Patriarchy in Hamlet
William Shakespeare’s Hamlet employs the concept of patriarchy in several scenarios and each on different levels. These levels of patriarchy, if even for the same character, vary in their role in the play. Three patriarchal characters are easily identified: the ghost of Hamlet’s father, the king Claudius, and the lord chamberlain Polonius. Despite their variances each patriarchy displays values and actions which are key factors in bringing about the cataclysmic ending to Hamlet.
Claudius fills the role of father figure as both king to a nation and stepfather to young Hamlet, whose father has died unexpectedly. It is revealed later that Claudius is responsible for the death of his brother, King Hamlet. This very act of murder to obtain the throne and marry his own sister-in-law, an act equal to incest in the eyes of their society, displays from the first the poor quality of monarchy that can be expected from Claudius. Young Fortinbras of Norway feels that since the King Hamlet is dead he is entitled to his inheritance of land, and rightly so as the contract was drawn between King Hamlet and Fortinbras’s father. The young Fortinbras is obviously some form of a threat to the kingdom, a thought expressed as well by Horatio and Bernardo as they stand watch in the opening of the play (1.1.80-125). Claudius does not appear to be overly concerned with the matter. He sends two couriers to Fortinbras’s sick uncle asking that he stop Fortinbras and his attack on Denmark. Meanwhile, it seems as if Claudius does not give the matter another thought. It is odd that he does not more safely guard the kingdom that meant enough to him to kill his own brother to obtain it. He of all people should know what one man might do for power. He attends to matters closer to home until his couriers return with the message that all is well, and that Fortinbras has promised to be good. Claudius accepts this message at face value and foolishly shuffles it aside; he is more eager to hear news on the matters of his stepson Hamlet (2.2.60-85). It is the threat within the family that has Claudius distracted from the threat without. A wiser king would certainly concern himself with affairs abroad and defense of his borders more than Claudius has shown himself capable of doing.
Claudius’s poor display as head of the grand patriarchy of the throne of Denmark is directly related to his poor display as the patriarch of the royal family. His character is cast in an unfavorable light from the start to the omniscient reader: incestuous murderer, spy, plotter, and schemer. To Hamlet, he is no father figure. Hamlet is made extremely angry by Claudius’s marriage to Gertrude. This is, of course, even before he is privy to the information that Claudius is his father’s murderer. He is angry with the haste in which his mother has agreed to marry Claudius, and so overwhelmed with grief is Hamlet that he cannot identify with his new father figure...