Amongst all the 'Shakespeareanna' the other week was an article by David Sillito in the BBC News Magazine on the subject of Hamlet. It was a 'puff piece' based on a forthcoming production from Lithuania at The Globe as part of their 'Shakespeare in other languages' programme. Sillito reminds us that in the dark days of Stalin's rule over the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, Shakespeare's plays were a useful tool for subversion. You need only quote this passage from Hamlet to realise how it must have struck nerves in an audience living under that tyranny:
Hamlet: What have you, my good friends, deserved at the hands of fortune, that she sends you to prison hither?
Guildenstern: Prison, my lord!
Hamlet: Denmark's a prison.
Rosencrantz: Then is the world one.
Hamlet: A goodly one; in which there are many confines, wards and dungeons, Denmark being one of the worst.
On Sky Arts (and it will almost certainly be repeated) there was an hour-long compilation of the views of various actors and directors on the true nature of Hamlet, the play and the man. The most interesting opinion, in that it was a new one to me, came from Det. Insp. Barnaby who solves all those murders in the rural village of Midsomer whose body count now exceeds Chicago by quite a wide margin! I mean, of course, John Nettles, who was in his day a distinguished actor at the RSC. He suggested that the entire play was an allegory for the plight of Catholics living in Elizabethan and Protestant times and that it contained a subtle and secret message: Catholics must "take arms against a sea of troubles" and stand up for what they believe in.
This chimes with the strand of opinion that holds that Shakespeare was himself a Catholic, or at least, had Catholic sympathies. I remain unconvinced. It is clear from the play that young Hamlet had been educated at Wittenberg which, being the place where Luther preached his 'heresy', was a Protestant university. Alan Howard describes how he and Trevor Nunn discussed the myriad mysteries buried in the Hamlet text - or I should say, texts because Shakespeare kept cutting chunks out and adding chunks in thus producing several texts - bloody writers, heh!
Howard explained that Trevor Nunn had attached great importance to Hamlet's university education at Wittenberg. It was the Lutheran university and Hamlet would have returned to the Catholic society of Elsinore impregnated by the 'new philosophy', claimed Howard. 'Hamlet refers to himself as a "scourge and minister" of heaven - he has returned from Wittenberg with the protestant idea of individual responsibility in his mind. Claudius is the other side of the Catholic culture - eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we confess. When, in the prayer scene, he tries to come to terms with himself, outside the confession box in the protestant way, he can't succeed.
'The strongest influence on Hamlet is, perhaps, his dead father. Obviously he had been a stern, austere Catholic king. In other words, Hamlet had a very unsatisfactory relationship with his father which predates the play. He has a mum problem, but it's the dad problem that fascinated me. Why had Old Hamlet sent his son to Wittenberg - not only the university of Lutheran ideas, but also of political dissent - the revolution? Did the Old Hamlet suspect Claudius and send Hamlet away to hide what was going on from him? We never resolved this.
I still cling to my opinion that the main thrust of this play was Shakespeare's desire to point up the differences between the old Medievil age of superstition and the new Rennaisance times of reason. Laertes, in his anguish and fury at the deaths of his sister and his father never pauses to think first in his determined desire to kill Hamlet and gain his revenge. Hamlet, by contrast, cannot bring himself to murder his uncle until he has proof that Claudius did it. I wonder if he had read his famous contemporary and arch-Rennaisance man, Francis Bacon:
REVENGE is a kind of wild justice; which the more man’s nature runs to, the more ought law to weed it out. For as for the first wrong, it doth but offend the law; but the revenge of that wrong putteth the law out of office. Certainly, in taking revenge, a man is but even with his enemy; but in passing it over, he is superior; for it is a prince’s part to pardon.