Hamlet is believed to have been written between 1599 and 1601 and is considered to be one of Shakespeare’s most prestigious plays. The play itself remains loyal to the genre of Jacobean revenge tragedy, and thus, revenge ultimately exposes themes of disorder and corruption, particularly through issues of secrecy and deceit.
The sense of urgency and panic is immediately conveyed in the first lines of Hamlet through its setting. It’s cold and dark outside, which underlines the vulnerability of the guards because this possibly leaves them disadvantaged in an attack. This idea is reinforced when Barnardo, the guard, opens with, “Who’s there?” the jumpiness of the guards adds to the sense of unrest and impending danger in Hamlet. These feelings are deepened as the “ghost” appears. The presence of the ghost immediately adheres to the supernatural tendencies of Senecan plays, but nevertheless, the superstition surrounding it would be terrifying to the Shakespearean audience, as ghosts usually hold hellish connotations in Protestantism, which was the main religion during the period in which Hamlet was written. The ghost is a major catalyst for the presentiment of chaos in this scene. And also the fact that there are “two Sentinels” on duty implies that there are possible preparations for an imminent attack. Furthermore, it becomes clear when Marcellus mentions that it is a Sunday that Claudius is breaking the Fourth Commandment, and thus compelling men to work on Sabbath. This would suggest to the audience that Claudius, the new king, was modern, pragmatic, and prepared to defy conventional morality.
During the time in which the play was set, religion and monarch always had to be intimate because it was assumed that religion and civil order went together, and it was always the task of the monarch to protect the Church and Christian society. Moreover, despite the play being set in Denmark and not England, it is still relevant because Shakespeare wrote Hamlet with the intentions to mirror English society, whilst remaining a safe level of distance from it without raising political questions. Therefore, this idea would have greatly influenced the Shakespearean audience in how the play portrayed Claudius’s character, which could possibly heighten sense of disorder because of his need to defy the religious norms of the time.
Disorder is immediately created in scene two because we learn that Denmark has recently lost a king, “Hamlet our dear brother’s death…our whole kingdom to be contracted in one brow of woe”. This idea of accordance with one another in “one brow of woe” is refuted when Claudius later adds, “Our state to be disjoint and out of frame”. This is in timing with young Fortbrinas’s threat from Norway, and the fact that Claudius only glosses over this topic during his soliloquy without going into too much detail heightens the audience’s suspicion of him. Moreover, Claudius also states in his soliloquy that Hamlet’s mourning presence is “unmanly grief”, and therefore, improper behaviour before the Court. Claudius also doubts his feelings, “why seems it so particular with thee”. Hamlet takes this to be an accusation that his feelings are false. This is comparable with Vindice in Revenger’s Tragedy, where he is see holding the skull of his “beloved” in the beginning of the play. This display of grief is what partly drives both characters on to conspire to commit revenge.
Notably, both Hamlet and Vindice see their adversaries as adulterers. In the first line of the Revenger’s Tragedy, Vindice refers to the Old Duke as “grey haired Adultery”, which exposes the corruption of the court and the Old Duke’s crimes, particularly the one against Vindice’s beloved. Hamlet, similarly, is angered by Claudius for committing adultery by marrying the Old King’s wife, Gertrude, a short time after his death. In his soliloquy, he focuses specifically on Gertrude’s sexuality to convey his anger, “Frailty, thy name is woman – a little month…married with my uncle”. He is angry at his mother for being weak-willed and giving into pressure too soon. This rather misogynistic view of his mother has raised questions about the extent of love he has for his mother. Many critics believe that it is clear evidence that the reason why he wants revenge on Claudius is because he’s subconsciously jealous of him marrying Gertrude. Even during the Elizabethan era, the King’s marriage to Gertrude would be considered incestuous and unlawful, as it is a sin that is written in the Bible. This ultimately implies disorder because the audience is aware that the King is defying the religious norms of the time.
Hamlet’s first soliloquy also widens the sense of corruption within the Royal Court through using disease and uncleanliness imagery, “weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable”, and, “seed; things rank and gross in nature”. These images of decay reveals his view of the withering and no longer healthy Denmark, and the listing indicates that he is fed up with the structure of the Court. Critics read “rank and gross” as a metaphor for Denmark, which insinuates corruption and disorderliness within the State. This parallels somewhat with Revenger’s because, through the main character Vindice, we learn of the amount of corruption within the Italian court, which is mainly governed by the Old Duke, whom Vindice is plotting revenge against. Hamlets’ of dislike of Claudius leads the audience to be suspicious of him, “A little more than kin, and less than kind”, this implies that though the two are related, they are dissimilar. This feeling of suspicion in subsequently concreted when the ghost tells Hamlet of his murder, where his loathing of Claudius is immensely justified, and the audience, too, becomes suspicious of the new Head of State.
The theme of unrest is projected in scene two because of the significant amount of secrecy that is needed. For instance, “If you have hitherto concealed this sight/ Let it be tenable in your silence still”. This is comparable with the 2010 remake of Hamlet, which starred David Tennant, where the idea of surveillance and the need for secrecy is relayed through the use of security cameras on set. This eludes to the idea that everyone is spying on one another, and thus, the emphasis on secrecy is necessary.
Distrust is a key theme that is conveyed within scene three when Polonius and Laertes advise Ophelia to stay away from Hamlet. According to Polonius, Hamlet is not genuine in his feelings and wants to take her as a mistress, “When the blood burns, how prodigal the soul/ Lends the tongue vows”. He believes that Hamlet, like any other person, will say anything to get what he wants. Laertes, on the other hand, is much more caring in his advice, “His greatness weighed, but his will is not his own”. So although Hamlet may love Ophelia, he cannot marry her; she would be a burden on the state because it needs a strong marriage to secure the health and stability of Denmark, “The main voice of Denmark goes withal”, the country is relying on Hamlet, and thus his marriage options are “circumscribed”, ruling out any hope for Ophelia, considering her inferior status within the court.
A sense of disarray and danger is underlined when Hamlet acts in spite of the security of Denmark, “I do not set my life at a pin’s fee…I’ll follow (the ghost)”, he acts as though his life is meaningless by putting his life in possible danger. This also strongly suggests that he has a low sense of self-worth, and thus adding to the theme of disorder. This idea is reinforced when, in Act one Scene two, he says, “My father’s brother, but no more like my father than I to Hercules”, he emphasises the difference between the old King and Claudius by comparing to a heroic Greek God. Marcellus directly indicates corruption and disruption within the court: “something is rotten in the state of Denmark”. This is a clear foreshadowing of the events to come, which as we know, eventually leads to the death of Hamlet, Claudius and Gertrude, amongst known characters.
Marcellus hints at corruption when he says “something is rotten in the state of Denmark”, though it is doubtful whether he is referring to the monarchy. More likely, he is indicating the presence of evil supernatural beings. This idea of foreboding of future events is reinforced when Marcellus says, “this bodes some strange eruption to our state”. Horatio is trying to find meaning in the apparition, and warns of its violent disturbance, which made the guards fear, despite being armed.
The ghosts’ story of incest and murder committed by the King in act five cements any suspicions of Claudius and of the true court politics. It is what justifies Hamlet’s sentiment of “A little more than kin and less that kind” and his revenge on the King. This is where the audience sees Hamlet’s gut feelings about Claudius become confirmed, “O, my prophetic soul”, he is understandably shocked and disgusted with his “damned villain(ous)” uncle, and shares this feeling with the ghost. The theme of dysfunction is emanated further on in the scene when Hamlet says, “time is out of joint”. He is directly stating to the audience that there are many things that are out of place and disorderly. This is where we see Hamlet coming to comprehend his role, he was “born to set it right”, to bring justice onto the system that he sees as vile and corrupt.
The first act of Hamlet is very powerfully descriptive. By using a number of literary devices, such as imagery, punctuation and listing, he uses them to convey themes of disorder and corruption in the play. Throughout, we get insights into Hamlet’s mind and the development of his character. We learn of the factors and faults of the court that eventually leads Hamlet to fulfil his revenge on who he sees as this “smiling, damned villain”, which is Claudius.