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5 Lessons from Shakespeare’s Hamlet

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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 OdysseyMilton’s Paradise LostShakespeare’s MacbethShakespeare’s Hamlet, Hawthorne’s The Scarlet LetterDickens’s Great ExpectationsBunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, and The Devotional Poetry of Donne, Herbert, and Milton.

September 12, 2014 | Posted in: AAA - BLOG UPDATE,Culture,Life / Doctrine,The Arts,The Christian Life | Author: Matt Tully @ 8:15 am | 0 Comments »

Was Shakespeare a Christian Writer?

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This is a guest post by Leland Ryken. He is the author of Crossway’s Christian Guides to the Classics series.


The Myth of a Secular Shakespeare

The myth of the secular Shakespeare continues to cast a long shadow over many people’s perception of Shakespeare’s plays. For many years I assumed that, despite certain Christian patterns and occasional biblical allusions, Shakespeare’s plays were broadly humanistic in their intellectual allegiance.

I look back with regret at the missed opportunities represented by the years in which I downplayed the Christian elements that are present in Shakespeare’s plays. For me Shakespeare has become a treasured Christian writer.

Defining Terms

I make no claim to know Shakespeare’s state of soul in life and death. When I speak of Shakespeare as a Christian writer, I am looking at the plays that he wrote. Here the primary source of data is the intellectual and moral allegiance of his plays, supplemented by certain aspects of literary form such as biblical allusions and imitation of biblical genres.

The best terminology to use when we identify a Christian element in a literary work is to say that the work intersects with the Christian faith at one or more levels—ideas, moral vision, allusions, or simply the human experiences that are portrayed (such as prayer or church life).

Shakespeare in His Cultural Context

While the ultimate court of appeal for claiming a Christian allegiance in Shakespeare’s plays is the texts themselves, certain cultural considerations should predispose us to find Christian elements. The external facts regarding Shakespeare’s religious life are known. Shakespeare was baptized and raised in Holy Trinity Church, the Anglican church in Stratford-upon-Avon. The curriculum and daily routine at the local grammar school were saturated with Christian elements.

Church attendance during Shakespeare’s day was compulsory, and the people who attended Shakespeare’s plays were parishioners. Even scholars who deny that Shakespeare was a Christian writer acknowledge that there is absolutely no evidence that Shakespeare was fined for non-attendance at church. He is known to have attended several churches in London during his years as a playwright and actor. So we know where Shakespeare was on Sunday mornings—he was in church.

For several years Shakespeare rented a room in the home of a devout Huguenot family on Sliver Street in London. There he would have heard the Bible read daily. When Shakespeare retired to Stratford, he became a lay rector (also called lay reader) in the local Anglican church. On the strength of that, he was buried in the front of Holy Trinity Church near the altar at a time when most people were buried in the surrounding churchyard.

It is indisputable that Shakespeare lived in a society that was thoroughly Christian in its worldview and daily practices. The Bible was not only the best selling book of the day—it was also the most talked about book.

What Counts as Evidence?

If we ask what counts as evidence for claiming the Christian allegiance for Shakespeare’s plays, the answer is the same as with any other author. I propose that the following is a reliable grid for identifying points at which Shakespeare’s plays intersect with the Christian faith:

  1. explicit allusions to the Bible or Christian documents like the Book of Common Prayer
  2. congruence of ideas in a play with Christian doctrines
  3. correspondence of the view of reality embodied in the plays with the biblical view of reality
  4. portrayal of Christian experiences (e.g., forgiveness, repentance, guilt) in the plays
  5. the presence of Christian archetypes and symbols (such as the saint, the sinner, and the penitent)

All of this could easily sustain a book. I have space to elaborate on my grid only selectively and briefly.

The Bible in Shakespeare’s Plays

Shakespeare’s writing contains more references to the Bible than the plays of any other Elizabethan playwright—five times the range of Christopher Marlowe. A commonly accepted tally of the total number of biblical references is at least two thousand allusions. Scholars regularly claim that there are so many references to the first chapters of Genesis that Shakespeare must have known them by heart.

What English Bible did Shakespeare use? Before 1598, Shakespeare’s references were primarily to the Bishops’ Bible. However, starting in 1598, when Shakespeare became a renter in a Huguenot household, he used the Geneva Bible, known informally as the Puritan Bible.

The View of Reality in Shakespeare’s Plays

An extremely helpful formula for the Christian strand in Shakespeare’s plays comes from an unlikely source: the author of a visitors’ guide to Christian sites in London writes at one point that Shakespeare’s plays “assume the same kind of reality that the Bible assumes.” That is exactly right.

What are some of these aspects of reality that Shakespeare’s plays assume? God, Satan, heaven, hell, an eternal destiny for every person, good, and evil. Shakespeare regularly introduces these into his plays, and at no point does he suggest skepticism regarding them. With any other writer, we would take that to mean authorial endorsement. We should do the same for Shakespeare.

We can also compile a list of experiences that Shakespeare puts into his plays that have a particular relevance to Christianity. These include evil or sin, guilt, forgiveness, moral choice, love, marriage, and repentance. Not all of these are exclusive to Christianity, but that does not make them any less Christian. Every time Christians encounter these experiences in a Shakespearean play (as in Cordelia’s Christlike love in King Lear), they assimilate them as a Christian element in the play.

The Bottom Line

Some of the data in Shakespeare’s plays indisputably intersects with the Christian faith—biblical allusions, for example, or references to heaven and hell. By way of parallel, if a writer’s works are filled with classical allusions, we do not hesitate to think of the author as having a worldview that is at least partly classical. We should not shrink from making a similar claim for Christian allusions in Shakespeare’s plays.

At the level of ideas, I would simply ask what ideas in Shakespeare’s plays strike us as incongruent with Christianity. The answer is that very few of the ideas that we deduce from Shakespeare’s plays offer any resistance whatever to the ideas of Christianity.

We should call a moratorium on the entrenched bias of the secular academy in regard to Shakespeare’s plays. University scholars simply assume that Shakespeare was as secular as they are. Conversely, Christian readers who sense a kindred spirit at work in Shakespeare’s plays should have the courage of their convictions.


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 OdysseyMilton’s Paradise LostShakespeare’s MacbethShakespeare’s Hamlet, Hawthorne’s The Scarlet LetterDickens’s Great ExpectationsBunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, and The Devotional Poetry of Donne, Herbert, and Milton.

September 9, 2014 | Posted in: AAA - BLOG UPDATE,Culture,Life / Doctrine,The Arts,The Christian Life | Author: Matt Tully @ 8:15 am | 1 Comment »

Pragmatism: It Works for Me

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In this series of posts, the late James Montgomery Boice helps us avoid being “conformed to this world” (Romans 12:2) by unpacking the 5 major “isms” that dominate the modern world.


Do What Works

The fifth “ism” that has formed contemporary culture as we know it is pragmatism, a philosophy that measures truth by its utilitarian value. It is probably safe to say that nothing is more characteristic of American thought and life than pragmatism.

This way of thinking has its roots in the philosophy of men such as John Stuart Mill (1806–1873), the British economist and social theorist whose ideas exercised a formative influence over many early American thinkers; John Dewey (1859–1952), who applied pragmatic standards to education; and William James (1842–1910), who applied the same system of thought to religion.

James attended Princeton Theological Seminary as a young man but rebelled against the doctrinaire teaching he found there and later argued that the only way to determine the truth of anything is by its practical results. He is best known for his Lowell Lectures of 1906, published as Pragmatism: A New Name for Old Ways of Thinking, and an earlier work, The Varieties of Religious Experience. (1)

The Real Culprit

However, the chief force behind the triumph of pragmatism in the West, particularly in the United States, was not philosophy but the Industrial Revolution. The goal of industrial pragmatism is efficiency leading to low cost, rather than quality, craftsmanship, or aesthetics. The goal is to find the fastest, least expensive way of producing products and getting things done.

Pragmatism has improved living standards for millions who now enjoy the benefits of home ownership, adequate clothing, indoor plumbing, prescription drugs, cars, refrigerators, washing machines, television sets, and abundant food. But this has been achieved at significant cost! Items have become cheaper and more available, but they also tend to look alike. Quantity has marginalized quality, volume has smothered craftsmanship, and affordability has sabotaged beauty.

The most prominent symbols of the modern industrial age and its pragmatism are skyscrapers, whose soaring steel and glass frames overshadow the towering spires of the cathedrals and churches that were there before them in nearly all our large cities.

Religion that Works

Pragmatism has also had a powerful influence on American religion, as Michael Horton shows in Made in America: The Shaping of Modern American Evangelicalism, (2) a study of the unique features of American Christianity. William James taught that the only valid test of truthfulness in religion is whether religion works. “On pragmatic principles, if the hypothesis of God works satisfactorily in the widest sense of the word, it is true,” James argued. (3)

That is the way many evangelicals approach the Christian faith today, according to Horton. The claim “it works for me” seems to justify almost any belief, quite apart from a biblical foundation. As far as evangelism and church growth strategies are concerned, anything will be justified as long as it brings people into mass meetings or the church.

Perhaps the worst form of modern pragmatic Christianity is the approach of the faith healers who promise health, wealth, and happiness if their adherents only employ the right techniques. Pat Robertson urges Christians to employ the “laws of prosperity,” to which, he seems to claim, God is bound. “It’s a bit like tuning into a radio or television station” he says. “You get on the right frequency and you pick up the program.” (4)

Horton analyzes this rightly when he says:

While there is a great deal of mysticism among modern faith healers, they actually eliminate mystery from miracle, making healing predictable and, in fact, inevitable (naturalistic). No longer is a miracle the spontaneous and surprising work of God, but the right use of means, as predictable as any other scientific law. When God heals, it is not an interruption of natural laws. At its core, the faith healers proclaim a naturalistic faith. Salvation and healing are both human achievements. (5)

That is a strange development for fundamentalist Christianity, which is supposed to believe in the supernatural. But it is not actually so strange in light of the vast sea of cultural pragmatism in which all Americans, like fish, seem to live, move, and have their being.

Notes

(1) William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (London: Longmans, Green, 1902).
(2) Michael Scott Horton, Made in America: The Shaping of Modern American Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1991).
(3) James, Pragmatism, 192.
(4) Pat Robertson, The Secret Kingdom: A Promise of Hope and Freedom in a World of Turmoil (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1983), 59, 66, 67.
(5) Horton, Made in America, 47.

This excerpt was adapted from Whatever Happened to The Gospel of Grace?: Rediscovering the Doctrines That Shook the World by James Montgomery Boice.


James Montgomery Boice was senior minister of the historic Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia for thirty years and a leading spokesman for the Reformed faith until his death in 2000.

September 8, 2014 | Posted in: AAA - BLOG UPDATE,Culture,Current Issues,Life / Doctrine,The Christian Life,Theology | Author: Matt Tully @ 8:15 am | 0 Comments »

Why Christians Should Read Shakespeare

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This is a guest post by Leland Ryken. He is the author of Crossway’s Christian Guides to the Classics series.


Shakespeare for Everyone?

With characteristic enthusiasm, the editor of the Crossway blog site suggested that I write on “Why Every Christian Should Read Shakespeare.” I have reined in his enthusiasm with a touch of Dutch realism. I want people who have what it takes to read Shakespeare to do so, but not everyone has the requisite skills to make it possible. This is not a moral failing, so no guilt necessarily or automatically attaches to not reading and viewing Shakespeare. On the other hand, I would like some of my readers to upgrade the quality of their leisure life by dipping into Shakespeare.

In the exuberant 1960s, a Shakespeare scholar wrote a book entitled Shakespeare for Everyone. I quote the title approvingly in my Shakespeare course on a day when I talk about the universality of Shakespeare. However, that is different from claiming that everyone should read Shakespeare.

The Language Barrier

Shakespeare is a difficult author. His mastery of the English language exceeded that of any other mortal. He was master of a vocabulary of over 20,000 words (compared with 6,000 for the King James Bible and 13,000 for John Milton).

The result of all this linguistic brilliance is that Shakespeare’s language is beyond the complete grasp of any reader. In addition, Shakespeare’s language is (a) often archaic and outdated, and (b) so metaphoric that it is impossible to grasp everything that Shakespeare put into his lines.

None of this means that people should not read and view Shakespeare. We do not need to grasp every word in order to have an optimal literary experience with Shakespeare. It only adds a note of realism to what we can reasonably expect of the reading public, including ourselves. A lot of harm has been done for prospective readers of Shakespeare by having the plays forced on them before they were prepared to understand them.

Did Shakespeare Write Any Bad Plays?

I will also assert my opinion that once we get beyond the ten or twelve best Shakespearean plays (out of the thirty-seven that he wrote), the quality drops off drastically. I personally would say that we fall into a black hole.

Even if that seems too drastic, a lot of mischief has been done by pretending that every Shakespearean play is great or even constitutes good stewardship of time to read or view.

Who Should Read or View Shakespeare?

My answer to the question of who should read and view Shakespeare is, “All Christians who can do so with profit.” John Milton, in his poem Paradise Lost, acknowledged the limited audience who could read his poem when he spoke of a “fit audience though few.”

The unstated premise of my remarks about reading Shakespeare is that more Christians should read or view Shakespeare than currently do. The company of the “fit” is mainly limited by people’s laziness in regard to their leisure time.

Why Should Christians Read Shakespeare?

Here are four reasons:

 1. Fun

The minimal requirement for a leisure time pursuit (including our reading) is that it should give us pleasure. Shakespeare delivers the goods. In spite of the fact that Shakespeare is a difficult writer, he is still the best show in town when it comes to theatrical performance. When I return from a summer Wheaton-in-England program, it is obvious that attending plays by Shakespeare is what sparked the greatest interest of my students in their attendance of plays.

 2. Superior Artistry

The reason that Shakespeare generates so much interest among English teachers is that there is so much analysis that can be done with his plays. In an essay on Renaissance poet Edmund Spenser (an approximate contemporary of Shakespeare), C. S. Lewis used the formula “line by line deliciousness.” Shakespeare’s plays have line by line deliciousness. And not only his lines but also the larger elements in his plays like their patterning and organization.

 3. Depth of Human Experience

The subject of literature is human experience, concretely embodied. The knowledge that literature imparts is knowledge in the form of right seeing. Literature gets us to stare at human experience, and when we stare at it we come to see it accurately. All great writers are skilled at observing life accurately, but no one has excelled Shakespeare.

This does not mean that Shakespeare writes in the mode of realism. His mode is fantasy, as even the verse form in which he composed signals. But coming through the unlifelike surface details is universal human experience. Christians are members of the human race. God wants them to understand human experience, as the Bible itself demonstrates.

 4. Encountering the Great Ideas

Writers not only present human experience for our contemplation; they also interpret it. By doing so, they put implied ideas before us for our consideration.

Sometimes Shakespeare explicitly affirms a Christian view of reality—the reality of sin and guilt in Macbeth, for example, or the affirmation of romantic love and marriage in his comedies. At other times Shakespeare’s plays belong to the category that I call the literature of clarification and common human experience. At that point a play stops short of explicitly affirming a Christian view of life, but it is readily congruent with it.

Wanting the Best in Our Literary Experiences

Why should Christians read Shakespeare? For me the answer falls into the realm of good stewardship. God wants us to be all that we can be, including in our leisure pursuits. Sometimes (not always) we should reach for the best, and Shakespeare is one of the authors who meets that standard.


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 OdysseyMilton’s Paradise LostShakespeare’s MacbethShakespeare’s Hamlet, Hawthorne’s The Scarlet LetterDickens’s Great ExpectationsBunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, and The Devotional Poetry of Donne, Herbert, and Milton.

September 5, 2014 | Posted in: AAA - BLOG UPDATE,Culture,Life / Doctrine,The Arts,The Christian Life | Author: Matt Tully @ 8:15 am | 0 Comments »

Materialism: The Material Girl

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In this series of posts, the late James Montgomery Boice helps us avoid being “conformed to this world” (Romans 12:2) by unpacking the 5 major “isms” that dominate the modern world.


Get Rich or Die Trying

A fourth “ism” which is part of the “pattern of this world” is materialism. This takes us back to secularism, since it is a part of what secularism is. If “the cosmos is all there is or ever was or ever will be,” then nothing exists but what is material or measurable, and if there is any value to be found in life, it must be in material terms. Be as healthy as you can. Live as long as you can. Get as rich as you can.

When today’s young people are asked who their heroes or heroines are, what comes out rather quickly is that they have no people they actually look up to except possibly the rich and the famous—people like Michael Jackson and Madonna. And speaking of Madonna, isn’t it interesting that she is often referred to as “the material girl”? For some fans, Madonna apparently represents the material things of this world—clothes, money, fame, and above all, pleasure. This is what today’s young people want to be like! They want to be rich and famous and to have things and enjoy them. They want to be like Madonna.

Examining Evangelicalism

Are evangelicals much different? The older ones probably would not know a Madonna song if they heard it, but they might well be equally materialistic. Are they any different from those the poet T. S. Eliot, in his poem “The Rock,” described in this devastating epitaph?

“Here were a decent godless people:
Their only monument the asphalt road
And a thousand lost golf balls.” (1)

How different is the Lord Jesus Christ! He was born into a poor family, was placed in a borrowed manger at his birth, never had a home or a bank account or a family of his own. He said of himself, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Matt. 8:20). At his trial before Pilate he said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight. . . . My kingdom is from another place” (John 18:36). When he died he was laid in a borrowed tomb.

If there was ever a person who operated on the basis of values above and beyond the world in which we live, it was Jesus Christ. He was the polar opposite of “the material girl.” But at the same time no one has ever affected this world for good as much as Jesus Christ has. It is into his image that we are to be transformed rather than being forced into the mold of this world’s sinful and destructive “isms.”

Notes

(1) T. S. Eliot, Collected Poems 1909–1962 (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1963), 156.

This excerpt was adapted from Whatever Happened to The Gospel of Grace?: Rediscovering the Doctrines That Shook the World by James Montgomery Boice.


James Montgomery Boice was senior minister of the historic Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia for thirty years and a leading spokesman for the Reformed faith until his death in 2000.

September 1, 2014 | Posted in: AAA - BLOG UPDATE,Culture,Current Issues,Life / Doctrine,The Christian Life,Theology | Author: Matt Tully @ 8:15 am | 0 Comments »