The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 16.2029 Thursday, 8 December 2005
From: David Basch <
Date: Wednesday, 07 Dec 2005 19:29:40 -0500
Subject: 16.2020 Shadowplay
Comment: Re: SHK 16.2020 Shadowplay
The discussion of the implications of "purgatory" in Hamlet was most
interesting. In fact, the concept of purgatory, the soul's sojourn in a
state prior to its entrance to Paradise, not only occurs in Hamlet but
in Romeo and Juliet as well. We see that, after Mercutio is killed by
Tybalt, Romeo tells Tybalt that "Mercutio's soul is but a little way
above our heads, staying for thine to keep him company: Either thou, or
I, or both, must go with him." As can be learned from the discussion on
list, this view corresponds to Catholic teaching. I would note that it
also happens to correspond with Jewish teaching.
Like the Catholic, Orthodox Jewish teaching is that the soul passes
through a state of purgatory for a time while sins are purged. So if, as
some on line insist, that the presence of this belief in Shakespeare's
play casts light on his religious beliefs, both the Catholic and Jewish
religions are placed in play.
This said, even I do not conclude that the above follows. Just because
we find these beliefs ricocheting among Shakespeare's characters does
not necessarily shed light on the nature of Shakespeare's religious
beliefs. These beliefs in purgatory encountered are what you would
expect of the characters in their settings and give the characters the
weight of authenticity.
More important, the invocation of the afterlife adds immeasurably to the
atmosphere of Hamlet, in which men in a real world setting find that
there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in the
ratiocinations of the wise guys. It so happens that the wise guys too,
for all their bravado, are not sure about what to make of the "more
things." This is an atmosphere that Shakespeare's audiences would
understand whatever their creed. For who does not know someone with an
amazing tale to tell or has himself experienced something wondrous and
inexplicable, perhaps in pre-cognative dreams that makes him think about
these "more things." Even the Bible presents an incident that features
someone from beyond the grave, the invoking of the prophet Samuel by the
witch of En-Dor. Samuel's ghost turns out to have been an honest ghost
since he truly pegs King Saul's fate.
Shakespeare play is about persons confronting life, the whole of life
with all its ambiguities concerning God and the afterlife. It is such
concerns, like our own, that give the characters pause as they face
temptations and frustrations. In the king's palace in Denmark, the life
of power and wealth that most men envy and wish was their fate, turns
out, like everyone else's, not to be all roses. That life too has its
challenges. Conforming to the experiences that many have, where justice
could be expected to be, it is all too often that it is wickedness that
is there. In that world, against all religious teachings about reward
for the righteous, it is the good that die young and evil that is long
lived. We are reminded that the race turns out not to the swift since
time and chance affect all.
One almost has to have Shakespeare's reach and grasp to fathom what is
happening since this is not exactly staring audiences in the face. The
play is so complicated and audiences bring with them so much of their
own preoccupations that anyone with less than Shakespeare's grasp can
have a hard time understanding it.
For me, the words of Ecclesiastes provide the key to this play since his
teaching can be seen to pervade its action. In line with Ecclesiastes,
much happens in the play that suggests to Hamlet that there is indeed "a
divinity that shapes our ends." We see that it is not always what Hamlet
or we would expect.
Like the Book of Ecclesiastes, Hamlet the play, with its intimations of
a mysterious super natural world speaking from purgatory that no one can
truly fathom, would teach that we do best to persist within the straight
and narrow under the ambiguities of these "more things," learning from
the mistakes of great ones like Hamlet why it is that sometimes good men
like him do not reap.
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