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HAMLET NOTES: BACKGROUND The teaching of the Church was that since the Fall that part of the cosmos had been polluted by human sin, and was a cesspool for evil. Almost like hell. The earth, far from being a comforting shelter from the infinite, was a prison. The early humanists in England were teachers. They shared a dream: that learning would make those who ruled rule more just; more generously. HAMLET NOTES: BACKGROUND Another important effect of the humanists was their emphasis on the power that individuals had to shape themselves and those around them through education. Machiavelli’s approach to the art of government: rather than supporting the indiscriminate cruelty and deceit of rulers, Machiavelli viewed political stability as a ruler’s foremost consideration, believing that with this end in mind a prince must be able to be cruel, deceitful, generous, or honest as need requires. HAMLET BACKGROUND: DEATH Traditional beliefs often held that untimely death was a punishment for sin and therefore was a thing to be feared. By Shakespeare's time, humanism and revival of classical philosophy resulted in the growing influence of alternative ways of thinking about death. Hamlet in particular explores the idea of death as an “undiscovered country” as opposed to the clearly defined territory of medieval Christian doctrine. HAMLET BACKGROUND: DEATH As a subject for dramatists, death became a more complicated issue than it had been in the earlier morality plays. Instead of representing death simply as a hooded figure who would call upon an Everyman or Mankind to account for his life, Shakespeare and other writers explored the many intellectual possibilities (and controversies) raised by new ways of thinking about morality. HAMLET BACKGROUND: DEATH There is a range of belief onstage between a degree of skepticism and deep belief in supernatural forces; there would have been at least as wide a range in the audience that watched the play. Some in Shakespeare’s audience would have believed that ghosts were real. Ghosts seem to have some Catholics, some Protestant, and some pagan characteristics. All supernatural agents were regarded with the greatest suspicion, for they were far more likely to be the agents of the Devil than of God. HAMLET BACKGROUND: DEATH The prevalence of death imagery in medieval artwork may seem obsessive, but this cultural phenomenon was vital part of medieval society’s attempt to comprehend a very real danger. In an era with high mortality rates, mass death due to disease, and little knowledge of medicine and hygiene, death was an inescapable mystery. It is not surprising that the plague was considered to be a sign of God’s displeasure. An interesting side-effect of the plague was the belief that death was the great leveler: your time would come whether you were a prince or a pauper – a fact that Hamlet was particularly aware of.