The politics in Hamlet and ‘the world of the play’

  • E. A. J. Honigmann
Part of the Contemporary Interpretations of Shakespeare book series


’The constitution of the state of Denmark is vital to our conception of the drama as a whole.’ With these words J. Dover Wilson embarked upon one of the most influential studies of Hamlet of the present century (What Happens in ‘Hamlet’ Cambridge, 1935), and within a few pages indicated how the politics of the play strike deep into its moral structure: ‘Hamlet was the rightful heir to the throne and Claudius a usurper’, and ‘usurpation is one of the main factors in the plot’. For, in Wilson’s eyes, ‘Hamlet is an English prince, the court of Elsinore is modelled upon the English court, and the Danish constitution that of England under the Virgin Queen.’


English Court Henry VIII Good Audience Bare Mention Danish Election 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 4.
    J. E. Hankins, ’The Character of Hamlet’ and other Essays (1941) p. 11.Google Scholar
  2. 9.
    Cf. also H. D. F. Kitto, Form and Meaning in Drama (1956) p. 258: ‘But surely it does not follow, as Wilson says it does, that Shakespeare must have composed the scene with the English constitution in mind…. It is surely the common experience that we go to the theatre willing to accept, without prepossessions, what the dramatist offers us… since nobody in the audience knew or cared what the Danish constitution was, in whatever century this is supposed to be, the dramatist could go ahead and assume what suited him best.’Google Scholar
  3. 13.
    It is permanently ambiguous. Indeed the very word “ghost”, by putting it into the same class with the “ghosts” of Kyd and Chapman, nay by classifying it at all, puts us on the wrong track. It is “this thing”, “this dreaded sight”…’ — C. S. Lewis, ‘Hamlet: the prince or the poem,’ in Proceedings of the British Academy, XXVIII, 1942, p. 147.Google Scholar
  4. 15.
    Cf. A. C. Sprague, Shakespeare and the Audience: a study in the technique of exposition (1935) p. 243, and the excellent section on ‘Testimony’. Bradley (Shakespearean Tragedy p. 168) thought Claudius ’courteous and never undignified’ as a king, an opinion that is, I believe, the accepted one.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. 17.
    Lewis, ‘Hamlet: the prince or the poem’, Proceedings of the British Academy, 1942, p. 147. After Lewis’s lecture the ’mystery’ and ’doubt’ in Hamlet received even greater emphasis, in D. G. James’s The Dream of Learning (1951), ch. 2 (’The new doubt’);Google Scholar
  6. Maynard Mack’s ‘The world of Hamlet’, in Tragic Themes in Western Literature, ed. Cleanth Brooks (1955);Google Scholar
  7. Harry Leviri s The Question of ‘Hamlet’ (1959); and elsewhere.Google Scholar
  8. 21.
    Cf. Caroline F. E. Spurgeon, Shakespeare’s Imagery (ed. 1958) p. 316;Google Scholar
  9. G. Wilson Knight, The Wheel of Fire (ed. 1960) pp. 17, 32; Maynard Mack (see note 17 above);Google Scholar
  10. R. A. Foakes, ‘Hamlet and the court of Elsinore’, Shakespeare Survey, IX (1956) 40.Google Scholar
  11. 22.
    Cf. P. Alexander, Hamlet Father and Son (1955) pp. 35, 169.Google Scholar
  12. 23.
    Cf. J. W. Draper, The ‘Hamlet’ of Shakespeare’s Audience (1938) p. 13: ’For the first time, in Hamlet, Shakespeare fully and realistically portrays the political problems of a court: regicide, revolt, dynastic succession, and all the accompanying policy and intrigue’.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© E. A. J. Honigmann 1989

Authors and Affiliations

  • E. A. J. Honigmann

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations