For roughly the first half of Hamlet, the audience is left in suspense as to whether or not Claudius, the present king, had in fact secretly murdered his predecessor, Prince Hamlet’s father. Then the prince devises and executes a plan to find out, and deems his suspicions confirmed; we in the audience get to be privy to still more conclusive evidence of Claudius’ guilt. Mystery solved. Except that this isn’t the play’s only mystery, nor the most vexing one. For – despite what we’re tempted to think – the confirmation of Hamlet’s suspicions doesn’t resolve the unanswered question looming over the play from the start: how is it that Claudius, the murdered king’s brother, got to be king after him?
Never mind how the former king died. Why did the crown not pass to Hamlet, that king’s son and namesake? Shakespeare supplies us with just enough information to allow the inference that the Denmark of the play (like the Denmark of Shakespeare’s own time) is an elective monarchy, not a hereditary one. This doesn’t answer the question; it defines it. In the elective monarchies that Shakespeare’s audience knew, a king with a direct male heir would almost invariably be succeeded by him on the throne, barring exceptional circumstances. In Hamlet, the recently-deceased king is survived by an adult son, bearing his father’s name. Yet somehow the crown has passed not to the son but instead to the former king’s brother. We are told nothing about the procedure whereby he was elected, or who was involved. It seems to be connected somehow (whether as cause or consequence) with his having won the heart and the hand of Gertrude, the queen. Shakespeare withholds any definite information. He simply presents us with Claudius on the throne, his election a fait accompli.
This turn of affairs, however it happened, has left Hamlet in a state of incredulous, shocked disgust. He finds Claudius loathsome, a disgrace to the kingdom. He can barely contain his rage at his mother for having let herself be swayed to the side of a man so deplorable and disgusting. When he learns (from his father’s ghost) that his uncle had brought about his father’s death, he absorbs this disclosure as if it were something he might have known all along. As the son of the murdered king, he finds himself tasked with avenging the crime.
But make no mistake: what Hamlet seeks is not public justice, and his cause serves no useful political purpose. The revenge he is tasked with is merely a private affair, familial score-setting. For Claudius (we must assume) is Denmark’s legitimate king. He may be a treacherous, unscrupulous thug. He might never have gotten his chance if he hadn’t committed a devious crime. But it wasn’t the crime that got Claudius his crown. He got elected.
Just how Claudius got elected, Shakespeare leaves unexplained. We’re given no information about the procedure, nor of the identities of the electors. We’re not told whose support Claudius had relied upon for the election to go in his favor. Maybe whoever it was (Gertrude? Polonius? Osric? Others unmentioned?) would have chosen differently had they known of the candidate’s crimes in the run-up to his election. Maybe; or maybe not. Maybe they were in a position to guess what he’d done; maybe they didn’t care. They might still have preferred him to the other available candidates, for reasons unknown to us. In any event, it’s a moot hypothetical. A royal election can’t be revoked or retracted.
Hamlet generally seems to understand this. He never speaks of his uncle as a usurper, nor disputes the legitimacy of his title to rule. He accepts that Claudius is indeed Denmark’s king. And yet his lucidity on the matter does seem to have limits. He cannot help himself from cruelly berating, and baiting, his mother, merely for having married the man. He rails at her pointlessly, wildly imagining he might shame her into abandoning him. It never occurs to him that she might have had her reasons for marrying, now that his father is dead. This is painful to watch.
There’s a reason why Hamlet so brutally and irrationally castigates his mother, as if she alone were responsible for Claudius’ ascendancy. It spares him the need to confront the hard truth – nowhere stated by anyone, but inscribed in the situation – that it isn’t his mother who bears the blame for enabling Claudius’ rise, but his father, the previous king. We tend not to notice this. But it’s true.
For consider: somehow the long-reigning King Hamlet had failed to ensure that the crown would pass to his son. Was his father a weaker, more pusillanimous king than Hamlet allows himself to remember? Was he merely negligent, and short-sighted? Might he not have cared for his son to succeed him, or cared to expend the political capital that would have been needed to assure his son’s success? Might it be that the father and son had been somehow estranged? Shakespeare withholds from us any basis for knowing, one way or another. The father is dead (though still haunting the place, now and then); the son is disappointed; the uncle is king. Later the uncle is dead, along with the son and the mother, and somebody else takes over. The rest is silence.