What I Learned by Teaching Hamlet
When I was a younger man, and a novice but ambitious teacher of literature, I thought I knew two essential truths concerning the play which has been called the centerpiece of Shakespeare’s tragedies: one, that no teenager could possibly hope to understand this complex, cerebral work; and two, that it is a secular play.
The latter idea seemed marvelous to me, given that Shakespeare was writing in a time when—although it might have been dangerous to proclaim oneself a Roman Catholic in early 17th-century England—there was certainly no recourse, no system of belief at all, in fact, beyond the old Catholic church and the newer brand of Christianity sanctioned by the Anglican Church. In short, I thought that Prince Hamlet’s existentialist ideas and his ultimate obsession with the body’s dissolution, as well as his startling lack of spirituality by the time we arrive at the graveyard scene, were further marks of the playwright’s genius. After all, he also anticipated theories about the relativity of time and space (see Jakes’ speech in Act 2, scene 7, of As You Like It) and the cultural stereotypes that would in part define modern racial conflict (see Othello). This is what writers of vision do, I thought: they tell us not only who we are, but who we will become.
I was mistaken, however. Hamlet is not a secular work.
But before I recount the shift in my attitude on this second point, let me dispense with the first—the idea that a high-school student cannot fully grasp the play’s themes—for I have changed my mind on that one, too. I had a student a few years back, one Theo. He was not a particularly brilliant or motivated boy, but he seemed riveted by our study of Hamlet from the get-go. I find the odds that the average 17 year-old should find himself caught up in such a play (except for the bloody events at the end, perhaps) seem to grow ever more remote, for here is a work which requires intense concentration on every page, perhaps on every line. The “multi-tasking” approach in education does not really suit a close study of this play. In any case, Theo practically hung on every beat of blank verse, he extensively researched Elizabethan vocabulary and history, and he enthusiastically volunteered to read aloud from day to day, and ended by handing in a very strong analytical essay. I was in a perpetual state of amazement until a colleague informed me that Theo’s father had died the previous summer, and at last the pieces of the puzzle tumbled into place.
My own father passed away in July of 2008. When my seniors took up their study of Hamlet the following winter, I realized that I was seeing the tragedy in a new light. The lens of grief, which is alternately blurry or painfully sharp, had altered my regard for the play, and I suddenly realized that the fuller comprehension of it has little to do with one’s age but very much to do with what one has endured—and in particular with what, or whom, one has lost. Someone familiar with Hamlet might say that the murder mystery and the accomplishment of a son’s vengeance are the real draw here, but I say that the deeper mystery comes in seeking to reconcile this life to the next, in sustaining our faith that there are “more things in heaven and earth,” and that the search for a father goes on and may even take us through invisible doorways. To apply purely secular reasoning to this possibility moves us ever further away from God, stealthily, steadily, and with deadly consequences.
This brings me to the second revision in my thinking about Hamlet: for all his visionary genius, Shakespeare is not, in fact, exposing us to some of the first tentative mumblings of atheism (indeed, his short-lived contemporary, Christopher Marlowe, was inclined to atheist speculation); rather, he is showing us what happens when a man steps apart from God. Granted, there is no worthy friar in the play, and the prince has grown up surrounded by power-hungry people who apparently seek no one’s counsel anyway. Even Hamlet’s father, although he is the victim of a murder, expresses through his death a sort of misconnection with God, having died unconfessed, with all his sins upon his head. We see in the prince’s first soliloquy the seeds of the same sort of distorted thinking:
O, that this too, too sullied flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew,
Or that the Everlasting had not fixed
His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter…
The difficulty here is that God’s law against suicide really has little to do with our regard for our own flesh. It is not designed to prevent one destroying an offending body, but rather, in part, from destroying the world which one perceives through the senses. The other principle that Hamlet seems to miss is that we are not the real owners of our bodies, after all. To say that I would kill myself if God had not forbidden me to do so puts me at roughly the same level as a small child who says, “I would steal this candy, but my mother has told me I will get in trouble for taking things.” We shouldn’t destroy our own bodies for the same reason we should oppose abortion and the death penalty—because a design is being perpetuated upon our conception, and we are here to see it through, using free will wherever we can to do our part in the knitting of the pattern. To willfully eliminate one’s part is to toss another unraveled thread into the trash bin of misery, that misery whereby we remain separated from God.
Hamlet’s first encounter with his father’s ghost brings him into vivid contact with another reality, and he is both thrilled and terrified by it, as any of us would be. And as it would likely be for any of us, the vividness begins to fade, and Hamlet falters in his determination to avenge his father’s “foul and most unnatural death.” No rational man would rush out and kill his own uncle because a ghost has urged him to do so; even in his state of depression, delusion, and paranoia, reason prevails for a time, and Hamlet hesitates.
But Christianity is reasonable, too. It tells us that just as we have thirst, and water is the solution, there must ultimately be answers to all of our most troublesome inquiries (and Hamlet is a play inundated with questions). The old world of vengeance and violent retribution really means self-obliteration, when we pursue it to its final outcome, and so we might conclude that the dead king is suffering in purgatory not merely because he died unabsolved but perhaps also because in life he could never move beyond ambition and the power of his own station and ascend to an understanding of forgiveness, or at the very least to munificence. Or, as both the prince and his friend Horatio speculate, he could well be a demon, and not at all the curly-haired Hyperion who lives in Hamlet’s memory—an idea which would have been quite credible to Shakespeare’s audience and which would still be feasible to many Christians today.
Thus the true identity of his father seems to elude Hamlet for much of the play. It is the most masterful illustration I know of the search that we all undertake for our lost fathers. Sometimes, the men we pursue in our longing are mere ghosts, and some of them may be demons of one sort or another. Hamlet, perhaps unwittingly, actually answers the question of his father early on, in Act 1:
He was a man. Take him for all in all,
I shall not look upon his like again.
He intends this characterization as an homage, but really he ought to say that his father was merely a man; he shall not look upon his like because he was himself, in fact, merely an imperfect likeness of the Father, the one for whom we thirst as though for water, and although he briefly breaks the silence of the gave, he is a king who cannot return.
In the end, the horror of that same silence descends on Prince Hamlet like a mound of heavy dirt. He has failed to realize that all of his words, and all those of Claudius and Polonius and Horatio and Osric and all the others who have so much to say in this play, and all of the words on all of the pages in all of the books in Elsinore’s library, ultimately bring us nowhere. In the end, there is only the Word. And I believe that this is where my understanding of the play may come in line with the author’s intent, on some level, for solid flesh does melt, just as our words evaporate and turn to silence; the playwright’s own words are the grandest in the English language, and yet they can take us only up to the threshold of the next world. The real manner in which we cross it is determined by Faith.