Critics have again become attuned to the religious overtones of Shakespeare’s plays, not so much in a new-critical sense of tracing allusions as in the new-historicist sense of seeing how Shakespeare’s plays are embedded in and interact with the contested religious world of Elizabethan England.

Beatrice Groves notes ( Texts and Traditions: Religion in Shakespeare 1592-1604 (Oxford English Monographs) , 3-4 ), for instance, that “Hamlet . . . can be read as an extended meditation on maimed funeral rites. The play begins with a mourning period interrupted by a wedding—‘the funeral baked meats | Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables’—and one precipitating cause of its catastrophe is Laertes’s anger at his father’s obscure burial: ‘No trophy, sword, nor hatchment o’er his bones, | No noble rite nor formal ostentation.’? Ophelia too is interred with curtailed obsequies.” Laertes claims that she will be a “ministr’ing angel” and in this reference, and Horatio’s final words to Hamlet, Groves hears an echo of “the Latin antiphon sung during the Requiem Mass: In Paradisum deducant te angeli . . . aeternum habeas requiem (May the angels bear you to paradise, and may you have eternal rest).”

The world of Hamlet is the world of Shakespeare and his contemporaries:

“This echo of Catholic liturgy suggests that these repeatedly disrupted sacraments engage with the psychic rupture caused by Reformation’s abandonment of traditional mourning practices. The world of the play reflects the world in which it was first performed, and with the destruction of the panoply of Catholicism, rituals become fractured and fragmentary. The words of the requiem are spoken by a friend rather than a priest, Ophelia sings ‘lauds’ over her own drowning body, and Hamlet’s father comes from purgatory to request a rather different sacrifice than the masses which were traditionally offered for the repose of souls. These distortions seem to brood over Protestantism’s destruction of the comforting and familiar rituals of death, and the hero’s stasis itself can be read as a reflection on the unavailability of official forms of mourning.”

Yet Groves wisely avoids drawing conclusions concerning Shakespeare’s own convictions: These echoes do “not commit us to believing that he was a crypto-Catholic.” Like other Protestants, he recognizes the symbolic power of old Catholicism, but that doesn’t necessary indicate that he himself was Catholic.

More on: Literature

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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