O, most wicked speed, to post
With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!

from William Shakespeare – Hamlet Act 1 Scene 2 on Rap Genius

Meaning

Shakespeare’s fixation with the wrongfulness of her incestuous marriage to her dead husband’s brother was meant to make a favourable impression on Queen Elizabeth, who was the reigning monarch at the time he wrote Hamlet.

Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII, had received papal dispensation to marry Catherine of Aragon, the widow of his deceased brother Arthur (sound familiar?). After twenty years of marriage they only had one child, Mary, so when Henry decided this marriage would not bear him his male heir, he sought to have the papal dispensation declared illegitimate, so he could marry Anne Boleyn (Elizabeth’s mother).

The Pope refused (being hostage of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, Catherine’s nephew), and thus Henry made himself head of the Church of England, and broke from Catholicism.

When Shakespeare emphasizes the wickedness of a widow marrying her husband’s brother, he makes explicit the illegitimacy of Henry VIII’s union with Catherine, and thus both attacks the legitimacy of Mary’s reign (immediately prior to that of Elizabeth), and strengthens Elizabeth’s claim.

Because after all, if Henry’s marriage with Catherine was legitimate, then Elizabeth was a bastard born from the illegitimate union of a heretic king.

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