Shakespeare’s of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (1603), as

  Shakespeare’s plays contain
many difficult family relationships. There are absent mothers and overbearing
fathers, disobedient sons and rebellious daughters, scheming brothers and wily
sisters. Familial clashes are usually resolved by the end of Shakespeare’s comedies,
however, in the tragedies family relationships are problematic family
relationships and tend to end in disaster. Whether the plays are historical,
tragedy, or romance, the portrayal of family is a common component in
Shakespearean drama. Some critics argue that the theme of family relationships
is prominent in around two-thirds of Shakespearean plays, while others dispute this
saying that it is a dominant concern in the entirety of the Shakespearean
canon. In this essay, I will explore how conflicts within families feed into
the larger social and political concerns within the plays and consider how
family dynamics interact with the plays’ explorations of royal families, succession
and madness. I will be focusing on the parent and child relationships in
Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I (1598) and The
Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (1603), as I feel like they tend to be the most unstable.


  Henry IV, Part I, shows
the tumultuous relationship between King Henry IV and Prince Hal and the civil
rebellion that threatens to destroy England. The relationship between father and son is especially
significant in this play, as King Henry IV and the Prince are the driving
characters of the plot. Prince Hal is the wayward son of King Henry IV and the
heir to the throne. However, he has pushed his life of nobility aside to drink
and partake in illicit behaviour with Falstaff. Hal fled his life in court when
his father took the kingdom from Richard II. He sought out a different father
figure, which he found in Falstaff, however, the influence of his father still dictates
his actions to some extent. In the play, Falstaff is a lot more involved in his
life than King Henry IV, Hal’s actual father. The King and Falstaff represent
the two sides of Hal’s life, his royal life which is in Westminster with the
responsibilities of being a prince, and his life in Eastcheap, in which he
avoids his responsibilities and has fun. The fathers on each side are different,
and Hal’s relationship with each of them is different as well.

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  Hal is a lot closer
to Falstaff than he is with the King, and this is shown by how he interacts
with each of them. His interactions with Falstaff usually involve them teasing
each other and joking around, whereas when the King speaks to Hal, he tells him
how much of a disappointment he is and lists
specific failures that he sees in Hal’s life. These include losing his place in
the Council to his younger brother (Act 3, Scene 2, ll.33-34), and losing the
respect of his subjects, diminishing their hope of a suitable successor to the
throne (Act 3, Scene 2, ll.36-38). The King goes on to question the people
Prince Henry associates with, saying:

Could such inordinate and low desires,

Such poor, such bare, such lewd, such mean

Such barren pleasures, rude society,

As thou art matched withal and grafted to,

Accompany the greatness of thy blood

And hold their level with thy princely heart?
(Act 3, Scene 2, ll.12-17)

King disapproves of the crowd that Hal has chosen to associate himself with,
casting them off as ‘rude society’ (Act 3, Scene 2, l.14). The King berates Hal
for his actions, as well as for choosing to hang around people of a much lower
class. Hal seems to accept what his father is saying, and so aims to redeem
himself. Although
he enjoys the company of Falstaff, it is clear by his soliloquy in Act One,
Scene Two, that he plans to reform himself and act like his father wishes him
to, saying:

My reformation,
glittering o’er my fault,

Shall show more goodly
and attract more eyes

Than that which hath no
foil to set it off.

I’ll so offend to make
offence a skill,

Redeeming time when men think
least I will (Act 1, Scene 2, ll.188-192)

shows that Hal intends to step up and be the man that his father wants him to
be, and be the prince that his country needs him to be in a time of political

King’s relationship with Prince Hal is attached to the matters of the kingdom, as
Hal is the heir to the throne. This links to the theme of succession and the
legitimacy of rulership, as the relationship between them plays a big part in these
aspects of the play. Because Henry
IV, Part I is set amid a rebellion, the play is naturally concerned
with the idea of rulership. Legitimate rulership can be said to be legitimate either
by the will of the people or to the will of God. Therefore, the doubt the King
has of his power over the kingdom may be the result of his fear that his rule
is illegitimate since he took the crown from Richard II. The King worries about
Hal’s ability to rule after his death and also feels that Prince Hal was put on
earth by God as a form of punishment for killing King Richard II and stealing
the throne. King Henry IV regularly exclaims that he wishes Hotspur was his
son, saying he wishes:

That some night-tripping fairy had

In cradle-clothes our children where
they lay (Act 1, Scene 1, ll.86-87)

to King Henry IV, Hotspur would be a great king, which is the opposite of what
he thinks of his own son. These elements allow Shakespeare to consider the
similarities between parenting and ruling a country, with civil warfare being
compared to a big family dispute. Moreover, King Henry IV’s relationship with
his son establishes some issues with primogeniture, which is the system in
society which meant that the eldest sons in a family inherit their fathers’ titles,
wealth, land, and therefore power. The play reminds us that, in this case, the
civil war and the struggle for the crown is a family matter, and it highlights
the struggles between fathers and sons, especially those who are royal. 


  The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is another play in which
parent’s relationships with their children can be analysed. The parents who are
loved the most tend to be the ones who are not around, like Hamlet’s father. There are three parent and child
relationships in this play which can be commented on: the deceased King Hamlet
and Hamlet, Gertrude and Hamlet, and Polonius and Ophelia. The relationships between parents and
their children are vital in the plot of Hamlet.
Most of the parents do not seem to have good relationships with their children
and throughout the conflict between parents and children cause a lot of tension,
which leads to catastrophe in the end. The relationship between Hamlet and
Gertrude seems to be the only exception to this. Although Hamlet is clearly
angry and upset about his mother marrying Claudius, his relationship with her
is generally a positive one. At first, it seems that the relationship between
Hamlet and Gertrude is not great, with Hamlet hating his mother because he
feels like she has betrayed him and his father. Gertrude’s marriage to Claudius
is one of the reasons Hamlet wishes to kill his uncle. However, nothing in the
play suggests he has any desire to kill his mother. Yet, he does plead with her
to ‘go not to mine uncle’s bed’ (Act 3, Scene 4, l.160). While this is quite an
unusual request from a son to his mother, by asking this Hamlet reveals his concern
for his mother’s well-being. Gertrude also seems to care deeply for Hamlet.
This can be seen at the end of the play, as she lies dying she specifically
calls for Hamlet, saying:

No, no! the drink, the drink! O my dear

The drink, the drink! I am poisoned.
(Act 5, Scene 2, ll.314-315)

is distraught by her death at the end of the play, which also reveals how close
a relationship they had. So, even though they have some arguments throughout
the play and Hamlet harbours some resentment for his mother marrying so quickly
after his father’s death. Overall, their relationship ends in a good place. This
parent-child relationship links into the wider theme of madness, as the stress
the marriage of his mother to his uncle puts on Hamlet can be said to be one of
the contributing factors to his mental instability. Moreover, Hamlet at first
feigns madness as a way of acting out against his mother to perhaps punish her for
her actions. Nevertheless, his mother’s marriage to Claudius is definitely a
factor that is highly emotional for Hamlet, especially coupled with the fact
that Claudius murdered his father. Therefore, I feel that Hamlet’s close
relationship with his mother, which then gets complicated by her marriage to
Claudius, is one of the reasons he ends up descending into madness in the play.


  Similarly, Hamlet’s relationship with his
father also seems to be a fairly positive one. However, there is very little
information given in the play about the relationship between them. The great
respect Hamlet shows toward his departed father though indicates that their
relationship was a good one. In the play Hamlet places his father on a
pedestal, and at one point compares him to ‘Hyperion’, a Greek god whose name
translates to “The High-One”. Hamlet references a few other Greek and Roman
mythological characters while discussing his father. While talking to his
mother, Hamlet refers to:

Hyperion’s curls; the front of Jove

An eye like Mars, to threaten and

A station like the herald Mercury

New lighted on a heaven-kissing hill
(Act 3, Scene 4, ll.57-60)

comparisons show Hamlet thinks highly of his deceased father, which is also
shown by how committed he is to avenging his father’s death. Although the ghost
of King Hamlet seems to use his son to serve his own purposes, this behaviour
can be expected from a recently murdered king who is suffering in purgatory and
whose murderer has just married his wife. Hamlet’s commitment to avenging his
father’s death can be seen to be one of the reasons he goes mad. Hamlet is so
connected with his father that his spirit appears in front of him from time to
time, persuading him to seek revenge. Hamlet has an inner struggle between
following his dead father’s orders, and a moral obligation to figure out if
Claudius is actually the murderer before he kills him. This links to the theme
of madness in the play, as this moral tug-of-war Hamlet faces can be linked to
his descent into insanity. However, it is clear that Hamlet is already
struggling with this before he sees his father’s ghost. The moral struggle he
faces between avenging his father’s death and doing what he feels is right
seems to push him over the edge.


  The relationship Hamlet has with his parents
is better than Polonius’s relationship with his children though. Polonius is
always ordering Ophelia around, and she feels like she submits to her father
out of fear. Polonius uses his daughter as a tool for his own benefit and is so
obsessed with his family’s honour that he does not consider his daughter’s
feelings. In the first act, Polonius tells Ophelia she cannot get too close to
Hamlet, as he does not want her to jeopardise their position in the court by
being a helpless ‘woodcock’ to Hamlet’s allegedly insincere ‘vows’ (Act 1,
Scene 3, ll.114-116). He orders Ophelia to:

Tender yourself more dearly,

Or (not to crack the wind of the poor

Running it thus) you’ll tender me a fool
(Act 1, Scene 3, ll.107-109).

demonstrates that Polonius is acting in his own interest and that he is more worried
about his place in the kingdom than his daughter’s happiness. Ophelia meekly
follows his orders, saying ‘I shall obey, my lord’ (Act 1, Scene 3, l.136). This
shows how Polonius forces Ophelia to depend on him and how Ophelia blindly
follows his commands. Hamlet calls Polonius a ‘fishmonger’ (Act 2, Scene2,
l.172) when referring to how Polonius controls Ophelia. This was Elizabethan slang
for “brothel keeper”, and therefore would have been considered a major insult
by the original audience. Moreover, this demonstrates that Hamlet is conscious
that Polonius and Ophelia have a bad relationship. Moreover, Polonius uses his
daughter to spy on Hamlet’s actions so that he can report back to Claudius, and
because of her loyalties towards him Ophelia complies with his wishes. Polonius’s
intention is to make himself appear to be a great father, but Ophelia’s
dependency on him is what eventually causes her to go mad and commit suicide
after his death. Therefore, this shows that she loved her father, even though
he treated her so badly, and it also demonstrates how much she depended on him.


  To conclude, the relationship between King
Henry IV and Prince Hal and links to the themes of succession and legitimacy of
rule. This is because the unstable relationship they have highlights concerns
in the monarchy. In the play, Prince Hal leaves to live in Eastcheap after his
father took the kingdom and crown from Richard II. As many people believed that
God chose the King, this brings up issues with the legitimacy of rule, as Henry
IV has gone against God’s will by doing this. This is brought up by the
character himself, as he says he thinks his son has been sent as a punishment
by God. Obviously, the King does not have a good relationship with Hal if he
thinks that he has been sent to punish him. Moreover, Hal has found a surrogate
father in Falstaff, who is a lot kinder to him. Their relationship is not a
conventional one, but it is obvious that it is better than the one Hal has with
his actual father. However, at the end of the play, Prince Hal wins back his
father’s approval and affection through his success in the battle at
Shrewsbury, by saving his father’s life. This is a happy ending, and the
overall events in the play show how the struggle for the crown and civil war is
all linked to family.


  In Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Hamlet, most of the parents and their children
suffer from unhealthy relationships. Though Hamlet’s relationships with his
parents are not dreadful, the other parent-child relationships in Hamlet are
quite horrible, especially the relationship between Polonius and Ophelia.
Polonius dominates his relationship with Ophelia and also refuses to respect
his son, Laertes. This friction between parents and their children leads to
pain for many of the characters. The controlling nature Polonius exerts over
Ophelia is what eventually leads to her madness and suicide. Ophelia obeys her
father as she is scared of him, although she does not recognise this herself.
Ophelia loves her father dearly and does everything he asks just to please him,
which ultimately leads to her demise as she is unable to function once he is
dead. As for Hamlet’s relationships with his parents, he loves them both greatly,
to the point that it also leads him to madness. He has a good relationship with
his mother, even though he cannot accept that she has moved on so quickly from
his father, and with his uncle. This causes him a lot of mental stress as he
seems not to want to damage his relationship with his mother, but also feels
that he is betraying his father. Moreover, although the audience never sees
Hamlet’s relationship with King Hamlet when he is alive we can infer that their
relationship was a good one, due to the amount of respect Hamlet has when
talking about his father. Furthermore, Hamlet’s descent into madness is
exasperated by the return of his father in the form of a ghost. His dead father
presents a moral problem for Hamlet, as he asks him to kill Claudius in revenge,
but Hamlet’s morals mean that he is unable to do this until he finds out for
himself if Claudius is really the murderer. This causes Hamlet’s insanity to
further increase. The dysfunctional families are the cause of the play’s tragic
nature and the cause of madness for both Hamlet and Ophelia, although these are
to different extents.