Government censors tried to prevent plays from saying anything about current events or recent history. Playwrights took that as a challenge - they tried to sneak things past the censors.
The most sensitive topic of the day was the result of a royal divorce about 70 years earlier. King Henry VIII wanted to divorce his wife Catherine because although she'd given him a daughter, Mary, she could no longer have children, and Henry wanted a male heir. Henry asked the Pope to approve the divorce but the Pope refused (mainly because the Vatican was surrounded by the armies of Catherine's nephew, Charles V of Spain). So Henry divorced England from the Catholic Church, made himself the head of the Anglican Church and approved the divorce himself. Then he seized the extensive lands owned by English Catholic monasteries. Those monasteries had accumulated that land over the centuries when wealthy men bequeathed land to the Church in exchange for prayers to help them pass from Purgatory to Heaven. A few years before Henry's divorce, Martin Luther had caused a schism in the Church, founding Protestantism as an alternative toCatholicism, by criticizing the corruption of the Catholic Church. Martin Luther claimed that corruption was caused mainly by the Church practice of selling dispensations (free passes out of Purgatory). Those dispensations had allowed the Church to acquire vast amounts of land throughout Europe. That land now had become a tempting target for European Kings - if they converted to Protestantism they could justify seizing the Church-owned lands within their realms.
So Henry got his divorce and seized the monastery lands and sold them. Thereafter many middle-class Englishmen owned former monastery lands, and thushad a vested interest in keeping England Protestant. Henry's second wife Anne Boleyn gave him a daughter, Elizabeth. Then Henry chopped off Anne's head. Henry went through several more wives, decapitating some, divorcing others, and he finally got a son, Edward. When Henry died young Edward became King Edward VI. But Edward was sickly and died a few years later. He was succeeded by Queen Mary, the Catholic daughter of Catherine. Queen Mary married her cousin Phillip II of Spain (son of Charles V). Mary and Phillip tried to return England to Catholicism, but despite killing a lot of Protestants (hence her nickname, "Bloody Mary"), they were only partly successful, partly because of the resistance of all those middle-class Englishmen who were now owners of former monastery lands. When Mary died, Phillip returned to Spain and Anne Boleyn's daughter became Queen Elizabeth I of England and Catholicism was once again banned in England. English Catholics had to pay heavy fines. Any Catholic priest caught saying Mass was executed for treason. The brother of one of young Shakespeare's teachers was a Catholic missionary who was caught and executed. There is evidence that William Shakespeare's father was a secret Catholic.
In 1588, about 30 years after Mary died, Phillip II sent his Armada to attempt to "to recover of us, by strong hand and terms compulsatory, those foresaid lands" (like Fortinbras). Thanks to superior English seamanship and provident bad weather, the Armada was destroyed and England saved, but a dozen years later, when Hamlet steps on the stage, "the memory be green."
Purgatory was a major theme in Hamlet. The ghost of Hamlet's father was in Purgatory, doomed to walk the night trying to recover his "extorted treasure in the womb of earth." 30 years before (just as there was a 30-year gap between the death of Mary and the launching of the Armada), Hamlet's father had killed Fortinbras' father to gain lands that were Hamlet's inheritance. On that same day, Hamlet was born and a gravedigger was hired. In the play, Hamlet looked into a grave and said, "The very conveyances of his lands will hardly lie in this box; and must the inheritor himself have no more, ha?"
The "necessary question of the play" was "To be or not to be. That is the question." But to be or not to be what? Perhaps the answer was given earlier in the play when Bernardo was describing the ghost of Hamlet's father: "so like the king that was and is the question of these wars." That was Hamlet's dilemma - whether "TO BE OR NOT TO BE" . . . . "so like the king THAT was and IS THE QUESTION of these wars."
That theme still resonates today as nation-states wage war over land, turning those lands into graveyards.
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