A Level English: Dysfunction in Hamlet


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Considering “something is rotten in the state of Denmark” the suggestion that “dysfunction” seems to exist in everything arguably is not as ludicrous as it might first appears.

The fact that Hamlet’s uncle, King Claudius, married with his mother after his father’s death would arguably have received a reaction far more hostile and shocked by the Elizabethan/Jacobean audiences than our ownKing Henry VIII (d. 1547, Queen Elizabeth’s father) had declared his first marriage invalid and illegal because he had married his brother’s wife. Thus to Shakespeare’s 17th century audience the “incestuous” marriage would possibly have (because the king was the figurehead of the nation) arguably thus illustrated dysfunction of the whole kingdom. Indeed, families arguably do not really appear ‘functional’ in Hamlet from the first scene; most notably, Gertrude is described as having remarried with “wicked speed” to “incestuous sheets”, the reference to incest in effect highlighting her inappropriate conduct and unnatural relationship with Claudius.

Shakespeare also uses language to display the ‘dysfunction’ of the Elsinore court– Although King Claudius’ speech at first appears befitting to a king, it is full of unusual contradictions. He claims that the memory of his brother’s death is “green”, but surely green, which might symbolise new growth and freshness, should not apply to the death of the King? “green” might also allude to jealousy, further emphasising the irrelevance of the word, and the significance of the ‘cain’ reference- the unintentional irony of Claudius (considering his crime, which is hinted at until his confession) in mentioning “the first corse”– a biblical reference to Abel, killed by his brother Cain, arguably is Shakespeare’s doing rather than Claudius’ mistake. The importance of religion in the 17th century must not be overlooked. The audience would be very familiar with biblical texts, thus, this reference would presumably have been noted as another unusual inclusion in the play. Although Claudius’ crime is not yet revealed to the audience, it is arguably clear, not least from Claudius’ lines, which, among others, include unusualities such as “With an auspicious and a drooping eye” (itself a contradiction) and “With mirth in funeral and with dirge in marriage” that something is not quite ‘normal’ in the Danish court.

The ‘dysfunction’ of Elsinore is thus shown to have some, if not considerable, credibility.

However, regarding the the marginalisation of Ophelia (note that her lines are far shorter than her male superiors, and she agrees to “obey” Polonius without question), you might counter that her treatment might be seen as functional by an Elizabethan or Jacobean audience, who might see her father and brother’s advice as evidence of their concern for her wellbeing- women were seen as weak, inferior to men and more susceptible to sin in the 16th and 17th centuries. What is significant for you to do is to decide, on balance, how far Elsinore might be seen to be ‘dysfunctional’ from evidence in the first scene- evaluating is particularly important in achieving the highest marks in your exams and coursework. You might like to decide to what extent ‘dysfunctional’ would be an appropriate description for the events/language/state of affairs as presented in the first scene (is dysfunctional taking it too far? Would ‘unusual circumstances’ suffice?).

Feel free to feedback on this in the comment section!


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