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Home :: Archive :: 2001 :: February ::
Re: Wittenberg and Paris
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 12.0284  Tuesday, 6 February 2001

From:           Don Bloom <
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Date:           Tuesday, 06 Feb 2001 08:21:24 -0600
Subject: 12.0266 Re: Wittenberg and Paris
Comment:        Re: SHK 12.0266 Re: Wittenberg and Paris

Graham Bradshaw writes:

>In Shakespearean tragedy, not to
>mention plays like "Measure for Measure", the real or putative
>references to Christianity always and only increase the terror, and are
>never a source of consolation.

I don't see it at all, but I suppose that's one of those circumstances
where the meaning you find depends almost entirely on the prejudices you
bring with you. If you start with an essentially Christian viewpoint,
you will find a passage like "There's a special providence in the fall
of a sparrow.  . ." to indicate that Hamlet has at last come to grips
with himself and his task not unlike Ransom in Lewis's overtly Christian
novels.  If you start out as an atheist, you will doubtless read it very
differently (though how you could see it as "increasing the terror"
baffles me). Even in "Measure for Measure" it is the unchristian cry of
Claudio, "Aye but to die and go we know not where," that causes the
problem for Isabella. If her brother had any faith at all, much less any
patience and fortitude, he'd deal with his death as an escape from
cruelty and tyranny into perfect bliss. As he is no more a Christian
than he is a gentleman, he is terrified.

Vis a vis the ghost and purgatory: I can think of four good reasons why
Shakespeare used the image of purgatory in an ostensibly Protestant

1 -- It works better that way dramatically. If the ghost is an honest
ghost and the task is divinely ordained, having it released from
purgatory for the job makes good sense.
2 -- He assumed that the context of early Medieval Denmark was Catholic.
3 -- The Ur-Text (or whatever he was working from) had it that way and
he liked it dramatically.
4 -- He was indeed a recusant and thought naturally in terms of
purgatorial fires.

Any combination of these (and others I haven't thought of) could
contribute to the decision. As important as these, perhaps, is the fact
that nobody gave a damn about the where the ghost came from. That was
something neither the queen (who was concerned about rebellion) nor the
influential Puritans (who were concerned about blasphemy) cared about.

As to Wittenberg vs. Paris, the problem obviously can't be worked out
completely since it is innately contradictory. The play is clearly set
in the pre-Conquest period of Danish hegemony over England and thus
antedates not only the founding of the university in Wittenberg but that
in Paris.  Obviously, Shakespeare didn't worry about that particular
anachronism, though he was very likely aware of at least the problem of
Wittenberg. I would assume that he set up the contrast not between a
Protestant and a Catholic university but between one located in a small
town in Germany and one located in the capital of fashion, culture, and
debauchery. Both Laertes' father and his sister assume that his interest
lies primarily outside the educational opportunities of the


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