Hamlet in Arabia
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.