Hamlet and God

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, one notices how often Hamlet mentions God, even though there are few or no substantive references to religion in the play. Hamlet being such a representative figure, this reminds me how, apart from formal Christianity, the consciousness of Western man is imbued with the thought of God and is really inconceivable without it. In other words, it is natural to think about God, to refer to God, to make sense of the world in terms of God. This is part of the lingua franca of Western man.

Modern secular society makes this impossible, by prohibiting mention of God in any meaningful way. Even religious people never mention God today except in certain prescribed ways, “my faith,” “my personal savior”—as a personal expression of identity and allegiance, along with all the other identities and allegiances that are out there today in our multicultural society. But people never bring God into ordinary discourse, never make the subject of God part of our ordinary, shared, experience. And needless to say, writers, apart from Christian writers, never mention God as part of their thoughts about the world.

Liberal society allows organized religion to exist in its private corners. But it doesn’t allow God to be spoken of except in the most constrained and formulaic ways.

As for Hamlet, what I’m thinking of is passages like this, his soliloquy after encountering the messenger from Fortinbras’ army on its way to war:

How all occasions do inform against me,
And spur my dull revenge! What is a man,
If his chief good and market of his time
Be but to sleep and feed? a beast, no more.
Sure, he that made us with such large discourse,
Looking before and after, gave us not
That capability and god-like reason
To fust in us unused. Now, whether it be
Bestial oblivion, or some craven scruple
Of thinking too precisely on the event,
A thought which, quarter’d, hath but one part wisdom
And ever three parts coward, I do not know
Why yet I live to say ‘This thing’s to do;’
Sith I have cause and will and strength and means
To do’t. Examples gross as earth exhort me:
Witness this army of such mass and charge
Led by a delicate and tender prince,
Whose spirit with divine ambition puff’d
Makes mouths at the invisible event,
Exposing what is mortal and unsure
To all that fortune, death and danger dare,
Even for an egg-shell.

Or this, from his conversation with Rosenkranz and Guildenstern:

I have of late—but
wherefore I know not—lost all my mirth, forgone all
custom of exercises; and indeed it goes so heavily
with my disposition that this goodly frame, the
earth, seems to me a sterile promontory, this most
excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave
o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted
with golden fire, why, it appears no other thing to
me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.
What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason!
how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how
express and admirable! in action how like an angel!
in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the
world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me,
what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not
me: no, nor woman neither, though by your smiling
you seem to say so.

Hamlet doesn’t refer to God in this speech, but the whole speech is about the world and man as God’s creation. It is in fact a gloss on God’s creation of the world and man in Genesis Chapter 1. And it’s about how Hamlet has lost his joy in God’s creation.

What is the index of Hamlet’s misery? It is that it has cut him off from all pleasure in the world and man as created by God. A reader lacking belief in God or at least imaginative sympathy with belief in God, a reader without a feeling for the greatness of the world and of man as God’s creation, would be unable to understand Hamlet’s pain and despair.

I am not arguing for “cultural Christianity,” the idea of keeping a Christian culture without the Christian religion. It’s not possible in any case. As T.S. Elliot famously said, the cult is the source of the culture. This doesn’t mean that the purpose of the cult is to create culture. The purpose of the cult is communion with God, growth in salvation. But the cult is also the source of the culture. Without the cult, no sustainable culture that’s worth anything; without the cult, no Hamlet.

- end of initial entry -

Mike Berman writes:

LA said:

“Liberal society allows organized religion to exist in its private corners. But it doesn’t allow God to be spoken of except in the most constrained and formulaic ways.”

This practice is completely contrary to the religion of Judaism. There are only two prayers commanded of Jews in the Torah. One of them is The Shema. It appears several times in the Torah and is recited every morning and evening by practicing Jews. This prayer instructs Jews, among other things, to speak of G-d constantly in every aspect of their lives. It is also customary for practicing Jews to add the phrases “thank G-d” and “G-d willing” often to their everyday conversation.

The Shema and following verses (Deut. 6:4-9):

Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is One.

And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength. And these words, which I command you this day, shall be upon your heart. And you shall teach them thoroughly to your children, and shall speak of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk on the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise up. And you shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be as tefillin between your eyes. And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and upon your gates.

Kristor writes:

Yes. Thank you. That’s a wonderful line from Eliot.

Here’s the thing. The world can’t make sense, and so life can’t make sense, and cannot therefore be enjoyed, unless the world first hangs together coherently. The world can hang together only if its various parts fully and adequately address each other, and echo each other, thus all sounding certain notes in common, or forming harmonies. But because each disparate thing is constrained to its own parochial perspective—this is what makes things different from each other—disagreement among particular entities is inevitable. And to the extent that they disagree, things cannot cohere with each other, cannot accommodate each to its fellows under a common order, so to coordinate in a causal nexus. If they disagree utterly, they will have nothing to do with each other, and will not therefore form the togetherness that is needed to constitute a world. But if there is nothing that inclines things in their inmost parts toward agreement with each other, then they are bound to a radical divergence, thus unraveling the world.

If there is to be a world, all the parts thereof must agree. And if that is to happen, they must all agree that there is something greater, better and more beautiful than any one of them, which is so superlatively lovely that it merits their basic allegiance, their loyalty, their fealty, and their service. On this, they must all agree, or fly apart, every one to his own way. The continued coherence of our world testifies to the existence of such a perfectly worthy one, whom they all worship (whether they know it or not, and whether or not they profess obedience).

THE WORLD is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Laura Wood writes:

You wrote:

“Liberal society allows organized religion to exist in its private corners. But it doesn’t allow God to be spoken of except in the most constrained and formulaic ways.”

I disagree. Look at the Evangelical bookstores, the Christian pop concerts, the architectural monstrosities that are modern Christian churches. Go online and peruse the abundant cultural expressions of Christianity in the form of contemporary books, CDs, posters, art objects, etc. that boldly speak of God and Christ.

The problem is not that liberalism only allows “constrained and formulaic expression of God,” unless you of course are speaking of liberalism as something absolutely at one with contemporary Christianity. Christianity has become a religion of psychological consolations and gimmicks. The artist has to distance himself from it and speak in an entirely different language. If Shakespeare were alive today he would hesitate to utter the words “Whose spirit with divine ambition puff’d,” for fear of calling to mind one of those roseate cloud-filled posters with a quoted Psalm in the upper right-hand corner.

LA replies:

That’s an excellent point.

Also, when I said that liberal society “doesn’t allow God to be spoken of except in the most constrained and formulaic ways,” I was of course thinking of mainstream, secular society, where public references to God are not allowed. I was not considering the many Christian communities in America where there is a public Christian presence.

Kristor writes:

I knew exactly what you meant when you said that “Liberal society … doesn’t allow God to be spoken of except in the most constrained and formulaic ways.” You weren’t talking about small towns where most everyone still goes to church and people say “Praise God” or “God willing” without irony. You were talking about the Presbyterian minister and Episcopal priestess who delivered “benedictions” at my son’s opening convocation at college 2 weeks ago. They used phrases from Scripture and the Book of Common Prayer and Christian hymnody, but so far as one could tell from what they actually said, they were invoking some Very Big Thing that is Not Divine. They were not willing to go so far as to call Him a spirit. They used the term “God” only once in two rather long orations, and then only to say something like, “The Big Thing that some prefer to call ‘God.’” I swear I am not making this up.

Both statements were positively unctuous with sanctimony, and delivered with great solemnity, but both were absolutely empty. Monty Python could have used them as send-ups of vacuous Church of England bloviation. It was pathetic, indeed, almost monstrous, for it was two clerics taking the Name of the LORD in vain, subtly mocking and denigrating the Almighty. The effect was to gut the occasion of transcendent meaning or significance. My feeling was not, “Wow, this is something really important and serious my son has embarked upon,” but, “What a load of tripe, what a pointless waste of time. Better to have stayed in my son’s dorm room tidying up his mare’s nest of IT cables.”

Rose writes:

“even though there are few or no substantive references to religion in the play.”

There is an abundance of Biblical symbolism, though, especially from Genesis. The garden where the assassination takes place is Paradise, infiltrated by Claudius whose poison has an “enmity with blood of man.” In other words, he is the Adversary. Hamlet’s father’s ghost declares that the reports of his death by snake are true for,

“The serpent that did sting thy father’s life Now wears his crown.”

Fallen Eden is now filled with “things rank and gross in nature.” It was the Fall that introduced decay into the world and death, resulting in the “first corse,” to which Claudius refers, Abel, like the elder Hamlet, murdered by his brother.

LA replies:

First, I wasn’t talking about biblical references—of course there are such references in the play. I was speaking of references to organized Christianity.

Second, that’s a terrific analysis. I’m embarrassed to say I never thought of the murder of King Hamlet as a replication of the sin in the Garden, and of the present miserable state of Denmark and of Hamlet’s mind as a replication of the fall of man. Or if I did, I had forgotten about it.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at September 25, 2009 03:05 PM | Send

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