Aspects of enlightenment in Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Euripides’s Medea

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The Age of Enlightenment, also referred to as the Age of Reason, dominated Europe between 1685 and 1815 (Gibbs 16). Age of Enlightenment discredited the value of relying on old authorizes for knowledge and encouraged radical ideologies on scientific and philosophical revolutions. Age of Enlightenment encouraged citizens to challenge the ignorance and irrationalities of monarchs, churches and despots through skepticism, empiricism, and liberty of thought (Meeker 68). In essence, proponents of enlightenment wanted citizens to avoid blind faith but rather, test beliefs through scientifically controlled experiments and personal experiences. Key figures of the Age of Enlightenment included Hugo Grotius (1583-1645), John Locke (1632-1704), and Emmanuel Kant (1724-1804) (Gibbs 40). Despite the principles of enlightenment materializing in Europe between 1685 and 1815, a close review of writings from Ancient Greek and Medieval Europe reveal traces of enlightenment. In particular, Euripides’ ancient Greek tragedy Medea (431 BC) and Shakespeare’s Medieval Age tragedy Hamlet (1609) both reflect aspects of enlightenment.

Interestingly, Euripides’s Medea (431 BC) and Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1609) were written approximately 2000 years apart, and notably before the Age of Enlightenment began in Europe. Thus, enlightenment is not necessarily a historical period. Rather, enlightenment refers to the social and psychological developments characterized by systematic synthesis of knowledge and liberty in intellectual expressions. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) specifically described enlightenment as, ‘man’s release from the bondage of self-incurred immaturity” (Kitromilides 38) According to Kant, enlightenment is not confined by geographical or temporal boundaries. Rather, Kant emphasized that enlightenment is the awakening of individuals’ intellectual powers as to challenge the erroneous religious traditions, myths, prejudices and superstitions of their time (Gibbs 05). Therefore, expression of unbound intellectual powers in Euripides’s Medea and Shakespeare’s Hamlet amounts to enlightenment.

A key principle of enlightenment is the freedom to express one’s thoughts, regardless of the prevailing traditions and beliefs of the time. In Euripides’s Medea, the free expression of thought emerges when the character of Medea expresses her desire to revenge against Jason and her children after Jason abandon her and married Glause. In lines 95-96, Medea says, “I hate my life, how can I put an end to it?” (Euripides 28). Also in lines 110-114, Medea expresses her desire for revenge saying, “I am in agony, I am so brutally misused. You horrible children, of a mother who hates you, god damn you with your father and the whole house go to Hell” (Euripides 28). After expressing her desire for revenge, particularly her desire for infanticide, Medea is banished from Corinth. In ancient Greece, it was noble for an individual, especially a mother, to curb her emotional wounds (Meeker 27). However, Euripides portrays Medea as expressing her psychological freedom by publicizing her desire to murder her children and her husband. Therefore, Medea’s freedom to express herself honestly without conforming to commonly-practiced emotional restraints in ancient Greece was a manifestation of enlightenment.

Similarly, the freedom of express in Shakespeare’s Hamlet emerges when Shakespeare decided to portray the systematic murder of an entire royal family in Denmark. In Medieval Europe, royal families were founded on religious myths because citizens believed that Kings and their monarchs were bestowed by God; hence, the royal families and their monarchic political systems would not be destabilized or overthrown (Yousef 42). However, enlightenment encouraged the skeptical criticism of the legitimacy of traditional political systems. In particular, political revolutions including the English Revolution (1642-1651) and the French Revolution (1789-1799) were founded on the enlightened desire to remake the social and political systems of Europe by overthrowing the old and mythical monarchic systems (Meeker 94).

In Hamlet, Shakespeare developed a plot revolving around the murder of royal family members beginning with the murder of King Hamlet by Claudius who subsequently takes over the Danish throne. Later, Prince Hamlet decided to avenge his father’s death. The tragedy of Hamlet ends when Prince Hamlet and King Claudius are both dead, leaving the Danish throne to be snatched by Norwegian prince Fortinbras (Shakespeare 119). In Hamlet, Shakespeare chose to explore freely the possibility of changing a traditional political system through the murder of royal family members. In this context, the freedom to express his political thoughts that were contrary to the beliefs of the English society in 1609 meant that Shakespeare was enlightened enough to rid himself of the fears of challenging the monarch systems of government.

Besides free expression of thoughts, principles of enlightenment, particularly the principles of empiricism and rationalism also emerge in both Medea and Hamlet. In enlightenment, escaping self-incurred immaturity in intellect involves using scientific reason and sensual experiences to distinguish myths from reality (Kerrigan 86). Empiricism entails relying on observation and experimentation to confirm the practical capacities in life. Thus, empiricism discredits the reliance on religious faith and suspicions to determine what is practical and what is not. On the other hand, rationalism entails the use of advances in natural sciences to understand the nature of causality in the physical world. In particular, rationalism entails dealing with real-life problems in an objective and deterministic manner as opposed to relying on gods and other sources of spiritual powers to solve real-world problems (Yousef 24). Overall, enlightenment advocates for the use of mechanical knowledge of physical phenomena to solve real-world problems.

In Euripides’s Medea, the emotionally-enflamed Medea relies on her empirical knowledge of poisons to murder Creon and Glauce. At the beginning of the play, particularly in lines 142-144, Medea says, “Oh Zeus and Earth and Light, hurl your fiery bolt of lightning straight through my skull. What use is life to me?” (Euripides 31). Despite asking Zeus, the Greek god of the sky, to strike her with lightning, Medea proceeded to use poison to murder her adversaries. In this context, Medea did not believe in the ability of the gods to deliver revenge on practical contexts. Rather, Medea knew that her tested-and-proven expertise in poison would be more practical in murdering her enemies than relying on mythical and divine powers to actualize the murders (Meeker 110). Therefore, rationalism and empiricism in Medea manifest when Euripides acknowledges the role of the proven power of poison in causing death within the physical world.

Similarly, Shakespeare’s Hamlet reveals the role of empiricism and rationalism in determining causality in the physical world. Earlier in the play, Prince Hamlet is not certain whether Claudius was responsible for the murder of King Hamlet. To dispel his uncertainties about King Hamlet’s actual murderer, Prince Hamlet decided to direct a group of actors to simulate a theatrical performance resembling the circumstances around King Hamlet’s murder. In Act 3, scene 2, Prince Hamlet directs Horatio saying, “There is a play tonight before the king; one scene of it comes near the circumstances which I have told thee of my father’s death. I prythee, when thou see that act afoot, even with the very comment of thy soul, observe mine uncle; if his occulted guilt do not itself unkennel in one speech, it is a damned ghost that we have seen, and my imaginations are as foul as Vulcan’s stithy” (Shakespeare 69). In this context, Prince Hamlet designed an experiment to test the actuality of his beliefs about the role of King Claudius in his father’s murder.

The theatrical experiment proposed by Prince Hamlet works when Claudius became agitated and leaves the theatrical performances at the moment when the actors simulated the scene as arranged by Prince Hamlet. In essence, Claudius’s vexation served as a proof of his guilt in the murder of King Hamlet; hence, Prince Hamlet relied on the proof to plan the execution of Claudius. In this context, Shakespeare emphasized the importance of rational objectivity in determining the nature of casualty in practical lives (Kerrigan 57). Shakespeare discouraged the reliance on assumptions to deliver justice for the suspected role of Claudius in King Hamlet’s murder. Rather, Shakespeare highlighted the importance of using experimentation and observation as an inductive method of gaining knowledge. Therefore, Shakespeare’s portrayal of Prince Hamlet’s experimentation represented enlightenment.

In conclusion, there are similar traces of enlightenment in Euripides’s Medea and Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Particularly, the plots of both Euripides’s Medea and Shakespeare’s Hamlet are expressions of free thoughts that challenged the traditions of the authors’ times. Thus, the freely-thought plots by both Euripides and Shakespeare represented enlightened aspirations and intellectual progress in their respective historical periods. Also, Euripides and Shakespeare demonstrated the principles of rationalism and empiricism in ascertaining the nature of causality in their respective tragedies. Overall, Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Euripides’s Medea indicate that the two writers had rid themselves of the intellectual bandages of their respective times.

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  1. Euripides. Medea. Pittsburg: Faber & Faber Publishing, 2014. Print
  2. Gibbs, Russell. The Six Principles of Enlightenment and Meaning of Life. Cardiff: Wave-Cloud Corporation, 2016. Print
  3. Kerrigan, John. Revenge Tragedy: From Aeschylus to Armageddon. Los Angeles, L.A.: Clarendon Press, 1996. Print
  4. Kitromilides, Paschalis. The enlightenment and the Greek cultural tradition. History of European Ideas, vol. 36, no. 1, pp. 39-46
  5. Meeker, Natania. Voluptuous Philosophy: Literary Materialism in the French Enlightenment. Fordham: Fordham University Press, 2006. Print
  6. Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. London: Classic Books Company, 2001. Print
  7. Yousef, Nancy. Isolated Cases: The Anxieties of Autonomy in Enlightenment Philosophy and Romantic Literature. New York: Cornell University Press
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