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Home :: Archive :: 2001 :: February ::
Re: Wittenberg and Paris
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 12.0286  Wednesday, 7 February 2001

From:           Graham Bradshaw <
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Date:           Wednesday, 7 Feb 2001 16:56:45 +0900
Subject: 12.0284 Re: Wittenberg and Paris
Comment:        Re: SHK 12.0284 Re: Wittenberg and Paris

Don writes: "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 [etc]"

Well, yes, I see some force in Don's point about whatever we are
bringing to the show. But what is an "essentially Christian viewpoint"?
-- I mean historically, not just now, in President Bush's in-your-face
cabinet. In Shakespeare's or Donne's lifetime the differing, competing
Christian confessions all refused to distinguish between those beliefs
that were essential to salvation and those that were not. Going back
further, one of Erasmus's greatest colloquies, the "Inquisitio de Fide",
bravely maintained that Luther was, in effect, "essentially Christian",
but neither the Roman Church nor Luther cared for that. In other words,
the very notion of "an essentially Christian viewpoint" is airily
ungrounded. I sometimes wish Christianity were called Paulinity, since I
think Nietzsche had a point when he wrote that there was only one
"Christian" and that the church crucified him.

A different but related matter, with respect to this notion of the
"essentially Christian". Our notion of "conversion" too often carries
undeclared baggage, in the assumption that the convert changes, not the
institution. By the 1620s the English Church had changed, and was not
the same as the English Church in the 1590s. The long list of "double
conversions" in Shakespeare's lifetime included people like Ben Jonson
and Chillingworth himself (both great admirers of Erasmus).  Of course
such apparent inconstancy seemed "libertine" to those with more
authoritarian views (from Hooker to Clarendon), but it is not necessary
to assume that Jonson changed his beliefs when he changed his church.
Jonson's case suggests an alternative model of "conversion", as a kind
of Update: the so-called convert considers the latest options, to
determine which of the changing institutions can now best accommodate
his unchanged beliefs.

Of course that model was unacceptable to the state ecclesiastical. You
can see Izaak Walton very unhappily fidgeting with this difficulty in
his biography of Donne, when he considers those years in which Donne was
no longer a Roman Catholic but had not "converted" to the English
Church:
Walton very uneasily describes Donne as having no "denomination" other
than that of "a Christian". A bit like Don's notion of "the essentially
Christian", but Don isn't worried by the difficulty that made Walton so
uneasy (until he could describe Donne as inevitably discovering that
Anglican "light" which had always illuminated Izaak). The crucial
difficulty was that all of the differing confessions insisted that the
individual must be guided by the church to the right beliefs, not guided
by his or her beliefs to the right church: Donne's "Satyre III" is the
key document here, isn't it? And rather helpful, when considering those
Shakespearean "terrors"--like the Ghost in Hamlet, or the way in which
the Christian convert Othello sentences himself to eternal damnation by
committing suicide.

Don also refers to "the fact that nobody gave a damn [?!] about where
the ghost came from." But is that a "fact", or another assumption?
Certainly, at the end of Act II and in his conversation with Horatio
before the "Mousetrap", Hamlet is very concerned about where the Ghost
"came from".  Certainly, and unfortunately, the nineteenth century
critics went on and on about Hamlet's "delay" without considering this
good reason for delay. And certainly--whatever we make of this--Hamlet
himself stops worrying about the Ghost's provenance after the
"Mousetrap".

Don attributes my own "point of view" to "atheism". I wonder, does he
mean that anybody who is not "essentially Christian" is "atheist"? Two
fine scholars who were not "atheists"--John Dover Wilson, the first
critic to be seriously concerned with the question of the Ghost's
provenance, and later Roland Mushat Frye--both concluded that doubts
about the Ghost have not been resolved by the end of the play. I agree
with that. But, if you think about that, what is odd is that neither
Dover Wilson nor Frye was very worried when Hamlet stops thinking about
it.

Hamlet supposes, rather childishly, that the Ghost cannot be a devil if
it is telling the truth about Claudius. Of course he hadn't seen
"Macbeth", which has some good lines on how and why the instruments of
darkness sometimes tell the truth.

Don is quite right to suspect that I don't find any "source of
consolation" in Hamlet's line about "providence". What has this
"providence" delivered by the end of the play? Denmark has been lost or
delivered to Norway, with the dying Hamlet's redundant imprimatur: his
only act or decision as king. And, if the Ghost is telling the truth
about purgatory, you can forget about flights of angels singing Hamlet
to his rest. Hamlet, Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, Ophelia and Laertes,
are all dead, and all die unaneled and unannointed, so that they are all
bound for those unspeakable and in some cases unending agonies that the
Ghost describes so vividly, just after saying that he is not allowed to
speak of these things. Yes, I find this terrifying, and certainly not "a
source of consolation".

Finally: shouldn't we regard the somewhat belated invention of purgatory
as the most spectacularly profitable confidence trick in the history of
the world? God, what a sales pitch! As St Thomas Aquinas genially
promised, the greatest agony you can imagine in this world will be less
than the smallest agony in purgatory--but wait folks, you can reduce the
time you and your dear late loved ones spend in this providential
funhouse by giving us MONEY!  Has any "atheist" ever been so wicked and
cruel?

Best wishes, once again, from the damned,
Graham Bradshaw
 

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