Can a lady protest too much? Lessons in life from Danish royalty.

Ms Jo Genders, Director of English

The surprise abdication in January of Denmark’s Queen Margrethe II, after a 52-year reign, stirred within me a peculiar mix of emotions. Not due to any fervent allegiance to the Danish Royal Family—beyond the collective ownership of ‘Our Mary’—but rather because it mirrors a recent event in the English curriculum. The Queensland Curriculum and Assessment Authority’s decision to stand down Shakespeare’s Hamlet from the booklist has left us all a little sad. A mainstay of the BGGS Year 12 English course for more than half a century, Hamlet—which follows the story of the eponymous Danish princehas been much cherished and inspired many a Grammar girl to reflect closely on the play’s universal relevance.

One of our more popular assessments saw girls make connections with the play by exploring its intersection with their own lives. Observations were diverse—from comments on the resonance with overbearing parenting styles, to discussions of the ways 17th-Century gender double standards have hardly moved on. Many noted how Hamlet’s procrastination reflected their own fear of making big decisions, especially in the face of tertiary admissions processes. But what did emerge consistently is that despite great affection for the play, the titular character himself offers little in the way of good role modelling to young women. So, as we think about our own goals for 2024, and in some form of farewell to both Great Danes, Queen Margrethe and Prince Hamlet alike, I reflect on the instructive lessons that each offers to our Grammar girls—a study in ‘what to be, or what not to be’, to borrow the young prince’s own famous words.

  1. Adopt a positive mindset.

Putting aside debate around inherited privilege, Queen Margrethe exemplifies the growth that can arise from a positive mindset. Her destiny pre-determined, Margrethe’s stoicism in assuming the throne at just 31 years of age was evident when she declared, ‘The task my father carried now rests on my shoulders. I pray for the strength to carry the heavy heritage’. As the world’s longest-serving female monarch, Queen Margrethe’s extraordinary popularity, which in recent years counted the support of over 80 per cent of Danes, is undoubtedly attributed to her wholehearted embrace of her responsibilities. Meanwhile in the fictional castle of Elsinore, Hamlet’s personal growth is hampered by his incessant complaints about his situation. When he moans that his very existence is a ‘cursed spite’ and tells anyone who’ll listen that he’s trapped in the ‘prison’ of Denmark, he highlights how ill-equipped he is to navigate challenges with strength and grace. It’s indeed ironic that Hamlet himself reminds us of the transformative power of a positive mindset when he says, ‘there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so’.

  1. Be decisive.

Often, decisions that seem unpopular in the short term, contribute to long-term success. Faced with strong reactions to her decision to strip four of her grandchildren of their royal titles, Margrethe issued an apology but refused to back down. Her insistence that the change would ‘future-proof the monarchy’ showed Margrethe to be a forward-thinking woman of conviction. Hamlet, by contrast, can barely make a decision at all. His obsessive thinking paralyses him, and his extensive rumination (evident in his seven lengthy soliloquies) means he never really accomplishes anything; in his own words he is ‘John-a-Dreams’ entirely ‘unpregnant of [his] cause’. Hamlet—perhaps the poster boy for ‘all talk and no action’—reminds us of the role decisiveness and courage in our own convictions plays in personal growth.

  1. Hold your ground.

Margrethe’s resistance to manipulation stands in stark contrast to Hamlet’s vulnerability to pressure. We need look no further than the simmering discontent of her husband, Prince Henrik and his ultimatum that unless ‘she makes me a king consort’ he would not be buried in the official royal resting place alongside his wife. Henrik’s tantrum, however, did little to shake his steely wife, who upon his death in 2018, scattered half his ashes across the Danish seas and placed the rest in a private section of Fredensborg Palace gardens in a symbolic display of her refusal to yield. The monumental glass sarcophagus at Roskilde Cathedral, which will house only her, is testament to Margrethe’s resolve, even in matters of eternal rest. Hamlet, meanwhile, allows himself to be intimidated by everyone. He signs away his moral conscience when he makes a violent pact with a ghost resembling his late father to exact revenge against the new king, and then beats himself up when he falls short. Later in the play, he lets his stepfather get under his skin, allowing the tyrant to ship him off to England without so much as a whimper. Hamlet’s surrender to those who push him around robs him of the growth that can happen when we stick to our guns with determination and assertiveness.

  1. Be prepared to challenge bad behaviour.

Margrethe was much praised for her televised address to the nation during the height of the pandemic. The Queen’s ‘cruel to be kind’ reprimand of those still hosting celebrations as ‘unacceptable, thoughtless, and inconsiderate,’ prompted one Dane to proudly declare her a ‘stern mother telling us off—it only added to her popularity and respect’. Hamlet’s terribly misplaced admonishment of human transgressions exposes his lack of insight. Rather than direct the blame for his father’s murder where it lies (with the silver-tongued Claudius), his cruel jibes about his mother, the Danish Queen (‘Frailty, thy name is woman!’ is one of his tamer insults) highlight a lack of the kind of measured and constructive reprimand that can be effective in fostering positive change and growth in others.

  1. ‘To thine own self be true.’

A fearless pursuit of passions and interests contributes to long-term wellbeing and fulfillment. From her study in prehistoric archaeology, to her unconventional work as a theatre costume designer and illustrator, to her flamboyant outfits, Margrethe’s refusal to let others dictate the terms of her life has ensured she will be long-remembered for her uniqueness. Hamlet, by contrast, is so preoccupied with his own inadequacy that he loses himself in the process, forgetting his childhood love for the theatre, for example, and instead becoming a kind of actor bogged down by pretence and duplicity. Hamlet’s deathbed instruction that Horatio ‘tell [his] story’ must have left his lifelong friend wondering which of Hamlet’s qualities he could possibly acclaim.

  1. Take the driver’s seat.

Making decisive choices affords us confidence to grow. Ever the engineer of her own life, Margrethe’s decision to relinquish the throne—the first Danish monarch to do so in almost 1000 years—highlights her faith in her own agency. If only Hamlet had exercised such autonomy. From blaming politics, his mother, even the universe, his litany of complaints exposes his reluctance to take personal responsibility. In fact, his famous line, ‘there is great providence in the fall of a sparrow’, reveals his hope that external forces will make his decisions for him and his willingness to forsake any role in his own life. When Norwegian Prince Fortinbras declares that Hamlet would have ‘proved most royally’ had he survived the play’s tragic ending, we’re left wondering if Hamlet’s abdication of responsibility made him fit to rule at all.

So, while we in the English Faculty bid farewell to Hamlet and the Danish people farewell their Queen, we can reflect thoughtfully on the life lessons from each. A comparison of the mindsets and actions of these two Danish royals—one real and the other literary—allows us to see the importance of positivity, decisiveness, resilience, and personal agency in creating and sustaining a fulfilling life. At the start of a new year, there is value in considering how adopting these dispositions can help guide us through life’s challenges and uncertainties, so we can look toward 2024 and the future with a sense of optimism and excitement.

Ms Jo Genders

Director of English