Three years of my life as an EU student of English Literature at the University of East Anglia,England.
During Easter, I had to work on a small formative assessment for the Shakespeare module. In case I haven’t said that enough yet, I feel I need to repeat that: I hate Shakespeare and I’m completely ashamed by my absence of Shakeskills (who doesn’t enjoy a terrible pun?). Writing this short piece (a little over 500 words) took much more time and stress than needed and I am embarrassed to share it with you, terrified at the thought of other people in my seminar (or worse… THE SEMINAR LEADER WHO IS SO INTELLIGENT) reading it, so I am not entirely sure why I’m about to post this online…
The worst thing is, Hamlet is the only play I’ve actually read and understood on the module so imagine what it’d be like for the other ones (level of self-confidence: zero). If there is anything to learn from it, it’s that you should never take a module in something you know you’ll be bad at. I’ve learnt from my mistake.
I guess you can use this as an example of what NOT to do (stay on the surface, describe rather than explain…). Don’t laugh too much — I promise I can do better in other modules.
Hamlet: The tension between dramatic action and the order and ceremony of the court
5.1.200-247 (Ophelia’s funeral) and 5.2.305-345 (final lines) in Norton Shakespeare Anthology.
Hamlet seems to explore the tension between dramatic action and the order and ceremony of the court. The setting itself is significant since theatre was part of the court, and social life in court itself had a theatrical nature. In Hamlet, ceremonies and rituals operate a key function. Indeed, the scenes are made up of ceremonies that go wrong: they are often subverted and hybridised. Order and authority are also central motifs throughout most of Shakespeare’s plays. What happens when ceremony becomes disordered? We will thus study two models of ceremonies in Hamlet: on the one hand, Ophelia’s funeral as an example of broken ceremony and, on the other hand, the final lines of the play as an example of resorted order and successful ceremony.
Ophelia’s funeral start with a description of the royal procession – organised in hierarchical order: ‘Here comes the King/ The Queen, the courtiers…’ (ll. 200-1). Although they initially seem to follow the rituals, something about Ophelia’s funeral is not right and she is not getting the ceremony a person of her ‘rank’ should normally get: ‘with such maimèd rites’ (l. 202). Due to her brother’s protests, the priest explains that she cannot be buried according to customs because ‘her death was doubtful’ (l. 209) – suicide is a sin. The priest even adds that ‘she should in ground unsanctified have lodged’ (l. 211) and that ‘shards, flints, and pebbles should be thrown at her’ (l. 213) even though her folly was caused by the murder of her father earlier in the play. Despite being ‘allowed her virgin rites’ (l. 214), Laertes is furious and fights in her tomb with Hamlet. This ceremony is thus disordered on two levels: firstly, it is not a proper ceremony that follows all the rites and, secondly, the seeming order is undermined by the men’s unstoppable quarrel.
On the contrary, the final and tragic scene of Hamlet shows the restoration of order in the court. When Fortinbras enters, in the final lines of the play, he witnesses the dead members of the royal family. Although Fortinbras is in position of power, both because of his social status as the Prince of Norway, and because he is likely to become the king of Denmark (‘but I do prophesy th’election lights / On Fortinbras. He has my dying voice’ ll. 297-8 – Hamlet’s speech act) Horatio implicitly gives him an order: ‘give order that these bodies / High on a stage be placèd to the view’ (ll. 321-2). This direct reference to the theatre stage is strengthened by Fortinbras’s allusion to ‘the audience’ (ll. 331) later on – a reminder that ceremony in the court and theatre are very similar. Although at first, order may seem to be reversed, Fortinbras assumes the role of a fair leader – perhaps even of king of Denmark – and therefore re-establishes the order of the court and allows Hamlet to have the ceremony he deserves. He thus agrees with Horatio and commands ‘four captains / Bear Hamlet like a soldier to the stage’ (ll. 339-40) and mentions other elements of ceremonies such as ‘music and the rites of war’ (l. 343).
This scene seems to suggest that order can only work when one’s desire for revenge has been fulfilled and when leaders receive advice from other (like Horatio and Fortinbras). In using one of the main aspects of court life, Shakespeare compares theatre with ceremony and demonstrates that drama disturbs the expected order because Hamlet relies on disrupted simulacrum. The playwright also takes on the position of a philosopher and offers an example of ideal rule.