In the Book of Common Prayer (see Themes and significant ideas: Prayer) a ‘table of kindred and affinity' was included. This laid down rules about which family members could not be married to each other:

Sexual intercourse with a close family member, especially a sibling, is known as incest. Since in marriage a man and a woman were held to become ‘one flesh', the husband or wife of a sibling would come under the same degree of relationship as a sibling.

  • In Act IV scene iii, Hamlet sneers at the unnatural relationship between his mother and his uncle when he leaves the court, calling Claudius his ‘dear mother'. When Claudius replies, ‘Thy loving father' (i.e. step-father), Hamlet comments:
‘My mother. Father and mother is man and wife; man and wife is one
flesh; and so, my mother.'

Although no-one else at the Danish court seems to be concerned about Gertrude's second marriage — Claudius thanks them that they ‘have freely gone / With this affair along (Act I scene ii) — Hamlet and the Ghost both regard it as incestuous and hence deeply sinful.

  • In Act I scene iv the Ghost describes ‘the royal bed of Denmark' as ‘a couch for luxury' (that is, for lust) ‘and damned incest'
  • Hamlet kills Claudius with the words ‘Here, thou incestuous, murderous, damned Dane … Is thy union here? Follow my mother.'

Hamlet shows throughout the play, from his very first words, a deep-rooted feeling that the marriage of his mother to his uncle is an unnatural union.

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