Prince of Denmark

November 29, 2008
Shakespeare’s words in Hamlet not only define his characters, but the words themselves are often symbols of his characters. The word “Denmark” embodies the young Prince Hamlet’s entire being. Repetition of this word reinforces the idea that Hamlet’s state of mind is innately connected to his native country of Denmark. Any mention of Denmark in Act I symbolizes Hamlet and Denmark’s shared fate and foreshadows their eventual end. Shakespeare’s inconsistent use of Denmark in the subsequent acts mirrors the inconsistency of Hamlet’s state of mind and the discord he causes among the members of the Danish court.

Through the course of Hamlet, Denmark has either of two meanings, a literal denotation or an objective connotation. The literal meaning is the country of Denmark and its citizens, the Danes. The second definition of Denmark is Hamlet himself, or Hamlet’s state of mind. Throughout the play, the Danish king is simply referred to as Denmark. This common practice of substituting Denmark for king of Denmark affirms the idea that in truth Hamlet is Denmark. In Act I, Denmark is first mentioned when Horatio questions the late king of Denmark’s ghost, “What art thou that usurp’st this time of night together with that fair and warlike form in which the majesty of buried Denmark did sometimes march?” From the very beginning, then, Shakespeare suggests the prospect of a battle by introducing the former king armed and dressed for war and also establishes the synonymous usage of Denmark and king. Horatio’s question also reflects one of the themes in Hamlet, that of basing one’s decisions on uncertainty. As Denmark prepares to go to war, unsure if one drop of blood will even be shed, Hamlet is about to encounter his father’s ghost and vow to answer its call for vengeance, unsure if the ghost is even real. By accepting the task of revenge, Hamlet chooses to recommit himself to Denmark.

Hamlet’s fellow characters also help to confirm his identity as being rooted in Denmark. The king and queen of Denmark, Claudius and Gertrude, first demonstrate how much power Denmark has over Hamlet when they entreat him, “I pray thee, stay with us. Go not to Wittenberg.” and “Be as ourself in Denmark.” Claudius’s appeal to Hamlet foreshadows that Hamlet will become like his father and uncle before him, and by submitting to stay in Denmark, Hamlet seals his fate and the fate of his country. Laertes is another character whose reference to Denmark characterizes the connection between Hamlet and Denmark. Laertes cautions his sister, Ophelia, “Then if he [Hamlet] says he loves you, it fits your wisdom so far to believe it as he in his particular act and place may give his saying deed, which is no further than the main voice of Denmark goes withal.” This brotherly warning reveals that Hamlet is actually defined by Denmark and does not possess the conventional power that a king has over his country. Shakespeare uses diction and his characters’ speeches to gradually reveal the intrinsic relationship between country and king and the effects the bond has on Hamlet’s existence.
Other words in the play serve to modify or give deeper meaning to Denmark. Marcellus states, “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” just before Hamlet follows his father’s ghost. His allusion to Denmark allows for the connotative interpretation to mean Hamlet’s state of mind, which will shortly be bent on the singular idea of revenge. When Hamlet learns the truth about his fathers death he exclaims, “My tables!—Meet it is I set it down that one may smile, and smile, and be a villain. At least I’m sure it may be so in Denmark.” The word villain holds significance here because although Hamlet is calling his uncle a villain, the reader stops to question if Hamlet is in fact the one who is becoming the villain. These incidents reveal the corruption encountered on the path to kingship and foreshadows that Hamlet will become like Claudius because of the task he is undertaking.
Of the nineteen times the word Denmark is mentioned in Hamlet, it is most frequently used in Act I. This is in stark contrast to its rare usage in Act V when Fortinbras of England assumes control of Denmark. Denmark is barely mentioned because in Hamlet’s dying words he detaches himself from the country, frees himself from his vengeful state of mind, and surrenders the crown saying, “I cannot live to hear the news from England. But I do prophesy the election lights on Fortinbras. He has my dying voice.” Hamlet’s uncertainty about how to accomplish his task of revenge results in a conquered Denmark. Hamlet’s foil, Fortinbras in not susceptible to uncertainty and inaction; therefore, Denmark is no longer used to signal that a new ruler free from corruption has taken control. Fortinbras of England reverses the king’s role, and it is now he who will define and reinvent the country of Denmark.
In order to fully relate Hamlet’s character to his audience, Shakespeare uses something familiar, like a country and its inner workings, as a metaphor for Hamlet’s life. But the metaphor is not merely a comparison, is an archetype for Hamlet’s way of life. By repeatedly having different characters reference Denmark, Shakespeare relies on the ambiguity of its meaning in each situation to cause the reader to question Hamlet’s state of mind and his actions. It is then realized that Hamlet’s fate is inevitable since from the moment he is entrusted to Denmark he becomes one with a country that is vulnerable to outside forces. So, the young prince’s actions, however treacherous, are justified because his fate is predestined. Hamlet is from Denmark (the late king), born into the country of Denmark, and his state of mind and body dies when an outsider, Fortinbras of England, breaks the cycle and puts on the crown.

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