WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE: CATHOLIC PLAYWRIGHT
The case for the First Quarto of Hamlet
Last month we began to examine the case for the Catholic content of the First Quarto of Hamlet, an early version of the play which is currently receiving attention, especially now that the ephemeral is en vogue. Performance – which is unrepeatable – is now a subject in its own right and ‘Performance Studies’ is the name of the new discipline in Universities which chronicles and comments on the various performances throughout history of standard texts, making good in the process the newish media of film, television and media which have captured those individual performances for us. In the case of the decision of Cambridge University Press to present to the general public the first versions of all of Shakespeare’s major plays we now have an opportunity, not just to compare and contrast texts at different stages, not just to reflect on the mystery of the ‘genesis’ of master-texts, but, in the case of the First Quarto of Hamlet:
1. Hamlet sees the Ghost of his father, who comes from Purgatory
The delayed appearance of the Ghost of Hamlet’s father introduces Catholic doctrine in an overt manner. In the Folio edition the Ghost appears at the very beginning of the play. The delay here has a different effect, coming after the brilliant exposure in the Polonius scene ("to thine own self be true") of the shifting sands of relativity in a purely secular world, because it increases the audience’s support for Hamlet’s vulnerability to the Ghost’s command to take revenge on his father’s murder. That the Ghost does this also complicates the appearance of Catholicity, since it is hardly coherent that a good ghost could also be encouraging a soul on earth to break one of the ten commandments, as Roy Battenhouse has always said. Hamlet is vulnerable and yet in a state of grace, inasmuch as he is immediately wary. Hamlet is unsure as to the spirit’s identity: "Angels and ministers of grace defend us!/Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damned,/ Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell,/Be thy intents wicked or charitable…" Horatio warns Hamlet that the spirits could be evil, deceiving him, taking advantage of his anguish and sadness, leading him to perdition. Memorably he warns Hamlet that they may deprive him of the "sovereignty of reason/And drive you into madness?" The Ghost then reveals that he is the spirit of his father, returning to earth from Purgatory, a "prison-house" where he suffers "Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature are purged and burnt away". This is orthodox and remains an affirmation of the Catholic, not the Protestant view, of a place between Heaven and Hell where souls must suffer pains similar to those of Hell until such time as all their sins are fully purged from their souls.
When the Ghost from Purgatory asks Hamlet to take revenge on his "foul and most unnatural murder", revealing that he was poisoned; that his wife had been seduced by the murderer "with gifts"; relating then the parable about the weakness of all virtue, and the power of mortal sin, lust ("But virtue; as it never will be moved,/Though lewdness court it in a shape of heaven,/So lust, though to a radiant angel linked,/ Would sate itself from a celestial bed/And prey on garbage"), the effect is twofold. On the one hand the graphic imagery has the effect of inspiring moral disgust at the depravity of sin; on the other Shakespeare surely encourages us to recognize the full attractions of revenge taken in the name of justice, the temptation to take the law into our own hands when moral and social anarchy has established itself. Now the Church has always taught that there is such a thing as a just war to defend Christendom, the crusades being the prototype, the war against the infidel. But what could Recusant Catholics in England reasonably expect from any attempt to defend themselves against persecution, when that persecution emanated from the monarch and was reinforced by her ministers? The Pope’s response to the plight of persecuted Catholics was straight-forward: they were to suffer as Our Lord had had to suffer in the face of hatred. And the Jesuits were briefed to spread this message amongst the population. The Ghost has a part to play in reinforcing orthodox Catholic doctrine in the hearts and souls of Catholics in Shakespeare’s audience on the one hand, but he also articulates a secret desire, the holy anger that must have lurked in the heart of any passionate pilgrim, the divine authorization to rebel, as opposed to the papal prohibition and exhortation spread by the Jesuit priests, to suffer in silence. As Fr. John Gerard S.J. noted in reference to the Gunpowder Plot, all Catholics were trying to do was to "deliver themselves from this fearful serfdom of soul and body".
Before leaving the stage the Ghost articulates another orthodox position. He acknowledges that he was murdered "in his sins", the fear of every true Catholic. He is an object lesson, then, in the need to remain prepared for death and in a state of sanctifying grace, lest the enemy catch us unawares and we die without confession, without being fortified by the last rites. All that Hamlet does is simply swear to remember him, and swear to keep the incident a secret. He does not make any commitment to execute the command to take revenge. He is convinced he is an "honest ghost" and goes off to pray, citing St. Patrick’s Purgatory, as if in recognition of the ancient site of Pilgrimage in Ireland where pilgrims still go to do penance for their sins; perhaps suggesting he wishes to go and do penance for his own sins or at least to answer the call of the holy soul from Purgatory, who has asked to be remembered. It is possible to remain resistant to this request, but this is a call to fellow-Christians from a holy soul in Purgatory that prayers and masses be offered up for the relief of souls in Purgatory.
At this point Horatio and Hamlet enter into a pact. They recognize the necessity of disguise, and to keep secret the Ghost’s existence. On the face of it this strategy is understandable to any audience, because we know they are privy to the truth about Hamlet’s uncle. That is the ‘natural’ explanation which will account for their subsequent antics. But the decision is also symbolic of the necessity of hiding those doctrines which had become controversial at the Reformation. Because Purgatory was thought to be a ‘Romish’ invention, anyone who would refer to it in public would be immediately betrayed. It had to be literally purged from public discourse. The pact of secrecy would have also been generally recognized as a necessary strategy for survival by any Catholic audience, who were used to projecting an illusion about their real identities which did not correspond to the real truth. They all had to evolve ways of evading deception, and to keep secret where they went for the sacraments, in particular. So cryptically this pact would have been understood by Catholic audiences as a necessity born of circumstance, to obscure the truth about who they are and what they felt, which was the intense desire to defend the Catholic faith and to save their souls by remaining loyal to Catholic truth. We should continue to give our ancestors credit for their heroism in persevering in the faith against all the odds.
The Protestant variant of adopting postures to survive at court for the purposes of temporal advantage, as elaborated by Corambis, is thus pitted against the Catholic variant of disguising one’s behaviour at large in the face of the holy war being waged against Catholics by their Protestant compatriots. "The time is out of joint. O cursed spite,/That ever I was born to set it right". The mysterious parting words imply that subliminally Hamlet has taken the decision to act against the generality of injustice.
2. Political life as a game of favours: Early signs of Masonry
This counterpoint carries on. Corambis in conversation with Montano is quite happy to send a spy to follow his son to Paris. Montano is to tell his son to "ply his learning", or apply the precepts he has taught him. Montano is allowed to follow Laertes anywhere, including a brothel. In this edition Ofelia, daughter of Corambis and sister of Laertes, receives explicit instructions from her brother on not yielding to the overtures of Hamlet. Corambis warns her too that love’s lines are keys which "unlock chastity". She immediately rebukes her brother for vaunting the value of chastity and virginity, when she knows he has no intention of following his own advice. Indeed she calls him a "libertine". Father and brother then are, in the eyes of the audience, hypocrites, and we are encouraged to view their overtures to Ofelia, not as an orthodox expression of Catholic virtue, but expedient ways of preventing Ofelia and Hamlet from marrying. Why? Because their own power base at court would be thereby undermined. Remember, the play makes clear Laertes and Corambis support the new king and enjoy an unspoken contract and considerable worldly advantage because they know, but refuse to divulge, the true facts about the murder. Ofelia can see through the hypocrisy in respect of virtue and she draws attention to their double-standards, but she is innocent of knowledge of their other machinations.
Corambis sends Montano to Paris, then, to pretend to affect a familiarity with all men, as a way of eliciting information. Information about what, we ask ourselves? Why does a father have to spy on his son? Another insight into the era of suspicion created by a court founded on self-love and ambition, that even fathers and sons conspire against one another. We should remember that the spy network set up by Queen Elizabeth was the distant ancestor of MI5 and MI6! Fuelled by one spirit only, fear of true Catholicism. So Recusant Catholics who had to live on their nerves - constantly aware of the necessity of distrusting all, even the most pious, for fear such men could be Elizabeth’s or James’ agents who could report them and thus cause them to be arrested, imprisoned, fined, or executed - would have recognized these signs. Shakespeare acknowledges this fear. And the hypocrisy of Corambis is exposed. Neither a benevolent father nor a true source of holy wisdom, he is merely an agent, part of a network of spies, and by extension a symbol of the real network at large outside theatres, where spies relentlessly sought out the names, aliases and whereabouts, hiding places and priests holes of practicing Catholics and their Jesuit priests. Corambis’ sycophantic attitude to the new King is also exposed: what else accounts for his flattery, his determination to assuage the King’s conscience if it is not because he knows? Having benefited materially from the change of King, he is merely anxious to repay the "debt" by using his own contacts to set traps for the unsuspecting? The idea of a network of spies who are all bound by an unspoken contract to help each other benefit from the world is the founding principle of Masonry. Here we have it in its earliest form.
Spying is an important part of court life in general, however. Corambis and the King spy on Hamlet throughout his soliloquy "to be or not to be" and Corambis spies on Hamlet as Gertred talks. These seemingly trivial attempts to make natural sense of Hamlet’s "madness" should be seen as a deeply ironic sign of solidarity with Catholic audiences, whose experience of being spied upon was neither funny nor trivial, but an aspect of that holy war waged by Protestants against the Catholic church, the purpose of which was to remove all traces of Her influence.
3. "To be or not to be"
Here we come to the first major example of a radical change of emphasis in this universally famous soliloquy. Because these changes are so significant in the First Quarto version, it is appropriate to reprint the soliloquy in full:
I think it would be fair to say that from a purely literary point of view this is a more modest piece of writing. We have none of the memorable imagery of the opening "To be, or not to be, that is the question:/Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer/ The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,/ Or to take arms against a sea of troubles/ And by opposing end them". We could say that the First Quarto "to be or not to be" contains the seeds, from a literary point of view, of the tour de force of rhetoric that we all know.
What is more important, however, especially in terms of the claim that is being advanced that the First Quarto elaborates orthodox Catholic doctrine, is that in the above soliloquy Hamlet is not a modern atheist who does not know what happens after death - not one who is prevented from committing suicide only because, as an apologist for pre-Christian skepticism and stoicism, he is happier to continue to live as a personal preference and in the absence of any kind of evidence about the "undiscovered country" of life after death.
In this First Quarto soliloquy, Hamlet has faith in God, in Divine Providence, in a divinely ordered universe, and in the very idea of Divine Justice. It is his faith which prevents him from taking revenge on evidence of injustice on earth, of which there is plenty. It is his faith which saves him from despair, because he understands the value of suffering, and because he looks forward in faith, hope and charity and joy, to an eternity in Heaven! There is a "hope of something after death" (line 18). And it is this key inclusion which redirects the whole soliloquy, making Hamlet an apologist for the Four Last Things; for the personal judgment before a personal God; for the places known as Heaven and Hell where souls are destined for all eternity. The everlasting Judge is present from the beginning of the soliloquy; the undiscovered country is not some vague no man’s land, but a real place, "at whose sight/ the happy smile and the accursed damned". The only explicit reference to the cause of sufferings of Recusant Catholics in Shakespeare’s day is brief and is contained in line 13: the reign of tyrants vastly increases the extent of individual suffering. But we can endure suffering, it has a meaning because there is that hope of an eternal reward! Shakespeare is consoling his audiences! And the revolutionary impact of all of this on the overall meaning of the play comes with the final reference to the key word "conscience". In a weary sort of way, Hamlet has to accept that, in spite of the desire to settle scores ("that he may his full quietus make/With a bare bodkin.."), a greater and deeper knowledge makes us appear as cowards to the world and ourselves. That deeper and greater knowledge informs our conscience with the real truth, which is that, judged from the perspective of eternity, all suffering has an ultimate meaning, it is the preparation for the ultimate reward of Heaven to souls who wish to persevere, a Christian virtue.
In the soliloquy that we all know better, there is none of this. As we indicated last month, at best Hamlet considers the ‘virtue’ of endurance, for which there is no ultimate reward anyway, a perverse kind of ‘faith’. There Hamlet seemed to long for death, in the manner of a lurid, perverse Romantic hero. Harold Jenkins, editor of the Folio edition prepared for the Arden Shakespeare of 1982, Philip Edwards in 1985 and Kathleen O. Irace, editor of the First Quarto for Cambridge University Press in 1998, have next to nothing to say in their introductions about this complete and radical change in emphasis. The word Catholic does not appear, perhaps a sign of the ‘natural’ tendency to censor evidence of the Catholic world in history, culture and life, which is common for a very good reason amongst scholars and intellectuals.
In the lines quoted in full above Hamlet is not incoherent. He concludes in a way which shows he is at peace with his destiny, and the destiny of mankind. So he is in a state of sanctifying grace! In the later version Hamlet is not at peace, he is actively frustrated with his own destiny and that of mankind. He would actually rather like to execute justice (not necessarily divine justice, mind) and take revenge. He hates himself because he has not the force of mind, or the will-power, to do what he actually wants, and the only thing that is preventing him from acting is some vague reluctance to take risks that may involve loss of life, because as a proto-modern agnostic or atheist, he has absolutely no idea whether there is anything at all after death.
4. "Go to a nunnery, go": Hamlet rejects Ofelia
How can we account for the fact that, following such a sublime exposition of the Four Last Things, Hamlet is counseling Ofelia to abandon the world altogether and retire to a convent? Hamlet appears to have been propelled by the evil spirits to doubt the integrity of truth and beauty as they appear to be embodied in Ophelia, the young woman Hamlet has loved, and who has in no way been tainted by the machinations of Hamlet’s uncle and his henchmen. Perhaps Shakespeare is encouraging us to meditate on the consequences of evil, inasmuch as Hamlet now punishes Ophelia for the evils of womankind he has had to experience in his mother, whose virtue had degenerated into vice in the face of temptation. Again we return to a subliminal meditation of the play, the severe effect of evil on our capacity to persevere in the three theological virtues of faith, hope and charity. We all know that the visible example, the Word made flesh, inspires us to overcome our frail natures and persevere in virtue. By the same token every public departure from the path of virtue weakens the community as a whole, as here. Hamlet is close, not only to producing a universal hatred of woman, but a universal hatred of mankind. The all pervasive sense of sin causes him to wish to preserve all of womankind from the temptations to sin provided by men, and all men from the temptations to sin provided by women. Sex and sin are linked in such a way as to legitimize a new imperative, to make the human race extinct by abandoning the sacrament of marriage. This view is Gnostic and has always been regarded as heretical by the Church.
5. Hamlet’s diatribe against fishmongers
Hamlet condemns Corambis. He is dismissed scornfully as a fishmonger. He then mocks other of the King’s henchmen, Rossencraft and Gilderstone (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of the later version). He tells them, ironically of course, that his own strange antics have been brought about by his desire for "preferment". He is simply sickened by the shifting sands of loyalty, and the driving force of human ambition he sees in the new King’s courtiers: "..those that would make mops and mows at my uncle when my father lived now give a hundred, two hundred pounds for his picture".
The playwright Tom Stoppard made universally known one of the last lines of the later Folio edition not included in the First Quarto, namely "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead". In that later edition the lines come in the last scene of the play after the deaths of Hamlet, Gertrude, Laertes and the King, and before Horatio (who here alone merely expresses the wish that a man who has died saying "the rest is silence" may be sung to rest by the angels) announces that Hamlet will be given full military honours as befits a soldier. Given the few but significant references to things German in the play it will be of interest that Rosenkranz is the German word for rosary and Guildenstern a possible old form of the words for golden star. Is it possible that Shakespeare wished to insinuate a formal, emphatic verdict on the growing spiritual and moral bankruptcy of England in the later version by suggesting that the ubiquity of evil was linked to the other symbolic victory of the Reformation, that war on Our Blessed Lady which had led to her removal from public life? The vitriolic attacks on Our Blessed Lady in words had lead to the destruction of so many of her shrines, the renewal of the iconoclasm, and, over time, under Cromwell to a very foul war on the rosary itself, since it was later banned and made illegal. The litany of Loreto of 1570 identified Our Blessed Lady with the star of the sea (‘Stella Maris’). Perhaps in this rather un-Marian play, Shakespeare was nonetheless able to insinuate a cryptic message about the underlying truth concerning the wars of Religion in the Dowry of Mary, by stating categorically that the cause of all evil is the abandonment of Our Lady. After all, this is her position at the beginning in the Book of Genesis – depicted with her foot on the head of Satan – and at the end, from chapter 12 onwards in the Book of the Apocalypse. She is also the ultimate direction of all salvation history, as we know from Our Lady of Fatima’s promise: "In the end, my Immaculate Heart will triumph". Which is why such a statement is particularly meaningful as a parting thought in a play of this magnitude. The last two dogmas of Our Lady, Mediatrix of all Graces, and Our Lady, Co-Redemptrix have yet to be proclaimed, but will be proclaimed when the Church and the people know, understand and believe that to abandon Our Lady is the fastest way to apostasy; the surest route to damnation and the easiest way of destroying the fabric of all societies, large and small.
6. "Why what a
dunghill idiot slave am I?..
In the First Quarto soliloquy in which Hamlet admits to seeing himself as an abject soul, a dunghill idiot and slave, he also decides to provoke repentance in his uncle’s soul resulting in a formal or informal confession before God of his mortal sins. Hamlet decides to use the strolling players to reenact the original murder scene to see whether what the Ghost says is true and if it was thus a true emissary of Divine Justice, and to provoke a soul in a state of mortal sin to repent by appealing to his "conscience", a word often used in the play, always identified as the grace in the soul acting to protect the soul from heresy. It reinforces Catholic doctrine and the power of the sacraments to wash away all sin. Indeed, the play within a play has precisely this effect, as we shall see. But before his uncle makes a confession Hamlet once again indulges in a full-scale denouncement of the King’s courtiers, Rossencraft and Gilderstone. They are memorably likened to a sponge "that soaks up the king’s countenance, favours, and rewards". The King is also at fault: "..he doth keep you as an ape doth nuts in the corner of his jaw, first mouths you, then swallows you. So when he hath need of you, ‘tis but squeezing of you, and sponge, you shall be dry again, you shall". This graphic imagery strengthens the audience’s hostility to all evil and moral depravity, and as such it is in the service of Catholic doctrine.
The strategy to provoke repentance in his uncle brings the players on stage. Hamlet finds they imitate humanity abominably. And there is much facetious punning about the illustrious function of art, which was always supposed to either imitate or represent nature and to entertain, instruct and ennoble audiences. The shallowness of professional acting reminds us, by default, of the real temporal imperative, of "imitating Christ", and the great medieval spiritual work on that very topic by Thomas à Kempis. That mere diversion and entertainment can also obscure the terrible truth about our sinful souls is an insight which would not have been lost on an audience versed in the reality of the Apocalypse and Doomsday, the ultimate End of life on earth, with which the medieval world was more familiar in a real sense, than we. Indeed in the course of their playing Hamlet exclaims "Wormwood!", a direct quotation from the Book of the Apocalypse, chapter eight, in which another fallen star proves the end of everything. In the play within the play the mysterious exclamation is provoked by scenes of murder, incest, and adultery. Shakespeare’s audience would have recognized that the crisis at the apex of society literally sounded the end of the world for the Catholic faith. In recognition of the power of theatre of the more sacred kind to influence hearts and souls, Queen Elizabeth I requested that references to religion be purged from theatrical discourse. The goal of censuring truth was of course further advanced when the Puritans secured the closure of the theatres in toto later on in the century.
7. The King’s confession, a temporary respite from the tyranny of mortal sin
As in the later edition the usurper King does repent as a direct result of the reenactment of a murder scene by the strolling players, and the soliloquy is a perfect example of a perfect act of contrition, outside the confessional yet valid, in the Church’s eyes, before God. Echoing Holy Scripture the usurper King believes that his crimes of murder and adultery can be forgiven and that his soul can be washed "white as snow". Then he goes on: "Ay, but still to persever in a sin,/It is an act ‘gainst the universal power./Most wretched man, stoop, bend thee to thy prayer,/Ask grace of heaven to keep thee from despair." His request for supernatural help is granted and he kneels. Perversely the hidden Hamlet knows and understands from the point of view of eternity how a contrite heart is pleasing to God, so he does not exploit the opportunity to murder him because his Uncle would die in a state of grace and eventually go to Heaven. So Hamlet too has fallen from a state of grace, of sublime faith in the ways of Divine Providence, and, reminiscent of an evil spirit, only refrains from murdering his uncle because he prefers to be an agent of damnation, not salvation. Hamlet the vengeful spirit intends quite vindictively now to delay the murder and to wait to catch him unawares, "at some act/That hath no relish of salvation in’t,/Then trip him that his heels may kick at heaven/ And fall as low as hell". Meanwhile his uncle has knelt in the knowledge that: "No king on earth is safe, if God’s his foe". As if casually, Hamlet thereafter kills Corambis by mistake, thinking he is a rat (which he is, as it were) and with no regrets. Are we to deduce from this how easy it is, possessed by the evil spirits of anger, vengeance and passion, to lose a state of sanctifying grace? I think so.
8. Hamlet converts his mother Gertred, who repents of her sin of adultery
Another very significant difference between the two versions is the way in which Gertrude in this edition is sympathetic, and contrite in the face of her own mortal sins. Hamlet has not indulged his uncle, but will indulge his mother. Indeed this is the request of the Ghost at the outset: "..let not thy heart conspire/Against thy mother aught; leave her to heaven/And to the burden that her conscience bears". The beauty of mercy and compassion and repentance are greater here, and especially in a small speech which is not repeated in the major edition, in which Hamlet prays for the grace to rebuke his mother in a way pleasing to God and which will encourage her to repent: "O God, let ne’er the heart of Nero enter/This soft bosom./ Let me be cruel, not unnatural./I will speak daggers; those sharp words being spent,/To do her wrong my soul shall ne’er consent". Now these words replace the later edition’s explicit confusing of the two separate issues of the punishment due to the usurper King and the encouragement to repentance offered to Hamlet’s mother. There Hamlet meditates upon the prospect of murdering the King, and enlists his mother’s support in his bid to murder him, but he seems carelessly indifferent to his mother’s state of soul. His words there: "I must be cruel only to be kind", have followed on from the gross and morally repugnant idea of his being both a "scourge and minister". They do not refer to a way of stimulating repentance in his mother at all.
In the Quarto edition Hamlet is instrumental in bringing his mother to repentance, which effectively reverses what happens in the later edition, where he almost hates her, shows her no mercy and in his impatience sees her primarily as a symbol of the promiscuity of all things now that Satan seems to be the driving force behind all action. The last major appearance of the Ghost in the Folio edition coincides with Hamlet’s interview with Gertred and keeps alive, by contrast, the prospect of grace and repentance: "Speak to her Hamlet, for her sex is weak./Comfort thy mother, Hamlet, think on me". The path to repentance begins with penance, and Gertred promises to repel her husband’s advances, following Hamlet’s advice: "Hamlet, I vow by that majesty/That knows our thoughts and looks into our hearts,/I will conceal, consent, and do my best, what stratagem soe’er thou shalt devise". She is part of the plot to trap the King and to get him murdered in both editions, but our First Quarto displays greater evidence of the workings of supernatural grace. The counterpoint between Gertred and her husband as penitents then continues, so that, whilst Gertred begins her penance, her husband, whilst he has confessed, is not given the grace to sustain a state of contrition in his soul. A few scenes later he is plotting to murder Hamlet. The tyranny of evil coexists with the order of grace, as we are taught. Hamlet’s uncle hates Hamlet, and this un-Christian hatred of one’s enemies is then echoed in Laertes’ violent impulse to murder Hamlet, once he learns he is responsible for his father’s death and his distracted sister Ofelia. The King exploits this situation to his own advantage. He now plans to use Laertes to execute Hamlet, so his crown and state may be "free". This was how Queen Elizabeth I felt as she sealed the execution warrant for Mary, Queen of Scots, and the barbarism would not have been lost on those in the audience who objected to the murder of a divinely anointed Catholic queen, who had also been the rallying-point of Catholic resistance.
In the death and burial of Ofelia the First Quarto raises the question of suicide for the first time. Again the text reverses what happens in the better known version. There we are told that Ophelia did commit suicide and was deprived of a Christian burial. The First Quarto does not close the issue of suicide, and also introduces a new ‘spin’. We learn that Ofelia is to be given a Christian burial only because she is well-born. Those in position of influence and power are able to exert pressure on the Church to "adapt" standards to suit their needs: the Church no longer serves God, but, slave-like, panders to the whims of the people, a not so sly back-hander directed at the new Church of England and its sycophantic submission to the monarch and his/her whims. The meditation on death involved in the scene with the skull of Yorick merely echo the general sentiments of Ash Wednesday "ashes to ashes, dust to dust".
The conclusion of the whole play is altogether more muted: Hamlet regrets that he momentarily lost control of his temper with Laertes, and has compassion for a man who has lost a father and a sister and asks for peace before the rapier scene in which he dies, but not before there is true Christian forgiveness: "I do forgive thee/ And I thee", a more simple version of the later text. Hamlet’s last words after this are "Heaven receive my soul". These are not Hamlet’s last words in the later edition, where he gives his blessing on Fortinbras before announcing "the rest is silence", which conviction affirms the agnostic tendency we identified in the "to be, or not to be" speech.
In a medieval morality or mystery play the symbolic triumph of good over evil reinforces the idea of a divinely ordered universe. We know that Shakespeare was familiar with the various cycles which reenacted all the liturgical feasts of the Church and recounted the most well-known stories from the Bible, from the Fall of Man to the End of the World, to supposedly "illiterate" audiences: to spectators of the public performances of those medieval guilds of actors in pre-Reformation Europe which dealt exclusively with sacred subjects - from Genesis to the Apocalypse, from the beginning of life on earth to the end of life on earth - and performed them in all the major cities. Shakespeare was familiar with the Coventry cycle. In our examination of Hamlet we cannot go quite this far and say that the First Quarto is a medieval morality or mystery play, for the simple reason that the effects of the Reformation are everywhere in evidence. We have been able to show that the cycle of birth and death – both physical and spiritual – continues as it would in a medieval morality or mystery play. But the cycle is under pressure from and vulnerable to a new culture of negotiation, as represented by all the proponents of the new world order, the ‘new’ courtiers supporting usurper monarchs, with their networks of organized persecution and oppression. Hamlet is caught, but he does not succumb, although he is tempted, as many Catholics in Recusant England undoubtedly were. In human terms his poses and aggression and holy hatred are certainly understandable. However there is little evidence of Satanic influence, indeed, Hamlet positively helps to redeem those who can be redeemed, like his mother, Gertred and the representative of untainted, virginal purity, the beautiful young Ophelia. He prevents Horatio from committing suicide (which does not happen in the later edition) and is reconciled to Laertes in true Christian forgiveness. Set against this, he does not forgive his uncle, and momentarily appears triumphant as he delights in the very prospect of catching a man in his sins, which is hardly a sign of grace. He also remains determined to revenge his father’s death, which dream he is prevented from realizing only because circumstances get the better of him. But everywhere the fight to sustain the faith is compromised by the organized forces of evil.
The most powerful argument in favour of the centrality of the Catholic faith in the First Quarto relates to the soliloquy "to be, or not to be". This is symbolically placed at the centre of the play, and unambiguously articulates the real reasons for persevering in the Faith, no matter what the odds: "the joyful hope of this,..a hope of something after death". As Christ suffered on the cross to save us from our sins, so must modern man suffer, even when the very fabric of moral, social and political life has been so stained by the sin of heresy. In the medieval world suffering had a purpose. So too in the modern world, although with a marked difference. Individual souls will continue to yearn for the beatific vision, and the promise of a just reward from "an everlasting judge", but the faith is now within the soul more so than ever because the unity of the Church and the mystical body of Christ is being actively destroyed by internal schism and heresy. The value of the First Quarto of Hamlet is that it reinforces the conviction that the divine order is still underpinning what looks like an irredeemably compromised universe in precisely those souls already touched by the grace of God. Whereas we have seen that the Folio edition was a meditation on the mystery of iniquity with few signs of the mystery of grace, we can say that the First Quarto is not only a work of consolation in times of persecution but a meditation on the mystery of grace and the mystery of iniquity, in a near perfect way.
The time is probably now ripe to reexamine all the First Quartos of the great plays to see whether Shakespeare reworked each of his plays in the light of historical changes which he both witnessed and for which he suffered. As the years went by in the course of his own writing career the situation of Catholics did not improve, it degenerated, Mary Queen of Scots’ son James I being a particularly grave disappointment to Catholics. Shakespeare recognized that here was no passing heresy, but one which was so well organized as to be capable of sustaining a permanent revolution. Until we carefully reexamine the changes made between each First Quarto and the subsequent established master-text in the light of the extraordinary tensions associated with the Reformation we will continue to misunderstand the immense profundity of this great historian-dramatist. Perhaps the simple point about the radical differences between the little known First Quartos and the universally known Folio editions - as we have shown here in relation to Hamlet - is that Shakespeare wished to chronicle the temptation to apostasy as the strength of the Faith weakened under political and other pressures. Until this work to reclaim Shakespeare for the truth about the shift towards deregulated secularism in English history is done, usurper critics will continue to use the bard to legitimize virtually every single ideology known to our modern, atheist world. We should not forget that William Shakespeare was born and died on the Feast of St. George for a very good reason. He was a true patriot who, in an era of censorship, when the public life of the Church was proscribed, used his God-given talents in the public sphere, in the daily life of the theatre, to show mercy to suffering souls, and to console them as they were being persecuted for the simple crime of remaining faithful to the Church founded by Our Blessed Lord.
Our Lady of Fatima, pray for the conversion of England.