Shakespeare and the Culture of Christianity in Early Modern England

By Dennis Taylor; David Beauregard | Go to book overview

11
The Accent and Gait of Christians:
Hamlet's Puritan Style

by R. Chris Hassel Jr.

Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee

To OUR FREQUENT DISCOMFORT and his own, Hamlet often preaches virtue and rails against vice. His most frequent targets are Ophelia, Gertrude, and Claudius, though neither Rosencrantz nor Guildenstern, Horatio nor the players are spared his moral diatribes. Hamlet even preaches to Polonius after he kills him. It may be only coincidental that Hamlet's dress—his "customary suits of solemn black"—suggests a Puritan's traditionally sober garb, or that the Puritans, also like Hamlet, carried "tables" or diaries to remind themselves of the dictates of conscience (1.2.78, 1.5.98, 107).1 It is harder to dismiss as somehow "Puritan" Hamlet's analogous sense of calling, his being, as he says at the end of the scene with the Ghost, "born to set it right." The same might be said of his later self-designation as "patient merit," since "merit" is, according to Martin Van Beek, "a branded "Puritan" word insofar as it was applied to man's works" (1.5.189–90, 3.1.74).2 Christopher Hill (1964, 249) describes the elect as setting themselves up as "an aristocracy of the spirit" against the "carnal aristocracy" that ruled the world. In his soliloquies as well as his Homilies, Hamlet also persistently exhibits this us-versus-them mentality as he laments both "all the uses of this world" and all the ills that "flesh is heir to" (1.2.134, 3.1.63). Encouraged by such parallels, this essay first explores the ways in which Hamlet's outspoken, even hyperbolic, righteousness toward himself and others echoes the unique diction, syntax, and imagery of the represented Puritan, if not always the real one. Then it suggests that Hamlet's concerns about idleness, his advice to the players, and even the complicated political and moral ground on

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