This is a guest post by Leland Ryken. He is the author of Crossway’s Christian Guides to the Classics series.
“The Most Interesting Play Ever Written”
When we speak of what we can learn from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, we immediately place the focus on the content of the play rather than its form. I do not feel this to be an unwelcome constraint at all, but it is important that we be aware that we have excluded half of what is important about one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays.
Shakespeare scholars have been lavish in their praise of Hamlet. One of them called Hamlet “the most interesting play ever written” (a verdict with which I concur). C. S. Lewis replied to the putdown by T. S. Eliot that Hamlet “is most certainly an artistic failure” with the retort that “if this is failure, then failure is better than success.”
While some of this praise relates to the formal aspects of the play, some of it also stems from the content of the play and lessons that we can learn from it.
1. The Mystery of Human Experience
Someone has said regarding Hamlet that “there has been a debate on every minute in the play.” One rainy afternoon as I sat in the caverns of the University of Oregon library, I came to the conclusion that a play with this many unanswered questions must be about the mystery of human experience. Imagine my delight when I found this view corroborated by none other than C. S. Lewis: Hamlet “is a mysterious play in the sense of being about mystery.”
What do we learn from Hamlet? One answer is that along with the certainties that we embrace as Christians, there is much about human experience in this life that remains elusive. As Deuteronomy 29:29 states, “The secret things belong of the Lord our God.” Hamlet reminds us that we are not God and do not know everything.
2. The Tragedy of Life in a Fallen World
The question of whether Shakespeare was a Christian writer is usually made to rest on whether or not his plays offer an optimistic view of life. I have never been satisfied with this, and my heart therefore leaped when I saw an essay entitled “Christian Pessimism in King Lear.” Christianity delivers a “bad news” message as well as a “good news” message.
Hamlet is one of Shakespeare’s most pessimistic plays, and as such it delivers the Christian message that in a fallen world reality often fails to match the ideal. A partial list of human experiences held up for our contemplation in Hamlet is as follows: death, grief, loneliness, cruelty, despair, insanity, loss of meaning in life, breakdown of relationships, and the corruption of the basic institutions of life (including state and family). Hamlet confirms the pessimistic half of the Christian faith.
3. Human Depravity
Flannery O’Connor once wrote the following statement, which immediately registered itself permanently in my memory: “Drama usually bases itself on the bedrock of original sin.” O’Connor added that the Christian storyteller “is distinguished from his pagan colleagues by recognizing sin as sin.”
The imagery of disease permeates Hamlet, and this is one of many ways in which Shakespeare forces us to confront the reality of human fallenness. The worst villain of all is King Claudius, but not even Hamlet escapes the taint of sin as he becomes infected with the falsity and cruelty of the court.
What is the edification of viewing this spectacle of human depravity? The same that comes from reading the Bible: it spares us from false consolations and the illusion that humanity is good enough when left to its own resources.
4. Human Suffering
Early in my career studying and writing about the Bible as literature I ran across a brief list of what a secular scholar found to be the leading subjects in the literature of the Bible. One of the items was “the frequent note of suffering.” That statement, too, stuck with me. In the annals of English literature, perhaps no work has shone the spotlight more clearly on the experience of human suffering than Hamlet. Hamlet himself is the chief sufferer, but no one escapes suffering in the play.
Among the evocative formulas that critics have applied to Hamlet is one that speaks of how Shakespeare built the play on the template of “the agonies of baffled humanity.” What lesson does Hamlet teach? That “in the world you will have tribulation” (a statement by Jesus recorded in John 16:33).
5. The Consolation of Providence
All of the foregoing is decidedly negative (though no less Christian for being such). I will note in passing that (as C. S. Lewis correctly observed) no author is obliged to cover the whole territory in every work. Nonetheless, Shakespeare wrote a play that moves beyond tragedy, and he did so by springing a surprise ending on us in the play’s last act.
In act 5, Hamlet, who has made a general nuisance of himself to everyone at the Danish court, becomes transformed into a model of Christian fortitude. There are several dimensions to this, but the primary one is that Hamlet comes to see the terrible events of recent days through the lens of divine providence. After failing to “set [the world] right” (1.5.192), Hamlet resigns himself to God’s ability to direct human affairs.
There are two key speeches on this theme. In one of them, Hamlet tells his confidant Horatio, “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, / Rough-hew them how we will” (5.2.10-11). The metaphor in this statement is God as sculptor, refining what humans can only “rough-hew,” that is, make a feeble attempt at carving.
In the second speech Hamlet alludes to Jesus’s evocative statement in Matthew 10:28-31 that God’s providential control extends even to the fall of a sparrow to the ground. Hamlet expresses the sentiment that “there is special providence in the fall of a sparrow” (5.2.197-198). No doubt I will surprise some people by saying that I enjoy reading the last act of Hamlet as a good “devotional read” on the subject of providence.
Leland Ryken (PhD, University of Oregon) served as professor of English at Wheaton College for over 43 years. He has authored or edited over three dozen books, is a frequent speaker at the Evangelical Theological Society, and served as literary stylist for the English Standard Version. His Christian Guides to the Classics series includes Homer’s The Odyssey, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Dickens’s Great Expectations, Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, and The Devotional Poetry of Donne, Herbert, and Milton.