Why is Shakespeare considered to be one of the greatest playwrights of his time? Shakespeare lived in the Elizabethan era and had to write for an Elizabethan audience and theater. By today’s standards, this was no picnic in the park. Under those circumstances, he wrote some of the greatest works in history. These works, still popular today, prove him to be a consummate dramatist.
Shakespeare knew how to craft dramatic scenes full of external and internal conflict and emotion, something the Elizabethan audience delighted in; he also intertwined superstitions of this era and pageantry, which the Elizabethans also loved.
Shakespeare creates external conflict between opposing characters to build tension onstage. When Hamlet and King Claudius interact in the second scene of Act I, tension builds: “But now, my cousin Hamlet, and my son- A little more than kin, and less than kind. How is it that the clouds still hang on you? Not so, my lord, I am too much I’th’sun.” (1.2.65-68).
While Queen Gertrude and Hamlet are heatedly discussing the “unlawful” marriage to Claudius, more tension builds between Hamlet and his mother: “Have you forgot me? No, by the rood, not so. You are the Queen, your husband’s brother’s wife, and, would it were not so, you are my mother.” (3.4.15-18). Shakespeare also creates internal conflict within Hamlet himself, using revenge, and a common theme of that time. It was expected of playwrights of the Elizabethan era to write plays containing the motive of revenge. He struggled with the decision to write Hamlet as a revenge play, and it is evident in the play that in Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy which parallels Shakespeare’s ambivalence about the theme of the play: “To be or not to be, that is the question: Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer. The fair Ophelia! Nymph, in thy orisons be all my sins remembered.” (3.1.63-78) Hamlet wants revenge when he thinks of his mother and her incestuous marriage to Claudius: “Haste me to know’t, that I with wings as swift as meditation or the thoughts of love may sweep to revenge.” (1.5.33-35).
Hamlet doesn’t want revenge when he sees King Claudius vulnerable while praying: “Now might I do it pat, now he is a-praying. And now I’ll do it. And so he goes to heaven; And so I am revenged. That would be scanned: A villain kills my father, and for that I, his sole son, do this same villain send to heaven. Why, this is hire and salary, not revenge.” (3.3.76-83).
Shakespeare whips up the emotion onstage by incorporating the conflict and tension between Hamlet, Queen Gertrude, his mother, and King Claudius, his uncle stepfather. Kinship and inheritance are very strong themes in Hamlet. “Hamlet’s excessive emotion is focused on Gertrude’s sexual relations with Claudius”. Because their marriage is “unlawful” according to the era and it deprives Hamlet of his rightful succession (Jardine 39).
According to the table of affinity, “unlawful” marriages that would conflict with possible inheritance would be, a man’s marriage to his father’s wife, his uncle’s wife, his father’s wife’s daughter (his sister), his brother’s wife (i.e. Claudius and Gertrude), or his wife’s sister (Jardine 40). Although none of these are blood ties, each creates questions over inheritance. In Hamlet’s case, his uncle Claudius’ marriage to his mother threatens his claim to inheritance. Hamlet, when talking alone with his mother, exclaims: “Nay but to live in the rank sweat of an enseamed bed, Stewed in corruption, honeying and making love Over the nasty sty!” (3.4.100-104).
Hamlet, in a soliloquy, says to himself: “O, within a month, ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears had left the flushing in her galled eyes, She married. O most wicked speed! To post with such dexterity to incestuous sheets!” (1.2.155-159).
Shakespeare uses beliefs and superstitions of the era to entertain and relate to his audience. Realizing the rift between Catholics and Protestants in his day, Shakespeare requests his audience to a belief in ghosts as a major necessity to understanding the play. Catholics, at the time, believed that ghosts came from purgatory and were the souls of the departed (Bloom 24), while “Protestants believed that ghosts came from hell and were the devil who had assumed the shape and appearance of the dead” (Bloom 24).
While Marcellus, Horatio, and Barnardo are on guard duty, they spot King Hamlet’s ghost: “But soft, behold. Lo, where it comes again. I’ll cross it though it blast me. Stay illusion: For which, they say, you spirits off walk in death.” (1.1.139-140; 152).
When a scene like the previous, occurred onstage, Shakespeare let his audience know the ghost from everyone else by having the ghost’s costume be in a “ghostly” fashion. Ghosts were trained to speak in a slow, high-pitched, portentous tone (Charney 25); whether or not the ghost was wailing while moving onstage is unknown (Muir and Schoenbaum 35).
Pageantry and military content is something else Elizabethans expected to appear in their plays. Elizabethans loved blood and gore. This gave Shakespeare a good basis to incorporate this theme into Hamlet: The play begins on guard; Denmark is a warlike state; in Act III, scene IV in the event in which Hamlet kills Polonius displays a bloody and grotesque picture.
Staging and scenery were very important concepts for Shakespeare when writing a play. In early years of Shakespeare’s time, plays were performed for audiences in courtyards of city inns and for upper class, in the great halls of institutions (Lamb 12). This concept didn’t apply to Shakespeare when writing Hamlet; public theaters were built and being used. They play’s staging actions and written text are a combination of courtyards, halls, and public theater stages (Lamb 12).
“The conventions of soliloquy allow characters to address the audience directly, outside of the dialogue form” (Charney 39). The construction of Shakespeare’s apron stage helped to give soliloquy its complete efficiency. On this large stage that extended all the way into the middle of the “pit”, an actor could come downstage to address the spectators in a tone of confidence (Charney 39).
Due to limitations in lighting in Elizabethan England, Shakespeare used certain theatrical conventions to accommodate these circumstances so that his audience would know what time of day or night it was; torches were brought onstage; candles were lit; poetry was used to describe the time and setting. Barnardo, arriving to guard the tower, says to Francisco: “‘Tis now struck twelve. Get thee to bed, Francisco.” (1.1.7). Barnardo says to Horatio and Marcellus of when the ghost left at daybreak: “It was about to speak when the cock crew.” (1.1.164).
In Shakespearean theater, a scene does not necessarily take place in a certain geographical place. It is described by the words of the actors. “Very little was done to create the illusion of a place. Painted, movable scenery was not in general use until the end of the seventeenth century, so that the understanding of a ‘scene’ as a location does not hold for Elizabethan drama” (Charney 95). To overcome this obstacle, Shakespeare lets his audience know the setting by the words of his characters. He defines the setting, Denmark, in the words of the men on guard in the opening scene of Act I.
Without the requirements of located places, Shakespeare’s scenes can move easily into each other in an uninterrupted sequence. There isn’t any need for changing scenes; any needed props were thrust onto the stage. Shakespeare’s plays maintain a quick pace, unimaginable in a modern production (i.e. Hamlet was completed in two hours). The advantage to having such a short play is that the dramatic effect can be intensified and the audience is able to feel the full effect of the climax.
Players in the Elizabethan era were of vast importance to the outcome of the play. Shakespeare displays this importance in Hamlet with references to the players of that time. The entire scene ii of Act III is based on the players and the play that Hamlet has rewritten to be performed for the King. Also in this scene is mention of Shakespeare’s rivalry, The Lord Admiral’s Men. Shakespeare mentions, too, the children players of the Black friar theater; they were harsh competition then. Rosencrantz says to Hamlet while discussing players and the theater: “there is, sir, and eyrie of children.” (2.2.336).
When Shakespeare sat down to write his plays, he knew the limitations that he was faced with, limitations that modern-day authors would have a hard time accepting; yet, he leaps over these walls and presents us with masterpieces of art.
Due to scenery and staging complications, there weren’t any breaks between scenes, as there are in today’s productions. To Shakespeare, these types of scenes made no difference, they were just numbers of different groupings of, “people carrying on the actions of the play” (Lamb 13).
The exact origins of Hamlet are unknown, but it is believed that Shakespeare “cut, pasted, and edited” tales before his time that resembled Hamlet. One story can be traced back to the Danish chronicle of Saxo Grammaticus (thirteenth century). This account was printed in Latin in 1514 (Lamb 14-15). Another version of Hamlet is Belleforest’s Historic Tragiques of 1582; this version is based on Saxo with a few minor changes. It was translated into English in 1608 as The Historic of Hamlet (Lamb 15).
It is believed that Shakespeare was familiar with both Saxo and Belleforest’s tale of Hamlet; his only son was christened Hamnet in 1585 (Hamnet is one spelling of Hamlet) (Lamb 15). Another origin of the name Hamlet is believed to be from a young girl, Katherine Hamlett, who drowned near Stratford when Shakespeare was, sixteen. Her drowning occurred under circumstances very similar to those of Ophelia (Bloom 96).
Similarities between the Earl of Essex (Shakespeare’s supposed “lover”) and Hamlet have also been commonly pointed out (Bloom 96).
Shakespeare, as a dramatist, uses many different literature elements in his plays. The story of Hamlet came out in the seventh century, but in Shakespeare’s version, Hamlet attends Wittenberg, a university founded in 1502 (Lamb 18-19). Shakespeare uses irony and dramatic irony: In scene iii of Act III, Hamlet thinks Claudius is kneeling to make his peace with God, but actually, Claudius is realizing that he can’t repent and evil is the only path for him. The King says to Laertes: “O, That we are made of stuff so flat and dull.” (4.3.33).
Although faced with the many great challenges that playwrights faced in the Elizabethan era, Shakespeare proves himself worthy of the Elizabethan audience and also shows that he is a consummate dramatist in that his works are still being read and performed today.