Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

Hamlet and Protestant Aural Theater

Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

Hamlet and Protestant Aural Theater

Article excerpt

Over the past half-century many Shakespeareans have argued that either Protestantism or Catholicism informs the general Christian ethos of Hamlet. John Dover Wilson, Raymond Waddington, and Roland Mushat Frye are among the many who find in King Claudius a Lutheran who, though longing to repent of his fratricide, harbors a trapped, "limed soul" (3.3.68) and whose inability to pray, to use Martin Luther's words, "clearly manifest[s] that the endeavor and effect of free will are simply nothing" (135). Peter S. Milward finds "something Lutheran in [Hamlet's] brooding emphasis on the corruption of human nature" (161), and Charles Cannon stresses the play's Calvinism, saying that the "the problems of the theater dealt with" in Hamlet "lead Shakespeare [...] toward the possibility of predestination" (203). More recently, Anthony Low has argued that the play stages the Protestant dismissal of the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory, and in Hamlet in Purgatory Stephen Greenblatt echoes Low's claim. Still, in a 2001 Commonweal review of Greenblatt's influential book, Edward Oakes approvingly quotes a Jesuit friend's comment on Hamlet: "What a Catholic play that was!" (29).

My purpose here is not to argue that Hamlet is a Catholic or a Protestant play. Agreeing with David Daniell, I believe that Shakespeare's plays declare their author's allegiance to neither faith to the exclusion of the other (2). Thus, I will not assert that Hamlet's oblique instruction to Guildenstern, "Hide fox, and all after" (4.2.30-31), is a cryptic reference to John Foxe's Book of Martyrs, (1) or that Horatio's description of "post-haste and romage in the land" signals Denmark's energetic papalism (1.1.107). I will, however, argue the influence of what Daniell calls Shakespeare's "Protestant inheritance" on Hamlet. Both the play and its eponymous hero seem specifically constructed to record and display views on theater's potential for good or for evil, ideas expressed in much English Protestant discourse near the time of the play's creation. Elsewhere I have argued that Shakespeare's exploration of those ideas at the brink of the seventeenth century inspired him to construct his greatest tragedy as an unusual "anti-play" (63). Here I will demonstrate that Hamlet's paradoxical anti-theatrical drama may also be described as "aural theater."

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As Daniell has cogently maintained, Shakespeare's Protestant inheritance can logically be inferred from the fact that, "in his fifty-two years, Shakespeare lived in a nation that was officially, aggressively, and massively Protestant." Quoting Peter Lake, Daniell writes that, though some late-sixteenth century Catholics "met in barns and private households, the godly inherited the public space of the parish church," in which the "altar was now a communion table" and "the rood loft with its doom images" and" images of saints had been removed. The liturgy was in English, not Latin; the mass had been replaced with a communion service. No trace of the cult of the saints or the notion of Purgatory [...] was left in either the service book or the outward ceremonial face of the Church" (2). Many of the views expressed by the most popular pastors of the age--among them Thomas Playfere, Stephen Egerton, John Field, and Lancelot Andrewes, whose London parish contained "the Fortune and Red Bull theatres" and whose services were "eagerly attended" by some players (Story xv)--showed the influence of John Calvin's theology. In Shakespeare's lifetime, moreover, 142 editions of The Geneva Bible were printed; this, Daniell notes, "ha[d] to do with demand" (6). Whatever Shakespeare's personal beliefs or private instruction may have been, it is inarguable that his environment recurrently exposed him to Protestant strains of thought, and it thus is not surprising that echoes of Protestant moral views should be found in his greatest tragedy.

The particular aspect of Protestant thought that I want to trace in Hamlet is one Jonas Barish has famously called the "anti-theatrical prejudice. …

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