marriage to Claudius. Convinced that Hamlet's
madness is caused by Ophelia's rejection of his advances, Polonius
suggests to the king to arrange a meeting between two young people, with
two of them spying behind the arras. Thus Ophelia becomes an instrument
against Hamlet through her father. A peculiar type of espionage permeates
the court of Elsinore. There is father spying on son, friends spying on friend,
a lover used as decoy by those who spy on her loved one, a subject spying
on his Queen and her son, and the tormented prince who sets the actors on
as his decoys to spy out the King's guilt. Claudius engages Rosencrantz and
Guildenstern, former schoolmates of Hamlet's, to probe his nephew's
threatening transformation. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern believe that
Hamlet's behaviour is the result of Hamlet's not succeeding his father on
the throne. They are faceless courtiers easily manipulated by Claudius and
deceived by Hamlet. Hamlet is in the hell of doubt, doubt of the Ghost,
doubt of Ophelia, doubt of his own sanity and judgment. He has learned
that mankind has a terrifying capacity to reject reason, to descend to the
bestial level: subjects may murder kings, brother may kill brother; wives
and mothers may rush to incestuous sheets; boyhood friends may be used
as spies. When the professional players arrive at Elsinore, Hamlet will have
the players reenact the murder of his father and observe Claudiuss
reaction. He hopes this play will strike Claudius to the soul.


For the courtiers the Play scene has meant merely a crucial outbreak of
Hamlet's initial unrestrained importunity: his unmastered emotionalism, his
bitter ambition for the throne, his idealistic dislike of the quick wedding, and,
above all, his hatred of the accomplished and charming king. The danger,
formerly alluded to by Claudius in general terms is now very specific: I like
him not, nor stands it safe with us (3.3.1). Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
unintentionally increase the King's anguish when they remind him how much
the health of the nation is dependent upon his own state: The cease of
Dies not alone, but, like a gulf doth draw
What's near it with it; it is a massy wheel,
Fixd on the summit of the highest mount...
Instead of providing comfort, however, such sentiments distress Claudius,
who knows that he has gained the throne through regicide and fratricide. He
is not a Devine Right King, but a usurper and bloody murderer. Hamlet has
done something more than murder Claudius; through the Gonzago play he
has aroused a conscience in him. Claudius, primarily a diplomat, has learned
the fine art of deceit. But the internal pressure caused by his guilt is now
beginning to work on him, O! my offence is rank, it smells to heaven
(3.3.36). He attempts prayer. Repentance means an entire turning away of
his soul from his sin, and therefore involves penance and restitution, a giving
up of the effects for which he did the murder, My crown, mine own
ambition, and my queen (3.3.55). Unable to repent, Claudius commences
plotting against the life of Hamlet.


On his way to the ship in which Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are taking
him to England and death, Hamlet meets the Norwegian army which is to
attack some part of Poland, marching unmolested across Denmark as
promised by King Claudius. Fortinbras is the man of action, and this
element is brought into greater prominence by the small value of its
object. The prize is a worthless patch of ground, yet here is a youth who
defies fortune to the utmost for its possession. The contrast strikes
Hamlet in the most forcible manner. He has a father murdered, a mother
stained, a throne despoiled and still he does not act.
The popular discontent is turned not against Hamlet who slew Polonius,
but upon Claudius who was himself nearly the victim. Unlike Hamlet,
Laertes is willing to overthrow the political structure of Denmark in his
pursuit of revenge.
To Hell, allegiance! vows, to the blackest devil!
Conscience ad grace to the profoundest pit!
I dare damnation. (4.5.130-31)
Claudius, like Richard II, takes refuge behind divine right as if he had
forgotten that the same right was of no avail to King Hamlet, the brother
he has killed.


There's such divinity doth hedge a king

That treason can but peep to what it would,
Acts little of his will. (4.5.123-25)
In seeking revenge for his father, Laertes has no conscience, no inner
conflict. His actions illustrate what Hamlet ought to have done to fulfil
the Ghost's demand. Laertes openly and uncompromisingly demands
justice, fearlessly challenges the king in public, reasserts his filial duty,
and rejects feudal duty and other laws and norms. Claudius continues to
exert his political skills as he persuades Laertes to follow another route to
revenge. He explains his scheme to draw Hamlet into a sword fight with
Laertes, who agrees to arrange that the tip of one of his weapons be
poisoned. For all his external confidence in Laertes, Claudius has another
plan in reserve, and conspires to have a poisoned drink in preparation.
For Hamlet the world is a prison with many dungeons, Denmark being
one of the worst, but he returns to it but as a changed man. Professor
Khan observes that Hamlet has reached his spiritual maturity. Hamlet
goes back to Elsinore alone, without a plan; for him, There's a divinity
that shapes our ends . . . there's a special providence in the fall of a
sparrow . . . the readiness is all (5.2.10, 232, 237).


He now can view the death of Claudius not as a sinful act of private
vengeance which must be his own damnation, but as lawful act of
public duty, that of a minister of God and not of a scourge.
Young Fortinbras, Laertes, and Hamlet were all looking to avenge the
deaths of their fathers. They all acted on emotion, and this led to the
downfall of two, and the rise to power of one. Unlike Hamlet, both
Laertes and Fortinbras are men of prompt action. Hamlet was a prince
who, according to Fortinbras, would have become a great king,
martial and commanding, but courteous, wise, and just if only he had
not fallen victim to his uncles scheming. Hamlet endures as the
object of universal identification because his central moral dilemma
transcends the Elizabethan period, making him a man for all ages. In
his difficult struggle to somehow act within a corrupt world and yet
maintain his moral integrity, Hamlet ultimately reflects the fate of all
human beings. The Prince of Denmark has earned his rest. His
countrymen have earned and deserved much less; and monarchical
rule in Denmark, which can only be rescued from itself by the killing
of the man on the throne, has reached an impasse.The play begins
with Fortinbras, and ends with Fortinbras; his activity is the frame in
which the whole movement is set. Thus the poet has portrayed him as
the absolute contrast to Hamlet, and made him triumphant, at the
close, as the man of action.
V. Kiernan, op. cit., p. 87