The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 16.2029  Thursday, 8 December 2005

From: 		David Basch <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
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.

David Basch

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Hardy M. Cook, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
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