Monday, July 16, 2007

Hamlet in Arabia

Another Monday after another weekend graced by attending a performance of one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies: Hamlet. Talk about a national political disaster: as the curtain falls on the final scene of the play, the king (usurper), queen (possibly a knowing accomplice in her first husband’s murder), heir to the throne (hero), and a noble of the realm are dead on stage. Four others die (or are assumed to have died) earlier in the play.

The play is not anywhere near the Bard’s bloodiest. It’s origin is a pre-Christian Danish legend translated by the 16th century French writer François de Belleforest, who also “christianized” the language used and added a moral “lesson.” It has a faint similarity to the June 2001 deaths of ten members of the Nepalese royal family, although in this real world instance the cause of the crown prince’s rampage was his mother’s refusal to let him marry his choice of spouse (in Nepal the uncle did become king, only to be sidelined in 2006).

Following the performance, the Theatre held a post-play discussion that centered on the psychology behind the play brought out two interrelated points that, as in Nepal in 2001, echo and reecho in the real world. Two forces drive the play’s action: remembrance (the Ghost of Hamlet’s father presses the prince to “Remember me”) and revenge. The latter is a function of the first and the product of the reality of unnatural (untimely) death, intense grief, and tremendous frustration and pre-suicidal depression Hamlet feels because he can see no path open to him to honor his father by killing his uncle.

At the time that Shakespeare wrote Hamlet (1601-1602), a revenge killing for a murder by a blood relative of the victim – officially discouraged by the authorities – was considered “natural” by the common folk and even a sacred duty. But times were changing, and by the next decade, revenge – even for restoring a family’s honor – was being actively discouraged by both state and church.

There was an even greater motive for Hamlet to kill his mother and step-father: religion. One of the more powerful cultural changes still underway when Hamlet was first staged in London stemmed from Martin Luther’s rejection 50 years earlier of the Roman Catholic belief in purgatory. Protestant denominations saw this as an artificial safety valve that, when prayers were said for the souls of the dead, allowed those in purgatory to escape eternal damnation and attain Heaven. While other species will fight within their social structures, the reasons for their warfare are “natural”: food, water access, territorial dominance, choice of mate. But to die in mortal sin – as Hamlet’s father did when he was murdered – means automatic damnation. Similarly, to commit suicide meant automatic damnation.

Hamlet thus was blocked from acting even to end his frustration – because in suicide he would end his memories of his father (and all else) – created by his inability to avenge his father’s death. He had no way to convert his death at his own hand into martyrdom.

How different the interpretation of the meaning of religion of those who, in today’s world, believe their death, if accompanied by the deaths of others, will guarantee their salvation.


Blogger rasphila said...

Hamlet is among my favorite Shakespeare works, although the many deaths at the end can seem forced if the production doesn't present them well. Hamlet's dilemma is complicated by the fact that in the Christianity of the time, suicide was considered a mortal sin, not a human tragedy—so he would lose not only memory, but his immortal soul. Laws against attempted suicide are still on the books in many places, reflecting this older attitude.

Suicide is also a sin in Islam, which is why Jihadi theorists use the term "martyrdom." In Hamlet's world, as you say, there is no way for Hamlet to commit suicide and convert it to martyrdom. In Jihadi theory, blowing oneself up for a cause becomes martyrdom and leads not to condemnation but to paradise.

I'm no expert on Islam, but everything I've read about it tells me that the Jihadi reasoning here is pure rationalization for a tactic that just about every mainstream Muslim authority condemns. The suicide bomber him/herself may show great courage and self-sacrifice. It's harder to say this about the leaders who use suicide bombing as a tactic. Their moral responsibility is very heavy indeed.

9:20 AM  

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