March 6th, 2015
ENGL 1181- Intro to Shakespeare
Hamlet and Renaissance Humanism
Renaissance Humanism was a movement that originated in 14th century Italy which broke away from the medieval tradition of religion motivating literature and art. This movement developed from the rediscovery and study of classical texts such as those of Plato and Aristotle.
The concept of Humanism glorified the individual achievements of man, and believed that humans possessed the unlimited potential to transform not only themselves, but the world they lived in. Renaissance Humanism ultimately brought about an era of inquiry, discovery in the form of “re-discovery”, and desire for knowledge, as writers and philosophers struggled with the notion of man’s role in relation to the world and to God. Shakespeare’s Hamlet, in comparison to his literary foils such as Fortinbras or Laertes, is a clear representation of Humanist ideals.
Fortinbras and Laertes act hastily and are motivated by immediate revenge. Hamlet on the other hand, is much more hesitant, and stops to examine his environment and questions his own motivation in his quest to avenge his father’s death. Ultimately Hamlet, unlike any other character, is the embodiment of a philosophy far advanced for his time.
During the rise of Renaissance Humanism, education gained an increasingly essential role in society. Humanists supported studying many different subjects such as poetry, history, mathematics, astronomy, and music. They believed that education increased man’s ability to achieve greatness. Shakespeare’s Hamlet clearly values education and learning, as he attends school at Wittenberg. Hamlet actively seeks out knowledge, even though it is completely unnecessary given his status. It is almost certain that he will take the throne from Claudius, and his life is essentially laid out before him. But desire to learn clearly separates Hamlet from the rest of his family and peers, none of whom possess his drive. In Act 1 scene 2, Claudius says to
“For your intent
In going back to school in Wittenberg,
It is most retrograde to our desire,
And we beseech you, bend you to remain,
Here in the cheer and comfort of our eye,
Our chiefest courtier, cousin, and our son.”
In this scene, Claudius describes Hamlet’s desire to go back to school at Wittenberg, and says that he and Gertrude want him to stay home where they can keep an eye on him. Hamlet’s family do not see the value in education as Hamlet does, and do not see the point in sending him away when he could stay home instead. Even so, Hamlet’s education plays a significant role in his personality and his perception of the world.
Renaissance Humanists were also fascinated by the role man played in the grand scheme of life. Hamlet, being a particularly ruminative person, frequently contemplates the complexity of life and death throughout the play. In the first scene of Act 5, Hamlet explains to Horatio,
“Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth to dust, the dust is earth.” (5.1.298)
In this quote, Hamlet discusses human mortality, and how even Alexander the Great will eventually end up in the same earth as everyone else. And nothing could be more indicative of man’s questioning the meaning of existence than arguably Shakespeare’s most famous written line, “To be, or not to be - that is the question.” (3.1.56) Hamlet asks himself these questions: To