Recovering the Classics

Recovering the Classics November 10, 2014

Review of Shakespeare’s Hamlet by Leland Ryken

Last year I argued that we live in a new Dark Ages, “a time of moral confusion,” in which western civilization, classically understood, has basically disappeared because of our elites’ decision to stop reading and teaching the great books. The solution is for a generation to take upon themselves the mantle of what I called “book hunters,” people who “take it upon themselves to “to uncover and salvage the best of what came before: to cherish it; hold it up for praise and emulation; study it; above all, to love it and pass it on.”  The new book hunters “sift the cultural artifacts of the world—in our era, not limited to books—to separate the wheat from the chaff, to label them as such, to weed out the unworthy and to cultivate the fruitful and edifying, to recover the scattered, forgotten gems amidst the avalanche of trash.”

I was delighted to discover the work of Leland Ryken, a Professor of English at Wheaton. I my previous essay I was harshly critical of university professors (despite being one myself). Ryken seems to be a rare breed: a credentialed professional scholar of literature who hasn’t forgotten how to read great books and love them.

Ryken has led the way in creating a series at Crossway called Christian Guides to the Classics. The guides start with the very basics, like how to read a book; what makes a classic; and more. This sort of discussion would be remedial, but in our dark ages, it is a necessary starting point. The guide then summarizes the plot, characters, and action of a classic work, and analyses it from a broadly Christian perspective. All in 96 pages. This is the sort cultural rescue that we need.

Ryken’s guide to Hamlet, for example, was refreshing. We don’t get any of the nonsense literary analysis taught in most “English” classes today–very little about race, class, or gender, nothing Marxist or feminist, and the word “liberation” wasn’t used once. Instead, Ryken actually talked about what was in the text.

And by paying attention to the work, Ryken raised some point I had never considered–for example, how the play illustrated the older generation exploiting and manipulating the younger (which is a class division of sorts). Where gender enters the discussion, it is appropriate to the text (as when discussing Ophelia’s fate, for example).

Ryken wants to analyze Hamlet from a Christian perspective. He argues that Shakespeare was a Christian and that the play reflects a profoundly Christian sensibility. To some extent, his argument is simply that we should acknowledge that Shakespeare, and his characters, inhabited a world in which religion was taken very seriously; in which virtually everyone believed in God and the reality of spirits and supernatural truths; and if we are going to understand a work like Hamlet at all we have to recognize the importance of religion. This is a useful corrective to the prevailing secularism in most scholarship, which tends to explain away religion.

But Ryken wants to go further than that and argue that the plot’s resolution and Hamlet’s character arc reveal Shakespeare’s Christian sensibility. His argument–that Hamlet ends up surrendering himself to divine Providence and to his mission of executing justice (not revenge) as a Christian prince–hinges on just a few lines of dialogue in the final act of the play. I confess I’m not entirely sold by Ryken’s argument.

But at least Ryken has made an argument rooted in the text, one that is comprehensible and intelligible. You wouldn’t think that’s a big deal, but compared to much contemporary literary analysis, it is. Ryken has done a great service by giving us an example of studying a great work, taking it seriously, thinking carefully about it in light of God’s word. His specific argument about Hamlet might be a bit of a stretch, but he makes it worthwhile to talk about. Best of all, he made me go back to the play itself and reread section of it. That’s exactly what a good introduction should do. I cannot recommend this strongly enough.

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