Shakespeare, Hamlet, and a Jab at Sola Fide


Mark Bonocore

The other night I was watching television and came across Sir Lawrence Oliver's old black-and-white filmed version of William Shakespeare's Hamlet. So, I decided to watch for a while. Now, I've seen dramatizations of Hamlet countless times, including this particular version. Yet, for some reason, I happened to be wearing my "apologist's hat" at the time and, while watching, I noticed something truly remarkable.

As many of you are no doubt aware, several historians have recently tried to argue that William Shakespeare was in fact an "underground Catholic". So, I will not go into the arguments (pro or con) for that theory here. However, what no one will deny is that Shakespeare's plays do reflect a remarkable amount of distinctively Catholic theology; and while watching Oliver's movie the other night, it became readily apparent to me that one of the most commonly-quoted Shakespearean lines may, in fact, be an intended, but well-disguised, jab at Luther's error of sola fide – that is, "faith alone". The line that I refer to is from Act I, Scene V, where Hamlet tells his old friend:

"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

But why do I say that this is Shakespeare taking a jab at sola fide? Well, let's explore the context.

First of all, it is most interesting to note that in Act I, Scene II of the play, we learn that Prince Hamlet has recently returned home to Denmark from the University of Wittenberg, where he has been studying. For, in that scene, King Claudius says,

"For your intent in going back to school in Wittenberg, it is the most retrograde to our desire; and we beseech you, bend you to remain here in cheer and comfort of our eye, our chiefest courtier, cousin, and our son."

So, Hamlet was a student at that mecca of Lutheran theology: the University of Wittenberg; the home of Luther himself. Indeed, at the time in which Shakespeare was writing, one could not possibly make a reference to Wittenberg without calling to mind the school of Luther and the Protestant faith – a faith that was also, of course, the state religion of Hamlet's Kingdom of Denmark at this time.

But, the connections to Wittenberg and Protestant learning do not end there. For, not only Hamlet, but also his friend Horatio is presented as a student at Wittenberg – that is, of the Protestant religion. For, in the same Act I, Scene II, we learn that Horatio himself is not a native of Denmark, but a "school chum" of Hamlet who has come to pay his respects at his father, the king's, funeral. It reads:

Horatio: "Hail to your lordship!"

Hamlet: "I am glad to see you well. Horatio! – or I do forget myself."

Horatio: "The same, my lord, and your poor servant ever."

Hamlet: "Sir, my good friend – I'll change that name with you. And what makes you from Wittenberg, Horatio?"

So, both Hamlet and Horatio were students together at the oh-so-Protestant University of Wittenberg when news reached them that Hamlet's father, the King, had died, and they have individually traveled to Denmark for his funeral; only to discover that Hamlet's uncle Claudius has succeeded to the throne and has scandalously married Hamlet's mother, the Queen.

Ah, but of course the story does not end there. For, the following night, Horatio and two of the palace guards experience an apparition of Hamlet's father's ghost. The ghost will not speak to them, however. So, the next night, Horatio tells Hamlet about the apparition and, together with the same palace guards, they wait for its reappearance. At this point, the ghost motions for Hamlet to follow it, leaving Horatio and the guards behind. And, once ghostly father and human son are alone, the ghost tells Hamlet how he was murdered by his brother Claudius and begs to be avenged. Yet, in doing so, the ghost bemoans his own spiritual state – presenting a version of his afterlife which is nothing short of the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory. In Act I, Scene V, the dead king says:

"I am thy father's spirit, doom'd for a certain term to walk the night, and for the day confin'd to fast in fires, till the foul crimes done in my days of nature are burnt and purg'd away."

So, here Shakespeare is clearly presenting the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory and the need for justification and sanctification to continue after death if they are not completed in this life – a doctrine which Lutherans (and all other Protestants) bitterly denied. Shakespeare also clearly presents this state as a temporary thing, and so he is not speaking about hell, but about Purgatory – that is, the fact that the king died in an ill-prepared condition; that he did not have a chance to properly repent of his sins. Indeed, the ghostly king goes on, recounting his murder by his brother Claudius:

"Thus was I, sleeping, by a brother's hand of life, of crown, of queen, at once dispatch'd; cut off even in the blossoms of my sin, unhous'led, disappointed, unanel'ed, no reck'ning made, but sent to my account with all my imperfections on my head."

Clearly, this view of salvation flies in the face of Lutheranism and of the prevailing Protestant faith of England in Shakespeare's own day; and most certainly that of the English crown.

Now, hearing that his father has been murdered and is suffering in such a way, Hamlet is of course quite upset, if not driven to the point of madness by it. But, is it merely a matter of fraternal love and wounded family honor that has so shaken Hamlet here? Or rather could it not be something more? If he was a faithful student of the University of Wittenberg – that is, a devoted Protestant intellectual who has been taught that a man is saved by "faith alone", requiring no venerable works and with no need to worry about a period of purgation after death (if not in this life), it becomes quite apparent that this apparition of his departed father has stripped Hamlet of his very religion and plunged him into a world where, not only his presumably reliable theology has been ripped apart, but where now his very future (and that of his family and country!) depends on his personal action – that is, on his "works" (in this case, setting things right in the kingdom by avenging his father's murder). Quite a cold-water-shock for a "comfortable" and "care free" Protestant who had always presumed that one could, as Luther put it,

…commit mortal sin one thousand times a day and still not loose his justification.

And this brings us to the line in question – that is, the obvious jab at Luther's supposedly "Biblical" doctrine. After the ghost disappears, Hamlet is rejoined with Horatio and the two guards, who pressed him to tell them what the ghost said. Hamlet, however, refuses and says to Horatio – that is, to his fellow-Protestant student from Wittenberg:

"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

In other words, "You Lutherans have it wrong." Purgatory is a reality, and what they have been taught at Wittenberg (i.e., what Horatio still apparently takes to be sound doctrine) is merely a human "philosophy", and not a true religion (a truth faith) in any realistic sense.

Indeed, while Shakespeare may not have been a full-blown Catholic (the jury is still out on that one), I think that this example provides conclusive proof that he at least followed Catholic doctrine in regard to justification, and was also quite hostile to the Protestant error, albeit in a very shrewdly cryptic, carefully disguised way. Given the details cited above, I simply cannot see how the famous line is meant to refer to anything else but the fact that the Protestants misunderstand justification and that Purgatory is a Divine reality after all – a reality that Hamlet (in the dramatic context of the play) has experienced first-hand.

Mark Bonocore