Two millennia ago, a Jewish rabbi declared that he had the authority to forgive sins or “send away mistakes” and transferred that authority to his closest followers. An early follower, Tertullian, called the action of repentance and forgiveness a “plank” for a “shipwrecked man.” The plank included an external action, an exomologesis: a public confession aloud followed by a “discipline of prostration and humiliation,” such as wearing sackcloth and ashes and fasting.

A problem arose: What if the sinner sinned again and again? Irish followers in the seventh century, inspired by followers from the East, offered a solution: private repentance and private exomologesis in secret to an authoritative ear—“auricular confession,” as it was called. This strategy so swept the Western Church that in 1215, at the Fourth Lateran Council, it became the law of Christendom to confess all sins to a presbyter with faculties at least once a year. To those who believe that an immanent God is sacramentally at work in this practice is offered a pinpointed ray of love to break the circle of sin, shame, isolation, doubt, and despair.

Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther demurred. He didn’t think it was a sacrament, though he recommended it. More forcefully, John Calvin condemned “auricular confession” as a “pestilence” that “teems” with “monstrous abominations.” Men heap “sin upon sin” all the year, “becoming bolder in sin,” because they can make confession once a year to their priest; they “wipe their lip, and say, ‘I have not done it.’” Calvin’s God alone pardons the repentant sinner, who, unable to enumerate sufficiently his sins, must unburden the weight of his entire heart. A priest has no more authority to absolve than “a cobbler to till the field.” Calvin recognized that the burden of sin, however, must find voice, and he recommended an extraordinary remedy, the early Church exomologesis:

He who has adopted this confession from the heart and as in the presence of God, will doubtless have a tongue ready to confess whenever there is occasion among men to publish the mercy of God. He will not be satisfied to whisper the secret of his heart for once into the ear of one individual, but will often, and openly, and in the hearing of the whole world, ingenuously make mention both of his own ignominy, and of the greatness and glory of the Lord.

Arthur Dimmesdale, Dr. Phil, and Facebook’s public apologies were thereby born—or reborn from the public practice of the early Church. All must shout their guilt from the rooftops, no longer to priest or Christian brother but to anyone and everyone.

In the decades before, during, and after Shakespeare’s life, England was caught in what one religious historian has called the “great muddled middle” between these two practices. Defender of the Faith Henry VIII, though surrounded by Lutheran ministers, insisted that the Six Articles of 1539 retain auricular confession. The Book of Common Prayer of 1549 under Edward VI, however, offered the annual general Ash Wednesday Commination Rite, a public ritualized exomologesis, in place of private sacramental confession. The Thirty-Nine Articles of 1559 mention sin after baptism (Art. 16) but are vague about the specific means of repentance, using only the formula “by the grace of God (we may) rise again and amend our lives.”

“Rise again and amend one’s life”—how, concretely, was the liberation of the soul from sin to be done? On the first Sunday after Easter, on March 30, 1600, at the royal Palace of Whitehall, before an aging court, Dr. Lancelot Andrewes, Lord Bishop of Westminster, offered an answer scandalously close to that of the Council of Trent. Not all Christians had this ordinary commission to ­remit sins and cooperate with God’s grace, but only “Ecclesiastical persons,” the successors of the Apostles, “Ministers, Priests, or Preachers”—that is, it would seem, the ordained clergy.

Andrewes foreshadowed the dilemma of modern man who feels the burden of guilt but, without the ritual of an authoritative ear, cannot find certainty in unburdening it: “Sometimes men have good minds, but know not which way to turn them or set themselves about it.” Consequently, “it is for men at their ends to doubt, not of the power of remitting of sins, but of their disposition to receive it.” Only an authority can offer “strong consolation and perfect assurance, [so that the penitents may] not waver in the hope set before them.” Doubt and desolation follow the loss of authority.

Sometime later that year, the royal playwright, William Shakespeare—who knows, maybe even having heard of Andrewes’s controversial sermon?—sat down to write a play about an anxious divinity student back home from Luther’s University of Wittenberg who sees and hears his father’s ghost, the once authoritative voice, rage about being murdered before having received the sacrament of penance. Doubt famously pervades the atmosphere of Denmark. One overlooked cause of this doubt in Hamlet—the play that, according to Stephen Greenblatt, “made Shakespeare Shakespeare,” and, according to Harold Bloom, “invented the human”—is that the authoritative sacramental system has been broken. This enormous loss prostrates several of his characters, nudges the play about, and stalls it several times.

When the ghost of Hamlet’s father first appears to his religious son, he laments above all that the traditional sacraments of Eucharist, confession, and last rites have been denied because of his murder, and repeats and elaborates on the lament in the terminology of banished Catholic rites: “Unhousel’d [no reception of the Eucharist], disappointed [no preparation made for contrition], unanel’d [not anointed with holy oil]/No reck’ning made” [no examination of conscience] (1.5.77–78). These three sacraments have not only been denied; each missing part is detailed in longing remembrance of a negated tradition. As a result, he says he has been

Doom’d for a certain term to walk the night
And for the day confin’d to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature,
Are burnt and purg’d away. (1.5.10–13)

The most contentious of all Catholic doctrines, purgatory, a taboo word that could have violated the ­Elizabethan injunction against open religiosity on the stage, is invoked here at length and sympathetically. What the ghost is bemoaning is that he has been intermittently exiled from a constant, efficacious purgatory after death because, like a Catholic-leaning Christian in Elizabethan England, he was deprived of the traditional sacramental system in life. Shakespeare has the ghost indirectly lament the theology of the Reformation.

The second confessio interrupta occurs in Act Three. Claudius has prepared to spirit Hamlet safely away from Denmark to England. Then, alone, he attempts to confess his guilt of fratricide: “the primal eldest curse.” Unbeknownst to Claudius, another minister, Hamlet, from Luther’s Wittenberg University, overhears him. Claudius’s confession before God stalls in doubt just as ­Andrewes described:

. . . Pray can I not
Though inclination be as sharp as will,
My stronger guilt defeats my strong intent,
And, like a man to double business bound,
I stand in pause where I shall first begin,
And both neglect. (3.3.38–43)

Claudius’s struggle to repent is the struggle of a lonely sinner seeking help in vain:

Try what repentance can. What can it not?
Yet what can it when one can not repent?
O wretched state! O bosom black as death!
O limed soul, that struggling to be free
Art more engaged! Help, angels!
Make assay! (3.3.66–70)

Right at the moment that Claudius kneels, Hamlet enters. He draws his sword, but spares Claudius in order to damn him. This diabolical action parodies the imposition of merciful hands in the confessional. Hamlet, the theology dropout from Wittenberg, does not offer absolution but a momentary stay of execution, not in order to facilitate salvation but to thwart it. He will wait until Claudius is drunk or

. . . about some act
That has no relish of salvation in’t
Then trip him, that his heels may kick at heaven
And that his soul may be as damn’d and black
As hell, whereto it goes.
(3.3.91–95)

The next scene presents a third interrupted confession. Like a priest behind the screen, Polonius hides behind the arras, himself another false “minister of grace” to hear private thoughts, as Hamlet begins to examine his mother’s conscience. Like a true spiritual adviser, the son holds up a mirror to her iniquities “where you may see the inmost part of you” (3.4.19). There’s one too many false confessors in the confessional, however, and Hamlet smells a rat and commits now, again sacrilegiously, a murder in the confessional closet. After he kills Polonius, he begins to “wring” his mother’s “heart.” He accuses her, as religious manuals of the period instructed confessors to raise specific charges to silent penitents, of killing her husband and marrying his brother. Hamlet then adds mock last rites to this mock-­confession scene:

Mother, for love of grace
Lay not that flattering unction to your soul,
That not your trespass but my madness speaks.
Confess yourself to heaven,
Repent what’s past, avoid what is to come.
(3.3.146–148, 151–152, emphases mine)

Hamlet now assumes the role of not a false minister dispensing empty grace as mercy but of a self-appointed minister acting as a scourge: He “will answer well/The death [he] gave him” (3.4.178). However, Hamlet’s contrition is superficial, for by the end of the scene, his slight remorse has utterly disappeared: “I’ll lug the guts in the neighbor room,” the guts of a “foolish prating knave” (3.4.221). The earnest invalid confessor has become a cold prophet, the acts and effects of the lost sacrament fail, and sin remains unpurged.

Later in the play, when ­Hamlet brags about rewriting the king’s “commission” to kill him and about arranging the deaths of ­Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, he adds that they died quickly: “Nor shriving time allowed” (5.2.47). There is a complicated irony that these two students from Wittenberg, whose names in fact appear on the records of Wittenberg students around 1590, were denied the very sacrament that Wittenberg’s most famous professor had denied to be one at all.

The secrets of the heart will come out. If they cannot be revealed in safe ritual, they will emerge in some other way. Unable to confess, the entire Danish court is either suspicious or wracked with guilt. Laertes and Polonius fear that Ophelia might her “chaste treasure open/To [Hamlet’s] unmastered importunity.” Hamlet’s father’s ghost cannot purge himself of sins, “forbid/To tell the secrets of [his] prison house,” like the Catholic-­leaning subjects of the Church of England banned from auricular confession. Ophelia gives and keeps for herself the “rue” of repentance, “herb of grace a Sundays,” in a symbolic confession as she slips into madness. Murderous spies Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (“guilt” written into the name itself) betray to Hamlet “a kind of confession in [their] looks.” And Hamlet, guilt-ridden and suspicious in every scene, rails with ­misanthropy, burns with lustful imagination, and mopes in self-indulgent acedia. ­Conscience makes cowards of them all, and sin, whose whisperings have been gagged in the confessional, ­mutters ­villainously in the new ­soliloquy form.

Of course, Shakespeare was not an Oxford graduate. However well-read and well-­connected he may have been, theological arcana were not his academic specialization, even if theological matters were more the news of the late Elizabethan day than they are in our own secular age. What would have been a concern to him as a playwright was the daily response to wrongful acts: I have sinned, so now what am I to do? Have I, in fact, sinned? If I do nothing, what is the likelihood that I will continue to live in grace? Is the old response of private confession with an ordained priest practiced by my parents and grandparents still valid? What has become of them? How are they doing? Is asking for forgiveness alone with my God enough? How do I know when God has forgiven me? The people of England were in inner turmoil on these questions, and so are we. This is why we cannot help but resort to Facebook gut spilling and the disclosures of daytime TV. We live in what Hamlet’s father might call a “disappointed” age, one that is confessional not least because we have abandoned confession.

Kenneth Colston has written for the New Criterion, LOGOS, and the New Oxford Review.