Hamlet: Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory

Hamlet: Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory

Eugène Delacroix (1843): Hamlet, Act III, Scene 3 --Hamlet comes upon the king at prayer. via Wikimedia Commons
Eugène Delacroix (1843): Hamlet, Act III, Scene 3 –Hamlet comes upon the king at prayer. via Wikimedia Commons

Would I had met my dearest foe in heaven
Or ever I had seen that day, Horatio!

Last night I took Bella into Boston to see the National Theatre Live production of Hamlet, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, filmed at the Barbican Theatre in London. I wanted to see it because, well, I like Hamlet and I like Benedict Cumberbatch and I was really curious to see his performance. I knew Bella would be thrilled to get to see a Shakespeare play that she’s familiar with. And also to get to go to Boston and to see it in a real theater. As I expected, we had a delightful time. We went in early, got dinner at Pret a Manger, took a walk to the Common to see the sunset, and then the play screened at the lovely Paramount Theater. I resolved to find more opportunities to take the kids to cultural events in Boston now that they’re getting old enough to enjoy them and since I’m not as circumscribed, not having a baby at present to need me to not leave for hours at a time.

Although this was Bella’s first time to see an actual performance, I’ve seen Hamlet in several different productions as well as having read it in school. It’s a play I’m very familiar with and have memorized quite a few different speeches. This time through I had a new idea in mind as I was watching, one I’d encountered just this past August.

At that time a fellow homeschooler had shared what looked like a fabulous resource, a site that attempted to catalogue all available film versions of Shakespeare’s plays. Really, really helpful stuff. But as I poked around the site I realized that just as valuable were the site author’s notes about the plays. Many of them are really mini-essays about the plays and they all are quite insightful. The one on Hamlet especially caught my attention as it read the play in a way that was radically different than I’d ever seen before. The argument fascinated me. And naturally as I watched Hamlet again it colored the way I watched, the lines I noticed.

As I watched Hamlet again, I came back to the argument made by Bruce A. McMenomy about Hamlet’s central crisis being spiritual rather than psychological and his crucial flaw being his decision to overstep his moral authority and not merely seek justice by killing his father’s murder but to usurp God’s authority to send Claudius’s soul to hell. This time I watched with this reading in mind and boy is it a different experience. So much jumped out at me. I’m going to be obnoxious and just quote the whole thing because I’m too tired to summarize effectively and this post might never get published if I try to do things the hard way. Here’s McMenomy’s argument:

I suppose, however, that I must add my voice to the clamor on Hamlet, if only to clarify my own biases. I would argue that the ground from which Hamlet springs is in fact more spiritual than psychological. Whether one reads it as a person of faith today or not makes little difference: one needs to understand that Shakespeare knew nothing of Freudian psychology or any of its various successors, and there’s no reason to think that those categories would have held much interest to him. The realities Hamlet confronts, and the contexts in which he confronts them, are all hemmed around with the religious thought of the sixteenth century.

There are a few points worth considering:

1. In the terms of his culture, Hamlet has a genuine moral obligation to avenge his father. In this respect he is more like Orestes than he is like anyone in the twentieth century or even the sixteenth. Some of this has to do with the underlying assumptions about justice; some of it is circumstantial. There is no law to which he can appeal in any case. The culprit — guilty of murder, usurpation, and incest (as defined there) — is the head of state. No law in the land can call him to account. He has established himself there by usurpation.

2. Contrary to popular belief and Laurence Olivier’s assurance, Hamlet never has a problem making up his mind. He understands his duty from the outset, and pursues it. He does, on the other hand, take the time to find out to his own satisfaction whether the spirit that has been speaking to him has been the genuine ghost of his father or some other entity whose purpose is to lure him to his own damnation. This is only responsible, if the certainty about the facts is going to oblige him to kill someone.

3. The state of one’s immortal soul at death is not an airy concern voiced by various characters to add verisimilitude and a sixteenth-century (or tenth-century) coloring to the story. To Hamlet, as to Shakespeare and to his audience, it is a reality of immediate and colossal importance. The play fastidiously catalogues the states of the souls of virtually everyone who dies: Old Hamlet, Polonius, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Ophelia, Claudius, Laertes, Gertrude, and Hamlet himself. In every case it has significant consequences. Modern audiences may not share Shakespeare’s assumptions, but they cannot be lightly dismissed. As Hamlet himself says just prior to the final conflict, “the readiness is all”.

4. Hamlet’s critical failure is not one of indecision. He is never undecided, once he has put the ghost to the test (the final piece being the play-within-a-play). His failing — which is not a character flaw but a positive transgression — is that he oversteps his moral authority, which is to avenge his father’s murder, not to redress an eternal imbalance or manipulate the affairs of God. He is obliged to kill Claudius, not to send his soul to Hell. In deferring his revenge to achieve something fundamentally beyond his authority, he brings doom down upon himself and everyone else who dies in the play. Of course, we soon learn that had he done what he ought to have done, killing Claudius at his prayers when he had the opportunity, Claudius would indeed have died unredeemed, and all the other people who die, beginning almost immediately after this failure beginning with Polonius’ and ending with Hamlet’s own, would have survived. This cascade of violent deaths all spring from Hamlet’s initial and deliberate failure. Once he starts down this path, moreover, it worsens. He goes out of his way to ensure not just the death but the damnation of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. It is not enough that they be put to death: he stipulates that they are to be put to death “not shriving time allowed”. They are to go to their eternal account with all their sins upon them. If there is any doubt as to what Shakespeare thought of this, it is probably to be sought in another play: in Measure for Measure, Duke Vincentio (in disguise as the friar), describes a prisoner scheduled for execution as, “A creature unprepared, unmeet for death; / And to transport [i.e., execute] him in the mind he is / Were damnable.” This is precisely what Hamlet has particularly set out to do, and he incurs a huge moral guilt thereby.

Accordingly, while one must have a certain sympathy for Hamlet, and especially for his predicament, it seems to me to be a mistake to present Hamlet as unequivocally good. He may be appealing or engaging; certainly he’s a character of enormous intelligence, power, and complexity, but he’s pursuing a distorted, fundamentally evil agenda, and both he and those around him pay a very heavy price for that distortion.

As I watched the play with fresh eyes it was really overwhelmingly clear to me that this play is obsessed with the last things: death, heaven, hell, purgatory.

One line that jumped out at me tonight: “Would I had met my dearest foe in heaven
Or ever I had seen that day, Horatio!” This is Act I, Scene 2, the very first scene with Hamlet. Well before he’s heard of the ghost or learned of his father’s murder, Hamlet is already thinking about death, about heaven and hell. Already from the beginning we see that Hamlet has eschewed Christ’s dictate to love his enemies. Far from wanting to pray for those who persecute him, from wishing for their good, the very idea of his enemy in heaven to be a terrible thought.

And yes there’s the ghost, the great horror is that he’s been denied the chance to confess his sins and receive viaticum, last rites. That spiritual reality looms over the whole play and gives it form. Hamlet is driven to his usurpation of moral authority because of his horror at the idea of his father’s murder having eternal consequences, not merely the cutting of of his mortal life, but the torment of his immortal soul. While it seems clear to me that the ghost is experiencing Purgatorial fires, it isn’t so clear to Hamlet and that notion spurs him on to his revenge.

Cut off even in the blossoms of my sin,
Unhousel’d, disappointed, unanel’d,
No reckoning made, but sent to my account
With all my imperfections on my head:
O, horrible! O, horrible! most horrible!

Everyone in the play is obsessed with damnation. Laertes in his passion looks damnation in the face and accepts it as the cost of revenging his father’s death:

How came he dead? I’ll not be juggled with:
To hell, allegiance! vows, to the blackest devil!
Conscience and grace, to the profoundest pit!
I dare damnation. To this point I stand,
That both the worlds I give to negligence,
Let come what comes; only I’ll be revenged
Most thoroughly for my father.

Another thing that struck me forcibly this time through is how very real damnation is to Claudius. Modern villains tend to think they are in the right, tend to disbelieve in God and in eternal punishment for their crimes. But Claudius is painfully aware of the spiritual reality of his crime, and knows he faces damnation. And even so he cannot bring himself to repentance:

Yet what can it when one can not repent?
O wretched state! O bosom black as death!
O limed soul, that, struggling to be free,
Art more engaged!

Of course, now that I’ve noticed the theme, I’m finding it popping up elsewhere.
Leah Libresco writes about the horror of Hamlet’s desire for the damnation of another soul:

Hamlet’s speech and subsequent action is predicated on a Christian metaphysics, but I struggle to think of anything less Christ-like. The depths of Claudius’s sin makes him more pitiable and more in need of Hamlet’s help and love. Hamlet certainly isn’t required to condone his uncle’s crimes, but he ought to try, to the extent that he can, to help his uncle repent.

Claudius fell through lust and jealousy, a sickly echo of love and honor. He wants good things (love, responsibilities) is the wrong way. But Hamlet’s desire for the damnation of another person isn’t a twisted image of any good thing, there is nothing about this desire that could be rightly directed. When Hamlet finally kills Claudius, he takes down his uncle in despair — Gertrude is dead, Laertes is poisoned, Hamlet is poisoned, and Claudius is complicit in all these deaths. But, because he rejoices in the damnation of another soul, it seems like Hamlet must be the most distant from God in that moment.

“Adieu, adieu! Hamlet, remember me.”

Also, since I’m reading The Stripping of the Altars, I’m also thinking about how Shakespearian England was in the midst of a great spiritual struggle and turmoil. And a large part of that was the dispute about purgatory, the abolition of Masses for the dead, etc. that had begun with Henry VIII and continued under Edward VI and then Elizabeth I.

How much of Hamlet is about this anxiety over what happens to people after death? How much is it a dramatization of a real anxiety that was plaguing English Catholics at the time? The anxiety of dying without the opportunity for confession and viaticum, of not having anyone to give you a proper burial, or having anyone to pray for you after death, of having the graves of your family members desecrated, their memories obliterated…. that anxiety haunts Hamlet.

From an article I recently discovered about the Reformation in England that draws on The Stripping of the Altars:

The next biggest change was the abolition of purgatory. The reformers ridiculed the cult of the dead (“purgatorye ys pissed owte” one memorably wrote). But these age-old rites of death and the afterlife provided a unique framework that late medieval English people embraced to cope with death. When the reformers ripped out grave stones and brasses inviting prayers for the departed, when they burned the local bede-rolls remembering the dead of the parish, and when they sledge-hammered the chantry altars where relatives were daily prayed for, they did something even more profound than the vandalism. They stole the dead from the daily lives of their communities, rendering the deceased suddenly invisible to those long used to honouring and remembering their departed relatives and friends. Whether or not intentional, this was an attack on people’s memories.

The most obvious example is the ghost’s exhortation to Hamlet to “remember me.” But I also see something of this anxiety in Laertes concern about Polonius’ death and burial and the lack of the proper rites and forms:

His means of death, his obscure funeral–
No trophy, sword, nor hatchment o’er his bones,
No noble rite nor formal ostentation–
Cry to be heard, as ’twere from heaven to earth,
That I must call’t in question.

And of course the concern about Ophelia’s burial rites. Her funeral, the one we actually see, is curtailed and lacking in proper form and Laertes is horrified. Ophelia’s burial is curtailed because of her suspected suicide. But in Elizabeth’s England funeral rites for all had been changed to no longer follow the traditional form. I can imagine that grieving family experienced a horror similar to Laertes. Faithful Catholics attached to the rites they had always known, found those rites ripped away from them at the time they were most vulnerable, when already torn asunder by grief at the death of the loved one.

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  • Fascinating post, Melanie. I binged on Shakespeare films earlier in the year inspired by a MOOC on Hamlet I was doing. Branagh’s was memorably lavish with opulent Scandy sets but it was David Tennant’s rendition which may be the role of his life. It is heart-breaking.

    You inspire me to persist with Stripping the Altars. It is on my shelf waiting to be read…
    Have you read Michael Wood’s In Search of Shakespeare? It is an investigation of Shakespeare’s recusant roots and suggests that may be the source of his constant exploration of those themes of death, love, betrayal, sin, grief, faith.

    • I’ve got the David Tennant Shakespeare queued up on You Tube waiting for a night when I’m not too tired to watch it after the kids are in bed. I saw the Branagh in the theater when it first came out and we’ve been watching some clips from it. It seems so very bright comparatively. An interesting design choice, so counter to the usual staging. I may have to watch it again as well. A Hamlet kick could be a good thing…

      Oh good. We can talk Stripping of the Altars. I’m less than 200 pages in. Slow going. But a lot to think on.

      I haven’t read the Woods book, I don’t think. I’ll have to check it out. Thanks for the recommendation.

  • +JMJ+

    The shock of ruined burial rites is something I experienced when my grandfather passed away last month. We had known for a long time that he had a mistress, but until she showed up at the funeral, demanding her right to receive the flag from his coffin, we hadn’t known that he had also married her in secret, a little over a month after my grandmother’s death last year. (The new wife had to pull out a marriage certificate to prove it.) It was a real slap in the face to have her publicly acknowledged as “Mrs. _____” after everything she had done to make the original Mrs. _____, my grandmother, suffer. Her grandstanding at the funeral was a way of taking our rites of grief away from us. But she had already spent decades taking him away from his family (which is not to excuse his own role in it), so why were we surprised that she wanted one last thing?

    My family had been praying the Novena for the Dead for him for the last three days, but that morning, we just stopped. It was a purely emotional reaction that I personally regret now, inasmuch as I see it was also a Hamlet thing. Let the guilty man burn, we collectively decided, overstepping our spiritual place by judging the dead rather than pleading for mercy for them.

    • Oh how very sad. I definitely see the Hamlet connection, though I think Hamlet is much more cold and calculating about his desire to let the guilty man burn. It’s not shock with him, it’s malice aforethought.

  • Just really enjoyed using this in an A Level sixth form lesson here in Lincoln. Thanks for your thoughts which were well-received. The examination specification requires them to view ‘Hamlet’ through the lens of crime and the thought of a spiritual crime, usurping God’s authority has added a new dimension to our discussions.

  • I came to the same conclusions as to Hamlet’s overstepping his authority, and thus suffering the same fate he wished on Claudius, dying without being shriven. All of those who died, died that way.