Posts Tagged "welcome to the reformation bitches"

Welcome to the Reformation, Bitches

by on Feb 5, 2013 in Nonfiction | 12 comments

by Sarah Monette   At the end of the first act of Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark has a problem. Now, what you think that problem is depends on how you understand what has just happened. Let’s start with what we know. We know Hamlet, King of Denmark, is dead. We know that his brother Claudius has stepped into the king’s empty shoes in more ways than one: he’s taken the throne and he’s married the widowed queen. We know that the dead king’s son, Prince Hamlet, is not happy about any of this and is wandering around the court in extremely pointed black, irritating his uncle/stepfather no end. And we know that an apparition is stalking the battlements, an apparition immediately identifiable as King Hamlet to everyone who sees it. This apparition, let us be clear, is objectively real. All of the guards are scared out of their wits by it, and when they bring Hamlet’s friend Horatio up for a consultation, he sees it and recognizes it, too. So when Horatio mans up and brings Hamlet to the battlements, what Hamlet sees–and speaks to–is inarguably an apparition of his dead father. However. There’s a question here that modern audiences no longer know to ask, and it’s a question that has gotten Hamlet scholars in a lot of trouble, leading to the infamous, ubiquitous, and flat-out wrong assertion that Hamlet’s “fatal flaw” is indecision. From our point of view, it is baffling that Hamlet, at the end of Act I, doesn’t simply walk down into the throne room, like the Arnold Schwarzenegger Hamlet in The Last Action Hero, and blow Claudius the fuck away. His father’s ghost has told him that Claudius is a lying, cheating fratricide: what more can he possibly need? But that’s because we think we know what a ghost is. And what we think we know, and what Shakespeare and his audiences and his culture thought they knew, are two very different things. This is where we have to talk about the Reformation. Before the Reformation, there was a somewhat precarious but workable harmony in England between the Catholic Church and popular culture. The church said that spirits neither evil enough to be damned nor good enough to ascend to Heaven suffered in Purgatory until they had atoned for their sins. Their friends and relations still among the living could help speed this process along by, for instance, paying for masses to be said on the dead person’s behalf. This dovetailed nicely with what “everybody knew” about ghosts, which was that they were spirits which could not rest because of something they had left undone in life or a wrong they had committed–or, particularly with the ghosts of murder victims, a wrong committed against them. People understood that when they saw Uncle Watkin’s ghost standing beside the hearth, he was trying to tell them something. And they understood that by figuring out what Uncle Watkin wanted, they would be able both to put an end to the haunting and to help his spirit find peace. The two ideas–that of spirits in Purgatory needing the help of the living to ascend into Heaven and that of ghosts being spirits unable to rest until the living performed some task on their behalf–were not perfectly identical, but they fit together well enough for everybody and their Uncle Watkin to be happy. But all that changed with the Reformation. The Protestant reformers felt that Purgatory was nothing but a sham devised by Catholic priests to extort money from their parishioners. (Your Uncle Watkin is suffering unspeakably! And you can make his suffering shorter if you just pay us enough money.) And so they abolished it. No more Purgatory. But if there isn’t a Purgatory, how do you understand the ghost of Uncle Watkin? He can’t be a spirit descended from Heaven, because spirits in Heaven are already at peace and don’t need help from their mortal relatives. And if he’s a spirit come up from Hell…. Well, then your Uncle Watkin is a demon, and if you do...

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