The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 15.1983 Friday, 19 November 2004
From: David Basch <
Date: Thursday, 18 Nov 2004 21:26:07 -0500
Subject: Source of Hamlet
It is interesting to discover the surprising influence of the Book of
Ecclesiastes on Shakespeare's masterwork play.
SHAKESPEARE STAGES ECCLESIASTES
THE BIBLE ON STAGE
by David Basch
Famous actor, Paul Muni, wrote of the experiences of his father, who had
been dedicated to the ideal of creating a Yiddish theater. One day his
father chanced to see a play in Yiddish in which the saddened son of a
great Rabbi has been called home from the yeshivah only to learn that
his father was dead and his mother had quickly remarried to his father's
brother, who had now become the new dynastic Rabbinic leader.
Of course, unknown to Paul Muni's father, what he was watching was a
Yiddish version of Shakespeare's Hamlet. So moved was he by the play
that he blurted out, "Now this is Yiddish theater!" How right Muni's
The more one analyzes Shakespeare's play, the more it becomes evident
that it translates the Book of Ecclesiastes (Kohelet) into the play
form. Among other things, Ecclesiastes is a reflection, a stream of
conscious, by wise King Solomon, called Ecclesiastes (Kohelet) the
preacher, about the meaning of life and the confrontation with authority
in the guise of the power of a king. This reflective personality is
picked up in the character of the studious Prince Hamlet with his
"vexation of spirit" in Shakespeare's play. The events that befall him,
with surprising regularity, parallel Ecclesiastes.
For example, Hamlet's predicament in "rotten" Denmark, rotted by the
"flies in the ointment" of the rumored corruption, can be summed up by
line 8:4 of Ecclesiastes:
Where the word of a king is, there is power: and who may say
unto him, What doest thou?
As has already been noted for the Yiddish Rabbi's son, Hamlet, already
vexed in spirit by the sore travail of seeking out wisdom as a student
(ecc 1:3-4), is further made melancholy at the sudden turn of events in
which his smooth uncle, Claudius, has taken over everything from his
suddenly dead father-his inheritance and his mother.
To him, the injustice of being robbed of his throne as the rightful
crown prince and the impropriety of his mother's action lead him to be
think that existence has no meaning. This meaninglessness, as expressed
by Ecclesiastes (1:2), becomes "vanity of vanities; all is vanity," with
the Hebrew word "hevel" translated as "vanity," but which literally
means "vapor"-the insubstantiality of the vapor of breath. See how
magnificently Shakespeare has Hamlet express this very thought into a
form where "hevel" becomes "pestilent vapours" under the "golden fire,"
this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave
o'erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with
golden fire, why, it appears no other thing to me than a
foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.
So when the visitation of the ghost of Hamlet's father occurs that tells
Hamlet of his uncle's murderous treachery and urges Hamlet to act in
vengeance, he finds he has to tread carefully:
He must conduct himself with a heart not "hasty to utter any thing" (Ecc
5:2), lest the new powerful king discover what he is about.
Unlike earlier versions of the revenge story, Shakespeare's Hamlet is
rightly concerned that the devil of his own imagination is tempting him
to kill his uncle by assuming a "pleasing shape" -- the shape he wishes
to see as his evil uncle. This is an amazing departure from the earlier
stories. What other avenger needed more than the word of a ghostly
figure to confirm self-serving suspicions? However, since law is not in
heaven-a famous biblical and Talmudic doctrine ("Hatorah lo bashamayim")
Shakespeare's Hamlet, in this mode, struggles mightily against
committing a rash and unjust attack before he can prove guilt right here
on earth. This new Hamlet is a modern man with a great sense of justice
Like Ecclesiastes-Solomon, who is a student of wisdom and who applies
his heart "to know the wickedness of folly, even ... madness" (Ecc
7:25), Hamlet, the university student of wisdom, plays at
madness-feining as did the Bible's David-to protect himself and to trip
up the watchful King Claudius.
Also, like Ecclesiastes, Hamlet finds "more bitter than death the woman,
whose heart is snares and nets" (Ecc 7:26). This occurs to a bitter
Hamlet as the women in his life play just such roles. Thus, his mother,
having been such a snare, swiftly remarries to her late husband's
murderer, and Ophelia, Hamlet's young, impressionable girl friend, spies
on him at the behest of her father, Polonius.
In another famous incident of the play, Hamlet has succeeded in publicly
proving his uncle's guilt as a result of his uncles's shocked reaction
to a play Hamlet stages showing the crime. Hamlet then comes upon his
uncle in prayer, but does not kill him -- a fatal mistake for himself
and puzzling to Shakespearean commentators. But, as is clearly
expressed, Hamlet, craving strict justice, feels that his now penitent
uncle would escape punishment in the afterlife. Hamlet had failed to
heed Ecclesiastes' warning (7:16):
Be not righteous over much; neither make thyself over wise: why
shouldest thou destroy thyself ?
At the very end of the play, Fortinbras, the young "unimproved" warrior,
who Shakespeare at the very beginning takes pains to identify as one who
is yet untested, reaps the harvest of the throne of Denmark. This occurs
after the famous last scene, where the righteous and the wicked-Hamlet,
the Queen, King Claudius, and others-meet their deaths. Truly "there is
one event to the righteous, and to the wicked" (Ecc 9:2).
The accession to the throne of Denmark by the "unimproved" Fortinbras is
the punch line of Shakespeare's play, which can be aptly summed up by
Ecclesiastes 2:19 concerning a king's successor:
Who knoweth whether he shall be a wise man or a fool? yet shall
he have rule over all my labour wherein I have laboured, and
wherein I have shewed myself wise under the sun. This is also
The vanity in the play, Hamlet, reflects the happenstance and
insubstantiality-as the wind-of the material life of ambition and power
in which, through human failing, accident, and error, careful plans come
Even Hamlet's personal conclusion in the play, as he emerges from his
melancholy, is that "the readiness is all"-which he implies is the
readiness to seize the opportunity to render justice-heaven's will-as
encountered in its time (Ecclesiastes' "in its season"). This readiness
is akin to the readiness to do one's "duty" under the "awe" of heaven
that is concluded as the "sof davar" (final word) in Ecclesiastes.
Interestingly, this "readiness" can be summed up by the Hebrew word
"Hineni"-"Here I am (at your service)"-spoken by Abraham and the
Prophets to note readiness to do G-d's will.
Finally, it is to be observed that among the many strictly, non
biblical, Judaic touches in this play is the clear use of the Talmudic
Pirke Avoth's reference to a skull floating on the water. Like Rabbi
Hillel, Hamlet also discovers a skull-the world famous skull associated
with the line "Alas poor Yorick, I knew him Horatio." Hamlet had earlier
mused that perhaps this skull was that of a politician who could
"circumvent G-d" but is now being "over reached," overruled, by the
lowly grave digger- the same moral of "measure for measure" drawn by the
Jewish sage, Hillel.
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