OK, we’ve looked at the paths to succession in Hamlet, as well as a paper-thin historical analog for our Danish tale. But what of the situation in which Shakespeare was writing and his audience was living?
If Hamlet was written sometime between 1599 and 1602, we’re nearing the end of Elizabeth’s nearly 45 year-long reign as the English monarch. As we noted before, primogeniture was the “go-to” pathway to succession. And while the Queen had done a pretty good job at keeping rebellions and threats of usurpation at bay (ranging from the Essex Rebellion of early 1601, to the many attempts to take the monarchy from Elizabeth and place Mary Queen of Scots [and Catholicism] on the throne), the problem here is that not only does Elizabeth have no eldest-born son, she has no offspring at all. So what to do? So who would (or even could) be next?
Remember, from the end of Richard II’s reign in 1399 through the end of Richard III’s reign in 1485 (entertainingly, if not wholly historically or accurately, covered covered by the two Shakespearean tetralogies), England had been in turmoil, with 9 reigns by 7 kings (Henry VI and Edward IV traded off there for a while), bleeding through the War of the Roses. And even the reigns of Henry VII (24 years) and his son Henry VIII (38 years) ended with more succession shuffling since the latter Henry went through six wives in order to find a son for a smooth primogeniture transition. Fun fact (for all but the wife in question): his marriage to Catherine of Aragon was dissolved because of an accusation of “incest”–Catherine had been married for a year to Henry’s older brother Arthur some eight years before her marriage to Henry… marriage with a brother’s wife was seen as incest (sound familiar, Hamlet readers?).
Henry VIII made all sorts of attempts (of the non-biological type–in addition to his wife-jumping) to proclaim a line of succession. In three Acts of Succession, he ruled
- his daughter Mary (from Catherine) illegitimate, and the then-unborn Elizabeth (from Anne Boleyn) heir;
- both Mary and Elizabeth out of contention, possibly for an endgame of making his bastard son Henry Fitzroy heir (but little Henry died shortly thereafter); and
- his son Edward would be heir, but if he failed to father a male child, then the monarchy would go to Mary and her heirs, then to Elizabeth and hers, and failing that then the throne would go to the Grey family (who sprung from Mary, Henry’s younger sister)
Left out of all of this was Henry’s older sister Margaret, who had married James IV of Scotland, a Stuart; in fact, Henry had excluded the Stuarts from the conversation altogether. In the 14 years between Henry’s death and Elizabeth’s coronation, there had been three monarchs. Edward VI had attempted to negate the third Act of Succession by naming Lady Jane Grey queen upon his death, but her reign lasted a whopping 9 days before Mary was declared queen. Mary I, alas, died childless five years later, and Elizabeth took the throne.
Turmoil es no bueno for a nation. Elizabeth had a good long reign, but as it was coming to a childless end, and questions were beginning to be whispered. Not said aloud, mind you; that could end badly for the speaker; there ae a boatload of Shakesearean histories and tragedies that all danced around the concept of the change of governments (Richard II, the Henry VI trilogy, and Julius Caesar). And by the end of Elizabeth’s reign, James VI of Scotland, the Stuart whose family had been barred from the crown by Henry VII, was seen by the queen as the strongest candidate for the crown: he was related through his grandmother to Henry VIII, and he was Protestant (unlike his mother, Mary Queen of Scots).
There was only one problem. He was a Scot. A foreigner. Yes, we ‘mericans see all them limeys as the same–Brits, Irish, Scots, Welsh–just like we see all those Nordics as being the same–Danes, Norwegians, Swedes–but to the English, they were separate nations. Interesting then that James VI of Scotland becomes King of England James I only a couple of years later… just as Fortinbras, heir to the (foreign) throne of Norway, becomes the (apparently elected) King of Denmark at the end of Hamlet.
Coincidence? Lucky guess? Or could Shakespeare see the writing on the wall?