In the words of Harvey Fierstein, “What looks absolutely fabulous in rehearsal can fall flat in front of an audience. The audience dictates what you do or don't change”. Clearly, the success or failure of any work of art depends, almost entirely, on its ability to engage and connect with its audience. Shakespeare, one of the greatest playwrights in history, certainly understood this concept. He targeted his Elizabethan audience skillfully, drawing them in and manipulating the way they interpreted his works. This is evident in one of his renowned plays, Hamlet. Attempts to target the audience are evident throughout the play, but focusing on one speech can provide a greater appreciation for Shakespeare’s deliberate efforts. In act four, scene two, while explaining that Polonius is dead, Hamlet says:
Not where he eats, but where he is eaten. A
certain convocation of politic worms are e'en at
him. Your worm is your only emperor for diet. We
fat all creatures else to fat us, and we fat
ourselves for maggots. Your fat king and your
lean beggar is but variable service—two dishes,
but to one table. That’s the end. (Shakespeare, 4.3.21-27)
In this speech, Shakespeare targeted his Elizabethan audience through allusions to the Great Chain of Being, which governed their society, with the intent of influencing the themes that his audience interpreted. Targeting the audience with that aspect of their lives had the effect of developing Hamlet’s underlying themes: the frailty of man, appearance versus reality, and the uncertainty of death.
In Hamlet’s speech, Shakespeare’s efforts to target his Elizabethan audience develop the theme of the frailty of man. Shakespeare conveys this underlying theme of the play by subtly alluding to the Great Chain of Being through the prince’s words. The Elizabethans believed that the Great Chain of Being had been structured by God, with all people having more importance than animals (Mularski). Hence, when Hamlet says, “We fat all creatures else to fat us” (Shakespeare, 4.3.23-24) the Elizabethans would have understood it to mean that mankind, being of a higher standing than all other earthly beings, were right to dominate the creatures below them for their own use. Yet Hamlet does not stop there, for he adds “and we fat ourselves for maggots” (Shakespeare, 4.3.24-25). This poses a question that targets the Elizabethan audience: if man is truly so superior, why is it that he becomes sustenance for lower beings, like maggots? Clearly, this passage from act four, scene two serves to develop the theme of the frailty of man. The Elizabethan audience is presented with the idea of the Great Chain of Being familiar to them, but suddenly, humankind’s superiority is questioned as an undeniable weakness of man is highlighted. Undoubtedly, the Elizabethan audience would remember, throughout the length of the play, how their status in the Great Chain of Being was questioned through this speech in act four. This would add...