Literary Wisdom

Literary Wisdom: Hamlet, Act Two

I apologize for the delay in publishing this post. I hope you´ll enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it!

Hello, everyone–

In the first “Literary Wisdom” post, I discussed five quotes from Act I of Hamlet that I loved the best and why…but I didn’t quite explain the plot so far. With that said, if you are not familiar with the plot of Hamlet, please read the summaries of Acts I and II here–then come back and read my favorite quotes.

(NOTE: These quotes, all from scene II, are taken from the Folger Shakespeare Library paperback edition.)

“A dream itself is but a shadow.” ~Prince Hamlet,  Line 279

Although Hamlet utters this statement while he is showing off his wit with his “friends” Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, what he says is nonetheless true. However probable, however appealing, however realistic a goal seems, we must remember that that dream is only passing, of as little importance as a shadow. Allowing ourselves to wholly live in our dreams and not in the present God has given us is thus foolish.

“For we were born yesterday, and know nothing, because our days on earth are a shadow.” ~Job 8:9, NKJV

“The Earth seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy…this majestical roof, fretted with golden fire–why, it appeareth nothing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors.” (punctuation changed a bit) ~Prince Hamlet,  Lines 321-326

Here Hamlet is still talking with his friends but in a gentler, more eloquent mood. He is no longer engaged in a Beatrice-and-Benedick-esque “merry war,” with sharp witticisms flying off the tongue and overall humorous dialogue as a result; the Danish prince, trying so hard to understand what is happening around him, is now quieted by his own thoughts and meditations on meaning and life.

In his observation, the Prince is realizing that only in his suffering does he see the tangible world as meaningless. He guides his two companions through his thoughts by using a classic example of parallelism–that is, he constantly praises the beauty of a specific thing in nature then falls back and describes that thing as an entirely different, temporary, and worthless being. He goes back and forth between the Renaissance teachings and the Bible teachings, which is the ultimate inward battle Hamlet faces throughout the entire play.

Ultimately, Hamlet is partially right. The earth is “foul and pestilent” when compared to our Father’s splendor, yet God still has provided for us by our fleshly dwelling. Nevertheless, something about the passage sobers and convicts us. Are we really trying to live for something so temporary, something that can be so easily created or destroyed by our God’s omnipotent speech? Why don’t we realize the emptiness of this world although we always long for something more than Earth?

“And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever.” ~1 John 2:17, NKJV

“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?” ~Prince Hamlet, Lines 327-332

This speech by Hamlet is a continuation of the quote above, but it focuses on man instead of the earth and contains more Biblical overtones. At first we witness the Prince almost bowing down towards humanity, his eloquence evoking classic Renaissance art in the likes of Michelangelo‘s kin. We listen to the magical euphony of “express and admirable” and “beauty of the world”; we think of the highest in heaven with “god” and “angel”; we begin to believe that we might not have loved our kind as we should. As we are surrounded in this dreamy, beautied paradise of words, Hamlet viciously and literally brings us back to earth—to the fact that we are nothing but dust unworthily compiled by God. He ends with a question—why are we faced with this paradox?

To answer this, let us look at what Hamlet believes about mankind–that all humans were created by God. He believes Someone worked to bring about humanity; that’s what he means by saying, “What a piece of work is a man[.]” The Prince also believes man was not only created, but that he was created from dust. This is a clear allusion to Genesis 2:7:

“And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.” (NKJV)

If you read further on in Genesis, you’ll see that God created man (1) in His own image and (2) to have dominion over the earth:

“Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth. So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” ~Genesis 1:26-27

No other created being is more splendid than humanity, for God fashioned him as someone set apart from all the flowers, deer, skies, etc. That is why Hamlet gives such praise to our kind. God works through our dust, giving us a soul able to step before the throne of grace. But Hamlet has trouble accepting that.

“Use every man after his desert and who shall ′scape whipping? Use them after your own honor and dignity.” ∼Prince Hamlet, Lines 555–558

(Note “use” = “treat”, “after” = “according to”, and “desert” = “what one deserves.”)

Hamlet says this after a group of actors perform before him, when he tells Polonius to get them decent guest rooms in the castle. In modern language, his statement reads, “If you treat every man according to what he deserves, who will escape suffering? Treat them according to your own honor and dignity.”

Statements like these help us understand why Shakespeare portrays Hamlet as “a prince beloved by the people. He converses easily with people of every social strata, as demonstrated by his ease in conversation with everyone he encounters outside of court: soldiers, players, and gravediggers[.]” (CliffsComplete edition of Hamlet, pp. 147-148.)  As you can see in places like act II, scene II; act IV, scene IV; and act V, scene I, Hamlet lives by the golden rule and Jesus’ command to treat others as the way you’d want to be treated. He knows we are not able to rightfully condemn others–only God can judge truthfully and righteously. In other words, we cannot treat others according to what they deserve if we deserve the same thing–suffering in the flames of hell.

“Hell and Destruction are before the LORD; So how much more the hearts of the sons of men.” ~Proverbs 15:11

“The devil hath power t’ assume a pleasing shape.” (punctuation changed a bit) ~Prince Hamlet, Lines 628-629

Quite often we are blinded by the seeming light and beauty of the devil’s temptation. Our unquenchable desire for pleasure at that moment outweighs our love for the Lord. We trick ourselves into thinking that indulging in our sin is trivial compared to God’s stream of grace. This “primrose path” is often the most excruciating to fall away from in the end, as everything we do there seems so little and light.

“What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it?” ~Romans 6:1-2

In Hamlet’s case, he is unsure whether or not the ghost is a messenger from heaven or hell. He hopes to prove this by staging a play; this is turn sets the stage for the next act, where Hamlet will “catch the conscience of the king.”

I hope I’ve done a satisfactory job of exposing the deep spiritual struggle Hamlet is starting to face as he is confronted with his mission of vengeance. I highly recommend Dr. Ryken’s guide to Hamlet and C.S. Lewis’ essay “Hamlet: The Prince or the Poem?” For more information on that particular topic; Hamlet’s conflict will only grow deeper in acts III and IV, when he will indulge in the darkest sins.


~Sarah Merly


October 14, 2017

Isaiah 53