Was Hamlet a Reformer? Part I. /Literary Criticism/The Early Modern Absurd

‘O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!’ (Act II, Sc. 2. l: 556.)

This article was born from the simple binary opposition that lies in the statement written by Northrop Frye: “Polonius is all ready with a theory” [Frye, Hamlet qtd “On Shakespeare”: p. 91] [ 1 ]  Frye`s statement is sustained by his argument of Hamlet`s dualistic behavior towards Claudius, whom he conceals his feelings from, in order not to make his `disguise of madness` comprehensible. Nevertheless, Northrop Frye does not argue for Polonius` knowledge of Hamlet`s true character, he merely states his theory of the three concentric rings of revenge [Frye, id: 90].
As having been partially biased towards the ring theory; however, not fully convinced by, I am to discover or re-discover the ways and means how the Prince of Denmark explicitly shows his true heart and true faith to the old Lord Chamberlain and his daughter, even while being disguised with some early-modern absurd madness. Consequently, I am going to assert the symbolic features of the play, like that of a hypothetically reformed prince, whose faith opposes the combat of the Court, and the naïve Roman Catholic faith of Ophelia, too. My visage of the exceptional hero is similar to A. C. Bradley’s: Hamlet takes revenge over the logos, which had cast him out of society symbolically. This is going to be argued for in the given journal article, as this is my basic hypothesis.
In addition, we may deduce from his utterances the means he uses as a solitary fighter whereas he finds himself in a truly absurd fight for freedom on the ground of Christian faith.

•         Introduction: The Symbolic Hamlet

 John Milton in 1666 as a man of letters at Cambridge University talks about the same satanic forces as Hamlet was to fight with. Not willing to compare on a basis of a quoted passage Milton’s Paradise Lost [2] to the image created of the prince of Denmark by Shakespeare; yet still comparing here the intensity of morals of a short passage from Milton`s Book IV, with that of  a reformer, of a hypothetically new member of the „quickly Reformed” Church of England.
The intentions and feelings of the Prince of Denmark subdued to the courtly practice may be allegorized either with an image born in the Middle Ages or with the primary, introductory lines by Milton in order to grasp his de facto necessity for being mad, not merely a presumptive and  provocative mad attitude . His „madness” seems to be the lunacy of a Reformer among the faithless Catholics, a groundless imago of a world centered around Claudius, without the hope of resurrection. The first image we shall discuss symbolically is explicitly stated in Hamlet`s monologues: the provocative and absurd statements of a believer, whose words are in search of Jesus Christ.[Act I. Sc. 2 L: 129- 135.] Yet, we should consider Milton`s introduction of the Apocalypse in ~ BOOK IV ~ in order to understand Hamlet’s rage written in 1601:
1.     Oh, for that warning voice, which he, who saw
2.    The Apocalypse, heard cry in Heaven aloud,
3.    Then when the Dragon, put to second rout,
4.    Came furious down to be revenged on men,
5.    Woe to the inhabitants on earth, that now,
6.    While time was, our first parents had been warned
7.    The coming of their secret foe, and ‘scaped,
8.    Haply so ‘scaped his mortal snare: For now
9.    Satan, now first inflamed with rage, came down,
10.    The tempter ere the accuser of mankind,
11.    To wreak on innocent frail man his loss
12.    Of that first battle, and his flight to Hell:
13.    Yet, not rejoicing in his speed, though bold
14.    Far off and fearless, nor with cause to boast,
15.    Begins his dire attempt; which nigh the birth
16.    Now rolling boils in his tumultuous breast,
17.    And like a devilish engine back recoils
18.    Upon himself; horror and doubt distract
19.    His troubled thoughts, and from the bottom stir
20.    The Hell within him; for within him Hell
21.    He brings, and round about him, nor from Hell
22.    One step, no more than from himself, can fly
23.    By change of place: Now conscience wakes despair,
24.    That slumbered; wakes the bitter memory
25.    Of what he was, what is, and what must be
[John Milton; id: Book IV. L: 1-25].
Hamlet`s forthcoming soliloquy in Act II. Sc 2. is  the ’innocent frail man’s loss of that first battle’ with the ’rolling boils [of the satanic] tumultuous breast’. When Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are already exeunt, Hamlet`s soul pours out against the demonic king as follows:
„O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!/ Is it not monstruous, that this player here,/ But in a fiction, in a dream of passion, / Could force his soul so to his whole conceit,/ That, from her working, all his visage wann’d;/ Tears in his eyes, distraction in ’s aspect, […] For Hecuba! What`s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,That he should weep for her?” [3] Before Act III, the moustrap scene, Hamlet`s image of the new king is extremely  similar to the apocalistic images of the Middle Ages. His views evoke a painting in my imagination, with its creator called The Master of the Saint Bartholomew Altarpiece, being active about 1470 to about 1510. This outstanding painter at Cologne, belonging already to Humanismus, still uses the typical representative elements of the Christian church painters. At the turn of the century he, being an unknown artist, named after the altarpiece (now in Munich), was also the author of a much larger version of the Deposition, now in Louvre. ” In both the Paris and the National Gallery pictures the scene appears to take place within a carved and gilded shrine, mimicking the sculpted German tabernacles of the fifteenth century with their Gothic tracery and painted statues.” [4] The figures are carefully differentiated: Nicodemus on the ladder lowers the body of Christ to Joseph of Arimathea, who has donated his own tomb for Christ`s burial. The fainting Virgin is supported by Saint John opposing Mary Magdelene at the foot of the cross clutching her head with grief.
This typology of representation evokes satanic forces, the same ones Hamlet is to face alone, without a young and energetic Christian soldier, without true Christian co-fighters. The double-speak of the lunatic hero or the hero cast out of the logos shows that Hamlet is not a secure believer; the sole thing he is secure of may be the fight he is not willing to give up regarding the murder of his father, a king he is not willing to surrender to, a mother he is not willing to accept as the counterpart of the Christus- depriving king himself, and a play he ordered to gain the evidence
of the ill-hearted usurper of his father`s kingdom. Under such secular exorcism, in the world of Hamlet, the image of the prince is depicted by the Queen Gertrude and the same picture is falsified by Claudius, the King himself. In the approach of Polonius may we get a true image of the young, idolized psyche of a man of state.
„The very cause of Hamlet`s lunacy”[ActII. Sc 2, l: 49.]—as the faithful Polonius`[line:115.]  calls Hamlet`s disposition and grief—is deeper than Hamlet`s own definition of honesty, albeit that definition ironically describes him: `Ay, sir: to be honest, as this world goes, is to be one man picked out of the ten thousand.`[Act II. Sc. 2. L: 179.] His spiritual nakedness, the nakedness of his faith is walking towards the de facto grief to an illusionary grave in his interaction with Polonius Act II, Sc. 2, lines: 196-208:
„old men have grey beards; that their faces/ are wrinkled; their eyes purging thick amber and plum-tree gum; and that they have a plentiful lack of wit, together with most wick hams; all of which sir,/ though I most powerfully and potently believe, yet/ I hold it not honesty to have it thus set down; for/ you yourself, sir, should be old as I am, if like a crab you could go backward.”[5] This answer induces Polonius` respect of the prince. [ `#Aside. Though this be madness, yet there is method in it.’]. He asks Hamlet plainly with an honest approach: „Will you walk out of the air, my lord?” Hamlet’s answer: ” Into my grave?”(line 208);
The hypothetical image of a true prince, the man of faith shows his true problematic self-defining existentialist philosophy in this one short question. We are after long monologues and discourses about „the nighted colour” that Hamlet is not willing to cast off (Act I. Sc. II. L: 69-80) in front of his mother; we glimpsed his heartache in his exclamation: ’Or that the Everlasting had not fix`ed/ His canon ’gainst self-slaughter! Oh God! O God! (Act I. Sc. 2; l: 131-132)  and now he is willing to walk literary to his own grave. Exceptional mind; but how does he build his own philosophy; what may be the landmarks of his own self-definition in course of the drama?
What is philosophy without faith? What is faith for Hamlet`s true self? Hamlet says to Polonius in Act II. Sc 2, l: 217-219: ` You cannot, [take a leave from me*], sir, take from me anything that I will more willingly part withal; except my life, except my life, except my life.
Pol. Farewell, my lord.’ [6] Why shall Hamlet walk into his own grave? What kind of protector will he have if he does not believe in sola fide?  Hereby we should add a small note to our presumption of Hamlet having converted to Reformation instead of to lunacy. His utterances under the disguise of a `lunatic` are similar to Martin Luther`s views. Luther says:
•    „the Scripture is obscure, we shall not be dogmatic about it”- Thus rejects Martin Luther Erasmus` moderation, insisting on definite doctrinal assertations, which make the Scripture understandable. Luther`s method is biblical, exegetical, theological, which set forth the sovereignity of God over and against the autonomy of man!
•    Luther`s view was : „We must let God be God” [7] — Polonius, instead, is similar to Erasmus at the beginning of the discourse, not being convinced by the philosophy of the prince; thus he decides to take a spiritually inactive, merely emotionally active part of the duel in the court, that very ’philosophical battle’ the prince finds himself in. [ Erasmus` Refutation of Luther`s Doctrine, the essence of his writing`s page 95. shall be considered here as in the footnote.] Polonius leaves the prince with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Act II. Sc. 2, and comes back with the news of the acting troup at the court (ibid: p. 809). What will happen to Hamlet`s image in the realm of the Court? How would he be considered were it not for the depriving remarks of the King of Denmark? The King`s intention to ’affront Hamlet to Ophelia’ (Sc. 2; Act III. l: 31.) could have been rooted in his complete and obstruous revenge he wanted to have over young Hamlet; similar to the one he had over the old Hamlet: marrying his wife.
What is the outer sphere`s conclusion regarding the lunacy and sentiments of the prince? Who started the rumour of his mind being on the edge of perishment? How does Ros with his already shortened name in Act II. Sc. III get to the conclusion to underline Hamlet`s insanity instead of protecting the good image of him? Ros: „He does confess, he feels himself distracted; / But from what cause he will by no means speak.” [Act II. Sc 3; L: 5-6.]. Ros, as if being a good reporter translates Hamlet`s moodswings into words, irrespective of the outcome. He senses the irony of the King`s explanation; yet he is willing to surrender to the false King, a symbolic man of unfaithful believer. Hamlet`s usurper says with `all my heart`: `Good gentlemen, give him a further edge, / And drive his purpose on to these delights./ Ros; We shall my lord/ Sweet Gertrude, leave us too.”[Act II. Sc 3. Lines: 26-29.] […]

First part will be followed by further arguments of the same literary journal article in the given section for Culture, highlighting Hamlet’s ontological eminence.


[1 ]Northrop Frye, Hamlet in `On Shakespeare` (London, New Heaven: Yale University Press, 1986): p. 91.
[2] John Milton (1608-1674); having become blind was objectively and emotionally “forced” to dedicate his poem, ››Paradise Lost (1666) to two of his daughters ‹‹; Baroque Drama and Grandeur qtd in The Story of Literature (Postdam: h.f. ullmann, 2011): p.73.
[3] William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark in Illustrated Stratford Shakespeare. *imp. Reed Limited. (London: Chancellor Press, 1994): Act II. Sc. 2; lines: 556-560; 565-567.
[4]The National Gallery Companion Guide ed. Erika Langmuir (London: National Gallery Co. Limited, 2003): p. 73.
[5]Hamlet, Prince of Denmark in The Illustrated Stratford Shakespeare (London: Chancellor Press, 1994): Act II. Sc. 2 l: 196-205.
[6]Hamlet ibid.Act I. Sc. 2: p. 801.
[7]Martin Luther’s views were the following according to Erasmus’ Refutation:

  •   Erasmus: Luther is arrogant; p. 95. in Refutation of Luther`s Doctrine: – sola scriptura/ faith alone/ faith intimate, subjective- no parish is needed for true faith
  •  Part III. of his book/ `Examination of Luther`s Arguments`: begins with *flesh & *spirit in Galatians 6:3, Isaiah 40: 6-8/ *flesh= NOT a sinful flesh/ just ’weakend flesh’
  • His Defence of Free Will, Scriptural Arguments

God calls sinners to repent; SALVATION= striving after better things *acc. to Scripture

  •  Luther`s doctrine=hyperbole; exagerated position !
  • Ecclesistes> principal used text= definition of Free Choice

1st common Grace= common benefits God gives to all men alike’
2nd peculiar grace= sinners without merit to repent/assists the sinner, but never saves him/
3rd co-operative grace= makes man`s salvation effective* 1st arouses, 2nd promotes, 3rd completes* Erasmus.


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