Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8189
Geoffrey Aggeler, University of Utah, Salt Lake City
Let us imagine a Renaissance neostoic, such as Sir William Cornwallis the Younger, or Philippe de Mornay, or Joseph Hall, watching an early performance of Hamlet at the Globe sometime between 1599 and 1602. Mornay would be on an embassy from France,...
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Geoffrey Aggeler, University of Utah, Salt Lake City
Let us imagine a Renaissance neostoic, such as Sir William Cornwallis the Younger, or Philippe de Mornay, or Joseph Hall, watching an early performance of Hamlet at the Globe sometime between 1599 and 1602. Mornay would be on an embassy from France, busy about promoting the interests of the Protestant cause and perhaps his Calvinist disposition would keep him away from the theater, but then again the memory of his good friend Sir Philip Sidney, who had a taste for Senecan tragedy, might influence him to attend. Joseph Hall, who had only recently given up the writing of Juvenalian formal verse satire and was about to enter the Anglican Church, might have had similar Calvinistic scruples. Sir William Cornwallis, whose essays are full of Shakespearean echoes, would have had no such scruples and probably did attend it, perhaps in company with his friend John Donne.
The Neostoic playgoer would certainly recognize the familiar outline of the model that emerges from Seneca's moral writings, the sage. He would perhaps discern part of it in the "To be, or not to be" (III. i. 55-88)1 soliloquy as Hamlet considers the option of passively enduring the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. He would certainly recognize it fully sketched out in the encomium on Horatio (III. ii. 63-72). It would, presumably, be gratifying to the moral sense of this playgoer to watch Hamlet progress from envy and admiration for the Stoic ideal to the Stoic faith he expresses in the final scene. Hearing "the readiness is all," he might reasonably conclude that Hamlet's anagnorisis has led him to Christian Stoic faith. Cornwallis might turn to Donne and quote from Seneca's De Providentia as a kind of summation: "What is the duty of a. good man? To offer himself to Fate."
Donne might nod thoughtfully in reply, but it is doubtful whether he would agree that the tragedy's meaning could be reduced to this. For he would have been unable to miss the skepticism implicit in the dramatic contexts within which Hamlet utters Stoic commonplaces and expresses his admiration for the Stoic ideal. As the author of the skeptical Satire III, and one for whom the new philosophy put all in doubt, he would certainly perceive that Hamlet's expressions of Stoic faith in the last scene do not fully answer the questions he has raised in earlier meditations, especially in the "To be, or not to be" soliloquy. He might also point out that not all the spokesmen for Stoicism in the play are trustworthy.
Stoic perfectionism is first introduced in the play as a viable ideal by Claudius, who represents himself in his address to the court as a ruler-sage whose reason has enabled him to order his own passions and those of his queen and subjects with "discretion." He projects the Stoic ideal again moments later when he reproves Hamlet for exhibiting "unmanly grief and failing to accept the will of heaven with a properly disposed heart and mind:
Take it to heart? Fie! 'tis a fault to heaven,
A fault against the dead, a fault to nature,
To reason most absurd, . . .
(I. ii. 100-2)
As Robert Miola points out, Claudius is a perversion of the Stoic model: "His reason serves his passion instead of checking it and degenerates into mere trickery. The Stoic watchwords—'reason', 'thinking', and 'judgement'—echo in various forms in his speech, ironic reminders of the ideal and witnesses to its perversion."2
The type of Stoicism Claudius enjoins is an avenue of retreat from political activism, emphasizing passivity, acceptance, and the cultivation of apatheia. Its defining quality is constancy, maintained by the practice of two of the cardinal virtues, temperance, and fortitude, and manifesting itself in heroic endurance rather than the performance of great deeds. In his De Constantia Sapientis, Seneca exalts Cato above more active heroes, defending his assertion "that in Cato the immortal gods had given us a truer exemplar of the wise man than earlier ages had in Ulysses and Hercules."3 Renaissance Neostoics who rejected the active life could justify escaping its pressures and corrupting effects by maintaining a view of Stoic cosmopolitanism that relieved them of allegiance to governments or states and enjoined passive acceptance of the existing social order and whatever it imposed. Justus Lipsius is representative of this type of Neostoicism. His De Constantia urges the wise man to withdraw from courts and cities into rustic seclusion. Any attempt to change or reform society will destroy constancy.4 Claudius compels Hamlet to remain in his court, but tries to persuade him to embrace a Stoic constancy that amounts to passivity.
A very different kind of Stoicism, enjoining participation and service, is set forth by Guillaume Du Vair in his La Philosophie Morale des Stoiques. Du Vair is in the activist tradition of Cicero and Marcus Aurelius, while Lipsius follows Seneca and Boethius in advocating withdrawal from the world to facilitate the rational practice of virtue. Activist Neostoicism was also represented in Shakespeare's time, as I noted earlier, by Calvinists, such as Mornay, Hall, and La Primaudaye, who linked self-knowledge, knowledge of the divine, and duty to one's fellows. The concept of moral stewardship, generally regarded as a Calvinist notion with scriptural roots, could find support in the writings of the ancient Stoics, such as Epictetus, whose ideas in this regard are dramatized by Marston and Chapman. The emphasis on discipline and a sense of responsibility for the moral welfare of the community that gave Stoicism virtually the status of a state religion in ancient Rome also recommended it to Calvin and his followers. The point is relevant to a discussion of Hamlet because the prince himself progresses in the course of the play from a yearning to assume a passive Stoic stance to an activism that combines Stoic and Calvinist elements.
Shakespeare's treatments of Stoicism in other plays reveal both of these strains of the philosophy as potentially conducive to moral confusion. In Julius Caesar, he seems to be targeting Stoic activism, mainly, as I suggested earlier, the assumption, later dramatized by Chapman in The Revenge of Bussy D'Ambois, that a good man uncorrupted by passion can reconcile any task he perceives to be necessary with a correct moral purpose. In Troilus and Cressida, he represents the other type of Stoicism in Agamemnon. Addressing his lieutenants in the Greek council of war (I. iii.), Agamemnon enjoins "persistive constancy" and urges them to accept their frustrations as "naught else / But the protractive trials of great Jove" (I. iii. 19-20). By urging Stoic acceptance, he glosses over the fact that he really doesn't understand why the siege has failed. It remains for Ulysses, a politician and a realist, to exercise his virtù and, having identified the problem, to formulate a plan. What the activist virtus of Brutus and the passive virtus of Agamemnon have in common is a reliance upon reason that proves to be not merely unreliable but totally deceptive. One recalls Montaigne's definition of reason as man's capacity to delude himself:
I alwaies call reason that apparance or shew of discourses which every man deviseth or forgeth in himselfe: that reason of whose condition there may be a hundred, one contrary to another, about one selfe same subject: it is an instrument of lead and wax, stretching, pliable, and that may be fitted to all byases and squared to all measures: there remaines nothing but the skill and sufficiency to know how to turne and winde the same.5
In an important recent article, Mark Matheson points out how Hamlet "passes beyond" a reliance on reason and relinquishes himself to the direction of his conscience, a transition which, Matheson argues, parallels that of contemporary Protestantism from the traditional Christian-humanist ideology, recently restated by Hooker, to "a new cultural paradigm, one in which a Protestant concept of conscience supplants reason as the crucial human faculty."6 In Matheson's view, Stoicism and humanism are failing ideologies in the world of the play.
Matheson's argument is persuasive, but the play reflects as well Protestant, specifically Calvinist, adaptations of Stoicism. Hamlet's speeches in the final act express, to use Gordon Braden's words, "a Stoicism Christianized by an unclassically thorough humility before a greater power," a philosophical stance closer to Montaigne than Seneca.7 Moreover, the skepticism as well as the fideism of Montaigne is clearly reflected in the last scenes. This does not really contradict Matheson's argument, or Braden's, because, as noted earlier, Montaigne and Calvin have much the same view of recta ratio and its limitations.
The attitude of Hamlet toward Stoicism and its embodiment in the sage is obviously ambivalent. On the one hand, he admires Horatio and envies his freedom from destructive passion, his apatheia. On the other, he is acutely aware of the limitations of Stoic rationalism. When he tells Horatio that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in his philosophy, he is apparently referring to the limitations of natural philosophy in general and Horatio's Stoic rationalism in particular. Horatio's reputation as a "scholar" had prompted Bernardo and Marcellus to seek his verification of the apparition they saw on the battlements. With the confidence of an academic natural philosopher and a rationalist whose learning has not been tested beyond the confines of Wittenberg University, Horatio had "explained" the Ghost as a figment of their "fantasy" before he even saw it. The explanation is obviously inadequate but no more so than the numerous attempts by Shakespearean scholar-critics to "explain" the Ghost in terms of ideas and commonplace notions that were current in Shakespeare's time. Like the motives of Iago, the more it is explained the more elusive it becomes. Hamlet's remark to Horatio alerts the audience to the danger of relying on learning that is insufficiently based on experience in a world that challenges Stoic faith in its underlying all-permeating reason.
In his "To be, or not to be" soliloquy, Hamlet in effect juxtaposes Stoic virtus and Machiavellian virtù.8 Passively enduring the blows of fortune and actively committing one's energies to mastering her are alternative responses that appear to be very different from each other. What they have in common is an adherence to purpose, the moral purpose of the sage and the political or military purpose of the man of action. Identifying the latter with Machiavellian virtù, rather than activist virtus, may not be wholly justified by the text but is, nonetheless, tempting because Shakespeare sets up the same juxtaposition, though in a different manner, in Troilus and Cressida, a play written soon after Hamlet, which exhibits some close affinities.
As noted earlier, Agamemnon is a Stoic sage, and his address -to his lieutenants in the Greek council of war scene is a distillation of the main ideas in Seneca's De Constantia Sapientis. As a way of glossing over his own ignorance of the reasons why the Greek siege has failed, Agamemnon urges his lieutentants to manifest Stoic virtus. After Nestor attempts to "apply" Agamemnon's words, Ulysses utters his great speech on degree and order, whereby he attempts to draw Agamemnon out of his Stoic retreat into an assertion of leadership. His speech appeals to commonly held beliefs in the moral necessity of reverence for degree, but its purpose is thoroughly pragmatic. The obvious reason why he wants Agamemnon's authority reestablished is that Agamemnon is willing to let Ulysses do most of his thinking for him. Yet, in fact, Ulysses exerts no control whatever over the major events of the play. In terms of achieving concrete ends, he is as ineffectual as his commander, and the "policy" he practices, as Thersites remarks, "grows into an ill opinion" (V. iv. 8-16). Indeed the development of Troilus and Cressida as a whole illustrates Hamlet's point in the first five lines of "To be, or not to be," that Stoic resignation and commitment to action are equally futile courses. To take arms against a sea of troubles is to beat back the tide with a broom, yet, paradoxically, one may indeed "end them" for oneself if one could, by opposing them, achieve self-annihilation.
The key phrase in the soliloquy is "nobler in the mind." Even as he juxtaposes being and not-being and two opposed modes of adhering to purpose, Hamlet is also in effect juxtaposing subjective and objective reality and giving primacy to the former. The real question is not one of whether, in fact, passive endurance is a nobler course than active commitment but how the mind perceives the alternatives. Paradoxically, though his subjective stance appears to reduce Stoic virtus and virtù to the same level of futility, it is, in fact, in harmony with what Gordon Braden has called "the logic of Stoic retreat."9 The external world is utterly devalued against the reality of the inner world, the judging self, the realm of autarceia, yet curiously this devaluing does not lead to any sort of affirmation of self-sufficiency. It leads instead, as Hamlet's soliloquy reveals, to a longing for the ultimate retreat—annihilation. Hamlet had expressed the same longing in an earlier soliloquy: "O that this too too sullied flesh would melt / Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!" (I. ii. 129-30). In that soliloquy, too, he expresses Christian scruples about suicide, but as "To be, or not to be" reveals, they are based mainly on the fear that suicide will not lead to annihilation, that the burden of consciousness will continue in the next world.
Classical Stoic philosophy has little to say about "The undiscover'd country." Marcus Aurelius leaves open the question of whether or not there is an afterlife.10 The Stoic eschatology presented in The Aeneid by Anchises (VI. 718-48) seems to express a belief that the divine spark lives on and presumably, after "nothing is left but pure / Ethereal sentience and the spirit's essential flame," it is destined for reunion with the Logos spermatikos.11 Seneca is inconsistent on the subject, but Braden seems to be right in attaching greater significance to those passages in which he in effect denies the soul's immortality than those in which he seems to affirm it.12 Again, Hamlet's sense of the limitations of Stoic natural philosophy is apparent. Among the things not dreamt of in natural philosophy is the whole realm of Christian eschatology, but the fact that Hamlet refers to this too as a "dream" emphasizes the extent of his own uncertainty. His superiority to the sage in understanding is, like the unmatched wisdom of Socrates, based on his superior awareness of what he does not know.
"To be, or not to be" may be fruitfully compared with Hieronimo's "Vindicta mihi" soliloquy in The Spanish Tragedy (III. xiii. 1-44) on which it may have been at least partly modeled. Like Hamlet, Hieronimo considers alternative responses to his situation—Christian patience or Stoic resignation versus active commitment against a sea of troubles. Like Hamlet's soliloquy, his speech reveals his growing awareness of the inadequacy of the conventional views of experience represented by these alternatives. By the end of The Spanish Tragedy Hieronimo is made to see what Hamlet intuits at the outset of his tragedy, that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in anyone's "philosophy." Hieronimo, like Hamlet, is able to consider the alternatives critically, but, unlike Hamlet, he finds one acceptable and resolves to act: "And death's the worst of resolution" (III. xiii. 9). Hamlet's reflections are finally inconclusive and "resolution" is "sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought." Hearing the soliloquy, Donne might remark to Cornwallis that a skeptic's meditations are always inconclusive.
For all his uncertainty, Hamlet is preoccupied with eschatology, mainly damnation, throughout much of the play, and he seems to have an unwavering emotional conviction of the reality of hell. The visitation of his father's spirit, contradicting his view that "no traveller returns" from the world beyond, evokes the literally unspeakable horrors of a purgatory that sounds more like Dante's infernal pit. Remembering this, he finds a ready excuse to put off killing Claudius at prayer. When he forges the letter dooming Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, he, in effect, wills their damnation as well by adding the phrase, "not shriving-time allow'd." He apparently maintains a Catholic belief in salvation in articulo mortis, which, along with purgatory itself, was denied by Protestant moral theology.13
His fear of being damned himself appears not merely in his scruples about suicide but in the meditation on corruption he utters just before his first encounter with the Ghost. Beginning with a discourse on Danish drunkenness and how it adds a "swinish phrase" to the name of Dane, he parallels the soiling of a national reputation with that of individuals by some inborn flaw or "mole of nature." No matter how virtuous or gifted an individual may be, he is doomed to disgrace by "the stamp of one defect":
Being nature's livery or Fortune's star,
His virtues else, be they as pure as grace,
As infinite as man may undergo,
Shall in the general censure take corruption
From that particular fault. The dram of evil
Doth all the noble substance often dout
To his own scandal.
(I. iv. 32-38)
The explicit concern is public opinion, as it affects both nations and individuals, identifying them with a single flaw.14 But as is typical with Hamlet, such a meditation prompts introspection, and as Olivier sensed, he seems to be thinking of how not merely reputation but moral character, his own in particular, may be affected by a single inborn defect. Bearing in mind his preoccupation with eschatology, it is tempting to find in "the general censure" an ambiguous reference to both public judgment and the General Judgment.
If we choose to see an eschatological reference in these lines, we may see as well the beginning of a tension between the unambiguously Catholic eschatology shortly to be revealed in the Ghost's speeches, which stress the importance of the sacraments to salvation, and what appears to be an eschatology more in harmony with that of Luther and Calvin. Without referring specifically to predestination, Hamlet seems to be describing how some otherwise blameless individuals are damned, as well as disgraced, by a "vicious mole" that has been imposed on them by nature.
One should not, of course, make too much of a possible ambiguity, but it can't be denied that Hamlet feels victimized by providence:
The time is out of joint. O cursed spite,
That ever I was born to set it right.
(I. v. 196-97)
For this same lord
I do repent; but heaven hath pleas'd it so,
To punish me with this and this with me,
That I must be their scourge and minister.
(III. iv. 174-77)
The latter speech, uttered over the slain Polonius, can be read as a bitter acceptance of the damnable role of scourge that has been imposed on him. As conventionally conceived, the role of scourge and the role of minister are very different from each other and do not coexist in the same actor. A scourge is a damned instrument of divine justice whose fitness for a damnable role is due to a corruption for which providence is not to blame. A minister is a benevolent agent of divine justice who may complete the work begun by a scourge, but the two agents are very different in kind.15 In seeing himself as one coerced into assuming both roles, Hamlet is clearly rejecting any Christian or Stoic notion of providence as benevolent design. It is perhaps his most profoundly skeptical moment in the play. In musing on the battlement, he had spoken of those who are victimized by nature, disgraced, and perhaps damned as a result of something "wherein they are not guilty." Now he describes himself as one victimized by heaven into assuming a role that will damn him.
Referring to eschatology in the world of the play, specifically what he sees as the "moral barbarism" of the premise that a good man unlucky enough to die without receiving the last sacraments must suffer hellish or purgatorial fires, Graham Bradshaw observes, "Divine justice would appear to have the morals of a fruit machine; but for much of the play this barbaric idea seems to function as a premise."16 From a purely human standpoint, this would seem to be the case, even as it is clearly the case in The Spanish Tragedy. In that play, as I have argued, Kyd deliberately emphasizes the discrepancy between the orthodox Christian Stoic beliefs expressed by the living characters with regard to the process of divine justice and what is revealed in the judgment scenes that frame the main plot. The play begins and ends skeptically with eschatological revelations that in no way agree with or fulfill the orthodox Christian assumptions or expectations of the characters who live and die in the intervening acts. In Hamlet, too, divine justice seems to be at odds with human reason and morality. But Shakespeare's tragic design is more encompassing than is Kyd's. The tragic vision of The Spanish Tragedy is like that of Job without the theophany. Hamlet does not include a theophany as such, but it includes elements that must have been extremely suggestive to an audience consisting largely of Protestants attuned to religious discourse in which the mystery of divine justice was an awe-inspiring matter beyond the application, let alone comprehension, of such crude instruments as human reason and moral judgment.
In an essay cited earlier in this study, Paul R. Sellin begins his discussion of Reformation awe by focusing on Everyman as an expression of the medieval Catholic theology about to be displaced by the Reformation in the very countries in which the play was especially popular—Germany, the Low Countries, and England. As Sellin observes, "Everyman exhibits a great deal of sureness about how God relates to man. The benevolence of divine concern for all humankind is assumed, and the means by which man can ensure the certainty of enjoying grace are relatively precise, systematic, and reliable."17 Everyman exercises all his faculties, including knowledge and free choice, in preparing himself for death. He receives the sacraments of Penance, the Eucharist, and Extreme Unction, the bountiful means provided by God Himself through His Church of obtaining grace.
In stark contrast to this dramatic representation of how God relates to man is the vision of the Reformers. For Luther, "God is a terrible and glorious, though to be sure an infinitely loving and bountiful, mystery whose omnipotence is eternal, incomprehensible, inscrutable, infallible, immense, awesome and above all hidden—verè a Deus absconditus (Isa. 45: 15)"18 In the matter of His justice, Luther acknowledges that the palpable injustice in the world is a challenge to faith and that reason will lead man to impious conclusions:
Behold! God governs the external affairs of the world in such a way that, if you regard and follow the judgment of human reason, you are forced to say, either that there is no God, or that God is unjust; as the poet said: "I am often tempted to think there are no gods." See the great prosperity of the wicked, and by contrast the great adversity of the good. .. . Is it not, pray, universally held to be most unjust that bad men should prosper, and good men afflicted? Yet that is the way of the world.19
. . . Luther condemned Skepticism, believing that conscience informed by the reading of Scripture would lead one to certainty in religious matters, but his extreme anti-rationalism, his utter contempt for reason as the malleable "whore of the devil," is essentially in harmony with Montaigne's Skeptical view of reason's unreliability. And Calvin, who adapts so much Stoicism into his moral philosophy, has no faith in recta ratio as a guide to righteousness. Like Luther, he takes Augustine's interpretations of Paul's teachings concerning the state of fallen man to deterministic extremes. While the natural faculties of fallen man—understanding, judgment, and will—have been corrupted, he possesses enough reason, a vestige of his prelapsarian state, to seek the truth. But unaided reason cannot overcome the debilitating effects of vanity and sin, and since the will is inseparable from reason, it too is in bondage to vanity and sin.20 Like Luther, he stresses the inadequacy of human judgment applied to divine justice:
First, therefore, this fact should occur to us: that our discourse is concerned with the justice not of a human court but of a heavenly tribunal, lest we measure by our own small measure the integrity of works needed to satisfy the divine judgment. Yet it is amazing with what great rashness and boldness this is commonly defined.21
When Hamlet sees himself as one victimized by heaven, he is following the judgment of his human reason to an impious conclusion. Only when he comes to realize the futility of applying his reason to apprehend the design of his fate will he be able to relinquish himself to the will of heaven. This realization comes about mainly as a result of his adventure at sea, during which he is preserved by a combination of rashness and what he sees as special providence, but that voyage is preceded by a meditation in which reason, as in The Apology of Raymond Sebond, completely discredits itself. Throughout the play, it has become progressively more apparent that introspection has led him not to the self-knowledge that should be the basis of virtuous activity but instead into a Montaignean profond labyrinthe in which he moves ever further from an understanding of his own motives and, therefore, ever further from commitment to action. He is paralyzed by self-awareness, and the Stoic commonplace that self-knowledge leads to virtuous activity is obviously thrown into question.
In his final soliloquy, shamed by the example of Fortinbras marching his troops to battle for a worthless piece of Polish territory, Hamlet castigates himself for his failure to act. His reason and his blood concur in urging him to revenge. Moreover, honor is at stake. What is remarkable about this speech is that it contains so many self-contradictions and yet is, as Graham Bradshaw remarks, "remarkably coherent."22
When the Norwegian captain tells Hamlet how worthless the prize is and yet how costly in potential casualties, Hamlet's initial response is amazement at the absurdity of such extravagant waste, yet he understands how such wars occur. They are the ulcerous results of extended peace and prosperity. They break out without any discernible cause, but the effects are, nonetheless, fatal. As Kittredge notes, he is restating an old theory that war is the natural exercise of the body politic, and without it the national character is subject to deterioration analogous to that which idleness and luxury cause in the human body.23 Hamlet's restatement of this old theory does not, however, include any reference to the healthful effects of such exercise on the national character. As with the ulcer hidden within, the only discernible effect is that "the man dies." And what astonishes him is that such a terrible price will be paid for "this straw."
But having said this, he goes on to reflect upon how this piece of rash dreadful folly rebukes him personally for his inaction. Again he raises the great question, "What is a man . . . ?" He has no doubt that what sets man apart from beasts is the exercise of his godlike reason, and he rebukes himself for abusing his own reason to justify what he suspects is more cowardice than wisdom. But then he expresses his envy and admiration of Fortinbras, who has mindlessly committed himself and his army to mortal danger "even for an eggshell." According to the principle he has just stated, that man functions qua man when he exercises reason, Fortinbras is behaving in a subhuman fashion. But Hamlet is, nonetheless, compelled to admire this rash young adventurer because he is willing to risk everything for the sake of honor.
Rightly to be great
Is not to stir without great argument,
But greatly to find quarrel in a straw
When honour's at the stake.
(IV. iv. 53-56)
Honor magnifies any cause, even a "straw." The idea that a great man will not stir without great cause goes back to the model of the great-spirited man in Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics, as does the idea that honor compels action when it is threatened. But Hamlet is carrying this latter principle a step further to justify the kind of mindset represented by Hotspur or Troilus. Bradshaw relates this passage to the Trojan debate in Troilus and Cressida, specifically to Troilus's question, "What's aught but as 'tis valued?" and Hector's response that "value dwells not in particular will."24 Indeed Hamlet articulates Troilus's whole view of honor, including his assumption that the involvement of national honor guarantees that any quarrel is honorable. Cassandra's
. . . brain-sick raptures
Cannot distaste the goodness of a quarrel
Which hath our several honors all engaged
To make it gracious.
(II. ii. 123-26)
While Hamlet can sympathize with such a commitment to honor, he still maintains a full rational awareness of its insanity. Hesitating to take hostile action unless there is adequate cause implies rational deliberation, but if honor is involved the trivial becomes great and reason is irrelevant. Again the cause of Fortinbras is referred to as a "straw." But while honor can magnify a "straw" and make it, to use Troilus's phrase, a theme of honor and renown, honor itself is completely without substance, "a fantasy and trick of fame." Inspired by this illusion, thousands will fall, and their example shames him. He is shamed by his inability to act according to either the imperative of reason or the irrational imperative of honor, even though his cause, unlike that of Fortinbras, is sanctioned by reason as well as honor that is no illusion. And the precise cause of his paralysis eludes him.
Of course, at this particular moment he is hardly in a position to act. Guarded by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and the rest of his escort, he no longer possesses either strength or means. He has forgone the perfect opportunity to take revenge and the likelihood of his having another seems remote. His final bloodthirsty flourish is an expression of frustrated impotence, as meaningless as the ranting for which he condemned himself in his second soliloquy. Once again he has unpacked his heart with words to no end.
As many have noted, Shakespeare seems to have been reading Montaigne when he wrote this play. Florio's translation had not yet appeared, but he could have been reading it in manuscript or in the original, and Anthony Burgess may be right in suggesting that he was writing about "a Montaigne-like man."25Hamlet is full of Montaignean echoes. The soliloquy I have been discussing, for instance, seems to echo Montaigne's contradictory views of war. On the one hand, he can speak of soldiering as a "profession or exercise, both noble in execution (for the strongest, most generous and prowdest of all vertues, is true valour) and noble in it's cause."26 On the other, he can scoff at the stupidity of seeking glory in war: "So many names, so many victories, and so many conquests buried in darke oblivion, makes the hope to perpetuate our names but ridiculous, by the surprising of ten Argo-lettiers, or of a small cottage, which is knowne but by his fall."27 And Hamlet's progress toward the Christian-Stoic fideism he expresses in the last act parallels The Apology of Raymond Sebond in many respects. Like Montaigne, Hamlet discovers the futility of relying on reason, which, as this soliloquy demonstrates, cannot refute the irrational imperative of a mindless appetite for military glory and is incapable by itself of moving one to take action in a just cause. In his first bitter soliloquy he condemns his mother's behavior as less seemly than that of "a beast that wants discourse of reason." His assumption, restated in the last soliloquy, is that it is reason that sets man above the beasts. But by exalting Fortinbras he is clearly jettisoning that assumption and putting the so-called rational and the irrational on a level, much as Montaigne does in The Apology when he presents his disturbingly persuasive argument that, viewed empirically, man. is neither morally nor intellectually superior to other beasts. It is a profoundly humbling moment for Hamlet but essential to his progress toward a Montaignean recognition of man's need for God, without whom man is morally no better, is indeed worse, than a beast.
Though Montaigne was a devout Catholic who used Skepticism to support fideism and a complete submission to the teaching authority of the Catholic Church, he was, as noted earlier, in fundamental agreement with Luther and Calvin regarding the limitations of human reason and man's need for grace. What Hamlet reveals, among other things, is how Skepticism may prepare one for faith, contrary to the assumptions of the Reformers. Which is not to say that the play contradicts basic Protestant doctrine concerning the necessity of total submission to the divine will and the mysterious nature of the relationship between God and man. For Hamlet, as for Job, skeptical questioning that undercuts conventional assumptions and canned wisdom finally refutes itself and prepares the way for faith and acceptance.
Matheson rightly emphasizes "the emergence of a specifically Protestant discourse and of God's predestinating will" in the final act.28 When Horatio expresses some shock at the fate of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet dismisses them as "not near my conscience." Since they had already damned themselves by willfully serving evil, he feels no guilt in having merely accelerated their inevitable progress into hell. His next speech to Horatio again emphasizes that he is at peace with his conscience and is indeed being directed by it in purging the state of Denmark. To refuse its mandate would be damnable:
Does it not, think thee, stand me now upon—
He that hath kill'd my king and whor'd my mother,
Popp'd in between th' election and my hopes,
Thrown out his angle for my proper life
And with such coz'nage—is't not perfect conscience
To quit him with this arm? And is't not to be damn'd
To let this canker of our nature come
In further evil?
(V. ii. 63-70)
Thus Hamlet reveals that he has relinquished himself to the direction of God's voice within him. The Calvinist implications are unmistakable. As William Perkins wrote a few years before the play was first presented, conscience
is (as it were) a little God setting in the middle of mens hearts, arraigning them in this life as they shall be arraigned for their offences at the Tribunal seat of the euerliving God in the day of iudgement. Wherefore the temporarie iudgement that is given by the conscience is nothing els but a beginning, or a fore-runner of the last iudgement.29
This is not to say that Hamlet has undergone a conversion to Calvinism during his adventure at sea. What he has discovered is the futility of opposing the divinity that shapes our ends and a consequent willingness to relinquish himself to it. As Jenkins and others have noted, his speech to Horatio assuring him of special providence echoes both Matthew x. 29 and Calvin, who emphasized special providence.30 It also echoes the Stoic beliefs of Horatio.
Horatio does not utter Stoic precepts, like Chapman's Clermont D'Ambois or Marston's Pandulpho, but his self-characterization as more an antique Roman than a Dane and Hamlet's encomium defining him as an embodiment of Stoic perfection make clear the attitudes and beliefs he represents. When Hamlet says "There's a divinity that shapes our ends," Horatio recognizes an expression of his own faith as a Christian Stoic and responds, "That is most certain." Considering the extent to which Stoicism had been baptized by Calvinist Reformers, it is hardly surprising to find both Calvinist and Stoic resonances in a speech expressing total submission to providential design. While Calvin, in effect, replaced the Stoic concepts of recta ratio and the divine spark with his doctrine of Divine Illumination from within by the Holy Spirit, his followers in England, such as Perkins, maintained a view of the moral faculty as a divine agency within man, and the writings of other Protestant authors, such as Mornay and La Primaudaye, suggest that they incorporated the concept of the divine spark and identified it with the part of conscience dictating general principles.31 The context of Hamlet's expressions of faith in the direction of his conscience must have been especially meaningful to an audience aware of the potential conflict between believers in the sovereignty of conscience and absolutist monarchs. The Protestant view of conscience as God within man, which found classical support in the doctrine of the spark, was an important doctrinal basis for resistance to absolutism and indeed tyranny in any form, and the tensions that would lead to the outbreak of civil war in the next century were already evident in the 1590s. Appropriately, Hamlet is being prompted by his conscience as he opposes a usurping tyrant.
Hamlet's acquired faith in special providence enables him to assume briefly the role of Stoic sage that he had idealized in his encomium on Horatio. It is not the role of passive Stoic that he had considered as an alternative in "To be, or not to be," but that of an activist ready to encounter evil and overcome it with guidance from within. A yearning for retreat from the pressures of the world into a subjective realm of reality has been replaced by an inner direction to change his world. Significantly, it is Horatio, not Hamlet, who exhibits anxiety about the impending duel with Laertes. Hamlet is perfectly resigned, in a state of "readiness," to encounter what can only be another murderous trap set by the plotting Claudius. To accept the challenge is rashness bordering on the suicidal, and understandably he feels "a kind of gaingiving as would perhaps trouble a woman." But, like Chapman's Stoic heroes Clermont and the Guise, he dismisses his well-grounded misgiving. Like Chapman, Shakespeare subtly undercuts the Stoic ideal of fortitude by having it prompt a denial of "unmanly" fear.
A Neostoic watching the final scene of the play might, nonetheless, be heartened by the spectacle of a man sustained by faith in providence carrying out the duty that his sense of moral purpose prescribes and having his faith vindicated as Claudius is destroyed by his own machinations. What a Skeptic might point out to him, however, is that Hamlet's performance in the role of the sage is dramatically undercut by the scenes that frame it. Moreover, if the ends of divine justice are being served, why is it that the process of serving it has paved the way for the emergence of a ruler probably less fit than Claudius?
In the scene immediately preceding the last one, Hamlet surrenders completely to his passions, and though his behavior toward Laertes is something he rightly repents, his exhibition of overwhelming grief over the death of Ophelia is clearly calculated to win him the sympathy of the audience that has been diminished by her suffering and the account of her miserable death. He is still clearly incapable of the apatheia he admires in the ideal of the sage. Nor are we likely to think less of him when he again surrenders completely to his passions as he kills Claudius. While he himself expresses a Stoic view of passion as evil and corrupting, his own actions imply a very different view of passion on the part of the playwright. For one thing, passion is shown to be the only means whereby Hamlet is ever able to overcome his inability to fuse thought with action. As long as he has even a moment to collect himself and reflect, he will refrain from acting on his resolutions, as he had clearly shown when he refrained from killing Claudius at prayer. Passion is potentially corrupting, but Shakespeare, like Marston in Sophonisba, reveals that a blend of passion with Stoic virtue is possible and even desirable. Complete apatheia is for the passive perfectionist who retreats from the world and objective reality itself.
If we can accept Horatio's hopeful prayer and farewell to Hamlet as reliable prophecy, the prince is not destined to suffer the hellish fires that afflict his father in purgatory, even though he too has died without the last sacraments. We probably shouldn't make much of Shakespeare's summary dismissal of the eschatology that was so prominently referred to earlier in the play. But the fact that Fortinbras will be inheriting the throne of Denmark can. hardly be seen as part of a tragic affirmation. The glimpses and reports we have had of this young Norwegian adventurer throw into question his fitness to rule, and we are left to wonder when his boundless ambition will prompt him to risk even more lives for some straw or eggshell. The profound skepticism and pessimism implicit in this triumph of a ruthless appetite for power combined with a mindless commitment to glory seem to anticipate the darkness of Troilus and Cressida.
Then everything includes itself in power,
Power into will, will into appetite;
And appetite, an universal wolf,
So doubly seconded with will and power,
Must make perforce an universal prey,
And last eat up himself.
(Troilus and Cressida, I. iii. 119-24)
Donne, always fascinated by the paradoxical, might point out this apparent contradiction to Cornwallis, but at the same time, as the future author of the Holy Sonnets, he might confess that he has been moved, perhaps to envy, by the spectacle of a good man raised from the anguish of skeptical despair to hope and certainty as he submits himself to a design beyond his comprehension and prepares to encounter death. He might also confess to being moved by a kind of wonder and fear as he ponders the great questions raised in the play, particularly those touching the nature of man and his relationship to God, whose mysterious designs for man according to His dreadful hidden will beget terror and mock the criteria of human judgment.
1 Harold Jenkins, ed., Hamlet, New Arden edition (London: Methuen Press, 1982). All citations are from this edition.
2 Robert Miola, Shakespeare and Classical Tragedy The Influence of Seneca (Oxford University Press, 1992), 59.
3 Seneca, De Constantia Sapientis, Il. 2.
4 This contradicts somewhat his early work, the Politiques, which is concerned with the theory of man and society and the concept of government. See Levi, The French Moralists, 55. See also Bement's excellent discussion of Lipsius and Du Vair as representative of the two types of Renaissance Neostoicism, George Chapman, 183-86.
5 Montaigne, "An Apologie of Raymond Sebond," Essayes, trans. Florio, II, 314-15. . . .
6 Mark Matheson, "Hamlet and 'A Matter Tender and Dangerous,'" Shakespeare Quarterly XLVI (1995): 383-97.
7 Braden, Renaissance Tragedy and the Senecan Tradition, 221-22.
8 For discussion of what these concepts have in common, see above chapter 3 [in Nobler in the Mind: The Stoic-Skeptic Dialectic in English Renaissance Tragedy], n. 61.
9 Braden, Renaissance Tragedy, 23.
10 Antoninus, Marcus Aurelius, Communings with Himself, XII. 5.
11donec longa dies, perfecto temporis orbe, concretam exemit labem, purumque reliquit, aetherium sensum atque aurai simplicis ignem, has omnes, ubi mille rotam volvere per annos trans. II. 747-48 C. Day Lewis, The Aeneid of Virgil (New York: Doubleday, 1953), 151. Cf. Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, VII. 148-49.
12 Braden, Renaissance Tragedy, 23-24, 228, note 27.
13 For discussion of the purgatorial context in the play and Protestant doctrine regarding purgatory, see Matheson, "Hamlet and `A Matter Tender and Dangerous,'" 384-85.
14 Harold Jenkins believes that the meaning is confined to this specific reference; "What the single fault corrupts is not, as so widely assumed, the man's character, but the opinion that is formed of it, his reputation, or 'image.'" Note to I. iv. 35 in his edition.
15 See Bowers, "Hamlet as Minister and Scourge," 740-49.
16 Graham Bradshaw, Shakespeare's Scepticism (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1987), 121.
17 Sellin, "The Hidden God," 150.
18 Ibid., 154.
19 Martin Luther, "The Bondage of the Will," in Martin Luther Selections from his Writings, ed. John Dillenberger (New York: Anchor, 1961), 201.
20 See chapter 1, notes 90 and 91.
21 John Calvin, Institutes book 3, chap. 12, 1, ed. John T. McNeill (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960).
22 Bradshaw, Shakespeare's Scepticism, 10.
23Hamlet, ed. G. L. Kittredge (New York: Ginn, 1939), note to IV. iv. 27.
24 Bradshaw, Shakespeare's Scepticism, 5-10.
25 Burgess, Shakespeare, 119.
26 Montaigne, Essays, III. xiii. 361, "On Experience," trans. Florio.
27 Ibid., "Of the Institution and Education of Children," I. xxv, 179-80. M. A. Screech renders it, "So many names, so many victories and conquests lying buried in oblivion, make it ridiculous to hope that we shall immortalize our names by rounding up ten armed brigands or by storming some hen-house or other known only by its capture." The Complete Essays (New York: Penguin, 1987), 177.
28 Matheson, "`A Matter Tender and Dangerous,'" 390.
29 William Perkins, A Discourse of Conscience (London, 1596), 27. British Museum copy. See above, chapter 1.
30 Jenkins, note to V. ii. 215-16, refers to Calvin, Institutes, I, esp. xvi. 1, xvii. 6.
31 See Chapter 1 [in Nobler in the Mind: The Stoic-Skeptic Dialectic in English Renaissance Tragedy].
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Source: "Nobler in the Mind: The Dialectic in Hamlet," in Nobler in the Mind: The Stoic-Skeptic Dialectic in English Renaissance Tragedy, University of Delaware Press, 1998, pp. 145-61.