Hamlet: A Christian Tragedy of  Renaissance Humanism

Chanchal Chauhan

We all know that Renaissance Humanism was marked by the synthesis of classical learning and Christian ideology. After all, the liberal arts of antiquity- namely, grammar, poetry, rhetoric, ethics, etc.- formed the foundation for humanistic learning. It was believed then that only these arts or what Cicero called ‘studia humanitatis’ could put an end to the dark Ages and create a cultural identity of England, thus bringing about an improvement in the society. Along with these liberal arts, humanists also borrowed various tenets from the Greek tragedy, only to mould them within a Christian theological ideology.
    The basic classical ideology in Greek tragedy revolves around the concept of fatalism, that is, man cannot transcend his limitations. Of course the socio-political aspect of this ideology is that classicism flourished during the slavery system in the Greek society. So the idea of fatalism suited the interests of the ruling class, comprising of masters. In Greek tragedy, the notion of fatalism was reinforced through the idea of sin. In classicism, two serious sins were those of the killing of a blood relation and incest. These two sins resulted in miasma or pollution. This can be seen in Sophocles’s famous play, Oedipus The King in which we witness both the murder of the kin as well as incest. Aristotle thought this type of plot to be the model for tragedy. In the Sophocles’ play too we see Thebes in the grip of plague, the miasma as a direct result of the sins. But this miasma could not be prevented because of fatalism. In Christian tragedy the concept of the Original Sin becomes thematic centre in place of the element of Fate in classical tragedy. It is on these basic lines that Shakespeare writes Hamlet. Shakespeare too builds his plot with the Christian ideology of Original sin. Through such a dramatic structure then, Shakespeare explores the nitty-gritty of an era that was English Renaissance that encouraged the advancement of learning,  or new knowledge, or search for truth. In the words of Harry Levin, ‘By the canons of the humanists, the highest virtue was knowledge put in action.’
    In Hamlet, which is a Christian tragedy, we see also the element of classical tragedy, Aristotelian model of plot involving the murder of a kin as well as incest. While the former is linked to the Christian idea of the first murder on earth, that is, the murder of Abel by his brother Cain, the latter is related to the idea of Satan’s incestuous copulation with his daughter Death, thus, producing a child called Sin. In the play, the two sins result in miasma too, as is remarked by Marcellus: ‘Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.’ (I.iv.90). To end this pollution, Hamlet must be fated to seek revenge and therefore, he must kill the perpetrator, that is, Claudius. However, unlike in the classical tragedy in which the reasoning power was missing, in the age of Christian tragedy, ‘advancement of learning’ (if we borrow a phrase from Bacon) has taken place. Therefore, we find Hamlet, being a product of Renaissance Humanism, constantly engaging in the contemplation of whether ‘To be or not to be’ a sinner. It is also interesting to note that Hamlet is portrayed as a Renaissance scholar, emerging from the University of Wittenberg, which was historically the centre of Renaissance Humanism. The inner struggle of the figure of Hamlet then becomes whether to follow his humanistic values and mould his destiny of abstaining from committing a sin, or whether to believe an apparition, that is, the ghost of his murdered father. If he is to take up arms against other sinners, primarily, his uncle Claudius, then he would himself become a sinner. Claudius has already committed the two sins of homicide as well as incest. In addition to that, he has murdered the former king of the state, thus, subverting the divine right of the king to rule. If Hamlet were to take revenge upon Claudius, then he would also be following the same path as his uncle has trodden. When Hamlet is delivering the ‘to be or not to be’ speech, we can in fact hear the resonances of Pico’s famous discourse, Oration on the Dignity of Man. Pico also delves upon how man is an intermediary between angels and beasts, and that it is up to man to create a universe within himself. But Pico also suggests that man has limits to his reason. This is what Hamlet sums up in II.ii:

…what a piece of work is a man - how noble in reason; how infinite in faculties, in form and moving; how express and admirable in action; how like an angel in apprehension; how like a god; the beauty of the world; the paragon of animals. And yet to me what is this quintessence of dust?...       

Thus, Hamlet also seems to have a choice between committing a sin or abstain from it. But ultimately it is the Christian doctrine of Original sin that prevails in the play. This is what Hamlet realises after he kills Polonius, thinking that it is in fact Claudius behind the arrears. So, against all attempts, he is finally rendered a sinner. As a result, just like in Greek tragedies there was an acceptance of the fate, there is acceptance of fate by Hamlet as well. This becomes clear in his speech in which he alludes to the Christian Calvinistic belief in God’s direct intervention:

There is special Providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be, ‘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 aught he leaves knows what is’t to leave betimes. Let it be.
In this way, Hamlet or any of the Shakespearian tragedies can  be seen as a Divine Comedy. In the play, Inferno has been cast upon Hamlet and ‘the state of Denmark’ turns to be ‘rotten’ by the sins committed by Claudius. As a result, Hamlet lives in Purgatorio because of the torment caused by the inner struggle, and in addition to that, his life without his beloved Ophelia, without his mother’s affection (by whom he feels betrayed) and without the support of his father (as even his step father is constantly plotting against him) becomes hell. So, it is death in life for the tragic figure of Hamlet. Just like his father’s apparition, Hamlet too becomes lifeless. On the contrary he finds life in death, for death comes to him as redemption, thus ensuring him Paradiso.
Christian tragedy also depicts a Christ-like figure that is to be sacrificed for the redemption of mankind. As mentioned before, Hamlet has already become a sinner. Thus it is a more innocent character, Ophelia who is to be sacrificed in order to redeem Hamlet of his torment and Denmark of its rottenness. It is only after the death of Ophelia that Denmark is cleansed of all the sinners in the play and order is restored.
In conclusion, through this play, Shakespeare scrutinises the project of English Renaissance, which encouraged man’s potential, thus, implying equality, and diminishing feudal stratification, that is, by refuting feudal lord’s power as divine (hence Humanist artists also depicted an anthropomorphic God in their art). Yet Shakespeare realised that the project was bound to fail as feudal remnants such as this Christian ideology of Original sin still persisted in the Renaissance society. Probably it was because the new class, mercantile capitalism too was aspiring to be the new ruling class and used the same classical ideology of reminding man not to forget that ‘man cannot transcend his limitations’.; he is the part of the ‘Chain of Being’. Any body who tried to transcend the status given by God, ultimately fell, Satan, Eve, Adam, Dr. Faustus, et al. fell in the same way as Icarus in classical mythology. Tillyard mentions this fact that ‘ Hamlet is painfully aware of the predicament between the angels and the beasts, between the glory of having been made in the God’s image and the incrimination of being descended from fallen Adam.’  Hamlet trying to be a pure and sinless human being could not transcend his status as a sinner because of the Original Sin. So he is fated to commit the sin and then gets redemption only when an innocent figure like Ophelia, ‘as chaste as ice, as pure as snow’, sacrifices herself to redeem him of sin, just as King Lear’s sin of abandoning Cordelia, a symbol of truth is redeemed by the sacrifice of the innocent Cordelia.  An innocent Desdemona is sacrificed in Othello. So we see this element of sin and redemption in Christian tragedy, and Hamlet too has this thematic structure.