"Vows to the Blackest Devil": Hamlet and the Evolving Code of Honor in Early Modern England

By Terry, Reta A. | Renaissance Quarterly, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview
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"Vows to the Blackest Devil": Hamlet and the Evolving Code of Honor in Early Modern England


Terry, Reta A., Renaissance Quarterly


The Renaissance was a period in which the honor code underwent a significant metamorphosis. The medieval, chivalric code of honor, with its emphasis on lineage, allegiance to one's lord and violence, evolved into an honor code that was both more moral and political in that it began to emphasize the individual conscience and allegience to the state. Analysis of Shakespeare's Hamlet, and in particular its characters' use of promise, provides new and revealing insights into the evolving Renaissance codes of honor, for Shakespeare creates characters in Hamlet that represent various stages in the evolution of a changing honor system.

Contemporary Shakespearean scholars have demonstrated a renewed interest in both Renaissance concepts of honor and the historical context that surrounds these concepts. [1] In practical terms, this means that critics attempting to understand a literary text by placing it within the context of its creation must cross the constructed boundaries that exist between literary texts and historical documents, whether they be sermons, tracts, government papers, private letters, published or unpublished works, all of which are themselves texts. The study of honor in Shakespeare's drama, then, must include an examination of the way that honor was referred to in a multiplicity of texts. This is not to say that an historical context can be entirely recreated and thus provide a definitive meaning or interpretation that is ascribable to Shakespeare's plays. The recognition that history cannot be completely knowable is, in part, what separates New Historicism from former historical approaches to literature. However, an exam ination of the way honor was written about in other texts of the period allows for some general conclusions regarding the evolution of the honor code and Shakespeare's role in representing and defining that code. Moreover, analysis of Shakespeare's Hamlet, and in particular its characters' use of promise, provides new and revealing insights into evolving Renaissance codes of honor. [2] The heretofore unexplored relationship between honor and promise in Hamlet deserves attention for it is through the use of promise that Shakespeare's characters define rival and evolving conceptions of what it meant to be an honorable man.

Honor, like other intangible and abstract terms such as love or faith, is difficult both to define and to discern. In fact, the OED contains over ten main definitions of honor that are applicable to the Elizabethan period. Yet, integral to the early modern honor code was, and is, the word, and Shakespeare's use of the word of honor -- of promise -- can be examined in order to discern the shifting concept of honor itself. Specifically, according to Mervyn James, "the importance of 'promise' was that this gave the essence of honor, will and intention (340);" Shakespeare's characters' concepts of honor can be perceived in the ways in which they use, and respond to, promise. Thus, a close examination of Shakespeare's use of promise in Hamlet yields some valuable conclusions regarding the honor codes that both shape Shakespeare's works and are shaped by them.

The Renaissance was a period of transition in the evolution of the code of honor. One of the most complex changes in the code of honor was a move from an external code to an internalized concept of what it is to be an honorable man. Men were no longer considered honorable simply by right of birth, nor were they able to claim to be men of honor by producing a long list of heroic deeds. Rather, honor was becoming, by the seventeenth century, a matter of conscience; honorable men needed to seek, in every situation, to behave in such a way as to please both their state and their God. That is not to say that there did not exist a residual chivalric sense of honor which emphasized the importance of blood and lineage as well as martial prowess. Rather, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries this medieval concept of honor both co-existed and overlapped with a more modern code of honor which simultaneously emphasized both godliness and political allegiance to the collective state.

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"Vows to the Blackest Devil": Hamlet and the Evolving Code of Honor in Early Modern England
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