Literary Wisdom

Literary Wisdom: Hamlet, Act Three

Hello, everyone–

Act III of Hamlet is where the story shifts from the prince’s thinking to the prince’s acting and thinking. It’s the place where we root for Hamlet as he stages the play to convict Claudius of his sin, yet it is also where we despise him for dwelling in his furious hate as he sheathes his sword behind his praying uncle. (When is it better to kill someone than to let them live? Act III, Scene III of Hamlet.) It’s the most action-filled portion of the play covered thus far; you can find a summary of act III online if you’d like to find out more and get a better sense of the context.

Although I could ramble about Hamlet for ever, I believe now is the time to let Shakespeare’s words take center stage, “for murder, though it have no tongue, will speak.”

“Virtue cannot so inoculate our old stock but we shall relish of it.” ~Prince Hamlet, Scene 1, Lines 127-129 (Folger)

Per the CliffsComplete edition of the tragedy, the modern version of Hamlet’s statement reads, “No matter how we may try to bond virtue to our ‘old stock’–our human nature–we still are tainted by original sin.”

Hamlet’s insight always reminds me of our flesh, vainly grasping for something inside instead of outside this world for help in attaining perfection. Yet here is always some small part of us is convinced that all such efforts are hopeless. How can we ever deceive ourselves into believing that we could break free of the curse given to us by none other than our own Creator? If we are accursed by Him, then He is above us. When we neglect dependence on and belief of Almighty God, whatever we do to live a pure life is at best hypocritical.

“But we are all like an unclean thing, And all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags; We all fade as a leaf, And our iniquities, like the wind, Have taken us away.” ~Isaiah 64:6, NKJV

“I am myself indifferent honest, but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me: I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious, with more offenses at my beck than I have thoughts to put them in, imagination to give them shape, or time to act them in. What should such fellows as I do crawling between earth and heaven?” ~Prince Hamlet, Scene 1, Lines 132-138 (Folger)

A few lines after the quote above, we still find Hamlet despising his flesh and his actions. He begins by saying that he is nothing noteworthy–he is neither morally illustrious nor morally base. Immediately afterwards, Hamlet wishes he was never born; for in his words, he is “very proud, revengeful, [and] ambitious.” The prince even accuses himself of nearly infinite “offenses” and loses hope at ever becoming righteous.

I must allow that a significant element of truth lies in Hamlet’s musing; after all, we can never be the perfect ones we were created to be without understanding how devilish we are in the flesh. However, giving up in the pursuit of righteousness because of our sinfulness is just as dishonorable as despising righteousness itself. If you look at the plot of Hamlet as a whole, you can even argue that this statement embodies the downfall of the prince; from this point forward, Hamlet falls into a spiral of rash, passionate decisions, depending on himself for the right course of action.

After this Job opened his mouth and cursed the day of his birth. And Job spoke, and said: “May the day perish on which I was born, and the night in which it was said, ‘A male child is conceived.'” ~Job 3:1-3, NKJV

“In the corrupted currents of this world, offense’s gilded hand may shove by justice, and oft ’tis seen the wicked prize itself buys out the law. But ’tis not so above: there is no shuffling; there the action lies in his true nature, and we ourselves compelled, even to the teeth and forehead of our faults, to give in evidence.” ~King Claudius, Scene 3, Lines 61-68 (Folger)

The only true success of Hamlet’s play is the immediate conviction of Claudius, who rushes to the prayer chamber of the castle as soon as Hamlet “catches” his conscience. “We can sin without consequence in this world,” muses the guilt-ridden king, “yet God knows everything. If He rules heaven, I have no excuse; I am the only one to blame. How can I pretend to be righteous when God sees everything in the human heart?” I find it fascinating that King Claudius can understand so much about the Biblical doctrine of God’s judgement, coming so close to repentence and then, as he says later on, deciding still to hold the things of the world. Why should he confess his sin when doing so will strip him of his “ambition, crown, and queen”?

“Remember therefore how you have received and heard; hold fast and repent. Therefore if you will not watch, I will come upon you as a thief, and you will not know what hour I will come upon you.” ~Revelation 3:3, NKJV

“My words fly up, my thoughts remain below; words without thoughts never to heaven go.” ~King Claudius, Scene 3, Lines 102-103 (Folger)

(NOTE: “thoughts”=”sincerity”)

The last words of scene 3 are of Claudius turning away from prayer–when the king realizes how insincere he is in in empty talk. Indeed, if one reads his “prayer,” it feels much like a self-important, philosophical, and rambling monologue…not exactly like an appeal to the throne of grace for mercy.

Prayer never feels quite right when one’s innermost thoughts are “protected” from the all-seeing eyes of the Almighty. It not only displeases God (to say the least) but is completely ineffective and even irreverent. In summary, if you’d like to have a primer on the worst manner in which to pray, read the beginning of Matthew 6–and act III, scene 3 of Hamlet. Yes, you can gain tremendous insight from Claudius’ prayer, but it can also be quite pompous…and thus, almost amusing.

“And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.” ~Matthew 6:5-6, NKJV

“Refrain to-night; and that shall lend a kind of easiness to the next abstinence: the next more easy; for use almost can change the stamp of nature, and exorcise the devil or throw him out with wondrous potency.” ~Prince Hamlet, Scene 4, Lines 165-170 (Cliffs)

Here Prince Hamlet is in Queen Gertrude’s chamber, pleading with his mother to avoid an incestuous relationship with Claudius. “Refrain tonight,” he begs, “and it will be easier to restrain yourself tomorrow; for abstinence can almost change the way you were before, and it can throw out the devil with wondrous power.”

I love this about Hamlet–how he is so desperate for his mother to turn away from her sin. Although he has difficulty hiding his anger and grief over his mother and uncle/father’s relationship, the prince certainly has a dear and sweet heart underneath his tempestuous emotion. He loves his mother despite everything she’s done, which leaves me with one question—why don’t we?

“Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.” ~Hebrews 2:14-15, NKJV

This act was a hugely difficult one in terms of narrowing down all the profound writing to five *relatively* brief quotes. In selecting the literary wisdom I wanted to discuss here, I had to ignore the great classic, “To be or not to be—that is the question” speech at the beginning of scene 1. Nevertheless, I strongly encourage you to pick up a richly-annotated copy of the soliloquy and study it on your own; it’s a horrific yet beautiful description of just how bleak life (and death) is without Christ.


~”Thine evermore, most dear readers, whilst this flesh is to her,”

Sarah Merly


October 21, 2017

Isaiah 53