Welcome to the Reformation, Bitches

by on Feb 5, 2013 in Nonfiction | 12 comments

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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 anything he tells you to, you’re going to damn your immortal soul to Hell right alongside him.

Theologically speaking, after the Reformation, there are no ghosts. There are only illusions of Satan, sent to entrap gullible mortals into damnation. Simple, right?

Unfortunately, no. Theology and folk knowledge (what “everybody knows”) aren’t the same thing, and folk knowledge doesn’t obediently follow where theology leads, especially not right off the bat. So while theology said demons!, folk knowledge said Uncle Watkin needs us to do something so that he can rest. And by and large, laypeople said, That’s Uncle Watkin! He can’t be a demon. We’d better figure out what he wants.

And this brings us back to Hamlet and Hamlet, standing on the battlements with an apparition of his dead father and trying to figure out if it is really his father’s ghost, telling him what it needs in order to rest, or a demon sent from Hell to trap him into damnation. Even more problematically, the Ghost’s description of his afterlife sounds like a jumbled mixture of Purgatory and Hell: he’s only condemned to suffer until his mortal crimes are “burnt and purged away” (1.5.13)–and the doubled-up verbs only accentuate the problem, both burnt (as in, for example, the fires of Hell) and purged, the proper function of Purgatory–but his description of what he can’t tell Hamlet sounds like the torments of the damned:

I could a tale unfold whose lightest word

Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,

Make thy two eyes like stars start from their spheres,

Thy knotty and combinèd locks to part,

And each particular hair to stand on end

Like quills upon the fretful porpentine.

(1.5.15-20)

This is the horrors of Dante’s Inferno, not the educational punishments of the Purgatorio. So we’re hopelessly muddled between Catholic eschatology and Protestant hellfire (and, to counter two potential arguments, let me state here that (1) Denmark had been Protestant since the mid 1500s and anyone in Shakespeare’s audience who considered Hamlet‘s Denmark as anything other than a handy not-quite-England would know that, just as they knew that the theater versions of Spain and Italy were Catholic; and (2) Hamlet clearly has a contemporary setting, since Rosencrantz and Guildenstern bring Hamlet the current London theatrical gossip). What’s worse, the Ghost’s request of Hamlet has nothing to do with his self-confessedly foul crimes or the fact that he died “unhouseled, dis-appointed, unaneled, / No reck’ning made, but sent to my account / With all my imperfections on my head” (1.5.77-79); he wants Hamlet to revenge his murder, as if this were simply a “true crime” story of the sort Londoners were reading avidly about in cheaply-printed pamphlets.

Hamlet recognizes that he has a problem, that he can’t tell from the evidence he has whether the Ghost is the ghost of his dead father or a demon garbed in that father’s shape; he doesn’t treat this as a theological question (the closest things to priests we see in Hamlet are the Gravediggers), but as a forensic one. Not In a Protestant universe, can a ghost be anything other than a demon? but Can I find corroboration of what he says? Hence Hamlet’s quote-unquote “indecision.” It’s not that he can’t make up his mind to act, it’s that he doesn’t know if he should. He doesn’t know if what he’s been told is truth or lies intended specifically to damn him.

Now, this is not an episode of CSI: Elsinore–the skull disinterred by the Gravediggers is Yorick’s, not King Hamlet’s with the bone strangely eaten away on one side–and Hamlet is not a detective. The word detective won’t come into the language until the 1850s, and Hamlet has no model for how detective work might happen.

What he has is theater.

Hamlet is an intensely metatheatrical play–that is, it is always aware that it is a play: when Hamlet promises the Ghost that he will remember it “as long as memory holds a seat in this distracted globe” (1.5.96-97), he means, of course, as long as his brain is capable of remembering anything, but he also means “as long as Memory holds a seat in this distracted Globe,” i.e., as long as Memory is in the audience at the Globe Theatre, where Hamlet is standing on the stage. The theatrical gossip that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern bring him, about the “little eyases,” the child actors who are overshadowing the adult troupes (2.2.326-46), is the stage gossip of contemporary London. Hamlet is a play about theater, and so it is inevitable that Hamlet’s device to prove Claudius’s guilt should be a play.

I always find it interesting that while Hamlet insists that Claudius’s reaction to the Mouse-Trap is the proof he needs:

HAMLET: Oh good Horatio, I’ll take the Ghost’s word for a thousand pound. Didst perceive?

HORATIO: Very well, my lord.

HAMLET: Upon the talk of the pois’ning?

HORATIO: I did very well note him. (3.2.264-67)

(and notice that Horatio sounds less than convinced), the play itself is uneasily aware that this isn’t proof, that Claudius might just as easily be reacting to the spectacle of the king’s nephew [that would be Hamlet] murdering the king [ergo, Claudius himself]–the actual content of the play–as he might the king [King Hamlet] being murdered by poison [by Claudius]–Hamlet’s intended message. Claudius has to come on specifically to reassure the audience that Hamlet is correct: “O, my offense is rank! It smells to heaven. / It hath the primal eldest curse upon’t, / A brother’s murder” (3.4.36-38). Claudius really is a fratricide, and therefore Hamlet is right to….

Oops.

Because, of course, Hamlet isn’t right. No matter what the Ghost says–and the Ghost has a lot to say on the subject–answering murder with murder, parricide with parricide, merely creates more mortal sin, more damnation. Horatio may wish for flights of angels to sing Hamlet to his rest, but that seems highly unlikely. One wonders if, really, Hamlet doesn’t end with two ghosts on the battlements, equally “doomed for a certain time to walk the night / And for the day confined to fast in fires” (1.5.10-11). Hamlet has committed murder (Claudius, Polonius, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern), driven Ophelia mad, been the vehicle of Laertes’ death and the indirect cause of Gertrude’s; whatever “foul crimes” were on King Hamlet’s conscience when he died, his son has racked up an impressive tally of his own.

Revenge tragedy was an extremely popular genre in the England of Elizabeth (and James and Charles), and in all its twistings and turnings, only one revenger ever had the stalwart moral courage–and the blessed common sense–to refuse. His name is Charlemont, and he is the hero of The Atheist’s Tragedy by Cyril Tourneur. Sadly, he is also quite, quite stupid–too stupid, perhaps, to be ensnared in the trap of his own cleverness as Hamlet is. For, if anything, Hamlet’s “fatal flaw,” far from indecision, is his cock-a-hoop delight in outsmarting his opponents, in turning the tables on those trying to machinate against him. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern die sheerly from Hamlet’s inability not to show off his own cleverness.

Standing on the battlements of Elsinore, Hamlet fails to make the most basic of all possible saving throws. He fails to remember that revenge is wrong. The entire question of the Ghost’s eschatological origins, in this light, is revealed as a mouse-trap of its own, a massive red herring, complete with blinking lights and whirling armatures. Reformation or not, ghost or demon, the Ghost is asking Hamlet to commit murder. And Hamlet falls headlong into the mouse-trap, so distracted by question and proof and clever stratagem that he never notices the jaws springing shut.

Wherever the Ghost is, he now has Hamlet to keep him company. And I cannot help wondering if that was what he wanted all along.

 

monetteSarah Monette lives in a 105-year-old house with a great many books, two cats, one grand piano, and one husband. She has published more than forty short stories and has two short story collections out: The Bone Key (Prime Books 2007—with a shiny second edition in 2011) and Somewhere Beneath Those Waves (Prime Books, 2011). She has written two novels (A Companion to Wolves, Tor Books, 2007, The Tempering of Men, Tor Books, 2011) and three short stories with Elizabeth Bear, and hopes to write more. Her first four novels (Melusine, The Virtu, The Mirador, Corambis) were published by Ace. Her next novel, The Goblin Emperor, will come out from Tor under the name Katherine Addison. Visit her online at www.sarahmonette.com.

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12 Comments

  1. >>Standing on the battlements of Elsinore, Hamlet fails to make the most basic of all possible saving throws.

    I love you for this line alone, Sarah. :)

  2. Wow, this is excellently erudite! I have one question: what does the Ghost mean by “unaneled”? I’m torn between reading it as “unannaled” and “unannealed”–?

    • The Norton Shakespeare tells me that it means he did not receive Extreme Unction.

  3. I love that final line. I just love it.

  4. Not only is your ending fantastic, but I absolutely loved this: “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern die sheerly from Hamlet’s inability not to show off his own cleverness.” That is brilliant. Thank you.

    (But there is a priest in “Hamlet,” and a churlish one at that.)

    • Oh crap, you’re right! I always forget that he makes it onstage. Thank you for the catch.

  5. Understanding history makes such a difference. I appreciate the play at whole new levels now, that feel truer. Also, I loved the “root cause analysis” for Hamlet’s character.

  6. I wish I’d had access to this essay in high school…I do believe I’ll be reading Hamlet very differently from here on out.

  7. My quibble with this is that while it’s a splendidly coherent explantion, I think it’s more coherent that Shakespeare managed. True, there’s even things in the play that support it — when Horatio exclaims “Angels and ministers of grace defend us” the ghost flees — but if it’s about Hamlet’s failure to realize that revenge is wrong, it’s a little weak in that no one in the story actually suggests that revenge is wrong. So the central conflict is one-sided.

  8. This is brilliant! Thank you for this reading.

  9. Thanks for adding another clue to Hamlet’s ongoing detective story. Heaps of religious tension there. It’s really hard to project the multiple levels of this conflict on stage to an audience for whom these concepts are foreign.. but we will keep trying.

  10. This is a superb analysis of Hamlet, and I think it gets closer to Shakespeare’s intent than anything else I’ve seen.

    One thing which always jumps out at me when I reread Hamlet is that the prince is suicidally depressed when we first see him — BEFORE he has his chat with the ghost. The ghost gives him a reason to live.

    Has anyone ever done a version of Hamlet in which the ghost has young Hamlet’s face and voice? Or where his conversation with the ghost has Hamlet deliver the ghost’s lines as well as his own? Because one can just as easily explain the ghost as a kind of quasi-Charles Fort projection of Hamlet’s own will and desires.

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