Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

"Try What Repentance Can": Hamlet, Confession, and the Extraction of Interiority

Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

"Try What Repentance Can": Hamlet, Confession, and the Extraction of Interiority

Article excerpt

IN HIS FILM ADAPTATION of Hamlet (1996), Kenneth Branagh underscores the confessional themes present in the play by setting two scenes in a Roman Catholic confessional box. In the first scene, Polonius interrogates Ophelia about her relationship with Hamlet--an interaction that reinforces the common association of the confessional with an obsession over female sexuality. In the second scene, Hamlet listens to Claudius's penitential prayer and becomes, as Mark Thornton Burnett notes, "an unpunctual but unconsoling father confessor." (1) By depicting Hamlet and Claudius in the confessional box, Branagh introduces a conspicuous anachronism since the device was never used in early modern England and did not experience widespread use in Catholic countries on the Continent until the seventeenth century. (2)

Yet Branagh's inclusion of the confessional makes visually explicit a long-standing critical association of Hamlet with a father confessor that began as early as A. C. Bradley. Discussing Hamlet's exhortations to Gertrude to repent her sins, Bradley concludes, "No father-confessor could be more selflessly set upon his end of redeeming a fellow-creature from degradation, more stern or pitiless in denouncing the sin, or more eager to welcome the first token of repentance." (3) Subsequent literary critics have expanded Bradley's position by positing that Hamlet takes on the role of a "Black Priest," "priest/king," and "priest manque." (4) When viewed in the context of Branagh's inclusion of the anachronistic confessional box, the critical interpretation of Hamlet as a father confessor calls attention to another more conspicuous and charged religious anachronism present in Shakespeare's play. More specifically, the rite of private or auricular confession to a priest permeates Hamlet even though the rite was no longer considered by the Church of England to be a sacrament after the promulgation of the Thirty-nine Articles and, while retained in an altered form in the Book of Common Prayer, it effectively ceased to be administered in early modern England. Like the connection of the Ghost with the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory, Shakespeare's concentration on private confession signals a type of doctrinal simultaneity in which vestiges of the traditional religion coexist, trouble, and even threaten to undermine the current belief system.

Recent critics have observed the importance of confessional rites in Hamlet and early modern drama, but they have generally followed Foucault's connection of the rite to the establishment of a power relationship between the individual and authority figure and the development of individual subjectivity. (5) Foucault's interpretation of confession is nevertheless historically tendentious because it neither attends to pre-Lateran confessional practices nor acknowledges the reality that most medieval and early modern Christians made poor confessants. (6) Given pastoral constraints, such as the annual Lenten rush for confession leading up to Easter, traditional confessional practices offered little opportunity for a sustained imposition of ecclesiastical control over private life or an extended exploration of interiority, except for a small minority of the faithful. (7) Furthermore, Foucault's argument regarding confession points to the practice's capacity for social discipline and control, but his grafting of the consolatory potential of confession onto a power relationship forecloses the capacity for the penitent's genuine belief in the assurance of forgiveness. (8)

Against the Foucauldian emphasis on the connection between confession and social control, in this essay I posit that confessional rituals and language point to the diffuse tension between traditional rituals and inwardness that persisted throughout the early modern period and continued to be enacted on the English stage. In what follows, I demonstrate that Hamlet engages the changes in confessional practices by presenting both Catholic and Protestant confessional rites as offering the promise of consolation and reconciliation and indicating that these promises cannot be realized in the theological world of the play. …

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