Be careful, you wannabe scholars:
ALWAYS QUOTE, NEVER PLAGIARIZE!
My scholarship is copyrighted at the U.S. Library of Congress.
Hamlet: the “Imperial Theme”
“The spirit that I have seen
May be the devil, and the devil hath power
T’assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps,
Out of my weakness and my melancholy –
As he is very potent with such spirits –
Abuses me to damn me.” (Hamlet II, ii, 600-605)
“To hell, allegiance! Vows to the blackest devil!
Conscience and grace to the profoundest pit!
I dare damnation. To this point I stand,
That both the worlds I give to negligence,
Let come what comes. Only I’ll be revenged
Most thoroughly for my father.” (Hamlet IV, v, 128-134)
In the previous chapter we discussed the importance of truthful images in Shakespeare, often contrasted with their opposite, the mask of hypocrisy. Hamlet as a tragedy revolves around the necessity to discern between truthful and deceitful images; hence our first discussion of the play will be devoted to that theme. Then, after contextualizing Shakespeare’s inscription into the European tradition of liturgical drama and Biblical sublime, we will see how the principles of Demonology can enlighten Shakespeare’s masterpiece Hamlet, also clarifying what has sometimes been regarded as mysterious and incomprehensible, i.e. the complex quality of Hamlet’s personality and the many irrational actions he performs.
Shakespeare’s images, a “mirror up to nature”
The capacity to discern between truth and deception, virtue and hypocrisy, is one of the essential themes in Hamlet. Images constitute the interface between the Prince and every other character in the play, including his relationship with himself. If truthful like Ophelia and Horatio, they can function as a “mirror up to nature” (III, ii, 22) in which Hamlet can understand himself and reality. If deceitful like the ghost, instead, they have the power to threaten his life.
To his friend Horatio, Hamlet confides: “But I am very sorry, good Horatio,/ That to Laertes I forgot myself/ For by the image of my cause I see the portraiture of his” (V, ii, 76-78). Hamlet’s personal experience, which he calls the “image” of his existential situation, as it is reflected in his conscience and awareness, is able to make him understand Laertes’s predicament: especially since it was caused by Hamlet himself, when he rashly killed Polonius and orphaned his beloved Ophelia, thus making himself similar to the tyrant and murderer he was desperately trying to punish. Laertes’s tragedy can therefore be observed and understood as a painting or “portraiture,” in which the meaning is clear but at the same time tragically ironic.
Again, Hamlet throws accusations against innocent Ophelia with the intention to hurt his mother the Queen indirectly, by the reported speech of the awkward spy Polonius. He does so by using the image of face painting: “I have heard of your paintings, too, well enough. God has given you one face, and you made yourselves another” (III, i, 145-147). Ophelia, perhaps the only character in the play who is not able to pretend, is paradoxically accused of being a hypocrite. Interestingly, the hypocrite Claudius uses the same image of the painted prostitute, whose Scriptural referent is the Great Babylon of worldly corruption, to describe his fratricide and the deceitful words with which he managed to cover it all up: “How smart a lash that speech doth give to my conscience./ The harlot’s cheek, beautied with plast’ring art,/ Is not more ugly to the thing that helps it/ Than is my deed to my most painted word./ O heavy burden!” (III, i, 52-56)
Truthful and deceitful images perform a primary role in the relationship between the Prince and his mother Queen Gertrude. In her bedchamber after The Mousetrap, Hamlet tells her that he intends to set up a “glass” to her conscience, that she may realize how tarnished it is: “You go not till I set you up a glass,/ where you may see the inmost part of you” (III, iv, 19-20). In the same way, a couple of scenes before, Hamlet instructs the players on dramatic art, whose purpose it is to imitate nature truthfully and without exaggeration – Shakespeare’s poetics of realism: “anything… overdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is to hold as ‘twere the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure” (III, ii, 20-24).
Hamlet invites Gertrude to compare the images of the two brothers: the picture she wears of the murderer and the picture he wears of the murdered king – a repetition of history in its primal scene of betrayal and fratricide with Cain and Abel:
“Look here upon this picture, and on this,
The counterfeit presentment of two brothers.
See what a grace was seated in this brow […]
A combination and a form indeed
Where every god did seem to set his seal
To give the world assurance of a man.
This was your husband. Look you now what follows.
Here is your husband, like a mildewed ear
Blasting his wholesome brother. Have you eyes?
Could you on this fair mountain leave to feed,
And batten on this moor? Ha, have you eyes?” (III, iv, 52-66)
It is interesting to see that Hamlet compares the two opposite images in the context of Demonology, asking Gertrude: “What devil was’t/ that thus hath cozened you at hood-man blind?/ O shame, where is thy blush? Rebellious hell/ if thou canst mutine in a matron’s bones,/ To flaming youth let virtue be as wax/ and melt in her own fire. Proclaim no shame/ When the compulsive ardour gives the charge,/ Since frost itself as actively doth burn,/ And reason panders will” (70-78); and again: “Confess yourself to heaven;/ Repent what’s past, avoid what is to come” (140-141), “And when you are desirous to be blest,/ I’ll blessing beg of you.” (155-156) The Scriptural reference is to the Pauline Letters, in particular the first Letter to the Corinthians, where Paul gives advice on marriage and celibacy. Because “time is running out” (1 Cor 29-31) at the fast approach of individual death, and on a larger scale with Christ’s Second Advent and Last Judgment, the Apostles expresses his view that preserving one’s virginity is preferable unless someone lives “under compulsion,” the compulsion of demonic agency, cf. Amorth on demonic oppression (Chapter Two) and the uncommon strength of its temptation experienced as even something “vital,” “natural” “irresistible” and “constructive” – “If anyone thinks he is behaving improperly towards his virgin… he is committing no crime; let them get married. The one who stands firm in his resolve, however, who is not under compulsion but has power over his own will… will be doing well. So then, the one who marries his virgin does well; the one who does not marry her will do better” (1 Cor 36-38)
After hearing Hamlet, Gertrude looks at the images of the two brothers from a new perspective, and replies in agony: “O Hamlet, speak no more!/ Thou turn’st mine eyes into my very soul,/ And there I see such black and grainèd spots/ As will not leave their tinct” (78-80); “O Hamlet, thou has cleft my heart in twain” (147); “O speak to me no more!/These words like daggers enter in mine ears” (84-85). With the image of “ears” Shakespeare suggests that, by means of her silent acceptance, Gertrude has become an accomplice of Claudius’ murder as he poured poison into his brother’s ears. This is the crucial moment of Gertrude’s conversion, when she finally admits her share of responsibility. By refusing to know the truth about the crime, as long she could keep her position and her privileges at court, she made herself an accomplice of fratricide. But after this scene Gertrude does not betray Hamlet’s secret, that he is “essentially… not in madness,/ But mad in craft.” (171-172) Hence she swears, with lines that prefigure her death – a tragic omission of help by Claudius and Hamlet, both aware of the poisoned cup – “Be thou assured, if words be made of breath,/ And breath of life, I have no life to breathe/ What thou hast said to me.” (181-183) By means of a superlative performance and the use of images, Hamlet manages to call her mother to repentance – showing to her mind’s eye how her generous and brave husband was to his cowardly brother like “Hyperion to a satyr” (I, ii, 140).
It is essential to appreciate the importance of images in this scene. Gertrude repents by virtue of a comparison of the two portraits, as well as being moved by two other images of death and final judgment which Hamlet unwittingly provides: his rash murder of Polonius and his dialogue with the ghost. Confronted with these images, Gertrude is in fear and trembling and she cannot deny the remorse of her tainted conscience, anguished at the thought of the impending death and judgment. Shakespeare’s art gains depth and substance from this ethical realism, which affords us a deeper understanding – hence a greater pleasure – of the complexity of reality, as well as of the dark human heart that forms and de-forms history.
This crucial scene shows that Shakespeare had, by the time he composed his masterpiece, developed a solid and subtle understanding of the power of images – which is only to be expected in a sublime artist conscious of his task and work instruments. In fact, there are indications that he conceived of such power as something divinely ordained, pertaining to the very manner in which God formed humanity. In the meta-dialogue with the acting troupe, for instance, Hamlet remarks: “… mine uncle is King of Denmark, and those who would make mows at him while my father lived [now] give twenty, forty, an hundred ducats apiece for his picture in little. ‘Sblood, there is something in this more than natural, if philosophy could find it out.” (II, ii, 363-368) But the supernatural is not the realm of philosophy – and it is only partially discerned from the higher observatory of theology.
It is precisely in Hamlet’s interaction with the players that the theme of images and artistic mimesis comes to the fore in the form of meta-writing. These meta-scenes offer a truthful image and “portraiture” of Shakespeare’s poetics and work-ethics; while at the same time representing a moment of self-reflection of the play upon itself. Here Hamlet the character “mirrors” Shakespeare the author in the same way as the author “mirrors” God’s recreation of Himself within His own creation – first in the Incarnation, then in the Transubstantiation – through His most perfect creature, the Virgin, Mother of all the elect in the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church. Also God is “all in all” in all of His creatures.
Wanting to discover the truth, and direct his course of action accordingly, Hamlet creates a truthful image and artistic mimesis with The Mousetrap, taking inspiration from an “extant” story “writ in choice Italian.” (III, ii, 250-251) His artistic image “mirrors” reality in order to denounce it – denouncing to the world how the dead King was betrayed, murdered and forgotten by the people who were supposed to be most loyal to him, in one of the numberless power-plots recorded in the “gore-scarred” book of bloody history.[i]
Vaguely remembering the Scripture passage on Lucifer masquerading as an “angel of light” and his demonic subjects masquerading as “ministers of righteousness” (2 Cor 11:14), Hamlet suspects that the spirit he saw may be a demon disguised as the penitent soul of his father, as demons are able to do: “The spirit that I have seen/ may be the devil, and the devil hath power/ T’assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps,/ Out of my weakness and my melancholy –/ as he is very potent with such spirits –/ Abuses me to damn me.” (III, i, 600-605). But Hamlet also believes, with a superb non sequitur, that if the spirit’s revelations regarding Claudius are correct, he is justified in taking revenge by murdering the murderer.
Truthful images allow to know the truth and achieve a certain degree of cognitive certainty – as Hamlet says, “I’ll have these players/ Play something like the murder of my father/ Before mine uncle. I’ll observe his looks… The play’s the thing/ Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.” (III, i, 596-607). But data about the supernatural gathered by means of truthful images also need to be interpreted within the correct supernatural context, i.e. Catholic theology and Demonology, and when that context is lacking, the resulting action is not successful, as in the case of Hamlet’s revenge. It is through images that Hamlet comes to know the truth, acting on it more or less appropriately. Hence we see that images, mimetic art and theatrical mimesis in particular become in Hamlet the pivotal center – its center of gravity, as it were. As in a Renaissance court, where simulation and dissimulation are the rule and modus operandi, truthful and deceiving images are the very essence of Hamlet. It is thanks to the “mirror up to nature” of The Mousetrap that Hamlet discovers the truth about the corruption of the world surrounding him; and it is thanks to the tragic image of orphaned Laertes that he conceptualizes his own existential predicament in that world.
Always in the interaction with the players (Act II, scene ii) the image of wild Pyrrhus slaughtering the royal house of Troy and murdering both King Priam and Queen Hecuba functions as a prophetic mirror-image of Hamlet’s own situation. Hamlet fears that the compact of vengeance with the ghost will force him to become another Pyrrhus, killing both Claudius and his own mother. And he is right – the Pyrrhus prophecy is fulfilled. The noble Prince himself turns into a tyrant by killing… almost everybody, in fact. One person in revenge, Claudius, by forcing him to drink to the dregs the Cup of God’s Wrath, so to speak, cf. Jer 25; Rev 14. Three people more or less in self-defense: the two spies Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and Laertes after he cheated in combat using the poisoned sword. And other three victims completely gratuitously: Polonius, the father of Laertes and Ophelia; Ophelia, who took her life after being orphaned and abandoned by a “mad” lover like the maid Barbary in Desdemona’s story; as well as his own mother Gertrude – for if Hamlet suspected that the cup had been poisoned by Claudius, why did he let her drink?
In his understanding of images as prophecies and prophecies as images, Shakespeare was guided by the nature of Scriptural prophecy, often of a poetic quality – from Isaiah and the Psalms of David, to the Pauline Letters and the Apocalypse of John. Indeed, the only Books that present a lower incidence of images are the historical books of the Bible, and even there historical events function as Christological prefigurations – as in Judith and Esther, powerful figurae Mariae, and the sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter. (Chapter Two) In Scripture, symbolic images are God’s preferred way to make His Infinity understood by the limited cognitive capacity of fallen humanity. By virtue of images, complex meanings can quickly be understood and recalled to mind, e.g. the visions of Moses in the desert, Jacob’s dream, the dream of Mordecai and Daniel’s visions of the Second Advent and Last Judgment, etc.
The Judeo-Christian and Classical traditions converge here, since symbolic images abound in Plato’s works, e.g. the allegory of the cave, and also Aristotle comments in his Poetics that “by far the most important matter is to have skill in the use of metaphor,” as it “cannot be acquired from another” and by itself is a “sign of natural gifts,” denoting an ability to “discern similarities” among different objects of observation (1459a5-8).
Images can be used to manifest virtue or to mask vice with a show of hypocrisy. The character of Polonius embodies both. In the play he appears as a foolish courtier who deludes first of all himself thinking that he is acting for the wellbeing of others, while in fact pursuing his personal profit. He is by no means innocent. To Reynaldo, for instance, whom he pays to slander Laertes during his Paris trip, he confides: “Your bait of falsehood takes this carp of truth;/ And thus do we… By indirections find directions out” (II, i, 602-65). It is open to interpretation whether slander really is the best way to promote the good reputation of one’s son abroad – but, as it often happens in this meta-tragedy, the words prove valid if we understand them more generally as coming from the author’s perspective, for indeed Shakespeare’s ethical theater is a “bait of falsehood” to catch the truth. And Polonius can also be seen as a more sympathetic character. In one of his mad dialogues with Hamlet, when Hamlet plays the fool to someone more foolish than himself, Polonius unwittingly utters a prophecy on his own death:
“Hamlet. […] My lord, you played once i’th’ university, you say.
Polonius. That I did, my lord, and was accounted a good actor.
Hamlet. And what did you enact?
Polonius. I did enact Julius Caesar. I was killed i’th’ Capitol. Brutus killed me.” (III, ii, 94-100)
This is a prophecy for the benefit of audience and readers alone, since neither Polonius nor Hamlet will ever become aware, in the course of the play, of how it is fulfilled. As such, this is Shakespeare’s running commentary on his own art, as he reaches out from the stage or the page to our present reality, eternalizing himself. In this meta-scene on acting, Polonius takes pride in saying that as a student he used to play in the university theater, where he interpreted Caesar, betrayed and murdered by Brutus, as Polonius himself will be murdered by a younger man who could be his son. Polonius’s words are a tragically ironic prophecy on both murderer and victim, uttered in perfect ignorance, as we can expect from a fool; but they also possess a deeper meaning if we see them as an authorial invitation to consider the thematic connections between Hamlet and Julius Caesar. It is in fact interesting to notice that both tragedies are about regicide and usurpation, and both feature ghostly apparitions – which are indeed quite rare in Shakespeare, the only other instance being the ghost of Banquo in Macbeth. But it is even more interesting to notice that in all these instances, the “ghosts” of the murdered kings are directly related to the “imperial theme” (Macbeth I, iii, 126-128), denouncing the corruption that is inevitably associated with worldly power – as we will see in the “imperial theme” section of this chapter.
In the main, Polonius unrealistically thinks of himself as wise and shrewd not unlike Malvolio in The Twelfth Night; in fact he is a hypocrite who tries to stage a naïve ploy on the most complex and theatrically-minded character in English literature – even exploiting his daughter’s innocence to do so. Without excusing Hamlet for murdering him unnecessarily, we can see that he actively pursues his own demise by means of his meddling foolishness. His theater of simulation and dissimulation is made of false images throughout, but being humanly false images, they do not fool Hamlet who had a life-long training in the discernment of human falsehood. The spectators of Polonius’s false meta-theater are the “lawful espials” Claudius and Gertrude, who “hear and see the matter” (III, i, 24) “seeing unseen.” (III, i, 35)
This scene represents one of Shakespeare’s leitmotifs: how to discern images of virtue from images of hypocrisy, as we discussed for Othello. Interestingly, in the following lines, Polonius refers to religious hypocrisy in the same way as his daughter Ophelia had previously done, when she warned Laertes to be careful and practice his own moral preaching – unlike “ungracious pastors,” not “shepherds,” who place undue burdens on other people’s conscience while at the same time behaving like “puffed and reckless libertine[s].” Here are the texts:
|“But, good my brother,
Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven
Whilst like a puffed and reckless libertine
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads
And recks not his own rede.”
(I, iii, 46-51)
|“We are oft to blame in this:
‘Tis too much proved that with devotion’s visage
And pious action we do sugar o’er
The devil himself.”
(III, i, 48-51)
Human beings survive and thrive by imitative behavior; hence the capacity to understand the meaning of images, to remember and reproduce them, is essential for human cognition – and indeed Renaissance mnemotechnique, at which Giordano Bruno excelled, revolved around images. The tragedy of Hamlet offers false images in overplus, some of which the Prince manages to discern as such, while others lead him astray. As we will see, Hamlet is able to recognize human images of deceit; he is nonetheless unable to discern superhuman ones, for which the “discernment of spirits” is needed as a gift of God’s Holy Spirit.
There is first of all the supernatural deception of the ghost, cf. the following section on Demonology in Hamlet; then the murderous deception, in varying degrees of responsibility, of Claudius and Gertrude; then again the Prince – who at first claims to “know not ‘seem’” and be innocent of “actions that a man might play” for show (I, ii, 76 and 84) – is only too ready to exploit Ophelia by presenting her a deceitful image of himself (II, i, 76-101), persuaded as he is that such wild impersonation will help his cause; again, Polonius organizes a ploy against his own son as well as against Hamlet, deluding himself that he is acting for the good of both; later, Laertes is only too happy to kill Hamlet in a murderous plot, while pretending to fight an honest and loyal duel according to chivalric rules; Rosencrantz and Guildenstern pretend to be Hamlet’s friends while being paid by his mortal fiend Claudius; Fortinbras pretends to lead his army through Denmark peacefully while scheming to overtake it, etc. Indeed, the only characters who are exempted from such overwhelming hypocrisy are Ophelia, the gravediggers and Horatio – Ophelia is a victim of court corruption; the gravediggers are victims of exploitation and the injustice of poverty; Horatio is the only survivor of the play, and to him Hamlet’s story is entrusted to be faithfully narrated to the world.
Having discussed the crucial role of images in Shakespeare, we can inquire what the aim of the author may have been in investing so much of his talent on this theme. Like Machiavelli, Castiglione and Thomas More, Shakespeare lived in a corrupt and violent society, for which knowledge of simulation and dissimulation was needed in order to survive. The vital problem of truthful and deceitful images was first of all connected with the treacherous court environment, and the English court was not different in this than any other European court, including the Vatican. But what was unique to England and Northern Europe at the time was religious schism, religious persecution and iconoclasm – for the victims. The perpetrators instead had to face the arduous problem of how to put on a show of virtue while at the same time falsely accusing and butchering model citizens like Edward Arden and John Somerville. Their problem was how to seem “Christian” monarchs and “defenders of the true faith” while at the same time denying the Scriptural evidence of the apostolic succession from Christ to Simon Peter (Mt 16:13-20); while murdering one’s own wives (Henry VIII); while persecuting, dispossessing, torturing, hanging and disemboweling innocent victims like Robert Southwell (Elizabeth I); while supporting piracy and slavery (Elizabeth I); while setting up bogus-trials for witches, looking on as they were tortured to death (James I). Like Dante, outraged at the corruption of Boniface VIII, Shakespeare must have felt that the times of the Great Tribulation described by Isaiah, Daniel, Zechariah, Matthew and John, among others, were close at hand – and in fact, as we will see, Hamlet contains an apocalyptic subtext. In the context of religious schism and its political-economic significance in Northern Europe, the “imperial theme” was for Shakespeare indissolubly linked to hypocrisy, corruption and mass-murder – to the symbolic “wolves in sheep’s clothing” (Mt 7:15) for whom, like Angelo in Measure for Measure, no measure is ever enough.
Thomas Nashe (1567-c.1601) was a keen observer of the “form and pressure” of the times, a satirizer and fierce critic of worldly corruption in all its guises. Of the same generation and religious loyalty of Shakespeare, Nashe described political terror and religious persecution from the point of view of spying: an activity that always accompanies tyrannical regimes. In The Unfortunate Traveller (1594), Nashe remarks that “a man were better be a hangman than an intelligencer;”[ii] a “sneaking eavesdropper,” “scraping hedge-creeper,” and a “piperly pickthank,” i.e. sycophant. According to Nashe, spies are like new Judases and their race is made of “beggarly contemners of wit,” “huge burly-boned butchers” “good for nothing.”[iii] The energy of his denunciation, here and elsewhere, seems autobiographic as it is in the nature of satiric writing. Nashe himself must have known how necessary it is “to have the art of dissembling at [one’s] fingers’ ends as perfect as any courtier,”[iv] if one wishes to survive in times of terror. And in fact, in a passage about a chivalrous tournament in Italy, Nashe symbolically describes one of the knights as a persecuted Catholic: “A fourth, who, being a person of suspected religion, was continually haunted with intelligencers and spies that thought to prey upon him for that he had, he could not devise which way to shake them off but by making away that he had.”[v]
Nashe was more outspoken than Shakespeare in his condemnation of political and religious hypocrisy and dissimulation – and in fact he did not enjoy a long life. In this passage on how religious orthodoxy had been perverted, Nashe epitomizes the fears of many of his contemporaries who felt close to “the notable Day of the Lord” prophesied in Scripture:
But I pray you let me answer you: doth not Christ say that before the Latter Day the sun shall be turned into darkness and the moon into blood? Whereof what may the meaning be, but that glorious sun of the Gospel shall be eclipsed with the dim cloud of dissimulation; that that which is the brightest planet [the monarchy, esp. the king] of salvation shall be a means of error and darkness? And the moon shall be turned into blood: those that shine fairest [the aristocracy and the clergy], make the simplest show, seem most to favor religion, shall rent out the bowels of the Church, be turned into blood, and all this shall come to pass before the notable Day of the Lord, whereof this age is the eve?[vi]
Notice here Nashe’s indictment of the religious schism, eclipsing “the glorious sun of the Gospel” “with the dim cloud of dissimulation;” notice his explicit denunciation of political and religious corruption as “error and darkness;” notice finally Ophelia-Shakespeare’s own critique against the hypocrisy of “pastors,” who like bad actors “make the simplest show” but in fact “rent out the bowels of the Church.”[vii] As Nashe writes, “those that shine fairest… seem most to favor religion, shall rent out the bowels of the Church.” The Pauline images of Lucifer as “an angel of light” and of his ministers as “false apostles, deceitful workers, who masquerade as apostles of Christ” (2 Cor 11:14 and 13) also describe political and religious corruption, trying to destroy images of the true faith and replace them with false ones, man-made doctrines to follow Mammon, not God. The followers of Christ do not live in ivory palaces while their subjects are victims of poverty, persecution and terror: “Christ would have no followers but such as forsake all and follow him, such as forsake all their own desires, such as abandon all expectations of reward in this world, such as neglected and contemned their lives… in comparison to Him, and were content to take up their cross and follow Him.”[viii]
Shakespeare, biblical sublime and mystery plays
“…there is no basis for a separation of the sublime from the low and every-day, for they are indissolubly connected in Christ’s very life and suffering. Nor is there any basis for concern with the unities of time, place, or action, for there is but one place – the world; and but one action – man’s fall and redemption.” (Mimesis, 158)
The enduring legacy of medieval religious plays and liturgical drama in Renaissance Theater is discussed in Auerbach’s ‘Adam and Eve’ chapter in Mimesis, where he elaborates on Dante’s learned explanation of typology. In his Letter XIII, To Cangrande della Scala, Dante describes the four levels of Scriptural exegesis with the example of Psalm 113: “In exitu Israel de Egipto, domus Iacob de populo barbaro, facta est Iudea sanctification eius, Israel potestas eius.”[ix] Mystery Plays and Passion Plays were grounded in a typological reading of Scripture and human history centered on the figures of Christ as the Messiah and the Virgin as New Eve, whereby every prophecy or prefiguration of the Old Testament finds its fulfillment in Christ’s Incarnation, Passion and Resurrection; His Second Advent and His Last Judgment. This is the orthodoxy represented in liturgical drama from the 14th century on – as discussed by Auerbach, who sees a fundamental similarity between liturgy and theater: the epic history of God’s Incarnation, Passion and Resurrection is daily reenacted in the Mass in a way similar to the modalities of dramatic art itself.
Auerbach defines the Biblical sublime[x] as a stylistic trait of the Logos of Scriptures, fundamentally new and revolutionary if compared to the classical tradition. Scripture unites sermo gravis and sermo remissus in perfect harmony of form and content: “In antique theory, the sublime and elevated style was called sermo gravis or sublimis; the low style was sermo remissus or humilis; the two had to be kept strictly separated. In the world of Christianity, on the other hand, the two are merged, especially in Christ’s Incarnation and Passion, which realize and combine sublimitas and humilitas in overwhelming measure.” Sublimitas and humilitas are categories at the same time theological and aesthetic: “the antithetical fusion of the two was emphasized, as early as the patristic period, as a characteristic of Holy Scripture – especially by Augustine.”[xi] According to Auerbach, “the true and distinctive greatness of Holy Scripture [is] that it had created an entirely new kind of sublimity, in which the everyday and the low were included, not excluded, so that, in style and content, it directly connected the lowest with the highest.”[xii] The Biblical sublime is thus characterized by an unfathomable simplicity, which functions as the mirror image of God’s unfathomable Simplicity, God being One and always equal to Himself – cf. Mal 3:6, Heb 13:8, Rev 1:8 – Simple and Infinite, and infinitely complex. “The Scriptural sublime tends to be ‘simple’ as God Himself is Simple, that is, One. At the same time, Scriptures contain riddles and mysteries which can only be understood by the humble and faithful – metaphorically, by those admitted in through the keys of St Peter [cf. “I give you praise, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although You have hidden these things from the wise and the learned, You have revealed them to the childlike. Yes, Father, such has been Your gracious Will,” Lk 10:21] It is only through the keys of faith and humility that man gains insight [cf. Augustine, Confessions, 3,5; 6,5; De Trinitate, I; To Volusianus (137,18)]”[xiii]
The divine sublime is, in human terms, a paradox: a coincidentia oppositorum where the infinitely complex expresses itself through the infinitely simple; where the infinitely great can be found in the infinitely small, and vice versa – God is the Alpha and the Omega, “all in all” – as in the mystery of the Eucharist, where the boundless, infinite Creator is fully present in grains of wheat and drops of wine. The majestic incipit of John’s Gospel is perhaps the best example of this divine paradox – and in his long experience as the Chief Exorcist of the Holy See, Amorth confirms that this passage has the power to terrorize demons: “In the Beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through Him, and without Him nothing came to be. And what came to be with Him was life, and this life was the light of the human race. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (Jn 1:1-5)
This unity of opposites characterizes both the Biblical sublime and the medieval religious plays that take inspiration from it: “The medieval Christian drama falls perfectly within this tradition [of Scriptural sublime simplicity]. Being a living representation of Biblical episodes as contained, with their innately dramatic elements, in the liturgy, it opens its arms invitingly to receive the simple and untutored and to lead them from the concrete, the everyday, to the hidden and the true – precisely as did the great plastic art of the medieval churches which, according to E. Mâle’s well-known theory, is supposed to have received decisive stimuli from the mysteries, that is, from religious drama. […] The scenes which render everyday contemporary life… are then fitted into a Biblical and world-historical frame by whose spirit they are pervaded… the spirit… of the figural interpretation of history. This implies that every occurrence, in all its everyday reality, is simultaneously a part in a world-historical context through which each part is related to every other, and thus is likewise to be regarded as being of all times or above all time.” [xiv]
For Shakespeare’s theater in the Renaissance, the implications are clear. More than applying unrealistic constrictions of time and place on the plot, it is necessary to consider that “every occurrence” in Salvation History “is simultaneously a part in a world-historical context, through which each part is related to every other, and thus is likewise to be regarded as being of all times or above all time” – a particular design forever present in God’s Mind.
The individual tragedies of everyday life and the majestic, tragic movement of universal history both fit into a typological interpretation of reality whose mystical center is the Incarnation, Passion and Resurrection of Christ. With this, God brings us the possibility of redemption after the tragedy of the original sin. He does so with the tragedy of His own martyrdom and death, as a prefiguration of our own. God is the omnipresent I AM, inside and outside time – which is only one of His creatures. Hence Biblical typology covers human history from Creation to the Last Judgment: “[b]efore His appearance, there are the characters and events of the Old Testament… in which the coming of the Saviour is figurally revealed. […] After Christ’s Incarnation and Passion there are the saints, intent upon following in his footsteps, and Christianity… Christ’s promised bride, awaiting the return of the Bridegroom.”[xv]
The drama of bloody human history thus acquires meaning in relation to the Christological drama: “this great drama contains everything that occurs in world history. In it… there is no basis for a separation of the sublime from the low and every-day, for they are indissolubly connected in Christ’s very life and suffering. Nor is there any basis for concern with the unities of time, place, or action, for there is but one place – the world; and but one action – man’s fall and redemption.” For medieval audiences, every episode of Sacred History implied the whole, which was always “borne in mind and figuratively represented.”[xvi]
Auerbach reminds us that the Mystery and Passion Plays as mimesis of the typological vision of history are a powerful dynamic force, both religious and socio-political, “from the fourteenth century on.”[xvii] This derivation from late medieval theater is exceptionally important for Shakespeare and Shakespearean criticism, since the author was accused, over the centuries, of transgressing the Aristotelian unities of time and place, if not of action. In fact, Shakespeare is faithful to the more influential tradition of Christian liturgical drama in which Aristotle himself found meaning as one of the high points of natural light before the divine Light of Revelation.
If every event in the course of human history finds its true significance in light of the Christological epic, it follows that the more realistic way to represent reality is to focus on the unity of action, presenting every event in the context of Salvation History. In his day Shakespeare was similar in this to Lope de Vega (1562 -1635), one of the authors of the Spanish Golden Age. In his “defiant and humorous Arte Nuevo de hacer comedias en este tiempo (1609), Lope proclaimed his freedom from Aristotelian strictures, abandoning the rigors of what a play ‘should’ be in favor of plays that appealed to the varied audiences of the public playhouses or corrales, where aristocrat and commoner coincided.”[xviii]
Hamlet and demonology, “in this distracted globe”
The hermeneutic key to Hamlet is the identity of the ghost. The tragedy revolves around the identity of the apparition – either divine or demonic. Because demons and demonic subjects can also say the truth, the decisive factor is not, as Hamlet erroneously assumes, to ascertain whether the apparition does, or does not, speak truthfully: “I’ll have the players/ Play something like the murder of my father… If [Claudius] but blench,/ I know my course” (II, ii, 509-600). As spiritual creatures unconstrained by material limits and boundaries, demons have the power to know concealed truths – facts whose knowledge they acquire through the exercise of their intellectual activity, which is superior to that of human beings, as Augustine and Aquinas clarify in their discussions of the principles of Demonology (Chapter Two). Knowing the truth about certain events is irrelevant in terms of discernment between a divine or demonic apparition, e.g. demons know that they are doomed to defeat – the first time with the Passion and Resurrection of Christ; the second time with Christ’s defeat of the Antichrist during the Second Advent; the third and final time with the Last Judgment at the end of human history – and yet they do not cease to be demons only because they know their end. Hence Hamlet is very much misguided when he assumes that comparing the message of the apparition with the facts will enlighten him on the best course of action:
“I’ll have these players
Play something like the murder of my father
Before mine uncle. I’ll observe his looks,
I’ll tent him to the quick. If a but blench,
I know my course. The spirit that I have seen
May be the devil, and the devil hath power
T’assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps,
Out of my weakness and my melancholy –
As he is very potent with such spirits –
Abuses me to damn me.” (II, ii, 596-605)
The misguided Prince has a correct intuition: “The spirit that I have seen/ May be the devil, and the devil hath power/ T’assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps,/ Out of my weakness and my melancholy –/ As he is very potent with such spirits –/ Abuses me to damn me.” (II, ii, 600-605) Remembering perhaps his own study of Scripture, the numerous sermons heard and people’s common knowledge, cf. Ranald’s socio-cultural context (1987), Hamlet understands that there is a real possibility he might have witnessed a demonic apparition.
How can we realize that the “ghost” is not a penitent soul from Purgatory, but a demon? In his first Letter, John the Evangelist explains: “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come into the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the Antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world.” (1 Jn 4:1-3) This is the hermeneutic key to spiritual discernment: the Logos. The Logos warns: “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but underneath are ravenous wolves. By their fruits you will know them. Do people pick grapes from thorn-bushes, or figs from thistles? Just so, every good tree bears good fruit, and a rotten tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a rotten tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. So by their fruits you will know them.” (Mt 7:15-20) By his own words the “ghost” betrays his demonic identity – by what he says and what he compels Hamlet to do against God’s Law.
It is against the Law of God to kill and take revenge for crimes suffered. A penitent soul in Purgatory is and always will be in the grace of God. Hence it is impossible that a soul who has been saved and lives in the grace of God should instruct a human being to break the Law of God: “You shall not kill” is the fifth commandment of the Tables of the Law (Ex 20:13, cf. Mt 5:21). Furthermore, vengeance is a prerogative of God as the only righteous Judge: “’Vengeance is Mine; I will repay,’ says the Lord.” (Rm 12:14-19, cf. Lv 19:18; Dt 32:35-41; Mt 5:39; 1 Cor 6:6-7; Heb 10:30) Instead of taking revenge, human beings must forgive: “I say to you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times” (Mt 18:22); “Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against your fellow countrymen. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” (Lv 19:18) Hamlet fails to comprehend or to remember this crucial principle, that a saved soul living in the grace of God in Purgatory could never compel a human being to break God’s Law. Therefore Hamlet fails to realize that the apparition is not of divine origin, but demonic: “the devil… perhaps… abuses me to damn me.” (II, ii, 601-605)
As Hamlet himself writes in The Mousetrap, for the player king impersonating the deceased King Hamlet, “Purpose is but the slave to memory” (III, ii, 179), which also means that human beings cannot act appropriately if they do not remember an essential piece of information because they have erased it from the “table of [their] memory” (I, v, 98) as Hamlet does after the apparition, swearing loyalty to a demon and effectively entering the Satanic Pact.
The effects of the pact with the devil are devastating. As we have seen, after entering the Satanic Pact with the demonic subject Iago, Othello’s reason and intellect are clouded and he is led to destruction and self-destruction. In the same way, Hamlet’s intellectual ability is damaged by the association with a demon, now “grafted” (Rm 11) onto his human spirit. It is therefore with prophetic words – “O my prophetic soul!” (I, v, 41) – that Hamlet describes his oppressed mind as a “distracted globe.” (I, v, 97) The fact that this line is also an autobiographical reference to Shakespeare himself, with his Globe Theater, may indicate that the author knew the spiritual predicament of his protagonist – hence the symbolic title of this section, “in this distracted globe.” The things Hamlet forgets about God and the supernatural bring him to ruin.
As we are going to see in the following discussion, Hamlet as a tragedy has many secrets. This is perhaps the greatest secret of Hamlet and the first thing that Hamlet forgets: forgiveness. To give due honor to God, human beings must live according to God’s Law, and the Logos commands them to forgive: ““This is how you are to pray: ‘Our Father in Heaven, hallowed be Your Name…. and forgive us our debts,/ as we forgive our debtors;/ and do not subject us to the final test,/ but deliver us from the evil one.’ If you forgive others their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions.” (Mt 6:9-15); “Then Peter approaching asked him: ‘Lord, if my brother sins against me, how many times must I forgive him, as many as seven times?’ Jesus answered, ‘I say to you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. That is why the Kingdom of Heaven may be likened to a king who decided to settle accounts with his servants… The master summoned [the wicked servant] and said: ‘You, wicked servant! I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me to. Should you not have had pity on your fellow servants, as I had pity on you?’ Then in anger his master handed him over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt. So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives his brother from the heart.” (Mt 18:21-35)
The law of forgiveness is part of the double commandment of love, toward God and toward the other: “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. The second is like it. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole Law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.” (Mt 22:37-40); hence the Golden Rule: “Do to others whatever you would have them do to you. This is the Law and the prophets.” (Mt 7:12) This is God’s code of honor, the opposite of man’s code of honor based on pride and revenge.
As in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:25-37) – the Samaritan representing an enemy who rescues a victim left to die on the street – the heart of the Catholic faith is charity toward God and charity and forgiveness toward the other. Also Paul exhorts to be “one in Christ” and “live… in a manner worthy of the call you have received, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another through love, striving to preserve the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace: one Body and one Spirit, as you were also called to the one hope of your call; one Lord; one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” (Eph 4:1-7) As discussed in Chapter One, Hamlet remembers the beautiful expressions “all in all” to describe his father (I, ii, 186) but not its correct context of forgiveness. The Letter to the Romans expresses the same concept of forgiveness, with the added injunction to obey temporal authority: “Bless those who persecute you, bless and do not curse them… Do not repay anyone evil for evil… live at peace with all. Beloved, do not look for revenge but avoid wrath for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ Rather, if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head. Do not be conquered by evil, but conquer evil with good. Let every person be subordinate to the higher authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been established by God [cf. divine right of kings]” (Rm 12:14-21, 13:1).
This is God’s Law of charity, forgiveness and obedience to the higher authorities that Hamlet tragically “wipe[s] away” from “the table of [his] memory” (I, v, 98-99).
And this is another important secret of Hamlet: the only way for human beings to help penitent souls – not only their family members, friends and acquaintances, but also, with an important act of forgiveness, their deceased enemies – is by indulgence, including holy masses and prayer. There is no other way. The condition of King Hamlet’s soul, if saved, certainly cannot be improved by taking vengeance on a living man or committing other sins against God’s Law, but only by taking indulgences for his liberation and the remission of his sins.
In Catholic orthodoxy, indulgences are important works of mercy both toward the living and the dead. For the living, partial or plenary indulgences are meant for the partial or complete remission of temporal punishment for sins committed; for the dead, they provide liberation from the expiatory punishments of Purgatory.[xix] Indulgences take their efficacy from the infinite merits of the Passion of Christ, as the only “guilt offering” acceptable to the Father on behalf of fallen humanity, cf. 2 Maccabees 12:38-46. As we saw in the dedicated section of Chapter One, the orthodox doctrine of Purgatory and indulgences[xx] is an important theme in Shakespeare, both historically, due to the persecution of Catholics; and artistically, since he symbolically represented this favorite theme in numerous plays including his two masterpieces Hamlet and The Tempest.
It is interesting to notice that both Hamlet and The Tempest are set in the Catholic past and that the protagonists of The Tempest also come from a Catholic country. As a key element of the plot, both plays feature the Divine and the Satanic, e.g. the divine injunction to forgive enemies; angelic Ariel and demonic Caliban, etc. With the practice of indulgences, the faithful demonstrate their good will to follow God’s commandment to love and to forgive others in word and deed: “As you from crimes would pardoned be,/ Let your indulgence set me free.” (The Tempest Epilogue, 19-20) Hence the significance that Shakespeare recognized in this doctrine – quite symbolically, he made it the center-piece of his spiritual testament in Prospero’s Epilogue:
“Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant;
And my ending is despair
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so, that it assaults
Mercy itself, and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardoned be,
Let your indulgence set me free.”
(The Tempest Epilogue, 13-20)
Greenblatt observed that in Shakespeare’s time, “indulgence” had “the specific, technical sense that it still possesses in Catholic theology: the Church’s spiritual power to remit punishment due to sin;”[xxi] also Beauregard remarked that “[i]n the religious context of Jacobean England and the court of James I, ‘indulgence’ was obviously an important and risky word, a word fraught with powerful theological implications to which Shakespeare could not have been insensitive.”[xxii]
The doctrine of indulgences is crucial to understand Shakespeare’s masterpiece Hamlet and especially the psychology of the “distracted” Prince, which after the Satanic Pact with the “ghost” becomes another instance of what Hazlitt calls “diseased intellectual activity.”[xxiii] Hamlet himself agrees: “My wit’s diseased.” (III, ii, 308) As in Greek tragedy the disparity of knowledge between audience and characters had the welcome effect of creating more pathos – dealing with traditional stories, the audience knew more than the characters – so in Renaissance England, Shakespeare’s audience knew better than the Prince that only indulgences have the power to liberate penitent souls from the post mortem expiation of Purgatory. The same uneven situation that characterizes classical tragedy is masterfully reproduced for Hamlet, with a disparity of knowledge between the audience and the “distracted” Prince that used to make the tragedy even more tragic. As we have seen in Chapter One, Shakespeare uses this device very effectively, making the audience feel in control and at the same time very sorry for the Prince who, by contrast, appears as a tragic example of foolishness. This is especially true if we consider that the name Gertrude is that of an eminent saint and mystic, Gertrude the Great (1256-1302), traditionally associated with indulgences and works of mercy in favor of the penitent souls of Purgatory.[xxiv] Once again, Shakespeare hides essential things in plain sight, in this case the solution to the problem of Hamlet’s revenge and his desire to help his father.
The commoners attending Shakespeare’s Globe in the 16th – 17th century were aware of the facts of religious survival; but after entering the Satanic Pact, Hamlet’s memory and capacity for reason are greatly diminished. After wiping away “all trivial records” (I, v, 99) from his memory, Hamlet does not remember the tragic fate of King Saul (1 Sam 28-31) who was harshly punished by God for conjuring up ghosts, i.e. demons, which is a sin of idolatry against the first commandment inscribed in the Tables – “My tables,/ My tables” (I, v, 107-108) – of the Mosaic Law:
When Saul saw the Philistine camp, he grew afraid and lost heart completely. He consulted the Lord, but the Lord gave no answer, neither in dreams… nor through prophets. Then Saul said to his servants, ‘Find me a medium through whom I can seek counsel.’ His servants answered him, ‘There is a woman in Endor who is a medium.’
So he disguised himself, putting on other clothes, and set out with two companions. They came to the woman at night, and Saul said to her, ‘Divine for me, conjure up the spirit I tell you.’ But the woman answered him, ‘You know what Saul has done, how he expelled the mediums and diviners from the land. Then why are you trying to entrap me and get me killed?’
But Saul swore to her by the Lord, ‘As the Lord lives, you shall incur no blame for this.’ ‘Whom do you want me to conjure up?’ the woman asked him. ‘Conjure up Samuel [the prophet] for me,’ he replied.
When the woman saw Samuel, she shrieked out at the top of her voice and said to Saul, ‘Why have you deceived me? You are Saul!’ But the King said to her, ‘Do not be afraid. What do you see?’ She replied: ‘I see a god rising from the earth.’ ‘What does he look like”’ asked Saul. ‘An old man is coming up wrapped in a robe,’ she replied. Saul knew that this was Samuel, and so he bowed his face to the ground in homage.
Samuel then said to Saul, ‘Why do you disturb me by conjuring me up? […] Why do you ask me if the Lord has abandoned you for your neighbor? The Lord has done to you what he declared through me: he has torn the kingdom from your hand and has given it to your neighbor David. […] Moreover, the Lord will deliver Israel, and you as well, into the hands of the Philistines. By tomorrow you and your sons will be with me, and the Lord will have delivered the army of Israel into the hands of the Philistines.’ Immediately Saul fell full length on the ground, in great fear because of Samuel’s message. (1 Sm 28:5-20)
Because of this sin of idolatry, God punishes Saul by abandoning him to desperation. The king breaks the Mosaic Law again and takes his own life by falling on his sword – “Thus Saul, his three sons, and his armor-bearer died together on the same day” (1 Sm 31:6) in a scene of general massacre like Hamlet’s final scene. It is clear that the Scriptural record greatly influenced Shakespeare in the composition of his masterpiece. “An old man is coming up wrapped in a robe” (1 Sm 28:14) seems to be the Scriptural referent for Hamlet’s “ghost.” Shakespeare also recreates the same effect on the audience/readers. The one question: “Is the spirit conjured up by the medium the actual soul of the deceased prophet Samuel, or is it something else?” mirrors the other: “Is the ghostly apparition the actual soul of the deceased King Hamlet, or is it something else?” It is something else.
As Ophelia laments – “O what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!/ The courtier’s, soldier’s, scholar’eye, tongue, sword,/ Th’expectancy and rose of the fair state/ The glass of fashion and the mould of form,/ Th’observed of all observers, quite, quite down!” (III, i, 153-157) – Hamlet was on the road to become the perfect Renaissance Prince. Assuming ignorance of Sacred Scripture for Hamlet – or for his audience – is not credible. If the Prince had not “wipe[d] away” from his memory “[a]ll saws of books, all forms, all pressures past” (I, v, 99-100), the historical record of King Saul’s tragic fate would have helped him to understand the reality beyond the deceiving appearances. He would have remembered that from a theological perspective, divination and idolatry are mortal sins against the first commandment – it is a mortal sin to conjure up “ghosts” and/or to obey their injunctions, cf. “thy commandment alone shall live/ Within the book and volume of my brain/ Unmixed with baser matter.” (I, v, 102-104)
All these concepts were quite clear to Renaissance audiences. In addition to Scripture being the only commonly shared text and cultural background for all audiences at the time, particularly after the religious schism, Christianity became a matter of life and death. Hence, beside the Bible, an important text which contributed to popularize the established Catholic orthodoxy on “ghosts” as demonic apparitions, and make it literally common knowledge, was King James’ Daemonologie, in forme of a Dialogue, divided into three Bookes (1597), introduced in Chapter One from a historical perspective with references to the North Berwick witches and the accusations against the Earl of Bothwell.
James’ Daemonologie restates the established Catholic orthodoxy on Demonology, condemning superstition, the practice of magic and “ghostly apparitions” as the work of Satan and his demonic legions. As previously noted (Chapter One, n. 77), his only “innovations” are on the one hand the negation of exorcism as a means to fight demonic agency in human life; and on the other, the projection of the figure of the Great Babylon on Rome and of the Antichrist on the line of Catholic Popes. Without any intellectual tradition to refer to apart from the previous fifteen centuries of Catholic scholarship, it is an established fact of scholarship that James followed the prominent Catholic intellectual Jean Bodin (Démonomanie des Sorciers, 1580) and the Dominicans Krämer and Sprenger – whose Malleus Maleficarum (1486) became, in the centuries to follow, the most influential text for the trial and punishment of many actual practitioners of sorcery (Rev 22:15), and the persecution and martyrdom of many more innocent victims.[xxv] As Silvani remarks, the Daemonologie inevitably had a great impact on contemporary English culture.[xxvi] The book represented the monarch’s definitive political statement on a dangerous and controversial topic, the Satanic Pact and the practice of Satanic magic, which King James saw as a form of terrorism against his person and which caused a number of people both in England and abroad to be accused and “interrogated” – including, as we have seen, the wife of the burgomaster of Copenhagen… As discussed in Chapter One with reference to Ranald’s research on Shakespeare’s socio-cultural context (Shakespeare and His Social Context; Essays in Osmotic Knowledge and Literary Interpretation, 1987), King James’ subjects had a great personal interest, so to speak, in gaining knowledge of what pleased and displeased the monarch.
For all these reasons we can understand that Hamlet was much more intelligible to Renaissance audiences than it is to us now. Fortunately for Western countries – but this is not universally true on a global scale – Christianity is not a matter of life and death. On the other hand, in the process of becoming almost completely secularized, contemporary society has also become proud of its Scriptural ignorance, believing the postmodern dogma that there is no truth, cf. Allan Bloom: “the last, predictable stage in the suppression of reason and the denial of the possibility of truth in the name of philosophy.”[xxvii]
With an average Scriptural knowledge superior to ours, and “osmotic” knowledge of Demonology due to the climate of religious terror, Renaissance audiences possessed some crucial information on the “ghost” that Shakespeare’s protagonist instead does not possess, and without which he cannot properly evaluate his existential situation and take a successful course of action. The demonic nature of the ghost is demonstrated by the fact that it compels a human being to kill against the fifth commandment (Ex 20:13) and to take revenge instead of forgiving (Mt 18:22), vengeance being a prerogative of the omnipotent and omniscient God – “’Vengeance is Mine; I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Rom. 12:19, cf. Lv. 19:18; Dt. 32: 35-36; Mt 5:39; 1 Cor 6, 6-7; Heb. 10:30).[xxviii]
This is an essential feature of Hamlet that inscribes the play in the great European tradition of theater – Hamlet being particularly indebted to Sophocles’ Oedipus and Electra – which is symbolized in the Prince’s combined image of his French cothurni, “two Provençal roses on my razed shoes.” (III, ii, 264-265) While the “razed shoes” point to Greek tragedy, the two Provençal roses represent the great legacy of liturgical drama and courtly love – which Shakespeare merges in his syncretic, sublime theater as Dante did before him for the epic genre. Hamlet is a classic in a deep sense that goes beyond formalisms and reaches the core of the action, “my heart’s core… my heart of heart” (Hamlet III, ii, 71). In the best Greek tradition, the “distracted” Prince ignores what every scullery-maid in the audience would have known at the time – which makes his character a tragic mixture of intelligence and foolishness like Othello. Most of all, it makes his character very realistic, since in our time virtually everyone in the audience shares his existential situation of tragic ignorance. Hamlet is a prophecy of our times.
By swearing loyalty and submitting his free-will to a demon, Hamlet enters the Satanic Pact in the monologue of the first Act, fifth scene (vv. 92-113). To give space to the will of the demon, he wants to make his memory a tabula rasa. From the “table of [his] memory” (98) he wants to “wipe away” (99) all information previously acquired through his princely education, “[a]ll saws of books, all forms, all pressures past” (100). In order to follow the ghost’s “commandment all alone” (102), Hamlet erases from his heart the memory of God’s Commandments – “You shall not kill” (Ex 20:13) – as they were written by the Finger of God, the Holy Ghost, on the Tables of the Mosaic Law – “My tables,/ My tables” (107-108). Inscribed in the heart of man is the memory of God’s Law – as per Jeremiah: “this is the Covenant I will make with the house of Israel after those days, oracle of the Lord. I will place My Law within them and write it upon their hearts; I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” (Jer 31:33, cf. Heb 8:10, 10:16)
The Satanic significance of this compact is clear – not least because, in the more famous monologue of Act III, Hamlet admits that “[n]o traveller returns” from the netherworld: “the dread of something after death,/ The undiscovered country from whose bourn/ No traveller returns, puzzles the will” (III, i, 80-82). To understand his words as referring to the human spirit, that no human spirit can ever come back to earth after death, would imply a certain degree of knowledge, on Hamlet’s part, that the apparition is in fact a demon. What prevents us from reading his words in this light is the awareness that this is technically false. In Scripture, Christ infallibly prophesies that the spirit of Elijah “will indeed come and restore all things” before Christ’s future Coming in Glory, and that he had come in the person of John of the Baptist before the Birth of the Messiah to announce the Incarnation of the Logos for the salvation of humanity. But the Holy Spirit through whom John spoke was not acknowledged: “’but I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him [i.e. in the Forerunner] but did to him whatever they pleased. So also will the Son of Man suffer at their hands.’ So the disciples understood that He was speaking to them of John the Baptist.” (Mt 17:10-13) If we understand Hamlet’s words literally instead, that no mortal can ever come back to earth with his physical body, then Hamlet is technically right. How much does Hamlet know? How much does he know about the Satanic Pact? Can we speak in his case of a conversion au reverse, a willing choice for evil, a turning of his human heart and free-will to Mammon, as for Iago?
The demon tempts Hamlet as Claudius tempts Laertes: “What would you undertake/ To show yourself your father’s son in deed/ More than in words?” Laertes rashly replies: “To cut his throat i’th’ church” (IV, vii, 99) – and yet before dying he makes the salvific offer of forgiveness: “Exchange forgiveness with me, noble Hamlet./ Mine and my father’s death come not upon thee,/ Nor thine on me.” (V, ii, 281-283) In a similar way, Hamlet is rash in his initial acceptance of the ghost’s “commandment” and seems ready to give in to demonic temptation. And yet his hesitation demonstrates that he has more than one doubt. As he writes in The Mousetrap with meta-autobiographic words: “I do believe you think what now you speak;/ But what we do determine oft we break./ Purpose is but the slave to memory,/ Of violent birth but poor validity,/ Which now like fruit unripe sticks on the tree,/ But fall unshaken when they mellow be./ Most necessary ‘tis that we forget/ To pay ourselves what to ourselves is debt./ What to ourselves in passion we propose,/ The passion ending, doth the purpose lose” (III, ii, 177-186). Once again, Shakespeare hides things in plain sight. Hamlet’s vow to the ghost is “[o]f violent birth but poor validity,” and what he needs most is to remember how to forgive: “Most necessary ‘tis that we forget/ To pay ourselves what to ourselves is debt.” Hamlet knows the Christian injunction to forgive our debtors – can he “show [himself] [his] father’s son in deed/ More than in words?”
Perhaps the key to another secret in the play, the time-honored critical problem of Hamlet’s hesitation, is encapsulated in his oscillation between knowledge and denial of the demon on the one hand, i.e. the knowledge that “no traveller” ever “returns” from death; and on the other hand the willingness to deny the truth in order to satisfy his pride, wrath and ambition. It is in fact not only the sense of bereavement for his father’s murder that prompts Hamlet to revenge, but also his deep-rooted pride and the desire to sit on the throne – the self-interest always hidden in the human code of honor. As he reveals to Rosencrantz, asking: “Good my lord, what is the cause of your distemper?” – “I lack advancement.” (III, ii, 324-327)
With the Satanic Pact, a demon is “grafted” (Rm 11) on Hamlet’s soul and he experiences a spiritual and intellectual downfall. Satan is the Negation of God, embodying the opposite of every positive attribute of God. God is Being, Satan is non-being; God is Reason and the source of all genius, Satan is madness and the source of all misapprehensions. The demon now acts through Hamlet, not unlike a cancer feeding on his body, as Hamlet says to Laertes before the entire court, publicly asking for his forgiveness:
“And you must needs have heard, how I am punished
With sore distraction. What I have done…
I here proclaim was madness.
Was’t Hamlet wronged Laertes? Never Hamlet.
If Hamlet from himself be ta’en away,
And when he’s not himself does wrong Laertes,
Then Hamlet does it not, Hamlet denies it.
Who does it then? His madness. If’t be so,
Hamlet is of the faction that is wronged.
His madness is poor Hamlet’s enemy.” (V, ii, 183-185)
Through demonic agency, Hamlet is not a free human being anymore but acts under compulsion like a “mechanic slave.”[xxix] His words to Ophelia are therefore tragically ironic: “Thine evermore, most dear lady, whilst this/ machine is to him” (II, ii, 122-123); and Polonius is correct when he warns Ophelia that Hamlet’s “will is not his own” (I, iii, 17). The Satanic Pact is the turning-point of Hamlet’s life, that which determines all his subsequent actions – his future as well as the future of every other character. This crucial event is the “immovable mover” of the tragedy, the center of gravity and kernel of causality that brings into being all the chain of tragic events to follow. But is Hamlet aware of having entered the Satanic Pact? Does he know the consequences of his actions? Is he conscious of the fact that by binding himself to a demon he will face failure and damnation? Does he know the tragic irony of his own prophetic words: “one may smile and smile and be a villain” (I, v, 109) – as they may be applied to himself?
Hamlet does have discernment of human hypocrisy: “Let the candied tongue lick absurd pomp” (III, ii, 58 ff.) – but does he have discernment of spirits? Is he aware that, by committing himself to a demonic will, he will help to realize a demonic plan? Does he have full awareness of the fact that he is fatefully going against God’s Will?
Despite all possible doubts that may assail his conscience,[xxx] Hamlet wants to live in the illusion that he is acting to defend his father’s honor, and therefore that he is doing something honorable – like Othello, he can also say: “For naught I did in hate, but all in honour.” (V, ii, 301) A slave of his own passions like Othello, Hamlet wants to believe that murder is the correct course of action, hence with an act of the will he silences all doubts emerging from his conscience – as he prophetically says to Horatio: “Give me that man/ That is not passion’s slave, and I will wear him/ In my heart’s core, ay, in my heart of heart,/ As I do thee.” (III, ii, 54-72)
Hamlet acts compulsively driven by his passions and “diseased” wit (III, ii, 308), without recognizing the origin of his own thoughts – whether godly and sensible, or rather satanic and destructive. His passions are overwhelming: he must bear the feeling of bereavement for his father’s murder; the disgust at his mother’s betrayal; and the frustration of his own ambition, having been robbed of his legitimate position. In Laertes’s image he sees himself; and yet, unlike Laertes, he would never poison his sword to cheat in a duel, or cut Claudius’s throat “i’th’ church” (IV, vii, 99) – and in fact he spares Claudius’s life while he is praying, or trying to.
This gives Hamlet a fundamental claim to innocence, reinforced by his offer of forgiveness to Laertes before the duel – “Give me your pardon, sir. I’ve done you wrong;/ But pardon’t as you are a gentleman” (V, ii, 172-173); as well as by his last prayer to Horatio – “O God, Horatio, what wounded name,/ Things standing thus unknown, shall live behind me! If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart,/… tell my story” (V, ii, 296-301).
It was not difficult enough to explore and represent the intricacies of the human mind swayed by demonic agency – Shakespeare’s genius had to strive for the absolute, creating the poetic mimesis of an existential dilemma which is unfortunately very common: what happens when human beings are driven into sin and self-destruction not by their own negative free-will, but by the spiritual poverty in which they live? Hamlet has no willingness to enter the Satanic Pact, least of all out of sheer love of evil; but he enters it mainly out of ignorance and compulsive rashness, following a satanic will – hence to which type of demonic agency does he subject himself?
As we saw in Chapter Two, demonic oppression is the most common and arguably the most dangerous form of demonic agency. It is not as spectacular as demonic possession or demonic vexation; hence it tends to be ignored or confused with other ailments that commonly afflict body and mind, while comprehension of these dynamics is often made impossible by maleficium and a general lack of information on this subject. In this way, the victims of demonic oppression are not aware of being victims, of having being cursed or having inherited a generational curse, cf. Deuteronomy 5:8-10.[xxxi] Such misinformation has tragic effects, as the victims of demonic oppression are unable to evaluate their situation and take effective decisions, exactly like Hamlet.
Shakespeare’s genius manages to render the complications of real life. He explores the perplexing space and gray moral area between demonic subjugation, which is a willing subjection to Satan with complete renunciation to eternal life in God; and demonic oppression, which is a state of spiritual victimhood caused by maleficium, allowed by the permissive Will of God in that it can produce repentance and salvation. Unfortunately this situation is very common in times of religious crisis, when the mores are decadent and corrupt as in Elsinore’s castle. If we realize that Shakespeare was able to merge these ponderous insights, theological and existential, with a critique of political corruption and a meta-discourse on his mimetic art as a realistic “mirror up to nature,” it is difficult to imagine a more complex subject matter and a more sublime result.
As Longinus writes, “sublimity is the echo of a noble mind;” “a grand style is the natural product of those whose ideas are weighty;”[xxxii] Longinus sees the sublime as a divine gift which transcends human nature and brings it closer to God, and in this the classical sublime is in perfect accordance with the Biblical sublime: “all these heaven-sent gifts – it would be impious to call them human;”[xxxiii] “What then was the vision of those demigods who aimed only at what is greatest in writing and scorned detailed accuracy? This above all: Nature…from the first breathed into our hearts an unconquerable passion for whatever is great and more divine than ourselves;”[xxxiv] “In dealing with writers of genius… sublimity lifts them near the mighty Mind of God. Correctness escapes censure; greatness earns admiration.”[xxxv] Had they been remembered by the critics, these classical definitions of the sublime could have avoided centuries of post mortem defamation of the artist – as Coleridge wrote in Shakespeare’s Judgment Equal to His Genius (1808):
“In nine places out of ten in which I find his awful name mentioned, it is with some epithet of “wild,” “irregular,” “pure child of nature” […]
Every critic, who has or has not made a collection of black letter books, in itself a useful and respectable amusement, puts on the seven-league boots of self-opinion and strides at once from an illustrator into a supreme judge, and blind and deaf, fills his three-ounce phial at the waters of the Niagara – and determines positively the greatness of the cataract to be neither more nor less than his three-ounce phial has been able to receive.”
The “waters of the Niagara” cannot be contained in a “three-ounce phial,” and blindness does not eliminate the sun from the vault of heaven.
To end our discussion of Demonology we should now ask ourselves: “What prevents Hamlet from immediately recognizing the ghost as a demon?” “Is he aware of the consequences of his rash action?” “What are the laws, the customs and the historical facts that he forgets by “wip[ing] out” the “table of [his] memory” (I, v, 98-99)[xxxvi]? “Are there better alternatives to his course of action?”
First of all, why was Hamlet unable to recognize the demon as such? To recognize the demon he only needed knowledge of Sacred Scripture – not The Mousetrap, a most unwise choice which revealed to Claudius that his crime was a known fact, hence the king’s decision to send Hamlet to his death in England (IV, iii, 39-70). Shakespeare’s contemporary Thomas Nashe offers a possible answer to this question. In The Unfortunate Traveller (1593), his satirical “fantastical treatise” dedicated to the Earl of Southampton, he gives a sidesplitting description of Wittenberg’s university, playing on what was common knowledge at the time – as there is no satire without a cultural background of commonly shared referents. Nashe’s Wittenberg is run by the private interests of its “mechanical” corporations and by the “hooded hypocrisy” of its “great heads” – perfectly ignorant, but skilled at plagiarizing Cicero. As the story goes, Nashe’s alter ego Jack Wilton and his noble patron arrive in Wittenberg when the Duke of Saxony is being welcomed by the city’s scholars and members of the corporations:
“At the very point of our entrance into Wittenberg, we were spectators of a very solemn scholastical entertainment of the Duke of Saxony thither. Whom – because he was the chief patron of their university, and had took [sic] Luther’s part in banishing the Mass and all like papal jurisdiction out of their town – they crouched unto extremely.
The chief ceremonies of their entertainment were these: first, the heads of their university (they were great heads, certainly) met him in their hooded hypocrisy and doctorly accoutrements, secundum formum statuti, where by the orator of the university… a very learned… oration was delivered… signifying thus much – that it was all by patch and by piecemeal stolen out of Tully… for they did it not in any ostentation of wit (which God knows, they had not) […]
Some three half-pennyworth of Latin here also had [the Duke] thrown at his face, but it was choice stuff, I can tell you, as there is a choice even among rags gathered up from the dung-hill. At the town’s end met him the burghers and dunstical incorporationers [members of the corporations] of Wittenberg in their distinguished liveries; their distinguished livery faces, I mean, for they were most of them hot-livered drunkards and had all the coat colors of sanguine, purple, crimson, copper, carnation, that were to be had, in their countenances. Filthy knaves, no cost had they bestowed on the town for his welcome, saving new-painted their houghs [taverns] and boozing-houses, which commonly are fairer than their churches…
[The spokesman for the corporations delivers his speech:] “Mechanical men they call us, and not amiss, for most of us being Maechi [Gr. moechi, adulterers, with an equivocation on the Mecca], that is, cuckolds and whoremasters, fetch our antiquity from the temple of Maecha, where Mahomet was hung up.
Three parts of the world, America, Affrike, and Asia, are of this our mechanical religion. Nero, when he cried O quantus artifex pereo, professed himself of our freedom, insomuch as artifex is a citizen or craftsman, as well as carnifex a scholar or hangman. Pass on by leave into the precincts of our abomination.”[xxxvii]
This is just a bite of Nashe’s satire on Wittenberg, the center of Luther’s schism. Clearly the Earl of Southampton belonged to one of the many families with Catholic sympathies, or Nashe would have lost his life right then and there – let alone receiving financial support from him. And indeed it takes more than a couple of generations to reconvert a whole country after fifteen-hundred years of established Catholic orthodoxy. In this complex cultural context, Wittenberg’s reputation was certainly not the best. It was common knowledge at the time that the city was run by corporations connected with the university, constituted for the most part by “mechanical men” of a “mechanical religion.”[xxxviii] This religion, which Nashe associates with the religious schism of “Mahomet” and the “abomination” prophesied by Daniel (Dn 12:11), is as contrary to God as the “freedom” of Nero, and as contrary to civilization as “America, Affrike, and Asia” could appear to an educated Englishman at the time. With this “mechanical religion,” the “incorporationers” were well-versed in every capital vice available in the catalogue: their “boozing-houses” were “fairer than their churches” and they themselves were “filthy knaves,” “cuckolds and whoremasters.” Regarding the scholars of Wittenberg, Nashe describes them as “hangmen” and carnifeces, noting that they were remarkably wit-less but adept at plagiarizing Cicero,[xxxix] fostering irreligion,[xl] and dabbling in magic.[xli]
It is remarkable that this satirical description of Wittenberg is immediately preceded by a passage on the Catholic martyr Thomas More and the corruption of “great kingdoms” like England and “principalities” like those controlled by the German Princes. Nashe describes these kingdoms and principalities as “great piracies” – a punning reference to Francis Drake and his deadly trade – run by a “manifest conspiracy of rich men against poor men, procuring their own unlawful commodities under the name and interest of commonwealth.” His description sheds further light on the connection between Wittenberg’s corporations and its university, where poor Hamlet spent his money to buy an education:
Quick-witted Sir Thomas More travelled in a clean contrary province, for he seeing most commonwealths corrupted by ill custom, and that principalities were nothing but great piracies which, gotten by violence and murther, were maintained by private undermining and bloodshed, that in the chiefest flourishing kingdoms there was no equal or well-divided weal one with another, but a manifest conspiracy of rich men against poor men, procuring their own unlawful commodities under the name and interest of commonwealth, he concluded with himself to lay down a perfect plot of a commonwealth or government which he would entitle his Utopia [First Latin edition 1516, English translation 1551].
Now we see why Hamlet did not know his Scriptures as he should have, and why he was unable to discern between a penitent soul and a demon, between the divine command to forgive and a Satanic instigation to take revenge. John’s first Letter quoted above (1 Jn 4:1-3) helps to understand Hamlet’s ignorance and confusion in front of the “ghost.” John exhorts to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (1 Jn 4:1) denouncing the false prophets and false teachers who lead others to perdition. The Evangelist links the spirit of false prophecy to the spirit of the Antichrist, defined as anyone who lies denying the Truth of God and the divinity of Christ: “do not let anyone lead you astray” (1 Jn 3:7); “as you have heard that the Antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come… Who is the liar? It is the man who denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a man is the Antichrist – he denies the Father and the Son… I am writing these things to you about those who are trying to lead you astray.” (1 Jn 2:18-26) To recognize Christ as God means to live by His Logos and respect His Law, including the spiritual authority He bestows on Simon, His Vicar, renaming him Peter. (Mt 16:13-20) Christ warns: “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world because of things that cause sin! Such things must come, but woe to the one through whom they come!” (Mt 18:6-7)
A victim of misinformation and institutionalized impiety, Hamlet has developed an “impious stubbornness,” a “will most incorrect to heaven,” a “heart unfortified, a mind impatient” and especially “an understanding simple and unschooled” (I, ii, 94-97) – as Claudius remarks, mistaking the splinter for the wooden beam (Mt 7:3-5). Gertrude begs Hamlet: “Let not thy mother lose her prayers, Hamlet./ I pray thee stay with us, go not to Wittenberg” (118-119). Shakespeare’s irony often makes villains speak the truth in spite of themselves – and here Claudius plays the part of a “double-meaning prophesier” like Parolles (Chapter One) describing Hamlet’s spiritual situation, together with his own.
Of course Hamlet is set in a Catholic Denmark before the schism of Christianity, but mimetic art and in particular here Renaissance Theater is always a commentary on contemporary society (Knapp, 2002). The past is made to enlighten the present for the appreciation of contemporary audiences, as in Giotto’s frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel (1303-1305), such as the Slaughter of the Innocent, symbolically set in contemporary Florence to signify that crime repeats itself over and over again with the same modalities.
In this sense, the name of Wittenberg was in the 16th -17th century indissolubly linked with the origin of the religious schism, when Luther affixed on the door of Wittenberg’s Castle Church his 1517 Disputatio pro Declaratione Virtutis Indulgentiarum – dealing precisely with… the doctrine of indulgence, a key element of Hamlet’s plot. It is a masterstroke of genius for Shakespeare to have buried in Hamlet – as in the graveyard scene – the same doctrine of indulgences which originated the greatest schism of Christianity. Due to his ignorance of the doctrine of Purgatory and indulgences, Hamlet does not know how to help his father’s soul other than with murder. Certainly he could not have learned the truth about it in Wittenberg.
It is now essential to address the question of what it is that Hamlet “wipe[s] away” from his memory together with Scriptural knowledge and Catholic orthodoxy on indulgences and Purgatory – specifically the things that Hamlet forgets about history and the laws of his own country, and what the consequences are of this fateful memory loss, both for him and for all other characters who depend on his actions.
Hamlet forgets Isaiah’s advice to wait patiently – “By waiting and by calm you shall be saved,/ in quiet and in trust shall be your strength” (Is. 30:15) – while tyrants fall into the pit they have dug for others: “Consider how one conceives iniquity;/ is pregnant with mischief,/ and gives birth to deception./ He digs a hole and bores it deep,/ but he falls into the pit he has made./ His malice turns back upon his head;/ his violence falls on his skull.” (Ps 7:15-17)
Hamlet also forgets Christ’s injunction to obey temporal power (Mt 22:21; Mk 12:17; Lk 20:25, cf. Rm 13:1-7), which was especially important in a time when the divine right of kings was the foundation of all political rule – until the “self-evident truth” that “all men are created equal… endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights… life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” (U.S. Declaration of Independence, 1776) and until “[w]e the people” “do ordain and establish” “in the seventeenth day of September in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty-seven” “the independence of the United States of America.”
If Hamlet is “under compulsion” (1 Cor 7:37) and cannot resist taking action, he forgets that the most efficient and perhaps the only way to eliminate the tyrant and establish his own legitimate kingship, is to act legally by employing the laws of his own country – which he, being the Prince, should know very well. This is the legislation on the “Duel of God,” described in Saxo Grammaticus’s 12th century Gesta Danorum.
As we know, Shakespeare took inspiration for his tragedy from the influential 16-volume work Gesta Danorum by the Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus, and specifically from his record of Jutland’s King Amled in Book III and IV. In the original story, the Danish King Rorik Slyngebond confers the government of Jutland to two brothers, Orvendil and Fengi. Orvendil then marries Geruth, the king’s daughter, which advances his position at court, and together they have a son, Amled. Fengi resents his brother and murders him out of envy and ambition. After a very brief period of mourning, Fengi marries his brother’s widow Geruth, but Amled plans and carries out his murder in turn, thus becoming the legitimate governor of Jutland.
If Hamlet were able to analyze the situation with a clear mind, he should first of all find a solution to this age-old and still enduring political problem: how is it possible to eliminate a tyrant legitimately? Hamlet’s actions in this crucial, decisive moment in the life of the state must be legitimate. Legitimation is necessary not only from a spiritual perspective, in order to avoid God’s vengeance and a generational curse on the succeeding line of monarchs; legitimation is required of every monarch or political leader who wishes to secure his subjects’ unconditional loyalty for years to come. This can only be done by establishing one’s rule on the solid ground of the laws, in order to avoid the plague of internal rebellions and power plots, which Shakespeare’s ancestors witnessed during the dynastic wars of 1455-1487 as well as during and after the violent reign of Henry VIII (1509-1547).
Challenging Claudius to a duel was the most expedient way for Hamlet to dispatch the tyrant and reassert his birthright – first of all because, being a good swordsman, younger and in better shape, he would have had an easy victory; and secondly, and much more importantly, because it was imperative for Hamlet to preserve his public image as well as the trust and loyalty of his subjects. Understandably, the Danes were quite suspicious of Claudius and the formidable “coincidence” that brought him to the throne in spite of the legitimate Prince and heir, cf. Claudius’ complaint that Hamlet is “so loved of the distracted multitude,/ Who like not in their judgment, but their eyes.” (IV, iii, 4-5) The Danish people wanted to see Hamlet on the throne according to his birthright. But the Prince could only re-establish justice, law and order by preserving his honesty in the eyes of the entire nation. He should have publicly accused Claudius of regicide and fratricide, and he should have challenged him to a duel. In this way, Hamlet’s honesty would have gained the support of the entire Danish nation, as well as the unfailing help of God.
God’s Duel features prominently in Richard II, precisely in the context of the English dynastic wars, and always in connection with the divine right of kings. The King arbitrates the dispute between two noblemen: Henry Bolingbroke, the future Henry IV; and Thomas Mowbray, accused of being part of a conspiracy to kill Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester, and certainly involved in a plot to kill Bolingbroke’s father John of Gaunt. Since both combatants represent a danger for the interests of the king, he takes this opportunity to get rid of them – Mowbray is exiled for life and Bolignbroke for six years, enough for Richard to seize all of his possessions. Shakespeare scrutinized the recurring forms of political corruption and represented them with great realism in his artistic mimesis. Hence it is interesting to notice that in the masterpiece Hamlet, it is with the same exact dynamic that the usurper Claudius uses the duel to try to eliminate both his enemies Laertes and Hamlet at the same time. Of course the result is quite different, and not what he hoped for…
In Richard II Shakespeare also juxtaposes the duel, which was part of the human code of honor – dealing not only with redresses of injustice, but also with private vengeance – to the divine code of honor predicated on forgiveness. Hence in Richard II, John of Gaunt meets with the Duchess of Gloucester, his sister-in-law and widow of Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester and uncle to the king, murdered in a plot in which Richard himself was involved in order to seize the crown. In this scene (Act I, scene ii), Gaunt turns down the suggestion that he should avenge his brother, since he correctly believes that vengeance is a prerogative of God: “Put we our quarrel to the will of heaven/ Who, when they see the hours ripe on earth,/ Will rain hot vengeance on offenders’ heads” (I, ii, 6-8). Gaunt also remarks that murdering King Richard would be a mortal sin, since monarchs are God’s anointed ministers: “God’s is the quarrel; for God’s substitute,/ His deputy anointed [Richard] in His sight,/ Hath caused [Gloucester’s] death; the which if wrongfully,/ Let heaven revenge, for I may never lift/ An angry arm against his minister.” (I, ii, 37-41) Gaunt’s point is valid, even though theologically it is also true that a contender who murders his adversaries to achieve power is not in the grace of God and cannot enter God’s Kingdom – how legitimate is therefore his rule? Neither Richard nor Claudius are legitimate rulers, and even if at the time the divine right of kings was considered as the basis for political power, it sounds paradoxical for both. After committing both regicide and fratricide, Claudius refers to the principle of the divine right of kings with unashamed hypocrisy: “Do not fear for our person./ There’s such divinity doth hedge a king/ That treason can but peep to what it would,/ Acts little of his will.” (IV, v, 121-124)
In Richard II the aging Gaunt does not have the physical and military strength to oppose Richard. To the Duchess’ dilemma – “Where, alas, may I complain myself?’ (42) – he replies: “To God, the widow’s champion and defense” (43). At that point the Duchess’ prediction of the future downfall of her house (65-74) sounds prophetic for the whole county, torn in two by greed, treason and power plots. Her anguish sounds similar to Hamlet’s own: “Commend me to thy brother” (62) says she; and Hamlet to Horatio: “tell my story” (V, ii, 301); “Lo, this is all” (63) she concludes; while Hamlet’s final words are: “The rest is silence.” (310)
If Hamlet had remembered the laws of his own country, he could have chosen between two different but equally effective alternatives: either to follow Christ’s command and obey temporal power (Mt 22:21; Mk 12:17; Lk 20:25; Rm 13:1-7), waiting for the tyrant’s inevitable ruin; or to accuse Claudius publicly and challenge him to a duel in the legal tradition of his country, cf. Saxo Grammaticus’s Gesta Danorum. During the European Middle Ages until the 13th century, and particularly among Germanic people, God’s Duel was a form of ordalia also known as judiciary duel or judiciary combat, governed by ritualistic and strict procedures in sharp contrast with unregulated and wild feuds. It was the most common way to settle private and public disputes – not by means of testimonial or documentary evidence but by means of combat, either personal or through a champion, since it was believed that the result represented iudicium Dei, the judgment of God, protecting the innocent and condemning the guilty. The judicial combat could last for a number of days, the weapons were decided by the presiding judges, and the death of one of the parties was not the most frequent outcome. Normally, defeat was decreed when one of the combatants touched the ground with his head, if he left the field, or if he willingly surrendered.
In the comic register, Shakespeare satirizes the intrinsic stupidity of the code of honor based on pride in As You Like It, as Touchstone describes the “degrees” of outrage that can lead to the final mortal combat. Quarreling “by the book,” the degrees are: “Retort Courteous,” “Quip Modest,” “Reply Churlish,” “Reproof Valiant,” “Countercheck Quarrelsome,” “Lie with Circumstance” and “Lie Direct” – all of which can be avoided with an “if” – “Your ‘if’ is the only peacemaker; much virtue in ‘if.’” (V, iv, 87-101)
As a legal institution, the duel was gradually suppressed from the 13th century due to the rise of centralized state powers and ecclesiastic opposition. With Popes Niccolò I, Gregorio IX and Alessandro III, the Church condemned the duel as an impious practice, since it was seen as a condition placed on God by human beings, cf. Judith 8:11 ff. But imperial decrees such as the Liber Augustalis (1231) of Emperor Frederick II (1194-1250) still prescribed the duel under these conditions: if there was no other evidence; in case of murder by poison; and in case of treason and offence to royal authority – exactly as we find in Hamlet. It is also important to remark that the tradition of the duel continued well after the Renaissance and duels by pistol were customary in England, France and Germany until the 19th century.
In Hamlet, the theme of God’s Duel spans the entire tragedy, from the first to the last scene. The first scene of Hamlet opens with loyal Horatio, the voice of memory, discussing the recent past of Denmark with the sentinels on the ramparts. Specifically they discuss the duel between old Hamlet and old Fortinbras, King of Norway; how it was employed to settle a political dispute without having recourse to war (I, i, 78-106), hence in order to limit casualties and avoid destruction on a large-scale. With “a sealed compact/ Well ratified by law and heraldry” (85-86), Fortinbras challenged Hamlet to duel in order to gain possession of his land. The fact that Hamlet was ultimately victorious compelled the son of the deceased Norwegian king, young Fortinbras – now dispossessed like Hamlet, and like Hamlet “of unimprovèd mettle hot and full” (95) – to “shark up a list of landless resolutes… to recover of [Denmark] by strong hand… those foresaid lands/ So by his father lost.” (97-103)
At the end of the tragedy, in Acts IV and V, Claudius attempts to use the duel as a way to neutralize and eliminate two dangers at the same time: on the one hand Hamlet, who with the staging of The Mousetrap has revealed his knowledge of Claudius’ crime; and on the other Laertes, wild with rage at the murder of his father Polonius, and ready to do anything in order to take revenge – to organize a mutiny against the King, and even more so to cheat in combat and murder the Prince. Laertes, whose Homeric name is a reminder of the respect due to fathers, is like Hamlet “hot and full” with passion, which at the time was a sign of courage and nobility. As the “ghost” tempts Hamlet by playing on his feelings of bereavement, wrath and ambition, Claudius tempts Laertes when he is least prepared to resist temptation – hence he takes a disgraceful course of action showing no respect for human or divine law. With clear and very explicit words, Laertes enters the Satanic Pact with Claudius – and once again it is true that Hamlet can clearly see himself in the image of the man he orphaned:
“To hell, allegiance! Vows to the blackest devil!
Conscience and grace to the profoundest pit!
I dare damnation. To this point I stand,
That both the worlds I give to negligence,
Let come what comes. Only I’ll be revenged
Most thoroughly for my father.” (IV, v, 128-134)
The Satanic Pact could not be more explicit: “Vows to the blackest devil!” (128) Not unlike Hamlet, who in his “distraction” and mad rashness killed Polonius, Laertes foolishly vows himself to damnation in order to take revenge. But if we look at Hamlet and the course of action that he intended to take, we realize that he sinned in the same way. Even if he had been wronged and was compelled to action by a just cause, his intention was not to organize a legitimate duel against Claudius, but to murder the murderer cowardly by stealth – the noble Prince.
The solution to Hamlet’s tragic forgetfulness – of Scripture and of the laws of his own country – was offered by Shakespeare in King Lear with the figure of Edgar, so that once again we see that very often, the key to understand Shakespeare’s mysteries is Shakespeare himself. Like Hamlet, Edgar feigns madness in order to escape a power plot; and in his performative madness he claims to be vexed by “the foul fiend” and possessed by five demons: “Five fiends have been in Poor Tom at once, as Obidicut of lust, Hobbididence prince of dumbness, Mahu of stealing, Modo of murder, Flibbertigibbet of mocking and mowing.” (Sc. 15, 59-56) This is probably a reference to his half-brother Edmund’s vices, with which Edgar identifies to some extent, since very often Shakespeare’s realism portrays heroes and villains as subject to the same temptations – even though they are seen to react in different ways, according to their individual free-will and disposition, and to the identity that they create for themselves. Taking his time, Edgar reveals himself at the end of the play as the champion who is able to vindicate the cause of justice in God’s Duel: “Wretched though I seem,/ I can produce a champion that will prove/ What is avouchèd there.” (Sc. 22, 44-46) His challenge and ironic words to Edmund the traitor represent exactly, in remarkable detail, the gauntlet that Hamlet should have thrown at Claudius:
“Edgar. Draw thy sword,
That if my speech offends a noble heart
Thy arm my do thee justice. Here is mine. [He draws his sword]
Behold, it is the privilege of my tongue,
My oath, and my profession. I protest,
Maugre thy strength, youth, place, eminence,
Despite thy victor-sword and fire-new fortune,
Thy valour and thy heart, thou art a traitor,
False to thy gods, thy brother, and thy father,
Conspirant ‘gainst this high illustrious prince,
And from th’extremest upward of thy head
To the descent and dust beneath thy feet
A most toad-spotted traitor. Say thou no,
This sword, this arm, and my best spirits are bent
To prove upon thy heart, whereto I speak,
Thou liest.” (King Lear, Sc. 24, 123-138)
Hamlet’s performative madness and the madness of evil in the Satanic Pact
If in Greek tragedy the synthesis of off-stage events is usually offered by secondary characters, in Hamlet instead it is the Queen (IV, vii, 135-157) and the Prince (V, ii, 1-63) who synthetize for the audience Ophelia’s tragic death and the death of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern respectively. In the latter scene Hamlet confides to his loyal friend Horatio how he contrived the murder of the two hypocrites. His description foregrounds the traits for which his character is famous, wit and quick intelligence. His words to Horatio also describe his spiritual condition:
“Sir, in my heart there was a kind of fighting
That would not let me sleep. Methought I lay
Worse than the mutinies in the bilboes. Rashly –
And praised be rashness for it: let us know
Our indiscretion sometimes serves us well,
When our dear plots do pall, and that should teach us
There’s a divinity that shapes our ends
Rough-hew them how we will.” (V, ii, 4-10)
Traveling with his gaolers on the ship to England, Hamlet’s soul was divided, his consciousness tormented by an inner struggle of opposed and conflicting principles – “in my heart there was a kind of fighting” (4) – which gave him no respite. Deprived of his material and spiritual freedom, he felt enslaved – “mutinies” (6) – like a prisoner in shackles – “bilboes” (6).
Hamlet’s words are reminiscent of Othello’s slavery: a slavery that in the past was physical and which becomes spiritual in his present interaction with Iago. This spiritual warfare is similar to the feeling of hosting a rebellious principle, an “enemy” to which the soul feels enslaved against its will and best reason. Hamlet’s spiritual warfare becomes extremely clear in his offer of peace and forgiveness to Laertes before the duel – the Prince describes his “distraction” as an alien entity taking possession of and acting though his own person, precisely like a demon – which compelled him to carry out the rash murder of Polonius:
“And you must needs have heard, how I am punished
With sore distraction. What I have done…
I here proclaim was madness.
Was’t Hamlet wronged Laertes? Never Hamlet.
If Hamlet from himself be ta’en away,
And when he’s not himself does wrong Laertes,
Then Hamlet does it not, Hamlet denies it.
Who does it then? His madness. If’t be so,
Hamlet is of the faction that is wronged.
His madness is poor Hamlet’s enemy.” (V, ii, 183-185)
Hamlet’s offer is formally accepted but not sufficient to avert the mortal combat because, as Laertes replies, “In terms of honour/ I stand aloof.” (IV, ii, 192-193) This is perhaps another tragic forgetfulness on the part of the Prince, unable to substantiate his words with something more appropriate such as an aristocratic title, landed property and an honorable position at court to appease Laerte’s hurt pride.
Hamlet’s “distraction,” his internal “fighting,” the captivity of his soul “in the bilboes” is reminiscent of Paul’s existential dilemma when he writes that being “sold into slavery to sin,” sin “dwells” in him as an alien will, hence he feels a compulsion to do what his best reason tells him to avoid. The contrast between the demonic and human will puts him at “war” with himself: “We know that the law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold into slavery to sin. What I do, I do not understand – for I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate. […] It is… sin that dwells in me… I see in my members another principle at war with the law of my mind, taking me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.” (Rm 7: 14-23)
This internal struggle is the result of what Paul describes as a “thorn in the flesh,” an “angel of Satan,” in the form of demonic oppression, that God grafted onto his spirit in order to chastise him, so that he might be able to maintain his humility after God’s exceptional favors and revelations: “I know someone in Christ who, fourteen years ago (whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows) was caught up to the third heaven… and heard ineffable things, which no one may utter… Therefore, that I might not become too elated, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, an angel of Satan, to beat me, to keep me from being too elated.” (2 Cor 12:7)
In God’s providential plan, demonic agency is intended as a way to carry Christ’s Cross and gain salvation through suffering and penance. In the same way as God wanted to conquer death with death, defeating evil through the seeming defeat of the Cross, so God bends all evil to good, converting and sanctifying human beings by means of the “angels of Satan” that He uses to chastise them. But the tragedy is that Hamlet is not aware of demonic agency as Paul is.
In Hamlet’s case, demonic oppression is complicated by ignorance and a certain degree of personal responsibility, since the Prince places his own honor, wrath and ambition before the honor which is due to God alone, and whose human expression is obedience to God’s Law as it is written in the Decalogue, specifically the fifth commandment: “You shall not kill.” (Ex 20:13) Unlike Paul, Hamlet is not in the grace of God. His God-given reason and intelligence are compromised by the power of demonic agency, which is overwhelming inasmuch as it is unrestrained by God’s grace. Only divine Wisdom could solve his impasse and offer him a better course of action. The fact that the Prince is not able or willing to envision this opportunity – “like a house in ruin is wisdom to a fool” (Sir 21:18) – makes Hamlet the great tragedy that it is.
Against one instance of quick wit – the providential “rashness” with which he subtracts, rewrites, seals and replaces Claudius’ murderous letter with his own injunction to put to death the two spies – many instances could be found of Hamletic foolishness in the play, as per his prophetic self-diagnosis: “My wit’s diseased” (III, ii, 308), punning on the premonition of death. And indeed Hamlet chooses a perfectly wrong course of action.
For instance, the idea of interpreting the part of the madman, as cunning Odysseus unsuccessfully tried to do to escape the Trojan War, is an ‘abominable imitation’ (III, ii, 34-35) of Art that only manages to draw attention on his person, becoming the pretext by which Claudius later tries to exile and murder him. Again, The Mousetrap is not only perfectly useless in terms of discernment of spirits but also disastrous, since in that moment Claudius realizes that his crime has been discovered and publicly denounced in front of the entire court.[xlii] For this scene Shakespeare may have taken inspiration from Juvenal’s Satire I, referring to the martyrdom of Christians burnt and dragged around in the arena by Emperor Nero. The satiric writer advises prudence in using the weapon of satire, since political leaders who commit crimes do not want to be exposed and confronted with their responsibility, hence the result may be execution – exactly as Claudius plans for Hamlet. Juvenal’s description is most appropriate for Claudius: “the hearer, whose soul is cold with crime, grows red; he sweats with the secret consciousness of sin.” (I, 164)
Furthermore, Hamlet commits logical errors of non sequitur. The fact that Claudius committed both fratricide and regicide does not prove that the “ghostly” apparition is good and willed by God; nor does it imply that murder by cunning and stealth is better than a legitimate duel in order to reestablish justice and order. With his clouded and impaired reason, Hamlet conflates and confuses these issues, assuming that if Claudius shows guilty emotion, then the apparition is trustworthy and morally right in compelling him to take revenge by any possible means: “If his occulted guilt/ Do not itself unkennel in one speech,/ It is a damned ghost that we have seen,/ And my imaginations are as foul/ as Vulcan’s stithy.” (III, ii, 78-82)
And here is where Hamlet’s ignorance and rashness turn into something more serious. Having renounced the distinctive mark of humanity, free -will, which is the precondition for the exercise of reason, Hamlet loses possession of his mind to a demon and turns into a Pyrrhus-like “Hyrcanian beast.” (II, ii, 453) In a fit of compulsive rashness that resembles real madness, he uselessly and gratuitously murders Polonius – the father of his beloved Ophelia. By making her an orphan and depriving her of her name, family, wealth and future, he becomes like the tyrant and criminal upon whom he was trying to take revenge.
He who was able to advise the players so well on how to perform realistically and true to nature – “Suit the action to the word,/ the word to the action” (III, ii, 17) – cannot apply this good advice to his own life. Hamlet forgets the necessary “modesty of nature” that he so emphatically recommends to the players (18), which should be a vaccine against bombastic pride, “the reservoir of sin” (Sir 10:13) and the first source of disgrace for angels and human beings alike.
Hamlet could not “suit” his action to the Word of God, with the result that he “imitated humanity” “abominably.” (III, ii, 34-35) Not unlike Claudius, Hamlet becomes the usurper of someone else’s authority – God’s authority. A limited human being and a sinner, he nonetheless tries to become the provider of God’s Justice and the tool of His vengeance. But in this way he only manages to replicate the murder he was desperately trying to avenge. Violence only leads to violence, and giving in to demonic temptation Hamlet repeats the vicious circle of crime: if Claudius stole Hamlet’s family, life and future at court, also Hamlet steals Laertes’ and Ophelia’s family, as well as Ophelia’s source of sustenance and her future at court. In this sense, Ophelia’s “distraction” is the logical consequence of Hamlet’s “distraction.”[xliii] As Emperor Claudio, notorious for his assassinations of political rivals, was succeeded by his even worse nephew and adopted son Nero, so Hamlet, nephew and step-son of Claudio, turns into a tyrant as he himself prophetically comments: “That’s villainous, and shows a most pitiful ambition in the fool that uses it.” (III, ii, 44-45) Unable to “suit” his action to the Word, he forgets that “the vengeful will suffer the Lord’s vengeance/ for He remembers their sins in detail.” (Sir 28:1)
At the same time, there are moments in Hamlet’s mad impersonation when he shows an enviable fool’s wisdom after the model of Lear’s fool or Gloucester’s son Edgar – a recurring motif in Shakespeare, since in Renaissance courts and theaters, clowns were allowed more freedom to express their wisdom in jests. Hence for instance, in the first scene of Act III, he urges Ophelia to become a nun – “Get thee to a nunnery, go, farewell” (139-140) – because be she “as chaste as ice, as pure as snow,” she will not escape calumny (138-139). The theme of murderous slander and “Evil Tongue,” cf. Sirach 28, is represented numerous times and in various registers in Shakespeare’s canon, e.g. Othello, The Winter’s Tale, Cymbeline, Much Ado About Nothing, etc. – and specifically in Hamlet, with Claudius’ letter to the English King (V, ii, 20-26) and, as something to be avoided, in Hamlet’s dying speech to Horatio (V, ii, 296-301).
In the same dialogue with Ophelia, Hamlet makes another point that may sound off the mark but is in fact theologically grounded and humanly understandable: “I say we will have no more marriages. Those that are married already, all but one [Claudius], shall live. The rest shall keep as they are.” (III, ii, 150-152) His words echo Paul’s warning against marriage in the first Letter to the Corinthians:
Now in regards to virgins I have no commandment from the Lord, but I give my opinion as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. So this is what I think best because of the present distress: that it is a good thing for a person to remain as he is. Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek a separation. Are you free of a wife? Then do not look for a wife.
If you marry, however, you do not sin, nor does an unmarried woman sin if she marries; but such people will experience affliction in their earthly life, and I would like to spare you that. I tell you, brothers, the time is running out. From now on, let those having wives act as not having them… For the world in its present form is passing away. […]
The one who stands firm in his resolve… who is under no compulsion but has the power over his own will… will be doing well [not to marry]. So then, the one who marries his virgin does well; the one who does not marry her will do better” (1 Cor 7:25-38).[xliv]
Only those who are “under compulsion” and have no power over their free-will should marry, in order to avoid sinning with impurity. But Paul also states that he would like to spare us affliction (7:28), for human beings are generally, and tragically, unaware of what the human condition implies. If they managed to understand that every sinner born under the sun must inevitably carry Christ’s Cross in order to atone for one’s guilt and gain admission to the presence of God, perhaps Hamlet is right that there would be far fewer marriages and far more celibates.
Certainly the most famous pièce of English literature, and perhaps the most sublime, Hamlet’s most famous monologue in Act III, scene I – the third major monologue of the play after (I, ii, 129-159) and (II, ii, 551-607) – is a heartfelt intellectual speculation on suicide. It is only the “dread of something after death” (80) that stops the Prince from using a “bare bodkin” (78) against himself – an idea on which he was brooding from Act I, “O… that the Everlasting had not fixed/ His canon against self-slaughter!” (I, ii, 132) The monologue revolves around suicide, but there are competing moral codes and system of values in Hamlet’s complex cultural horizon – which comprises both traditions, classical and Christian. Hamlet’s internal conflict also shows that the concepts of “sanity” and “insanity” are not absolute – not least because fundamentally unknown and indefinable – but social constructions relative to the space and time of each and every culture. What is now considered perfectly sane in Europe may be considered not only insane but also criminal in Africa, China, the Middle East or Russia – and vice versa. Also in the West, attitudes toward suicide have changed considerably over time, and a determining factor for this change was the spread and influence of Christianity.
In Rome suicide was considered as a mark of courage and the ultimate proof of virtue, as in Livy’s historical account of Lucretia – approximately dated before the beginning of the Republic in 509 BC – who became a model of heroic feminine virtue. As Livy describes the fateful event:
“Sextus Tarquin… came to the sleeping Lucretia sword in hand and, pressing his left hand on her breast, whispered, ‘Say no word, Lucretia. I am Sextus Tarquin. There is a sword in my hand. You die if you make a sound.’ […] When he saw that she was resolute and would not yield even out of fear for her own life, he threatened to disgrace her even in death by placing the naked body of a murdered slave next to her corpse, evidence that she had been killed in the act of committing adultery of the basest sort. […]
Lucretia, stricken to the heart at the disgrace, sent the same messenger to her father in Rome and husband in Ardea; each was to come with one trustworthy friend; it must be done this way and done quickly: a terrible thing had happened. […] They found Lucretia seated downcast in her bedchamber. At the arrival of her father and husband tears welled up, and when her husband asked, ‘Are you all right?”, she replied, “Indeed, no. What can be right when a woman’s virtue has been taken from her? The impress of another man is in your bed, Collatinus; yet only my body was defiled; my soul is not guilty. Death will be my witness to this. But pledge with your right hands and swear that the adulterer will not go unpunished. Sextus Tarquin did this, a guest who betrayed his host, an enemy in arms…’ Each pledges his word in turn […]
‘It is up to you to punish the man as he deserves. As for me, I absolve myself of wrong, but not from punishment. Let no unchaste woman hereafter continue to live because of the precedent of Lucretia.’ She took a knife she was hiding in her garments and drove it into her breast. […]
Husband and father raised a ritual cry of mourning for the dead. While they were taken up with lamentation, Brutus pulled the knife dripping with blood from Lucretia’s body. Holding it before him he cried, “By this blood, so pure before the defilement of prince Tarquin, I hereby swear – and you O, deities, I make my witnesses – that I will drive out Lucius Tarquinius Superbus together with his progeny with sword, fire, and whatever force I can muster, nor will I allow them or anyone else to be king at Rome.”
He then handed the dagger to Collatinus, and next to Lucretius and Valerius, who stood amazed at the miraculous change that had come over him. They repeated the oath after him; from that moment on, anger overmastering grief, they followed Brutus’ lead in bringing the monarchy to an end.”
(Livy, The Rise of Rome I, 58-59; translation by T. J. Luce)
Lucretia’s heroic deed is presented as a lesson and a warning against tyrants, as well as the moral justification for the end of the Roman monarchy in Titus Livius (ca. 59 BC – 17 AD); and even if contemporary feminist critics would probably disagree, Lucretia’s heroism was a model for both men and women for centuries.
Also previously, in Greek society, suicide was seen as an act of courage and moral uprightness. In Euripides’ Hippolytus (ca. 428 BC) for instance, Phaidra hangs herself to save her honor and the honor of her children, since Hippolytus would not respect the vow of silence that the Nurse made him take before revealing him Phaidra’s love. As a sign of honesty, Phaidra’s suicide accomplishes a double function: on the one hand it is meant to disprove Hippolytus’ accusations; and on the other it is used to make her own accusations against Hippolytus more believable for Theseus. Phaidra’s suicide is the turning point of the tragedy. Euripides’ adjustments from the first to the second version of Hippolytus focus mainly on Phaidra’s self-sacrifice, on which Barrett comments: “the essentials of the change – her refusal to accept her love, her betrayal by the Nurse, the new and effective timing of her suicide – are without doubt Euripides’ own. The result at every point is immeasurable gain. […] The economy of the play is improved: now that Phaidra’s accusation is reinforced by her suicide, we feel it entirely natural that Theseus should believe her and ignore Hippolytus’ defence. […] Now with the more sympathetic Phaidra, Euripides is able to bring out more effectively the flaw in his character which is responsible for his downfall: the reverse side of his chastity and virtue is a narrow unthinking intolerance of common humanity, and his intolerance… has full play in his scathing and wholly unjustified denunciation of a Phaidra who has fought hard… to avoid the very crime for which he is now denouncing her.”[xlv]
Both classical referents show a striking similarity with Shakespeare’s plays. Hippolytus affected “purity” and intolerance” remind us of the hypocrite Angelus in Measure for Measure; while Lucretia’s request that revenge be taken on the guilty Tarquin and the subsequent oath taken by Brutus, Collatinus, Lucretius and Valerius resonate powerfully with Hamlet’s opening scene on the ramparts of Elsinore castle, when the Prince and his associates swear loyalty and secrecy to one another on the Prince’s sword, “Swear by my sword” (I, v, 162).
In contrast to the paradigm of classical antiquity, Christianity considers suicide as an act of violence against Life, and therefore against God to whom Life belongs. Hence for instance in the Divine Comedy (If XIII) Dante condemns suicide from a Christian perspective with the figure of Pier della Vigna who, after being unjustly accused of treason by envious courtiers, intended to prove his innocence with suicide – only to prolong for eternity the injustice that he suffered on earth: “L’animo mio, per disdegnoso gusto,/ credendo col morir fuggir disdegno,/ ingiusto fece me contra me guisto.” (70-72)[xlvi] Even as he condemns suicide in accordance with Catholic orthodoxy, Dante includes himself in this canto with the figure of the Florentine citizen who took his life by hanging himself at home. To this anonymous figure is given the honor of uttering the last lapidary sentence in the canto: “Io fei giubbetto a me de le mie case.” (151) A dramatic gap of silence separates the end of this canto and the beginning of the next, when Dante is moved by “charity” to gather the scattered leaves of the bush and restore them to the suicide. (If XIV, 1-3) It is clear that Dante might have suffered a similar temptation – “in scornful temper thinking by dying to escape from scorn…” – due to the unjust accusations he experienced on occasion of his exile from Florence.
In Shakespeare, Horatio’s tragic words to the dying Hamlet contain an important reference to Stoicism and the ethical-moral system of classical antiquity: “I am more an antique Roman than a Dane./ Here’s yet some liquor left.” (V, ii, 293-224) In his loyalty and magnanimity, Horatio asks the Prince for the honor to die at his side, but Hamlet snatches the cup from his hands: “As thou’rt a man,/ Give me the cup. Let go. By heaven, I’ll have it.” (294-295)
It is essential to notice that there are no stage directions for this crucial, final exchange between Hamlet and Horatio. The importance of this fact cannot be overstated, because it is unknown what the Prince actually does with the poisoned cup. He certainly disposes of the poison to save Horatio – but does he throw it away, or does he drink it himself? Furthermore, is the absence of stage directions one of the many editing errors in the history of Shakespeare’s plays, or was it rather intended by the author – and if so, for what reason and to what aim?
As we remarked, there are competing moral codes and system of values at work in Hamlet’s complex cultural horizon, comprising both traditions, classical and Christian. What for centuries was considered as a sign of courage and magnanimity, with Christianity comes to be regarded as negative and undesirable, both a mortal sin and a crime, cf. the previously discussed suicide of King Saul defeated by the Philistines (1 Samuel 31:2-6). Hence, in the Prince’s last words to Horatio: “As thou’rt a man” (294), we hear his doubt that suicide may not be the noblest and bravest course of action – which is also an echo of his former question in the monologue: “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.” (59-61) With Christianity and the redemptive power that Christ attributes to suffering, cf. the discussion on self-sacrifice (Chapter Two), there is also the serious doubt that suicide may not be the most courageous solution – perhaps it takes more strength and courage to suffer the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” for a lifetime, as thousands of saints and martyrs have done over the centuries to give witness to God.
Like Dante in his Comedy, e.g. with the suicide of Pier della Vigna, also Shakespeare adds an important autobiographical dimension to his characters, e.g. the “ghost” being “cut off in the blossom of [his] sins” (I, v, 76) as an echo of John Shakespeare’s Testament (Chapter One). In the same way, Hamlet’s monologue contains a number of incongruities – incongruous only if considered from the perspective of a Prince – which may reveal the inscription of the author in his masterpiece as “everyman” and “all in all” (Chapter One).
The heart of the monologue is timeless, as it deals with timeless worldly corruption and injustice, hence the Prince’s temptation to suicide. Perhaps Hamlet identifies “Th’oppressor’s wrong” and “the proud man’s contumely” with Claudius – but what does he know about “the law’s delay,” the “insolence of office” and “the spurns / That patient merit of th’unworthy takes”?
“…who would bear the whips and scorn of time,
Th’oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of disprized love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th’unworthy takes…” (III, ii, 72-76)
In this realistic reflection on the human condition, Shakespeare’s authorial voice still resonates powerfully, on behalf not only of the countless indigent who inhabit this world, but of all human beings, including the author, who are not protected by royal privilege combined with a prolonged period of peace and prosperity, as even royal houses rise and fall.
Hamlet’s monologue seems to acquit him of possible accusations of intellectual snobbery. It is perhaps the loss of his father and mother that makes the Prince empathize with the orphaned or otherwise abandoned children who are recruited and exploited as actors – a contemporary reference to England’s theater practice (III, ii). In the same way, the experience of injustice makes the Prince empathize with the rest of humanity and especially with his Dane subjects, assuming their perspective on life – the vast majority being as poor as the philosophical gravediggers who open Act V with an ominous prophecy on worldly corruption. Hamlet is predicated on the theme of injustice and worldly corruption – and the Prince’s monologue in Act III, scene 1 is confirmed by Claudius’s own in the following scene, as he describes hypocrisy: “In the corrupted currents of this world/ Offence’s gilded hand may shove by justice/ And oft ‘tis seen the wicked prize itself/ Buys out the law.” (III, ii, 57-60)
Critics have often discussed Hamlet’s performance of madness, but a more insightful question to ask, remembering our discussion in Chapter Two is: what is the madness of the Satanic Pact? What is the madness of Iago-like, Claudius-like people who willingly become demonic subjects by turning their free-will to Mammon and placing self-love above God?
In the figure of Claudius, guilty of fratricide and regicide, Shakespeare portrayed worldly power as described by the poet-prophet and warrior-king David, who knew his field well:
“Kings on earth rise up and princes plot together
Against the Lord and His anointed:
“Let us break their shackles and cast off their chains.”
The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord derides them,
Then speaks to them in anger, terrifies them in wrath:
“I Myself have installed My King
On Zion, My holy mountain. […]
…You are My Son […]
I will make your inheritance the nations,
Your possessions the ends of the earth.
With an iron rod you shall shepherd them,
Like a clay pot you will shatter them.”
And now kings, give heed; take warning, rulers on earth.
Serve the Lord with fear, with trembling bow down in homage,
Lest God be angry and you perish from the way
In a sudden blaze of anger.” (Psalm 2:2-11)
As David writes, and as Shakespeare confirms in plays like Hamlet and Macbeth, “Kings on earth rise up and princes plot together/ Against the Lord and His anointed” because Satan is the “Prince of this world” (Jn 12:31; 14:30). The mystery of human free-will converted to demonic subjugation for its own self-destruction is what Paul describes as the “mystery of iniquity” (2 Thes 2:7). As previously discussed in Chapter Two, humans who knowingly subjugate their will to Satan enter the Satanic Pact and accept demonic subjugation with the understanding that Mammon, the “Prince of this world,” will grant them time-bound favors of power and money in this present world, which is under his limited jurisdiction, in exchange for an eternity of something quite different. Time-bound demonic subjugation in exchange for timeless slavery – this is also what Nashe in the satiric register considers for himself as an alternative to literary starvation in Pierce Penilesse, His Supplication to the Devil (1592).
In Catholic orthodoxy, one of God’s unfathomable mysteries is how He manages to unite human free-will and predestination. Human free-will is undeniable as the basis for punishment or reward; but in the eternal perspective of God, predestination is also undeniable. Hence we read in Wisdom: “You, O Lord, were not unaware that their race was wicked and their malice ingrained,/ And that their disposition would never change;/ for they were a race accursed from the beginning” (Wis 12:10-11); and Paul writes to the Romans: “For those He foresaw, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son… And those He predestined, He also called; and those He called, He also justified; and those He justified, He also glorified.” (Rm 8:29-30)
After making their free choice, and even against their will, demonic subjects are forced to recognize the glory of God as well as their own guilt – after which they are left to the care of Mammon whom they worshipped: “For in the things through which they suffered distress,/ since they were tortured by the very things they deemed gods,/ they saw and recognized the true God whom before they had refused to know;/ With this, their final condemnation came upon them.” (Wis 12:27) Shakespeare represented the astonishing “mystery of iniquity” in passages such as Claudius’s monologue, where he acknowledges the impossibility of God’s forgiveness and his own ultimate damnation, knowing that he is unwilling to relinquish political power, wealth and the Queen – the privileges he acquired through betrayal and murder:
“O, what form of prayer
Can serve my turn?
‘Forgive me my foul murder’?
That cannot be, since I am still possessed
Of those effects for which I did the murder –
My crown, mine own ambition, and my queen.
May one be pardoned and retain th’offence?
In the corrupted currents of this world
Offence’s gilded hand my shove by justice
And oft ‘tis seen the wicked prize itself
Buys out the law. But ‘tis not so above. […]
My words fly up, my thoughts remain below.” (III, ii, 51-60; 97)
For an extremely brief space of time, even shorter than Doctor Faustus’ twenty-four years, Claudius is not willing to relinquish what he has managed to steal murdering his brother: “That cannot be, since I am still possessed/ Of those effects for which I did the murder.” (54-55) Like his kindred spirit Iago, a coward who deludes himself that he is going to face torture and death in proud silence (Othello V, ii, 309-310), the regicide and fratricide Claudius does not repent, not even out of fear: “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Prv 1:7); “Take my instruction instead of silver and knowledge rather than choice gold./ For Wisdom is better than corals, and no treasures compare with her (Prv 9:10-11); “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom” (Ps 111:10); “The fullness of Wisdom if the fear of the Lord” (Sir 1:16). Claudius will be faithful to his mad ambition, his greed and his lust – even though he knows quite well what the outcome will be. In fact he knows it better than Hamlet himself, who naively believes that Claudius’s inane words may gain him salvation without sacramental penance, and refrains from murder in order to catch him in a more propitious moment (III, ii, 84-86).
To sell every dear thing in order to gain dirt: “Those unjust… who lived a life of folly,/ You tormented through their own abominations.” (Wis 12:23) As God decrees that “a man is punished by the very things through which he sins” (Wis 11:16), demonic subjects are eternally punished by the demonic forces to which they enslaved themselves: “they were tortured by the very things they deemed gods.” (Wis 12:27)
This is the perfect madness of the Satanic Pact reflected in Shakespeare’s “mirror up to nature.” The realistic fictions of Claudius and Iago capture the essence of numberless corrupt human beings who place self-love and Mammon above the love of God and the other, thus creating and perpetrating injustice on a global scale: “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. The second is like it. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole Law and the prophets depend on these two commandments” (Mt 22:37-40); “Do to others whatever you would have them do to you. This is the Law and the prophets” (Mt 7:12).
In contrast to Dante’s “intelletti sani,” demonic subjects fail to understand God’s “dottrina” (If IX, 61-63).[xlvii] According to Catholic orthodoxy, the greatest spiritual suffering is the complete absence of God, a curse which is not experienced on earth where God is always present in the Eucharist, but which is eternally experienced in the Kingdom of Hell. In the Kingdom of Hell the damned are enslaved and tortured by the demons they worshipped, and both are subject to God’s tyranny – the divine irony being that these rebellious angels and human beings rejected God in order to be “free” and god-like, following the Satanic commandment to do as they please. It is also quite ironic that demonic subjects should enter the Satanic Pact with the intention of leading a life of luxury, fearing and rejecting suffering as a means of salvation – but in so doing, they bind themselves to a new and never-ending suffering, of which they never made any experience on earth. In this light, let us never forget that eternal damnation also implies that one single damned soul will experience more suffering than all the suffering experienced by millions of human beings during the limited duration of human history.
As we discussed in Chapter Two, the madness of the Satanic Pact is often accompanied by psychological tricks and coping mechanisms, such as a paradoxical feelings of victimhood, as if demonic subjects were “heroic martyrs of freedom,” willing to suffer anything in order to pursue their right to happiness; or also poor victims of God, misrepresented as a cruel and merciless tyrant who unjustly punishes their legitimate desire to enjoy life – at someone else’s expenses. But the retributive Justice of God has decreed that “he who digs a pit falls into it,/ and he who lays a snare is caught in it,/ Whoever does harm will be involved in it/ without knowing how it came upon him” (Sir 26:26-27). In the following section we are going to see how this divine law informs Shakespeare’s vision of history.
[i] Joyce, Ulysses, Nestor chapter.
[ii] Nashe, Thomas. The Unfortunate Traveller and Other Works. Edited w/an Introduction by J. B. Steane. London: Penguin, 1972-1985.
[iii] Ibid., 265.
[iv] Ibid., 265.
[v] Ibid., 322.
[vi] Ibid., 280.
[vii] Before being taken from this life to a better one, Nashe managed to have some fun at the expenses of American “sects,” as his satirical writing required: “Ministers and pastors, sell away your sects and schisms to the decrepit Churches in contention beyond sea. […] Because the poverty of their provinces will allow them no proportionable maintenance for higher callings of ecclesiastical magistrates, they would reduce us to the precedent of their rebellious persecuted beggary: much like the sects of philosophers called Cynics, who when they saw they were born to no lands or possessions… but they must live despised and in misery… they plotted and consulted with themselves how to make their poverty better esteemed of than rich dominion and sovereignty. The upshot of their plotting and consultation was this: that they would live to themselves, scorning the very breath and company of all men.” (The Unfortunate Traveller, 282)
[viii] Ibid., 284.
[ix] The four levels of Biblical exegesis referred to in the following discussion, are: the literal; the allegorical or typological; the moral; and the anagogical. The literal sense refers to the historical reality. As Dante writes commenting Psalm 113: “si ad litteram solam inspiciamus, significatur nobis exitus filiorum Israel de Egipto, tempore Moysis.” The allegorical/typological sense refers to the meaning of the Scriptural passage in relation to the Coming of Christ: “si ad allegoriam, nobis significatur nostra redemptio facta per Christum.” The moral sense refers to practical human behavior, and how it must be a faithful reflection of Scriptural teaching: “si ad moralem sensum, significantur nobis conversion anime de luctu et miseria peccati ad statum gratiae.” Lastly, the anagogical sense refers to the four Novissima – Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell: “si ad anagogicum, significatur exitus anime sancte ad huius corruptionis servitude ad eterne glorie libertatem.” (Letter XIII, § 21)
[x] This section presents Auerbach on the Biblical sublime in the context of the Judeo-Christian tradition. For a definition of the sublime in classical antiquity, see Longinus (Loeb, 1995): “A grand style is the natural product of those whose ideas are weighty;” “sublimity is the echo of a grand mind” (185); “the true sublime” is not “empty bombast which it is more noble to despise than to admire” but it “naturally elevates: uplifted with a sense of proud exaltation, we are filled with joy and pride, as if we had ourselves produced the very thing we heard.” (179) Longinus sees the sublime as a divine gift which transcends human nature, bringing it closer to God: “all these heaven-sent gifts – it would be impious to call them human” (275); “What then was the vision of those demigods who aimed only at what is greatest in writing and scorned detailed accuracy? This above all: Nature… from the first breathed into our hearts an unconquerable passion for whatever is great and more divine than ourselves. […] Look at life… and see how in all things the extraordinary, the great, the beautiful stand supreme, and you will soon realize what we were born for.” (277); “In dealing with writers of genius… sublimity lifts them near the mighty Mind of God. Correctness escapes censure; greatness earns admiration.” (279)
[xi] Auerbach, Erich. Mimesis. The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Fiftieth Anniversary Edition. Translated from the German by Willard R. Trask, with a new introduction by Edward W. Said. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2003, 151-153.
[xii] Ibid., 154.
[xiii] Ibid., 154.
[xiv] Ibid., 156.
[xv] Ibid., 158.
[xvi] Ibid., 158.
[xvii] Ibid., 158. What Auerbach defines as the “escapism” of medieval courtly romance – and its influence on later Renaissance epic – acquires a deeper meaning for committed religious authors like Edmund Spenser. A crypto-Catholic himself, he creatively employed the tradition of medieval romance as a veil, a mask and a shield to refer to the disturbing political reality of Reformation England, with its reign of terror and persecution. “In contrast to the feudal literature of the courtly romance, which leads away from the reality of the life of its class into a world of heroic fable and adventure, [in Christian drama] there is a movement in the opposite direction, from distant legend and its figural interpretation into everyday contemporary reality” (Auerbach, 159). In this way, Spenser represented a powerful synthesis of romantic fantasy and Christian dramatic realism, exemplifying with his immortal art how Christian inspiration can thrive in times of political terror.
[xviii] From the Introduction to Guillen de Castro’s Las Mocedades del Cid, edited with notes by James Crapotta and Marcia L. Welles for European Masterpieces, 2002-2006, 10. The historical figure of El Cid, Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar (c.1043-1099), and the oral tradition of romances and ballads surrounding him are likely to have inspired Shakespeare both for Othello and Hamlet, cf. section on Hamlet’s sources.
[xix] Indulgences create a virtuous circle between the Church Militant on earth and the Church Penitent in Purgatory. The living can effectively pray for the liberation of souls in purgatorial fire; once admitted in the presence of God, these in turn can intercede for the living. In this light, Shakespeare’s spiritual testament is very much in the spirit of Portia (The Merchant of Venice) and the Duke (Measure for Measure) – be compassionate if you want to receive mercy, forgive if you want to be forgiven. This is a warning for the living, as well as for the critics who want to be faithful to the spiritual legacy of the author and to the spirit of his text.
[xx] The doctrine of Purgatory and indulgences, with its Scriptural foundation, is discussed in Chapter One. Here it is important to remark that this doctrine is Catholic orthodoxy. Hence it becomes quite problematic, from many points of view, to claim that the Catholic religion is “ideology” – “What we call ideology, then, Renaissance England called poetry.” (Greenblatt 2001, 46) It is also idiosyncratic to deny Shakespeare’s realism by misreading his “mirror up to nature” as a poetic lie, as Greenblatt does in his introductory chapter.
[xxi] Cf. Greenblatt, Stephen. Hamlet in Purgatory. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001, 261.
[xxii] Quoted in: Beauregard, David. Catholic Theology in Shakespeare’s Plays. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2008, 148.
[xxiii] Hazlitt, William. Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays. London: Taylor and Hessey, 1818, 54-55.
[xxiv] See the doctrine of Purgatory and indulgences, Chapter One. St Gertrude’s Prayer for the Liberation of penitent souls from Purgatory: “Eternal Father, I offer Thee the most precious Blood of Thine Divine Son, Jesus Christ, in union with the Masses said throughout the world today, for all the Blessed Souls in Purgatory and for sinners everywhere: for the sinners within the Universal Church, for those in my house and within my family. Amen.”
[xxv] Published volumes on Demonology were numerous at the time. Only in France, and only between 1580 and 1650, we remember: Jean Bodin’s Démonomanie (1580); Nicolas Rémy’s Démonolatrie (1582); Henry Boguet’s Discours execrable des Sorciers (1602); Pierre de Lancre’s Tableau de l’inconstance des mauvais anges et démons (1612); Liste authentique des réligieuses et séculières possédées, obsédées, maléficiés (1634); Confessions et histoire de Madeleine Bavent, religieuse de Louviers, avec son interrogatoire (1652); and F. N. Taillepied’s Traicté de l’apparition des esprits (1600).
[xxvi] King James I, Demonologia (Daemonologie, in forme of a dialogue, divided into three Bookes). Silvani, Giovanna, ed. Reprint of the 1597 Edinburgh edition. Trento: Università degli Studi di Trento, 1997.
[xxvii] Bloom, Allan. The Closing of the American Mind. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987, 379.
[xxviii] Only God is omniscient, knowing the mysteries of the human heart as well as the intricacies of causation within the boundaries of time. Only God has the power to discern every intention and feeling, not only as they happen in time but also in the eternal present of His omniscience. Only God, therefore, has the right to say: “Vengeance is mine” – “Recompense to no man evil for evil. Provide things honest in the sight of all men. If it be possible, as much as lies in you, live peaceably with all men. Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay,’ says the Lord. Therefore, if thy enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head. Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:17-21)
The concept that the right to execute vengeance belongs to God alone is found, inter alia, in the following loci: Deut. 32:35; Ps. 94:1; 99:8; Is. 34:8; 35:4; 61:2; Jer. 11:20; 20:12; 46:10; 50:15; 50:28; 51:6; 51:11; 51:36; Ezek. 25:14; 25:17; Luke 21:22; 2 Thes. 1:8; Heb. 10:30. Christ commands to forgive enemies as a precondition to obtain God’s forgiveness also in the solemn context of the Pater (Mt 6:7-15).
[xxix] Anthony and Cleopatra (V, ii, 205)
[xxx] Hamlet wants to believe that the ghost is not a demon but his father’s soul. And yet he also remembers having read or heard something to the effect that Lucifer can assume a pleasant form in order to seduce human beings and lead them into sin: “The spirit that I have seen/ May be the devil, and the devil hath power/ T’assume a pleasing shape; yea and perhaps,/ Out of my weakness and my melancholy–/ As he is very potent with such spirits–/ Abuses me to damn me.” (II, ii, 600-605)
Christ denounces Satan as a “murderer from the beginning” and the “father of lies” in John (8:44). Paul warns that Satan is a master of deceit and can assume the form of an “angel of light” (2 Cor. 11:13-14): “For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ. And no marvel, for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light.” Paul also discusses the gift of discernment as one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:10). It is clear that if Satan showed himself in his unsurpassed ugliness, he would lose many of his customers.
[xxxi] Cf. “You shall not make yourself an idol… you shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sins of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate Me…” (Dt. 5:8-10)
[xxxii] Longinus, On the Sublime. Translated by W. H. Fyfe and Donald Russell. The Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1995, 185.
[xxxiii] Ibid., 275.
[xxxiv] Ibid., 277.
[xxxv] Ibid., 279.
[xxxvi] The Scriptural reference is to Moses’s Tables of the Law (Exodus 20-24); see also the Latin expression tabula rasa, a metaphor for blank memory, most appropriate in Hamlet’s case.
[xxxvii] Thomas Nashe, The Unfortunate Traveller and Other Works. London: Penguin, 290-294.
[xxxviii] To this “free,” “mechanical religion” refers Shakespeare-Cleopatra’s prophecy on the future of his own theater: “mechanic slaves/ With greasy aprons, rules and hammers shall/ Uplift us to the view” (Anthony and Cleopatra V, ii, 205-206).
[xxxix] On scholarly plagiarism, see the above-quoted passage (“stolen out of Tully”) and the one following it: “A most vain thing it is in many universities at this day, that they count him excellent eloquent who stealeth, not whole phrases, but whole pages, out of Tully. […] No invention or matter have they of their own… The leaden-headed Germans first began this, and we Englishmen have surfeited of their absurd imitation.” (The Unfortunate Traveller, 296)
[xl] Ibid., 295: “The next day they had solemn disputations, where Luther and Carolostadius scolded level coil [argued]. A mass of words I wot well they heaped up against the Mass and the Pope, but farther particulars of their disputations I remember not. […] they uttered nothing to make a man laugh, therefore I will leave them.”
[xli] Ibid., 297: “in this general assembly we found intermixed that abundant scholar Cornelius Agrippa [1486-1535, his lectures on the cabala gained him a reputation as a sorcerer]. At that time he bare the fame to be the greatest conjurer in Christendom. Scoto [Italian conjurer who visited England in 1576-1583] that did the juggling tricks before the Queen, never came near him one quarter in magic reputation. The doctors of Wittenberg, doting on the rumor that went of him, desired him before the Duke and them to do something extraordinary memorable.”
[xlii] For The Mousetrap, Shakespeare may have taken inspiration from a passage in Juvenal’s Satire I, on Christians burnt by Emperor Nero, which perfectly fits Claudius’ description: “the hearer, whose soul is cold with crime, grows red; he sweats with the secret consciousness of sin.” (I, 164) Juvenal advises satiric writers to deal with remote topics – or to address current event under the guise of past ones – in order to communicate their message while at the same time saving their own life: “’What man is there that I dare not name?’… But just describe Tigellinus [an infamous favorite of Nero’s] and you will blaze amid those faggots in which men, with their throats tightly gripped, stand and burn and smoke, and you trace a broad furrow through the middle of the arena [the corpses of the Christians were dragged across the arena]. […] You may set Aeneas and the brave Rutulian a-fighting with an easy mind; it will hurt no-one’s feelings to hear how Achilles was slain… But when Lucilius roars and rages as if with sword in hand, the hearer, whose soul is cold with crime, grows red; he sweats with the secret consciousness of sin.” (I, 153-164)
[xliii] Hamlet kills Ophelia indirectly by causing her life-shattering grief: first by denying his affection and later by murdering her only living parent, her father – who represents her family, her sustenance at court, as well as her future. Hamlet’s “distraction” is also upsetting for Ophelia, cf. “O what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!” (III, i, 153 ff.), but most of all, Ophelia is overwhelmed by the fact that her father is murdered by the man she loves – a dynamic also found in the epic of El Cid, as we discuss in the section on Hamlet’s sources. In his relationship with Ophelia, Hamlet resembles the deceiving lover who “proved mad” toward the maid Barbary in Desdemona’s story. With the misguided idea of revenge, Hamlet only manages to repeat the vicious circle of crime, tragically becoming similar to Claudius.
[xliv] Paul’s advice for celibacy and against marriage is extended not only to the priests but to all the faithful, men and women: “I tell you, brothers, the time is running out. From now on, let those having wives act as not having them… for the world in its present form is passing away. […] If anyone think that he is behaving improperly toward his virgin… let him do as he wishes: he is committing no sin, let them get married. The one who stands firm in his resolve, however, who is under no compulsion but has the power over his own will… will be doing well [not to marry]. So then, the one who marries his virgin does well; the one who does not marry her will do better.” (1 Cor 7:29-31, 36-38)
[xlv] Euripides. Hippolytus. Edited with Introduction and Commentary by W. S. Barrett. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1964-1992, 13-14.
[xlvi] Pier della Vigna: “My mind, in scornful temper thinking by dying to escape from scorn, made me, just, unjust to myself.” (Sinclair, 171)
[xlvii] Sinclair’s translation: “Ye that are of good understanding, note the teaching that is hidden under the veil of the strange lines.” (If IX, 61-63)