A Christian Excuse for Cruelty: Violence in Hamlet and The Tempest

One of the significant conflicts within Renaissance culture was how to rationalize the many instances of violence which took place in a society with such strong Christian values. While some preached from the New Testament of the importance of love and treating others well, many drew on the numerous descriptions of murder and war found in the Old Testament as justification for the violence occurring everyday. Both Hamlet and The Tempest depict the violence which follows a character’s betrayal of his brother, a common episode seen in the Bible. However, whereas the many instances of violence in Hamlet are presented as extremely violent, The Tempest contains more threats of violence or psychological torture. While Shakespeare’s graphic depiction of violence in Hamlet represents a reasonable desire to restore God’s intended royal hierarchy, the lesser degree of violence in The Tempest signifies that force is not necessary because God will eventually restore political stability. Seventeenth-century Christianity was not entirely focused upon saving souls. Many times, religion served an ulterior purpose, acting to enforce a sense of order upon the public. The Bible was used to persuade people to follow the rules of God. However, it was not only the laws of God which were being imposed. A central idea in Renaissance society was the idea of the divine right of kings, where the king was appointed by God and acted as a representative for the will of God. Therefore, the laws of the rulers were to be followed as if they were directly from God; to defy the king was to defy God. Sharpe writes, “The distinction between disobedience to royal and divine authority, between crime and sin, were less clear cut than at present” (Sharpe 159). The perception that God appoints the ruler who would be best for the kingdom is extremely important in both Hamlet and The Tempest, and I believe this explains the Biblical allusions and the way in which Shakespeare represents violence in both plays.From the first act of Hamlet, there are clear similarities to Biblical stories. As the Ghost of Old Hamlet explains that he has been murdered by his own brother Claudius, he says to Hamlet, “The serpent that did sting thy father’s life/ Now wears his crown” (1.5.39). The reference to a serpent is a Biblical allusion. In the story of Adam and Eve, Satan disguises himself as a snake and encourages Eve to disobey God and take a bite from the forbidden tree of knowledge. The description of Claudius as a serpent implies that he too is the embodiment of evil. In Renaissance society, ambition and the pursuit of power were seen as admirable qualities, and Shakespeare’s description of Claudius in Biblical terms reminds the reader that Claudius’ actions should viewed as reprehensible. The most evident Biblical reference in Hamlet is to the story of Cain and Abel. At the beginning of the Old Testament, two brothers offer sacrifices to God. God accepts Abel’s sacrifice of sheep, but rejects Cain’s offering. Cain then takes Abel out to a field and murders him in what Foakes calls “an act of wanton violence for which no motive is given” (Foakes 25). This act of violence is repeated in Claudius’s murder of his brother, and Shakespeare mentions this many times. Claudius himself acknowledges the similarity to humanity’s first murder, saying, “O, my offence is rank! It smells to heaven./ It hath the primal eldest curse upon’t,/ A brother’s murder” (3.3.36). Hamlet also alludes to the story when he describes Cain as he “that did the first murder!” (5.1.72).Echoes of the Cain and Abel story are not simply a coincidence, but rather serve as a validation of the extreme measures of violence in Hamlet. Critics contend that Renaissance society was “a society in which the use of violence was accepted as a necessary means of maintaining order in hierarchal relationships” (Fletcher 192). That is, violence was often necessary to restore the social and political order which God had arranged. Old Hamlet was the ruler whom God appointed to rule Elsinore. However, when Claudius repeated the fundamental sin of murdering one’s own brother, he destroyed the natural political order. Cohen writes, “An unequal power structure . . . must produce turbulence as the power axis shifts and is shifted by desire and possibility” (Cohen 4). The violence which results from Old Hamlet’s murder is inevitable as Hamlet attempts to restore stability to the kingdom. Hamlet is considered one of Shakespeare’s bloodiest plays; by the final scene, Laertes, Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Claudius, Gertrude, and Hamlet are all dead. While a body count of eight might seem extreme, the numerous religious references throughout the play function as a reminder that the violence is being used on God’s behalf and is therefore justified. In relation to my argument, the most violent deaths are those of Claudius and Hamlet himself. The murder of Claudius is the primary focus of much of the play as Hamlet attempts to avenge the “murder most foul” (1.4.27) of his father. However, Hamlet’s revenge is tainted by his moments of indecision. When he is finally presented with the perfect opportunity to kill Claudius, he is consumed with the Christian notion of the afterlife. The common conception was that if one died while in prayer, they would automatically go to heaven. Hamlet explains that in order to guarantee Claudius a spot in hell, he must kill Claudius in his most natural state, “when he is drunk asleep, or in his rage,/ Or in th’incestuous pleasure of his bed,/ At gaming, swearing, or about some act/ That has no relish of salvation in’t” (3.3.89). The fact that Claudius will be subjected to God’s punishment as well excuses Hamlet’s violent thoughts. The actual murder of Claudius is equally complex. In the process, Hamlet accidentally kills Polonius in what Foakes calls a primal act of violence, or “violence that has no motive, or is inadequately motivated, violence that may appear to arise spontaneously, and to be essentially meaningless, until meaning is attributed to it after the event” (Foakes 16). However, after Hamlet kills Polonius, he says, “Heaven hath pleased it so/ To punish me with this, and this with me,/ That I must be their scourge and minister” (3.4.157). The Christian reading of this “rash and bloody deed” (3.4.26) implies that while the death of Polonius is regrettable, it is a necessary step in Hamlet’s process of restoring God’s order. The murder of Claudius is also graphic as Hamlet stabs him with a poisoned sword, yet it is depicted as retribution of Claudius’s disregard for the natural order of rulers. Hamlet is not seen as committing a simple act of violent revenge, but rather, he acts as an agent of God and uses violence in order to punish the character who destroyed the kingdom’s political stability. Hamlet’s death at the end of the final scene comes as a shock to many readers, who have come to feel a sort of sympathy for this grief-stricken and confused protagonist. However, the death of Claudius would have made Hamlet the rightful heir to the throne. Although Hamlet was not evil or manipulative in the way that Claudius was, he lacked the characteristics of a good king. His indecisive nature and spontaneous violent outbursts would have made him unsuitable to govern the kingdom. Therefore, Hamlet’s violent death is equally as necessary to maintain the political order. God instituted the murder of Hamlet so as to ensure that the best ruler would be at the head of Elsinore. The final scene shows Fortinbras as arriving to take the position of king, and his respect for the dead prince Hamlet indicates that God has chosen a worthy ruler. There are also many Biblical references found in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, but these references are decidedly less violent in nature. Antonio betrays his brother Prospero in order to steal his title of Duke of Milan. However, this act of treachery is much less bloody, closely paralleling the Biblical story of Joseph and his brothers. After Joseph’s brothers determined that he was the favorite of their father Israel, they conspired to kill Joseph. At the last minute, though, the brothers decided that they had nothing to gain from killing Joseph and instead sold him into slavery. Joseph was transported to Egypt, where he was blessed by God and eventually came to be in charge of the entire nation. Many years later, Joseph’s brothers traveled to Egypt, and Joseph did not punish them but forgave them for their sins (Genesis 37-43). Similarly, Antonio was jealous of his brother’s power, but rather than murdering him, Antonio persuaded the King of Naples that he was a better ruler and should therefore be given the title of Duke. Prospero was sent to the island where the play takes place, and he learned the art of magic and grew very powerful. Upon Antonio’s arrival on the island, Prospero uses his magic to psychologically torture him, but eventually forgives him. Just as with Joseph, there are numerous instances throughout the play which suggest that God was watching over Prospero and Miranda. When Miranda asks if they arrived on the island because of foul play, Prospero responds, “By foul play, as thou sayst, were we heaved thence,/ But blessedly holp hither” (1.2.61). Later, Miranda again asks how they came to this island, and Prospero answer, “By providence divine” (1.2.160). While many critics have argued that Prospero is truly an evil figure, these references to heavenly intervention indicate God’s presence in the life of this displaced ruler. Although the audience does not actually witness Antonio taking over Prospero’s dukedom, Prospero goes into great detail while describing the events to Miranda. While the transfer of power is represented as extremely violent in many of Shakespeare’s plays, this usurping was remarkably peaceful. Prospero explains that Antonio was already making all of the political decisions for the state, while he spent the majority of his time in the library. Prospero describes, “The government I cast upon my brother,/ And to my state grew stranger, being transported/ And rapt in secret studies” (1.2.75-77). Antonio grew accustomed to this authority, and after giving the King of Naples monetary tribute, he convinced the King to “confer fair Milan, with all the honours” (1.2.126-127) to him. The King’s men captured Prospero and Miranda in the middle of the night, and they were sent to the island. While Antonio’s methods are clearly underhanded, his actions are not physically violent. The nonviolence in a situation which was typically represented as murderous has particular significance. In addition to the obvious likeness to the Biblical story of Joseph, the lack of violence inflicted upon Prospero suggests that Prospero’s death is not a part of God’s plan to restore the natural political hierarchy. The second event which would typically be depicted as violent is Prospero’s revenge. The revenge play was a popular theatrical tradition in the Renaissance, and as seen in Hamlet, the act of revenge often resulted in multiple deaths. In contrast, the revenge in The Tempest is considerably less violent. The purpose of Prospero’s revenge is not to murder Antonio, but rather to elicit feelings of remorse in those that betrayed him. Even Prospero acknowledges that this method of revenge is atypical, saying, “The rarer action is in virtue than in vengeance” (5.1.27-28). Instead of physical violence, Prospero relies upon psychological torment, inflicting the men with fits of insanity and letting the King believe that his son had died in the storm. There are numerous religious references throughout the quest for vengeance, suggesting God’s involvement in Prospero’s activities. After Prospero uses Ariel and other spirits to help induce the men’s illusions, Ariel calls herself and the other spirits “ministers of fate” (3.3.61), implying that the spirits were acting as part of God’s larger plan. In addition, Prospero uses a specifically Christian word choice in order to explain that his revenge is complete when Antonio and his men are “penitent” (5.1.28). These religious references and the lack of violence in Prospero’s revenge are important because they signify that God was actively working to restore both the state of the men’s souls and political stability, and he did not need Prospero to act as his agent in order to do so. What does the lack of human violence indicate about the need for supernatural intervention? In general, it was believed that God appointed the ruler who would best serve the kingdom, and violence was used in order to uphold these ideal political hierarchies. Prospero admits that he was more interested in his books than in ruling the kingdom, saying, “My library/ Was dukedom large enough” (1.2.109-110). He also acknowledges that Antonio was a successful ruler, saying that he had “Perfected how to grant suits,/ How to deny them, who t’advance and who/ To trash for over-topping” (1.2.79-80). The lack of violence used to remove Prospero and to avenge the loss of his title implies that God believed this shift in power was a positive transformation. The play concludes with the proper ruler, Antonio, still in power, officially ending the need for God to mediate the political stability. With such different representations of violence, it can be hard to believe that one author wrote both Hamlet and The Tempest. However, I believe that examining both plays allows the reader to discover Shakespeare’s position on violence. As I stated earlier, the church and the state were inexorably linked together. Critics contend that religion was used to impose a certain set of values on the public, specifically the values of those in power. Sharpe argues that expressions of violence such as public executions were “not merely displays of brutality, bur rather attempts by the authorities to exert ideological control, to reassert certain values of obedience and conformity” (Sharpe 158). In this same way, those in power during Shakespeare’s time used violence to maintain their power and then manipulated their Christian values in an attempt to justify their actions. I believe these plays serve as a critique on those using religion to excuse the violence which inevitably occurs within political structures. Shakespeare uses the excessive violence in Hamlet as a caution against pretending that one is struggling for power simply on behalf of God. On the other hand, The Tempest has a much smaller degree of violence, suggesting that retribution is less for those who do not claim to be acting as a violent agent of God. Overall, these plays imply that an acceptable distance be placed between the inherently violent world of politics and the Christian realm which should never serve as an excuse for this violence.

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