Setting & Time Period of Hamlet

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  • 0:00 Hamlet's Troubles
  • 1:09 A Pivotal Moment in History
  • 2:07 The Divine Right of Kings
  • 3:21 Social and Historical…
  • 5:39 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Terri Beth Miller

Terri Beth has taught college writing and literature courses since 2005 and has a PhD in literature.

In his iconic 1603 play, ''Hamlet'', William Shakespeare creates one of the most memorable title characters in English literature. Hamlet is very much a man of his time and place, driven and damaged by the emergence of our modern world.

Hamlet's Troubles

Have you ever sat at the holiday dinner table, looked around at your family, and wondered, 'Who are these people and how on Earth can I be related to them?' That is exactly how Hamlet feels in William Shakespeare's iconic 1603 play.

In Hamlet, the title Prince has returned home following the death of his father, the king of Denmark. Within a month of Hamlet's father's death, Hamlet's mother, Queen Gertrude, marries Claudius, Hamlet's father's brother. Now Uncle Claudius has ascended to the throne of Denmark. Yikes...

But then things go from really bad to incredibly worse. The ghost of Hamlet's father returns, and he's got lots of reasons to be ticked. He tells his astonished son he was the victim of murder, at Claudius' hand. Hamlet's father's spirit wants revenge. Only then can the departed soul find peace.

For Hamlet, getting revenge is not just about shedding the blood of a murderer, because that murderer also happens now to be a king. That complicates things. A lot.

A Pivotal Moment in History

In literature, setting refers to the various locations where the story's action unfolds, and it can often be as important as the plot and the characters themselves. Hamlet's primary setting is Elsinore Castle, but the play is also set at a pivotal moment in history, as the medieval and Renaissance periods transition into the modern era. Now, while living in a castle might seem like a sweet deal to us, things weren't quite so rosy for a guy like Hamlet living in the early 1600s.

He's a young man who wants to resume his life studying with his buddies at the university in Wittenberg, Germany. Hamlet's mother, Queen Gertrude, manages to guilt trip Hamlet into remaining at Elsinore for a while longer, even though to Hamlet, Elsinore is not a castle, it's 'a prison', and with good reason. At Elsinore, Hamlet has no choice but to remember who he is: not merely a prince but also a subject of King Claudius; a subject from whom loyalty is not only expected but required.

The Divine Right of Kings

In the Medieval era, spanning roughly the fifth through the fifteenth century in Europe, and in the Renaissance period, extending from around the fourteenth through the seventeenth centuries, a concept known as the Divine Right of Kings prevailed. What this meant was that any king had divinely-approved authority. If he did not, then God would never have allowed the king to ascend to the throne. That also means that if you don't want to sin against God, you'd better obey the king God gave you.

That even applies to bad kings. Bad kings were thought to be sent by God as scourges, or divine punishments, to chastise the people for their sins. Only when the people had been cleansed of their sins by suffering under a bad king would God then remove him, striking him down by death. But no human could do it. If you killed a king, you thwarted the will of God, committing blasphemy, a sin from which there is no redemption.

So, as you can see, Hamlet is in a bit of a pickle. With his father's ghost demanding that he avenge his murder and this Divine Right of Kings thing on the other hand. So what is Hamlet to do? Should he honor his duty as a son to his father? Or should he go with his duty to God as a Christian according to the theory of the Divine Right of Kings?

Social and Historic Context: Emerging Modernity

Hamlet's context, or the social and historical climate of the tale, is among its most significant factors because it takes place at a crucial moment in history. The world had begun its slow, painful transition into modernity, a period characterized by urbanization, technological advances, and the development of modern scientific knowledge.

Hamlet himself is the ultimate symbol of this painful shift toward modernity. In the medieval and Renaissance periods, who you were was determined by your social class and status. Your identity was given to you, and you had no choice but to play it through.

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