Eugene Peterson has commented on the unhappy fact that modern pastors have become “spiritual technologists” who reduce pastoral care to “running the church” and problem-solving. “The secularized mind,” he writes, “is terrorized by mysteries.” Those in its grip “deny or ignore the mysteries and diminish human existence to what can be managed, controlled, and fixed. We live in a cult of experts who explain and solve. The vast technological apparatus around us gives the impression that there is a tool for everything if we can only afford it.”
As an alternative, Peterson suggests that pastoral care is an art that requires a poet’s sensitivity to concrete detail. Along similar lines, Alasdair MacIntyre has said that novels are better guides to the surfaces and depths of human life than even the most refined statistical studies. Literature’s ability to express the subtly layered dynamics of human interaction and motivation, its capacity to hold a mirror to nature, makes it a valuable tool in the development of mature pastoral care.
More than any other play, Hamlet is Shakespeare’s mirror to nature. Hamlet is a notoriously knotted problem play. First, there are textual problems: editors must work from three early texts that vary widely in length and detail. Further, even the most complete text that can be constructed from the early editions has glaring lacunae and apparent contradictions. Aside from relatively trivial matters such as Hamlet’s age and Horatio’s nationality, major thematic questions are left unanswered. If, for example, Gertrude’s marriage to Claudius was incestuous, why were Hamlet and the ghost the only ones to notice? It never becomes clear whether the ghost bears a message from heaven or hell, whether he is a redeemer or a tempter. What, moreover, did Gertrude know—and when did she know it? And, of course, there is the famed question of the prince’s “delay,” a problem for which critics have provided a plethora of medical, Freudian, and moral solutions.
The problems of Hamlet have led many critics to conclude that it was composed and revised in some haste. Especially in regard to minor details, this explanation of the play’s rough edges is probably accurate. That Hamlet is thirty is not revealed until the final act, after four acts in which a reader will likely have envisioned a younger man. It seems plausible that Shakespeare’s conception of Hamlet evolved, and that the texts we possess fossilize disparate elements from various stages of the evolution. Lacking time and perhaps the inclination to tie up loose ends, Shakespeare left Hamlet as it was and moved on to other things.
Whatever the plausibility of this explanation, there are also clear signs of careful composition. The doubling of character types (Gertrude and Ophelia as “unfaithful” women; Hamlet’s and Ophelia’s madness), even tripling (Hamlet, Laertes, and Fortinbras as vengeful sons; Claudius, Polonius, and King Hamlet as fathers) tie together what might have become a labyrinth of minor plots. Dead fathers keep turning up, a ghost at the beginning and corpses in the middle and at the end. The appearance of Fortinbras in the first scene and, triumphantly, in the final scene provides an ironic inclusio on the theme of revenge. Imagery of traps, secrecy and spying, “poison in the ear,” serpents and gardens harness minor scenes and speeches to the main action of the play. The intricate interweaving of themes and imagery belies T. S. Eliot’s judgment that Hamlet is an artistic failure.
Given these indications of unity, one might offer a more sympathetic interpretation of the play’s anomalies. Instead of “contradictions” and “loose ends,” we could style them “mysteries” that serve the overall thematic purposes of the play. On this interpretation, difficulties are not problems to be solved, but devices to enrich and deepen the play’s realism. Holes give the play its depth.
In particular, the unanswered questions reinforce one of the major themes of the play—the opacity of the human heart. The reasons for Hamlet’s delay, after all, are hidden not only to the reader but to Hamlet himself. Hamlet’s soliloquies are full of bewildered self-reproach. When the First Player weeps for the fictional Hecuba and when Fortinbras risks death in Poland for “an eggshell,” Hamlet asks himself why he has not acted on the ghost’s instructions, but never answers his own interrogation. As Cedric Watts explains it, Shakespeare seems to have deliberately avoided providing an answer so as to “generate the sense of a deep, inaccessible region in Hamlet’s nature.” Watts adds that modernist literature and criticism has abandoned the traditional assumption “that if a character asks a big question about his own nature, the text is obliged to supply the answer.” Modernist critics are therefore comfortable with the conclusion that “the function of such a question may be to draw attention to the absence of an accessible answer.”
Hamlet drives home a similar point in the pipe playing scene with those two irritating ciphers, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. When Guildenstern protests that he cannot play the pipe, Hamlet rages: “You would play upon me; you would seem to know my stops; you would pluck out the heart of my mystery; you would sound me from my lowest note to the top of my compass; and there is much music, excellent voice, in this little organ; yet you cannot make it speak. ‘Sblood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe?”
It is Hamlet’s emphasis on what has been called the “incomprehensibility of man” that makes the play something of a cautionary tale for the modern pastor. Of course, as Thomas Oden points out, when a parishioner asks his pastor for counsel, he has a right to expect a specific, and a specifically Christian, answer; Christians should not shrink from claiming that, at least on the biggest questions, they have the answer. But in an age dominated by technique, Hamlet is a healthy reminder that the care of souls is not a mechanical matter of input and output, and pastoral counsel is not a question of applying a handful of rules. The infinite variety of human pain cannot be redeemed by the application of twelve simple steps.
Curiously, the most anti-secular of American Protestants have often been the quickest to adopt the latest “scientific” techniques in pastoral care or church growth. Shakespeare’s play informs the evangelical pastor especially that understanding, much less guiding, sinful humans is an exceedingly complex, frustrating, difficult, all but impossible proposition. The cure of souls is difficult because the disease of the soul runs deep and takes myriad forms. Hamlet would doubtless have resonated to the words of the prophet Jeremiah: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick. Who can know it?”
Peter J. Leithart is a Presbyterian pastor and a Research Fellow for Biblical Horizons, a Christian think tank in Niceville, Florida. He is also the author of The Kingdom and the Power: Rediscovering the Centrality of the Church (P&R Publishing).