The Rightful Heir: Juxtaposing Kings in Shakespeare’s Hamlet By Yaani Dinu Mahapatuna

The Rightful Heir: Juxtaposing Kings in Shakespeare’s Hamlet By Yaani Dinu Mahapatuna

I am in my last year of the Liberal Arts program. I wrote this essay for a course I took in my third semester titled “Hardcore Hamlet,” taught by Amanda Cockburn. My current interests include whining about the state of anything and safely making my way into the world (and by “safely,” I mean incurring as little emotional damage as possible, since sources report the outside is scary). My plans for future studies include perhaps actually doing them. I would have said that I would like to learn how to write, but evidently that’s unnecessary.


The Rightful Heir: Juxtaposing Kings in Shakespeare’s Hamlet

By Yaani Dinu Mahapatuna

For Hardcore Hamlet, with Prof. Amanda Cockburn


Long live the king… however long that may be. William Shakespeare lived and created in a time of much upheaval, writing during the reigns of two different English monarchs. His play Hamlet (1609) is reflective of these changes, showcasing both the divergence between two monarchs and the consequences their differing personas can have on a state. In the play, the notion of a king is pulled apart into two characters and kingly brothers, King Hamlet and Claudius. One king embodies Denmark’s idealized past, the memory of honour and legacy preserved in supernatural ambiguity. The other proves the landmark of a decaying reality, a state overturned by corruption and vice, vulnerable to outside attack because of internal fracture. By examining Shakespeare’s characterization of these two kings in the first act of Hamlet, one can determine that the playwright alludes to the dynamics of his own changing times, of transformed regimes and new ideals caught into conflict. This can be proven by comparing and contrasting the features of the Ghost of King Hamlet and Claudius through reflections on the dramatic imagery, theatrical conventions and effects, and speech patterns relating to each king’s character.

To begin, Shakespeare uses dramatic imagery related to the kings in Hamlet to showcase each king’s individual contribution to the disorder in the state of Denmark. The play begins with an air of uncertainty, marked by the night guard Barnardo’s anxious inquisition: “Who’s there?” (1.1.1). Barnardo is anxious in anticipation of the Ghost of King Hamlet, who roams the castle nightly, “clad in complete armour, with its visor raised, and truncheon in its hand” (1.1.39) as if dressed to march into war. This image of the former King Hamlet speaks to his reputation as a respected and dutiful king, as “valiant Hamlet” (1.1.84) who represents the discarded ideals of honour and duty in Denmark. His appearance in armour appeals to the image of the king as an honourable knight who upheld traditional values such as glory in war “When he th’ambitious Norway combated” (1.1.61). However, this previously untarnished conception of King Hamlet remains shrouded in mystery due to its supernatural characteristics. Even the King’s son, Prince Hamlet, questions the ghost’s motives for appearing, pondering whether the ghost is antithetically a “spirit of health or goblin damned” (1.4.19). The king’s appearance as a ghost is a perfect image to represent the perception of the Danish state as a mere semblance of its former glory. The image of a ghost can also be interpreted as symbolic of the sheer disorder in Denmark, a result of King Hamlet’s death. There is the notion that the ghost, as a restless supernatural creature searching for revenge, is reflective of the unrest within the state or “post-haste and rummage in the land” (1.1.107) as it anticipates war with young Fortinbras of Norway. In contrast, as the current king of Denmark and brother of King Hamlet, Claudius stands in direct opposition to what the ghost represents. “So excellent a king, was this Hyperion to a satyr” (1.2.140), says Hamlet of his dead father and his living uncle, comparing King Hamlet to a god and Claudius to the fickle half-animal companion of Bacchus, Roman god of wine. While King Hamlet is associated with old notions of kingly duty, like battle and honour, Claudius is often associated with images of gregariousness and festivity. Prince Hamlet describes in scorn how Claudius “takes his rouse, keeps wassail and the swaggering upspring reels, and as he drains his draughts of Rhenish down, the kettle-drum and trumpet thus bray out triumph of his pledge’” (1.4.8-11). Prince Hamlet is affected by what he perceives as his uncle’s immature composure, drinking and partying late into the night, whereas he is traditionally supposed to behave as a stoic and regal figurehead of Denmark (like the former King Hamlet). While Hamlet might view Claudius’s more laid-back approach to governing the state as ineffective, Claudius might not actually be an altogether terrible ruler, albeit completely different to King Hamlet. King Hamlet conjures up an image of honour and duty, whereas Claudius is linked to more manipulative, back-handed tactics like long speeches and sycophantic celebrations. After all, both wine and flattery can be considered useful tools for lowering someone else’s guard. This style of leadership as a king is reflective of Claudius as a person: driven by passions and whims. He is the personification of sin in Denmark, the man who murdered his “most valiant brother” (1.2.25) to “post with such dexterity to incestuous sheets” (1.2.156-157) by marrying his former sister-in-law. What results is a state as marred with these indiscretions as Claudius himself. Hamlet compares Denmark to “an unweeded garden that grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature possess it merely” (1.2.4-6).

In continuation, Shakespeare uses theatrical conventions and effects in play to describe the Kingdom of Denmark in a state of flux between two kings. The first act of Hamlet begins and ends with theatrical effects tied to the characterization of King Hamlet. For audiences viewing an enactment of the play, when “Enter[s] the Ghost […]” (1.1.39) from under a trap door, it displays exactly how troubled the state of Denmark has begun to look under changed leadership. The appearance of this ghost from the cellarage under the stage invokes tension for the audience and mimics the tension that the state of Denmark is implied to be under, while frantically preparing for the invasion of young Fortinbras. Considering that the basement-like area was often referred to as the ‘hell,’ one can also assume the religious connotations of employing this particular theatrical effect. While both kings in Hamlet are figures consumed by the torment incurred by one particular event, the ghost in particular is tormented by its gruesome demise, wanting to “Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder” (1.5.25). It is to be expected that Shakespeare’s audiences would have assumed the manner by which King Hamlet died, since “Ghosts in Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedy are invariably the victims of murder, though they come with different purposes” (Mullan). It can be further presumed that King Hamlet is stuck in purgatory (a part of hell), until his murder at the hands of his brother is avenged. The idea that the king’s ghost came back to enlist his son into a revenge plot is a part of a grander idea: a “strange eruption to [the] state” (1.1. 69). Horatio originally referring to the Ghost of King Hamlet as a “strange eruption to [the] state” is communicative of the notion that the ghost’s presence is tied to a problem in Denmark. While the ghost implies that what it wants from Hamlet is revenge for its murder, it can be interpreted that the ghost is, in a broader sense, trying to right the wrongs incurred by Claudius being king. Claudius and the Ghost of King Hamlet diverge in their relation to the concept of monarchy in a manner which upsets past precedent for kings of Denmark. King Hamlet presumably ascended to the throne traditionally through primogeniture and was supposed to be succeeded by Prince Hamlet, who, as a Renaissance Christian Humanist, would have supported this legacy and believed in the idea of a divine right of kings. Although it would have been considered sinful that he committed both regicide and fratricide to become king, Claudius further disrupts the pre-set means of passing down the throne by ascending to the throne with the popular consent of the royal court. While Claudius describes marrying King Hamlet’s widow, Queen Gertrude, and becoming king, he references how he claimed the throne by appealing to “[the] better wisdoms [of the nobles], which have freely gone with this affair along” (1.2.15-16).

Finally, Shakespeare attaches specific speech patterns to each of the kings in Hamlet to showcase how both King Hamlet and Claudius contribute to the functioning of the Kingdom of Denmark. Prince Hamlet is notoriously witty with his language, playing with the words while getting his own point across. When Claudius refers to him as a son, Hamlet quickly interjects: “A little more than kin, and less than kind” (Shakespeare 1.2.65). King Hamlet and Prince Hamlet share speech patterns, pairing quick, straightforward remarks with in-depth explanations. When the prince implores his ghostly father to speak, “Speak, I am bound to hear” (1.5.7), the ghost retorts with some of Hamlet’s signature wit while summarizing his whole mission: “So art thou to revenge, when thou shalt hear” (1.5.8). In essence, the ghost implies that Prince Hamlet will be “bound” to revenge, the same way the prince asserts he is bound to speak. The similarity in their speech patterns plays into the notion of primogeniture and to whom the throne of Denmark rightfully belongs; Hamlet would be the more comparable choice to uphold the previous regime. This style of speaking also represents an aspect of the state of Denmark as a whole. King Hamlet was honest and honourable, bound by duty even when taking over enemy lands. Thus, his speaking pattern is curt and summative, reflective of his honourable nature and of a past Denmark governed by more morally upright principles. On the other hand, Claudius, the head of a Denmark on the brink of war, speaks in circles, manipulating with his tone and his language: “We beseech you to remain / Here in the cheer and comfort of our eye / our chiefest courtier, cousin, and son” (1.2.115-117). Claudius flatters Hamlet, using honey-coated words to disguise the true intent behind rejecting Hamlet’s request to return to Wittenberg. It is much more likely that Claudius’s intentions for wanting Hamlet to remain are to prevent the prince from dethroning him, but he employs flattery to try and convince Hamlet otherwise. While this technique is not very effective on Hamlet, perhaps even further dividing the uncle and his nephew, Claudius does succeed in using elaborate, but shallow speeches to downplay young Fortinbras’s advancement as “not [failing] to pester us with message importing the surrender of those lands lost by his father, with all bonds of law to our most valiant brother”(1.2.22-25). There is irony in Claudius’s speech as he justifies Denmark’s possession of land that used to belong to young Fortinbras’s father as “lawful,” considering that he himself committed regicide to ascend to his seat as King of Denmark. This type of contradiction in his speech, found so often that it is integral to the manipulative nature of his speech pattern, is representative of Claudius’s impact as a ruler. He rules a fractured Denmark, divided and weakened by opposing, if not apparent, ideals and hidden agendas. Claudius disguises much of his intentions as being for the good of the people or his family, while really operating from the guilt and fear resulting from trying to hide his act of fratricide. What results is a badly maintained state, vulnerable to the impending attack by young Fortinbras.

To conclude, using devices such as imagery, theatrical conventions and effects, and speech patterns, it was demonstrated that in his play Hamlet , William Shakespeare ties his characterization of two brotherly kings to the notion of the Kingdom of Denmark as being in a state of flux. By comparing these facets of the Ghost of King Hamlet and Claudius, it was made apparent that the honourable image of King Hamlet stood in stark opposition to the celebratory and manipulative Claudius by way of leadership style, ascent to the throne, and even speech. This notion of opposing two comparable characters (doubling) is a facet common to Shakespeare’s work, found in plays such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1605) and Macbeth (1606). In the end, it is interesting to consider that despite their vast differences, both Claudius and King Hamlet were willing to let Prince Hamlet inherit the throne. In this case, one cannot help but wonder whether Prince Hamlet’s decision to follow through with his father’s ghost’s desire for revenge was ill-advised.


Works Cited

Mullan, John. “Ghosts in Shakespeare.” The British Library, 9 Nov. 2015, Accessed 11 October 2020.

Shakespeare, William. The Oxford Shakespeare: Hamlet, edited by G.R. Hibbard and Stanley Wells, Oxford University Press, 1987.

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