AD's English Literature : William Shakespeare's Hamlet as a Renaissance man

William Shakespeare's Hamlet as a Renaissance man

Apart from the emotional complexity of Hamlet's personality, William Shakespeare 's typical hero is sometimes seen as symbol of the Renaissance man, and the play as a symbol of the impact of the renaissance on European culture. In fact, his complexity is itself a byproduct of Renaissance.

When the Roman Empire collapsed Western Europe entered a stage of barbarism and social regression. Form the eleventh to the fifteenth centuries Europe began to claw its way back to civilization, but for all that time achieved nothing nearly so grand and developed as roman civilization at its best. During this period, known as the middle ages, it was generally held that classical civilization had seen the ultimate human development, and that succeeding ages could hope at best to emulate that previous development, but never improve on it.

Renaissance  means ‘rebirth’-the rebirth of learning. It applies to the time roughly in the sixteenth century, when it was slowly realized that there was knowledge to be acquired, that the ancient authorities had not always known all there was to know, and that it was possible for humanity to advance anew. Thus Galileo (1564-1642) found proof, as a result of observation-especially with the newly invented telescope –and geometry, that the world was round, and that it revolved around the sun, whereas classical learning had speculated that the earth was flat, and that the sun revolved around it. Galileo was persecuted for maintaining his theories, but the tide was in of the new learning.

The Renaissance was a mixed blessing in terms of its impact on society and human thought. It freed humanity of many artificial barriers to learning scientific development. It allowed people to think. Explore, ‘experiment, and question, and come to fresh conclusions. In all this it was positive, and hugely exciting. However, there was another side. Human beings had lived with the belief that the world was flat- and with a great many other beliefs-for hundreds and even thousands of years. The old, pre-renaissance pattern of thought may not have been exciting, but it was safe, and secure-when people start to think, the conclusion they reach cannot be guaranteed to be comfortable or secure. Plunge off into the unknown and anything might happen: thought brings danger, risks, and insecurity, as well as rewards. People who have spent all their lives believing in the old learning, and suddenly find that all they have believed in is a lie, might well react adversely to the shock, like a man who has spent all his life in prison and is suddenly released and told to make  his way in the outside world.

In this respect Hamlet can be seen as a symbol of Renaissance man. On the one hand the play is full of the tremendous sense of the potential, beauty, and wonder of man. On the other hand there is a sense of vast fear and despair, because, like renaissance man, hamlet has been forsaken by everything on which he used to rely, and has to start anew in everything he thinks and does. This is the risk implicit in the renaissance- the old barriers are thrown down, but they could stop people from hurting themselves, as well as impeding their advance. This view dose point out a basic truth about the play, which is Hamlet’s sudden realization that he live in a world the complexities of which he has never realized before ; but remember that a critic’s job is to understand Hamlet and a theory involving a complex historical analogy may only be partially helpful in this understanding.

 Ardhendu De

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