Seth Cassel
October 2008


Hamlet: A Renaissance Character in a Medieval World


In Shakespeare's Hamlet, Fortinbras and Laertes are medieval characters. As characters of this era, they are driven by chivalry and hence the duty of revenge through murder. However, in the medieval world that comprises the setting of the play, Hamlet represents a character of an altogether different age. Shakespeare shapes Hamlet as a thinker who questions and examines the world around him in his own pursuit of revenge. Thus, because of his fundamentally different approach to the world than the medieval characters of Fortinbras and Laertes, Hamlet can be considered as a Renaissance character. More specifically, Hamlet's Renaissance view on his world develops him both as an Elizabethan-era humanist and nihilist. Thus, through Hamlet, Shakespeare illustrates humanity's struggle with the purpose and meaning of man.

Young Fortinbras is the first foil for Hamlet introduced in the play. He desires to "recover of us, by strong and terms compulastory, those foresaid lands so by his father lost" (15) in order to avenge his father's death at the hands of King Hamlet. Thus, Shakespeare presents Fortinbras as a medieval character whose belief system lies in chivalry. Furthermore, Fortinbras' gathering of an army indicates his intention to deliver the revenge for his father's death through brutality. Shakespeare therefore places revenge as the most important aspect of chivalry, as by attempting to conquer the lands that his father had lost, Fortinbras violates the gentlemanly agreement reached after the fight between his father and King Hamlet. Thus, in a world where the code of chivalry reigns, the medieval character of Fortinbras establishes a murderous and action-oriented revenge at the top of his value system.

This importance of murder for revenge in the medieval world is exemplified in another foil for Hamlet: Laertes. Like Fortinbras, Laertes' father also is killed, and Laertes is faced with the burden of avenging his death. Laertes is another solidly medieval, chivalrous figure, as evident in his vengeful nature. Also like Fortinbras, Laertes' chivalrous code of ethics drives his desire for revenge when his father, Polonius, is killed. He cries out "to hell, allegiance! Vows, to the blackest devil! Conscience and grace, to the profoundest pit! I dare damnation. To this point I stand, that both the world I give to negligence, let come what comes, only I'll be revenged most thoroughly for my father" (215). When his father is killed, Laertes throws out many of the other dictates of the code of chivalry such as allegiance to his king, solely focusing on one aspect of the code: revenge, to the point where he seems to be willing to do anything to succeed in his endeavor. In a similar way to Fortinbras, the medieval character of Laertes follows the code of chivalry and values revenge as its most important aspect. And like Fortinbras, Laertes' thoughts for how to deliver this revenge turn toward murder as he plots with Claudius to "anoint my sword" (233) to kill Hamlet.

Contrasting with Laertes and Fortinbras, Hamlet is not a medieval character in the play. Instead, Hamlet is a modern Renaissance Elizabethan character who is placed in the medieval world. As an Elizabethan character, he is part of the Renaissance era movement, which at its core debated the nature of man. One aspect of this era included the humanist movement, which believed in the worth of all humans and that truth can be found through introspection. As the Renaissance's nexus shifted from Italy to Northern Europe, the ideas of humanism became more widespread as thinkers and innovators such as Galileo, Montaigne, and even Shakespeare himself were introduced to its tenets. Another aspect of Renaissance thinking was what modern society would call nihilism, which proposes that human existence in fact has no meaning and thus there is no real purpose to life. These two philosophies of the Renaissance, an appreciation for the value of the human and the contrasting assertion that life is essentially meaningless cause Hamlet's inner strife and set him apart from the medieval characters, Laertes and Fortinbras, who are solely driven by chivalry.

As a humanist, education and individual thought bring Hamlet to examine the purpose of man's existence. With the exception of Horatio, a fellow student from Wittenberg, Hamlet is the only character in the play with academic and intellectual aspirations. Hamlet's wish to go "back to school in Wittenberg" (27) demonstrates his desire for knowledge, a yearning not present in the vast majority of characters in Hamlet. Thus, with Hamlet's humanistic intellectual pursuits, Shakespeare separates him from his medieval counterparts. Hamlet's individual thought also leads him to exclaim to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern "what a piece of work is a man, how noble of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable; in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god: the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals" (102- 103). In the first part of this speech to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet asserts that he values man and states that he believes that man is a marvel, close to perfection and thus, through these lines, demonstrates Hamlet's humanism. However, Hamlet's intellect and insight leads to his self-doubt regarding the importance of man and brings about his conflicting nihilism, establishing him as a character at odds.

Hamlet's speech to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern concludes with an expression of his nihilism. He states "and yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me, no, nor women neither" (103). These nihilistic sentiments question the purpose of life, suggesting that all humanity will eventually become dust. Indeed, in a sense this statement is a contradiction of Hamlet's previous words of admiration for mankind, and Shakespeare uses this passage to clearly identify the two forces pulling on Hamlet - his humanism and his nihilism. Hamlet's nihilism once again becomes apparent in his character close to the end of the play in the scene with the gravediggers, when he states, "Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth to dust; the dust is earth; of earth we make loam" (251). Hamlet's nihilism has brought him to the conclusion that Yorik, Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, and all humans will eventually die and be reduced down to the same indistinguishable dust, no matter what position they held. The word "dust," repeated from page 103 emphasizes Hamlet's growing nihilism and the futility he sees in life that inevitably ends in death.

Shakespeare presents Hamlet's Renaissance beliefs in the same scenario as Fortinbras and Laertes, as Hamlet desires to get "his revenge" (59) for his father's death. When Claudius murders Hamlet's father, King Hamlet, Hamlet seeks revenge. There can be no doubt that, like Fortinbras and Laertes, Hamlet is desirous of revenge; however, the important dichotomy occurs when Hamlet is faced with the task of killing for revenge. Because of Hamlet's clashing humanism and nihilism in attempting to answer questions about human existence, he struggles to murder Claudius. This inner struggle is evident throughout the play such as when he declares, "why, what an ass am I! This is most brave, that I, the son of a dear father murdered, prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell, must like a whore unpack my heart with words, and fall a-cursing like a very drab" (119). Despite the medieval dictates which indicate that Hamlet must avenge the death of his father through murdering Claudius, his inner strife does not allow him to take this action - he has become paralyzed by his thoughts. Instead, he finds solace in the spoken word and the play, the imitation of action. This inability to carry out the medieval-style revenge because of his Renaissance thought patterns represents a tension between the rhetoric of medieval society and the reasoning of the Elizabethan era.

In Hamlet, Shakespeare creates and contrasts two distinct types of characters from his perspective in the late 1500s and early 1600s: those medieval characters, Fortinbras and Laertes, rooted in the past world of chivalry and Hamlet, a character of his modern day. The situation that Fortinbras and Laertes are placed in, avenging the death of a father through bold action and presumably murder, allows Shakespeare to parallel these two characters with the ancient character of Oedipus in Sophocles' Oedipus Rex. Similar to Fortinbras and Laertes, Oedipus' father (or at least the man who he thinks is his father) is killed, and Oedipus willingly accepts the challenge to gain revenge through "exile or death, blood for blood" (Oedipus Rex 7). Thus, if Shakespeare did indeed have the Greek-era Oedipus in mind when he shaped the characters of Fortinbras and Laertes, he is creating a historical trend. Specifically, he is highlighting a long-standing code which values murder as a means of revenge. More importantly, the characteristic that Oedipus and the medieval characters of Fortinbras and Laertes share is an unquestioning devotion to this code. Shakespeare contrasts these characters with Hamlet, giving him a modern intellectualism and curiosity for the world around him. Hamlet possesses and thus highlights characteristics of an important movement, humanism, during the Renaissance, the time when Shakespeare was watching the world as he knew it go through an unprecedented change emphasizing intellect and reason. He suggests that every modern human is forced to confront the two conflicting ideas that Hamlet faces. Are humans a paragon of beauty, beings filled with meaning and vibrancy or are they simply a creation of nothing, a mere speck in the universe's existence which has no real impact and no real purpose? Shakespeare's important choice to have Hamlet die an incommensurable character, with this inner dilemma unsolved, represents an important ambiguity in the play that leaves the audience questioning the purpose of their existence - or lack thereof.