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Claudius likes to party—a bit too much. He frequently binge drinks, is arguably an alcoholic, but is not an aberration. Hamlet says that Denmark is internationally known for heavy drinking. That’s what Shakespeare would have heard in the sixteenth century. By the seventeenth, English writers feared that Denmark had taught their own nation its drinking habits. Synthesizing criticism on alcoholism as an individual problem in Shakespeare’s texts and times with scholarship on national drinking habits in the early modern age, this essay asks what the tragedy of alcoholism looks like when located not on the level of the individual but on the level of a culture, as Shakespeare depicts in Hamlet. Our window into these early modern cultures of drunkenness is sociological studies of American college fraternities plus social-learning theories that explain how one person—one culture—teaches another its habits. For Claudius’s alcoholism is both culturally learned and culturally significant. And, as in fraternities, alcoholism in Hamlet is bound up with ethnicity, wealth, masculinity, and tragedy. Thus alcohol imagistically reappears in key moments of Hamlet—the vial of “cursed hebona,” Ophelia’s liquid death, and the poisoned cup in the final scene—that stand out in recent performances and adaptations with alcoholic Claudiuses and Gertrudes.
English Language Notes – Duke University Press
Published: Apr 1, 2022
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