During the final scene of Hamlet, the titular prince makes use of his dying breaths to command two things of Horatio. First, he commands Horatio to affirm that Fortinbras “has his dying voice” (5.2.393) thus giving him legitimacy to take the throne of Denmark. Second, he orders Horatio to tell Fortinbras the story of Hamlet’s actions that have led up to this point in the play. Horatio obliges and the final fifty lines serve to wrap up the political loose ends of the text and casually confirm that Fortinbras will be the new king of Denmark, signaling the cleansing of Danish politics in the wake of Claudius’s death.
Hamlet is far from unique in the way that it concludes with a significant regime change signifying the exorcizing of a dangerous political force that has brought ruin upon the state. Richard III, King Lear, and Macbeth all end with the destruction of a familial line and the flourishing possibility that something better will take its place. These plays, despite their tragic conclusions, at the very least offer up the possibility of a hopeful future, one in which a new regime can cleanse the state of the problems created by that which was there previously. However, in Hamlet this requires the figure of Horatio to dramatize the events of the play to Fortinbras, both to validate Hamlet’s actions as well as affirm the legitimacy of the new monarchy. While Horatio may be commanded to speak the truth, the language of his final speech is decidedly a language which seeks to paint Hamlet in a positive light and affirm the moral and political validity of his act of regicide, suggesting that the full version of his recollection will emphasis Claudius’s schemes and the moral punishment that he has justifiably received. It is, in part, Horatio’s story and its valorization of Hamlet’s actions which will assist in smoothing the transition from a Danish monarch to a Norwegian monarch.
The language of these final fifty lines has a decidedly meta-theatrical tone, treating the bloody court as a stage that must be cleared for a new audience of nobles who will hear Horatio’s tale. In the conclusion of Hamlet, the power of theatrical narrative is deeply connected to the authorization of a new political regime in Denmark. A bloody and chaotic act of revenge and regicide, concluding with the destruction of the former Danish monarchy, can be understood by the surviving nobles and their anxiety surrounding the future of Danish politics can be eased with the power of Horatio’s telling of Hamlet’s narrative, which will ideally give the nobles cause to welcome Fortinbras and acknowledge his “rights of memory in this kingdom” (5.2.433). It is not a triumphant ending, yet it is one which leverages the capacity of storytelling to make sense of what appears to be a senseless shift in political power, occurring almost at random.
I bring up this commentary on the role of narrative story telling at the conclusion of Hamlet as it seems to speak to the main thrust of my commentary during this month of blog posts. While we may not be as explicit as Shakespeare makes Horatio, I have been examining ways in which we utilize and manipulate the form of dramatic narrative as a way of understanding the political reality in which we live. Horatio does this rather transparently, using his privileged voice as a recorder of the events of Hamlet to justify and validate the actions of Hamlet, thus soothing the anxiety of a foreign takeover that would be felt by the fictional audience of nobles as well as the literal London audience watching the fictional state of Denmark’s fall. Further, Horatio has the luxury of an actual audience having witnessed the events that preceded the final moments of the play. However, the examples I have looked at this month seem to function in a similar capacity, interpreting and rewriting Shakespeare’s texts in order to make sense of the text and provide a clear and understandable narrative which will ease, or at the very least explain, an anxiety that the audience is feeling about their political moment. We may never see Horatio explain Hamlet to Fortinbras, but his final lines imply that he will be both figuratively and literally reinterpreting the text of Hamlet in order to make sense of a moment of political disorder and potential unrest. In this way, Horatio becomes a representative of the kinds of narrative reinterpretations that I have been looking at this month, as he seems to literalize the act of using a theatrical text to understand and justify a particular political problem (here, the question of what will become of the Danish monarchy).
My work as a scholar primarily focuses upon these moments in which the theater served as a site for negotiating political anxieties and it is fascinating to see the early modern theater still being mobilized as a site that affords audiences a space to work through their concerns regarding the state of the political landscape. In pieces such as the Stephen Greenblatt op-ed that inspired this topic, there remains a sense that dramatic narrative offers up the possibility for easing political anxiety. If we are worried about how a tyrant might come to power, we need only read Richard III to understand how to arm ourselves against him. While this is neither unique to Shakespeare, nor is it as powerful of a site as it once was, the idea that a careful enough examination of theatrical texts can lead to a deeper understanding of political problems and their solutions seems to remain strong.
Owing to his privileged place within our cultural imaginations, there seems to be a conscious desire to make Shakespeare relevant to our contemporary political tribulations. As an educator who plans on having to teach the political elements of Shakespeare’s works, this desire carries with it a sense that narrative offers something unique for teaching students about thinking through current anxieties. Many universities still require some level of exposure to Shakespeare’s works, so there is a strong impulse to communicate a sense of contemporary relevance for the cluster of students who might not be particularly interested in the political affairs of 16th century monarchs; one of the ways in which we do this is precisely through the constant reimagining of Shakespeare’s works in order to make them more immediately relevant to our own political moment, and this is not an impulse that I would imagine will become less relevant as time passes. Ideally, this series of blog posts has shed some new light on the difficulties that must be overcome if we are to utilize Shakespeare and other writers to understand contemporary political problems without completely abandoning the idea that there is some merit to turning towards past narrative to help us understand present day politics.
 In Macbeth and Richard III that something new takes the form of a family line which legitimized the then ruling monarch. Another example of how difficult it can be to disconnect Shakespeare’s plays from his own political reality.
 This is by no means only true of political concerns, as Shakespeare is often mobilized in this vein to help us understand any number of contemporary issues.
Evan Hixon is a second year PhD student in the English Department. His studies focus on Early Modern British theater with an emphasis on Shakespeare, political theory and Anglo-Italian relations. His current research work examines the rise of English Machiavellian political thought during the reign of Elizabeth I.