Shakespeare’s presentation of parent/child conflict in Hamlet, with reference to The Revenger’s Tragedy.

Conflict is defined as a state of mind in which a person experiences a clash of opposing ideas, feelings and needs, and it is an explicit theme in the play’s parent/child relationships in Hamlet and Middleton’s Revenger’s Tragedy. Many dynamics of it are presented from the two families, thus, it is interesting to draw out contrasts and comparisons between them.

Although some abnormalities may be seen in Polonius’s relationship with Laertes and Ophelia through the eyes of modern audience and critics, for instance, Polonius’s intrusive and controlling nature, this family in the play would have been considered to be a normal, typical upper-class family in the Elizabethan and Jacobean era, especially in comparison with Prince Hamlet’s unstable relationship with his parents. Many critics assume that in Act 1 Scene 3 when Laertes and then later Polonius advises Ophelia to not put too much trust in Hamlet, Where Laertes’s advice is more affectionate, Polonius’s is more of an interrogation and his character hands out more orders than advice.  He does not want Ophelia to jeopardise their high-ranking position within the Court by her being a vulnerable “woodcock” to Hamlet’s supposedly insincere “vows”. The theme of conflict is subdued within the two generations because her silence is generally considered to be respectful and dutiful, “I shall obey, my lord”. However, her silence could be interpreted as rebellious. This concept is reinforced with her encounter with her brother Laertes – “Do not, as some ungracious pastors do, show me the steep and thorny way to heaven, whiles like a puffed and reckless libertine, essentially she is telling him to practice what he preaches and to not be a hypocrite. This strongly implies that while she may be listening to his advice, she is being insincere with her replies.  On the other hand, this theory is not strengthened by Ophelia’s subsequent actions that result in her rejecting Hamlet and his advances.

Modern audiences tend to be much more critical of male dominance on Hamlet, yet Elizabethan and Jacobean audiences would be sympathetic to Polonius as Ophelia would be considered his possession. This sense of male ownership is reiterated when he says, “I’ll loose my daughter”, which is referencing loosing a cow for mating with a bull. This parallels with Hamlet’s “fishmonger” comment that was directed towards Polonius, yet the tone in which they are both said are entirely different, with the latter being presumably an insult. Polonius comes across as the stronger character in Act 1 Scene 3 compared to Ophelia and Laertes, which somewhat mirrors the Old King in Act 1 Scene 5. Hamlet’s relationship with his father, the Old King, is the source of his own inner conflict. He is unable to commit revenge even for his father’s sake. Old Hamlet is dominant in the meeting with Hamlet. This revenge is going against divine laws. The protestant audience would be aware of the Catholic themes, in context with this scene, the Ghost was in Purgatory, which was a concept that was widely rejected by Protestant Reformers of the 16th century. Essentially, the Old King Hamlet and Polonius are alike in many ways because they both have authority over their kin and their children are obedient and listen to him. However, with Hamlet, the Old King’s authority is challenged because Hamlet delays taking revenge for many possible reasons. One case would be that he is ultimately a coward, and thus, cannot take revenge because he does not have his father’s trait of courageousness. Another interpretation of this would be that he is merely being cautious. It is possible that the ghost is a devil, which was discussed in the play. In this case, this would change the way we see Hamlet. He would be a hero who took matters into his own hands to get justice, and that he was not foolish enough to immediately play into the hands of the Devil. Many other critics would interpret Hamlet’s actions as part of his plot to send Claudius to eternal damnation. We see this particularly in Act 3 Scene 3, he did not kill Claudius because he was praying. According to Catholic beliefs, if you confess your sins to God, you would go to heaven, and as Hamlet wanted Claudius to go to hell, he decided to wait longer in order for that to happen.

The somewhat turbulent relationship Hamlet has with his other parent, Gertrude, is fuelled by what many critics believe to be Gertrude’s “o’er hasty marriage” to Claudius. Audiences in Elizabethan and Jacobean society would have viewed this marriage as incestuous, so it would have been at the forefront of Shakespeare’s mind whilst presenting this theme. She’s perceived as false to him and uses his mother’s sexuality to explain the capricious women are, “a beast, that wants discourse of reason, / would have mourn’d longer”. This means that whereas she was once loyal to the Old King, this quickly changed following his death. Though another interpretation suggests that the source of their friction would be because of He compares her to “Niobe”. This simile refers to her sexuality, which suggests that Hamlet harboured incestuous feelings for his mother and that the real reason for his anger towards her is because her marriage to Claudius meant that those feelings were not reciprocated. Essentially, Hamlet sees her as an example of the weakness of women and constantly hurt in his reflections of how quickly she remarried. It is possible that Hamlet’s feeling of anger and disgust towards his mother is intensified by how lovingly his father treated her, “that he might not beteem the winds of heaven / visit her face too roughly”. This creates the idea that the Old King was very loving and protective towards the Queen, and yet she embraced the “hasty marriage” as if it meant nothing to her. The disgust in his words is also present in the sound they make. The hissing sibilants convey Hamlet’s revulsion to the idea of Gertrude and Claudius together.

If we consider Freud’s Oedipus complex, which means, in this case, the son being in love with the mother, it could explain Hamlet’s true feelings and intentions that involve his father, the Old King. If, for the sake of argument, Hamlet was romantically interested in his mother, this could suggest that jealousy and envy were the motives for wanting to kill Claudius, and not necessarily to seek vengeance for the murder of his father. After all, the King is doing what Hamlet always wanted to do, according to this theory: kill the king, marry Gertrude and claim the throne for himself. This adds a whole new dynamic to their relationship, and in this sense, the source of Hamlet and the Old King’s potential conflict is the female, which is Gertrude. Hamlet’s anger towards Gertrude is later amplified to include all women, “frailty, thy name is woman”. This suggests that he believes that all women are weak-willed and are easily morally corrupted. However, Gertrude’s real reason for marrying Claudius after the Old King Hamlet had been “but two months dead” remains ambiguous. Considering the patriarchal system that would have been in place during the time in which this play was set, which was purposely mirrored with Elizabethan society, the only way a woman could gain status, power and security was through men. So essentially it could be that Gertrude was only thinking ahead to secure her role in the Court. Then again, the Old King Hamlet’s level of anger towards Gertrude casts doubt on this theory. He calls Gertrude an “incestuous, that adulterate beast”, whose “seeming-virtuous”, yet had “shameful lust” that accepted “traitorous gifts”. Many critics would consider this line to be definite proof that Gertrude had been Claudius’s lover before her husband had died, and therefore would have had an inevitable part to play in the murder of the Old King Hamlet, but then again, the rest of the play makes no mention of this adultery, and Gertrude certainly does not at all appear to be guilty. What could have possibly been meant with this phrase is that Gertrude has been “contaminated” and “corrupted” by her marriage to Claudius. In this case, again, we see Hamlet’s belief that Gertrude married too quickly and was considered by both the Old King and Hamlet to be false in her actions. This was possibly triggered further for Hamlet by Ophelia’s abandonment of him by obedience to her father and brother.

Hamlet accuses Ophelia (and subsequently expands to include all women in general) of being a “breeder of sinners” and orders Ophelia to a “nunnery”. The fact that he repeats this phrase increases his disgust towards her actions and loyalties. A “nunnery” could either be taken literally or could mean a brothel, which suggests that Ophelia is a whore who manipulated Hamlet and is controlled by another man: Polonius. This idea is reinforced when Hamlet calls Polonius a “fishmonger”, which is a deprecating term for a pimp, by how he controls Ophelia. This was Elizabethan slang for “brothel keeper”, and thus would have been considered a major insult by the original audience. However, many critics would interpret the famous “get thee to a nunnery” line to mean that she needs to get to a nunnery to avoid corruption, like his mother, Gertrude. It is hard to say exactly if he is saying this as a result of his antic-disposition, or whether he is in genuine disgust. Equivocal actions happen often in the play, which adds to the theme of deceit and deception. It is hard to definitively say what characters truly mean and what they do not. Misogynistic themes are also prevalent through Vindice’s opinion of his mother and sister, Gratiana and Castiza, “women are apt…To take false money…their sex is easy in belief”. He believes, like Hamlet, that all women are easily corruptible and gullible. Elizabethan audience would have been accepting of this, considering the fact that norms were different. Though in contrast with Hamlet, The Revenger’s Tragedy deals with the more superficial elements of a woman’s apparent deception. Vindice mentions women’s “Bought complexion”, meaning faces that are made up with makeup, to add an element of deceit and secrecy. Many would view this as hypocritical because of Piato: Vindice’s disguise. This highlights the lack of trust that Vindice as in his mother, yet it is unknown of these are a catalyst of personal issues that he has with her or with women in general. However, to say that Hamlet does not at all look at women’s physical appearance would be false because in Act 3 Scene 1, Hamlet directs “That if you could be honest and fair, your honesty should admit no discourse to your beauty” towards Ophelia. This means that beauty corrupts honesty. Then again, this makes no suggestions towards makeup and man-made deception, so in this perspective, it differs somewhat to the Revenger’s Tragedy. There are similar themes of using disguises as means of deception in Hamlet when he uses his “antic disposition” to prove Claudius and Gertrude’s guilt. He “feigns madness”, and is able to tell the difference “from a hawk to a handsaw”.

To an extent, Hamlet does use external methods of feigning madness, for instance, in Lyndsey Turner’s 2015 remake of the play, Hamlet dresses up as a toy soldier, where he then says his “to be or not to be” speech. This suggests that he is ready for battle, yet then again, toy soldiers are also are used by children when they’re playing games and could signify that Hamlet is playing a game of his own and he himself is a piece. However, Shakespeare is much more concerned with the internal signs of madness, and he demonstrates this mainly through Hamlet’s treatment of Polonius and Ophelia. Polonius is a loyal advisor to the King and is the main advocate for Hamlet’s genuine “madness”, which was caused by Ophelia’s rejection of him, in his judgment. It is relatively easy for Hamlet to control and influence Polonius because of his false politeness, “(Hamlet) Methinks it is like a weasel”, “(Polonius) It is backed like a weasel”, “(Hamlet) Or, like a whale?”, “(Polonius)  very like a whale”. What Hamlet is doing is proving a point to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern by showing how easy it is for him to control the actions of others, and thus stating that he is aware that they are both “playing upon (him) like a pipe” for Claudius’s sake. Hamlet uses Ophelia to get to Polonius and, to begin with, to test her loyalties. He used Ophelia because of her loyalties towards her father Polonius, who in turn used Ophelia as a tool to observe Hamlet’s actions in order to report back to Claudius. Yet we do not know to what extent this may be true because the layers of secrecy and deception completely blur the lines between what we know to be true and what is false. Hamlet is ultimately using his “antic disposition” in order to extract the truth from Claudius on whether he is guilty of the death of the Old King Hamlet.

The idea of using deceit and secrecy as a weapon is a common theme in the play. Gertrude and Claudius use Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to spy on Hamlet for the same reasons they used Polonius: in order to find the cause of “Hamlet’s transformation” and what “hath put him / so much from th’understanding of himself”. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern subsequently fail to manipulate him, and Hamlet makes them very aware of this through his musical metaphor of the “recorder”. This is where we see Hamlet in control of the argument, “’Sblood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe? Call me what instrument you will, though you fret me, you cannot play upon me”. He then proceeds to prove a point to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that influencing others is easy by using Polonius to make him say what he wants him to say “(Hamlet) that’s almost in shape of a camel”, and “(Polonius) like a camel indeed”. This shows his power of how to manipulate people. Furthermore to solidify the strength of this, Hamlet used the play to “catch the conscience of the King” and the Queen and the extent of their guilt in the murder of the Old King. During “the Mousetrap” play that was taking place before the Royal Court, “Here’s metal more attractive”, here he strongly implies that she, along with women in general, are “metal” that attract men, whether it is intended or not. This fits in with Elizabethan love genre, and Hamlet uses it as an excuse to get away in order to watch their reactions to the play.

It is highly believable that Gertrude’s betrayal takes precedence over Claudius’s murder. Hamlet is much more concerned with his mother in Act 3 Scene 4, “to live in the rank sweat of an enseamed bed, stew’d in corruption…honeying and making love over the nasty sty”. Hamlet describes their marriage as corrupt and dirty. Thus, we can say that this scene presents Hamlet and Gertrude’s conflict as the overriding source of conflict in the play. Deep misunderstanding is also noticeable between the two, which is underlined when only Hamlet can see the ghost, and that leads Gertrude to assume his madness, “alas, he is mad”. Regardless of this, Gertrude vows to let Claudius tempt her “again to bed”. The fact that it is seemingly easy to influence Gertrude thoughts shows her submission to men, which also explains why Gertrude later betrays Hamlet and confides in Claudius about what she’s learnt about him. She draws on the simile, “(Hamlet is) mad as the sea and wind when both contend”. The confrontation in this scene is, unsurprisingly, heavily dominated by Hamlet, and his anger with her fuels this immensely. This parallels with Laertes and Polonius’s treatment of Ophelia in Act 1 Scene 3 when they are instructing Ophelia to cut her contact with Hamlet in order to protect her and her family title. Gertrude and Ophelia are both seen as men’s weak-willed possessions. However, another interpretation of this shows that Gertrude has a powerful instinct for self-preservation, which leads her to rely too deeply on men, particularly on Hamlet and Claudius. This is why she appears to be a deceitful character. Her reason for showing insincerity towards Hamlet could have been because she was intimidated by him, and her loyalties lied in herself, and not her son. How Gertrude feels about her son, and likewise, remains debatable amongst critics. Yet it is possible to draw conflicting comparisons from other parent/child relationships in Hamlet in order to gain insight into what would be considered ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ within their relationships.

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The Not-Quite-Underclass of ‘Sheila’

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I once went to a pub in Battersea with my girlfriend of the time, who had worked behind the bar. She introduced me to her friends who were working that night and to some of the regulars.

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