“Every generation gets the Hamlet it deserves.”
If you have not kept up with your Shakespeare, I’m afraid I have already lost you. When I was in High School and college decades ago, Hamlet was required reading. I will remind you that Hamlet is the dude that said, “To be or not to be. That is the question.” Teachers and scholars taught us that Hamlet’s tragic flaw was his doubt. He was the man of “everlasting broodings.”
Hamlet is implored to avenge the death of his father at the hands of Claudius. It takes Hamlet five acts of brooding and doubting to finally take care of business. He bumps off Claudius with his dying breath. It is one of great closing scenes in theater where everyone bites the dust.
So much has been made of Hamlet’s indecisiveness—even seventh graders routinely write term papers on the topic—that it is widely regarded as his defining trait. But this was not always the case. As one critic has observed, “For at least the first 150 years of his literary life, Hamlet was generally viewed as vigorous, bold and heroic—a victim of his circumstance not his psyche.” But then in the eighteenth century, the writer James Boswell remarked on “that irresolution which forms so marked part of Hamlet’s character” and the description stuck. Over the next hundred years, and with the help of additional commentary by the likes of Goethe and Coleridge, the Hamlet we know today was born: a man so paralyzed by indecision that he is unable to take action.
It would be interesting to note what was happening in the eighteenth century British theater that suddenly required a paralyzed and doubt riddled prince. What was it in the English political and cultural climate of the moment that suddenly made action and conviction, thought and doubt such transfixing issues. But look at us, if someone doesn’t have the answer they are disqualified and if they speak decisively they are a demagogue.
If you subscribe to the “doubter Hamlet” theory you have some problems of interpretation. Hamlet tries to kill Claudius two acts before he finally succeeds. He accidentally kills Claudius’s trusted counselor Polonius, showing it is not a problem of conviction but execution. Nor does Hamlet hesitate to arrange the murder of his two friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, when he learns they were spying on him. Hardly the actions of the man one critic deemed “Price Pussyfoot.”
Hamlet does struggle with doubt. Even if he is more a man of action than we generally allow, he is also clearly a man of contemplation—alive to contradiction and complexity, and troubled by the possibility of error.
Hamlet has the capacity to doubt. It is fascinating why this has struck the critics as such a profound defect. It is not as if the Prince is pondering over fourteen scenes whether to order the BLT or the chicken salad. This is someone who has been asked to commit murder. He is asked to kill a man who is at once his king, his uncle, his step-father, and his mother’s husband. The request came from a ghost!
Should we then demand doubt of Hamlet? Don’t we want him questioning his motivations? Doesn’t he need to ponder the ramifications of heeding the ghost? Dust off that old book of English literature and give Hamlet a read. How do you read the character of Hamlet?
Now for those of you who hated Shakespeare, this is what I am suggesting to you. Much of our belief systems could be described as “hand-me-downs.” They are called second hand beliefs. We believe them because someone told us and we accepted the authority of the messenger. We have never challenged them or questioned them, because to do so would challenge the authority of the source. Let’s admit that we don’t have time to ponder some things we have always believed. There is more important stuff to do.
When it comes to our health we almost demand a “second opinion.” Are you as inquisitive with your spiritual belief systems? Have you looked it up? Have you researched it? Have you really thought about it? Perhaps you believe that if it is on the Internet or television it must be true.
I enjoy leading a church where the question mark is used more frequently than the exclamation mark. People discover the love of God in Christ through inquiry, through asking questions. They discover faith through struggling with doubts. Is your faith your own? Have you looked into it for yourself? Have you experienced Jesus first hand, or simply stopped with someone else’s view or opinion of Him?
I wonder what kind of faith in Christ you will create.