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A Web Magazine of Arts, Culture and Orthodox Christian Spirituality

National Identity in Shakespeare's Hamlet and Njegoš's Mountain Wreath

Culture is a very broad term that describes a specific nation or society. There have been many definitions of culture, especially starting from the 15th century and the beginning of European exploration and colonisation, when Europeans encountered cultures considerably different than their own. It wasn't until early 20th century, however, when the uniqueness of all cultures was first emphasised. Franz Boas, a German-American anthropologist, argued that culture of any society must be understood as the result of the society's unique history, and not as a stage in the evolution of societies, as underlined by ethnocentric sociologists of the previous period. Geert Hofstede, a well-known Dutch sociologist, provided a definition of culture as "the collective programming which distinguishes the members of one category of people from another". So, as a system of meaning, culture consists of shared beliefs, values and ideas, which give rise to a unique way of thinking about the world. Richard Lewis thus explains the origin of shared values and perception of one's own versus other cultures: "We think our minds are free, but like captured American pilots in Vietnam and North Korea, we have been thoroughly brainwashed. Collective programming in our culture, begun in the cradle and reinforced in kindergarten, school and workplace, convinces us that we are normal, others eccentric".

Britain in the early 17th century and Serbia in mid-19th century did not have mass media to work on the collective brain-washing, but were instead influenced, among other things, by great literary works. Hamlet  and The Mountain Wreath are not simply works of art read and viewed by a small number of educated people. They represent a sublimation of national identity and ethnic strife, values and perceptions. Replete with profound meaning, they stand as the permanent reference of the collective consciousness. This essay first expounds the cultural theory that gives basis to the possibility of interpreting the essential properties of national identity, and conducts a diachronic cultural reading of the two masterpieces. It places them in a specific socio-historic context, and then concentrates on two essential dichotomies in distinguishing between the two representatives of Western and Eastern cultural heritages: individualism/collectivism and long/short time orientation.


The meanings of symbols exist in the minds of individual people. They are formed by myths, personal and collective education through school, social practices and mass media. When those symbolic ideas are shared with others, they form the basis of culture. The common concepts are nurtured in a larger community that uses the same language, practices the same religion and shares the ancestors who have lived in the same geographical location for a long time. According to M. Lustig and J. Koester, shared beliefs, values, norms and social practices that are stable over time and that lead to roughly similar behaviours across similar situations are known as cultural patterns. They provide a way of thinking about the world. Values are one of the crucial underlying entities that determine our way of thinking and our conduct. Neighboring nations, if they had developed independently, can have opposite view of worth, usefulness, or importance of certain concepts and practices. Most US Americans, for example, value youth rather than old age, while Mexicans, just like people in the Far East, respect elders and regard seniority as both positive and extremely significant.

One of the best-known models of culture was developed in 1976 by E. T. Hall, who made an analogy with an iceberg. If the culture of a society was an iceberg, he reasoned, there are some visible aspects above the water, most notably people's behaviour, but there is a larger portion hidden beneath the surface, and it includes beliefs, just below the surface, and values, farthest from the surface. If we want to understand someone's behaviour, we have to find out what his/her beliefs and values are, since they determine the person's attitude and conduct. In a similar, "onion" model of culture developed by G. Hofstede, the outer, visible layer belongs to symbols, which mostly move according to the momentary fashion. The next layer, called "heroes" is represented by people and characters who play a role-model in that society. Shakespeare, and his most famous character, Hamlet, belong to this layer in England, just like Njegoš does in Serbia and Montenegro. The first layer around the core, labeled "rituals," describe common practices such as greetings and hygiene. Finally, the innermost laуer, the only one that cannot be trained and learned through practice, belongs to values, which is permanent, and plays the most dominant, albeit subconscious, role in a society.

In horizontal models of culture, characteristics like social structure, philosophic outlook and basic values are compared according to contrasting extremes. The cultural traits on the left side are usually characteristic of the Western outlook, and the ones on the right of the Eastern outlook. On the Western extreme we have individualistic, and on the Eastern extreme a collectivistic social structure. Personal status in the society is achieved and social and physical mobility great on one end, and social status is ascribed, and social and physical mobility little on the other. In terms of philosophic outlook, the left side believes in mastery or control over nature, it is objective, quantitative and characterised by a mind/body dichotomy, and the right believes in harmony with subjugation to nature, it is subjective, qualitative and characterised by the union of mind and body. Psychological orientation in Western civilisation is fragmented, has need for achievement and it is marked by internal guilt, while the Eastern is comprehensive or holistic, has need for affiliation and it is marked by external shame. Thought patterns are analytic on one end and relational on the other. Basic values are based on action, individualism and independence on the left-hand side, and being, belongingness and interdependence on the right-hand side. Perception in the West is oriented toward future, and based on subject-object relationship, and in the East it is oriented toward past and present, and based on the relationship between two or more subjects. Interaction is based on competition, it is monological and systematic on one end, and based on cooperation, dialogical and spontaneous on the other end.

For Western European and American cultures the emphasis on the individual self is so strong and pervasive that it is almost impossible for them to comprehend a different point of view. Thus, many European Americans believe that the self is located solely within the individual, and the individual is definitely separate from others. From a very young age, children are encouraged to make their own decisions. Alternatively, cultures may define who people are only through their associations with others because an individual's self-definition may not be separate from that of the larger group. Consequently, there is a heightened sense of interdependence, and what happens to the group (family, work group or social group) happens to the person. The sense of being connected to others is very important in the Far East and Latin America, and those cultures have a strong affiliation with their families. Consequently, a common maxim among European Americans is that "the squeaky wheel gets the grease" (suggesting that one should make noise in order to be rewarded); the corresponding maxim among the Japanese, who are somewhat collectivistic, is "the nail that sticks up gets pounded" (so one should always try to blend in).

The dimension of hierarchy in a culture is determined by the term "power distance," which describes the degree of acceptance of the unequal distribution of power by the less powerful members of a society. Cultures with a small power distance believe in minimising social or class inequalities, questioning or challenging authority figures, reducing hierarchical organisational structures, and using power only for legitimate purposes. Conversely, cultures that prefer large power distances believe that each person has a rightful and protected place in the social order, that the actions of authorities should not be challenged or questioned, that hierarchy and inequality are appropriate and beneficial, and that those with social status have a right to use their power for whatever purposes and in whatever ways they deem desirable. The consequences of the degree of power distance that a culture prefers are evident in family customs, the relationships between students and teachers, organisational practices, and in other areas of social life. Even the language systems in high power-distance cultures emphasise distinctions based on a social hierarchy. Since every language has evolved along with the society using it, it reflects those distinctions in its vocabulary and syntax.

Finally, we will conclude this theoretical part with the placement of English and Serbian cultures on R. D. Lewis's "Model of Cultural Types." According to this models, a typical cultural representatives can be classified into 1) "linear-active." who is a task-oriented, highly organised planner, 2) "multi-active," who is a people-oriented, loquacious interrelator, and 3) "reactive," who is introverted and respects oriented listeners. On this triangular chart, England is placed right next to the most linear-active types. Serbia, with a few other Slavic and Eastern European countries, is placed between linear-active and multi-active types, but much closer to the latter.

Our cultural identity is based on membership in a particular cultural group. It is developed as we grow up and learn the values, beliefs, and attitudes of our culture from our parents and other caregivers. We are also influenced by the structure of our language, educational systems, mass media, social institutions, and peer groups within our culture. Our cultural identity is our sense of belonging to a particular culture. As we learn about it, we accept its traditions, heritage, religion, aesthetics, social structures and perceptual patterns. Our linkages to our cultural and social identities become particularly evident when we visit a foreign country or live abroad.


The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, was written by Shakespeare at the very beginning of the seventeenth century, at the end of the Renaissance, a period of major cultural upheaval in Europe. It is Shakespeare's longest, most performed and most influential play. Over fifty versions of the tragedy adapted for the big screen testify to its continued popularity and influence. The archetypal power of the play is also reflected in the unremitting references and illusions to the plot, language and characters in other works of art, the mass media and popular culture. The character of Hamlet has become a symbol of a human type, and the play a trademark of English and European drama and culture in general.

The reader might wonder why a Shakespearean drama that takes place in England was not chosen for this purpose, like, say, Henry V, which would reflect the socio-historical context well. Even though the famous dramatist chose Denmark for the setting, there are no culture-specific characters or events in Hamlet,  so it could conceivably take place in any European monarchy of the time. We know that Shakespeare chose different countries for the setting of his plays for the sake of variety, and everyone would agree names like Bernardo, Francisco and Reynaldo, all characters in the tragedy, do not sound Danish at all. Also, England plays an important role as the place of hope and reliance for several characters in the play.

The Renaissance came to Britain later than to the continent, but it bears all the characteristics developed in Italy and the rest of Europe during the previous two centuries. The period is distinguished by Humanism, a metaphysical and practical reorientation from God to man, and a heightened belief in human abilities, worth and powers. This turn from theocentricism to anthropocentricism was followed by increased secularism, renewal of classical forms and ideas, proclivity towards education and hunger for accumulation of knowledge. Hamlet was written at the very end of the golden, Elizabethan age of English history during which the country not only became the unprecedented world power, but was also taking charge in the proliferation of political and cultural ideas. London was becoming the harbinger of modern dramatic production. During this epoch, England was just coming out of the religious strife that would be renewed a few decades later, but would never go back to what it was before the Reformation of Henry VIII. The permanent breach with Rome intensified the push toward modern externalisation of human experience, and paved the way to scientific empiricism and Enlightenment.

One of the most revealing passages in Hamlet is probably the most famous one. It starts like this:

To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether 'tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them: to die, to sleep
No more; and by a sleep, to say we end
The Heart-ache, and the thousand Natural shocks
That Flesh is heir to? [...]

"To be or not to be" is an existential question. By posing it, Hamlet is apparently vacillating between being and action and non-being and death. After all is done, it seems, though, that there was no doubt in his mind what course he was to take; this soliloquy was only said in a moment of weakness and irresolution. The uncertainty comes from the confusion between the spiritual and bodily path he is to take, just like the ghost of his father is stuck in Purgatory, a limbo between this and the other world. He, therefore, mentions both the suffering of mind and flesh. The contradictions of the age are great, and Hamlet, just like Shakespeare, feels them. This is a cry of a noble soul inclined toward contemplation and artistic creation forced to choose the world, body and action over the Kingdom of Heaven to come.

England, one of the Western-most countries in Europe, and a herald of many mutual European tendencies, has been in the forefront of the evolution from medieval collectivism to the modern individualism. Interpreting different profiles in the identity dimension of the analysis of different cultures might prove especially useful in the examination of both literary works, so we will look at the characteristics of an extreme individual and an extreme collectivist. Individuals believe that: 1) honest people speak their mind, 2) low-context communication (explicit concepts) is preferred, 3) the task takes precedence over relationships, 4) laws and rights are the same for all, 5) trespassing leads to guilt and loss of self-respect, 6) everyone is supposed to have a personal opinion on any topic, 7) the relationship between employer and employee or between parent and child is a contract based on mutual advantage. All these dimensions relate to the character of the Prince of Denmark in one way or another. He speaks out his mind, and does not leave anything implicit. He is not capable of concealing his plot to murder the king. The fact that task takes precedence over relationship is evident in his interconnection with Ophelia and his mother. Even though he reveals his strong feelings towards Ophelia, he does not let their relationship get in the way of his ultimate goal. He is not even that moved after the news of her madness and suicide. He also considers his mother a conspirator and condemns her to the same fate as the king. Hamlet does have a personal relationship to people, especially to Horatio, but he is task-oriented and does not get his emotions get in the way of his undertaking. The fact that it is so difficult for him to take action is more a result of his irresoluteness than his determination, clear from the very first act, as Coleridge skillfully pointed out. So, judging by his way of thinking and his actions, Hamlet can be labeled as a typical representative of a society oriented toward individualism. The fact that he is irresolute, his actions and thought pattern appear contradictory, and seems to border on lunacy only make his character more credible and heightens the dramatic effect of the plot.

A characteristics of the virtue dimensions in intercultural communication theory could be applied to our examination as well. According to this analysis of different types of culture, individuals who belong to the extreme long-term orientation believe that one should never give up, even if results are disappointing, People may devote their lives to lofty, remote ideals, traditions can be adapted to a modern context, and achieving one's purpose may be worth losing face. The dreamy and contemplative character of Hamlet is not suitable for a cold-blooded murder, but the various physical and psychological impediments do not make him give up his resolution. His purpose of avenging his father proves more significant than losing face or even his life. Action is the manifestation of youth, and the West was already unstoppable in its march to subjugating nature for exploitation in Shakespeare's epoch. When they invaded the Roman Empire, the uneducated Gothic tribes such as Angles, Saxons and Danes gradually adopted the existing culture of Western Europe, inevitably contributing to the development and changes of the Church in Western Europe in their own way. The newly Christianized tribes, as Marangudakis asserts, cherished individuality, warfare and initiative. They preferred individual action to submission to the “passive” contemplation practiced in the East. They favored “doing” God’s will over “experiencing” it.

In the 17th century, with the democratic political tradition well on its way, England is the cradle of "small power distance"  as defined by cultural sociologists, and this includes contempt for usurpation and abuse of power. This is a society where political revolutions start, and where objectively perceived injustice can lead even to regicide. Anthony Low observes:

Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Milton’s Satan are two pivotal figures born out of the imaginative stirrings in early-modern culture that led to the rise of Enlightenment, Romantic, modernist, and postmodernist individualism – all arguably beads in the chain of a single, sinuous, long-wave development toward liberal autonomy. Great literary inventions, Hamlet and Satan are also grand portents of subsequent cultural change. Moreover, buried deep in the tragedy of Hamlet […], are intimations of what may be called the transformative event that led to still another essential paradigm of modernity, a necessary adjunct to autonomous individualism, for which the brutally appropriate name is killing the father. With the rise of postmodernism […], it is even more evident than it was earlier in this century that the Reformation, Enlightenment, Romantic, modernist, and postmodernist projects […] require an attack on patriarchal tradition.

In Hamlet we don't have a literal patricide, but on the subconscious, symbolic level, the murder of the king and the mother's husband carries more meaning than just that of a mere revenge; it portents a revolutionary act of rebellion and deconstruction. After such a history-changing act, the road to a new construction of society based on reason and reliance on human abilities seems more open than ever.


The Mountain Wreath was published in 1847, the year significant for the struggle for the vernacular in Serbia. The first translation of the New Testament from Old Church Slavonic to the spoken Serbian by Vuk Karadžić, the influential essay "Struggle for Serbian language and Orthography" by Djuro Daničić, and "Poems" by Branko Radičević were all published in the same year. Serbia was just coming out of the centuries-long subjugation to the Ottoman Empire, and it was in the process of creating its literary language and renewing its culture benumbed by the long and toilsome occupation. The enlightenment and humanist ideas vehemently proliferated by Dositej Obradović, the first minister of education of Serbia, had just started to find fertile soil. Serbia was in its belated Renaissance.

As a Prince-Bishop, Petar Petrović Njegoš (1813-1851) had a dual role in Montenegro as both its political and religious leader. Montenegro was perceived as the hotbed of heroism and the epitome of resistance against the harsh Ottoman rule. As a supreme poet and philosopher, Njegoš certainly contributed to the image of Montenegrins as wise and sharp-witted people. Certain verses from The Mountain Wreath have become national proverbs, and most Montenegrins can recite long passages from the work. Having written Luča Mikrokozma (The Ray of the Microcosm), a cosmic-religious poem about the origins and destiny of man on Earth and about the fall of Satan and the fall of man, it is save to save that Njegoš combines the statures of both Shakespeare and Milton in Serbian literature.

As opposed to the early modern England, where the rift between the empiricism of the age and the significance of the national tradition is weighing heavily on the individual, a Montenegrin from the 19th century does not suffer from the body/mind dichotomy. The Church teaches the morals buried deep down in the collective unconscious. The Orthodox Christian belief in the holiness of matter is revealed in the existence of Christ’s body and blood in Eucharist, the material representation of Christ, Virgin Mary and the saints in icons, and the veneration of relics. The body has a special function in the hesychast prayer, practiced by Orthodox monks. Charles Lock explains the Western perplexity with juxtaposition of images from the Eastern faith with those drawn from biology and sociology in Russian philosophy as an example of the “globalization of Protestant paradigms and anxieties”: “Orthodoxy never underwent a Reformation, nor any sort of conflict between faith and reason,” he argues.  A sacramental theology does not find anything reductive in nature, and it celebrates reason as part of creation, as that which links the divine with the human; in Orthodoxy, the conflict between faith and reason only exists as an import. Whereas in the West philosophers felt obliged to abandon traditional spiritual pursuits in order to accept the laws of reason, exemplified in the Cartesian maxim "I think, therefore I am," Serbia of the epoch, in part thanks to the Ottoman preservation of the traditional, rural life and morals, still unquestionably adheres to the organic code of ethics.

Being part of the Eastern tradition that has always nurtured a sense of belonging to a community with its tradition and a set value system, makes Serbs, and even more so the tribally organised Montenegro, a seedbed of collectivism. According to the identity dimension of the analysis of different cultures, an extreme collectivists believes that: 1) members of one's ingroup (organisation, extended family) are very close, whereas other, outgroup people are very distant, 2) harmony should always be maintained and direct confrontation avoided, 3) relationships are more important than the task at hand, 4) laws, rights, and opinions differ by group, 5) trespassing leads to shame and loss of face for the entire ingroup, 6) the relationship between employer and employee is perceived in moral terms, like a family link, 7) spoken communication uses imprecise style. Discreet non-verbal clues, such as tone and pauses are crucial. The speaker adapts to the listener. The national leaders gathered in The Mountain Wreath  to discuss the possible action against the islamised population of Montengro commune in mutual respect and brotherhood, while the Islamic population, although of the same ethnic origin, is regarded foreign and equalised with the hated Turks. The diatribe about Venetians by Duke Draško also shows the foreign nature of the Roman Catholic, Western world. This demonstrates the awareness of the central role of the Byzantine culture and faith in the individual and collective identity. The fact that trespassing leads to shame and loss of face is evident in the accusation of Vuk Branković, who, due to his alleged treason before the decisive battle of Kosovo, became the perennial symbol of a moral outlaw. The collective nature of the shared psychology is reflected even in the lack of a main protagonist in the play.

Looking at the virtue dimension, individuals who belong to the extreme short-term orientation believe that one's face should never be lost, that there is a social pressure to "keep up with the Joneses," traditions should be respected, social demands are met regardless of cost, and personal stability is much valued. The national leaders in The Mountain Wreath are convinced that not only stability, but also the survival of their community is solely possible if the Mohammedans are either exterminated or expelled from their land.

Luna i krst, dva strašna simvola - / njihovo je na grobnice carstvo. / Sljedovat im rijekom krvavom/  u lađici grdna stradanija, / to je biti jedno ili drugo.

Even if they are not religious, Montenegrins deem the preservation of their spiritual heritage and Patriarchal tradition their sacred duty and privilege. While Hamlet is acting entirely on his own, the Montenegrins are acting together.

In the 19th century Balkans, elders are respected and revered. Abbot Stefan is not only an elder by age, but also the spiritual elder who, through his role of a vessel of God's will, represents special kind of figure in the Orthodox Christian tradition. His advice is paramount to order, and everyone takes his blessing as a divine sanction. He does not appear until the end of the poem, and his principal task is to disperse all dilemmas and accord the ultimate approbation: the purge is not only God-pleasing but also imperative. If Bishop Danilo has been compared to Hamlet becasause of his proclivity to always finding a reason to postponing the action (Guskova 2015), then Abbot Stefan should be compared to the king's ghost in Hamlet, because he is the one who, beside revealing the truth to his son, serves as the pivotal counsel in making up the mind of the protagonist. As opposed to the ghost, who seems to be driven only by desire to punish the murderer, Abbot Stefan reveals the divine duty of Christian Montenegrins. Whereas the reckoning at the end of Hamlet brings further chaos and foreign occupation, in The Mountain Wreath. it leads to the absolute conviction in the sacred character of the religious purge.


It would probably be far-fetched to argue that the two literary works, Hamlet and The Mountain Wreath were crucial in their impact on the consciousness of the two nations, or that they are most significant in the creation of respective national mentalities. The issue raises the question about the influence of ideas on people's convictions and actions. Those who deal with art and philosophy perhaps tend to overemphasise their historical significance. Whether ideology can rise from an individual's idea, or theory is just a reflection of the state of human kind and the public opinion of a society is not that important, however. The fact is that both Shakespeare and Njegoš were able to touch the cord of national aspiration and communal predilection. They delineated the social tendencies and historical orientation to produce symbols of the respective cultural essences. Whereas Hamlet represents a cry of an individual on the historical crossroads, nevertheless, the Montenegrin is confident in his feeling of belonging to the set tradition and Patriarchal community. In the highlander Balkan community, the challenges of the modern world are still to come and be felt by everyone. Shakespeare spells out the dilemmas and predicts the direction his culture is moving towards, and Njegoš solidifies the myth of Kosovo and underlines significance of the covenant paid in blood. Despite the obvious differences, the two masterpieces stand at the bottom of the iceberg and the core of the onion of English and Serbian national consciousnesses.


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Low, Anthony.  “Hamlet and the Ghost of Purgatory: Intimations of Killing the Father.”  English            Literary Renaissance 29 (1999): 443-67.

Lustig, M. W. and J. Koester (2012).  Intercultural Competence.  London: Pearson.

Marangudakis, M. (2001).  “The Medieval Roots of Our Ecological Crisis.”  Environmental          Ethics 23:  243-60.

Njegoš, P. P. (1957).  Gorski Vijenac.  Beograd: Prosveta.

Shakespeare, W. (2012).  Hamlet.  London: Collins Classics.

Waisfisz, B. (2015).  "An Orgganizational Cultural Perspective".  The Hofstede Centre.  (25 August 2015).

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