Friday, June 16, 2017

A Mirror Upon Our Vices: Shakespeare's Hamlet

Image result for hamletWhereas Julius Caesar is my favorite Shakespeare play on account of its' magnificent presentation of Western virtues, Hamlet is by far Shakespeare's most enduring presentation of Western vices. For what else is going on in Hamlet but the systematic renunciation of Christian morality in personal and state life and the simultaneous casual undertaking of war against Poland - the Christ of Europe?

The excellence of the play rests in the fact that out of every line oozes a perfect consciousness of the teaching of Christ abreast its' renunciation. Whether that renunciation takes its most extreme forms in murder or comical forms in the case of the flippancy of the grave digging clowns, Shakespeare's power as a writer of morality plays is magnified throughout the work. Shakespeare avoids irony; this is in fact the most tragic of tragedies - the whole play is nothing short of a retelling of the Fall.

For if we consider for a moment that the characters in Hamlet live in a world redeemed by the blood of Christ, sanctified by His life and restored to itself - then how else should we treat their radical viciousness? Whether it is King Claudius' murder of his predecessor or Hamlet's madness, all evil done by all of the characters is done both deliberately and flippantly in defiance of God. Even when Hamlet cautions himself against pursuing the path of Nero, we do not spy moral revulsion at himself, but fear of cowardice (for Nero was a coward). Hamlet's lamentation that the conscience makes men cowards could serve as the adage of the entirety of the play. For what exactly is contained in this lamentation? As Pope Paul VI rightly noted in Gaudium et spes  

In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience. Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience when necessary speaks to his heart: do this, shun that. For man has in his heart a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged. Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in his depths. 
It is with full deliberate purpose that Hamlet sets out in rebellion against this Voice. His rebellion is universal in the world of the play. Ophelia commits suicide, Claudius murder and incest, Laertes is ready to renounce all virtue and risk damnation to satisfy revenge - the list goes on and on. And all the while, as if a band of demons straight out of the depths of Hell, these Western Men are set about their daily routine: invading Poland: the land of Christ.

Hamlet, like all drama, is an exaggeration - Western men are not as bad as Shakespeare presents them. We can in fact content ourselves with the notion that Western Man is excellent in his retrospection, given that it is Shakespeare, not some observer from exotic lands, who wrote Hamlet. (here I resist the temptation to go the way of Mark Twain and so many others and ask...perhaps Shakespeare was not Shakespeare...perhaps he was not a Western Man at all?) Still - such consolations do not fully put to rest the grave misgivings aroused by this play. For if indeed, as the Slavophile Christian writers contend, there is a sickness inherent in Western culture which perpetually tilts Western Man in the direction of Hamlet - which, let us say, Hamletizes Western Men... then this culture is truly a danger to humanity.

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