One amusing thing about the character of Hamlet is that, before the story told in the play begins, he’s been studying at the University of Wittenberg. Doctor Faustus (aka simply “Faust”) is also said to have studied there. Plainly, Wittenberg was a popular university among fictional characters.
I’ll be leading a tour to Wittenberg (among other places) in June 2020, because of its very real significance as the adopted city of Martin Luther and the cradle of the Protestant Reformation. (The official name of the city now is actually Lutherstadt Wittenberg.) Luther taught at the university there.
Watching Hamlet yet again, I was reminded of the late Eugene England’s reading of the play, which has always intrigued me:
We are rightly offended when we learn that King Claudius has succeeded to the throne of Denmark and to his brother’s wife by murdering his predecessor, Prince Hamlet’s father. And we want to see justice done. So, when the ghost of the late king appears and orders the prince to seek vengeance, we want to see Hamlet succeed in wreaking vengeance upon the murderer.
But Gene England suggested that the ghost may have been satanic. (Was it even, really, the spirit of the late king?) Consider the destruction that is caused by Hamlet’s following its instruction: Yes, King Claudius dies. He’s been very wicked, though, having killed Hamlet’s father and sought to kill Hamlet himself, so we’re more than okay with that. And Rosencrantz and Guildenstern die. But they were false friends, so maybe that’s not so bad. And the Queen dies. But she shouldn’t have married Claudius at all, let alone so hastily. So, well, maybe her death is okay, too. And Polonius dies. But he was something of a gasbag, so whatever. And Laertes dies. However, although he was a good young man, he let his temper cloud his judgment and he was trying to kill Hamlet. So, while his death is sad, it’s understandable. But Ophelia? What had she done to deserve death? The body count has grown pretty high, hasn’t it? And, in the end, it includes Hamlet, too. When Prince Fortinbras of Norway arrives at the palace, he finds the entire royal family of Denmark dead and, accordingly, claims the country for himself.
In other words, the ghost’s orders have brought ruin down upon Prince Hamlet and the entire ruling class of Denmark and delivered the country into the hands of a foreign power. That certainly sounds devilish to me.
Is Hamlet a warning against the spirit of revenge? I think that it can be plausibly read that way.
Posted from St. George, Utah