Success, Failure in Succession

As Hamlet begins, when we think of royal succession, most of us spring to the concept of primogeniture: the eldest-born son of the dead king becomes the new king. Traditional. Very patriarchal. It’s conceivable that a daughter could become queen, but only if all her elder brothers and their sons pre-deceased her.

But having read our Shakespeare, we know there are a couple of additional possible ways to take the throne:

  • usurpation (as in what Bolingbroke did to Richard II to become Henry IV), and
  • rebellion (think the attempted Percy rebellion, and the more successful attempt by the Yorkists during the War of the Roses)

There’s another possible pathway, one that seems so modern that it’s hard to believe it existed at the time of Shakespeare: election.

In the Scandinavian countries, there was a concept called “ting” or a governing assembly, which could elect chieftains and kings, as well as rule on disputes. Now, while this assembly of “ancients” might elect the eldest born son of the late king, the ting was not obliged to do so. And it appears that this is the case with Old Hamlet, Claudius, and the prince.

It’s interesting that Shakespeare references each type of succession in the play:

  • Election: In Hamlet’s last speech, he does “prophecy th’ election lights // on Fortinbras” (V.ii.338-9) as the next King of Denmark.
  • Rebellion: In Act Four, Scene Five, fear grips the royal messenger who reports that

    young Laertes, in a riotous head,
    O’erbears your officers. The rabble call him “lord,”
    And, as the world were now but to begin,
    Antiquity forgot, custom not known,
    The ratifiers and props of every word,
    They cry, “Choose we, Laertes shall be king!”
    • IV.v.101-6
  • Usurpation: The Ghost describes his removal from life, wife and throne as “Thus was I, sleeping, by a brother’s hand // Of life, of crown, of queen at once dispatched” (I.v.74-5)
  • Primogeniture: Claudius announces that Hamlet is now “most immediate to our throne” (I.ii.109)

At the start of this play’s discussion, I had begun to think the subtitle of the play was a bit of misdirection, seemingly proclaiming what is wrong in the story (that the prince should be king). But it now appears to be rather the simple statement of the highest title to which this character will ever rise.

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