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Holy Week Feature: To Be Or Not To Be: A Catholic Opinion On Hamlet

Repost/Acknowledgement: Society of Saint Pius X in Canada

A Catholic Opinion On Hamlet

Summary of a conference given by Bishop Williamson to the teachers of Holy Family School (Lévis) on February 23, 2002. By Jean-Claude Dupuis.

William Shakespeare (1564-1616) is the most famous writer of the English language. His theatrical play Hamlet (1600) remains one of the most well known and highly esteemed plays of the Anglo-Saxon world. Bishop Williamson pointed out that Shakespeare was neither a theologian nor a philosopher. He was an artist, one of the greatest artists of all times, the Bishop said. But like all artists, his work is veiled in a certain confusion. Shakespeare reflects the transition from the medieval mentality to the modern mentality. His work includes at the same time the moralising theatre of the Middle Ages and the modern philosophical drama. One could thus make of it a traditional Christian reading or, on the contrary, an interpretation which is romantic and revolutionary and which Bishop Williamson terms as Hollywood-like. Naturally, it’s the latter that prevails in our times. But a Catholic can find in Shakespeare some interesting reflections on the problem of Evil.

Bishop Williamson reminded us that the Bible contains all that is necessary to understand the satanic nature of the modern world and to learn to resist it. But secular literature may occasionally help us to illustrate the Christian principles in a language more accessible to our contemporaries, and particularly to the youth, who are unfortunately too influenced by a movie theatre vision of life. The literary classics, he said, unveil to us the beauty of the language, the depths of human nature and the influence of modern society.

The problem of apostasy constitutes the basic framework of the work of Shakespeare. His heroes are wrestling with an interior insurrection of the soul, which results from the eternal conflict between Good and Evil, Love and Hatred. The Shakesperian hero is noble at the beginning; but he sustains, more or less voluntarily, a weakness that makes him yield to temptation. For Macbeth it’s ambition, for Othello it’s jealousy, for Angelo it’s Puritanism. The hero falls. He then becomes conscious of the evil that he has committed and that he has become; but he cannot resolve the conflict except by fleeing in despair towards death. The Shakesperian hero is an idealist that sinks into nihilism because he doesn’t find the answers to his questions. In fact, he is lacking the divine grace. Is it not an image of the modern world?
Bishop Williamson then analyses the play Hamlet in the light of this double interpretation, Christian and modern. The story takes place in Denmark. The king is slyly poisoned by his brother Clodius, who usurps the crown and marries his sister-in-law Gertrude, the mother of the hero Hamlet. The spectre of the assassinated king appears to Hamlet. He reveals to his son the circumstances of his death and asks him to take revenge. Hamlet is a young man with a pure heart who denounces the corruption of the court (there is something of corruption in the royalty of Denmark) and who sincerely loves the daughter of the chamberlain Polonius, Ophelia. However, he suffers from melancholy (or depression, as we say today) and even considers suicide. The apparition of the spectre of his father transforms his noble aspirations into passions of hatred. He dismisses the love of Ophelia whose father he kills, by accident, but without remorse. His fiancée becomes insane and is drowned, perhaps voluntarily. Hamlet could kill Clodius while he prays; but he renounces it so as not to send his uncle to heaven. His desire for revenge has no limit. However, the melancholy and a certain faith paralyse it. Hamlet asks himself if it would be better to combat the Evil or to escape it through death.

To be or not to be, that is the question. Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them? – To die, – to sleep, – no more; and by a sleep to say we end the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to, – ‘tis a consummation devoutly to be wished. To die, – to sleep; – to sleep! Perchance to dream: – ah, there’s the rub; For in that sleep of death what dreams may come, when we have shuffled off this mortal coil, this must have us pause: there’s the reflection that makes calamity of so long a life (…) Who would burdens bear, to grunt and sweat under a weary life, but that the dread of something after death – the undiscovered country, from which no traveller returns, – puzzles the will, and makes us rather bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of?

While Hamlet questions himself on the meaning of life and death, Clodius plots with the brother of Ophelia, Laertes, to have him perish with the poisoned point of a sword during an apparently inoffensive game of fencing. Hamlet suspects the trap. He could easily avoid the event. But he is no longer attached to life. He lets himself be conducted by a dismal pessimism.

If my hour be now, ‘tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be now, or to come, be in readiness. That is all. Since no man is master of what he leaves, what is it to leave sooner!

The drama ends in a preposterous massacre in which Hamlet, Laertes, Clodius and Gertrude die. A tough foreign warrior, Fortinbras, ends up seizing the throne. Brute force triumphs over the ruins of moral corruption (Clodius) and of spiritual nihilism (Hamlet), two characteristic traits of the present-day world.

Is Hamlet a hero or a criminal?

The modern world would respond that Hamlet is right in revolting against the corruption of the society, personified by Clodius. He perhaps commits a few blunders in his revolt, like the murder (basically, justified) of Polonius or the near-suicide (more unhappy) of Ophelia. But the rebel has all the rights and revolution demands blood. Clodius and Laertes, who represent the established power (dad), consult together to destroy the young revolutionary (the adolescent in crisis). The hero finishes by triumphing and re-establishing a certain justice, but at the price of his life (the “clamouring” suicide of the misunderstood adolescent). It all ends in an unhappy massacre, but the responsibility falls back on the hypocritical social order. Thus, Hamlet represents, in the modern perspective, “the drama of the accession to conscience and to liberty”.

But a Catholic will have a completely different interpretation of the same play. Hamlet is a noble prince weakened by his melancholy (sadness: the first trap of the demon) who cannot resist the temptation of vengeance. The spectre of his father surely comes from hell since a soul from purgatory would not persuade anyone to evil. Having chosen hatred rather than love, Hamlet rejects his fiancée, treats his mother harshly and attacks the king, of whom he is nevertheless the legitimate heir. Hamlet undermines the foundations of the social order: marriage, filial piety, public authority. His hateful rebellion ruins his personal life, his family, and peace in the kingdom; but he forges ahead like those decadent middle-class youth who turn Communist in order to square accounts with dad. He who lives with the sword will perish by the sword. The revolt leads to death: that of the hero as well as that of his enemies. It leads particularly to a weariness of life, which Hamlet manifests in accepting the duel with Laertes. In fact, Hamlet has not re-established justice in Denmark; he has simply made the kingdom fall into the hands of the foreigner Fortinbras.

The drama that racks the soul of Hamlet is fascinating. In a corrupted society would it be better to combat (uselessly) or to tolerate and to die (just as uselessly)? Note that Hamlet does not contemplate winning himself over to immortality; his heart is too noble. Note also that Catholics may sometimes ask themselves the same question: should one combat the actual disorder (without hope of success) or become disinterested (which amounts to dying spiritually)? To resist is useless and to die is useless. 

What must one do?

According to Bishop Williamson, Hamlet has not found the solution because he has not set down the problem in Catholic terms. Hamlet is the troubled son of a troubled Shakespeare in which is recognised the troubled youth of our times. But why was Shakespeare troubled?

The work of Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel, The Hidden Existence of William Shakespeare, may enlighten us. Shakespeare was Catholic in an Elizabethan England which severely persecuted the Catholics, by violence but especially by ostracism. Towards 1600, the year Hamlet was written, the triumph of Protestantism was complete. The majority of the Englishmen had accepted the schism and the few Catholics who still survived hardly ever dared to manifest themselves. Now Shakespeare was one of those Catholics who concealed his faith to remain in society. He refused to take the path to martyrdom. Bishop Williamson does not blame him. He says that one must be a martyr himself before pointing the finger at those who show weakness under persecution. How many amongst us would have the courage to profess our faith while the forces of the Antichrist are persecuting us violently (which will maybe come soon)? But the pusillanimity of Shakespeare altered his conception of life. His half-Catholicism did not permit him to resolve the existential problems which, otherwise, he expressed very well.

Bishop Williamson compared Hamlet, Shakespeare, and the present-day youth. Hamlet is the crown prince of Denmark, but he lives exiled in this kingdom given over to evil through the double treason of his uncle and his mother. He is right in reacting against the corruption but he does not use the right means. His action leads to a useless blood bath and a nihilistic inquiry: to be or not to be?
Shakespeare was Catholic, legitimate heir to a Catholic England. But Protestantism had stealthily ruined the Church in England while keeping the exterior appearances of Catholicism. Shakespeare is exiled in his own country. He is tempted to despair. Some Catholics unsuccessfully take up arms against the Protestant nation, others accept to compromise, also unsuccessfully, with the social order. Shakespeare, like Hamlet, asks himself the question: to resist or to give up?

Contemporary youth are likewise heirs to a Christian civilisation. But the modern world has destroyed Christianity and replaced it with an ersatz: liberal internationalism is substituted for Catholic Universalism, false ecumenical peace replaces the peace of Christ. The youth who still long for an ideal know that they are surrounded by hollow men, without values or principles. They feel isolated in a corrupt world. They are right in reacting but their reaction is in vain since it is not based on Christianity. In spite of everything, the hippie appears, in the eyes of Bishop Williamson, better than the broker from Wall Street because he at least deserves credit for rejecting the prevailing materialism, the anaesthetic way of life of the suburban North American. But the youth’s revolt, as a rule, will lead to nothing but psychological therapy. In fact, reaction is useless, whence comes the attraction to the question: to be or not to be?

At the end of his life, Shakespeare succeeded in emerging from the impasse by rediscovering the Christian response to the problem of evil: redemption through a sacrificial death. In King Lear(1606), the heroine reforms the world by an oblation of herself rather than by a massacre of the wicked. Christ did not save the world by driving away the Herods and the Pilates but by offering Himself on the Cross. In the present-day world, Catholics must react by imitating Our Lord, by sacrificing themselves through prayer and their duty of state, exactly as Our Lady of Fatima taught us. Shakespeare found interior peace through this means. He died a holy death after having received the last sacraments from a Benedictine monk.

Bishop Williamson finished his masterly conference by explaining the reason for teaching classical literature in a Catholic school. The last five centuries of Occidental history have been marked by apostasy. Literature cannot but feel its effects. It would be wrong, he said, to seek in literature, even the most classical, the perfect expression of Christian principles. For that, one must read the Bible and the Fathers of the Church. But classical literature illustrates to some extent the natural order. For example, the men are masculine and the women are feminine. Shakespeare’s works relate so much to the traditional way of thinking that they are almost passed over in silence in the present-day school programs of English-speaking countries. In fact, Shakespeare, like all that which is classical, disturbs the modern style, because it elevates us to the level of the natural principles of society from ancient times. We must not make of literature an end in itself, as do atheistic humanists. But let us remember that the supernatural in us must be supported by the natural and that it is difficult for the faith to take root in a soul imbued with the anti-natural principles of the modern culture. The study of Shakespeare may serve as an antidote against the ravages of the spirit of Hollywood.


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