Neil Rathmell

A collection of 100+ essays on literary topics

Hamlet, a post-Reformation tragedy

Francisco, an ‘honest soldier’, has only eight lines, but he sets the tone for the whole play when he says, in Act I, scene 1 of Hamlet, that he is ‘sick at heart’. He doesn’t say why. Marcellus, who with Bernardo is the first to see the Ghost, says, ‘Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.’ He doesn’t say what. Hamlet’s way of putting it is no more specific than Francisco’s ‘sick at heart’ or Marcellus’s ‘something rotten’.

The time is out of joint:—O cursed spite,
That ever I was born to set it right.

This sense of nameless unease permeates the play. Shakespeare took an ordinary revenge tragedy and turned it into a play about pretence and prevarication. Why? What was he trying to say?

One way of answering that question is to consider it against the background of the state of post-Reformation England, as opposed to the state of medieval Denmark. Shakespeare didn’t re-tell old stories for the sake of it, he used them in the way Hamlet does in the play, ‘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.’ The last, I think, was uppermost in his mind when he wrote Hamlet.

Each of Hamlet’s soliloquies is a meditation on aspects of the ‘very age and body of the time’.

How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on’t! O, fie! ’tis an unweeded garden,
That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely.

Shakespeare’s audiences were familiar with sermons, in which bible readings were meant to make you think about yourself. What would the image of an unweeded garden mean to audiences in post-Reformation England?

                            That it should come to this!
But two months dead!—nay, not so much, not two:
So excellent a king, that was, to this,
Hyperion to a satyr…

First Catholic, then Protestant, then Catholic again, then Protestant. And when the Queen dies, what then?

When the Ghost leaves him with ‘Remember me!’ he puts his promise in writing.

                                    …meet it is I set it down,
That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain;
At least I’m sure it may be so in Denmark.

Or England.

Hamlet’s next soliloquy comes after his first meeting with the Players, when they give him a demonstration of their craft.

What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,
That he should weep for her? What would he do,
Had he the motive and the cue for passion
That I have?

How can you be sure that people say what they mean, mean what they say? How do you know they are what they say they are? Catholic or Protestant?

Yet I,
A dull and muddy-mettled rascal, peak,
Like John-a-dreams, unpregnant of my cause,
And can say nothing…

Would the Catholics in Shakespeare’s audience, or even just those who felt a sentimental attachment to the old religion, have seen in Hamlet’s self-accusation a mirror of their own?

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought;
And enterprises of great pith and moment,
With this regard, their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.

Later in Act III, coming upon the King kneeling in prayer, instead of taking the opportunity of avenging his father’s murder, Hamlet rejects it on theological grounds. His father, he argues, was murdered without the opportunity of confessing his sins and purging his soul before his death.

                …and am I, then, revenged,
To take him in the purging of his soul,
When he is fit and season’d for his passage?
No.

The audience, having heard the King’s own soliloquy, knows that he doubts his prayer will be answered.

                                But, O, what form of prayer
Can serve my turn? ‘Forgive me my foul murder’?—
That cannot be; since I am still possest
Of those effects for which I did the murder,—
My crown, mine own ambition, and my queen.
May one be pardon’d, and retain th’offence?

No sooner has Hamlet put up his sword and made his exit, than the audience sees the King stand up and abandon his attempt at prayer.

My words fly up, my thoughts remain below:
Words without thoughts never to heaven go.

Hamlet’s theology is exposed as just another excuse to do nothing.

The plot in Hamlet never progresses, just goes round in circles. Hamlet’s cowardly or conscience-stricken failure to avenge his father’s murder is followed in the very next scene by his own pointless murder of Polonius. Pointlessness is the theme of his next soliloquy, the last before his departure for England and lucky escape from his uncle’s plan to have him murdered. It follows a brief conversation with a captain in the Norwegian army, on its way to attack a piece of land which is of no use to anyone but which will be fiercely defended anyway.

                                     How stand I, then,
That have a father kill’d, a mother stain’d,
Excitements of my reason and my blood,
And let all sleep? while, to my shame, I see
The imminent death of twenty thousand men,
That for a fantasy and trick of fame
Go to their graves like beds.

If we are any closer to finding out what it is that is rotten in the state of Denmark and why its people feel sick at heart, it is only in Hamlet’s increasing cynicism. He jokes about the unfortunate murder of Polonius. ‘Where is Polonius?’ asks the King. ‘In heaven,’ Hamlet replies, ‘send thither to see: if your messenger find him not there, seek him i’th’other place yourself. But, indeed, if you find him not within this month, you shall nose him as you go up the stairs into the lobby.’ His own ineffectualness becomes an unexplained but unavoidable fact of life.

                                                I do not know
Why yet I live to say, ‘This thing’s to do;’
Sith I have cause, and will, and strength, and means
To do’t.

This soliloquy ends in bluster.

                                        O, from this time forth,
My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth.

But we know him too well by now to expect anything to come of it.

Another pointless death, that of Ophelia, follows, and is followed in turn by the comedy of the gravediggers. Then comes the comedy of Hamlet leaping into Ophelia’s grave and brawling with Laertes. No more soliloquies now, just pointless bluster. I loved her more than you did!

I loved Ophelia: forty thousand brothers
Could not, with all their quantity of love,
Make up my sum.—What wilt thou do for her?

This childishness is not the stuff of tragedy, though it is pathetic. And that, perhaps, was the present state of England, the very age and body of the time. Something rotten. Sick at heart. Uncertain about the past. Anxious about the future. Torn between two religions. Wittenberg means little to us, but to an Elizabethan audience it meant the place where the Reformation began, where Luther’s protestations to the Pope gave Protestantism its name.

Let not thy mother lose her prayers, Hamlet:
I pray thee, stay with us; go not to Wittenberg.

Hamlet was Shakespeare’s next play after Twelfth Night, comedy verging on tragedy leading to tragedy verging on comedy. Viola went round in circles too. Hamlet was her ineffectual male counterpart.

O Time, thou must untangle this, not I;
It is too hard a knot for me t’untie!

hamlet 01

Coming up
Shakespeare’s girls
14 September 2016

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This entry was posted on August 31, 2016 by in Literature and tagged , , , .
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