Kings and Desperate Men: The Purgatorial Crux of the Eternal Question in Hamlet

Katherine Rosa

Writer's comment: Professor Dolan told us that this assignment for the final paper in ENL 117B (Shakespeare: The Middle Works) was designed to ensure that we would have to enter Shields Library at least once in our academic careers. I inwardly groaned, of course, thinking of the tedious research that would make the usual procrastination impossible. As an English major, I had grown quite accustomed to writing papers as if mine were the only opinion and analysis that mattered, as if no one else had written a word on Hamlet. But once I hit on the idea of using Donne as the contemporary I would compare to Shakespeare (a stipulation of the assignment), the process of tracking down sources and hunting for connections became rather exciting, an effect helped greatly by Fran Dolan’s encouragement and enthusiasm. The sources I found and Dolan’s lectures provided a springboard for my own ideas: I was able to see the historical, theological, and literary elements functioning within Hamlet, synthesize them in contrast to John Donne’s “Holy Sonnet 10,” and trace the connections between these two texts solely through the idea of purgatory. And the end result: this paper, with all the searching and sifting involved, was very rewarding and surprisingly fun to write.
—Katherine Rosa

Instructor's comment:Katherine Rosa’s fine paper, “Kings and Desperate Men: The Purgatorial Crux of the Eternal Question in Hamlet,” responded to an assignment that required students in a big lecture class on “Middle Shakespeare” to compare a Shakespeare play to another work from the period (preferably one not assigned for the class) and to consult at least three additional sources. Katherine seized the opportunity to do even more extensive research than was required. While some students grumbled and procrastinated, others like Katherine seemed to be inspired. Katherine carefully selected her sources, robustly engaged with other scholars’ work, and developed her own ambitious, original argument. The result is an impressively substantial, absorbing essay that yields insight into the specifics of Hamlet’s dilemma, cultural uncertainties following the reformation in England, and the complex connections between the two.
—Frances Dolan, English


Both William Shakespeare and John Donne lived in the great upheaval and general confusion of beliefs and religious doctrines, in the tumbling aftershocks of the Reformation. Between King Henry VIII and Martin Luther, Protestantism and England were things fully apart from Rome, but what else they were was not fully clear. Peter Marshall, in Beliefs and the Dead in Reformation England, describes the Reformation as “one of the most audacious attempts at the restructuring of beliefs and values ever attempted in England, a kind of collective cultural de-programming” (100). The differences between the still-forming Protestantism and pre-Henrician Catholicism were still being distinguished, and the idea of purgatory quickly rose to the forefront of the debate (Marshall 7). Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Donne’s “Holy Sonnet 10” are both famously concerned with the nature of death and the afterlife, but their attitudes toward death differ markedly. Whereas Donne’s sonnet exudes serene faith and acceptance, Shakespeare’s play showcases this world of transitional doctrines and conflicting beliefs. Hamlet discusses death and the afterlife in sometimes contradictory ways, some conducive to the new Protestant ideas and most not. A few of Hamlet’s theories and motivations are neither Catholic nor Protestant, but function only in the world of a revenge tragedy. Most significantly, Hamlet’s fear of death, “the undiscovered country,” and his famous soliloquy encapsulate this confusion of belief systems and show that Hamlet is not guided solely by the tenets of Protestantism, Catholicism, or the honor codes of a revenge tragedy. Hamlet’s confusion is not simply a theological debate in his head but rather a very real confusion manifested in his world; specifically, Hamlet’s fear of death and the Ghost’s testament to purgatory create a confused and disordered universe, a confusion made particularly apparent when juxtaposed with John Donne’s absolute faith and complacent acceptance of mortality.
      Just as the question of what exactly happens “when we have shuffled off this mortal coil” was a hot issue in Elizabethan and Jacobean Protestant England, Hamlet is also very concerned about the nature of death and afterlife, and he tries on several contradictory beliefs throughout the play (III.i.75). Hamlet sometimes refers to the afterlife in terms of the heaven and hell duality: “O all you host of heaven! O earth! What else? / And shall I couple hell?” (I.v.99-100, italics mine). Similarly, when Hamlet debates killing Claudius at prayer, he determines that Claudius can either go to heaven or hell—to heaven if killed at prayer, and to hell if killed unconfessed, despite the severity of his sins (III.iv). In these strains, purgatory seems something completely apart and incongruent with the Protestant heaven and hell dichotomy. On the other hand, when Hamlet threatens to “make a ghost” of whoever holds him back, heaven and hell do not seem to enter into it at all (I.v.95). Deviating from Catholic doctrine, the text represents purgatory as a place very few go and only under special circumstances, as in Hamlet’s father’s case, “in the blossoms of [his] sins,” “with all [his] imperfections on [his] head” (I.v.83, 86). And it is not simply a matter of purging one’s soul that will keep one out of purgatory, for Horatio still prays that “flights of angels will sing [Hamlet] to [his] rest,” even though Hamlet dies a murderer, unconfessed (V.ii.397).
      The dichotomy of heaven and hell, with no room for purgatory, is a Protestant belief, but one that Hamlet espouses only occasionally, and one that is complicated by the appearance of the Ghost. Marshall explains the literary-historical context of a ghost out of a Catholic doctrine intruding into Protestant literature:

The doctrine of purgatory supplied a theological rationale which proved compatible with more “folkloric,” atavistic, beliefs. It is no surprise, therefore, that in the minds of many Elizabethan and Jacobean Protestant writers, ghosts were indelibly associated with the abrogated doctrines of purgatory and intercessory masses. (234)

            Clearly, Hamlet jumbles his philosophies, but just as clearly, this jumbling hinges on the intrusion of the Ghost, which illuminates not only the idea of the past impinging on the present in the plot (Dolan), but also the way Catholic remnants still lingered in Protestant England.
      Hamlet’s subtle but distinct character change, which begins arguably after he kills Polonius and is complete upon his return from his journey to England, further complicates his understanding of death and afterlife for an audience or a reader. In the 2004 Old Vic production, Ben Wishaw’s Hamlet appeared throughout the play strikingly sloppy and unkempt until Act Five when his entire appearance, apparel, hair, and demeanor were suddenly orderly and neat (dir. by Trevor Nunn). This was a great way to symbolize Hamlet’s internal change in Act Five. Hamlet has been steeling himself for action and is trying to reconcile himself to the physicality of killing Polonius and of his plans to kill Claudius. Before Polonius’ death, Hamlet discusses life and death in varyingly idealized and abstract terms of philosophy and theology; the metaphors he uses for death are all very striking in their imagery and in their ambiguity. Yet it is not until after he has perpetrated the “rash and bloody deed” (III.iv.33) of killing Polonius that Hamlet starts with the worm-talk:

KING: Now, Hamlet, where’s Polonius?
HAMLET: At supper.
KING: At supper where?
HAMLET: Not where he eats, but where he is eaten. A certain convocation of politic worms are e’en at him. Your worm is your only emperor for diet. We fat all creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for maggots. Your fat king and your lean beggar is but variable service—two dishes but to one table. That’s the end. (IV.iii.19-28, italics mine)

Hamlet is now speaking of death in very physical and bodily terms, imagining a death outside of religion, imagining life just ending in death. He then goes on to say, “A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm,” memorably illustrating “how a king may go a progress through the guts of a beggar,” which, of course, is a decidedly characteristic insult directed at Claudius (IV.iii.30-6). This change in Hamlet is not grand and sweeping but subtle and limited; he is still essentially and characteristically the same; however, his thinking has taken on a new complexity. Significantly, purgatory and the murdered Ghost are no longer mentioned (Dolan). He now imagines death, not only as heaven or hell or some spanning unknown, but as maybe just an end. In Act Five, scene one, Hamlet is still morose—the “Alas, poor Yorick!” lines are arguably the most lachrymose in the play—and thoughts of death still preoccupy him, but with the help of the gravedigger, Hamlet focuses in this scene solely on “to what base uses we may return” (V.i.209).
      More striking, and perhaps more famous, than Hamlet’s discussion of what physically might happen to the body and to the soul after death is his fear of death as a great unknown, famous because of phrases like “to be or not to be” and “undiscovered country” (III.i). Hamlet’s fear of death extends beyond a specific fear of hell simply because “the Everlasting . . . fixed / His canon ’gainst self-slaughter” (I.ii.135-6). Hamlet’s litany of “the thousand natural shocks / That flesh is heir to” (III.i.70-1) echoes Claudio’s fear of death speech in Measure for Measure:

Ay, but to die, and go we know not where,
To lie in cold obstruction and to rot,
This sensible warm motion to become
A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit
To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside
In thrilling region of thick-ribbèd ice,
. . . or to be worse than worst
Of those that lawless and incertain thought
Imagine howling, ’tis too horrible.
The weariest and most loathèd worldly life
That age, ache, penury, and imprisonment
Can lay on nature is a paradise
To what we fear of death. (III.i.117-31)

The language, the imagery, and the desperate uncertainty in these lines are all stunning in their similarity to Hamlet’s sentiments and language. Hamlet’s version of this, of course, is

Who would fardels bear
To grunt and sweat under a weary life
But that the dread of something after death
. . . puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of? (III.i.86-90).

Claudio and Hamlet align so closely in this one concern that their dissimilarities are thrown into relief. Measure for Measure requires Claudio only to launch the series of events that bring about the play’s larger concerns—but Hamlet is his play’s largest concern. The imprisoned Claudio is truly powerless, while Prince Hamlet renders himself ineffectual. Claudio unhappily faces a death sentence; Hamlet debates suicide. Hamlet, like Claudio, does not simply fear hell, but rather the dark uncertainty of death—an important distinction because it shows a lapse of faith or rather a superfluity of philosophies that are still cumulatively inadequate for Hamlet, instead of an orthodox fear of hell.
      Hamlet’s idea of the “undiscovered country” runs directly contrary to Donne, who wrote against the Catholic idea of purgatory, and to his solid belief in salvation (Marshall 246). Unlike Hamlet, Donne’s speaker knows Death and addresses it as a lowly entity, not only subservient to God but even to man: “Thou’rt slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men, / And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell” (9-10). This wording coincides interestingly with Hamlet, in which kings and desperate men do wreak death—Hamlet Sr., Fortinbras Sr., Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Ophelia, Gertrude, Laertes, Claudius, and Hamlet are all killed by kings and desperate men—but in ideology Hamlet and Donne are completely at odds here. Hamlet, cowed by death, says “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,” and Claudius’ “my offense is rank” speech is fraught with frantic fear (III.i.91, III.iii.40-76). These are not men who hold absolute sway over death, who can consider death so calmly as “Death, thou shalt die” (Donne 14). They wreak death but fear it as well. Next to Hamlet’s thoughts on afterlife, Donne’s are divinely simple; he (or rather his speaker) knows he is going to heaven, thus he has nothing to fear from Death. “One short sleep past, we wake eternally” (Donne 13). In fact, Donne writes that because life on earth is pain and suffering, as both Claudio and Hamlet agree, “soonest our best men with thee [Death] do go, / Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery,” with which Claudio and Hamlet vehemently disagree. Because of Donne’s strength and simplicity of faith, he can say with complacency that the sooner one dies, the better; because of Hamlet’s complex microcosm of transitional faiths and superfluous, conflicting beliefs, Hamlet has no overarching sense of “what dreams may come” and prefers the ills of this world to the unknown (III.i.74). Does this necessarily mean Shakespeare must have been of little faith? Certainly not; Shakespeare simply captured, and perhaps concentrated, in Hamlet’s universe the topsy-turvy muddle of defining Protestantism and ousting Catholicism (made much more confusing by the brief reign of Queen Mary). This does mean, however oddly, that Hamlet’s confusion and uncertainty and complexity allow him to seem more understandable, more human, than Donne, as represented in his “Holy Sonnet 10,” to modern audiences.
      Alongside historical and theological pressures, significant literary strictures also impinge on Hamlet’s character. As Michael Neill points out in his Issues of Death: Mortality and Identity in English Renaissance Tragedy, the conflation of “revenge” and “remembrance” in Hamlet marks Hamlet as attempting to function in both Christianity and a revenge tragedy (242-61). Neill goes on to discuss how Shakespeare and Hamlet are both resisting “the entrapment of this all-too-familiar narrative” of the revenge plot (244), but resist as he might, Hamlet is stuck in this revenge tragedy, the Ghost forces him into this position, and this sometimes supplies Hamlet’s motivation. When he intercedes on his late father’s behalf (anathema in Protestant ideology), he does it, not by prayers, as would a Catholic, but by murder, as would the hero of a revenge tragedy. The idea that murder might be honorable is completely outside both Protestantism and Catholicism; it is anchored in this play only in the “anxieties that lie buried in the structures of the genre” (Neill 246). Hamlet spares not a thought of heaven or hell when told of his uncle’s treachery: “Haste me to know ’t, that I, with wings as swift / As meditation or the thoughts of love, / May sweep to my revenge” (I.v.35-7). He does not worry much about his own damnation in killing Claudius; he has been visited by the ghost of his father and asked to avenge him, and that is motivation and contemplation enough for a revenge tragedy. And only in a fictional revenge tragedy can one wryly appreciate the irony of Rosencrantz’s and Guildenstern’s deaths and not balk at the hero’s callousness in sending unwitting fools to their deaths. “They are not near my conscience,” Hamlet tells Horatio, and because they pit themselves against our hero when mixed up in the tragic mess, we, the audience, do not set their lives at a pin’s fee. They are pawns and we are pacified.
      In Hamlet, Shakespeare creates a microcosm of contemporary theological and political issues and plays them out in the constraints of a revenge plot. It is not simply that Hamlet is confused about death and purgatory, but that the whole state of Denmark is. The Ghost comes from a hell-like purgatory and demands intercessory murder that is both Catholic and un-Catholic. Ophelia commits suicide and is allowed some aspects of a Protestant burial, though Hamlet and Laertes seem to expect other Catholic rituals as well (Quinlan). Because of the revenge plot, Hamlet can avenge himself on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern without fear of recrimination or damnation. All this confusion can be embodied in one line: “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” and its seeds lie in that first murder (I.v.100). It is as if, with that one act of “foul and most unnatural murder,” Claudius tipped the scales and sent Denmark sliding into a confused mess (I.v.31). In a sort of conflation of the Original Sin story and the Cain and Abel story, Claudius’ fratricide seems to have opened Denmark to the suffering, pain, and death that Adam and Eve loosed on the world (Belsey 164). That first murder creates the Ghost, without which there would be no revenge and no play, only a mournful and grieving son. The Ghost is the crucial figure here; all religious confusion emanates from it. 112, 2005)
      John Donne, of course, has no ghost in the landscape of his “Holy Sonnet 10,” and his humbling of “poor Death” is completely confident, without any of the fissures of self-doubt. His overwhelming complacency in the face of Death accentuates Hamlet’s fear and confusion. Hamlet’s ideas contain some imagery similar to Donne’s; the “rest of their bones,” “the soul’s delivery,” and the “sleep” of death recall imagery prevalent in Hamlet’s varying philosophies (Donne 8, 11). He just lacks faith in the consistent and overarching idea of salvation, both in general and in particular to him. There is no resounding proclamation of any belief, much less one so confident as “Death, thou shalt die” (Donne 14). Hamlet does have Donne’s view of heaven, but he also alternately considers death as hell, purgatory, physical rotting, and sleep. Hamlet’s uncertainty about death overwhelms him, which ironically smacks of more humanity than Donne’s complacent surety. Death may be a slave to “kings and desperate men,” but Hamlet is surely enslaved to ideas of death and its inevitable physicality.



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