Hamlet and A Matter Tender and Dangerous

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Hamlet and "A Matter Tender and Dangerous"

See also Hamlet Criticism (Volume 35), and Volumes 37, 44, 59, 71, 82.

Mark Matheson, University of Utah

I offer this essay as a contribution to a discernible movement in Shakespeare studies which is once again raising the question of the relation of the plays to early modern religious discourse. For a long time this relationship was addressed in the context of biographical criticism, with the texts being read as cryptic testimonials to Shakespeare's Catholicism, his royalist Anglicanism, his agnosticism, his hostility to Puritanism, and so on. In the new assessment of Shakespeare's work and religion, biographical concerns have been displaced by a focus on the texts as part of a broad cultural order and on the great variety of contemporary discourses that nourish the plays and the dramatic conflicts they represent. The interpretive process is complicated by the issue of censorship, a force difficult to assess but undeniable, and, in the case of Hamlet, by the existence of three different texts with their vast number of variants. Religious discourse is integral to Hamlet, but Shakespeare's representation of religion in the play is oblique and inconsistent, and critics have come to many different conclusions about Hamlet's religious content. The play's inconsistent representation of religion is interesting in itself, and I would argue that to a certain extent the forces producing this instability and the role of religion in the play's ideological drama are accessible to historicist criticism. We can, for example, illuminate the representation of religion in the play by viewing it in relation to Hamlet's subjectivity, which is a principal site of ideological contention. We can also engage with specific religious discourses in the text, among them Roman Catholicism, neo-Stoicism, and Protestantism, and with Shakespeare's representation of their historical and institutional affiliations. To classify Stoicism as a religious discourse is arguable, but it clearly functions as an important constituent in the contemporary synthesis of humanism and Christianity. Considering Stoicism within a religious context illuminates Hamlet's involvement with comprehensive ideological systems and helps to prepare the way for an analysis of his subjective transformation at the end of the play.

The language and theology of Roman Catholicism emerge most clearly in Hamlet in the prince's encounter with his father's spirit, where the Christian and specifically purgatorial context that Shakespeare creates for the Ghost is rather surprising. The play contrasts sharply in this respect with The Spanish Tragedy, where the ghost of Don Andrea inhabits a classical underworld derived from the sixth book of Virgil's Aeneid, a strategy that allows Kyd to avoid the ideological pitfalls of representing a Christian afterlife. The spirit of old Hamlet explicitly identifies his situation beyond the grave, speaking of the "sulph'rous and tormenting flames" to which he must render himself, and of the "certain term" of penance he must endure until "the foul crimes done in my days of nature / Are burnt and purged away" (1.5.3, 10, and 12-13).1 His complaint that he has gone to his death "unhouseled" and "unaneled" (1.77)—that is, without benefit of the Eucharist and extreme unction—introduces a language that is unambiguously Roman Catholic. The authority of the Ghost's appeal to Hamlet is based in part on a tradition of Catholic discourse in which the power of speech—what Horatio calls "sound or use of voice" (1.1.109)—is given to the suffering dead. In Sir Thomas More's Supplication of Souls (1529), for instance, those tormented in purgatory make their appeal to the living:

If ye pity the blind, there is none so blind as we, which are here in...

(This entire section contains 8079 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

the dark, saving for sights unpleasant, and loathsome, till some comfort come. If ye pity the lame, there is none so lame as we, that neither can creep one foot out of the fire, nor have one hand at liberty to defend our face from the flame. Finally, if ye pity any man in pain, never knew ye pain comparable to ours; whose fire as far passeth in heat all the fires that ever burned upon the earth, as the hottest of all those passeth a feigned fire painted on a wall.2

The language that the Ghost uses in his encounter with Hamlet is related to this collective voice of the dead: there is an affinity between More's vocabulary of torment and that found in the play. In a sense the Ghost's "I" is based on the "we" of More's text, deriving part of its authority from the whole community of the dead as identified in a specific dogmatic tradition. What is novel about the Ghost is that it comes not to beg relief for its own pains but to command Hamlet to revenge the death of King Hamlet and to restore order in the temporal political world. But in this displacement the purgatorial context remains pertinent, and the way Hamlet responds to the edict suggests that for him it carries the residual force of a religious obligation.

Emphasis on the torments of purgatory reflects doctrines and practices of late medieval Catholicism which clearly survived into the early modern period in England, but as the sixteenth century progressed, these traditions were steadily undermined by the Reformation. Early Protestants like John Frith and William Tyndale denounced both purgatory and indulgences as priestly stratagems to drain the resources of rich and poor alike. As A. G. Dickens has observed, the government of Edward VI effected in the Chantries Act of 1547 what was in many respects a second Dissolution, taking control of institutions and endowments set aside for prayers for the dead and using them to further secular causes.3 In contrast to the first Chantries Act of 1545, which stated that the funds from dissolution were needed for the war against France and Scotland, the Edwardian act was aggressively Protestant in doctrine, declaring in its preamble that much superstition and ignorance concerning the true means of salvation had been caused "by devising and phantasying vain opinions of purgatory and masses satisfactory, to be done for them which be departed."4 The Forty-Two Articles of 1553 and the Thirty-Nine Articles promulgated under Elizabeth denounced the doctrine of purgatory as "a fond thing vainly feigned, and grounded upon no warrant of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the word of God."5 Thus by the time Shakespeare wrote Hamlet 1.5, the religious doctrine it represents had been vigorously rejected by the established church for half a century. References to purgatory in English Renaissance drama are rare,6 no doubt in part because it was heretical, and Shakespeare shows a certain daring in establishing the context of the Ghost so plainly.

His reasons for establishing this purgatorial context may be associated with his complicated representation of time in the play, which is set deep in the medieval past but which stages the world of a Renaissance court. It may also be related to his portrayal of Hamlet's mind as a sensitive register of social and historical change. In writing this scene, Shakespeare may have been playing with the hidden or vestigial beliefs of his audience in order to establish a sense of distance between the world of old Hamlet and the official ideology of contemporary England. The Ghost's affiliations are clearly with feudalism and the old religion; it thus represents a social order displaced by the early modern state but still exercising an influence within contemporary institutions. This older society solicits Hamlet in the Ghost's appeal for revenge, an appeal that constructs Hamlet not as a self-conscious Renaissance prince but as a son who must fulfill the responsibilities entailed by an older communitarian identity that binds him to both the living and the dead. Shakespeare portrays Hamlet in this scene as powerless to contest the dictates of his father's spirit, and this inability to counter or qualify his father's cultural authority is evident throughout the play. As Jacques Lacan notes:

There's something very strange in the way Hamlet speaks about his dead father, an exaltation and idealization … which comes down to something like this: Hamlet has no voice with which to say whatever he may have to say about him.7

Historicist criticism might apply this psychoanalytical insight as follows: Hamlet's awkwardness in the filial role is symptomatic of his ambivalent relationship to the ideological order represented by his father, a culture whose values he consciously embraces but whose established cultural roles he is unable to perform. Shakespeare makes a point of representing Hamlet as a product of humanism and (more cautiously) of the Reformation, and thus of a material history that he cannot simply, as he vows to do, "wipe away" in an act of will (1.5.99). The rest of the play demonstrates the impossibility of fulfilling this idealist intention, which Hamlet seems to make out of a conscious but tormented loyalty to his father and the older culture he represents, in which the prince's roles are not only those of the unhesitant revenger, the son obedient to the patriarchal word, but also the devout Catholic who recognizes his solemn responsibility to the souls of the dead.8

But if the spirit of his father intrudes spectacularly to assert the values of medieval society and to impose on his son an older communitarian identity, throughout most of the play Hamlet must negotiate more contemporary political relationships. The central political institution portrayed in Hamlet is the Renaissance court, which is represented as the center of an early modern state led by a powerful monarch and deploying the full apparatus of the new diplomacy. It is also a world of humanist learning, secular politics, and religious division. In this postfeudal context the problem of unique individual identity and self-consciousness has arisen: a sense of self for aristocratic men who are not necessarily bound by older ideologies of religious and secular community. Shakespeare's portrayal of Hamlet is sensitive to this cultural development. He makes the same historical point indirectly in his representation of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who at first glance seem to belong to patterns of loyalty and group identity specific to the older culture, especially when one considers their devotion to the monarch and their notable lack of individuality. But more careful examination shows that Shakespeare portrays them as thoroughly contemporary, the product of power relations at a Renaissance court. The undifferentiated treatment he gives them is in fact rather novel, and it reveals Shakespeare's awareness of broad historical and institutional change and of the consequences of such change for individual identity. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern seem born at a stroke with the alienated individual subjectivity represented by Hamlet; Shakespeare's conception of their essential sameness is possible only from a perspective in which individual identity has already become a problematic fact. The play suggests that questions of identity never arise for the two courtiers because they are subsumed by the structure of the early modern state. In fact state power accomplishes in their case something similar to what love effects in "The Phoenix and Turtle." In both instances "number" is "slain" ("The Phoenix and Turtle," 1.28), with the difference being that in the play individuality dies not in spiritual union with another but in complete subordination to a newly emerging institutional power.

The play's representation of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern can thus be seen as a testimony to Shakespeare's interest in the power of the early modern state to shape identity, a power that shapes Hamlet's sense of self as well. When Hamlet's place in the state structure becomes vulnerable, his sense of identity is necessarily threatened. Psychological or idealist readings of Hamlet often err by paying insufficient attention to the political position of the prince, who unexpectedly finds himself displaced from the center of the court and regarded as a potential enemy of the state. His introspective brooding and painful sense of individual isolation are in part the result of this sudden estrangement from state power. In attempting to reconcile him to the new reign, Claudius invokes the contemporary humanist discourse of neo-Stoicism, which thus carries with it the institutional authority of the state. Only a few years earlier, in Julius Caesar, Shakespeare had treated Roman Stoicism in its original setting, where it had associations with republicanism and anti-imperial politics. In its Renaissance revival Stoicism retained some of its oppositional potential, but more often it performed a conservative ideological function by projecting an unchanging reality to which the individual subject must adapt. Stoicism counseled self-adjustment rather than political activism and was dismissive or condemning of actual efforts to change the social order. This doctrine had certain advantages for the contemporary aristocracy, which was more completely subject to royal control than its progenitors had been.9 Stoicism could mitigate the pains and minor humiliations of a privileged class for whom the Hotspurian resort to arms was fast becoming a reckless and even futile alternative.10 Although Hamlet is of royal blood, he occupies a position in the play not unlike that of a nobleman in early modern English society. Claudius in fact attempts to impose such a status on the prince when he describes him as "Our chiefest courtier" (1.2.117). One might then expect that neo-Stoicism would emerge in the play as an ideological alternative for Hamlet, a troubled aristocrat who finds himself thwarted and vulnerable to royal power.

The king would certainly like him to embrace this philosophy. In Claudius's first speech (1.2.1-39) he represents himself as a model of Stoic balance worthy of Hamlet's emulation, and he figures the mind as a place where strong emotions and conflicting forces are balanced and reconciled by the sovereign faculty of reason. The image of a scale functions as the master trope of this speech and of his discourse throughout this crucial public scene.11 In his efforts to persuade Hamlet, Claudius relies on the Stoic ideology of self-control, invoking its cultural prestige to accuse the prince of immaturity. Speaking like a schoolmaster, he chastens Hamlet for having "A heart unfortified, a mind impatient, / An understanding simple and unschooled" (11. 96-97). The king's discourse suggests how the Stoic concept of the subject can be used to support a conservative ideology of obedience to the existing order, or even to bolster political quietism.

Hamlet is unpersuaded, but it would be wrong to suggest that Stoic discourse has no authority for him or that he simply dismisses it as part of the king's ploy. He later invokes its terms in his elaborate compliment to Horatio, the extravagance of which is apparently embarrassing to both: "Something too much of this," says Hamlet (3.2.72). Hamlet's praise for his friend has a certain manic edge, an intensity that establishes Stoicism as a philosophy of refuge for aristocrats in the play's dynamic representation of ruling-class ideology. Here he uses the Stoic language that Claudius earlier established as normative discourse among the Danish elite and, in doing so, gives it his implicit endorsement. Nevertheless this discourse proves useless to him as a way of ordering his mind or of assisting him in carrying out the will of his father. In fact the play as a whole represents a society in which the ideology of Stoicism is in crisis. Stoicism cannot control the behavior of the prince, though the king invokes the power of the state in making this attempt; and while Claudius pretends to embody Stoic balance, his self-representations are revealed to be a rhetorical overlay for a subjectivity dominated by aggressive sexual and political drives.

The crisis of Stoicism in the play world emerges interestingly in Hamlet's prescriptions for theatrical art. His aesthetic politics are decidedly aristocratic, as his advice to the Player makes clear (3.2.1-35, 38-45). He sets up rules for the actors, urging them to strike a balance between an overly passionate style and one that is "too tame" (1.16), and he speaks about acting in the theater (and by implication beyond it) with an intensity that suggests a deep connection between aesthetics and ideology. According to Hamlet, those performing the drama must strive for balance and "temperance" (1.8), and in achieving this, their "discretion" can be a helpful "tutor" (11. 16-17); his diction suggests how closely his aesthetic theory is related to humanist concepts of identity and conduct. Hamlet reaffirms this conservative aesthetic in his final warning that those who play the clowns should "speak no more than is set down for them," adding that to do otherwise is "villainous, and shows a most pitiful ambition in the fool that uses it" (11. 39 and 43-45). For Hamlet the theater is a polity for which he prescribes an authoritarian government.12 Because degree must be observed, any self-assertion or departure from one's scripted role is stigmatized as "pitiful ambition." The noun has clear political connotations elsewhere in the play, as when Rosencrantz suggests that it is Hamlet's "ambition" that makes Denmark a prison (2.2.253). Hamlet says that actors who transgress his rules are deserving of punishment, and he specifies the sentence for one who fails to "acquire and beget" the proper temperance: "I would have such a fellow whipped for o'erdoing Termagant" (3.2.7 and 13-14)—surprisingly violent language in a discourse about playacting.

Shakespeare represents Hamlet as craving order and hierarchy in the world of art, perhaps in order to suggest that the prince finds little stability in his own subjective life and in the political life of contemporary Denmark. In the context of the play, Hamlet's theories of acting and playwriting are a reactionary gesture, an attempt to realize or validate in the aesthetic realm a conservative ideology that is failing in his own experience and in the political life of his society. The impossibility of this gesture is made evident by Hamlet's own practice, especially by his antic behavior at the theatrical performance for which he serves as patron. Hamlet there comports himself as he suggests a groundling might, interpreting the action for other members of the audience (Ophelia says he is "as good as a chorus" [3.2.233]); speaking in sexual innuendo during the intervals ("It would cost you a groaning to take off mine edge" [1. 237]); and harrassing the players through sardonic asides and direct address ("Begin, murderer. Pox, leave thy damnable faces and begin" [11. 240-41]). His obtrusive involvement in the performance violates both letter and spirit of his critical principles, and thus his theory of a decorous aristocratic theater is undermined by his own ebullient practice.

This contradiction helps to confirm that in the world of the play the ideologies of Stoicism and humanism are failing more generally, even if Hamlet's behavior here can be explained to a considerable extent by his stated intention to be "idle" (1. 88). In the sequence of scenes at the center of the play, Hamlet invokes and attempts to conduct himself according to humanist ideals. But he repeatedly subverts them, as in the scene with Ophelia, who, in lamenting Hamlet, sees his role as a "scholar" as an important part of his courtly identity (3.1.154). Hamlet briefly addresses her in the mode prescribed by contemporary aristocratic culture, but he soon assaults her with language based on the concept of original sin: "for virtue cannot so inoculate our old stock but we shall relish of it" (11. 119-21). Hamlet's language here, with its emphasis on human depravity, may suggest the influence of Protestant culture while containing within it a fundamental challenge to the ideologies of aristocratic humanism. In Act 3 it is clear that Hamlet can no longer inhabit the conceptual order constituted by Stoicism and humanist culture more generally, even though at certain moments of the play, as when he praises Horatio or expounds his program for an aristocratic theater, he is capable of giving its values enthusiastic assent.

Shakespeare thus represents Hamlet in the throes of an ideological unhousing from both the residual and dominant cultural systems of Danish society. Neither the feudal Catholic world nor the humanist Renaissance court can provide him with a secure identity or an ideological basis for action. In the odd locution of Marcellus, which seems to announce the play's interest in the relationship between objective ideological systems and individual consciousness, Hamlet cannot "let belief take hold of him" (1.1.22). As a result Hamlet's relationship to his culture in general becomes highly self-conscious and essentially critical. The ideological voracity of this manic and introspective Hamlet is evident through most of the play, but the critical Hamlet finally passes from the scene during the episode at sea. Two divergent readings of this apparent discontinuity in the representation of Hamlet's character might be cited here. Francis Barker has argued that this shift should be read not in terms of realism or "character development" but rather as a "quasi-Brechtian" device in which a melancholy agnostic is supplanted by a "man of action"; in ideological terms Barker regards this change as basically reactionary. Through most of the play Hamlet has questioned the fundamental beliefs of his society, but for Barker he "goes to his death inserted into the traditional Christian values."13 In a notable reading Harold Bloom agrees that on Hamlet's return from the sea his character is "radically" changed, but he reads the ideological bearings of this change quite differently than Barker. For Bloom what we "overhear" is "an ethos so original that we still cannot assimilate it." The "urgency" of the earlier Hamlet is gone, and the prince now embodies an "achieved serenity," a "mysterious and beautiful disinterestedness" that cannot be illuminated by references to late Elizabethan culture.14 For Bloom, Hamlet's newly acquired disinterestedness, far from being a reactionary step, is dazzlingly progressive, effectively transcending both his private disillusionment and contemporary Christianity.

Rather than viewing Hamlet's change as a regressive failure of nerve or a transhistorical advance, I suggest that we investigate more closely the precise nature of this change and evaluate its consequences in the field of early modern ideology. In these terms it can be argued that the impasse in which Hamlet finds himself is broken in the final act by the emergence of a specifically Protestant discourse of conscience and of God's predestinating will.15 The "mysterious and beautiful disinterestedness" that Bloom finds so striking may be understood in late-sixteenth-century terms as the poise of a soul that has come to know its dependence on the will of an utterly transcendent God. C. S. Lewis rightly emphasized the importance of a specific kind of religious experience in the lives and thought of early modern Protestants. He characterized this experience as one of "catastrophic conversion" in which the gift of faith bestowed by the grace of God results in a buoyant sense of subjective liberation, a "farewell to the self with all its good resolutions, anxiety, scruples, and motive-scratchings."16 Lewis's description of the mental state that precedes the experience of regenerating grace might also serve to describe Hamlet as Shakespeare represents him through the first four acts of the play. Lewis's account may exaggerate the emotionalism and suddenness of the early modern conversion experience, which in orthodox terms was usually conceived as the dawning of grace, the culmination of a gradual process of spiritual discipline.17 Nevertheless, a rhetoric of the Utopian liberation of the spirit can be found in the classic Protestant texts, a liberation that could not always be circumscribed by qualifying theological commentary.18 That the play implicitly represents such a conversion or regeneration is a plausible hypothesis. Even if one rejects this reading, there remains substantial evidence for a change corresponding with such an experience in Shakespeare's representation of Hamlet in the final act.

Earlier passages in the play establish Protestantism as a relevant discourse, and they suggest that Hamlet's transformation may develop out of the ideological preoccupations of the text as a whole. Consider for instance the conspicuous references to Wittenberg in the first act. That Hamlet should be educated at Wittenberg may be Shakespeare's original contribution to the story, since there is no mention of this in the surviving sources. The role of this university as a cradle of religious revolution would likely be a significant part of its identity for a contemporary audience. By making a point of giving the prince this experience, Shakespeare places him at the source of radical Protestantism. Shakespeare may also show a knowledge of recent history in associating the university with sixteenth-century Danish politics. After spending time at Wittenberg, the Danish monk Hans Tausen returned home to preach Lutheran doctrine in 1525, and the Reformation movement in Denmark was furthered by King Christian II (another visitor to Wittenberg), who ordered the production of a Danish Bible. Christian III had attended the Diet of Worms and had become a devotee of Luther, and he summoned an envoy from Wittenberg to perform his coronation in 1536. Luther himself approved the ordinance of 1537 which ultimately created a Protestant national church in Denmark.19 Shakespeare may thus refer his audience to a contemporary society in which the established church was thoroughly reformed and evoke Protestant associations against the medieval Catholic traditions still alive in the play.

One can argue further that the history of Protestantism functions as a kind of subtext in Hamlet, surfacing occasionally in ways that are barely articulate. One such moment occurs when Hamlet, brought before Claudius to explain the whereabouts of Polonius, tells the king he is "At supper … Not where he eats, but where a is eaten. A certain convocation of politic worms are e'en at him. Your worm is your only emperor for diet" (4.3.18 and 20-22). As many critics of the play have noted, these lines seem to contain a scrambled allusion to the Diet of Worms, convened by the Emperor Charles V in 1521. Luther was called to be examined before this "convocation," at which he upheld the authority of his own experience against the assembled powers of the Holy Roman Empire and the Catholic Church. Hamlet is under guard here, and his allusion to this famous confrontation might be stimulated by his own encounter with the power of Claudius and by a deep identification with the figure of an individual confronting the institutional establishment. His image of the imperial worm, suggesting the devouring nature of established power, follows very closely in stage time the eating metaphor he uses to describe the king's cynical manipulation of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: "He keeps them, like an ape an apple in the corner of his jaw, first mouthed to be last swallowed" (4.2.16-18). The imagery of eating and swallowing links these passages with other Shakespearean evocations of tyrannical power and may suggest that Hamlet's perception of his struggle with Claudius is growing less personal and increasingly political.

Shakespeare's emphasis on individual conscience also contributes to the Protestant character of Hamlet's religion in the last act. As it developed in Protestant thought, the term conscience came to mean not just a faculty of moral censorship but a medium through which the individual could receive the revealed truth of a distant God. In the Protestant understanding it became less a severe judge keeping the subject timid and fearful and more an alternative authority that could function as a source of moral justification. The Puritan theologian William Perkins, following Calvin, elevated conscience to a position above human law and beneath God; in doing so, he provided a theological argument capable of undermining his basic social conservatism.20 David Little has written that in Perkins's system it is the genuine Christian who grasps what the ends of earthly law actually are, since the consciences of the elect stand above this law in a new order where the aims of human law will ultimately be fulfilled. He goes on to say that this position is fundamentally at odds with the views of contemporaries like Whitgift, Hooker, and Coke, for whom human and divine law more nearly coincide.21 In England the Puritan emphasis on the ability of the individual to criticize or oppose the state was based in large measure on this new discourse of conscience. Christopher Hill has argued for the progressive political effects of this discourse but has also noted that the idea of a "priesthood of all believers … was logically a doctrine of individualist anarchy," with reformed churches having no external checks against the authority of the individual conscience they otherwise served to encourage.22

In Shakespeare's representation of Hamlet's subjective history there is a recapitulation of this broad historical movement from a medieval to a Reformation concept of conscience. Interest in this change is evident in the play as a whole, with the term conscience appearing more often in Hamlet than in any other Shakespeare tragedy. In the course of the play, conscience ceases to be an impediment to the prince and becomes an authority that licenses him to think and act with greater freedom. The Hamlet who, after contriving the deaths of his former friends, can say "They are not near my conscience" (5.2.59), or who can say that it would be "perfect conscience" (1.68) to kill Claudius, is clearly speaking from a different subject position than the speaker who earlier says that "conscience does make cowards of us all" (3.1.85).23 His concept of conscience as an empowering force seems to derive from a general subjective transformation consistent with Protestant experience, and one important consequence of this change is Hamlet's summary abandonment of reason as a crucial ideological term. The "sovereignty of reason" (1.4.54) over the political microcosm of the mind simply ceases to be an issue, because the Stoic and more generally humanist concept of identity on which this view of reason is based is an ideological casualty in the play. Up until Act 5 Hamlet depicts a society in which the official ideology holds that an individual is defined by his or her place in a rationally ordered universe and by relation to a God whose being and law are accessible to human reason—an ideology of human identity that had just received full expression in the work of Hooker.24 But the final act of the play represents this Christian-humanist ideology as exhausted; Hamlet passes beyond it into a new cultural paradigm, one in which a Protestant concept of conscience supplants reason as the crucial human faculty.

In a parallel change, Hamlet's new perception of the scope and power of providence becomes evident in the graveyard scene. Of one of the skulls tossed up by the gravedigger, he says, "This might be the pate of a politician which this ass o'er-offices, one that would circumvent God, might it not?" (5.1.77-79). By implication, the living politician's self-interested plotting had no more chance against the designs of God than his remains now have against the rough treatment of the sexton. In 5.2, when Hamlet recounts to Horatio the episode at sea, he describes a subjective experience profoundly changed by his newly acquired concept of divinity, as in the speech that Bloom finds particularly important:

                   … Methought I lay Worse than the mutines in the bilboes.  Rashly— And praised be rashness for it: let us know Our indiscretion sometime 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. …                                         (11. 5-11)

This celebration of "indiscretion" contrasts sharply with Hamlet's earlier counsel of "discretion" to the player. In humanist discourse reason is the faculty crucial to understanding divine precepts, but in 5.2.6-11 there is a strong association of rashness with divinity: Hamlet suggests that following his impulses serves to connect him with the divine purpose, and this altered perspective seems to liberate him from debilitating subjective constraints. Later, when Horatio asks him how the new commission was sealed, he replies, "Why, even in that was heaven ordinant" (1. 49), indicating his conviction that providence directed the entire episode.

Hamlet sounds the same new note in refusing to allow Horatio to postpone the fencing match with Laertes:

Not a whit. We defy augury. There's a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, 'tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all.

(II. 165-68)

In Matthew 10:29, Christ tells his disciples that a sparrow "shal not fall on the ground without your Father."25 By alluding to this text, Hamlet projects the vision of a creation governed in every detail by the divine will. Contrary to the argument of Bloom, who maintains that it would be a mistake to regard Protestantism as an important context for this speech, Hamlet's citation of the biblical text has everything to do with the relationship between the individual and God in Reformation Christianity. That Protestantism is relevant here is supported by the First Quarto, which reads "theres a predestinate prouidence in the fall of a sparrow."26 A good case can be made for regarding this adjective as Shakespeare's, rather than as the invention of a hypothetical reporter of the 1603 text. He had used it very recently in Much Ado about Nothing (1.1.128), and it was thus part of the vocabulary he was currently employing. In an analysis of the dialogue leading into this speech, Steven Urkowitz finds one of many instances in which "three different alternative readings appear in equivalent spots in all three versions of Hamlet."27 He goes on to argue that such instances imply authorial "tinkering," a position which adds support for the view that Shakespeare is responsible for "predestinate." It may also be pertinent that the title page of the First Quarto advertises the play as having been acted by Shakespeare's company in the two universities. Predestinate would be a resonant word in those settings—particularly at Cambridge, where advanced Protestant views were common. The speech can be regarded as another moment in the play when the radical Protestant subtext surfaces quite clearly, with the term predestinate being generated by the specific ideological and dramatic moment Shakespeare represents.28

Shakespeare wrote Hamlet at a time when the political consequences of Protestant doctrine were receiving sustained attention. During the 1590s the civil and ecclesiastical establishment in England debated the potential for dissent inherent in predestinarian theology, and many found such potential dangerously high. They feared that if subjects believed themselves to be saved or damned by God's eternal decree, which they could not alter through personal effort, then a great incentive for living a godly and obedient life was lost. That the doctrine of predestination was common knowledge compounded the political problem. An Italian visitor to England in the 1580s reportedly observed that "the very Women and Shopkeepers" were capable of discussing predestination.29 In the last decades of Elizabeth's reign the established church was orthodoxly Calvinist on this point, but many feared the political consequences of Calvin's teachings if they were not carefully interpreted. The bishop of London, Richard Bancroft, endorsed absolute predestination as a theological principle, but over the course of his career he deplored what he regarded as its perversion into a basis of support for oppositional political movements. In 1593 he wrote a tract charging that a group of millenarians, who had recently announced the return of Christ and attempted to seize power for the godly, based its actions in predestinarian theology. Archbishop Whitgift supported the Calvinist Lambeth Articles of 1595, but he may have overestimated the strength of reformed feeling at court and in the church: in December of 1595 Robert Cecil wrote him to say that the queen "mislikes much that any allowance hath been given by your Grace and the rest of any point to be disputed of predestination being a matter tender and dangerous to weak ignorant minds and thereupon requireth your Grace to suspend them."30 Elizabeth had probably been briefed on the Lambeth Articles by Burghley, who objected to them on the same political grounds. A group of Cambridge divines wanted the Lambeth Articles to be given confessional status (to be incorporated with the Thirty-Nine Articles), but there was no support for this at court. The proposal remained on the agenda, however, until the Hampton Court Conference of 1604, when it was effectively defeated. Bishop Bancroft used the occasion to repeat his warning to the king against the political danger of those who lay "all their religion upon predestination."31 James was later advised on this point by his chaplain, Benjamin Carier, who argued that radical Protestant beliefs were unfit "to keepe subjects in obedience to their sovereigns"; he feared the subjects would soon "openly maintayne that God hath as well pre-destinated men to be trayters as to be kinges."32

Hamlet's remark on the fall of the sparrow could thus have touched a sensitive political nerve, especially since in the play he has a plausible claim to the throne and is "loved of the distracted multitude" (4.3.4). The possibility emerges that the Ql reference to a "predestinate" providence is absent from the Second Quarto and the Folio through self-censorship or even censorship by the government. A reference to predestination in a play about regicide would likely attract attention at a time when the queen and her closest advisors had been ordering the church authorities to suppress any discussion of the issue and when the religiously more conservative reign of James was getting underway.33 Hamlet realizes a measure of the potential for dissent inherent in the Protestant doctrines of conscience and predestination, and to that extent he illustrates the case made by contemporary authorities who feared the political consequences of reformed theology. The argument that his Christianity in the last act is "traditional" is accordingly incorrect, though this adjective does describe other aspects of his ideological orientation. According to the Protestant concept, the human subject of God's grace was in fact less likely to be politically passive than to be active in the service of causes ratified by individual conscience, an activism evident in the careers of militant Protestant aristocrats like Leicester, Sidney, and Greville. The lives of these men also make it amply clear that members of the elite could hold radical Protestant beliefs and still be social conservatives.

This combination of religious radicalism and social conservatism characterizes Hamlet's position in the final act of the play. Mixing a royal or aristocratic sense of self with radical Protestant beliefs in providence and the authority of conscience was likely to produce volatile results, and Hamlet's religion in Act 5 clearly functions as an oppositional discourse supporting his struggle with the king. But the Utopian promise of his subjective transformation remains mostly unfulfilled. The daring he displays in associating rashness with divinity and his radical transcendence of egocentric concerns in the "readiness is all" speech are signals of a subjectivity liberated from the constraints of conservative Renaissance ideology. But the radicalism of his religion in Act 5 also ends up subserving sharp political practice while stabilizing his conventional aristocratic sense of self. This paradox explains the difficulty of trying to establish the political bearings of Hamlet's change, in which a revolution in the order of subjectivity assists him in bringing down a corrupt government but nevertheless confirms him as a defender of traditional aristocratic society. The possibility of a political union with the people, which Claudius fears and which Laertes manages so easily, is never realized. But Hamlet's ultimate conservatism should not be allowed to obscure what the play represents in the final act: a glimpse of a radical relocation of the human subject beyond both the static identities of the feudal order and the self-centeredness demanded by Renaissance politics. It would, in fact, be surprising if there were no evidence of Protestantism and its powerful redefinition of the place of the subject in a play so thoroughly engaged in testing the ideological resources of contemporary culture. That predestination and its worldly consequences were tender political matters may be an important reason for Shakespeare's rather oblique and suggestive handling of Hamlet's transformation.


1 Unless otherwise noted, all quotations of Hamlet and of all other Shakespeare plays and poems follow William Shakespeare: The Complete Works, ed. Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor with John Jowett and William Montgomery (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986).

2 Quoted in A. G. Dickens, The English Reformation (London: B. T. Batsford, 1989), 29.

3 See Dickens, 230-33.

4 Quoted in Dickens, 230.

5 Quoted in Dickens, 281.

6 See Arthur McGee, The Elizabethan Hamlet (New Haven, CT, and London: Yale UP, 1987), 39-41. For a recent discussion of government censorship of plays, see Richard Dutton, Mastering the Revels: The Regulation and Censorship of English Renaissance Drama (Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1991).

7 Jacques Lacan, "Desire and the Interpretation of Desire in Hamlet," Yale French Studies 55-56 (1977-78): 11-52, esp. 49.

8 Of course this older ideological synthesis was not without its contradictions. Medieval Catholicism prohibited revenge, but this Christian prohibition was sometimes superseded among feudal aristocrats by their intense allegiance to a secular code of honor. For a discussion of this code and of how the early modern state, in asserting its exclusive right to judge disputes and mete punishment, attempted to alter and subsume it, see Mervyn James, Society, Politics, and Culture: Studies in Early Modern England (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1986), Uff. James makes an important distinction between the "lineage" society of feudalism and what he calls the "civil" society of the emerging Renaissance state. His discussion helps to clarify the extent to which Shakespeare represents King Hamlet and his son as the products of very different cultural orders.

9 In "Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca" T. S. Eliot argues for the broad influence of Stoic ideology on Elizabethan and Jacobean drama. He suggests that Stoicism is an attractive philosophy for those who find themselves in "an indifferent or hostile world too big for [them]" and implies that the political and religious turmoil of Shakespeare's England created an environment favorable for its reception (Elizabethan Essays [London: Faber and Faber, 1934], 33-54, esp. 41). For a relevant and more specific discussion of the cultural issues challenging contemporary aristocratic men, see Mervyn James's analysis of the multicultural situation that complicated the experience of Essex and others (460).

10 On the tensions between the traditional aristocracy and the growing power of the state, see Joan KellyGadol, "Did Women Have a Renaissance?" in Becoming Visible: Women in European History, Renate Bridenthal, Claudia Koonz, and Susan Stuard, eds., 2d ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987), 175-201, esp. 184ff. Kelly-Gadol offers a reading of The Courtier as a text that assisted the European aristocracy in adapting to its changing relationship with royal power. See also

11 Claudius first uses this trope in referring to the sensitive issue of his marriage to Gertrude:

Therefore our sometime sister, now our queen, Th'imperial jointress of this warlike state, Have we as 'twere with a defeated joy, … In equal scale weighing delight and dole, Taken to wife.                                        (1.2.8-14)

12 It is also true, however, that Hamlet does not want the clowns to prevent the audience from hearing "some necessary question of the play" (3.2.42-43), indicating that he associates drama with an interrogative and possibly progressive function. To a certain extent the early modern closet drama actually performed this role, and the "question" such a play might consider could be as politically sensitive as the issue of tyrannicide.

13 Francis Barker, The Tremulous Private Body: Essays on Subjection (London and New York: Methuen, 1984), 40.

14William Shakespeare's Hamlet, Harold Bloom, ed., Modern Critical Interpretations (New York: Chelsea House, 1986), vii and 2.

15 For another reading interested in the relevance of Protestantism to Hamlet, see Kenneth S. Rothwell, "Hamlet's 'Glass of Fashion': Power, Self, and the Reformation" in Technologies of the Self: A Seminar with Michel Foucault, Luther H. Martin, Huck Gutman, and Patrick H. Hutton, eds. (Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1988), 80-98.

16 C. S. Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1954), 33.

17 For a discussion of this point with respect to Calvin, see William J. Bouwsma, John Calvin: A Sixteenth-Century Portrait (New York and Oxford: Oxford UP, 1988), 12.

18 Calvin speaks of the "spiritual freedom" of the elect and of how this freedom comforts and raises up "the stricken, prostrate conscience, showing it to be free from the curse and condemnation with which the law was pressing it down, bound and fettered. When through faith we lay hold on the mercy of God in Christ, we attain this liberation and, so to speak, manumission from subjection to the law. …" (John Calvin, Institution of the Christian Religion, trans. Ford Lewis Battles [Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1975], 44).

19 On the Reformation in Denmark and its relationship to Wittenberg, see A. G. Dickens, Martin Luther and the Reformation (London: The English Universities Press, 1967), 114-16; and Reformation and Society in Sixteenth-Century Europe (London: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1966), 87-88. See also

20 For Perkins's assertion that the conscience is above human law, see "A Treatise of Conscience" in The Workes of… William Perkins, 3 vols. (London, 1612), 1:529-30.

21 David Little, Religion, Order, and Law: A Study in Pre-Revolutionary England (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1970), 125.

22 Christopher Hill, "The Problem of Authority," The Collected Essays of Christopher Hill, 3 vols. (Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1986), 2:37-50, esp. 38.

23 In reading Hamlet's use of "conscience" in the 3.1 soliloquy, I agree with Catherine Belsey's view that the meaning of the term is not just awareness but also the faculty of moral judgment; see her "The Case of Hamlet's Conscience," Studies in Philology 76 (1979): 127-48.

24 See, for example, Book 1, chapter 8, of Hooker's Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (1593), in which he asserts the "force of the light of reason, wherwith God illuminateth every one which commeth into the world, men being inabled to know truth from falshood, and good from evill. … " (Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, ed. Georges Edelen, Vol. 1 of The Folger Library Edition of The Works of William Hooker, W. Speed Hill, gen. ed. [Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard UP, 1977], 84).

25 The Geneva Bible: A facsimile of the 1560 edition (Madison, Milwaukee, and London: U of Wisconsin P, 1969), BBiiv .

26 Hamlet: First Quarto, 1603, ed. W.W. Greg, Shakespeare Quarto Facsimile No. 7 (London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1951), 12v and 13r .

27 Steven Urkowitz, '"Well-sayd olde Mole': Burying Three Hamlets in Modern Editions" in Shakespeare Study Today: The Horace Howard Furness Memorial Lectures, Georgianna Ziegler, ed. (New York: AMS Press, 1986), 37-70, esp. 55 and 62. Paul Werstine suggests that, rather than being preoccupied with the problem of a single authoritative text, we should closely examine "what we have—namely, the early printed texts themselves" ("The Textual Mystery of Hamlet,'' Shakespeare Quarterly 39 [1988]: 1-26, esp. 2).

28 Even the term special, found in both Q2 and F, has possible associations with Protestant discourse. In Measure for Measure, a play that seems to have been written at almost the same time as the publication of the Second Quarto of Hamlet, Shakespeare has the Duke use an oddly Protestant discourse when explaining his decision to confer power on Angelo: "For you must know we have with special soul / Elected him. …" (1.1.17-18).

29 This observation is reported in Izaak Walton's "Life of Hooker" and is quoted here from The Compleat Walton, ed. Geoffrey Keynes (London: Nonesuch Press, 1929), 350. For a discussion of the wide dispersion of predestinarian thought, see Nicholas Tyacke, Anti-Calvinists: The Rise of English Arminianism c. 1590-1640 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), 1-2; Tyacke notes that "between 1579 and 1615 at least thirty-nine quarto editions of the Genevan Bible, all printed in England, had a predestinarian catechism bound with them" (2).

30 Quoted in Peter Lake, Moderate puritans and the Elizabethan church (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1982), 228.

31 Quoted in McGee, 169.

32 Quoted in Tyacke, 6.

33 It is tempting to speculate that the First Quarto's "predestinate" reflects the language of a performance text and that it was prudently omitted when the text of Q2 was prepared for the press. The government's scrutiny of drama seems to have been unusually intense during the period in which the first two quartos of Hamlet appeared. Richard Dutton notes that in 1597 the Privy Council began to monitor drama with increased vigilance, often becoming directly involved in issues ordinarily handled by the Master of the Revels. Robert Cecil, who was actively involved in suppressing the discussion of predestination and was responsible for orchestrating the transition of power from Elizabeth to James, directly intervened in the investigation of Samuel Daniel's Philotas in 1604. Ben Jonson was required to appear before the Privy Council for Sejanus, and Dutton speculates that this summons may have resulted not from the acting of the play in 1603 but from its printing in 1605 (109-10 and 164-65). The political atmosphere suggested by these incidents may thus be seen as unfavorable to the inclusion of "predestinate" in the Second Quarto of Hamlet, published in 1604. David Ward has recently argued that the publication of Q2 might have been a "pointed intervention" by Shakespeare's company in the political situation created for the company by James's accession. He suggests that Q2 is a text in some ways tailored to the interests and views of the new king, who had recently become the patron of Shakespeare's company and whose works were being published voluminously in London. Ward's hypothesis is relevant here, since James's opposition to radical Protestantism and to any justification for revenge against a royal figure might have made Ql's reference to "predestinate prouidence" unacceptable; see Ward's "The King and Hamlet," SQ 43 (1992): 280-302.

Source: "Hamlet and 'A Matter Tender and Dangerous'," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 46, No. 4, Winter, 1995, pp. 383-97.


Hamlet (Vol. 82)


Hamlet and the Scottish Succession