Queen Gertrude: Let not thy mother lose her prayers, Hamlet.
I pray thee stay with us, go not to Wittenberg.
Hamlet: I shall in all my best obey you, madam.
For the last few days, a line from the movie Abraham Lincoln:Vampire Hunter has been haunting me. As Adam is trying to convince Abe Lincoln to rise up and break his chains by killing his master, he makes this very pointed statement, “We are all slaves to something. I, to eternity. You, to your convictions. Others, to the color of their skin” (Bekmambetov, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter). Since beginning this blog, I have discovered that I have inadvertently made slavery an underlying theme of all my posts. Whether it is slavery to a medical condition, a painful past, or to societal expectations, Adam’s words ring true, we are slaves to something. In contemplating this further, Paul states in his epistle to the Romans that slavery is actually an act of the will:
“Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness” (ESV Ro 6.16).
I feel somewhat like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Tom Stoppard’s play, it may appear that I have freedom, yet from a compatibilistic perspective, I only retain the allusion of choice; slavery is a given, it is only a matter of what I choose in which to be enslaved.
This morning, as I thought more about the question of slavery, I was hit with a thought from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The whole play is about slavery, whether to revenge, passion, or power, each character struggles with being enslaved in some form or another.
“We are all slaves to something. I, to eternity. You, to your convictions. Others, to the color of their skin” (Bekmambetov, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter).
But the question of Hamlet’s slavery, that is the stuff that great tragedies are made of. Hamlet’s very mind is the source of his slavery; he allows the voices of others to plot his course and question what he knows is truth. Shakespeare wastes no time letting his audience know that Hamlet is spineless; he is reeling from the death of his father and the hasty marriage of his mother, and yet he is willing to obey his mother’s pleas to overlook such things. Her request on its face may seem harmless, after all she wants to see her son smile, she wants him to embrace his new father, and move forward with his life. What mother would not want that for her dear child? However, looking closer at her request, it is incredibly sinister in nature and asks of Hamlet to reject all that he believes to be true in order to enslave himself to the same sin in which she has voluntarily become enslaved.
The very first thing I noticed when reading this play is that Hamlet is a student of the Scriptures. He attended school in Wittenberg, and I do not believe for a second that Shakespeare chose this particular setting on a whim. Wittenberg is the seat of the Protestant Reformation. It is the stage in which Martin Luther rebelled against a tyrannical Church who, through a manipulative use of the Word of God, had managed to enslave entire countries with its legalistic rules. If any setting speaks of throwing off the shackles of slavery and rising up to serve the truth, Wittenberg is the archetypal city. Yet here is Hamlet, a student of the Reformation, willingly condescending to “look like a friend on Denmark” (Shakespeare 1.1.69). He knows that his mother’s new relationship is sinful, and he knows the consequences of embracing the sin. After agreeing to his mother’s pleas, Hamlet admits:
“’Tis an unweeded garden that grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature posses it merely. That it should come to this…But break my heart, for I must hold my tongue” (Shakespeare 1.1.135-137, 159).
How can one who knows the truth hold their tongue and be silent? How is it that Hamlet can remain mute in the light of such blatant sin? Again, thinking of the words of Paul, we can choose to enslave ourselves to righteousness, or we can choose slavery to sin, and the choice we make will dominate. Hamlet’s mind was already enslaved by sin, even before he arrived in Denmark, and he was only acting from the overflow of his heart.
I cannot help but think that Hamlet’s outcome could have been different had he stood firm in what he already knew and resisted the call to become a party to Denmark’s sins. His first misstep is in taking literally his mother’s request to refrain from seeking his father in the dust (Shakespeare 1.1.71). Looking at this request from a metaphorical perspective, not all lives end as Gertrude says they do. In fact, Hamlet’s “father”, t hough dead, has defeated the grave and risen again to new life. So yes, Hamlet does need to refrain from looking for his Father in the dust because He has passed through nature and on to eternity, yet He was never bound by the nature in which He passed through. If Hamlet had not conceded to his mother’s second request to not return to Wittenberg, he would have known this truth immediately. To be honest, I think that when Hamlet concedes to this second request, he seals his fate. By obeying his mother and not returning to Wittenberg and attempting to stay with them (that is, to accept their sin and become a party to it), Hamlet falls into an existential spiral in which he cannot fully recover before it is too late.
When confronted with the tragedies of life, be it chronic illness, abuse, financial woes, or situations that threaten to destroy our established worldview, it is important to remember the truth.
How does this relate to what I have been writing about? The answer is simple. When confronted with the tragedies of life, be it chronic illness, abuse, financial woes, or situations that threaten to destroy our established worldview, it is important to remember the truth. It is important to know that the Word of God shall not return empty but will accomplish His greater purpose for which it was sent (ESV Is 55.11). As Henry Sturgess teaches the young, vengeful spirit of Abe Lincoln, anger and hatred will make small gashes in the tree, but the force of the truth will tear it down (Bekmambetov, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter). God promises that He does not have plans to harm or destroy, but plans to prosper. He will be the hope and the future of His people, all we need to do is hang on tightly to the truth, and that truth will set us free.
Bekmambetov, Timur, director. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Abraham Productions. 2012.
Biblegateway. Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Crossway Bibles. 2001. Web. 8 August 2016
Shakespeare, William. “Hamlet.” The Norton Shakespeare Second Edition. Edited by Stephen Greenblatt. Norton, 2009. 1067-1168. Print.