Humanism in Hamlet

By Brian Ellis,2014-08-30 10:07
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Humanism in Hamlet

     Humanism in Hamlet

    Abstract: In Shakespeares famous work Hamlet humanism is

    expounded . Hamlet is a warm-blooded humanist. When he returned to Denmark with all his heart, he was shocked by the cruel reality of the society. His father died suddenly in a mysterious way. Soon after his fathers death, Claudius, his unclemarried his mother and became the

    new King. Whats worse, his lover became his enemys tool and his

    former friend became a spy and accomplice. The royal count was licentious. The cruel reality made him take the responsibility for setting the world right. Hamlet eulogized mans values, dignity and power. He

    advocated personal freedom and reason. He held on the centralizing authority and objected to internal conflict. Those fully showed Hamlet was the representative of the humanists. Shakespeare used an old story of murdering and revenge to reflect the feudal-bourgeois English society of his time. The central character of the play, Hamlet, was created as a man of the Renaissance with humanist ideals who not only sought revenge for his murdered father but also aimed at reforming the whole society with its many evils.

    Key words: Hamlet, humanism, mans values, personal freedom,







     Contents Abstract



     1The background of Renaissance

     1.1Definition of Renaissance

     1.2 Renaissance in Europe

     1.3 Renaissance in England

     1.4Humanism as the essence of Renaissance

    2 Shakespeares humanism

    3 Humanism in Hamlet

     3.1The story of Hamlet

     3.2Hamlets adovation of mans nature

     3.2.1His praise of mans power and values


    William Shakespeare (1564-1616) was one of the most remarkable


    playwrights and poets the world had ever known. [1] With his 38 plays, 154 sonnets and 2 long poems, he has established his giant position in world literature. As a dramatist, his dramatic career may be divided into four periods. During the third period of gloom and depression, his main tragedies were written. Hamlet as one of his great tragedies, was

    considered the summit of Shakespeares art. It was also generally regarded

    as Shakespeare‟s most popular play on the stage. Hamlet, as the central character of the play, was a warm-blooded humanist. When he returned to Denmark with all his heart, he was shocked by the cruel reality of the society. His father died and his uncle usurped the throne. Whats worse, his

    mother remarried shortly after his fathers death. He met lots of difficulties.

    His uncle was hypocritical. His lover became his enemys tool and his

    former friend became a spy and accomplice. But he still took the responsibility for setting the world right. In the course of finishing his task,

    Hamlets humanism can be fully seen in his avocations of human nature, personal freedom and reason and his objection to internal conflict. Eventually, Hamlet revenged his father with the cost of his owe life. Though he couldnt set the whole evil world right, he let Claudius

    treachery and adultery exposed to the court and soon to the light of day. The dissertation will start from the background of Renaissance, Shakespeares humanist ideas and then to the humanism in Hamlet.

    1. The background of Renaissance


     1.1 Definition of Renaissance

    The rise of the bourgeoisie soon showed its influence in the sphere of cultural life. The result was an intellectual movement known as the Renaissance, of, the rebirth of letters. The Renaissance marked a transition from the medieval to the modern world. Generally speaking, it referred to the period between the 14th and mid-17th centuries. [1] The Renaissance, which meant rebirth or revival, was actually a movement stimulated by a series of historical events, such as the rediscovery of ancient Roman and Greek culture, the new discoveries in geography and astrology, the religious reformation and the economic expansion.

     1.2 Renaissance in Europe

    The Renaissance sprang first in Italy in the 14th century, with the flowering of paintings, sculpture and literature. Gradually, the Renaissance as an epoch of social and cultural development embraced all over Europe. The Renaissance therefore, in essence, was a historical period in which the European humanist thinkers and scholars made attempts to get rid of those old feudalist ideas in the medieval Europe. They aimed to introduce new ideas that expressed the interests of the rising bourgeoisie. Renaissance was a movement that was to recover the purity of the early church and to get rid of the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church.

     1.3The Renaissance in English

    The Renaissance was slow in reaching England not only because of


    Englands separation from the continent but also because of its domestic

    thunrest. In the latter half of the 14 century, Chaucer visited Italy, and

    Italian influence was to be traced in his “Canterbury Tale. [2]William

    Coxton introduced printing skill to England which let classical works reach the common multitude. In the days of Henry VIII, there were a group of scholars called oxford Reformers, who introduced the classical literature to

    [2]England and strove to reform education on a humanistic line. One of

    scholars established a school for schoolboys without brutal flogging. These English humanists were churchmen, but they sought to permeate old faith with new thought. They introduced classical literature to England. Education, based upon the classics and the Bible, was revitalized. Literature, already much read during the 15th century, became even more popular. Thus began the English Renaissance, which was perhaps Englands Golden Age, especially in literature.

    1.4Humanism as the essence of Renaissance

    In Renaissance period, humanism, was the essence of

    Renaissance ,formed in mans mind. At the same time, humanism was the

    feature of Renaissance. It sprang from the rebuild a medieval reverence. Humanists were based on such a conception that man was the measure of all thing. They stopped looking upon themselves as living only for God and a future world but paid more attention on mans values and power.

    According to the humanists, man could get happiness by removing all


    difficulties. William Shakespeare was one of the best representatives of the English humanists.

    2. Shakespeares humanist ideas

    We know very little about Shakespeare. [2]The scanty facts of Shakespeares life came down to us from three sources: Church and legal records, folk traditions, and the comments of his contemporaries. The church and loco recorded contain a series of dates and facts concerning his birth, marriage, business transactions and his death. [2] These gave us a rough outline of his life. They served to reconstruct some pages of the poets biography, when written records are lacking. Meanwhile there are many comments upon Shakespeares plays and poems in the works of his

    contemporaries that helped us to restore his image and estimated his influence upon his time.

    William Shakespeare was born on April 23, 1564, into a merchants

    family in Stratford-on-Avon. [2]He read widely in the books current in his day. When he was at Stratford, Shakespeare became well acquainted with theatrical performances. Stratford was often visited by traveling companies of players. Shakespeare may have also seen miracle plays in the neighboring town of Coventry, where these plays were still performed by the guilds. In 1582, Shakespeare married a farmers daughter Anne

    Hathaway, a woman several years his senior. She gave birth to three children. It was probably because he had to support his growing family that


    Shakespeare left Stratford for London in 1586 or 1587. At that time the drama was rapidly gaining popularity among the people. During the first years of Shakespeare‟s life in London he had to go through many hardships. In one way or another he became acquitted with certain theatrical companies. Then he became an actor of some dramatic troupe, playing minor parts. He did not seem to have distinguished himself as an actor, but he must have learned much of the technique of dramatic art from his personal experience with the stage. From about 1591 to about 1611, Shakespeare was in the prime of his dramatic career and his plays came out one after another.

    Influenced by the society, Shakespeare formed his humanism gradually. As a humanist of the time, Shakespeare was shocked by the feudal tyranny and disunity and internal struggle for power at the court which led to civil wars. Shakespeare has accepted the Renaissance views on literature. He held that literature should be a combination of beauty, kindness and truth, and should reflect nature and reality. His main humanist thought was reflected in his works. Firstly, he insisted on using human

    nature against religious authority. At that time, Medieval papacy held on God nature, but human was useless. However, Shakespeare eulogized mans power and values. He thought man can create everything. Secondly, Shakespeare used liberation of individual freedom against asceticism. He advocated the faithfulness of love and the spirit of pursuing happiness.


    Thirdly, Shakespeare held on reason. Lastly, Shakespeare objected to feudal separatist conflict. Based on this consideration, he wrote Hamlet.

    3. Humanism in Hamlet

     3.1The story of Hamlet

    Hamlet was the first of the great tragedies. It was generally regarded as Shakespeares most popular play on the stage. The play was probably written around 1601. [3] The chief elements in the play: the story of murder and revenge, the appearance of a ghost, the performance of a play with a play, the madness both real and pretended of the central characters. The story in Hamlet was none too complicated. [4] Hamlet, the young prince of Denmark, was once the happiest young man in the country. However, he met a great trouble. His father died suddenly in a mysterious way. First he was told that his father died from the bite of a snake when he was asleep one afternoon in the garden. Whats more his mother remarried shortly

    after his fathers death. His uncle became the new King. Later he was

    informed by the ghost of his father shortly after his fathers dead. The ghost

    asked Hamlet to revenge. The ghost said that Claudius was guilty not only of murder but also adultery. From then on, Hamlet was in great panic. As a humanist, he could hardly believe what the ghost said, for he feared that he might have seen a devil sent to torment him. To test his uncle, Hamlet pretended to be mad and arranged for a performance of murder before the King. The play was similar to the course of his uncles murder. By


    watching Claudius reaction during the play, Hamlet hoped to discover for the signs of Claudius guilt. In the end, Claudius reaction made Hamlet sure of his uncles crime. However, Hamlet didnt take any actions. When

    he saw his uncle praying, he went to his mothers room and there he

    miskilled old Polonius. For this slaughter, Hamlet was sent to England by his uncle, to be beheaded there upon arrival. But Hamlet escaped and came home with his wisdom. To kill Hamlet, Claudius arranged a fencing-match between Hamlet and Laertes. During the match, Claudius prepared a poisoned cup for Hamlet. Unfortunately, Gertrude, Hamlets mother, who

    knew nothing of the kings treachery, drank from the poisoned cup and died. During the contest, Hamlet was mortally wounded with the poisoned rapier, but the two contestants exchanged foils in a scuffle, and Laertes himself received a fatal wound. Before he died, Laertes was filled with remorse and told Hamlet that Claudius was responsible for the poisoned sword. Hesitating no longer, Hamlet seized his opportunity to act, and fatally stabbed the king. Then the prince himself died. But the ghost was avenged.

    3.2Hamlets adovocation of human nature

     3.2.1His praise of mans power and values

    In the play, Hamlet was the representative of humanist in the Renaissance period. Although he was noble, he left court for university which is one of the center for humanists movement. Once one of a swiss

    historians said: the university system managed by a few famous


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