Literature of the Renaissance was far different from that of the previous eras. Man was now thought of as the center of life, as opposed to God being the center in earlier times. Also, man was thought to have free will over his life, not being simply a pawn of the Gods. These new ideals were presented in the theaters as well as written literature. The esteemed William Shakespeare incorporated many of these components into some of the greatest performed classics in the history of theater. Shakespeares Hamlet contains elements that are derived from the Renaissance way of thinking and influenced from its earlier writers.
The play continuously incorporates themes of free will of man in controlling his destiny. This is ever present throughout the play as Hamlet contemplates each of his actions. Some look at this as cowardice or procrastination, but his deliberation is clearly recognized as his choosing of his own fate. In previous eras, man came across as being locked into one action, without a choice of what to do. In Act I Scene IV, Hamlet provides three possible answers to the cause of evil. The first is an inherited fault: As, in their birth- wherein they are not guilty, which does not involve human responsibility. Another claims the individual as being a victim of fate: Fortunes Star.
If that were the answer in Hamlet, then the play could not be classified as a Renaissance tragedy, but one based on the Medieval theory that individuals have no choice in their life. The second offering includes the oergrowth of some complexion, oft breaking down the pales and forts of reason. . . Here human responsibility is obvious, defining the moral theory of the Renaissance.
Act II Scene II contains a speech by Hamlet to Rosencrantz and Guidenstern that outlines the way man was viewed in Renaissance thinking. What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god- the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals! Even though Hamlet goes on to say that man delights not me, the speech still shows the Renaissance view on life. This ideal was evident in the work of earlier Renaissance writers such as Pico della Mirandola. In Picos Oration on the Dignity of Man, the great miracle of humanity was discussed. There is nothing to be seen more wonderful than man. . .
man is the intermediary between creatures, the intimate of the gods, the king of the lower beings, by the acuteness of his senses, by the discernment of his reason, and by the light of his intelligence. . . Also in Act II Scene II, the loveletter of Hamlet to Ophelia is being discussed by Claudius, Gertrude, and Polonious.
Although thought of as a ploy by Hamlet to make everyone think he is mad, the first few lines may have some distinctive significance: Doubt thou the stars are fire, doubt that the sun doth move. . . .
Doubts to the stars and the sun in the universe came about in the Renaissance and represented a challenge to the traditional view of the universe. Here Shakespeare incorporates the current learning of the time period in the theater. This can also be interpreted that Hamlet lost faith in traditional values after experiencing evil and heartbreak. Also in Act II Scene II, Hamlet is spurned by his two friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and comes to the conclusion that man has a terrifying capacity to reject reason and descend to the bestial level: Brother may kill brother, friends may betray the sacred principles of friendship. This is the case as Rosencrantz and Guidenstern allow themselves to be used as spies of Hamlet by Claudius. The idea of descending to lower levels of humanism was also derived from Picos Oration.
With freedom of choice and with honor, as though the maker and molder of thyself, thou mayest fashion thyself in whatever shape thou shalt prefer. Thou shalt have the power to degenerate into the lower forms of life, which are brutish. Another symbol of the Renaissance idealism is the nature of Claudius, who, although showing guilt over his actions, can be seen as a Machiavellian. This of course comes Niccolo Machiavelli who wrote The Prince, the book that supposedly theorized how an ideal prince should rule. Machiavelli describes how the nature of man is evil and one should whatever is neccessary to maintain power: Taking everything into account, he will find some of the things that appear to be virtues will, if he practices them, ruin him, and some of the things that appear to be wicked will bring him security and prosperity.
These Machiavellian concepts are clearly defined by Claudius as he first kills his brother to claim the throne, later sends his nephew Hamlet to be executed in England, and finally, inadvertantly causes his wifes demise from another plot to kill Hamlet. The themes and ideas used in Hamlet are clearly seen as that of the Renaissance thinking. Shakespeares use of notions first brought on by early Renaissance writers shows his ability to incorporate modern thought in drama. This modern thinking combined with old ideals characterized what the Renaissance was all about.