Better Dead than Red: Hamlet and the Cold War against Catholicism in Elizabethan England

                                                        Burton Weltman

The Devil Made Me Do It: The Ghost from Hell.

“Who is there?”  These are the first words of Hamlet, and they pose the key question of the play.  The question is asked by a soldier nervously standing guard on a dark night, worried by ominous reports of a ghost on the prowl.  Understandably upset by the nightly appearance and disappearance of the ghost, the soldier poses the underlying problem of Hamlet, and then himself disappears from the play.  The problem he poses is that of who and what is a person’s self.   How can one distinguish a real self from one that is false, a good self from one that is evil?  How can one know who and what is Hamlet?  How can one know who and what are the other living characters in the play?  Most important, who and what is the ghost?  Who really is there?[1]

The ghost is the key to Hamlet. The action in the play all stems from his demand that Hamlet kill Claudius, the king of Denmark.  The ghost claims to be Hamlet’s father, the previous king.  He says he was murdered by Claudius, and he has come from Purgatory to demand that Hamlet avenge his murder.  Hamlet’s friend Horatio doubts the identity and intentions of the ghost, and battles the influence of the ghost on Hamlet throughout the play.  Hamlet himself swings back and forth from believing in the bone fides of the ghost to doubting them, repeatedly asking himself whether the ghost might be from Hell.  “The spirit that I have seen may be a devil,” he worries, “and the devil hath power t’ assume a pleasing shape, yea, and perhaps out of my weakness and my melancholy, as he is very potent with such spirits, abuses me to damn me.”[2]

So, who and what is the ghost?  The thesis of this essay is that Shakespeare intended his audience to see the ghost as an agent of the Devil, an evil spirit whose mission was to use the truth about the murder of Hamlet’s father as a means of promoting unholy havoc in Denmark.   The evidence for this interpretation is the ghost’s reference to Purgatory and to other elements of Catholicism that were rejected as perverse doctrines by Protestants in the sixteenth century.  The ghost represents Catholicism.  Hamlet’s Denmark, like Shakespeare’s England, was a Protestant country.  Within the Protestant ideology of those countries, the Catholic Church was an agency of the Devil.  The ghost’s espousal of Catholic doctrines would make him an agent of the Devil.  This is a conclusion that Shakespeare would have expected his Elizabethan audience to reach.

There is a perverse influence that pervades Hamlet and overcomes most of the characters in the play.  It is the influence of the ghost.  The tragedy of Hamlet is that Hamlet does not follow his better judgment that the ghost is an agent of the Devil.  Instead, he makes the fateful and fatal error of keeping the ghost’s story secret and promising to undertake an act of murderous revenge at the ghost’s behest.  This is a conclusion that Shakespeare would also have expected his audience to reach based on the anti-Catholic prejudice that they shared.

The underlying anti-Catholicism is an aspect of the play that most interpreters either miss or slur over.  In a production of Hamlet that I recently saw, the actors and the stage were festooned with Catholic symbols, as though Hamlet and the other Danes were Catholics.  The point is not to highlight or promote the anti-Catholicism in the play.  But if one does not take it into consideration, one can miss other key points in the play.  This was the case, for example, in the performance of Hamlet that I recently saw which was played essentially as melodrama, with Hamlet as a romantic hero, rather than tragedy as Shakespeare intended.  My conclusion is that an understanding of what Shakespeare intended in his plays requires an appreciation of the cold war against Catholicism in Elizabethan England, and the anti-Catholicism embedded within Shakespeare’s plays and the roles that his characters play.

Hamlet is a play about role playing, about the question of “Who is there?”  The main characters self-consciously play different roles at different times, and display different selves depending on their audiences.  This theme is accentuated by the play within the play that is staged by Hamlet, a fictional representation of the sort of murder that Claudius committed against Hamlet’s father.  Hamlet hopes that by showing Claudius a fictional version of his misdeeds, Claudius might be provoked into publicly revealing his evil self and his guilt.  Claudius does react in a way that confirms his guilt to Hamlet and Horatio who already suspect him, but Claudius is able to put on an act that convinces others at the performance that he is only unwell.  This scene highlights the problem that is posed in Hamlet.  The characters in the play, and this includes the ghost, are playing a form of “prisoners game” in which they have to continually decide what truths of themselves to reveal or hide, and whether and to what extent they can believe in the others.  Deception and hypocrisy abound in this game.

“To thine own self be true,” intones Polonius, Claudius’ chief advisor.  It is his penultimate advice in a series of platitudinous admonitions with which he has been regaling his son Laertes and his daughter Ophelia in an early scene of Hamlet.  This last exhortation is generally treated by interpreters of the play as a serious piece of advice, unlike the platitudes Polonius has previously been spouting.  In the performance of Hamlet that I recently saw, the actor playing Polonius paused and took on a portentously solemn tone when he came to this line.  But this last admonition is, in fact, as inane as the bromides that preceded it because it begs the question of “Which self?”  Everyone in this play has many selves.  To which self should one be true?  The hypocrisy of Polonius’ advice is also immediately revealed when a few moments later he orders Ophelia to pretend indifference to Hamlet, whom she clearly and dearly loves.  That is, Polonius insists that Ophelia play true to herself in her role as a dutiful daughter, but be untrue to herself and play false in her role as a lover.  Hamlet also loses himself in the multiple roles he is trying to play, and ends up playing the fool to the ghost, the Devil and the hated Catholic Church.

Catholicism, Protestantism and Shakespeare: Situating Hamlet in his place and time.

Most modern day admirers of Shakespeare, of which I am one, would like to acquit the Bard of the conventional prejudices of his era.  England in the late 1500’s and early 1600’s was rife with sexism, anti-Semitism, racism and anti-Catholicism.  Since Shakespeare’s plays, like those of any writer, inevitably reflect the society in which he lived, his plays are full of examples of these prejudices.  They include sexism in The Taming of the Shrew, anti-Semitism in The Merchant of Venice, racism in Othello, and anti-Catholicism in King John.  Shakespeare’s plays have historically been usually performed in ways that accept and even promote these prejudices.

In most productions of Taming, for example, Kate’s last speech, in which she professes abject obedience to her husband, has been played as the moral of the story.[3]  In productions of Merchant, Shylock has often been “played by a comedian as a repulsive clown or, alternatively, as a monster of unrelieved evil.”[4]  The play has often also been retitled as “The Jew of Venice,” thereby focusing on Shylock and his religion.[5]  Othello has often been portrayed in the past as a lascivious African, which played into racist stereotypes of blacks.  The play has frequently been retitled “The Moor of Venice,” thereby focusing on Othello’s supposed racial difference.[6]

Since sexism, anti-Semitism and racism are offensive to most present-day sensibilities, modern interpreters have tried to re-imagine what Shakespeare might have meant so as to remove the sting of prejudice from lines and scenes that have previously been performed in invidious ways.  One of the great things about Shakespeare’s plays is that the same words can be spoken and enacted in different ways.  He gives interpreters an opportunity to stay true to the scripts yet perform the plays with a variety of different characterizations and actions.  Given this latitude, I think one can reasonably interpret the instances of sexism, anti-Semitism and racism in plays such as Taming, Merchant, and Othello as ironic rather than prescriptive.  One can, thereby, place Shakespeare in the position of obliquely critiquing rather than promoting those biases.

One could, for example, play Kate in Taming as retreating at the end of the play in the face of overwhelming pressure, but ready to resume the battle against sexism at a later date.  One could portray Antonio, the merchant in Merchant, and his colleagues as hypocrites who condemn Shylock for holding to a materialistic ethos and engaging in sharp practices of which they are themselves more guilty.  One could cast Othello as a swarthy North African no darker than the Italians with whom he lives and who taunt him as black merely because of his immigrant origins, as Irish were similarly taunted in the United States during the nineteenth century.

I do not, however, think that the same ironical approach can be taken with the anti-Catholicism in Shakespeare’s plays.  It is too pervasive in the plays and in Elizabethan society.  There are limits to what one can legitimately do with Shakespeare’s plays without rewriting or deleting the offensive parts, as some interpreters do, so that the plays are no longer Shakespeare’s.  Nor can one just ignore the anti-Catholicism, as many do, and interpret the plays as though it was not there.  Shakespeare had ideas about things and a legitimate interpretation of his work must stay within the range of his ideas.  A different strategy must be employed with Shakespeare’s anti-Catholicism to save the integrity of the scripts without promoting the prejudice.

 

Papism, Communism, and Paranoia: Cold Wars and their Cultural Consequences.

The Protestant Reformation of the early sixteenth century triggered violent religious conflicts between Catholics and Protestants in England and most of Europe, some of which continue to the present day in places such as Ireland.  These conflicts were very similar to the Cold War between Communism and capitalism that occurred during the last half of the twentieth century.  This Cold War is in the living memory of those of us in the older generation.  It is also, hopefully, within the historical memory of younger people who have studied it in school.  A comparison of the recent Cold War against Communism and the Elizabethan cold war against Catholicism will help elucidate the circumstances in which Shakespeare composed his plays.

In the capitalist United States during the Cold War, and especially at the height of tensions during the 1950’s and early 1960’s, Communist countries were widely portrayed by the government and mass media as totalitarian dictatorships in which people were brainwashed into zombies.  People in these countries supposedly suffered through gray lives in slavish subjugation to an all-powerful government.  American Communists were, in turn, portrayed as traitorous agents of a monolithic movement that was steadily and stealthily taking over the world, forcefully conquering countries that were weakly defended militarily, and subversively undermining countries that were weakly defended morally.[7]

Communism was condemned as an absolute evil, with Communists acting essentially as agents of the Devil, and identified with the Devil’s color as Reds.  Since Communists generally eschewed religion, they were condemned as godless by political and religious conservatives, many of whom took this identification with the Devil literally.[1]  It was widely believed that once Communists took over a country, they created an all embracing godless tyranny from which people could never escape.  From this portrait of Communism emerged the war cry of many conservatives during this period of “Better dead than Red,” that is, better to have a nuclear war that kills all life on earth than let Communism take over America.  Any cooperation with a Communist or tolerance of Communism anywhere was deemed an act of treason to the United States, to American ideals of freedom and democracy, and to God.[2]

Political conservatives during this period used anti-Communism as a club against liberals.  Any criticism of American society — whether it be racism, sexism, inequality, or poverty –was condemned as a form of aiding and abetting the Communist enemy, even if, and especially if, the criticism was accurate.  Communists, the conservatives claimed, would seize on any fault or flaw in American society to create discontent and disorder, to discredit the legitimate authorities, and in this way seduce people into supporting Communism.[3]

Congressional Committees and vigilante organizations worked to eliminate alleged Communists (Commies), radicals (Commie symps) and liberals (Commie dupes) from working in the government, the schools, the professions, and the entertainment industry.  Almost every industry was affected.  If a person was named as a Commie, Commie symp or Commie dupe, the person’s name would generally appear on a blacklist and employers would be warned not to hire the person upon penalty of being boycotted or possibly even prosecuted.[4]  As a result of this red-baiting, as it was called, many progressive social movements that had been active during the 1930’s and 1940’s died out.[5]

In the wake of the Cold War, we can see today that the fears of Communism and measures taken against it were clearly excessive.  Although Communist regimes were invariably oppressive, they were also frequently incompetent.  Even if the Soviet Union posed some threat to the United States during this period, the Soviets were never in any position to invade Western Europe, let alone the United States.  Communism was, in turn, not a monolithic movement.  It took different forms in the various countries in which Communists held power and among the Communist parties that operated within capitalist countries.  Communist countries were, in fact, in almost constant conflict with each other, as were Communist parties.   Nor were Communist regimes totalitarian, whatever might have been the aspirations of their rulers.  This is shown by the fact that Communism in the Soviet Union and almost all of Eastern Europe fell peacefully and as a result of internal revolts by people who had just had enough of it.  These people were clearly not brainwashed zombies.

It is also the case that very few American Communists were spies or traitors.  The Soviet Union actually preferred to use mercenary spies who worked for money rather than American Communists who might be motivated by idealism.  Mercenaries were more reliable than idealists who might object to doing something that harmed the United States.  Most American Communists were motivated primarily by patriotism, whether or not misguided.[6]  Nonetheless, many people’s lives were ruined in this country by misdirected anti-Communist attacks, and social progress was stalled.  Abroad, unnecessary wars were fought, cruel dictators were supported, and money was wasted on unnecessary armaments.

Anti-Communism also had a constricting effect on American culture, especially during the 1950’s and early 1960’s.  Controversial issues and social problems were generally avoided, and anti-Communist themes were awkwardly interjected, as writers, producers and directors of plays, movies and television shows bowed to Cold War priorities.  Their works were distorted and diminished in ways that were sometimes blatant but often subtle.  Playing into the common understandings of people at that time, anti-Communist themes were inserted in their works in ways that would have been recognized by people then, even though they might not be understood by audiences today.  The result has been widely considered a gray era in American culture.[7]

The work of Elia Kazan, one of the greatest movie directors of all time, exemplifies this effect.  Because of Kazan’s membership in the Communist Party during the 1930’s, he was summoned to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1953.  He had two choices at that point.  He could either testify against friends and colleagues who had been Communists or had been otherwise politically active in progressive causes, or be black-listed from working as a director.  He chose to testify against his friends –“Naming names” this sort of testimony was called — and he thereby saved his career.  But he was thereafter roundly criticized and ostracized by many of his former associates, both Communist and non-Communist alike.

Stung by this criticism, Kazan made the movie On the Waterfront (1954) which glorifies snitching on one’s friends and colleagues to a government committee.  Although Communists do not appear in the film, which is about gangsters, the movie was clearly a defense of Kazan’s finking on his friends and a testament to anti-Communism.  It is a great movie because of the performances of the actors and Kazan’s filming, but the plot is overblown and overly melodramatic as a result of Kazan’s desire to justify himself and pay homage to HUAC.  The movie was essentially a testimonial in support of the damage done to American culture by HUAC and other anti-Communist organizations.[8]

Kazan bowed even lower to the anti-Communist crusaders in the film Viva Zapata (1952), which was made just prior to his HUAC testimony.  It is a portrayal of the early twentieth century Mexican revolutionary Emilio Zapata.  The movie is a cautionary tale about how a revolution can become corrupt and dictatorial and, as such, was a clear reference to the Soviet Union.  Kazan also insisted that the script include a fictional character named Fernando Aguirre.  Aguirre is a vicious revolutionary who turns on Zapata when he thinks Zapata is getting too soft, and who is clearly modeled after the 1950’s anti-Communist stereotype of a Communist agent.  Aguirre is an anachronism and out of place in the film.  The purpose of his character was not, however, aesthetic.  It was specifically to enable Kazan to tell HUAC that “This is an anti-Communist picture.”   That is, even though Communism had nothing to do with the Mexican Revolution and is not mentioned in the film, Kazan felt the necessity to distort and diminish his movie in order to placate the anti-Communist sentiment in the country.[9]

A similar Cold War of Protestants against Catholics occurred in England during Shakespeare’s time with similar effects.  If one substitutes the words Catholicism and Catholics for the words Communism and Communists, one can use essentially the same language and descriptions of the Capitalist-Communist Cold War to describe the conflict between Protestants and Catholics.  Each side portrayed the other as the Devil’s disciples.  Savage wars were waged between Protestant and Catholic countries, and cruel tortures were inflicted, in the name of God and the true religion.  Ordinary people could not avoid the conflict.  Everyone was forced to own up to being either Protestant or Catholic and, thereby, forced to take sides and take the consequences.[10]

England went back and forth several times during the sixteenth century between being controlled by Catholic regimes and Protestant regimes, each of which savaged adherents of the opposing religion.  The changes were abrupt and left many people in limbo, unsure which way to turn because turning the wrong way could be fatal.  As during the Cold War in America, families were split over the issue.  Friends turned against friends.  Neighbors spied on neighbors and reported them to the authorities.  Paranoia and hysteria were always just around the corner.

Catholics were disparaged by Protestants as Papists.  Just as American Communists were considered to be loyal to the Communist government in the Soviet Union rather than to the United States, English Catholics were considered to be loyal to the Pope and the Church in Rome instead of their Queen and country.  Hence the term Papist, someone who supposedly worships the Pope.  Similar to the Communists, Catholics were believed to be part of a monolithic international conspiracy that aimed to control the world through force or subversion.  Powered by a vanguard of Jesuit priests whose supposed stock-in-trade was using tricks of logic to seduce people into converting to Catholicism (hence the pejorative term “Jesuitical”), Jesuits were accused of trying to worm their way into English society in order to subvert and pervert it.

As with Communists during the Cold War, Catholics were portrayed by Protestant leaders as traitors who could not be trusted, subversives who had to be rooted out of public life, and spies who had to be caught and even killed.  In 1559, a year after Elizabeth’s ascension to the throne and abrupt reconversion of England from Catholicism to Protestantism, being a practicing Catholic was made illegal and saying Mass was made a capital offense.  Although these laws were honored more in the breach, they were designed to keep Catholics on edge and in line.  As a result, Catholics were forced to hold Mass in secret, which only reinforced Protestant fears of a subversive Catholic conspiracy.

The trials, tribulations and murder of Shakespeare’s fellow playwright Christopher Marlowe, who was charged with heresy and was a Catholic-Protestant double agent, attest to the dangers of stepping out of line.  Shakespeare was, thus, writing at a time when Protestants and Catholics were at each others’ throats, and in a place where being caught practicing Catholicism could get you killed.  These circumstances are reflected in Shakespeare’s plays.[11]

As with the Cold War against Communism, Elizabethan anti-Catholicism appears in retrospect to have been both excessive and irrational.  Catholics and Catholic countries did not constitute a monolithic movement manipulated by the Pope.  To the contrary, Catholic countries often disobeyed and even attacked the Pope, and were almost as likely to go to war against each other as against Protestant countries.  Likewise, different orders within the Catholic Church — Jesuits, Dominicans, Franciscans, et al.– were almost as opposed to each other as to Protestants.  Anti-Catholicism had, nonetheless, a significant effect on Elizabethan culture and society.

There has been speculation that Shakespeare’s father, who was born Catholic, remained  a closet Catholic after the English Reformation and that Shakespeare had Catholic sympathies.[12] Although there were Catholics in Shakespeare’s extended family, there is no evidence that he was a Catholic.[13]  In any case, whatever Shakespeare’s sympathies, the key fact is that he was writing for an overwhelmingly Protestant audience and for theaters that were being closely monitored by a fiercely Protestant government.  This was a government that, according to historian Michael Wood, “employed a network of informers, spies and bounty hunters, who pried into every aspect of people’s business affairs, their religion, and even their sex life.”[14]  Shakespeare’s family’s connections to the Catholic Church might have made him even more careful to be seen on the Protestant side of things.  If he had not adhered to the Protestant line, the Bard would likely have been debarred from public life.

Shakespeare set many of his plays in England and Italy during times when those places were under the religious hegemony of the Catholic Church, and in each of these plays he portrays Catholic priests, officials and doctrines in negative ways.  While Shakespeare never uses the terms Catholic or Protestant and never attacks the Catholic Church by name, he plays into the understanding that his audiences would have had of the differences and disputes between the religions, and he invariably comes down against the Catholics.  Obvious examples of this include the reprehensible representative of the Pope in King John, the warmongering Cardinals in Henry V, and the foolish priest in Romeo and Juliet. 

The merchant Antonio and the other Catholics in The Merchant of Venice are less obvious examples of Shakespeare’s anti-Catholicism until you recognize that money lending was prohibited by the Catholic Church but allowed by Protestant churches, and that Shakespeare’s father was a moneylender who had been arrested at least twice for usury by Catholic authorities.  Given these facts, Shakespeare was not likely to intend Shylock as a villain based on his being a moneylender nor intend Antonio as a hero based on his opposition to moneylending .  Since Antonio engages in business practices that are portrayed in the play as comparable to usury, it is even less likely that Shakespeare intended him to be viewed as a hero.  Although they are rarely played in this way, Antonio and his Catholic colleagues seem intended by Shakespeare to be played as bigoted hypocrites.

The conflict between Protestants and Catholics is a theme that I think is not sufficiently acknowledged in most interpretations and performances of Shakespeare’s plays.  Since the anti-Catholicism in the plays is pervasive and not easy to delete or dissolve, it is often just ignored and the plays are then performed in ways that I believe do not reflect the light in which Shakespeare intended audiences to see his characters.  Thus, the merchant Antonio is generally played as a good guy in Merchant and, as a result, no matter how sympathetically the actor playing Shylock says his lines — even weeping when he asks “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” — the play comes off as anti-Semitic.  This is, I think, a mistake.  The historian Christopher Hill has warned that “We should always take seriously the religious professions of sixteenth century men and women, for many of whom eternity might seem much more real than this brief and uncertain life on earth.”[15]  This would likely be true of many in Shakespeare’s audience and might even be true of Shakespeare himself.

At the same time, acknowledging the anti-Catholicism in Shakespeare’s plays does not require one to promote it.  His decision not to explicitly denote people and things in his plays as Catholic and Protestant is significant.  In this way, Shakespeare stands in sharp contrast with Marlowe who openly promoted the prejudices of his age.  Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta features a Jew who “becomes a greedy murderer.”  The play is explicitly anti-Semitic and presents a very different picture of Jews than Shakespeare’s Merchant.  Marlowe’s Massacre of Paris features a group of Catholics who want to slaughter Protestants.  “The basic message is that Catholics are murderous beasts.”[16]  This vicious portrait of Catholics is very different from Shakespeare’s oblique obeisance to the anti-Catholicism of his society.  Although Marlowe has his devotees, some of whom even claim that he wrote Shakespeare’s plays, his plays are rarely performed.  Their overt and overwhelming anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism are a big part of the reason.

Shakespeare used code words and cues to express anti-Catholicism.  In so doing, he gave interpreters an opportunity to recognize the light in which he wanted characters and ideas to be portrayed without their having explicitly to engage in anti-Catholicism.  He may have done this deliberately.  In staging Merchant, for example, one does not have to attire Antonio with a cross or have him fingering Rosary beads, which would explicitly denote him as a Catholic.  One merely has to understand that Shakespeare did not intend to portray Antonio as a model citizen or damn Shylock for his being a moneylender.  This understanding sheds a whole new light on the play as compared with the way it is usually performed.[17]

Hamlet is set in a country, Denmark, that had abruptly converted from Catholicism to Protestantism during the 1530’s.  This setting provided Shakespeare with an opportunity to portray some of the confusion and controversies that had been experienced in England as a result of Henry VIII’s similarly abrupt conversion of England to Protestantism during the 1530’s and Elizabeth’s abrupt reconversion of the country during the 1550’s.

Medievalism Run Rampant: Better Dead than Dread.

“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” concludes one of the soldiers who has seen the ghost in an early scene of Hamlet, and who then disappears from the playThis line is usually interpreted as meaning that the appearance of the ghost indicates something is wrong with the country.  In this interpretation, the ghost is a sign of existing corruption in the state, which we soon understand as the murder of Hamlet’s father by Claudius.[18]  But the line could also mean that something bad is beginning and that the ghost is both a cause and an effect of it.  This latter interpretation is, I think, the better of the two.  The murder of Hamlet’s father may have begun the rot, but rot spreads.  The whole edifice can come tumbling down unless the spread is checked.  The soldier’s statement is, in this light, an ominous prediction of how murder can lead to murder, and a premonition about the effect that the ghost is going to have on the country.

The ghost dominates the play and essentially ruins the country.  The name of the play is Hamlet and Hamlet is the name of the young prince who runs riot through the play, but it is also the name of the prince’s dead father whom the ghost ostensibly represents.  It is that elder Hamlet who is the center of the action in the play.  Almost everything bad that happens is a result of the ghost’s insistence that young Hamlet avenge the death of his father.  And even though the ghost directly participates in only three scenes, he is a pervading evil influence throughout the play.

The effect of the ghost is often underplayed in performances of Hamlet.  To dramatize his effect on the action, I would arrange the stage lighting to indicate day versus night, and have the ghost lurking in the background unseen by the other characters during the nighttime scenes.  Hamlet’s most violent scenes would be played at night with the ghost lurking about.  At the very end of the final murderous scene, I would have the ghost leave the stage appearing to be satisfied at the outcome.  Elizabethans believed that the Devil could manipulate the truth in the service of evil.  The ghost should be seen as a demon from Hell who has been sent to undermine Protestant Denmark with the truth about the death of Hamlet’s father, and succeeds in this mission.

Hamlet is one of Shakespeare’s most pliant plays.  Hamlet, for example, can be characterized and played in a wide variety of ways.  Samuel Taylor Coleridge saw him as a dithering intellectual who knows that he must kill Claudius but gets caught up in “endless reasoning and hesitating.”  Coleridge viewed Hamlet as unmanly and a weakling. [19]  Mark Van Dorn agreed that Hamlet is an intellectual but claimed that “Hamlet is an actor,” and a chronic dissembler.  “We cannot assume, indeed, that he believes what he says.”  Van Doren sees Hamlet as essentially a schizoid with multiple personalities. [20]  Fintan O’Toole sees Hamlet as a sociopath who is caught between medieval and modern ways of thinking, and does not know which way to turn.[21]  Harold Goddard saw Hamlet as a pacifist who tries everything he can to avoid killing Claudius.[22]  Each of these is a plausible and playable interpretation of the character.

Hamlet has been condemned as “a slob, a shirker, or a mother-fixated neurotic” with an Oedipus Complex.[23]  He has been “pronounced both a hero and a dreamer, hard and soft, cruel and gentle, brutal and angelic, like a lion and like a dove.”[24]  He has been seen as an existentialist (“To be or not to be…”), a moral relativist (“There is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so.”), a skeptic (What a piece of work is a man…what is this quintessence of dust?”), a determinist (“There’s a predestinate providence in the fall of a sparrow.”), or some combination of the above.  The vast possibilities contribute to making Hamlet such an interesting play.

Whatever else Hamlet is, however, he is also a religiously perplexed person.  When we first meet him, he is arguing with Claudius about his desire to go back to school in Wittenberg, which is also the alma mater of Hamlet’s good friend Horatio.  Later, when the ghost first talks to Hamlet, the ghost says that he resides by day in Purgatory and walks abroad by night.  These two references, the one to Luther’s Protestant university in Wittenberg, and the other to the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory which Protestants rejected, would delineate for Shakespeare’s audience a conflict between Catholicism and Protestantism that confounds Hamlet and permeates the play.

Hamlet is clearly religious or he would not be attending Wittenberg University.  There were plenty of other less religious schools that a Danish prince could have attended.  So, how can a religiously Protestant Hamlet believe a ghost that says it resides in Purgatory, a place whose existence Protestants deny?  Belief in ghosts was common among Protestants and Renaissance philosophers, but not a ghost from Purgatory.  It stands to reason that Hamlet would be perplexed.  So that when he tells a skeptical Horatio that “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” i.e. in Horatio’s and Hamlet’s Protestant philosophy, these lines should probably be articulated in a tentative, quizzical way.  In most performances of Hamlet, the lines are said in an emphatic, declaratory manner, as though Hamlet is completely convinced of the reliability of the ghost.  But that reading of the lines does not fit the situation of a young man who has just had his whole universe turned upside down.

Hamlet’s reluctance to kill Claudius is generally interpreted in a negative way.  He is portrayed as overly intellectual or cowardly or depressive or passive.  But given the religious and intellectual shock Hamlet has just been given — Could Catholicism be the true religion? — his caution would seem well-founded.  Hamlet’s hemming and hawing back and forth during the play correspond to an internal battle between his Reformation/Renaissance self and the Medieval/Catholic memes that he inherited from his ancestors.  This conflict within Hamlet, between old and new ways of being and believing, was analogous to the contemporary social and religious conflict in Elizabethan England.

Hamlet’s father must have been sympathetic to the Renaissance or he would not have sent his son to a university, and he must have been a dedicated Protestant or he would not have sent Hamlet to Wittenberg.  Hamlet’s father was, however, likely born a Catholic and was a transitional figure between Medieval ways and Renaissance society.  The ghost’s claim that he resides in Purgatory reflects the father’s likely childhood Catholic beliefs.  The ghost’s appearance in Medieval armor,[25] which had been rendered virtually useless by the development of armor-penetrating guns during the Renaissance, represents the Medieval side of Hamlet’s father.  And his insistence on Hamlet’s revenging the murder of Hamlet’s father also reflects a Medieval perspective.[26]

Revenge was a Medieval form of justice that the Catholic Church had criticized but ultimately tolerated.  European countries did not have well-developed criminal justice systems during the Middle Ages and did not have prison systems.  As a result, private justice and corporal punishment were the norms.  “Vengeance and feud were an essential part” of Medieval culture, and revenge was “both a right and a duty, and was legislated and regulated by social norms.”[27]  Renaissance reformers promoted a more rational system of justice in which the rule of law rather than the rule of the strongest would prevail.  Renaissance monarchs embraced these reforms as a means of centralizing the power of the justice system in their own hands.  Prisons were, likewise, a recent Renaissance development in Europe, as places where convicted wrongdoers could be punished through being incarcerated instead of being physically harmed.[28]

These were reforms that the fictional Hamlet and the author Shakespeare would likely have endorsed.  The ghost’s insistence on murderous revenge indicates that he is out of step with the times and not to be trusted by Hamlet.  The ghost represents a side of Hamlet’s father that Hamlet had seemingly wished to leave behind in going to Wittenberg, and a barbarous Medieval past that England was trying to get beyond.

So, how is it that the ghost succeeds in entrapping Hamlet with his wiles?  He is a cunningly manipulative ghost.  He arrives in Denmark at a time when people are seeming to begin to have doubts about King Claudius.  The “Something is rotten” statement by a common soldier, who knows nothing of what the ghost is going to tell Hamlet about the death of his father, indicates that common people were uneasy about the state of affairs.  The ghost also arrives at a time when Hamlet is feeling renewed disgust about his mother’s marriage to Claudius, and when Hamlet is in turmoil about whether or not to abandon a rotting Denmark for school in Wittenberg.

The ghost describes the death of his father in terms most likely to inflame Hamlet.  He also disingenuously tells Hamlet not to “Taint thy mind” against his mother but then describes Hamlet’s mother as only “seeming virtuous” and says that she has made “the royal bed of Denmark…a couch for luxury and damned incest.”  Having just had those same thoughts about his mother earlier before meeting the ghost, Hamlet exclaims “O my prophetic soul” in response to the ghost’s tale.  He very much wants at that point to believe the ghost.

Horatio is skeptical, as would Shakespeare’s audience.  People of that time would find it hard to believe that God “unleashed  [the dead] back on earth to stir up revenge.”[29]  That was the Devil’s business.  Horatio had also noticed at the ghost’s previous appearance that when the cock crowed at the break of dawn, “it started, like a guilty thing upon a fearful summons,” which would seem to be a call from Hell.  Hamlet tries to assure Horatio that “It is an honest ghost, that let me tell you.”  But, he is seemingly not so assured himself because he concocts on the spot a method of testing the ghost’s honesty by feigning madness.  In this way, he can ask questions of people in the castle that might otherwise seem suspicious and thereby, he hopes, provoke responses that might be telling.[30]

It is a plan, however, that plays right into the hands of the ghost.  Encouraged by the ghost, Hamlet swears to secrecy his friends who have seen the ghost.  Hamlet then goes off to conduct his researches on his own, taking it upon himself to right the wrongs that have been done to the state of Denmark, as though the only wrong was to himself as the son of a murdered King and an ostensibly incestuous Queen.  Within the context of Elizabethan times and the play itself, this is wrong and a mistake.

The rottenness of the state is a matter of concern for everyone in Denmark, as indicated by the soldier’s comment.  The problem is not merely the murder of a father and the incest of a mother.  It is having a king who has murdered his way to the throne and who seems more interested in drinking and partying than in protecting Denmark from a potential invasion from Norway.  In turn, when Laertes is able to rouse public concern about his father’s death and, thereby, force an inquiry into the circumstances, Laertes demonstrates that it is possible to take political concerns to the people and get action that way.  Hamlet could seemingly have done something similar.  His anger and his arrogance, encouraged by the ghost, lead him to go off on his own, and wreak the havoc on Denmark that the ghost seemingly intended.

Although Hamlet’s enthusiasm for killing Claudius ebbs and flows in the course of the play, the ghost gradually extends his evil influence over Hamlet, and Hamlet loses his better self.  Hamlet, in turn, descends from feigning madness into actual madness as he goes from murder to murder: killing Polonius, driving Ophelia to suicide, arranging the murders of Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern, and finally participating in the slaughter at the end of the play.

As a means of dramatizing the growing control of the ghost over Hamlet , one might have the ghost appear with a long mustache, beard and hair, groomed but in a style that would have been seen by Shakespeare’s audience as Medieval.  Hamlet would appear initially in the short-haired, highly groomed style of a Renaissance courtier.  As the play proceeds, Hamlet would gradually grow a long mustache, beard and hair in an unkempt manner befitting his madness, feigned and/or real.  In the next to last scene of the play with Horatio, Hamlet would groom himself into the Medieval likeness of his father as represented by the ghost, and then go off to the fatal duel.

In most modern productions, the character of Hamlet is played as being surprised by the murderous turn at the end of the play.  But this reaction does not seem plausible.  Hamlet knows at that point that Claudius is trying to kill him and that Laertes is outraged over Hamlet’s murder of Laertes’ father Polonius.  Hamlet must surmise that the supposedly harmless duel Claudius has arranged between Hamlet and Laertes is actually a setup for mortal combat between them.  Hamlet’s bantering with Horatio, Laertes and the others before the duel is just another bit of posing.  Hamlet would likely be on guard and might even be shown to have secreted a weapon on his person.  As he and Laertes duel, Hamlet would almost certainly see that Laertes’ sword is unabated, albeit he does not know its tip is poisoned.  When Hamlet exchanges swords with Laertes in the midst of their duel, he would know that he is grabbing a murderous weapon.  We cannot know what Hamlet has in mind or plans then to do, because events take an unexpected turn as a result of the various poisons taking effect at that point.

When Hamlet dies, the ghost is satisfied but I think that we in the audience also feel relief.  Hamlet has morally descended under the influence of the ghost, and we feel it despite our sympathy for him and his predicament.  He has directly or indirectly been the cause of the deaths of seven people, not including himself.  And he has admitted that he has no qualms about having killed the innocent Polonius and caused the deaths of the hapless Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern.  Having become a Papist dupe of the ghost, Hamlet has become a symbol of the Medieval violence that Elizabethans hoped to leave behind.  He has also essentially become as much of a villain as the man he had sworn to eliminate.  For this reason, Mark Van Doren concluded that “The world could not let so destructive a man live longer.”[31]

At the same time, members of Shakespeare’s contemporary audience would recognize that the ghost had just done to sixteenth century Protestant Denmark what they believed the Pope was trying to do to turn-of-the-seventeenth century Protestant England, which was to bring down the state and leave the country vulnerable to invasion by its enemies.  The play served as a warning to them.

Cold Wars and their Cultural Consequences: Playing Down Paranoia.

Shakespeare incorporated anti-Catholic elements into his plays that probably were necessary and seemingly were sufficient to satisfy the prejudice and paranoia of his audiences and the authorities.  But one of the great things about Shakespeare is that he was able to do this without significantly diminishing or distorting his work.  The anti-Catholic intimations and implications in his plays were clear to people of his time.  But his indirection also allows us today to recognize the anti-Catholicism in his plays, and incorporate it into our analysis of them, without promoting the prejudice and paranoia of Elizabethan England that prompted it.

Shakespeare made it possible for us to perform his scripts without showing overt anti-Catholicism in our performances of them.  We don’t have to make the ghost wear a Catholic cross.  We don’t have to think of Hamlet as a Papist dupe, as Elizabethans might have.  But honoring Shakespeare’s scripts does require us to accept the evaluation of characters and events as he indicated them through his anti-Catholic references.  Those references are often keys to understanding the plays as he meant them.  As to Hamlet, those references means the ghost is evil and Hamlet is a dupe.  We can avoid displaying the prejudice but not its implications for the meaning of the play.

[1]  “Cold War.” American History. ABC-CLIO, 2011.

[2]   Goldwater, Barry. Conscience of a Conservative. New York: Victor Pub. Co., 1960. pp.25, 71.

[3]  Foner, Eric. The Story of American Freedom. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1998. pp.256-258.

Lens, Sidney. Radicalism in America. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1969. p.343.

[4]  Caute, David. The Great Fear: The Anti-Communist Purge under Truman and Eisenhower.  New York: Simon & Schuster, 1979.

[5]  “Cold War.” American History. ABC-CLIO, 2011.

[6]  Lyons, Paul. Philadelphia Communists, 1936-1956. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1982.

[7]  Navasky, Victor.  “The Social Costs of McCarthyism.” from  Naming Names..New York: Viking Press, 1980.   at english.illinois.edu/MAPS/McCarthy/navasky.

[8]  Ebert, Roger. rogerebert.com/review/great-movie-on-the-waterfront-1954. March 21, 1999.

[9]  Crowther, Bosley. “Viva Zapata.” New York Times Movie Review. 2/ 8/52.

Rothman. Lily. “Art Imitates Life: 10 Movies Altered Due to Real-Life Events.” Time Magazine.                             at entertainment.time.com/2012/07/27- art-imitates-life.

Susman, Gary. “Viva Zapata’s 60th Anniversary.” news.moviefone.com/2012/02/06/                           viva-zapata-anniversary.

[10]  Kermode, Frank. The Age of Shakespeare. Modern Library: New York, 2005. pp.14-16.

[11]  Wills, Garry. Making Make-Believe Real: Politics as Theater in Shakespeare’s Time. Yale University Press: New Haven, 2014. pp.157-168.

[12]  Wood, Michael. Shakespeare. Basic Books: New York, 2003. pp.270-271.

[13]  Kermode, Frank. The Age of Shakespeare. Modern Library: New York, 2005. p.39.

[14]  Wood, Michael. Shakespeare. Basic Books: New York, 2003. p.39.

[15]  Hill, Christopher. The Pelican Economic History of Britain: Reformation to Industrial Revolution. Penguin Books: Baltimore, 1969. p.110.

[16]  Scott, Jeffrey. “The Influences of Elizabethan Society on the Writings of Christopher Marlowe.”  The Marlowe Society Research Journal. Vol.05-2008. p.3.   at http://www.marlowe-society.org.

[17] I have written elsewhere an essay on Merchant outlining this view of the play.  The essay is entitled “Shakespeare, Shylock and History as Choice: A Protestant versus Catholic view of the Merchant of Venice.”

[18]  Hamlet. 1.4.90

[19]  Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Selected Poetry and Prose. Elizabeth Schneider, Ed. “Lecture Series on Hamlet.” San Francisco: Rinehart Press, 1971, 461-462.

[20]  Van Doren, Mark. Shakespeare. New York: New York Review of Books, 2005, 167-168.

[21]  O’Toole, Fintan. Shakespeare is Hard, but so is Life. London: Granta Books, 2002, 45-54.

[22]  Goddard, Harold. The Meaning of Shakespeare. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951, 341.

[23]  O’Toole, Fintan. Shakespeare is Hard, but so is Life. London: Granta Books, 2002, 40.

[24]  Goddard, Harold. The Meaning of Shakespeare. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951, 333.

[25]  Hamlet.1.2.200.  “Armed at point exactly, cap-a-pie.”

[26]  Matheson, Mark. “Hamlet and a Matter Tender and Dangerous.” 1995. at enotes.com/topics/hamlet/critical-        essays/hamlet-and-matter-tender-and-dangerous

[27]  Lampher, Ann. The Problem of Revenge in Medieval Literature. PhD Thesis. University of Toronto, 2010. p.ii.

[28]  Prisons. mapoflondon.UVIC.ca/PRIS1

Elizabethan Crime and Punishment. william-shakespeare.info/elizabethan -crime-punishment

[29]  Wills, Garry. Making Make-Believe Real: Politics as Theater in Shakespeare’s Time.                    New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 2014. p.173.

[30]  Hamlet.  1.1.48, 1.5.40, 1.5.46, 1.5.81-86, 1.5.138.

[31]  Van Doren, Mark. Shakespeare. New York: New York Review of Books, 2005, 172.

]  Schwartz, Richard A. “Red Scare, 1950’s.” Cold War Culture: Media and the Arts, 1945-1990. New York: Facts    on File Inc, 2000. American History Online. Facts on File, Inc., 2011.

Gardner, Lloyd. “Origins of the Cold War” in The Origins of the Cold War, J.J. Huttmacher & Warren Susman, eds. Waltham, MA: Ginn & Blaisdell, 1970. pp.3-40.

[8]  “Cold War.” American History. ABC-CLIO, 2011.

[9]   Goldwater, Barry. Conscience of a Conservative. New York: Victor Pub. Co., 1960. pp.25, 71.

[10]  Foner, Eric. The Story of American Freedom. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1998. pp.256-258.

Lens, Sidney. Radicalism in America. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1969. p.343.

[11]  Caute, David. The Great Fear: The Anti-Communist Purge under Truman and Eisenhower.  New York:  Simon & Schuster, 1979.

[12]  “Cold War.” American History. ABC-CLIO, 2011.

[13]  Lyons, Paul. Philadelphia Communists, 1936-1956. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1982.

[14]  Navasky, Victor.  “The Social Costs of McCarthyism.” from  Naming Names..New York: Viking Press, 1980.   at english.illinois.edu/MAPS/McCarthy/navasky.

[15]  Ebert, Roger. rogerebert.com/review/great-movie-on-the-waterfront-1954. March 21, 1999.

[16]  Crowther, Bosley. “Viva Zapata.” New York Times Movie Review. 2/ 8/52.

Rothman. Lily. “Art Imitates Life: 10 Movies Altered Due to Real-Life Events.” Time Magazine.                            at entertainment.time.com/2012/07/27- art-imitates-life.

Susman, Gary. “Viva Zapata’s 60th Anniversary.” news.moviefone.com/2012/02/06/viva-zapata-anniversary.

[17]  Kermode, Frank. The Age of Shakespeare. Modern Library: New York, 2005. pp.14-16.

[18]  Wills, Garry. Making Make-Believe Real: Politics as Theater in Shakespeare’s Time. Yale University Press: New Haven, 2014. pp.157-168.

[19]  Wood, Michael. Shakespeare. Basic Books: New York, 2003. pp.270-271.

[20]  Kermode, Frank. The Age of Shakespeare. Modern Library: New York, 2005. p.39.

[21]  Wood, Michael. Shakespeare. Basic Books: New York, 2003. p.39.

[22]  Hill, Christopher. The Pelican Economic History of Britain: Reformation to Industrial Revolution. Penguin Books: Baltimore, 1969. p.110.

[23]  Scott, Jeffrey. “The Influences of Elizabethan Society on the Writings of Christopher Marlowe.”

The Marlowe Society Research Journal. Vol.05-2008. p.3.   at http://www.marlowe-society.org.

[24] I have written elsewhere an essay on Merchant outlining this view of the play.  The essay is entitled “Shakespeare, Shylock and History as Choice: A Protestant versus Catholic view of the Merchant of Venice.”

[25]  Hamlet. 1.4.90

[26]  Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Selected Poetry and Prose. Elizabeth Schneider, Ed. “Lecture Series on Hamlet.” San Francisco: Rinehart Press, 1971, 461-462.

[27]  Van Doren, Mark. Shakespeare. New York: New York Review of Books, 2005, 167-168.

[28]  O’Toole, Fintan. Shakespeare is Hard, but so is Life. London: Granta Books, 2002, 45-54.

[29]  Goddard, Harold. The Meaning of Shakespeare. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951, 341.

[30]  O’Toole, Fintan. Shakespeare is Hard, but so is Life. London: Granta Books, 2002, 40.

[31]  Goddard, Harold. The Meaning of Shakespeare. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951, 333.

[32]  Hamlet.1.2.200.  “Armed at point exactly, cap-a-pie.”

[33]  Matheson, Mark. “Hamlet and a Matter Tender and Dangerous.” 1995. at enotes.com/topics/hamlet/critical-essays/hamlet-and-matter-tender-and-dangerous

[34]  Lampher, Ann. The Problem of Revenge in Medieval Literature. PhD Thesis. University of Toronto, 2010. p.ii.

[35]  Prisons. mapoflondon.UVIC.ca/PRIS1

Elizabethan Crime and Punishment. william-shakespeare.info/elizabethan -crime-punishment

[36]  Wills, Garry. Making Make-Believe Real: Politics as Theater in Shakespeare’s Time. New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 2014. p.173.

[37]  Hamlet.  1.1.48, 1.5.40, 1.5.46, 1.5.81-86, 1.5.138.

[38]  Van Doren, Mark. Shakespeare. New York: New York Review of Books, 2005, 172.