Hamlet - Renaissance Man

greenspun.com : LUSENET : Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet : One Thread

I keep hearing that Hamlet is a reniassance man but no one seems to explain how and why he this is. Could someone please help me out because now I have to write a essay about this. thanks

-- Peter Lee (pickle_weasle500@hotmail.com), June 23, 2004


I wrote a short essay on a similar topic a few years ago, which I may as well paste below. It may give you some inspiration. Actually it was a response in a History exam, so don't look for brilliant writing here, or indeed for literary analysis. Don't copy it either, or your marker will find out - they do internet searches for bits of plagiarism. If you have any questions about any of it, you can post them here.

QUESTION 5: Select an artefact and explain its importance for understanding the Italian Renaissance society.

Time and again this course has brought me back to William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and the challenge here is irresistable: to demonstrate how this play assists an understanding of the ideology of the society of the Renaissance, with reference to Italy. The play gives the Renaissance a very human and three dimensional face. The story is set in Denmark, the author is English, and so perhaps the ideology is more generally European than specifically Italian; but that generality does not preclude the play’s bearing on the Italian Renaissance, especially when it is remembered that the general Renaissance sprang from and leant on the Italian one. Because of the constraints of word limit, this essay will confine its exploration to the character of Hamlet himself to exemplify the play’s reflection of the Italian Renaissance.

Hamlet is set up as a spirit of Renaissance against what Machiavelli would have seen as medieval Northern barbarism. Hamlet has received a humanist education which he recurrently demonstrates, and which he extends by virtue of his own intellect through his experience. Classical allusions, similes and metaphors litter his speeches and dialogue as evidence of his extensive reading of the classical authors and his learning on how to use them to exemplify as all the humanist writers do. He also takes great pleasure in the player’s speech from a classically- styled play which “pleased not the million [and was] caviar to the general” concerning heroism in the Trojan War, whereas Polonius finds it “too long”. He clearly has a thirst for knowledge and learning, being reported as an avid reader; and he is free and independent enough to apply his own judgement to what he reads, as he does with the “slanders” in II.ii.

Above all, Hamlet has read Pico della Mirandola on the Dignity of Man, and has faith in the power of free will and reason. Thus the highest praise he can confer on his dead father is “He was a man, take him for all in all”. In II.ii he expounds,

What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god - the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals!

and in IV.iv he asks,

What is man, If his chief good and market of his time Be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more. Sure, he that made us with such large discourse, Looking before and after, gave us not That capability and godlike reason To fust in us unused. Now, whether it be Bestial oblivion, or some craven scruple Of thinking too precisely on the event - ... - I do not know Why yet I live to say this thing’s to do.

The end of this quote also indicates Hamlet’s very human problem and a very real consideration for the humanists and humanistically trained public men of the Renaissance. He has to apply the education he has received, and his reason, to the real world and the vita attiva, not merely to philosophical contemplation. In attempting to do this he actually applies the respected Renaissance quality of “prudence”, which is why Hamlet is often accused of indeed “thinking too precisely on the event”. As Giovanni Rucellai wrote, “It does not please me to act hastily in any matter, but rather to do everything prudently and afer taking thought.” In III.ii Hamlet admires Horatio for his ability to move through life applying cool “judgement” rather than intemperate passion.

Hamlet is reported in the play as having been a perfect Castiglionian courtier, and he also demonstrates qualities which Machiavelli advised for princes, so that “he was likely, had he been put on,/ To have proved most royal.” As Ophelia says, Hamlet’s is “a noble mind”, that he is

The coutier’s, soldier’s, scholar’s, eye, tongue, sword, The expectancy and rose of the fair state, The glass of fashion and the mould of form, The observed of all observers

and that he has a “noble and most sovereign reason” and the “unmatched form and feature of blown youth”.

Just as his speech demonstrates his classical erudition, so it does too his wider education, showing him comfortable in playing with language and grammar, writing for a play and for statecraft, and within the areas of music, plays and acting, history, theology and religious doctrine, morality, the art of warfare, sailing and ship terminology, law, medicine, hunting and sports, gardening, and more. He has a talent for comedy and is witty and entertaining when he wants to be. He despises Claudius and, for much of the play, his mother, but he always treats both with courtesy in public (except in the extremities of the night of the play within the play). He treats all his social inferiors, except those who betray him, with equal generous courtesy, and he is “beloved of his inferiours”.

His letter to Horatio and his beating of the much-praised Laertes at fencing show that his knowledge is not merely theoretical, but that he is also “valorous” and brilliant in practise. In his lines about the court’s excessive revelling under Claudius, and in his dying speech, he demonstrates his value of “temperance” and his genuine concern for the condition and welfare of the state. Although he is privately troubled, everything he does in public is accomplished with sprezzatura and he “shon[s] Affectation”. Hamlet makes a clear distinction between sexual love and the neo-Platonic spiritual bonding favoured by Castiglione and humanists. He offers the latter freely to those he respects, but eschews the former throughout the play. Physical love and marriage, he thinks, should “wait upon the judgement”.

He knows he cannot work alone, but he is very selective about who he has to aid him. As though following Castiglione’s advice “To gete him an especiall and hartye friend to companye withall”, he selects Horatio; and following Machiavelli, he seeks the help and advice of Horatio, whose wisdom, honesty and plain- speaking he respects, shunning the mediocre flattery of Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and Polonius. Yet he is wise and competent enough himself not to subdue his oown will and judgement to Horatio’s when they do noot agree. In addition, in his craftiness, his ability to remove adversaries, his ability to “be cruel to be kind”, and his ability to lie convincingly to achieve his ends and what he believes is a common good, Hamlet demonstrates his princely potential. As Machiavelli also said,

any one who would act up to a perfect standard of goodness in everything, must be ruined among so many who are not good. It is essential, therefore, for a Prince who desires to maintain his position, to have learned how to be other than good, and to use or not to use his goodness as necessity requires.

Finally, in his attitude to death and the purposes of life before it, Hamlet also reflects the ideology of renaissance society. He begins the play rather disillusioned with life because death is inevitable and he finds mortality vulgar (I.ii.72-76 and 129ff, and II.ii.295-310). In the course of the famous soliloquy, “To be, or not to be ...” he complains that the possibilities of life are not fulfilled because of fear of death (III.i.78-88). But in Act V he comes to embrace a broader Renaissance view of death. Savonarola, preaching on death, encouraged people to visit cemeteries and “to take a skull in one’s hand and contemplate it often.” Shakespeare, explicit as ever, has Hamlet actually do exactly this to come to an acceptance of the inevitability of the reality of mortality (V.i.174-209). He is then able to move beyond fear and horror of it to the renaissance vision that life, more than just a preparation for death, was also a period in which something of value could be achieved and passed on to the future, allowing the individual even to live on through fame.

Thus Hamlet faces and accepts death in general, then the death of Ophelia, and still goes on with his life to plan and achieve his purpose, the death of Claudius; and he even displays a degree of humour whilst he knows he is risking his own death. He accepts, too, that the timing and manner of it must be left up to “providence”. And when he does come to die, he has two concerns: his own future name, and the future welfare of the state (V.ii.215-220, and 343-345, and 349-363).

'It is commonly said that a good life brings a good death ... reason constrains me to die willingly, and so may it please the Lord God to concede me the grace so to do.'

Giovanni Rucellai (1473)

'There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow ... The readiness is all.'


-- catherine england (catherine_england@fastmail.com.au), June 23, 2004.

Moderation questions? read the FAQ