Hamlet and the solutions of Jesus Christ to modern problems

July 1, 1997

Dear Friends and Benefactors,

In the middle of April a number of seminarians and seminary professors took the opportunity to see a local production of Shakespeare's famous play Hamlet, done (quite well) by the college at the foot of the hill. It was a grand reminder that the solutions of Our Lord Jesus Christ are organic to modern problems, neither mere band-aids to be stuck on the surface, nor optional extras we can do without. From when He came into the world, real problems have no other solution.

But why should any Catholic be interested in Hamlet? What does Our Lord have to do with the theatre, or with literature? Indeed he appears to be irrelevant, because modern "literature" has pushed him to one side. But in fact nobody is more relevant, because that very pushing aside is what governs what we call "literature". Let Hamlet serve here to show how work on Monday to Friday, culture (or Literature) on Saturday and religion on Sunday is not a workable way of life!

Two recent films of Hamlet with Mel Gibson and then Kenneth Branagh in the leading role remind us how any male actor of standing wishes at least once in his career to play the part. The famous British actor, Sir Lawrence Olivier, played the part five times and on his deathbed expressed the wish to play it again. This is because the play speaks in a special way to modern man.

Yet there are almost as many different interpretations of the play and of its central character as there are different producers or actors. How can this be? Firstly, Hamlet is the broadest character that Shakespeare ever portrayed, uniting in himself so many diverse elements (philosopher, "courtier, soldier, scholar", cynic, poet, clown, etc.) that whoever plays the Prince of Denmark must choose which elements to leave out, because he cannot fit them all in. Corresponding to this elusive central character, the play as a whole expresses some conflict so deep that it can surface in a variety of different ways. Shallow conflict, only one issue. Deep conflict, many possible issues. Hamlet is in fact riddled with conflict, or contradiction.

For illustration, let us take Shakespeare's famous heroines. In Julius Caesar, Brutus turns aside from his loving wife Portia, and comes to grief - no contradiction. Othello tramples on his innocent Desdemona and comes to grief - no contradiction. King Lear spurns his only true daughter, Cordelia, and falls into madness - no contradiction. On the other hand Macbeth follows the promptings of the wicked Lady Macbeth, and comes to grief - still no contradiction. But Hamlet? The Prince tramples on his sweetheart, the undeserving Ophelia, and it is she that goes mad while he strides forward to an avenging triumph! Hamlet contradicts the other tragedies! Or does it? After all, Hamlet still ends in a slug-fest and a blood-bath, as they do. So the Prince did come to grief? Hamlet contradicts itself!

Similarly with Shakespeare's tempters. Cassius who starts Brutus towards murdering Caesar, Iago who ruins Othello and the Witches who overthrow Macbeth's virtue are all clearly evil. But who can call the much suffering Ghost of Hamlet's father evil, when he urges his son to avenge his murder? Does he make Hamlet fall, or rise to a noble self-sacrifice? Contradiction!

Now this contradiction inside Hamlet, and the special character of Hamlet amongst the Shakespearean tragedies, might be analyzed as follows: All these tragedies, including Hamlet, have a basic pattern of natural law, inherited from the medieval morality play, whereby the individual soul is confronted with a choice between good and evil; if it chooses love, it will create harmony and order in and all around itself, but if it gives way to the temptation to turn its back on love, then all hell breaks loose, both for the hero and for his society.

In Hamlet however, and in Hamlet alone, this natural pattern which we time-tag as medieval is heavily overlaid with what we might time-tag as the modern or Hollywood pattern, whereby all problems are the fault of society, so every hero is a rebel, every heroine should join him, and most villains are figures in authority - poor Bonnie Ophelia, what she should have done was help Prince Clyde kill her father! (Compare Bonnie and Clyde, Natural Born Killers, etc., etc.) Seen in this light, Hamlet is the four century-old trail-blazer of Hollywood, one reason for the play's enduring appeal.

However, the medieval pattern is still there in Hamlet, which means contradiction. For in the modern pattern society is at fault, whereas in the old pattern, the central fault lies inside the individual. To make one and the same play simultaneously fit two such contradictory patterns required from Shakespeare a prodigious feat of theatrical counterpoint which the inside of the enclosed flyer means to disentangle for anyone who knows the play: in the three columns from left to right are the plot presented neutrally, then its medieval spin and its modern spin. Such an analysis does explain the many possible interpretations of the play, anywhere on the high tension grid between its contradictory poles.

But such tension is not humanly bearable, and must resolve one way or the other. This is what makes some distinguished critics even call Hamlet an unsatisfactory play. In any case the modern world obviously resolved the tension more and more in favour of the modern pattern, while Shakespeare himself reverted to the medieval pattern. In his very next play, "Measure for Measure", he has the priest-like Duke of Vienna intervene to circuit-break the tragic process, and never again does Shakespeare seem to have been so nearly rocked off his medieval hinges.

Of course England's then apostatising from the Catholic Faith was enough to rock many a good man then and since off his medieval hinges. See the flyer's inner panel where precisely in Hamlet Shakespeare began bending the old theology in order to set the modern pattern. But in his own career it does seem to have been only a momentary departure, because hints scattered through the rest of his plays suggest that he was Catholic, only forced on the Elizabethan stage to keep his Catholicism under wraps. Which would explain many things -

Firstly, his popularity even with non-Christians but who respect the natural law which Our Lord came to defend and restore - Shakespeare's plays are constantly presenting nature as an order which one violates at one's peril. Secondly, the popularity of Hamlet in particular for rebels and all idealists dreaming of an escape from that order - many a romantic would rather enjoy his problem than have it solved, especially by resort to a God! Thirdly, Shakespeare's popularity with centuries of post-Catholic Christians or post-Christian liberals who can enjoy in his plays the natural order as defended by Christ, without having to submit to the Catholic Faith as commanded by Christ. Fourthly, however, since all such tasting fruits without feeding roots is doomed in the long run, then Shakespeare's present unpopularity is explained in the universities and schools where antichristian liberals reign supreme who reject all order of nature, let alone of supernature.

Yet Shakespeare can still be popular in the cinema because it is difficult to abolish that nature which, thanks to the Christendom that went before him, he understood so well! Hence the two recent films of Hamlet, and a Romeo and Juliet set amidst filling-stations in Vero Beach, Florida, in which the ancient verse can pop quite naturally out of the mouths of leather-jacket hoodlums!

Thus Shakespeare is true to life and his plays contain an enduring wisdom because his medieval heritage coming from Our Lord Jesus Christ gave him a clear grasp of human nature on the brink of modern confusion. Under severe pressure from the apostasy of England launching that corruption of the structure of society which makes many a rebel cut the figure of an avenging angel, Shakespeare in Hamlet teetered into that confusion, and gave us a glimpse of his nightmare future, our Hollywood present, in which the unnatural is become natural and the normal abnormal. But he himself drew back from the brink and went on to create a series of further plays on the medieval pattern, as reposing to a sane mind as they are disconcerting to minds of today which feel driven to "deconstruct" them.

For of course the world after Shakespeare went ahead with the confusion and undermining of the natural order. Anything tagged as medieval it has repudiated. The result is the emptiness, ugliness and death of theatre, literature, music, art, as we have known them. For there is no way in which culture can replace religion. It cracks under the strain when press-ganged by liberals into doing so. Shakespeare, literature, etc., are an after-glow of the Faith, and they live by projecting its wisdom, but they die with its disappearance, because apostasy from Jesus Christ creates an environment so hostile to sane nature that less than ever can it survive without the help of Christ's grace, or supernature.

In conclusion, there is nothing - nothing - more organic to the problems of modern man than the solutions of Jesus Christ. Those problems are as complex as the Prince of Denmark, as deep as the questioning of God's natural order, as profound as rebellion against God. No mere band-aids will do for such a gangrene.

Nor can there be any other doctor than Jesus Christ, because He alone with the Father and the Holy Ghost is the one God that is being offended, and only the party offended, not the party offending, can lay down the terms for forgiving the offence. So only that Church which is His can have means efficacious to heal. So Our Lord Jesus Christ and His Catholic Church are not an optional extra.

Dear friends, pray for the priests who bring to you Our Lord Jesus Christ. Literature, culture, the world cannot survive if souls are not being saved through priests. We had one more priest from Winona ordained on June 21, as scheduled. It was a beautiful day, and how many souls went home spiritually refreshed by Mother Church's great ceremonies! This priest now leaves Winona to help look after your souls. Several seminarians stay in Winona for a few weeks to help provide you with Spiritual Exercises and a Doctrinal Session. If only Hamlet had done a Retreat!

May God bless you and keep you through the summer,