Literature can depict the occurrences of the times they were written in. Events that take place often prompt one’s intention to write whether it would be about nature, people, politics, abstract ideas and the like. John Milton is an example of carrying out this practice. In one website about the publication of his epic Paradise Lost,1 it explains that Milton was an activist and often wrote about political issues of his time. The epic might have been produced to mirror the English Civil war, alluding to attempts of overthrowing the king and possibly the government. In Book I, Satan and his council of devils try to devise a plan to wreak havoc to upset the omniscient God, which might be parallel to the people versus the king. This practice, however, can be traced a back to Beowulf and works of William Shakespeare many years before Milton.
The British Empire traces its origins to of colonization as early as 1172 in the conquest of Ireland and had gained control of countries overseas from about 1600 (Alcock 2016). Articles written about Shakespeare’s next play The Tempest have also pointed out the colonial element in the oppression of Caliban by the sorcerer, Prospero. An example would be Katherine Frank’s article in which she states, “the play is a brilliant social commentary on the effects of colonialism, not only on the native peoples who were invaded and forced to convert to Christianity and other European practices, but also the effects it had on the conquerors themselves.” Hamlet, undergoing some drafting before its publication in 1603 while the British Empire was expanding could have been
1 Milton and the Critics: the Reception of Paradise Lost, see Works Cited page
influenced by this phenomenon in the slightest. This paper will examine elements such as scenes and characters within the plot of Shakespeare’s Hamlet that might be alluding to colonialism.
The first topic of discussion is the significance of the names Hamlet, Caliban, and Prospero. Although it is suggested that the name of the play under discussion and central character was inspired by or to pay tribute to his son Hamnet, there might have been other reasons for such an act. According to an etymology site,2 Hamlet comes from the Old French word hamelet, which translates to ‘small village.’ The rise of Britain to an empire was through the colonization of smaller places or in other words, those less powerful. The protagonist and his father were both named Hamlet and the kingdom was taken over by Claudius. This can be metaphorically depicting the act of colonization of hamelet (small village).
Similarly, the names of characters within the Tempest seem to hold more meaning. Caliban is derived from the root canibal or caribal which translates to ‘human that eats human flesh’ associated to places not urban as Britain was while Prospero seems to be derived from prosper meaning ‘tending to bring success.’ These two definitions portray the attitudes of the colonizers and the colonized. Prospero is believed to be promoting success – belief that places need “saving” in order to move forward. Caliban being native to the island becomes Prospero’s slave similar to how the British used violence to coerce those colonized to do their bidding. According to Allison Meier (2015), there were maps of the 15th century, which included warnings of cannibalistic practices in the New World. This view dominated the minds of those in the British
2 Etymonline; see Works Cited page
Empire and became the driving force for explorers and missionaries to seek these places in order to “fix and help them.”
The second point for this argument is Queen Gertrude and Polonius’ possible coup d’e?tat with Claudius in order to usurp power from King Hamlet. In Act I, it is known that King Hamlet has died from the bite of a poisonous snake; however, the apparition of the King himself makes it clear that it was an act of murder (Act I, Scene V, lines 35-39). Since the story starts after the evil deed has been done, the reason for Claudius treachery is unknown. The news of the serpent’s bite can also be a metaphor for his brother Claudius who poisoned his drink in the same manner he tried to poison Prince Hamlet in Act V. Despite being the brother of King Hamlet, Claudius is cynical and ends up claiming the throne possibly with the help of his friend, Polonius and widow of the late king, Queen Gertrude. This is analogous to the division of a group upon colonization.
When San Vitores landed on the island of Guam he was welcomed by one chief, which broke the decentralized system of government that the Chamorus had.3 It was thought that there was only one ruler of the island that being located in the village of Hagatn?a. This disruption to the preexisting system created a divide of the natives. Some were among the ranks of colonizers while others remained steadfast. This division of a group is what allows colonization to occur at a faster rate. Some individuals are swayed by their self-interests, which ultimately leads to their ruin.
Third and last is the event of the invasion of Denmark in the last act and scene of Hamlet. In the second point of this paper, the division of people was introduced which contributes to the “fall” of the kingdom – the tension between two or more sides of the divide is used as a distraction almost while the bigger plot is unfolding. Claudius and
3 See Appendix A
Laertes devised a plan to kill Hamlet as an act of revenge for the death of his father and sister it also seems like it was to guarantee Claudius’ safety. They attempt to do so in two ways: applying poison to the tip of Laertes’ sword and the drink in which the winner of the fencing competition shall drink out of. Their first attempt with the drink fails as Queen Gertrude consumes it and eventually dies. Laertes manages to strike Hamlet and vice versa, which eventually kills them. However, before Hamlet is “put to sleep” by the poison, he strikes Claudius and they all fall. In lines 336-339, Osric informs that the warlike sound Hamlet is inquiring about is “conquest from Poland.” This is a more explicit reference to colonialism. The deaths of these characters seem to symbolize the fall of their kingdom into the hands of another. This is the bigger plan in which Denmark is invaded and everyone loses in the end.
This is can also be comparable with Chris Perez Howard’s Mariquita: A Tragedy of Guam. While people of Guam were busy indulging in American goods and services that they did not notice that they are slowly perpetuating colonization and disposal of native practices. Mariquita, the protagonist of this novel is pushing for the assimilation into American lifestyle while the minor character, auntie Luisa who was against assimilation (Howard 1986 p. 21). In the end, most native practices have been forgotten; a big price to pay for slight negligence.
Although brief, the three points that I have proposed on Shakespeare’s Hamlet seem to be hinting at colonialism. The etymology of Hamlet’s name, the division between Hamlet and Claudius and their entourages, and the Denmark invasion are some signs of colonialism taking place. Shakespeare might have been foreshadowing the events that lead to the fall of a nation into colonialism. In Hamlet, we have the act of treachery
and death of a noble king; in The Tempest, we have the “savage” Caliban who submits to Prospero because of the power he wields. To me, it seems that Shakespeare is putting forward the idea that it is the colonized that are at fault for letting colonization occur; however, it may just be hypothetical. Considering the continuous expansion of the British Empire, Shakespeare might have been prompted to do so by his will or by the order of those in power.