English and Literature
Submitted By gocart08
A great amount of events occurred in Act IV of Shakespeare’s famous play Hamlet, which helped to further the plot of the story and enhance the theme of revenge and justice. Some events that took place are; the Queen betrayed her son and told Claudius of the murder of Polonius, Ophelia became insane and eventually drowned herself in the river, and King Claudius plotted to ship Hamlet off to England to be killed. Shakespeare wrote his plays during the Elizabethan era, and life was much different for people of that era, then it is for people of present day. How words and dialogue were written in the play, is hard for us to understand with are modern day language and slang; the same can be said for the ideas and influences certain parts of the play have on us. Someone who was alive during the Elizabethan era and attended one of Shakespeare’s plays would view the live production very differently than a modern day audience would. There are a few points that come to mind when comparing the differences between the Elizabethan era and modern day; such as the great chain of being, extreme importance on religion, and the pride in defending your honor. These examples of the differences between the two eras are very noticeable in Act IV Scene IV lines 53-66, when Hamlet exclaims:
Rightly to be great
Is not to stir without great argument
But greatly to find quarrel in a straw
When honor’s at the stake. How stand I then,
That have a father killed, a mother stained,
Excitements of my reason and my blood,
And let all sleep-while, to my shame, I see
The imminent death of twenty thousand men,
That for a fantasy and trick of fame
Go to their graves like beds, fight for a plot
Whereon the numbers cannot try the cause,
Which is not tomb enough and continent
To hide the slain? Oh, from this time forth,
My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!
One way in which an Elizabethan and modern day era audience would differ greatly is the strong belief in the ‘Great Chain of Being.’ The great chain of being is the belief in a hierarchy of all beings arranged according to an order of perfection. The chain includes everything from religious figures to elements of earth, the order progressing downwards being: God, angels, demons, stars, moon, kings, princes, nobles, commoners, wild animals, domesticated animals, trees, other plants, precious stones, precious metals, and other minerals. An example of the great chain of being can be seen in the lines, “The imminent death of twenty thousand men. That for a fantasy and trick of fame…fight for a plot, whereon the numbers cannot try the cause.” (Shakespeare 4.4.59-61). This this case, we are able to see the pecking order of the great chain of being, as the soldiers or “commoners” are forced to follow the commands of their King or Prince no matter how ridiculous they may seem. In this case twenty thousand men are headed into battle to fight over a little patch of land which is seemingly worthless, they are willing to do this however, because of their belief in the great chain of being and belief that they must follow the King’s every order as he answers to no one but God and angels themselves according to the chain of being. The soldiers may have had doubts of the fighting and question the King’s decisions or even the life God has given them, but they know they must follow their King’s order as he is more ‘perfect’ than them. If an audience from today’s society was to watch the live production or even read the script of the play, without knowing the era the play was written in, they may be very confused as to why all of these men willingly “went to their graves like beds,” the modern audience would not be able to gain a full appreciation for the following and loyalty of the King as a Elizabethan era audience would understand. The modern day audience may think the soldiers are unintelligent to knowingly walk to their deaths, but Shakespeare’s audience would understand this behaviour and see it as a sign of brevery. In today’s society many people love to believe that they answer to no one, that they themselves are in their own eyes are the highest on the chain of being, however in the Elizabethan era, the great chain of being was accepted throughout Europe and was understood and followed in that manner.
Throughout Hamlet a large amount of importance is placed on religion. During the Elizabethan era the Roman Catholic faith was very widely accepted throughout England and surrounding countries. They believed in getting last rights in order to proceed into heaven, they believed suicide was a sin which would land you in hell, and they believed God has created each of us with a plan, and the courage to execute that plan. There is still many people who believe in these, but the importance of religion and of God can not be seen in a modern society first world countries, like it could be in the Elizabethan era. Throughout the entire passage stated earlier, Prince Hamlet was speaking to God, he questions God, “how stand I then, that have a father killed, a mother stained, excitements of my reason and my blood, and let all sleep?” (Shakespeare 4.4.56-59). Hamlet wonders why he is not able to find the anger and violence to get his revenge of Claudius; his father has been killed, his mother ‘stained’ and yet he is not enraged enough to act upon it. In today's era, many people would turn on God if they were in Hamlet’s situation or doubt his belief, however someone from the Elizabethan era would understand why Hamlet merely questions God why he has not given him the rage necessary to complete his task of getting revenge. Shakespeare loved to have his characters speak to God and reflect on themselves when no other characters were around, this passage is one of many examples of Shakespeare using the religiousness of his characters and the audience to further the plot of the play. People of the Elizabethan era would see the fact that Hamlet is able to talk to God as a sign that God is on Hamlet’s ‘side’ and that he is still sane and believes in the good of his faith. While a modern day audience may see this scene as Hamlet blaming God for what has happened and turning from God to travel down a darker path. When Hamlet reflects over his feelings and speaks to God he comes to the realization that, “from this time forth, my thoughts be bloody, or be nothing of worth!” (Shakespeare 4.4.65-66). He takes to the realization that if God can empower those soldiers to fight over land worth nothing then, he too is able to think bloody and violent thoughts. Hamlet’s speech to God and self-reflection was something very commonly practiced in the Elizabethan era, the people of that era are able to have a better appreciation for what is going on in this passage, and are influenced in a deeper more meaningful way.
As a human race are honour and pride are something we value very highly, in certain middle east countries people are even killed when they bring shame to their family's honour. However, in a first world country such as Canada or the United States there is not a high importance on keeping the family's honour, this is why a modern day audience may view Hamlet’s plot for revenge to save and defend his honour differently than an audience from the Elizabethan era would. In the chosen passage Hamlet states; “Rightly to be great, is not to stir without great argument, but greatly to find quarrel in a straw, when honor’s at the stake.” (Shakespeare 4.4.53-56). To put that in terms better understood: “to be truly great doesn’t mean you’d only fight for a good reason. It means you’d fight over nothing if your honour was at stake.” (Sparknotes: No Fear Shakespeare). This is where the mindset truly differs between the audience of today and Shakespeare’s audiences; in today’s age we are told to set aside our pride, and honour for the betterment of the country, or team, or family. In the Elizabethan age both the audience and Hamlet firmly believed that your pride and honour should come before all else; they believed if somebody came and destroyed their families name, or ruined their families legacy, then revenge should fall upon them and it is their duty to make it happen. That audience would support Hamlet and his decision, rather than seeing him as a hateful killer getting savage revenge, they would see it as restoring his family’s honour. An audience of today’s age might not understand Hamlet’s frustration and the motivation to kill Claudius, Hamlet can not set aside his pride he must avenge his father’s death and restore honour to his family
The differences between the lifestyle of someone of the Elizabethan era and someone from today’s era are so enormous; it’s very difficult to gain a full appreciation for the text reading it in modern day. The different views and opinions on subjects such as the great chain of being, religious importance, and the pride in defending your honour as well as your family’s honour, makes it obvious that one of Shakespeare’s audiences would better understand the choices and decisions Hamlet makes.