How Does Shakespeare Convey a Sense of Anomie in Hamlet Act 1, and to what end?

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Drew York

How Does Shakespeare Convey a Sense of Anomie in Hamlet Act 1? And to what end?

Williams Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’- written in the early 17th century - still carries as profound a message in modern times as it did when it was originally written. It tells of a young Danish prince- hamlet- who is struggling to come to terms with his father’s sudden tragic death. The sense of anomie Shakespeare weaves into the play comes in many forms in act 1 alone; emotional, spiritual, physical, political and relational. Throughout the play, hamlet struggles to articulate his feeling of inner-turmoil and insignificance, but Shakespeare uses anomie in all of its forms to allow the audience to empathise with the main characters by asking poignant and timeless questions such as ‘ to be or not to be’.

Before we start, we should take a look at what “anomie” actually means. Mainly used in sociological context, anomie is when social norms are broken down, or a state of social instability. To fully understand the word’s meaning, we have to look at it’s roots. The word “anomie” is derived from the ancient Greek word anomos. The word anomos has two parts; the first – “a” – means without (as in a – theist, without god), and the second, - nomos – means law. So literally the word anomie is derived from the Greek word for lawlessness. We can now define “anomie” as being without law, rules or boundaries. We should take anomie’s literal meaning into account when looking at it’s representation in the play.

In Act 1, Scene 1, Shakespeare creates a sense of anomie through tension and suspense. In this scene Marcellus, Bernardo and Horatio are standing guard on a platform of a Danish castle in the middle of the night. Marcellus asks Bernardo “Has this thing appeared again to-night?” to which Bernardo replies “I have seen nothing.” Shakespeare has given us no clues to what this “thing” might be, but he has given us fuel to fire our imaginations. Shakespeare has been deliberately vague in his description to give a sense of mystery to the scene (which is heightened by the lonely night-time setting), but by using the preposition “thing”, he has suggested that what Marcellus and Bernardo are talking about is neither “he” nor “she”, it is something un-human or otherworldly. This creates emotional anomie in the audience as they are dreaming up terrible monsters and evil demons, trying to fathom what this “thing” is throughout the first part of scene 1.

Shakespeare uses pathetic fallacy to create the feeling of suspense. Pathetic fallacy is a dramatic technique used to manipulate audience reaction, by using the environment to reflect the emotions of the characters, e.g, in Scooby doo, when they decide to stay in the old abandoned castle, it’s inevitably thundering and raining. The first scene is set in the middle of the night, as Bernardo tells us in the line “Tis now struck twelve”, and Francisco adds to the setting with the statement “'tis bitter cold”. This picture Shakespeare gives us of a bitterly cold middle of the night, with a lone guard patrolling a castle, sets the scene for the ghost’s appearance. Also, I picked up some tension when reading the first scene, in the way the characters spoke in the lines:


Who's there?

Nay, answer me: stand, and unfold yourself.

Long live the king!


This passage of dialogue suggested to me that the characters were a little on edge, by the way they question each other, and Bernardo’s tentative, “Who’s there?” and the way Francisco refuses to reveal his identity before he knows who he’s talking to. This gave me the impression something was up.

Horatio plays the role of the sceptic, telling the others “Tush, tush, ‘twill not appear”. This technique is often used in Hollywood horror movies, where one character refuses to believe that anything is happening right up until the point where they inevitably get killed, and in the context of the play, Shakespeare uses Horatio as a dramatic device to the same effect – to create tension between characters and provoke audience reaction/participation. This technique is considered to be a cliché, something that everyone is familiar with, and Shakespeare used it hundreds of years earlier to the same end. This is one example of why Shakespeare’s plays have been so popular for so long, using timeless writing techniques to provoke emotional reaction in his audience.

As Bernardo starts to tell the tale of when he and Marcellus first saw “it”, the ghost appears. Shakespeare finally provides us with an idea of what the ghost looks like when Bernardo states “In the same figure, like the king that’s dead.” It is interesting that Bernardo says “like” the king. This suggests that Bernardo is hesitant to assume it is definitely the king’s spirit, and introduces the theme of appearance vs. reality, as in 14th century Denmark (where the play is set), people believed that evil spirits could take the form of a pleasing figure to lure curious souls to their deaths. This heightens the feeling of anomie and tension, as the audience and characters try to find out whether this “portentous figure” has good or bad intentions.

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When Horatio tries to question the ghost, it does not reply, further boosting the tension of the audience.

Bernardo comments “Well may it sort that this portentous figure, comes armed through our watch; so like the king that was and is the question of these wars.” Bernardo is saying that the ghost appearing in the form of Denmark’s late king, and the fact that he appears in full armour, could be an omen of war. Omens usually never

appear predicting happy events or good times ahead, and because Horatio earlier pointed out “At least, the whisper goes so. ...

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