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Saturday, May 2, 2009

Shakespeare’s Hamlet and the Spiritual Shipwreck of the Reformation

Shakespeare’s Hamlet and the Spiritual Shipwreck of the Reformation
©2009, Randall A. Beeler

Joseph Pearce’s The Quest for Shakespeare confirms the theory that Shakespeare is a recusant Catholic who hides his fervent practice of Catholicism from a totalitarian Elizabethan and Jacobean state bent on “ethnically cleansing” all Catholic identity from England.

Shakespeare’s implicitly Catholic imagination provides a way to understand Hamlet as the Bard’s analysis of the spiritual violence of the Protestant Reformation in terms of a rupture of the relationship between faith and reason and therein an assault on our ability to trust the real as real.

Karl Adams’ Roots of the Reformation demonstrates that the Protestant worldview, initiated by Luther, finds its origin in William of Ockham’s ontological nominalism:
Contrary to the official teaching of the Catholic Church (as expounded by St. Thomas Aquinas), William of Ockham taught that reality could not give evidence or provide scientific support for God’s existence. He criticized the accommodation of the philosophical system of Aristotle with Christian doctrine that had been fashioned by Aquinas, who achieved an accord between faith and reason. Ockham rejected this teaching on the basis of a radical empiricism in which the basis of knowledge is direct experience of individual things (ontological nominalism). According to Ockham, universals are created by reason, essences have no independent reality of their own, but are only names or mere vocal utterances. [emphasis mine, cf. Hamlet quotation immediately following]. Reality was a collection of absolute singulars and, therefore, could not give evidence or provide scientific support for God’s existence. God to Ockham was above all knowledge, and thus could not be apprehended by reason, as the Thomists taught, or by illumination, as the Augustinians believed, but only by faith. (100, fn. 44, Appendix B)
Shakespeare couches Ockham’s nominalism in the character of Hamlet: “Why then ‘tis none to you, for there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so” (II, ii, 234-35). A student of the same Wittenberg where Luther learned Ockham’s nominalism, Hamlet is obsessed with the absolute singulars of his situation—his father’s murder, his mother’s depravity, Ophelia’s shunning his love, and his inability to trust anyone or anything at Elsinore. Hamlet is satisfied with no evidence or scientific grounds for taking action. Thus, he spends his prodigious intellect on the solving of this riddle which he has already concluded cannot be solved except by action:
Yet I,
A dull and muddy-mettled rascal, peak
Like John-a-dreams, unpregnant of my cause,
And can say nothing—no not for a king
Upon whose property and most dear life
A damned defeat was made. Am I a coward?
… Why, what an ass am I! This is most brave,
That I, the son of a dear father murdered,
Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,
Must like a whore unpack my heart with words (II, ii, 493-98, 510-13)
Adam’s analysis of how Luther digests Ockham’s nominalism reads almost like a character sketch of Prince Hamlet’s spiritual, philosophical, and emotional predicament:
With these predispositions, Luther entered the priory of barefooted Augustinians at Erfurt, probably against his father's will. Here he was to prepare himself, by strict spiritual discipline and hard study, for his future entry into the Order and the priesthood. The system of thought, the form in which all philosophical knowledge was then presented, both in the priory and in the neighbouring University of Wittenberg, was the "new way" of Scotism, with the stamp of its later Ockhamist development. Ockhamism had a decisive influence on Luther. He described himself as a member of the Ockhamist school (sum occamicae factionis) …

From Ockhamism Luther received his anti-metaphysical tendencies, his dislike of the Aristotelian and Scholastic doctrine founded on the objective validity of universal concepts. From Ockham too he took his concept of God. God is God precisely because of His absolute, unconditioned will, His sovereign freedom and dominion, which is beyond any scale of values and by whose arbitrary choice alone this order of values was created. God is a God of arbitrary choice. He can therefore predestine some in advance to eternal salvation, others in advance to eternal damnation.

Particularly important for Luther's inner development is the Ockhamist doctrine of justification. Pre-Lutheran Thomism, the Church's classical doctrine of grace, presents grace as a movement of divine love entering into the penitent soul and delivering it from the bonds of its fallen nature. In contrast with this, grace in Ockhamism remains strictly transcendent. Justification consists solely in a relatio externa, a new relationship of mercy between man and God established by God's love, by means of which all a man's religious and moral acts, though remaining in themselves human and natural, are accounted as salvific acts in the eyes of a merciful God. In Ockhamism, it is true, justification is still God's work of grace, in so far as human activity only becomes salvific by God's recognition of it, by His act of acceptance. But this recognition and validation does not in any way affect man's spiritual powers. It remains completely outside him and is simply seen and assented to by faith [much as Hamlet assents to the providence of God in the fall of a sparrow; cf. V, ii, 185-88, quoted below]. Thus for practical purposes on the psychological plane it is as though nothing were involved but purely human activity, and as if devotion were only a matter of human acts.

Thus the intellectual situation in which Luther found himself was insecure and threatened on all sides. Natural reality was not a harmony of truths and values, accessible to knowledge and fundamentally intelligible, but an ultimately unknowable multiplicity of concrete singulars, a world of confusion and riddles. And supernatural reality, the living God of revelation, is a hidden God (deus absconditus), far removed from any kind of tie, sheer creative omnipotence to which we are completely delivered up. There is but one way of escape from this overwhelming combined threat from above and below: blind fulfillment of the arbitrary commands of this arbitrary God as they are shown to us in revelation, the way of good works. It is a way crowded at each moment with moral activity, but for this very reason a perilous way, a way of stumbling and falling. (32-33)
As Luther becomes the foil of the Machiavellian princes of his time, so Hamlet, indeed possessed of keen intelligence and nobility of spirit, nonetheless himself stumbles and falls into the self-consuming, self-defeating, Machiavellian schemes of Claudius, Polonius, and Laertes. Indeed, no vice of Hamlet causes this stumbling; rather, his virtuous Oedipeian quest to pierce mysteries and discover the truth—as well as his eagerness to find some reality, some person, some faith in which he can trust—leads him (and all Denmark) to demise.

The Young Hamlet knows he misses the mark (hamartia):
Let my disclaiming from a purposed evil
Free me so far in your most generous thoughts,
That I have shot mine arrow o'er the house,
And hurt my brother. (V, ii, 236-240)
His hamartia is that he does not act because he cannot concretely and perfectly (to his own exacting satisfaction) determine that his perception of reality is real. He only nominally (pun intended) does so when, perhaps via fatigue (and inability to reason his way to a solution), he, in a kind of predestine sola fide, assents that he believes whatever happens is God’s will:
Not a whit, we defy augury. There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ‘tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now; yet it will come. The readiness is all. Since no man of aught he leaves knows, what is ‘t to leave betimes: Let be (V, ii, 185-88) [note how Shakespeare has Hamlet word this uncharacteristically (for Hamlet) prosaic observation in prose rather than verse]
Thus, Hamlet abandons his people and Denmark to young Fortinbras, a man whose father Hamlet’s father had dispatched. Dispensing with Machiavellian plots and overwrought nominalistic ruminations, Fortinbras, like the violent ones of Christ’s parable (“‘And from the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away’”—Matt 11:12, DR), bears away Hamlet’s body and Denmark—thus displaying the kind of action that Prince Hamlet should have used to save his people and kingdom from the invader. So Luther’s heresy led to a divided Europe that has ever since been borne away by one ideological invasion after another.

Shakespeare’s use of England as a tributary to Denmark in the play is telling. Denmark and Norway were both countries whose Machiavellian princes early on eagerly used Protestantism as a means of augmenting their authority against any kind of accountability to a greater civilization and culture. In the play, England kowtows to Denmark, as an underling, much in the same way that Henry VIII devoted himself and England to a sham Protestantism which he used as a Machiavellian means of pillaging the monasteries and bolstering his throne. The treacherous Claudius is a study on Henry VIII, mouthing Henry’s own concept of the “divine right of kings”: “There’s such divinity doth hedge a king/That treason can but peep to what it would,/Acts little of his will” (IV, v, 123-25).

To leaven Prince Hamlet’s nominalism and shield ourselves from being tempted to resort either to Machiavellian maneuvers or to violently bearing away what we wish, we ought to learn from—and read Hamlet through the lens of—these words from Saint Francis de Sales, a man who himself weathered the fiercely Protestant atmosphere of Calvin’s Geneva and converted many back both to Catholicism and to a Thomistic understanding of the nature of thought, reality, and action:
My first rule for you is this: as you have made a general and all-inclusive resolution to serve God as best you can, do not waste time examining and minutely analyzing how best to do it. This is a pointless activity characteristic of your agile and alert mind which wants to tyrannize over your will and guide it by a fallacious over-subtleness … You must do this in good faith, without trying to be too clever and subtle, doing it all after the fashion of this world where nothing is perfect, doing it in a human and time-bound way until the day comes when you may be able to act in a divine and angelic way in the light of eternity. It will not support your general resolution if you are restless, eager, and agitated … I expressly forbid this over-eagerness, for it lies at the root of every other imperfection. (334-35)
However, does Prince Hamlet achieve some sort of saving knowledge, some katharsis, by which we might see the path to salvation? Even though Hamlet tragically devotes himself to the idea that whatever happens is God’s will, his tragic flaw leading to his demise nonetheless offers to us a means of defeating the Claudiuses of this world. Although late, Hamlet does finally entrust himself to a Will beyond that commanded by his obsessive intellect and therein dies to his self-will.

Hamlet is fatuously known as the “play in which everyone dies at the end”; but the death of the old regime members—noble and ignoble—figures the purging of Hamlet’s (and therein Denmark’s) soul. We can start anew—with action that is tempered by the caution of Hamlet’s story, as related by the renewed Horatio—the only truly comedic figure in the drama.

Nonetheless, he is no small figure; Horatio persists from the play’s beginning to it’s end. He is the witness—he is us. He will tell the story truly to all the invading Fortinbrases—who will listen, as the end of the play attests. Thus, just as the heroic Catholic martyrs of England’s story now is recounted, so will all of us be able to recount the cathartic loss of the erroneous nominalism of our era and the heroic recapture of truth and virtue that our age so sorely needs. Though our world can seem dark, all our Elsinores really are Globe Theatres for the universe.


Adams, Karl. Roots of the Reformation. Trans. Cecily Hastings. Zanesville, OH: Coming Home Resources, 2004. Text without appendices also available online at

de Sales, Saint Francis. St. Francis de Sales: Selected Letters. Trans. Elisabeth Stopp. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1960, excerpted in “The Over-Eagerness of the Crowd.” Magnificat Jan. 2008: 334-35.

Pearce, Joseph. The Quest for Shakespeare. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2008.

Shakespeare, William. The Tragical History of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. 1337-1391 in William Shakespeare: The Complete Works. Ed. Stephen Orgel and A. R. Braumuller. The New Pelican Text. New York: Penguin Books, 2002.