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Effect of the Setting in Hamlet on the Play

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1886 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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How the setting in Hamlet drives the play

         In the play ‘Hamlet’, the author William Shakespeare introduces the setting of Denmark and the royal castle of Elsinore. The play is driven by the setting in such ways that it creates this whole new different atmosphere for the characters and the plot. Although most of the play was in Elsinore castle, a notable place is the graveyard, as it serves a bigger purpose in shaping the play. In Hamlet the setting is much more than it seems, it serves as a larger piece in the play and for the characters. The setting of Denmark, perhaps Elsinore castle creates a dark mood and atmosphere to the play. In Act one of the play, Hamlet does his first soliloquy ‘To be or not to be’ in the graveyard, as he contemplates life and death which marks the type of mood that will drive the play. The setting frames the characters and their attitudes toward the play. Particularly Elsinore castle, there is this sense of imprisonment within the characters in the play like Hamlet, Ophelia, Claudius, and etc.…. The various types of settings creates suspense and arouses emotion towards the audience and the play. The setting of the castle is both the motivation for the characters and their downfall. The setting of Denmark is pivotal to how the play is driven as if it was a person in the play. In the play ‘Hamlet’ by William Shakespeare, Elsinore castle is more than just a setting for the play; it is a symbol of imprisonment both imposed and self-imposed, it captures the state of oppression, as it is tied to obtaining power for which many characters strive.

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Although the setting is driven by imprisonment, the state of oppression affects some characters within the play, like Ophelia while on the other hand there are characters like Horatio that are not affected. The castle oppresses some characters because every character that comes into contact with imprisonment will somehow end up suffering in some major way. Characters that suffer oppression are Hamlet, Claudius and Gertrude, and Ophelia. In Kenneth Branagh’s version of Hamlet, Ophelia is heavily targeted in the play as she is mistreated by the male characters specifically from the scene where Hamlet drags her all around the room. Hamlet drags her all around the room. Which comes to show that Ophelia is oppressed in her love for Hamlet. At the same time she is oppressed by her family as well, Laertes and Polonius her father. Ophelia is beyond control of her own life, her family were the ones to decide what she can do and not do. As a father Polonius goes overboard with the whole lecture towards Ophelia about Hamlet’s mind, Polonius says, “Ay, springe’s to catch woodcocks….” (Ham 1.3.124-130). This is a clear representation of Ophelia’s oppression, and her state at which she is no longer in control of what she can do. Hamlet is oppressed in a way that he wants to do the unthinkable and kill Claudius but he is restricted from doing so. While Claudius is praying in the castle, Hamlet says, “Now might I do it pat, now he is praying, And now I’ll do’t” (Ham 3.3.78-79). Hamlet is debating whether or not to kill Claudius, this represents the theme of revenge versus justice [1]and action versus inaction[2] because of his own second thoughts of not being able to go to heaven and him wanting to show he killed Claudius. The oppression of Hamlet and Ophelia are directly used towards the setting and how it drives the play, unlike Horatio who does not undergo any problems.

In the castle Horatio becomes this separate entity from the royal family. Horatio is identified as Hamlet’s friend and confidant, he differs from everyone else in the castle as he is not part of the courts. Not just looking at Horatio as a character, presumably as a whole and how the setting is what also drives the play which many do not notice at first. Seemingly he somehow able to escape all the problems within the play as power has no interest to him. As Hamlet plots his plan against Claudius right before the play, Hamlet says to Horatio, “They are coming to the play. I must be idle. Get you a place.” (Ham 3.2.96). In that quote Hamlet gives directions to Horatio to observe Claudius’ reaction during the play as the actors re-enact the death of Hamlet senior. It comes to show loyalty plays a role in Hamlet and Horatio’s friendship, through all the drama Horatio is willingly accepting Hamlet’s request to spy on Claudius behind the curtains. As the setting is pivotal to the play, it is seen to drive it in a way that it creates this frame for the story. Horatio is the only person that is free from the castle’s imprisonment because he was never attached to it, he is only attached to Hamlet, he is on the other side of the picture. He differs from the rest of the characters within the play, back in scene one, Horatio speaks to the ghost, “What art thou that usurp’st this time of night….” (Ham 1.1.54). Despite Horatio not believing in ghost, he sees it and tries to speak to it, later then realizing it just walks away. Horatio is non-existent to the people around him, whenever he speaks they’re telling him to leave. Through the use of setting, Horatio is seen as a minor character to those in the play, though he creates a different atmosphere for the play to drive off of.

The feeling of imprisonment in one’s mind or body can either be direct or indirect as the setting of Elsinore castle is seen to affect the characters within the play. In a sense that the directly imprisoned are Hamlet, Ophelia, Claudius and Gertrude. On the other hand Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and possibly Polonius are indirectly imprisoned. The setting of Elsinore castle, mainly revolves around Hamlet as a character, as it becomes a prison to Hamlet which frames the play only for his character. Hamlet is speaking to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as he ask them does Denmark not feel like a prison to you? Hamlet says, “Denmark’s a prison” (Ham 2.2.262).  Hamlet experiences a different view of Denmark, due to his father being murdered and his uncle Claudius taking over the throne, he is under despair as he feels as if he is stuck in the same place throughout the play. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are part of the Danish court, as they serve to obey the King. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are indirectly imprisoned as they cannot leave without following direct orders from the King.  Rosencrantz says, “Where the dead body is bestowed, my lord, we cannot get from him”, this comes to show that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are straightforward and honour Claudius as the superior one (Ham 4.3.12-13).  An example is Claudius as he resembles the characteristics of a queen bee, although the queen bee is female Claudius would direct his soldiers and servants just as a queen bee would. There is a sense of imprisonment within the castle, the King experiences it differently presumably Claudius is the lord of the castle and can come and go as he pleases. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern feel this body like imprisonment as compared to Hamlet.  Although Elsinore castle is a symbol of imprisonment, it drives the play in such that the story seems to be desperately trying to escape its own confines. The setting of the castle imprisons its power hungry captives as Hamlet, Laertes and Fortinbras strive for. It is like a trifecta, imprisonment causes oppression which leads to the development of the play.

Shakespeare’s use of setting helps drive the play in such ways that it is not only there to create a specific mood, it is there to also have a symbolic meaning behind the use of the setting of Denmark. As it is imprisonment to characters in the play which suffer detrimental effects from oppression. The setting within the play marks the superficiality of the feeling of imprisonment, the states of oppression, and the will of free men. Setting is a fundamental piece which is used to create the plot, as the characters within it are alongside. The use of setting drives the play in such ways that it is seen differs from novels and films. In Hamlet, the setting serves as an important factor to how the play is driven, although mostly the entirety of the play was in the castle it shows that the setting can be constant but can also serve as a plot developer for the play.

Works cited

  • Mowat, Barabara A, and Paul Werstine. “Act 2 Scene 2 Line 262.” Hamlet, Willaim Shakespeare, p. 99.
  • Mowat, Barabara A., and Paul Werstine. “Act 4 Scene 3 Lines 12-13.” Hamlet, Willaim Shakespeare, p. 195.
  • Mowat, Barabara A., and Paul Werstine. “Act 1 Scene 3 Lines 124-130.” Hamlet, Willaim Shakespeare, p. 47.
  • Mowat, Barabara A., and Paul Werstine. “Act 3 Scene 3 Lines 78-79.” Hamlet, Willaim Shakespeare, p. 167.
  • Mowat, Barabara A., and Paul Werstine. “Act 3 Scene 2 Line 96.” Hamlet, Willaim Shakespeare, p. 129.
  • Mowat, Barabara A., and Paul Werstine. “Act 1 Scene 1 Line 54.” Hamlet, Willaim Shakespeare, p. 11.
  • Branagh, Kenneth, director. Hamlet: a Kenneth Branagh Film. Hamlet (1996 Film), 25 Dec. 1996.
  • Bolden, Layne. “Intro to Drama.” The Importance of Setting in Hamlet, 1 Jan. 1970, lupton126002.blogspot.com/2014/02/the-importance-of-setting-in-hamlet.html.
  • “The Mistreatment and Oppression of Women in Hamlet by William Shakespeare.” Best Writing Service Reviews, 26 Nov. 2016, studyscanner.com/the-mistreatment-and-oppression-of-women-in-hamlet-by-william-shakespeare/.
  • “Why Does Hamlet Think That Denmark Is a Prison?William Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet.’” Enotes.com, Enotes.com, www.enotes.com/homework-help/why-dose-hamlet-think-that-denmark-prison-128493.
  • “Setting – Examples and Definition of Setting.” Literary Devices, Literary Devices, 10 Oct. 2017, literarydevices.net/setting/.
  • Shmoop Editorial Team. “Hamlet Setting.” Shmoop, Shmoop University, 11 Nov. 2008, www.shmoop.com/hamlet/setting.html.
  • “Setting, Atmosphere, Mood in Hamlet.” SchoolWorkHelper, SchoolWorkHelper, schoolworkhelper.net/setting-in-hamlet/.

[1] The theme of Revenge vs. Justice ties into Hamlet’s oppressive state because he wants to kill Claudius but at the same time he is hesitant to do so due to the fact he is not going to go to heaven.

[2] The theme of Action vs. Inaction is seen in Hamlet’s actions throughout the course of the play, where he is second doubting himself, particularly in the scene where he tries to kill Claudius it resembles Hamlet stuck inside this mental prison where he is oppressed and depressed.


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