Fratricide in Hamlet: A Machiavellian Perspective

What follows are some ad hoc notes towards a 30-minute presentation I am to give to the Shakespeare and Contemporary Authors Society Annual Conference at the Kenritsu Hiroshima Daigaku on 6th September to an audience of Japanese professors and lecturers of English literature.

The presentation will be given in English. Two years ago, I presented a paper on Othello, but the paper was much too long and difficult for most of the audience to be able to follow, even with handouts. I also discovered that Machiavellian perspectives and rhetorical analysis were unfamiliar territories for most of the participants.

That experience, and watching the most experienced Japanese professors giving their presentations taught me two key points that I want to put into practice for this presentation:

1. Clarity trumps academic density. I put the paper through the Perry Marshal Grade Test and the reading age is 17, quite a lot higher than I had aimed for.

2. It is not necessary to write and read out a finished paper. Some of the presentations have been anecdotal in style and presented ad lib except for a few passages from relevant sources. However, I have reduced the length to about 2,500 words, or about 84 words per minute, which may still be too much to get through comfortably in half an hour…

Last revised and expanded, 5th September 2014

Fratricide in Hamlet


The hatred of one brother for another is a relatively common theme in the plays of William Shakespeare, but Hamlet is unique in that a seemingly successful and secret fratricide provides the primary back-story for the play. The old king is dead and his brother is on the throne.

We learn from Horatio in the opening scene that the dead king, “valiant Hamlet,” had himself killed Fortinbras, king of Norway, in single combat and thereby extended the territories of Denmark through an act of feudal valor. His deed also bears a hint of fratricide, for kings call each other “brother,” as Claudius does when he asks, “what from our brother Norway?”

We should note that “our brother Norway” is young Fortinbras’ uncle, so the crowns of both Norway and Denmark have passed from brother to brother, not from father to son.

It is this double fratricide/regicide that sets in motion the action of the play as the two princes, young Hamlet and young Fortinbras seek revenge or restitution by very different methods.

In the first two scenes of Act 1 we learn that the two princes, Fortinbras and Hamlet, are, in quite different ways, disturbing the King’s peace in Denmark. Their methods are those of the lion and the fox, as discussed by Machiavelli in the 18th chapter of The Prince,

One must be a fox to recognize traps and a lion to frighten the wolves.

Fortinbras is demanding the return of the land his father lost. He has raised a “list of landless resolutes” and is threatening to invade the kingdom. His methods are those of the lion.

Hamlet is engaged in a conspicuous display of mourning and melancholy that jars with the good cheer of the court. His feigned madness and use of strategems are the methods of the fox, although his use of them is not always in accordance with the advice of Machiavelli.

For example Machiavelli advises that if you oppose the ruler, but do not have sufficient military force to do so openly, pretending to be mad is the most prudent policy:

Thus one must play crazy, like Brutus, and make oneself very much mad, praising, speaking, seeing, doing things against your intent so as to please the prince.
(Discourses 3.1. 2)

Using the same example of Junius Brutus, Machiavelli also provides us with a rebuke to Claudius. Machiavelli points out that according to Livy, when Brutus seized power he sat on the tribunal that condemned his own sons to death, and was present at their execution, the moral being,

Whoever takes up a tyranny and does not kill Brutus, and whoever makes a free state and does not kill the sons of Brutus, maintains himself for little time.

Machiavelli (1469-1527)

Machiavelli’s confident advocacy of political realism both reflected and gave energy to a view that was increasingly articulated in Europe in response to the upheavals of the early modern era. It is that nature ought to be viewed empirically rather than theologically, and that when viewed empirically, nature appears to be an amoral force or power indifferent to the concerns of men.

Yet, Machiavellian instrumentality is driven by a sense of purpose that looks beyond the self-interest of the Prince. Machiavelli’s treatise, The Prince consists of twenty six chapters. Twenty five of those chapters advise a prince on how he may gain and maintain power by exercising prudence and virtu’, but the twenty-sixth and concluding chapter adopts an elevated tone and is an “Exhortation to Liberate Italy from the Barbarians” and revive ancient virtue.

The “new orders” that Machiavelli calls for go back to the beginnings of the state when virtue was most active,

For all beginnings of sects, republics, and kingdoms must have some goodness in them, by means of which they may regain their first reputation and their first increase. Because in the process of time that goodness is corrupted, unless something intervenes to lead it back to the mark, it of necessity kills that body.
(Discourses, 3. 1. 2)

Italy has been conquered and her invaded provinces, “thirst for vengeance,” writes Machiavelli, who is clearly transferring his own “thirst for vengeance” onto the Italian provinces which may, or may not, have accommodated themselves to the usurper much as Gertrude has accommodated herself to Claudius.

What we discover, however, when we take Machiavelli at his word and “go back to the beginnings” of the Roman republic, or to the biblical beginnings of the human race, or the beginnings of the Claudian regime in Hamlet, is fratricidal violence as one brother destroys another before founding a new republic, or city, or regime.

Fratricide: Cain and Romulus

The fratricide myth that informs the tragedy of Hamlet is that of Cain and Abel. In the Bible story, Abel offers God a blood sacrifice “of the firstlings of his flock,” (Genesis 4. 4) which God accepts. Cain offers “the fruit of the ground,” which God rejects, after which, Cain murders Abel, is cursed, driven out and founds a city.

There are three references to the myth in Hamlet. In Act 1 Scene 2, Claudius refers to “the first corse,” which is the body of  Abel. In Act 3 Scene 3, Claudius reflects upon his crime:

O, my offence is rank it smells to heaven;
It hath the primal eldest curse upon’t,
A brother’s murder.

In the graveyard scene in Act 5, Hamlet refers to “Cain’s jaw-bone, that did the first murder!” (5.1.77)

One of the functions of the Cain-Abel myth in Hamlet is to emphasise the guilt of Claudius. He is unable to repent because he continues to possess the three “effects” that motivated him to murder his brother:

… what form of prayer
Can serve my turn? ‘Forgive me my foul murder’?
That cannot be, since I am still possessed
Of those effects for which I did the murder,
My crown, mine own ambition, and my queen.
May one be pardoned and retain th’offence?
(3. 3. 51-56)

For Machiavelli, the admirer of the Roman republic, ambition is a good thing, for an ambitious prince such as Romulus, can become a sole ruler and return the state to its original virtue. He can introduce “new modes” that work for the common good so that, according to Machiavelli, that his crime of fratricide should be “excused,”

It is very suitable that when the deed accuses him, the effect excuses him; and when the effect is good, as was that of Romulus, it will always excuse the deed; for he who is violent to spoil, not he who is violent to mend, should be reproved.
(Discourses, 1. 9. 2)

In Machiavelli’s view the Roman Catholic religion has made men weak by dividing the body from the soul and emphasizing passivity, forgiveness and resignation in this world in the hope of attaining everlasting life in the next.

What, then, is Machiavelli’s attitude towards Cain and Abel? It is to be found in his verse letter to Luigi Guicciardini, dell’Ambizione, in which he radically revises the biblical story and gives it a pagan spin.

According to Machiavelli, Cain was driven to kill his brother by two furies, Ambition and Avarice, who planted a “bad seed” in human hearts,

Then as this bad seed grew
Multiplying occasions for evil,
There is no reason to repent for wickedness.

Repentance robs us of Virtu’ and put us at the mercy of Fortune. Claudius exposes himself to danger when he tries to repent, for Hamlet enters and immediately sees that he has been presented with the perfect chance to obey the ghost and kill the king, regicide for fratricide:

Now might I do it pat, now a is a praying,
And now I’ll do’t – and so a goes to heaven,
And so am I revenged. That would be scanned.
A villain kills my father and for that,
I his sole son do this same villain send
To heaven.
Why, this is hire and salary, not revenge.
(3. 3. 73-79)

Here, Hamlet is distracted by a desire that is neither Christian nor Machiavellian, nor in accord with the command of his ghostly father. He wants to send Claudius to Hell, in short, to decide his fate in the next life as well as in this.

Thus, in this tableau of arrested action, the two most Machiavellian characters are presented at their least Machiavellian! Claudius is tentatively and vainly seeking a way back from Machiavellian virtu’ to Christian repentance. Hamlet is carrying himself beyond Machiavellian virtu’ to a point where retribution  becomes an end in itself.

Hamlet’s failure to respond to the occasion by killing Claudius in Act 3 Scene 3 leads to disaster in the scene that immediately follows, in his mother’s chamber and beyond.

For Hamlet is a remorseless killer, able to use the sword, policy or poison according to the occasion, but from a Machiavellian perspective, his hesitation, in Act 3 Scene 3, shows an inconstancy of virtu’ as fatal to himself and others as the hastiness of Romeo. Hamlet’s failure to kill Claudius is all the greater because the circumstances that favour a “good end” are similar to those that Machiavelli describes in Discourses III. 6. 2:

And truly, if any conspiracy against princes made by great men ought to have a good end, it ought to be this, since it was made by another king, so to speak, and by one who has so much occasion to fulfill his desire; but the greed for dominating that blinds him also blinds him in managing the enterprise. For if they knew how to do this wickedness with prudence it would be impossible that they not succeed.

Hamlet’s failure to “do this wickedness with prudence”, as another (potential) king stands in contrast to Claudius’ successful though villainous conspiracy against Hamlet senior, the king, his brother, although Claudius’ deed, carried out for his own ends and not those of the “common good,” cannot be excused.

Hamlet himself, both in his successful strategem against Rosencranz and Guildenstern and in his killing of Polonius, shows no sign of repentance, and in this we see that he is capable of being a more accomplished Machiavellian than Claudius in pitting his will against fortune.

That is as it should be, for the role that Shakespeare has assigned to Hamlet, whether he embraces it or not, is equivalent to the role that Machiavelli assigns to Lorenzo de’Medici in The Prince, whether he embraces it or not – revenge and putting time back in joint:

May your illustrious house therefore assume this task with that courage and those hopes which are inspired by a just cause…
The Prince 26

Claudius and Oliverotto da Fermo

The fate of Claudius may be compared to that of Oliverotto da Fermo who, like Claudius is one “Of Those Who Have Obtained the Position of Prince by Villainy” as the title of the 8th chapter of The Prince puts it.

In that chapter, Machiavelli describes how Oliverotto, “deeming it servile to be under others,” returns to his home town, invites all the leading men to a banquet at his uncle’s house and has them and his uncle murdered by his men before makng himself ruler of Fermo. Machiavelli comments,

And all those being dead who, if discontented, could injure him, he fortified himself with new orders, civil and military, in such a way that within the year that he held the principality he was not only safe himself in the city of Fermo, but had become formidable to all his neighbours. And his overthrow would have been difficult… if he had not allowed himself to be deceived by Cesare Borgia… at Sinigaglia… where he was also taken one year after the parricide he had committed, and strangled together with Vitellozzo, who had been his teacher in ability and atrocity.

Like Oliverotto, Claudius comes to power by treachery and murder, strengthens his position with “new orders” and is killed by a rival Machiavellian. Just like Oliverotto, Claudius is killed by a similar method (poison) to that which he had used to kill his vicitm.

Clearly, Claudius was not as ruthless as Oliverotto, for the latter ensured that all those who might be discontented might also be dead from the beginning of his brief reign. Claudius failed to do that, out of consideration for Gertrude, and perhaps also a genuine hope that Hamlet would be reconciled to him and the court as “the most immediate to our throne” (1. 2. 109), perhaps thinking the Machiavellian thought that,

 men forget more easily the death of their father than the loss of their patrimony.
(Prince, 17)

When Claudius does act against Hamlet, he relies on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern who are deceived by Hamlet’s counter-strategem and each is “hoist by his own petar” (3. 4. 208). In his final attempt against Hamlet, of course, it is Claudius himself who is “hoist by his own petar”.

Will versus Fortune

Machiavelli sees human affairs as being governed by two powers, nominally under the supervision of God. They are the masculine force of Will and feminine force of Fortune. Nature and “ungovernable human instinct” (John Roe, Shakespeare and Machiavelli, p. 25) are under the control of Fortune.

The question that Machiavelli constantly seeks to answer is, how can a Prince use his will to defend himself against and ultimately to conquer other men and Fortune…?

In short, how must a prince act so as to achieve his goals? What is it “necessary” for him to do “if” he wishes to succeed in his ambition?

But also, how can a prince act in a specific social setting the social structures of which may themselves be in conflict with what Michael Long refers to as “the natural scene,”  and the “wanton energies of nature” both human and “out there” in the wasteland beyond the gates of Elsinore.

In the tragedy of Hamlet, Shakespeare adopts Machiavellian modes of representation to explore such questions in the context of human will and “fortune,” but in the Christian idiom of “providence” (John Roe), which emerges towards the end of the play is most pointedly expressed in the final act as Hamlet prepares to fight Laertes,

… we defy augury. There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come – the readiness is all.

Yet, in the end, it is Fortinbras who acquires the kingdom by virtue of his “own arms” (something Machiavelli recommends for all princes). Fortinbras uses the methods of the lion throughout the play, first to threaten Claudius, then to conquer Poland before returning to make his election to the throne of Denmark a formality, now that Fortune once again favours the methods of the lion, as she did in valiant Hamlet’s day.

With those who used the methods of the fox now lying dead on the stage, perhaps the ultimate lesson from Hamlet, at least from a Machiavellian perspective, is to be found in the concluding paragraph of The Prince:

I conclude then that fortune varying and men remaining fixed in their ways, they are successful so long as these ways conform to circumstances, but when they are opposed then they are unsuccessful.

Brief Bibliography

Niccolo Machiavelli (trans. Luigi Ricci. ed Christian Gauss) The Prince
Niccolo Machiavelli (trans. Harvey Mansfield & Nathan Tarcov) Discourses on Livy
William Shakespeare (New Cambridge Shakespeare) Hamlet

Hugh Grady, Shakespeare, Machiavelli and Montaigne
Michael Long, The Unnatural Scene
John Roe, Shakespeare and Machiavelli
Wilbur Sanders, The Dramatist and the Received Idea

Harold Bloom on Hamlet, Brutus & Caesar

Fratricide in Shakespeare

Significance of Prince XXVI

Machiavelli: Dell’Ambizione