Shakespeare and the Culture of Christianity in Early Modern England

By Dennis Taylor; David Beauregard | Go to book overview

10
Wittenberg and Melancholic
Allegory: The Reformation
and Its Discontents in Hamlet

by Jennifer Rust

University of California, Irvine

ALTHOUGH there is a general consensus in recent Shakespearean criticism that Hamlet, of all the great tragedies, has some special connection to the Reformation, it is notoriously difficult to identify any consistent theological position in either the play itself or its title character, despite his prominent education at Wittenberg. This difficulty is exemplified by one of the few palpable references to the turmoil of the Reformation in the play, Hamlet's conflation of the historical Diet of Worms with the decaying body of Polonius:

KING: At supper? Where?

HAMLET: Not where he eats, but where 'a is eaten. A certain convoca-
tion of politic worms are e'en at him. Your worm is your only emperor
for diet. We fat all creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for
maggots. Your fat king and your lean beggar is but variable service—
two dishes, but to one table. That's the end. (4.3.18–25)1

Aside from reemphasizing Hamlet's connection to the birthplace and bastion of Lutheranism, this cryptic reference evokes a series of supplementary associations that do not necessarily resolve themselves into a recognizable orthodoxy. Insofar as Hamlet confronts Claudius as a political rival, he places him in the position of Luther's chief persecutor, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. As they proceed to undermine the basis of his authority by inverting or flattening conventional hierarchies (worm/emperor, king/beggar), the lines reinforce Hamlet's earlier dissolution of the King's Two Bodies ("The body is with the King,

-260-

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