The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 15.1689 Thursday, 9 September 2004
From: John Reed <
Date: Wednesday, 8 Sep 2004 22:57:00 -0700
Subject: Re: Best Cinematic Hamlet
Larry Weiss: it isn't often someone asks me a question; so here I am
answering it, which is more than you expected and probably more than you
wanted. It isn't so much that Hamlet has heretical ideas as he has
sinful ones. That brings up my favorite issue: the Progression of Evil.
I've run across the idea of the Progression of Evil in the writings of a
number of Catholic authors, such as St. Theresa of Avila, Thomas
Aquinas, St. Augustine, and St. Paul, but the first place I saw it was
in the Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (Letter 49, to C.S. Lewis (draft)),
which is as follows:
"And wrong behaviour (if it is really wrong on universal principles) is
progressive, always: it never stops at being 'not very good', 'second
best' it either reforms, or goes on to third-rate, bad, abominable."
Hamlet (in addition to Gertrude) would seem to exemplify this principle.
In his soliloquy in 1.2, Hamlet is aware suicide is a sin, and obeys the
prohibition, although he gives the impression he is doing so if not
unwillingly at least under duress. He is unhappy with Gertrude, and
dislikes Claudius. Is frustrated he cannot complain openly.
He then meets the Ghost.
Soliloquy in 2.2 -- compares himself unfavorably to an actor. He claims
he has good cause for passion. Wonders if he is a coward for not acting
on the Ghost's orders to kill Claudius. Criticizes himself for talking
too much. Plans test of Claudius with the play.
Soliloquy in 3.1 -- wonders whether it would be better to resist
troubles or to suffer through them. To resist would be either to kill
oneself, or to lose, opposing overwhelming force (Claudius and the State
of Denmark) -- dying either way. Wonders if he dies, then what? The
afterlife might be worse than life.
What is missing in his discussion is a scriptural or overtly theological
reference (which was at least passingly present in his argument in 1.2).
The audience however (meaning the original audience), would have been
brimming with scriptural ideas, and might fill-in with something like:
if he dies actively pursuing an unrighteous course, and doesn't repent,
then he might wind up in hell. They might also fill-in with the idea
that killing Claudius is unrighteous.
The Play (the Mousetrap)
So the Ghost was telling the truth about Claudius. But: he never tested
the Ghost as to what it was, and tests were available, and the audience,
at any rate, would have known them. He either makes the rash conclusion
the Ghost is telling the truth about itself, or he doesn't care,
probably the latter, since earlier on the battlements he remarked on the
subject ("Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damn'd").
He encounters Claudius, who is praying, and on the verge of repentance.
Hamlet could kill Claudius, but does not, in order that Claudius shall
be damned (which is much worse than just killing him). This could be
malice in the strict sense, as defined by Aquinas, but I'm not sure. At
any rate here is an interesting quotation from On Evil: "[W]e should
understand that repeated works of piety dispose human beings to repent
more easily, and after they have repented, to expiate their past sins
more easily. And it is also for this reason that the Lord in Mt.
25:41-46 imputes lack of mercy to the damned, namely, that they did not
endeavor to expiate their past sins by works of mercy, as Augustine says
in City of God." One gets the impression here that, as far as attitude
is concerned, Claudius is less evil than Hamlet.
Kills Polonius, thinking and hoping it was Claudius. He isn't
repentant, and isn't even sorry. He admonishes Gertrude, for being
unrighteous, but not himself.
Soliloquy in 4.4 -- he adds up reasons why he should take revenge, then
lists some counterarguments: he's not rational enough, he's too
rational, or is worrying too much about some vague "scruple", or it
might be cowardice. Again, he fails to make a spiritual reference, and
winds up not knowing why he is delaying. Finally concludes by intending
to have bloody thoughts. Thus, he is losing his spiritual discernment.
Here the audience is certainly going to fill-in with reference to one of
the Gospel parables, the one where Jesus notes that what defiles a man
is what comes out of his mouth, not what goes in. And they are going to
expect Hamlet to kill again.
5.2, dialogue with Horatio. Hamlet relates how he maneuvered to have
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern killed. Isn't repentant, isn't sorry. He
lists good reasons why he should kill Claudius. Concludes with the idea
it would qualify as damnable to let Claudius live. Yeow. This is in
stark contrast to his attitude in earlier soliloquies, 1.2, 2.2, 3.1.
Doubt and inhibition are almost completely gone.
Horatio tries to talk him out of the duel, which they probably both know
is fixed. But, he won't change his mind. In other words, he doesn't
Kills Claudius. He does not appear to repent, not even close, even
though Laertes does. He then asks Horatio to report the events, so that
his name will be well remembered, which reflects a pagan virtue.
He puts in a good word for Fortinbras. Suppose Fortinbras is a Viking
In this play we have a picture of a man who "falls", and we get to watch
him fall, by stages. It is an extremely dark story. The darkest.
And if anyone thinks the theory of the Progression of Evil might be an
exclusively Catholic idea, here is what one modern Protestant
commentator has written:
"No one stands still morally and spiritually. Just as unbelievers
progress from sinfulness to greater sinfulness, a believer who is not
growing in righteousness, though never falling back altogether out of
righteousness, will slip further and further back into sin." This is
John MacArthur, in his commentary on Romans. Perhaps I shouldn't have
mentioned it. But here is another from the same author: "Man's natural
tendency is to sin. And a Christian's sin will grow just like that of
an unbeliever. If not checked, our inner sins of bitterness and wrath
and anger will inevitably lead to the outward sins of clamor, slander,
and other such manifestations of malice." Commentary on Ephesians.
Horatio's words about angels singing? Wishful thinking.
Submitted by John Reed
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