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Hamlet’s Choice: Religion and resistance in Shakespeare’s revenge tragedies, by Peter Lake

by
30 October 2020

Paul Edmondson reads about Shakespeare’s revenge tragedies

RELIGIOUS breakdown, spiritual crises, conspiracies, and uncertainty about the nation’s future: Hamlet’s Choice illuminates afresh two of the most popular plays of Shakespeare’s own time: the bloody revenge tragedy Titus Andronicus, and that peerless exploration of existential self-questioning, Hamlet.

When asked to address a cast of actors, Peter Lake had to confess that he was more interested in the political and religious climates of the 1590s than in modern theatrical interpretations. Lake’s approach is primarily historical, but his admirable close reading engages thoroughly with literary contexts. In both plays, Shakespeare bodies forth tyranny and resistance to it and portrays the anxiety felt by his audiences about who would succeed Queen Elizabeth I, and how.

Lake effortlessly weaves the threat posed by Mary, Queen of Scots, and Queen Elizabeth’s treatment of her into his readings. He does not, however, mention Richard II or King John, both of which significantly portray two cousins vying for a crown.

In Titus Andronicus and Hamlet, Shakespeare took full ownership of the popular taste for revenge tragedy and used it to draw resonantly political and surreal comparisons — for example, between Titus’s daughter, the raped and mutilated Lavinia, and the execution of traitors who were hanged, drawn, and quartered, including Roman Catholics. Hamlet dramatises tensions that cannot be resolved. Critics who seek only Roman Catholicism or Protestantism in the play, and who continue to perpetuate the question “Why does Hamlet delay?”, miss its true complexity and subtlety. Hamlet is as much about religious or political salvation and “confessional identity” as it is about opposing theologies and tragic heroism.

Lake’s 18 plates evoke England’s worry as it looked to the French Wars of Religion (King Henry III was assassinated in August 1589) and the compulsory belief in the Tudor dynasty and its succession. The usurping King Henry VII had had no direct claim to become king, and everyone knew that the Tudor line was likely to die out with Queen Elizabeth I.

public domainRobert Thew, “Hamlet, Horatio, Marcellus and the Ghost” (Hamlet I.4), from Boydell’s Illustrations of the Dramatic Works of Shakespeare (1796, 1852, US). In Peter Lake’s book

An engraving from Ecclesiae anglicanae trophea (1589) which shows the murder of Thomas Becket is illuminatingly compared to Hamlet, who stands over the praying King Claudius and almost murders him. Both RC and C of E audiences would have been reminded of England’s break with Rome in that shocking and memorable moment.

Lake’s measured and insightful account succeeds in showing us how Shakespeare held the mirror up to nature to reveal the form and pressure of his time. The artistic and, indeed, theological and spiritual choices that Shakespeare made when writing Hamlet galvanised his audiences’ different perspectives by presenting to them an unflinching ambiguity, a quality that for centuries we have been quick, quite rightly, to assign to Shakespeare’s genius.

 

The Revd Dr Paul Edmondson is a Church of England priest and Head of Research for The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

 

Hamlet’s Choice: Religion and resistance in Shakespeare’s revenge tragedies
Peter Lake
Yale £35
(978-0-300-24781-7)
Church Times Bookshop £31.50

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