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The Elder Hamlet: The Kingship of Hamlet's Father

From Hamlet, an ideal prince, and other essays in Shakesperean interpretation: Hamlet; Merchant of Venice; Othello; King Lear by Alexander W. Crawford. Boston R.G. Badger.

Though we see nothing of the elder Hamlet on the stage, except his ghost, it is really he who is the main-spring of all the action of the play. It was the desire to gain his crown that had impelled Claudius to the murder, and it is the filial duty of Hamlet to his father that urges him to his revenge upon the king. This conflict, then, of the murderer and the avenger of the elder Hamlet constitutes the main plot of the play, and from this grows the entire narrative.

There are many evidences in the play that the elder Hamlet was a very different man from his brother Claudius. Not only was one the innocent victim and the other the cold-blooded fratricide, but the rule of the two kings was as different as possible. Under the elder Hamlet the kingdom of Denmark had been honorable at home and respected abroad. It seems to have been a kingdom which both citizen and alien recognized as strong and good. But under Claudius the good name of Denmark had been lost, and the wholesome fear of her just power had passed away. Corruption and debauchery now stalk through the land, and foreign powers think it weak and debased. On the confession of Claudius himself it appears that young Fortinbras thinks its weakness affords him a good opportunity to make war upon Denmark, and a fitting time to seize the lands that his father had lost to the elder Hamlet. It is for this reason that he is now threatening Denmark, and if we can judge from the condition of the land, he might reasonably look for a complete triumph.

The change that has come over the country is but an index of and the effect of the difference of the two kings. The younger Hamlet has made most striking contrasts between his father and his uncle. In the interview with his mother, when he tries to dissuade her from continuing her guilty relations with the king, he calls her attention to the portraits of the two, saying:
"Look here, upon this picture, and on this.
The counterfeit presentment of two brothers.
See what a grace was seated on this brow;
A combination and a form indeed,
Where every god did seem to set his seal
To give the world assurance of a man;
This was your husband. Look you now, what follows;
Here is your husband; like a mildew'd ear
Blasting his wholesome brother."
(III. iv. 53-66.)
The character of the elder Hamlet is further strikingly depicted in Horatio's explanation of the war preparations to Marcellus and the others. It is evident from this speech that he was a most noble king, who ruled solely in the interests of his kingdom, and not in his personal interests. He had no ambitions, and in no way molested any of his neighbors, but kept his land in prosperity and peace. He was not, however, a weak but a very valiant king, "For so this side of our known world esteem'd him" (I. i. 85), as Horatio goes on to say. He made no wars, but did not hesitate to go to war to defend his own. He would not attempt to plunder any other kingdom, nor would he permit any other to plunder him. He was a peaceable king, but not a peace-at-any-price king.

Therefore, when Fortinbras of Norway challenged him to war, he valiantly took up the challenge, avid if we are to judge by the brevity of Shakespeare's account of the war, he very speedily overcame and slew Fortinbras. By his victory the lands that were in dispute fell to Denmark, and so long as he lived they remained his without question. Only when he was dead did Norway once more think itself able to challenge Denmark and dare it to the combat. The weakness of Claudius, the young prince Fortinbras thought, afforded him his opportunity.

It is this sort of strength and virtue that makes the elder Hamlet a real national hero. He was not the type of the aggressive and conquering hero, who made war for the sake of war and conquest. With that kind of hero Shakespeare has no sympathy. He was, however, the dramatist's ideal king, who loved peace, and would never make war, but who would not hesitate to go to war in defence of his right and of his nation. He would not wage an aggressive war, but was valiant enough to defend his kingdom when attacked. This is the only kind of hero Shakespeare recognizes, and for this kind he had the most profound admiration. Few of the critics have appreciated this character of the elder Hamlet, or have seen in the account any significance for the play. Werder alone seems to get a glimpse of it when he speaks of him as the "hero king, Hamlet's father." 1

In considering the younger Hamlet it is worth while to observe that previous to Shakespeare's version of the story, in both Saxo and Belleforest, the names of father and son were different. The name of the father in both earlier versions was Horvendil, and only the son was Hamlet. But Shakespeare has given the name also to the father, thus making the son the namesake of the father. This fact, taken together with the son's wonderful devotion to the father, make it evident that Shakespeare desired to have them conceived as of similar character. Certain it is that he has left the impression that the son is but a second Hamlet, of the same character, and of the same self-sacrificing yet heroic type. As the father was an ideal king, so is the son an ideal prince, and Fortinbras in the last speech of the play says that if Hamlet had been put on the throne, there is no doubt he would "have prov'd most royally."


FOOTNOTE 1: The Heart of Hamlet's Mystery, p. 68.

How to cite this article:
Crawford, Alexander W. Hamlet, an ideal prince, and other essays in Shakesperean interpretation: Hamlet; Merchant of Venice; Othello; King Lear. Boston R.G. Badger, 1916. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2009. < >


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