Hamlet Dramaturgy

Informing Bethany Lutheran College's Spring 2013 Production. Shows at: April 19, 20, 26, 27 at 7:30pm and April 21 at 2pm

Why isn’t Prince Hamlet King of Denmark?

Jake Yenish, the show’s Lighting Designer, asked me today “so…. why isn’t Hamlet the king?” Initially this question baffled me. After a little bit of reading, I discovered something I didn’t know about the order of succesion before!

Really, the first thing to understand about the situation is that previous to the Ghost revealing Claudius’ true nature, no one was suspecting Claudius of treachery. For all intents and purposes, Claudius is a fine, upstanding member of the court who is certainly intelligent and respected in his position.

Primogeniture vs. Tanistry/Elective Monarchy

When we typically think of monarchies we think of a system called “primogeniture.” This is the system in which the king’s eldest son and his descendants take the throne. However, this was not the common system for succession in Scandinavian countries. They followed a system of elective monarchy. Some sources call it “tanistry” which is the election of the monarch by choosing from the “eldest and worthiest” of the previous monarch’s surviving family. Naturally if this is how the monarchy system works, then Claudius would be the more natural choice, especially if he had married Gertrude, that connection would provide continuity between monarchs and make the transition easier for the masses to accept.


Also at the time of his father’s death, Hamlet would be at school in Wittenberg, even if he did disagree with the electoral’s choice, he could not defend himself to them.


The crown is a lie. 


1) “Elective Monarchy in the Sources of ‘Hamlet‘” by A.P. Stabler

2) Definition of “primogeniture

3) A Literature Network forum on the topic

4) The resource guide to the University of Delaware’s production

Lydia Grabau, Dramaturg


One comment on “Why isn’t Prince Hamlet King of Denmark?

  1. Lyssasassypants
    March 18, 2013

    I wondered this today. Nice thought. Also, interesting enough.

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This entry was posted on March 8, 2013 by in Notes from the Dramaturg, Shakespeare/Hamlet History.

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