Self-Judgment and Hamlet's Mutiny

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My last blog post on The Hovel is dated April 17, 2017 – over one year ago. There are plenty of reasons and justifications for my silence: I’ve been busy working on more pressing projects, Ian and I moved across the country again, we bought our first house, etc., etc.

If I’m honest, though, there’s one sad underlying cause for my lack of productivity that trumps all the other excuses: I have become Hamlet.

Six or seven years ago that would have been a statement of pride on my part: “Look at how serious and existential and intellectual I am – just like tragical Hamlet.” Today I see it for what I truly think it is: a statement that betrays my childishness and immaturity. Like Hamlet, I have anxiously tried to step into my play as both lead actor and director. My inability to write is just a microcosm of the effects this has had on the rest of my life.

Who is Hamlet, though? What kind of character have I become?

Shakespeare opens his famous play with the image of a suffocating and tightly enclosed world. When the prince agrees in Act I to remain home in Denmark instead of leaving for Wittenburg, his uncle Claudius responds with a display of celebration. He declares he will blast his cannons, “And the King’s rouse the heavens shall bruit again, / Re-speaking earthly thunder” (I.ii.127-28). In this image, the king’s earthly “voice” sounds to the heavens, but the heavens only richochet an echo. In this way Hamlet is right when he says Denmark is a prison. Nothing pierces the sky and makes it to heaven in Hamlet: neither the king’s celebrations here, nor his repentant prayers later.

Denmark has become an echo chamber, where heaven only re-speaks human voices. For all the supernatural references in the play, the voice or judgment of God is surprisingly silent. Instead, the characters make the moral judgments, declaring for themselves their own guilt or innocence, as well as the guilt and innocence of others. The only hint of divine decree we are given in the play is that the Almighty has fixed his canon against self-slaughter; so we know the characters are not allowed to exit the stage. But they also have been left in the theater without other stage directions. Hamlet must block his own play as he goes, his only sense of final judgment on earthly decisions a ghost who claims to be his father, condemned to suffer in purgatory for unknown sins. Hamlet adored his father above all else. If even Hamlet’s Hyperion hero must suffer such terrible punishment – who knows why – then what hope does Hamlet have for a better end?  

The prince turns on himself and condemns his inability to take revenge for a beloved father, to feel passion akin to the First Player’s put-on grief for Hecuba, to out-do Laertes in his grief for Ophelia. “Oh what a rogue and peasant slave am I” is his judgment on himself (II.ii.52). Hamlet holds to a rigid moral code and identifies his constant inability to meet its standards.

This is laudable, right? Isn’t this humility?

The problem is that the ferocity with which Hamlet upbraids himself for inaction leaves something wanting. Keeping such a close watch on each of his own movements, Hamlet is surprised to find that he cannot move at all. He cannot deal with the problem of his father’s murder for good or ill. The human voice of his deceased father has presented him with a standard of revenge; now Hamlet sits in judgment over himself and rages over his inability to meet that standard.

It would be dishonest to say that real life never feels this suffocating. On the one hand right and wrong are clear to us, and on the other the only voice of judgment we hear concerning the gray area of our day-to day-actions is our own and the voices of those around us. In the midst of such ambiguity it is easy to vacillate between utter despair of success and a feverish desire to grab ahold of the reins. No wonder Hamlet takes it on himself to be the director! Surely he has to step up and take charge of this madness; perhaps in so doing he can avoid his father’s dreary end. When the correct action is unclear, maybe if we judge ourselves first, then God will credit our anxiety as righteousness and withhold judgment later.

Eeesh. This is exactly what I’ve seen in myself. I have started quite a handful of blog posts over the last year, but I abandon each of them as I hold a microscope up to every sentence and sentiment I express. Weighing myself in the scales, condemning myself for being too arrogant here or lacking eloquence there, judging each thought unimportant or a window through which the world will see just what a self-important poser I am – I slap my laptop shut and walk away from saying anything at all. In a moment of inspiration, I try to thunder my cannon to the heavens and it comes right back around and explodes in my face.

Maybe this is good. Maybe this is humility and self-control. But here’s the rub: once Hamlet climbed up in the director’s chair, he wasn’t just scrutinizing himself. We have not wrestled with the problem of the play until we confront the Prince’s decision to hold off on executing Claudius during his prayers; Hamlet wishes to secure not just earthly revenge, but the King’s eternal punishment. Now Hamlet is placing himself in the judgment seat of God, attempting to direct souls to heaven and hell. He has exchanged his voice for the divine so that the heavens echo back his judgments.

The tendency to sit in obsessive judgment over ourselves soon wells up and pours over onto those around us in ugly ways. Hamlet easily turned his self-loathing toward Gertrude’s supposed sin. I have seen this tendency, too, in myself and it makes me a very unpleasant wife, daughter, and co-worker. My rage at being unable to act builds up until all I can do is petulantly demand that those around me acknowledge I am still important, when the problem has been all along that I am the one judging myself to be unimportant. I am the one who judged myself a failure.

It would be easy to conclude that the solution is that I must cease this obsessiveness, that I must shape up and act right – that I must act! But wasn’t that the whole problem in the first place? Human beings are such complex things, the quintessence of dust. I am powerless to sift the depths of my heart and find the root of my problems, let alone dig that root out. Even our best actions are tinged with sin; even the heroes like Hamlet’s father are condemned.

But maybe the heavens are silent because God has already made his judgment. Maybe that judgment is not what we think. Maybe Horatio was right about the devilish nature of the ghost.

Whether or not Hamlet believed it himself, I cling to that final pronouncement he makes to Horatio before rushing into the slaughter of Act 5. Describing his recent escape at sea, he prefaces his rash decision to open and read Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s warrant for his death:

Sir, in my heart there was a kind of fighting
That would not let me sleep. Methought I lay

Worse than the mutines in the bilboes. Rashly–
And praised be rashness for it: let us know
Our indiscretion sometime serves us well
When our dear plots do pall, and that should teach us
There’s a divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them how we will– (V.ii.3-11)

I have been the mutine, bucking up against the way God organized the world, thinking I could rule it and myself better than He. I tried to fill the untamable silence with my own voice. Will I look back at what I wrote and said this year when I am older and wiser and groan? Absolutely. I already am groaning and frantically reorganizing my syntax in earlier paragraphs of this article because I cannot stop my cycle of self-judgment. But if Hamlet is right in the above passage – and I certainly hope he is – God is shaping the stupid things I say, along with my arrogance in not saying them, to his ends. His final judgment has already been pronounced. All were condemned, but now there is no more condemnation. All that’s left to me is to be indiscreet – to be free to act and move and be a creature, who can only live by her limited lights and leave final judgment up to God.

I’m reminded of a passage in I Corinthians:

This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.  Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful. But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God. (I Corinthians 4:1-5)

Overthinking everything I say and do is paralyzing. I might as well just step out and act and write with abandon, because I cannot disclose the purposes of my own heart. And yes, when Hamlet finally acted, he dove headlong into his own death. Even with my best intentions, that seems to be what happens when I act, too. But thank God we have a Savior who raises the dead back to life. Thank God that in Christ Jesus I received his commendation before I even got started. I, too, have a Fortinbras who will arrive from beyond the hills and declare me "most royal."