Hamlet Hamlet and A Matter Tender and Dangerous
by William Shakespeare

Hamlet book cover
Start Your Free Trial

Download Hamlet Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Hamlet and A Matter Tender and Dangerous

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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 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...

(The entire section is 8,079 words.)