Hamlet and the Trinitarian nature of man

The Baroque period stands at the transition point between the medieval and the modern, at the crest of the Renaissance and the cusp of the Scientific Revolution. In literature, the baroque stands at the nexus between the Spirit-driven storytelling of the Middle Ages and the Son-driven works of the modern era. As a result, baroque literature, and above all the works of Shakespeare, serves as an ample demonstration of the conjunction of the three drives into a cohesive whole. Shakespeare’s Hamlet, in particular, presents an example of a perfectly proportioned dramatic work. In Hamlet, Shakespeare demonstrates the insufficiency of both the purely Father-driven as well as the merely Son-driven and, in the final act, brings the two together into a harmony through the working of the Spirit.

The first half of Hamlet presents a Father-driven narrative which harkens back to the literature of the ancient world. Here the prevailing principles are fate, justice, and the overbearingly paternal. It is the latter element, however, which is the most apparent throughout this section, and which gives birth to the other two. In the first act, three overbearing fathers are introduced: Claudius, Polonius, and the ghost of the father of the eponymous Hamlet. Each of them represents a distortion of the paternal, which distortions in turn inhibit the working of the Son and the Spirit.

Claudius is by far the most egregious and obvious example of this distorted paternal element. He has become the king of Denmark by murdering his own brother, Hamlet’s father, and usurping the throne by marrying Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude. In this, he represents a son who has unrightfully taken the place of the father through his own will. This is further demonstrated by his relationship to Hamlet, who, given his relationship to the previous king, is himself the rightful king. Whereas Hamlet, as rightful king, has the priorities of a father, insofar as a king is a father to his people, over Claudius, Claudius exercises a domineering and demeaning paternalism over Hamlet. Indeed, the first time in the play that Claudius addresses Hamlet he addresses him as “my son” (act one, scene two, line 64). Hamlet’s response – “a little more than kin, and less than kind” (line 65) – is more apt than Hamlet is able to realize at that point. Hamlet’s meaning, within the context of the knowledge hitherto available to him, is to condemn the marriage of Claudius to Gertrude, which he sees as having occurred too soon after the death of his father; his words, however, represent a correct evaluation of the yet to be revealed nature of their relationship. Claudius is indeed “a little more than,” or closer than he rightfully should be, in his kinship to Hamlet, which relationship is “less than,” or of an unnatural and disordered, “kind.” Hamlet is rightfully the king who exercises the parental privileges therein entailed over Claudius, yet Claudius, through his murder and usurpation, has placed himself over Hamlet. The father and the son are displaced and the spirit unable to act as the seal and stability of the relationship. In this, the case of Claudius appears more than either Polonius or Hamlet’s father to be a distortion of the paternal element of fate. He has, through his own will, usurped Hamlet’s inheritance and ordains for Hamlet a fate contrary to that fate allotted to Hamlet by nature.

In the following scene (scene 3), Polonius makes his first appearance as a distorted father of another type. While Polonius, unlike Claudius, is without a doubt the rightful father of Laertes and Ophelia, he exercises his paternal privileges in a manner which is to the detriment of both in the hopes of using them to advance his own interests in the service of the king. In a particularly pointed comment in scene two, act two, Hamlet refers to Polonius as a new Jephthah, recalling the biblical figure of the Book of Judges who, in Judges 11 sacrificed his own daughter in order to fulfill a vow he had made to God to sacrifice the first thing upon which he laid eyes when he returned home after battle. The ensuing dialogue (lines 403-413) provides a great deal of insight into Polonius’s personality, and his distortion of the paternal:

Hamlet: O Jephthah, judge of Israel, what a treasure hadst thou!

Polonius: What a treasure had he, my lord?

Hamlet: Why

“One fair daughter, and no more,

The which he loved passing well.”

Polonius: Still on my daughter.

Hamlet: Am I not i’th’ right, old Jephthah?

Polonius: If you call me Jephthah, my lord, I have a daughter that I love passing well.

Hamlet: Nay, that follows not.

Hamlet sees that Polonius has used his daughter, Ophelia, and the mutual love between she and Hamlet to increase his own stature in the view of the king. In calling Polonius by the name of Jephthah, Hamlet reveals Polonius’s perverse willingness to, in a sense, sacrifice his own daughter to advance his political ambitions. Polonius interprets the reference in the manner most favorable to himself, stating that, just as did Jephthah, he does “have a daughter” whom he “love[s] passing well.” Hamlet, however, ensures Polonius faces the full and intended meaning of the reference: it “follows not” that because Polonius, like Jephthah, had a daughter, Polonius also loves her as did Jephthah. Rather, Polonius’s willingness to sacrifice his daughter is indicative of Polonius’s love for himself first and foremost. Polonius, then, is of the three distortions of fatherhood presented in sequence in the first act, the most representative of a failing in the paternal element of headship. He has distorted the leadership of a father from a self-sacrificing care to a self-serving tyranny.

While Polonius proves incorrect on nearly every accusation and prediction he makes, there is one statement made by him in act one, scene three, which is premonitory in spite of the falsehood of its context. In the course of convincing Ophelia that Hamlet’s love for her is merely passing and lustful rather than an authentic and enduring love, which is itself incorrect, Polonius correctly tells her that “his will is not his own. / For he himself is subject to his birth” (lines 17-18).

The true nature of Hamlet’s subjection to his birth is revealed in act one, scene five, the climax of the first act. The ghost of Hamlet’s father visits to inform Hamlet of his murder at the hands of Claudius, his own brother who had usurped the throne, and to spur him on to vengeance. His father’s ghost informs Hamlet that he is “bound” (line 7) by his relationship to his “dear father” (line 24) to “revenge his foul and most unnatural murder” (line 26). In this scene, there is a confluence of all three elements of the Father-driven; fate, justice, and imperiousness are brought together in this third and culminating example of the distorted paternal. Each of these, however, is itself distorted as well. It is not without irony, for example, that Hamlet’s father, in the course of ordering his son to avenge his murder, admits that he himself is suffering in Purgatory for “the foul crimes done in my days of nature” (line 13), among which crimes were also murder (act one, scene one, line 90) and the usurpation of the rule of the lands formerly in the possession of the murdered (lines 92-93). The call for vengeance by the ghost of Hamlet’s father, then, is not an authentic call for justice and the restoration of proper order, but is rather the product of spite and bitterness in the face of a personal affront. Hamlet’s father, then, although he convenes all three elements of the paternal into himself more than either Claudius and Polonius, represents most of all a distortion in the element of justice.

Ultimately, the distorted fatherhoods of Claudius, Polonius, and the ghost of Hamlet’s father are the source of the conflict at the heart of Hamlet. Hamlet is obligated to avenge his father’s murder yet the object of his vengeance, Claudius, has become the king, “the Dane” (act one, scene one, line 17 and act one, scene two, line 44). As such, he is a representative of the nation itself. To kill him, then, is an attack not only upon his person but upon all of Denmark. Indeed, even when Hamlet does, in the final scene (act five, scene two), finally expose the crime of Claudius and take vengeance upon him for his father’s murder, the immediate reaction of all of those assembled is to cry “Treason! Treason!” (line 325). The bulk of the play documents Hamlet’s attempts to resolve the tension of conflicting filial obligations which must be rendered to his unworthy fathers.

Hamlet feels constrained by his dilemma and is unable to act. He refers to Denmark, and even the whole world (line 245), as a “prison” to which people are thrown “at the hands of Fortune” (act two, scene two, lines 241-242). The next time Hamlet enters the stage after being told by his father’s ghost that his murder must be avenged, Hamlet is in fact wandering about the castle, Elsinore, reading a book (act two, scene two, line 168). Hamlet is, however, soon able to formulate a plan by which he hopes to discover whether Claudius is without a doubt the murderer. Hamlet commissions a group of actors to perform a play which features a crime similar to that committed by Claudius. He hopes that, being so publicly confronted with his crime, Claudius will in some way reveal his guilt. Such a confession on Claudius’s part, whatever its nature, will free Hamlet, so he believes, of his obligations to Claudius and allow him to finally extract the vengeance his father’s ghost desires. Hamlet is, however, more taken in by the actors than even he is able to fully realize.

It is at this point, beginning in act two, scene two, and culminating in act three, scene three, that the play shifts from being Father-driven to being Son-driven. Rather than promptly fulfilling his fate and carrying out the act of vengeance on behalf of his father, Hamlet instead takes control. As Hamlet samples the talents of the actors, the dramatic piece he chooses is indicative of the transition being made in the play. It is a selection from the Aeneid, a powerfully Father-driven work, the piece which the actor presents concluding with a condemnation of fate (act two, scene two, lines 493-497):

Out, out, thou strumpet Fortune! All you gods

In general synod take away her power!

Break all the spokes and fellies from her wheel,

And bowl the round nave down the hill of heaven

As low as to the fiends!

With this condemnation of fate, there is a decisive break with the Father-driven, which culminates in the peculiar actions of both Claudius and Hamlet in act three, scene three.

Claudius has been presented with his sin by the play put on by Hamlet and Hamlet has been provided the proof he desired by Claudius’s reaction to the play. After the ensuing tumult, Claudius finds himself alone and begins to lament his murder of his brother: “Oh, my offense is rank! It smells to heaven. / It hath the primal eldest curse upon’t, / A brother’s murder.” (lines  36-38). In recognizing his crime, Claudius begins the process of repentance and has the opportunity to begin to undo the damage he has caused and thereby set things into proper order. He finds himself unable to proceed, however, declaring (lines 40-43, 51-56):

My stronger guilt defeats my strong intent,

And like a man to double business bound

I stand in pause where I shall first begin,

And both neglect. …

My fault is past. But oh, what form of prayer

Can serve my turn? “Forgive me my foul murder”?

That cannot be, since I am still possessed

Of those effects for which I did the murder:

My crown, mine own ambition, and my queen.

Claudius finds himself at the center of a conflict between the elements of Father and Son. He feels compelled to restore order, yet desires to retain the possessions he had acquired as a result of his sin.

In the same scene, Hamlet also finds himself in the midst of such a conflict. While Claudius is kneeling in his vacillating prayer, Hamlet quietly enters behind him and sees his opportunity to finally kill Claudius and avenge his father (lines 73-75):

Now might I do it pat, now ‘a is a-praying;

And now I’ll do’t. And so ‘a goes to heaven,

And so am I revenged.

Like Claudius, however, Hamlet hesitates. He believes that if he were to kill Claudius now, while he is praying, Claudius’s soul will go straight to Heaven. For Hamlet, though, this is not enough. He does not desire mere justice, but to send the soul of Claudius to Hell. He decides, therefore, to wait until such a time that he might find Claudius (lines 89-92)

when he is drunk asleep, or in his rage,

Or in th’incestuous pleasure of his bed,

At game, a-swearing, or about some act

That has no relish of salvation in’it –

Both Hamlet and Claudius have moved away from the Father-driven. Both refuse to fulfill their fates and obligations and turn instead to their own will, to the Son-driven. Claudius avoids submission to the Fatherhood of God, and the restoration of justice and order which this would inevitably bring. Hamlet, for his part, goes beyond the command of his father and insists on much more than justice. It is at this point, with the resolution of the coterminous indecision of Hamlet and Claudius, caught up between the Father and the Son but without the guidance and activity of the Spirit, that Hamlet the play turns in a decidedly Son-driven direction.

The most central feature of this Son-driven section of Hamlet, which lasts until the final scene, is the feigned madness of Hamlet, which began in act two, scene two, and its contrast with the authentic madness of Ophelia. Hamlet’s pretension to madness is a mimicry of the power of the Spirit. Through his own will, he attempts to drive the course of events toward the resolution he desires. The result is further disorder. Almost immediately after deciding not yet to kill Claudius, Hamlet murders Polonius (act three, scene four), an act which drives Ophelia, the daughter of Polonius and the woman whom Hamlet loves, to insanity, an insanity which eventually results in her suicide (act four, scene seven). Laertes, the son of Polonius, is, in turn, driven to his own sort of madness in his raving desire to slay Hamlet in revenge for the death of his father. In his rage, Laertes puts into words the Son-driven impetus behind the entire section: “My will, not all the world’s” (act four, scene five).

Even while feigning his madness and leaving a profusion of disorder in his wake, Hamlet also moves through this section to awareness of his inability to restore order by his own will; he realizes, in other words, the insufficiency of the Son-driven. The event which is the paramount impetus toward this realization is his observation of a gravedigger digging a grave.

As the gravedigger digs, he throws several skulls out of his way. Hamlet’s initial reaction is one of righteous indignation at the apparent sacrilege (lines 75-80):

That skull had a tongue in it and could sin once. How the knave jowls it to the ground, as if ‘twere Cain’s jawbone, that did the first murder! This might be the pate of a politician, which this ass now o’erreaches, one that would circumvent God, might it not?

This indignation, however, soon transforms itself into a realization of the mortality of man and the resultant insufficiency of the human will to restore order with its own power. As he watches the gravedigger toss another skull, Hamlet wonders (lines 98-103):

Why may not that be the skull of a lawyer? Where be his quiddities now, his quillities, his cases, his tenures, and his tricks? Why does he suffer this mad knave now to knock him about the sconce with a dirty shovel, and will not tell him of his action of battery?

The realization finally breaks through fully when Hamlet finds the skull of Yorick, his father’s jester, on the ground. Picking up the skull, Hamlet reminisces on his experiences with Yorick and asks the skull, “where be your gibes now? Your gambols, your songs, your flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not on now, to mock your own grinning?” (lines 188-191). Each man will someday die, Hamlet realizes, and be subject to the will of another. Even those who in life held great power and whose will was effective will not be able to defend themselves against wrongs, much less put right the many and various disorders and wrongs of the world more generally. The will, the Son, is insufficient when separated from the guidance of the Father and the activity of the Spirit.

Hamlet is finally pushed decidedly away from the Son-driven when he discovers the funeral of Ophelia in progress. Shocked at least into action by the sight and spurred onto understanding, Hamlet’s earlier statement (act four, scene two), made during his period of feigned madness that “the body is with the King, but the King is not with the body. The King is a thing –” here comes to full fruition. Hamlet realizes that he is himself the king; as he enters the area where the funeral rites are being performed he announces himself as “Hamlet the Dane” (act five, scene one, line 258), as the living embodiment of the state in a particular person, a position only the king can claim. He has become, in a sense, the father, thereby reconciling the Father and the Son.

The three references to Hercules, the prototypical Son-driven character, over the course of Hamlet are particularly illustrative of the realization and transition which Hamlet is here undergoing. The first, in act one, scene two, is an uncharacteristically self-aware statement by Hamlet in the course of voicing a complaint against Claudius to Horatio. “My father’s brother,” he says, “but no more like my father / Than I to Hercules” (lines 152-153). Hamlet’s confession of his unlikeness to Hercules is revelatory of the events which will ensue later in the play. While Hamlet is, like Hercules, the son of a king, he lacks the will and the power of Hercules and is unable to accomplish his task through his own strength. The second reference to Hercules comes in act two, scene two, in which Rosencrantz refers to the ability of actors to “carry … away,” meaning win, “Hercules and his load too” (lines 360-362), a fact proven only slightly later in the ability of an actor to cause Hamlet to “[turn] his color and [have] tears in his eyes” (lines 519-520), which moment inspires Hamlet’s plan to put on a play for Claudius about his crime and thereby expose him. In spite of his earlier admission that he is no Hercules, Hamlet has decided to become Hercules, taking on the task and seeking to conquer it by his own will. The final reference to Hercules, however, comes at the end of act five, scene one, and the final transition from the Son-driven section of Hamlet to the Spirit-driven final scene in which the Spirit accomplishes a reconciliation of the Fatherly and Sonly elements. It is here, after reconciling the Fatherly and Sonly elements within himself, that Hamlet proclaims “let Hercules himself do what he may, / The cat will mew, and dog will have his day” (lines 294-295). Hamlet’s reconciliation of Father and Son is the moment of anagnorisis, his realization of his self and his predicament, which finally allows the effective action of the Spirit.

It is this effective action which is the subject of act five, scene two, the final scene of the play. In a fast-moving succession of events, justice and mercy, Father and Son, are reconciled. Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, is killed by drinking from a cup of poison intended for Hamlet (line 313), receiving her justice for her betrayal of her former husband in her incestuous relationship with his brother in a marriage only two months after the death of her former husband. Immediately, Hamlet forces Claudius also to drink from the cup, finally exacting the revenge he had so long hesitated to administer (line 329). Hamlet and Laertes then die from wounds inflicted by each upon the other with a sword dipped in poison. Before their respective deaths, however, the two “exchange forgiveness” with each other (line 331), thereby allowing not only justice to have its way but mercy as well. Finally, Hamlet dies of his wound, having brought his will into line with fate, mercy with justice, and the Father with the Son, resulting in his actions, the effective working of the Spirit. As Hamlet himself says in the same scene shortly before his fencing match against Laertes (217-222):

We defy augury. There is special providence in the final of a sparrow. If it be now, ‘tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all. Since no man of aught he leaves knows, what is’t to leave betimes? Let be.

Through letting it be, the Trinitarian elements of man are able to find their confluence in Hamlet.

The final reconciliation and confluence of the three follows after the death of Hamlet. Upon Hamlet’s death, Fortinbras, the Norwegian prince of Denmark enters to find the bodies of Gertrude, Claudius, Laertes, and Hamlet strewn about following the action of the scene. Upon the discovery of what had occurred, Fortinbras completes the work of the Spirit, restoring justice in revenge for his father, whom Hamlet’s father had murdered, by taking over the rule of Denmark (390-392), allowing the working of mercy in ordering that Hamlet be honored as a deceased Danish king (lines 397-405), and compelling Horatio to tell the story of Hamlet (388-389).

In all of this, Hamlet presents a remarkable contrast with both Father-driven ancient literature and Son-driven modern literature, where both might suitably end, each for its own reason, immediately following the death of Hamlet, rather than allowing the introduction of Fortinbras to set things right altogether. The Aeneid, for example, presents a powerful contrast as a representative of Father-driven literature; Aeneas, the hero driven by his fate, slays his enemy, Turnus, in rage (Book 12, lines 950-953):

Incensed, he thrust the sword through Turnus’ chest.

His enemy’s body soon grew cold and helpless,

While the indignant soul flew down to Hades.

And there the Aeneid ends, perhaps with the restoration of justice, as Aeneas’s murder of Turnus was in revenge for Turnus’s murder of Pallas, but certainly without mercy and without reconciliation, without Son and Spirit. The Old Man and the Sea presents a counterpoint in Son-driven literature. Rather than the accurate account of Horatio, a living witness, before an eager audience, the story of the old man, Santiago, and his epic struggle at sea with a large marlin remains untold. Instead, a group of tourists spot the half-eaten marlin on the beach and misidentify it as a shark, learning nothing further of the fish or the old man who struggled to bring it ashore. The Old Man and the Sea ends where it remained throughout: in the Son and without Father, as there is no vindication for Santiago, and without Spirit, as there is no memory of him, no one to tell the story of his heroics.

What Shakespeare has accomplished in Hamlet is a perfect harmony of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as these three manifest themselves in man and his literary productions. He has demonstrated the need to bring them into harmony within oneself, most of all in the character of Hamlet, as well as exhibiting the harmony of the three in a work of literature.

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