The Tragedy Around “Hamlet”

The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, was written when William Shakespeare was 36 years old. His first play, Two Gentlemen of Verona, c. 1590, was written when the playwright was 26; his last, The Two Nobel Kinsmen, c. 1614, when he was 50.

The genius of Shakespeare’s work makes it difficult, probably impossible, to name one play as greatest. Nearly every speaker of English with at least a high-school education (and many without a diploma) knows the titles: The Taming of the Shrew; Richard III; Romeo and Juliet; A Midsummer Night’s Dream; The Merchant of Venice; Henry V; Julius Caesar; Othello; King Lear; Macbeth; The Tempest. And those are just a dozen out of forty-two.

But, really, it’s Hamlet, isn’t it? It’s the most performed of all the plays – in the theater and on film. The role is a milestone in the career of every actor (and some actresses too), from Richard Burbage to Edwin Booth; from Mel Gibson to Kenneth Branagh; and from Sarah Bernhardt to Ruth Negga.

I believe many productions have miscast the lead. Burbage (of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men) was the first actor to get the role, likely when he was 35. Booth (the greatest American actor of the 19th century) first played Hamlet in his twenties and was 58 when last he did. Gibson was 34 in Franco Zeffirelli’s film, and Branagh was 36 in his own version.

But Hamlet is a college student – at Wittenberg University in Germany – so he should probably be played by a man in his late teens or early 20s. In the 16th century, Wittenberg was a center of humanist education, the sort of learning Shakespeare admired, although he probably lacked the formal education he imagined for his most famous dramatis persona.

The structure of the play itself came from the Gesta Danorum (c. 1200), a history of Denmark by Saxo Grammaticus. It’s all there: a younger brother kills his older brother, the king, then marries his widow. The dead king’s son feigns madness, as he plots – successfully – to avenge his father by killing his uncle.

When Saxo wrote this, Denmark was Catholic, as was most of Europe and Scandinavia. Four centuries later, as Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, England had been officially Protestant for more than sixty years, and though (as I believe) the greatest-ever writer in English was a recusant Catholic, he was necessarily a cautious one.

England had been Catholic under Henry VIII until the early 1530s, then Protestant under that same king after his break with Rome over his divorce from the first of his six wives. England remained Protestant until a Catholic, Mary Tudor, became queen in 1553 and, upon Mary’s death in 1558, became Protestant again under Elizabeth I.

The cost of recusancy could be high. Professor Michael Wood has even described Tudor England as a police state. Wood, Joseph Pearce, and Clare Asquith have all made the case that Shakespeare was Catholic. A dozen years ago (tempus fugit!), I wrote here about the discovery of a probable signature of Shakespeare at the Venerable English College in Rome, the Catholic seminary founded in 1579.

*

We certainly see Catholicism in Shakespeare’s settings, especially in Catholic Italy. We see it in certain characters and their speeches, as in Hamlet’s father, the Ghost comes to Elsinore castle from Purgatory. This was a bold yet subtle stroke by the Bard, which also reflects the difficulty Henry and Elizabeth faced in suppressing the old faith.

The 22nd of the Thirty-nine Articles (the Church of England’s catechism) made clear that the “Romish Doctrine concerning Purgatory, Pardons, Worshipping and Adoration, as well of Images as of Relics, and also Invocation of Saints, is. . .vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.”

Thus could Shakespeare portray priests, other papists, and Purgatory only by placing them in pre-Reformation times or in faraway Catholic locales: Italy or “ancient” Denmark.

It may be objected that Purgatory is never actually mentioned in the play, but it couldn’t be. Still, what the Ghost describes is unquestionably what the Church of England forbade.

I am thy father’s spirit,
Doomed for a certain term to walk the night
And for the day confined to fast in fires
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away.

This scene (Act I, Scene IV) must have been electrifying. Prince Hamlet is terrified, although very brave (rather like Shakespeare in the context), and about to get an even bigger shock. The Ghost tells him he was murdered by Claudius, his own brother. Hamlet must seek revenge.

Just as Hamlet’s age is often incorrectly portrayed, it’s wrong, I think, to suppose he’s only feigning madness. To be sure, he tells Guildenstern (one of the schemers sent by his uncle to spy on Hamlet) that they are wrong to think him deranged, for “I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw.” Later, he says his “wit’s diseased.” So, yes, he pretends madness. But the shock of his dead father’s revelation causes him to abandon his native reason. He is traumatized. He is haunted.

Groomed to be king, he’s a serious-minded, intelligent young man; still lighthearted, loving to enjoy himself. He’s a leader – princely in the best sense. But he has been concussed by the Ghost.

As Countess Asquith told Catholic News Agency in 2016:

Hamlet, dramatizes the position of all. . .[English Catholics], torn apart like Hamlet, having to play a part like Hamlet, pretend[ing] they were irresponsible, perhaps mad, and yet, having to make a decision about what to do about this. . . .Everything about the ghost is the old [Catholic] order, which has been displaced by a brand new Tudor State with the monarch as the head of the Church, which was still highly, highly contentious.

As well it would be, for how can any earthly monarch overthrow the Vicar of Christ?

 

*Image: William Shakespeare, possibly by John Taylor (d. 1651) and possibly “painted from life.” It was the first portrait acquired by the National Portrait Gallery, London when it was founded in 1856.

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Brad Miner

Brad Miner is senior editor of The Catholic Thing, senior fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute, and a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His most recent book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. His The Compleat Gentleman is now available in a third, revised edition from Regnery Gateway and is also available in an Audible audio edition (read by Bob Souer).

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