Critical analysis on Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Antigone Essay
William Shakespeare is considered as a conservative by heart, owing perhaps to the fact that he fully held on to the idea of the stability of a certain social order. Shakespeare also maintained a sense of mistrust on the capability of crowds to govern and be the authority within the society on a given social order. Moreover, he maintains a lack of confidence primarily on the ability of groups of individuals in either governing other people or themselves at the very least.
For the most part of Shakespeare’s thinking, a society that is secured from danger and is stable from the challenges of both external and internal forces is one that grants full recognition to the hierarchy within the society. It is also a society that does not only acknowledges such a social hierarchy but is also one that goes along with it, taking it up as its core precept. Further, Shakespeare ascribes several consequences to the society if the society itself does not abide by the principle of social hierarchy. That is, anarchy and mayhem as well as murder are inevitable without the existence of a hierarchy within the social system.
Therein also rests the common strand between Machiavelli and Shakespeare with respect to their works (Machiavelli’s Prince and Shakespeare’s Antigone and Hamlet). That is, both have a keen eye in maintaining the belief in the strength of harsh actions in the further advancement of the existing social hierarchy. (Forester)
In essence, what can be reflected in Shakespeare’s works, especially in his Hamlet and Antigone, are the notions of social hierarchy and social power, their overlapping contexts and derivative consequences on one another.
Hamlet and Antigone: insights into social hierarchy
In Hamlet and Antigone, social hierarchy is evidently portrayed. The mere inclusion of kings or of monarchic system as the ruling order in the society clearly tell us that the prevalence of a social hierarchy in both works of Shakespeare is indicative of social insights, especially in terms of a hierarchy. As to why Shakespeare chose to infuse in his works the concept of a monarchial system, we can barely tell inasmuch as there are wide debates revolving around it.
Nevertheless, the fact that such a system has been incorporated in both plays is strong enough for us to at least extract insights in both Hamlet and Antigone regarding Shakespeare’s consideration for social order and hierarchy.
The conflicts and struggles that revolved around the seizing of the monarchial power give us, for the most part, the significance of such a position in the society. The conflict staged on the conquest for the occupancy of the prime position in the monarchial system indicates the sheer importance and the immense benefits one can acquire from the seizure of the king’s throne (McDonald).
In essence, the role of the social hierarchy in both Shakespearean works serves only as an insight to a far more broad scope of an entire social hierarchy. The insights provided were simple means of granting us the basic tools for a more detailed analysis of the contributing role of hierarchy in the acquisition of social power either among groups or in an individual. Beyond the fleeting illustrations provided in Hamlet and Antigone, a larger picture of social hierarchy and power emerges. This leads us into an interesting analysis in the proceeding discussion.
Hierarchy and power
In almost all hierarchical systems in varying societies, those who are on top of the social ranks are the ones who are usually in power, either through legitimate or illegitimate means. There are also various forces behind the very definition of a social “hierarchy”. That is, the composition of a social hierarchy can be further broken down into component parts, ranging from economic or financial status to political status. A look on these aspects will shed light on how hierarchy grants an individual or a group of individuals with power.
It must be established first how hierarchy is determined in societies prior to an exposition on the delegation of power to those who are on the upper ranks of the society. In many countries, the social rank is usually defined by the financial status of its citizens as well as the political status of those who are in the government sector or the ruling administration. As money is capable of granting the individual access to many things, those who have the most of money are then able to acquire more as compared to others. The more resources one has, the more one is likely able to achieve one’s goals with less financial hindrances. Though arguably money cannot buy everything else in the world, it is a fact that money can indeed provide one with the necessary resources in fueling one’s drive to the top of the society.
On another note, the political status of a person can also contribute to the relegation of an individual to the higher echelons of the society. Since political power has a primary function in the development of any society, and that it has with it special functions which are not easily found among the ordinary citizen, having political status is an advantage to a certain extent.
Thus, one can be propelled to the upper ranks in the social hierarchy if one has either or both political and financial statuses in contrast to those whose financial and political groundings are in absentia. If this is the case, the next concern would be that of the possibility of attaining power once one is atop the hierarchy.
The reasons are quite apparent. If one is already above the hierarchy, it would be relatively easy to acquire power if one does not actually acquire it along the process of climbing up the social ladder. With financial and political backgrounds functioning properly, one can slide past the obstacles with minimal effort. Power becomes within reach.
Shakespeare and the case of the change of hierarchy in his Hamlet and Antigone
It is notable in both Hamlet and Antigone the event wherein there is the change in authority through the classic means of replacing the king, oftentimes through violent measures. This act of the replacing the standing authority can be taken to mean, in the context of the two Shakespearean works, that the author, to a certain degree, is ensuing for a change in the hierarchy. This change can be seen further as an extension of a “system” overhaul in the society. However, it remains that Shakespeare only attempts are crudely or partially reinforcing the social order and is not to be entirely interpreted as an infusion of a total disorder in the system since this very well amounts to anarchy for Shakespeare (Chaney).
On another point, it can be argued that the author is challenging the existence of a social hierarchy. Since there is a usurpation of power in the stories, it can be seen that the hierarchical system is put to the test. What the author insists is that, although the non-existence of a social hierarchy is non-beneficial as it amplifies the case of mayhem and disorder, slight changes in the system itself can still be met in order to change the unwanted elements in the system (Wilson).
Without hierarchy and power
It has been proposed that a world without hierarchy and power is a world of equality in its strictest sense. This can indeed be the case. However, even in such a scenario, it can hardly be imagined that there will be social order. Granted that all individuals are on equal footing and that no social ranking exists, it cannot necessarily follow that there will relatively be a harmonious existence among the people. The primary reason is that, as Hobbes puts it, the life of man in the state of nature is “solitary, poor, short, brutish and nasty” (Hobbes).
In the context of Hamlet and Antigone, the characters in the stories would certainly have had a total change in their daily lives and roles for the reason that the plot of the story revolves around the hierarchical system itself. If the hierarchy is removed, the lives of the characters would have drastically changed and the story in general would have been entirely different.
William Shakespeare remained true to his belief in the relevance of a social hierarchy and its role in the prevention or, at the least, the diminishing of mayhem within the society. Hierarchy and power are both crucial forces in the construction and maintenance of the society at large and of the individuals within it.
Chaney, Joseph. “From Madness to Responsibility: Shakespeare’s Machiavellian Princes”. 2005. May 8, 2007. <http://220.127.116.11/search?q=cache:5hlM8sUDCMgJ:thinkingwithshakespeare.org/Shakespeare/SAA/SAA%2520Papers/Chaney.doc+Shakespeare+Hamlet+social+hierarchy&hl=tl&ct=clnk&cd=10&gl=ph>.
Forester, Ann. “Machiavellian Precepts in Shakespeare’s Plays”. 1995. Education Resources Information Center. May 8, 2007. <http://eric.ed.gov/ERICWebPortal/Home.portal?_nfpb=true&_pageLabel=RecordDetails&ERICExtSearch_SearchValue_0=ED392047&ERICExtSearch_SearchType_0=eric_accno&objectId=0900000b80137f08>.
Hobbes, Thomas. “Of Speech.” Leviathan: With Selected Variants from the Latin Edition of 1668. Ed. Edwin Curley. New Ed ed. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub Co Inc, 1994. 19.
McDonald, Russ. “Town and Country: Life in Shakespeare’s England.” The Bedford Companion to Shakespeare: An Introduction with Documents. 2 ed. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001. 232.
Wilson, J. Dover. “Eclipse.” What Happens in Hamlet. 3 ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1951. 258.