Who is the rightful ruller of denmark?

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Of Hamlet, fortinbras, claudious, and gretude, who is the rightful ruler of denmark and how do the other play in showing this? Does Denmark's lines to succsession of that time and the original owner of the land have anything to do with who is king?

-- Michael Bamms (Bamms80@MSN.com), February 12, 2002


Denmark has an elective monarchy, ie, the kings are elected, something like prime ministers or presidents, except they are kings. I'm not sure who exactly has the right to vote, though the play seems to indicate it might be a large proportion of the male populace: see I.iii.20-28, IV.iii.3-7, IV.v.84-112, V.ii.66, V.ii.297-298 ('voice' means vote).

Your question is a bit problematic. Always assuming Claudius was elected properly, and even Hamlet never really says he wasn't (V.ii.66 probably means no more than that Claudius was elected when Hamlet hoped to be), you could say, that Claudius is the rightful king. Except that he killed his brother the King, Old Hamlet, to get the throne. So in that sense he is a murderer and a usurper and not rightfully king.

When Claudius dies, Denmark has to hold another election, for a new king. It can't be Hamlet, because he dies too, though it might well have been had he lived, because the play tells us he is popular and would be good at it (IV.iv.4-5, IV.vii.16-21, V.ii.340-342). IV.v.84-112 tells us it could possibly legitimately even have been Laertes, who must therefore be of a class that could be elected. (This incidentally means it would probably not have been unsuitable or impossible for Hamlet to marry Ophelia.) It will probably be Fortinbras, to whom Hamlet, dying, gives his vote in V.ii.297-298.

Gertrude most probably can never be Queen in her own right. Her title derives from her husbands. When Old Hamlet is King she is Queen because she is married to him. When he dies she is 'th'imperial jointress' to Denmark (I.ii.9), a dowager queen. When she marries Claudius she becomes Queen again. Most European monarchies are based on birthright, not election, and only allow a woman to become monarch when there are no more direct male heirs to the throne. But because Denmark's monarchy is elective and the candidates need not be of the one family but can include men like Laertes and Fortinbras, the country is never likely to run out of male candidates.

If the story is given the original early medieval setting of its sources, the men described as kings would probably be pagan Viking chiefs. But Shakespeare's setting is very clearly a Christian Renaissance court, with the monarchs as rulers of a whole, defined nation. The only hang-on from an earlier period is the position of England as a tributary of Denmark (III.i.168-169, IV.iii.59-63) which I think was the case no later than the eleventh century AD.

-- catherine england (catherine_england@hotmail.com), February 12, 2002.

Ah, but Fortinbras is an outsider, so is he really fit to rule Denmark? Hmmm. Maybe that's what Hamlet was saying when he gave F his voice - "we are no longer fit to rule ourselves".

-- mikken (mikken@neo.rr.com), February 14, 2002.

Perhaps Gertrude is Fortinbras' aunt?

-- catherine england (catherine_england@hotmail.com), February 18, 2002.

I agree with Catherine on the majority of her answer, however I understand that the setting of the play is c.1200 A.D., and the Christianization of Denmark (politically, that is) was completed in 1035. Hence, the Christianity of the players is not inaccurate, however, as you mention, the role of England as a tributary is not accurate for that time period. Someone let me know if I am wrong about the dating of the scene of the play.

-- Adam Miller (slothofages@yahoo.com), April 06, 2003.

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