‘Hamlet is primarily a personal rather than a political tragedy.’ To what extent do you agree with this statement?
There is no doubt that Hamlet is both a political and personal tragedy but there is room for argument as to which sort of play it primarily is. It is a play based on universal emotions and a play that anybody can relate to. The title of the play in the first printed editions was ‘The Tragical History of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark’, which implies that the play was a historical and political tragedy, rather than a personal one. However, Hamlet was written in an era of intrusive violent censorship when plays touching political and religious subjects were banned, suggesting the play should not be considered a political one. In addition, Coleridge summed up Hamlet as ‘a psychological study of a man who could not bring about a balance between his inward thoughts and the external world’. This suggests that the play is predominantly a personal tragedy as it shows that Hamlet is like any other human with emotions and cannot help his sentiments interfering with the political surroundings that he is part of. One of the reasons that Hamlet lives on and is still significant today is because his experiences stir the awareness of similar experiences in ourselves and he is shown to respond to situations in ways which are familiar to our own deepest nature. In short, all readers of this play can relate to Hamlet as his thoughts are as real as our own. It is remarkable that the prince and apparent heir of Denmark should think about all his problems, within the play, only in personal and philosophical terms. As a result he spends relatively little time thinking about the threats to Denmark's national security from without or the threats to its stability from within. Hamlet is set in the 16th century in the state of Denmark, and the first scene sets the political situation for the rest of the play. We are told by Marcellus and Horatio that Denmark is preparing for war so desperately that the shipwrights ‘do not divide the Sunday from the week’. This would surprise the strictly Christian Elizabethan audience. This preparation for war is due to an expected military invasion by the Norwegian prince Fortinbras, who wishes to regain the territories lost by his father's death. This political state that Denmark is in is emphasized by the tense, anxious and fearful atmosphere in the first scene, on the gun platform at Elsinore Castle. The first line, ‘Who’s there?’ establishes a mood of anxiety and dread and the next few lines consist of abrupt, nervous exchanges between the guards, reinforcing the uneasy mood. This apprehension could also be due to the transfer of power from one ruler to the next. There is a dramatic appearance of the ghost of King Hamlet which appears in warlike form. This further supports the previous discussion of the current political conflict. Horatio, an educated scholar, sees the ghost as a dangerous premonition boding violence and turmoil in Denmark’s future, and compares it to the supernatural omens that foretold the death of Julius Caesar in ancient Rome.