Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy dramatizes the historic shift from the medieval ideals of chivalry to Renaissance Machiavellianism. Hamlet’s father is remembered as an impetuous warrior who personally overcame his enemies in hand-to-hand combat. Hamlet’s uncle Claudius is very different: a Renaissance ruler who uses politics, diplomacy, and even assassination to obtain his ends. Young Hamlet is caught in the middle of this transition, a philosopher-prince who is neither a medieval-style knight like his father nor a politician like his uncle.
Each of the three is associated with arms that powerfully evoke their personalities. The ghost of the elder Hamlet appears in cap-â-piearmor—“head to toe,” the typical style of a medieval knight, but no longer the norm in Shakespeare’s day. Claudius is characterized by the artillery that manifests his royal authority, and by the “Switzers” (mercenary soldiers) on whom he relies for protection. Young Hamlet, aptly, is master of the rapier, the cerebral Italian weapon whose techniques were grounded in Renaissance science and geometry.
Hamlet explores the making and unmaking of kings in ways that closely associate them with the father-son relationship and with the building of masculine identities. The elder Hamlet is a king—and a man—of the old school: quick to anger, fierce in battle, committed to revenge. His son is a figure of a different stamp. University-educated, skilled in the modern art of fencing, interested in theater, and naturally philosophical, young Hamlet is very much a Renaissance man. Claudius contrasts with both his brother and nephew: neither truly a warrior nor truly a scholar, Claudius excels in the manipulation and exercise of power