William Shakespeare wrote Hamlet between 1599 and 1601, the end of Queen Elizabeth’s reign. The play reflects its society by mirroring the monarchical form of government. Revealing social norms related to the time, it serves as a commentary on culture. Shakespeare displayed people of the Elizabethan age by showing the cultural and social conditions.
Shakespeare’s career as a poet and dramatist was developing during Queen Elizabeth’s rule. His most well-known tragedy Hamlet reflected the cultural and social context of the era. The era’s social and cultural context is depicted by addressing the following topics:
- gender roles;
- familial ties and marriage;
Social norms and expectations are the center of attention in the play.
- Gender Roles
At this time, a powerful Queen ruled England. Yet, society was patriarchal, and no one questioned men’s authority. Men were responsible for the marriage. They could participate in politics, choose professions and education, and rule their lives. An area of women’s duties included household, parenting, and domestic services. In short, society viewed women as the weaker sex in everything. Their physical abilities, independence, emotional strength were considered less developed than that of men. So, the only way “to succeed” for women was to have a successful marriage.
I say, we will have no more marriages:
those that are married already, all but one, shall
live; the rest shall keep as they are.
To a nunnery, go.
(Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1)
The play Hamlet demonstrates this role of women. The story concerns men’s characters. They are leading the world, whereas women are just “supporting” their lives. Women do not contribute to the plot, and they do not add any value. At this time, they are not allowed in court, where the main events took place. Shakespeare showed the two female characters as obedient, weak, and dependent. They could not control their emotions throughout the story.
- Familial Ties and Marriage
The family institution played an essential role in Elizabethan England. People saw the family as a basis of society, and familial bonds were compelling at the time. The family existed by following social norms and Bible rules. Children’s behavior was strictly regulated, as well.
In Hamlet, Shakespeare reflects this reality. The main character’s need to avenge his father reveals strong family connections. Women’s obedience and their devotion to family is demonstrated in Ophelia’s plotline. She stays away from Hamlet, following the instructions of her father and brother:
I shall the effect of this good lesson keep,
As watchman to my heart. But, good my brother,
Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven;
Whiles, like a puff’d and reckless libertine,
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads,
And recks not his own rede.
(Ophelia, Act 1, Scene 3)
The need for self-fulfillment looked different in the Elizabethan era compared to today. At this time, people were considered to be self-actualized when they fitted into social standards. They defined themselves through positions occupied in the social hierarchy.
In The Tragedy of Hamlet, the main characters demonstrate different types of self-actualization. Yet they are all peculiar to the era. Claudius develops a sense of fulfillment through striving for power and dominance. For Ophelia, self-actualization involves obedience and acceptance of others. Polonius needs social standing. Hamlet’s and Laertes’ self-fulfillment is revenge for their fathers’ death:
Haste me to know’t, that I, with wings as swift
As meditation or the thoughts of love,
May sweep to my revenge.
(Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 5)
So, in summary, The Tragedy of Hamlet reflects and portrays Elizabethan society in numerous ways. Shakespeare shows the monarchical form of government and social norms established in it.