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Religion and the Arts 11 (2007) 45–73

“Great Command O’Ersways the Order”:

Purgatory, Revenge, and Maimed Rites in Hamlet

David Beauregard
Our Lady of Grace Seminary, Boston

Certain elements in Hamlet, together with historical and biographical events, suggest that
Shakespeare’s play can be better understood from a Catholic perspective. The representation
of the Ghost from Purgatory contains obviously Catholic imagery and allusions. The notion
of revenge or vengeance, understood in terms of a proper intention in appropriate circum-
stances, is considered a virtue in Thomistic theology rather than a vice, a notion applicable to
the play particularly when the opposing vices of being excessive and being remiss in punishing
(cruelty and negligence) are taken into account. And, finally, the Erastian measures taken by
Claudius, whose “great command o’ersways the order” of Ophelia’s funeral, deforms a tradi-
tional Catholic liturgy in producing “maimed rites.”

Shakespeare, Hamlet, Catholic ritual, Erastianism, Aquinas, Purgatory

But let this same be presently perform’d

Even while men’s minds are wild, lest more mischance
On plots and errors happen. (5.2.393–95)1

C ommanded by his father to avenge his murder, Hamlet entangles him-

self in intrigue, fails to kill King Claudius, and tragically dies. By 1600,
Shakespeare had good reason to portray such a figure in such vengeful action.
The history of Elizabeth’s reign was one of botched “plots and errors” on
the part of Catholics, some real, some possibly fabricated—the Northern
Rebellion of 1569, the Ridolfi Plot of 1571, the Throckmorton and Somer-
ville Plots of 1583, and later, in the reign of King James, the Gunpowder Plot

All quotations are from The Riverside Shakespeare.
© Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2007 DOI: 10.1163/156852907X172421

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46 D. Beauregard / Religion and the Arts 11 (2007) 45–73

of 1605.2 Some of Shakespeare’s remote kinsmen and acquaintances were

involved. Indeed, Stratford was situated, according to Antonia Fraser, “at the
centre of [the] recusant map” (Fraser 114–15). A number of Catholic con-
spirators frequented the Mermaid Tavern, whose proprietor, William John-
son, was Shakespeare’s friend and co-purchaser with him of the Blackfriars
Gatehouse (Schoenbaum 259, 273–74). Formerly, the gatehouse had been
“in the tenure of ” John Fortescue, and Jesuit priests had visited there at least
three times, in 1591, in 1598, and again in 1605 (Wilson 373–75; Cham-
bers 2: 166–67). Shakespeare purchased the property in 1613, after having
retired to Stratford. His purchase of the gatehouse for £140 (twice what he
paid for New Place) seems unlikely to have been made as an investment or as
the purchase of a place where he could lodge when in London. As a Catholic
“safe house,” however, the gatehouse was invaluable, since it was next to the
French ambassador’s residence and provided numerous avenues of escape.3
Shakespeare significantly left it in the hands of trustees and of John Robin-
son, probably the son of Fortescue’s steward and brother to the Jesuit Edward
Robinson. Shakespeare’s will mentions “one John Robinson” as dwelling
there (Wilson 396–97, 412). Robinson and his wife, with her brother Cuth-
bert Burbage, are again mentioned in 1635 as sharers in the Globe and
“housekeepers” of the Blackfriars playhouse (Irwin Smith, document 46).
What seems certain is that, by keeping Robinson as his tenant, Shakespeare
put the gatehouse into Catholic hands. His daughter Susanna continued
Robinson’s tenancy until 1639 (Chambers 2: 169).
If Shakespeare moved in Catholic circles as these indications suggest, it
should come as no surprise that, contrary to some recent critical claims,
Hamlet does not appear to be a very Protestant play.4 For one thing, it
abounds in the language of Catholic discourse. Various minor expressions
occur and recur. Hamlet Sr. refers to Purgatory and the sacraments of
penance and extreme unction (1.5.9–13, 76–79); Hamlet swears once “by
St. Patrick” (1.5.136) and twice “by’ [our] lady” (2.2.425; 3.2.133); he uses

See Edwards.
The Blackfriars Gatehouse complex was a continuous center of Catholic activity until the
famous “Fatal Vespers” in 1623, when the upper floor over the gatehouse of the French ambas-
sador’s house collapsed during a Jesuit service, killing one hundred of the three hundred peo-
ple in attendance. It is possible that the same upper floor, or one section of it, had connected
to Shakespeare’s house, since according to the deed for the property, Shakespeare’s section
included a part “erected over a great gate” (Foley 1: 78–9; Chambers 2: 154–7).
For attempts at applying Protestant theology to the play, see Sinfield, Waddington, Mathe-
son, and Hassel, “Hamlet’s ‘Too, Too Solid Flesh.’”

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D. Beauregard / Religion and the Arts 11 (2007) 45–73 47

the theologically resonant phrase “Hic et ubique” (1.5.156);5 Polonius swears

twice “By the mass” (2.1.50, 3.2.378; see also 5.1.55); “marry” is exclaimed
twelve times; Hamlet uses the word “nunnery” five times (3.1.120, 129, 137,
139, 149); and merit is mentioned twice (2.2.532; 3.1.73). Moreover, Ham-
let says to Ophelia, “Nymph, in thy orisons, / Be all my sins remember’d”
(3.1.88–89), and over the grave of Ophelia mention is made of “charitable
prayers,” both phrases suggesting the efficacy of intercessory prayer in forgiv-
ing sins. Again, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are “put to sudden death, /
Not shriving-time allow’d” (5.2.46–47), a clear reference to the Catholic sac-
ramental practice of auricular confession.
Of somewhat larger proportion is Hamlet’s meditation on death in the
graveyard scene. As Louis Martz and Eleanor Prosser have pointed out, Ham-
let’s ruminations follow the “rhetorical form and specific images” of Luis
de Granada’s Of Prayer and Meditation (Martz 137–38; Prosser 222–26).
Shakespeare has clearly read and thoroughly absorbed this Catholic medita-
tional manual. There are several “echoes” or parallels: Luis writes, “Then the
grave maker taketh the spade, and pyckaxe into his hande,” and Shakespeare
has it “a pick-axe, and a spade, a spade.” Luis writes, “Is this that pleasunt row-
linge tongue, that talked so eloquently, and made such goodlie discourses?”
and Shakespeare writes, “Here hung those lips . . . Where be your gibes now?
your gambols? your songs?” Luis mentions Alexander the Great, writing:

They maie digge for some earthe out of the same to make morter for a
walle, and so shall thy seelie bodie (beinge now changed into earth)
become afterwardes an earthen walle, although it be at this present the
most noble bodie and most delicately cherished of all bodies in the
worlde. And how manie bodies of Kinges and Emperors trowest thou
have come already to this promotion.

And Hamlet says:

Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth into dust; the
dust is earth; of earth we make loam, and why of that loam whereto he was
converted might they not stop a beer-barrel?
Imperious Caesar, dead and turn’d to clay,
Might stop a hole to keep the wind away.

See Greenblatt 234–37.

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48 D. Beauregard / Religion and the Arts 11 (2007) 45–73

O that that earth which kept the world in awe

Should patch a wall t’ expel the winter’s flaw! (5.1.208–16)

To be sure, Hamlet’s urging Ophelia to get to a “nunnery” is perhaps derisive

and the meditation on death is not necessarily Catholic, but it is peculiar
that the references to Protestant matters are so few by contrast. There are the
four passing references to Wittenberg (1.2.113, 119, 164, 168), but these
seem to be without clear significance, unless they are intended to character-
ize Denmark as a Lutheran state. Although Denmark had historical ties with
the university at Wittenberg, the references seem to be obscure if not careless
allusions, especially in view of the correlative anachronism in the play of
Denmark ruling England (4.3.58–65; 5.2.39). Interestingly, the prestige of
Wittenberg appears to be subtly downplayed when Gertrude seeks to dis-
suade Hamlet from returning to school and Horatio announces that he him-
self is of “a truant disposition” (1.2.112–14, 169). The reference to the Diet
of Worms seems also to be a rather obscure play on words (4.3.20–21).6 And
it is difficult to make much of the Calvinist phraseology of the reference to
“special providence” (5.2.219), an undeveloped and commonplace distinc-
tion. By contrast with the Catholic references, the Protestant allusions are
few, marginal and nondoctrinal.
On a wider scale, in Richard III, Julius Caesar, Richard II, King John and
Macbeth, Shakespeare addresses the problems of tyrannical rule, an obvious
concern of Catholics in sixteenth-century England. Hamlet is yet another
case in point. If we put aside for the moment the myth of Elizabeth as politi-
cal genius beloved by her people, and also the political fiction of Shakespeare’s
England as enjoying peace and prosperity, we might ask how the “nasty nine-
ties” appeared from a Catholic standpoint.7 Catholics were oppressed by
laws, fines, imprisonment, torture and execution. The perception of Robert
Parsons in his Memorial (c. 1596) reflects something more of the Catholic
perspective, according to a recent scholar:

Parsons . . . correctly identified many of the social characteristics of late-

sixteenth-century England [including] clergy leading impoverished,
unlearned, and to a degree avaricious lives . . . defendants confronting a

On the references to Wittenberg and the Diet of Worms, see Waddington 27–32,
Matheson 391–92, and Rust 260–62.
The phrase “nasty nineties” is from Collinson 154 (see also 19).

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D. Beauregard / Religion and the Arts 11 (2007) 45–73 49

crude and addled legal system; noblemen’s sons committing highway

robbery; poor and vagrant young men helping to create a “permanent
proletariat”; landlords increasing rents because of a population boom;
and many adults attempting to overcome illiteracy and inadequate edu-
cation. (Carrafiello 81)

The rather benign characterization of the Elizabethan state as fostering a glo-

rious epoch of prosperity and peace, toleration and expansion, has ignored
the negative side of the regime. A recent study paints a much darker picture
more in keeping with Hamlet:

It is fairly observed that late-Elizabethan political history has rarely been

written in terms of the preoccupations of contemporaries. Crime,
vagrancy, and economic misfortunes, especially catastrophic harvest
failures in 1596 and 1597, headed the immediate list of concerns . . . The
atmosphere was claustrophobic in the 1590s since the late-Elizabethan
establishment felt itself increasingly beleaguered. It perceived the enemy
within to be even more dangerous than the enemy abroad . . . As the
first generation of Elizabethan bishops died in the 1580s, they were
replaced by a different species: more rigidly authoritarian conformists
led by John Whitgift, whom the queen preferred to Canterbury in 1583.
(Guy 9, 18, 126)

In the second half of Elizabeth’s reign, the conception of England as a “mixed

polity,” a conception dominant until 1585, increasingly gave way to a view of
England as an imperial sovereignty. In this context, Catholics especially
were subject to oppression, and it is significant that Shakespeare himself, in
Sonnet 66, refers to his art as “tongue-tied by authority.”
If we assume a Catholic perspective and explore it further, some rather
striking similarities become apparent between Claudius’s Denmark and
Elizabeth’s England—not exact parallels, to be sure, but general atmospheric
contours and loose similarities, perhaps deliberately obscured and “encoded”
for obvious reasons.8 Thus, we are gradually introduced to a Denmark threat-
ened and fortified against invasion by Norway, much as England, the mythi-
cal “Beleaguered Isle,” was threatened by the foreign power of Spain (Wiener
27–72). Again, there is Claudius the tyrant, the “illegitimate” monarch

On Elizabeth, see Haigh, Elizabeth I and The Reign of Elizabeth I.

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50 D. Beauregard / Religion and the Arts 11 (2007) 45–73

who has murdered his brother, an anointed king, just as Elizabeth was
perceived by some Catholics as an illegitimate tyrant who executed her “sis-
ter,” Mary Queen of Scots. There is the disruption of religious ritual with
Claudius’s marriage and Ophelia’s funeral, just as there was disruption of tra-
ditional Catholic ritual by the Elizabethan regime. There is a great deal of
spying with the activity of Polonius, Reynaldo, and Rosencrantz and Guil-
denstern, just as Elizabeth had employed an elaborate system of spying
inspired by Burghley and led by Topcliffe. There is even a remarkable similar-
ity between Polonius and Burghley. Both are obsequious servants of the
crown, given to spying, and both give preceptual advice to sons going abroad
to Paris, employing an Attic style.9 Finally, there is Hamlet’s botched plot
against the reigning monarch, similar to the clumsy plots mounted against
In light of these suggestive atmospheric parallels, I want to explore some of
the ways in which Hamlet is rooted in Catholic discourse and doctrine. On a
larger scale, there are three points at which Hamlet seems to reflect a Catho-
lic perspective: in the sympathetic characterization of the Ghost from Purga-
tory, in the complex treatment of the “problem” of revenge, and in the implied
criticism of the Erastian actions of Claudius. That is, Shakespeare assumes
that spirits are real and can return from the dead, he employs a conception of
morality based on virtue ethics rather than a voluntaristic conception of obe-
dience to law, and he portrays an Erastian interference in religious ritual as an
unwarranted violation of tradition. None of these positions are in accord
with the sixteenth-century theology of the Church of England. My claim
will be, therefore, that in these matters Shakespeare manifests a Catholic per-
spective. By way of qualification it must be said, however, that except for the
doctrine of Purgatory there is some overlap here with Reformed theologians,
not all of whom adopted a completely voluntaristic ethics and not all of
whom favored a fully Erastian conception of the relation of the state to the
church. In spite of this overlap, Shakespeare displays a fully Catholic constel-
lation of concerns about Purgatory, maimed funeral rites, deprivation of
sacraments, and remembrance of the dead.

Burghley’s letter to his son Robert is most accessible in Wright 7–13 and in Cecil 80–82.
Burghley died in 1598, and his letter, probably written around 1584 when Robert went
abroad, was finally published in 1615 (STC 4899). Shakespeare could have known it from the
Earl of Southampton, who was educated in the Burghley household.

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D. Beauregard / Religion and the Arts 11 (2007) 45–73 51

I Purgatory, the Ghost, and Revenge

The most indisputably Catholic scene in Hamlet is the encounter between
Hamlet and the Ghost. Two issues have generated a considerable amount of
commentary, namely, the nature of the Ghost and the moral propriety of
revenge.10 Each of these issues needs to be dealt with in some detail.
First of all, the nature of the Ghost. It is clear that the Ghost is not an illu-
sion, in Protestant fashion, since Shakespeare has Horatio retract his initial
skepticism about the apparition:

Bar. How now, Horatio? you tremble and look pale.

Is not this [the Ghost] something more than fantasy?
What think you on’t?
Hor. Before my God, I might not this believe
Without the sensible and true avouch
Of mine own eyes. (1.1.53–58)

Shakespeare underlines the point by having Hamlet himself confront the

Ghost three scenes later. These two scenes, in which the audience sees the
Ghost, carry more weight than the momentary conditional doubts that
Hamlet shows initially (1.4.40–3) and later in the play (2.2.598–603;
3.2.80–84). The Ghost is a reality, even in the scene in which Hamlet sees
him and Gertrude does not (3.4.102–36). To contend that Hamlet is deluded
requires that the audience deny what it sees, and it is therefore preferable to
simply view the Ghost as a reality invisible to Gertrude.
Again, in spite of the dread the Ghost inspires, he is not portrayed as an
evil spirit but as the unfortunate victim of Claudius. His murder is described
in sympathetic terms, and his situation elicits a certain compassion and
indignation, a dramatic effect of some significance. He has obviously come
back from Purgatory, a place rejected by the Homilies and the Thirty-Nine
Articles as “a fond thing vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of
Scripture; but rather repugnant to the word of God” (37):

I am thy father’s spirit,

Doom’d for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confin’d to fast in fires,

On the ghost, see Prosser 118–43 and appendix A; see also Frye 14–29. Siegel surveys
criticism on both problems.

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52 D. Beauregard / Religion and the Arts 11 (2007) 45–73

Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature

Are burnt and purg’d away. (1.5.9–13)

And he has been deprived of the sacraments of penance and extreme unction,
Roman Catholic but not Protestant sacraments:

Cut off even in the blossoms of my sin,

Unhous’led, disappointed, unanel’d,
No reck’ning made, but sent to my account
With all my imperfections on my head. (1.5.76–79)

Moreover, in harmony with his Purgatorial suffering and deprivation of the

sacrament, the Ghost proceeds to converse with Hamlet in a manner more
Catholic than Protestant. It is significant that several times he appeals to
nature, not to scripture or the commandments of God.

Ham. O God!
Ghost. Revenge his foul and most unnatural murther.
Ham. Murther!
Ghost. Murther most foul, as in the best it is,
But this most foul, strange, and unnatural. (1.5.24–28; see also

Thus his murder is couched in natural law terms, not in terms of a voluntaris-
tic code or duty ethic. It is described as a violation of nature, not as a violation
of a divine command.
Shakespeare in this scene stresses the intention and goal of an action rather
than its conformity or obedience to law. That is, Hamlet exhibits the habit of
mind characteristic of what is currently called “virtue ethics,” as opposed to
“duty ethics” or an ethics based on obedience to law. According to Aquinas,
law is an exterior principle and virtue is an interior principle of action. Virtue
ethics requires the agent to act in accordance with a good intention, a good
end, and a prudent assessment of the circumstances. Simple unreflective con-
formity to law will not do, as is obvious in the case of unjust laws. Indeed, the
law says nothing about many minor matters or rare sets of circumstances.
Virtuous action requires the acting agent to moderate the dispositions or
natural inclinations moving him, so that the action performed is in keeping
with right reason, or what should be done in any given situation. Thus the

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command that the Ghost gives Hamlet: “But howsomever thou pursues this
act, / Taint not thy mind” (1.5.84–85) is open to undetermined and unknown
circumstances. The manner of carrying out vengeance is left open, provided
that, as Aquinas says, “the mind of the avenger” is not tainted by hatred. The
Ghost’s emphasis is on the interior principle, on motive and intention. By
contrast with the virtue ethics of Hamlet Sr., Polonius displays a form of duty
ethics when Laertes prepares to return to Paris (1.3.58 ff.). He acts like a
Protestant father, heaping “these few precepts” on him, much as Lord
Burghley proceeds with his son in his famous letter.
Given these preliminary reflections of a Catholic perspective, it is not sur-
prising that a serious interpretive problem arises when Hamlet is approached
from a Reformed standpoint. I refer to the supposed “problem” of revenge.
What follows from Protestant assumptions about the Ghost and the com-
mand to revenge is a dilemma. Since according to Protestant doctrine ghosts
are either evil spirits or illusions, it follows with some consistency that the
Ghost’s command to revenge must be taken to be immoral, a claim that is
allegedly confirmed by the scriptural injunction in Romans 12:18: “Ven-
geance is mine: I will repay, sayth the Lord.” Such a reading unfortunately
would put Hamlet in the position of being a villain and rather ironically
make of Claudius a victim. But there was also popular support for revenge,
and so according to a number of modern critics, there is a certain dilemma in
dealing with Hamlet, arising from the disparity between the official and the
popular attitudes.11
Approached from a Catholic standpoint, however, the “problem” of
revenge disappears. If the Ghost is a spirit from Purgatory, then his command
to avenge his murder can be seen as morally good, something quite in accord
with justice and the virtue of vengeance. Clearly Claudius is a tyrant, both in
his murderous seizure of the throne and in his use of power, and so a just
vengeance seems called for. The Catholic tradition, stemming from Aquinas
(ST 2a2ae 108) and extending to Suarez in the sixteenth century, allowed for
tyrannicide under certain conditions:12

See especially Bowers 3–40 and Prosser 3–35. Most recently, Greenblatt similarly observes
that Purgatory and the last rites are “utterly incompatible with a Senecan call for revenge”
(237, 253).
See the excellent discussion by Miola.

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54 D. Beauregard / Religion and the Arts 11 (2007) 45–73

He who takes vengeance on the wicked in keeping with his rank and
position does not usurp what belongs to God, but makes use of the
power granted him by God. For it is written (Rom. xiii.4) of the earthly
prince that he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath upon him
that doeth evil. If, however, a man takes vengeance outside the order of
divine appointment, he usurps what is God’s and therefore sins.13

Aquinas points out, however, that the avenger’s intention must not be
directed by hatred for the offender but rather by charity intending some
good, such as the offender’s amendment or the common good. This accords
with what Hamlet, who is an “earthly prince,” says very late in the play:

Does it not, think thee, stand me now upon—

He that hath kill’d my king and whor’d my mother,
Popp’d in between th’ election and my hopes,
Thrown out his angle for my proper life,
And with such coz’nage—is’t not perfect conscience
To quit him with this arm? And is’t not to be damn’d,
To let this canker of our nature come
In further evil? (5.2.63–70)

“Perfect conscience” implies of course the possibility of an imperfect con-

science, a possibility that, by suggesting that conscience needs to be formed
correctly, contradicts the absolute and unmediated authority of the individ-
ual conscience, on which Reformed theology depended. As Hamlet says, it
would be “perfect conscience” to kill Claudius for the sake of the common
good (to avoid “further evil”).
In England, this position was contrary to what was being preached in the
Homilies, in which “conscience” and passive obedience were invoked in sup-
port of the Elizabethan regime:14

For as long as in this first kingdome [Eden] the subiects [Adam and Eve]
continued in due obedience to GOD their king, so long did GOD

On the interpretation of this passage, see MacIntyre.
For an important survey of Protestant views on passive obedience to unjust rulers, see

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embrace all his subiects with his loue, fauour, and grace, which to enioy,
is perfect felicity, whereby it is euident, that obedience is the principall
vertue of all vertues, and indeed the very root of all vertues, and the cause
of all felicitie. But as all felicitie and blessednesse should haue continued
with the continuance of obedience, so with the breach of obedience, and
breaking in of rebellion, al vices and miseries did withall breake in, and
ouerwhelme the world. (–34)

Here the homily does not emphasize virtuous intentions applied flexibly to
circumstances, but rather it insists on an absolute and blind obedience to law.
Against the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition of virtue ethics, obedience
becomes “the principall vertue of all vertues,” not the virtue subordinated to
the cardinal virtue of justice or to the limited jurisdiction of legitimate
authority. Moreover, it has become the cause of “all felicity and blessedness.”
In linking the “first kingdom” of Eden with contemporary England, the
homily idealizes the Elizabethan regime. The phrase “God their king,” equat-
ing God and king, implies divine right. Thus, by a threefold linkage identify-
ing obedience with happiness, Eden, and God, and further equating it
with prosperity, England, and the Queen, any sort of disobedience and rebel-
lion is precluded and delegitimized. Absent the flexibility of Aristotelian-
Thomistic ethics, then, the absolutist doctrine of divine right forecloses on
the possibility of royal corruption and any redress of injustice, a problem
addressed by Shakespeare in several plays. Thus, for example, John of Gaunt
and Hamlet, by adopting a posture of passivity in the face of royal corrup-
tion, suffer the consequences and bring on their own demise.
Of additional importance is Aquinas’s description of vengeance in terms
of a virtue with two extremes, as the golden mean between an excess and a

Two vices are opposed to vengeance: one by way of excess, namely, the sin
of cruelty or brutality, which exceeds the measure in punishing: while
the other is a vice by way of deficiency and consists in being remiss in
punishing, wherefore it is written (Prov. xiii. 24): He that spareth the
rod hateth his son. But the virtue of vengeance consists in observing
the due measure of vengeance with regard to all the circumstances.
(2a2ae 108.2.3)

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56 D. Beauregard / Religion and the Arts 11 (2007) 45–73

Hamlet’s notorious vacillations are comprehensible in these terms. On the

one hand, he can be actively cruel and brutal, as with Ophelia and Gertrude
(not to mention Polonius and Rosencranz and Guildenstern), and on the
other he can be inactive and remiss in punishment, as he is with Claudius. He
can swing from hysterical certitude to languid doubt, from cautiously paus-
ing over the praying Claudius to impulsively striking out at him behind the
arras and mistakenly killing Polonius.
A Catholic interpretation of the Ghost and his command, then, resolves
the “problem” of revenge. Even Protestant authorities, in spite of what
Fredson Bowers and Eleanor Prosser have claimed, agreed with this position
on the virtue of just vengeance. A list of such authorities would include
John Calvin, Peter Martyr, and Thomas Wilson.15 Peter Martyr, for example,
makes the essential distinctions:

Reuenge is of two sorts; one publike, and an other priuate. And as for
publike, which ought to be exercised by the magistrate; so far is it off
from prohibiting therof, as God commandeth the same; warning alwaies
the magistrates, that they should execute iustice and iudgement, and not
suffer wickednesse to escape vnpunished. But it is not lawfull for priuate
men to reuenge, vnlesse it be, according to the prouerbe, To repell vio-
lence by violence. This is not prohibited them, when the magistrate can-
not helpe them. For somtime the case happeneth so vpon the sudden; as
a man cannot straitwaie flie to the helpe of the publike power. Where-
fore we may then defend our selues, vsing neuerthelesse great modera-
tion; to wit, that we onelie indeuour to defend our selues, and them that
be committed vnto vs, not wishing with a mind of reuenge to hurt our
aduersaries; in such sort as that action may proceed, not of hatred, but of

A line seems to have been drawn, however, when it came to the matter of
unjust rulers. In opposition to some Protestant theorists, passive obedience
to tyrants, as we have seen, was preached by the late Elizabethan Homilies
(see Greaves).
Catholic authorities such as Francisco Suarez and Robert Parsons fol-
lowed Aquinas in arguing that resistance to a tyrant could be justified,

See Calvin 4.20.17–20, 31; Peter Martyr 417–18, pt. 1, ch. 9; and for Wilson see
Vickers 87.

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although careful restrictions were usually laid down (Miola 271–89;

Carrafiello 51–55). In Hamlet’s case, there is no magistrate who can correct
the problem, and so the usual restrictions do not apply. He alone knows of
the crime, and it is more than arguable that as a prince he is a “magistrate”
( Joseph 500–502).
What is the upshot of all this? Revenge or vengeance is obviously a central
concern of the play, whether applied to situations of self-defense, dueling,
corrective punishment, or tyranny. In Hamlet, we find a variety of scenes rep-
resenting virtually all these diverse situations and calling for vengeance or
revenge. Shakespeare required a flexible ethical method to handle these
widely differing circumstances. I suggest that, in the tradition of virtue eth-
ics, Shakespeare assumes that vengeance is justified in Hamlet’s case but con-
cerns himself with delineating the portrait of a reckless and incompetent
avenger. As the epigraph to this essay suggests, he is warning against the tak-
ing of passionate revenge motivated by hatred, as is the case with Hamlet,
and is recommending a cool dispassionate vengeance in the manner of
Fortinbras and Laertes, both of whom are checked in their initial impulsive-
ness. Shakespeare assumes that vengeance is justified, but he warns against
performing it in a rash and disordered way, particularly showing us in the
vacillations of Hamlet the excesses and deficiencies of revenge. Those critics
who appeal to scripture (“vengeance is mine”) and to the passive obedience
advocated by the Elizabethan regime overlook the importance of traditional
virtue ethics, employed by Catholics and Protestants alike.
As confirmation of Shakespeare’s use of this kind of ethics, one can turn
to the scene in which Hamlet instructs the players. There we see another
reflection of virtue ethics and another virtue at issue. In his discourse on play-
acting, Hamlet speaks in an Aristotelian-Thomistic manner. That is, he sees
the art of playacting as an exercise of the cardinal virtue of temperance and
one of its subvirtues, modesty. First, he considers the proper manner of deal-
ing with the “matter” of passionate speech.

Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounc’d it to you, trippingly on the

tongue. But if you mouth it, as many of our players do, I had as lief the
town-crier spoke my lines. (3.2.1–4)

Then Hamlet proceeds to insist on the virtuous mean that should moderate
passion. A crucial part of the moderation and tempering of speech, what
Hamlet calls the “modesty of nature,” is the avoidance of the extremes of
excess and deficiency.

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58 D. Beauregard / Religion and the Arts 11 (2007) 45–73

Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus, but use all gently,
for in the very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say, whirlwind of your pas-
sion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smooth-
ness . . . Be not too tame neither, but let your own discretion be your
tutor. Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this spe-
cial observance, that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature. (3.2.4–8,

The doctrine of excess and deficiency as the extremes to a virtuous mean is

mentioned twice more—“For anything so overdone is from the purpose of
playing . . . Now this overdone, or come tardy off ”—so that the phraseology
is clearly not coincidental but deliberate.
The words “temperance” and “modesty,” therefore, provide the cardinal
virtue and subvirtue that would correctly classify the matter under discus-
sion according to a Thomistic taxonomy (see Aquinas 2.2.141–43, 160, 168).
Temperance would bring the “smoothness” necessary to correct the excessive
gesturing in a dramatic representation of passion, and so also the allied virtue
of “modesty” is aptly alluded to as the moderating corrective to the words
and bodily actions that might “o’erstep . . . nature.” Shakespeare, it would
appear, knew his Summa thoroughly, for Aquinas classifies modesty as a
“potential part” of temperance having to do with “bodily movements and
actions, whether we act seriously or in play.”
Finally, the speech contains a fundamentally teleological conception of play-
acting in its description of the end or purpose of dramatic representation:

For anything so o’erdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both
at the first and now, was and is, to hold, as ’twere the mirror up to nature,
to show virtue her own feature, scorn [pride] her own image, and the
very age and body of the time his form and pressure. (3.2.19–24)

The purpose of mimesis here is historically specific, uniting poetics and Aris-
totelian-Thomistic moral philosophy. As I have argued elsewhere, this con-
ception is operative in two other major sixteenth century poets, Sir Philip
Sidney and Edmund Spenser (Beauregard 23–28). In his Apology for Poetry
(1583), Sidney describes mimesis as “an arte of imitation . . . that is to say, a
representing, counterfeiting, or figuring foorth,” and he conceives of the
object of mimesis as “virtues, vices, and what els [that is, the passions]” as they
have been abstractly defined and distinguished by “the Schoolemen” (See

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Smith, Elizabethan 1: 158, 160, 164–66). Similarly, in his “Letter to Ralegh”

(1589), Spenser says that his aim in The Faerie Queene is to “fashion a gentle-
man or noble person in vertuous and gentle discipline,” that is, to represent in
the figure of Arthur before he was king “the twelve private morall vertues, as
Aristotle hath devised” (Spenser 407). In parallel fashion, rather than simply
reflecting the classical commonplace notions of Horace, Cicero, and Dona-
tus—“imitatio vitae, speculum consuetudinis, imago veritatis” (Chambers,
Elizabethan Stage 1: 238)16—Shakespearean drama aims (as Hamlet says
above) to “show virtue her own feature”; that is, it functions more specifically
as a concrete representation of the virtues, vices, and passions, again as they
are abstractly defined in Aristotle and Aquinas (Beauregard passim). Thus,
the four great Shakespearean tragedies focus on representing and enacting the
specific emotional dynamics of jealousy (Othello), fear (Macbeth), anger
(King Lear) and grief (Hamlet).17 Likewise, Shakespearean comedy repre-
sents Aristotelian-Thomistic triads of virtues and vices in the persons of cen-
tral characters, as for example in the Merchant of Venice (prodigality/Bassanio,
liberality/Antonio, avarice/Shylock), Measure for Measure (severity and lust/
Angelo, clemency and virginity/Isabella), and I Henry IV (foolhardiness/
Hotspur, magnanimous courage/Prince Hal, and cowardice/Falstaff ) (Beau-
regard passim). Other sixteenth century poets and dramatists—for example,
Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Watson, and Robert Southwell—reflect this
poetic as well, providing more evidence of the “centrality of the virtues” in
English Renaissance literature and humanist culture.18
If Hamlet adopts an Aristotelian conception of the purpose of playacting
as a mimesis of the virtues and passions, he also employs an Aristotelian-
Thomistic ethic and a Thomistic classification of the virtues. Thus, for the
actor, the achievement of the end of mimetically enacting the virtues, vices,
and passions is a matter of finding Aristotle’s “golden mean” amidst the
extremes of excess and deficiency in his representation.19

On the word speculum, see Bradley.
The first commentator to point this out was Campbell, whose work I have developed fur-
ther in Virtue’s Own Feature. See also Kirsch.
Indeed, Petrarch, Boccaccio, and Tasso clearly seem to be precursors of this poetical pro-
gram and its connection to Aristotelian-Thomistic moral philosophy. Thus Petrarch begins
his Canzoniere describing them as a record of his youthful passions of hope and sorrow atten-
dant upon love. For Boccaccio’s representation of the virtues, see Kirkham; see also Tasso
On this point, see especially Marker.

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60 D. Beauregard / Religion and the Arts 11 (2007) 45–73

On the contrary, following the doctrine of the sinful depravity and intel-
lectual darkness in which postlapsarian human nature found itself, Reformed
theologians saw actions largely in terms of revelation and obedience to law,
particularly the Ten Commandments, which could be found revealed in scrip-
ture. Luther considered Aristotle’s Ethics the worst enemy of grace, and Cal-
vin likewise dismissed the philosophers in preference to the Revealed Word.

As philosophers have fixed limits of the right and the honorable, whence
they derive individual duties and the whole company of virtues, so Scrip-
ture is not without its own order in this matter, but holds to a most beau-
tiful dispensation, and one much more certain than all the philosophical
ones. The only difference is that they, as they were ambitious men, dili-
gently strove to attain an exquisite clarity of order, which may serve
to show the nimbleness of their wit. But the Spirit of God, because he
taught without affectation, did not adhere so exactly or continuously
to a methodical plan. (Luther 31: 12; 44: 200–201; see also Calvin 1:
685, 3.6.1)

In spite of this lip service to virtue, Calvin and Reformed theologians put
more emphasis on law.20 Even Richard Hooker adopted this voluntaristic
conception of ethics.21 But Shakespeare shows the influence of Aristotelian
philosophical ethics and its historical development.

II “Something Rotten in the State of Denmark”

Early on in Hamlet, when Marcellus remarks that “something is rotten in the
state of Denmark” (1.4.90), it is already apparent that the Ghost has ushered
in a sense of foreboding and suspicion. But what exactly is “rotten” in Den-
mark? The obvious answer of course is King Claudius, who has murdered
Hamlet’s father and married his mother. But that does not fully account for
Shakespeare’s characterization of the evil threatening the state. Beyond the
murder and remarriage, there is an atmosphere that, as I have indicated, par-
allels that of the Elizabethan state, with its paranoid preparations for war,

For a survey of Reformed ethics, see Sinnema.
See the important article by Westberg, who argues that Hooker’s theory of agency differs
from that of Aquinas: “Instead of attraction and love, it is obedience; and for moral action,
not the development of virtue, but duty and obligation” (208).

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its spying, its executions of Catholic priests, and its general disruption and
suppression of traditional Catholic ritual. In Shakespeare’s eyes, the evil that
Hamlet is commissioned to expunge is primarily the crime of murder, but
there is yet another evil that emanates from the person of Claudius.
Erastianism, the idea that the state has supremacy over the church in eccle-
siastical matters, was so called after Thomas Lüber (1524–83), whose Latin
name was “Erastus.” Lüber was a Swiss physician, rector of Heidelberg Uni-
versity, and the Zwinglian theologian who wrote Explicatio gravissimae ques-
tione, utrum Excommunicatione (A Treatise of Excommunication). Lüber’s
work merely laid out a scripturally based argument against excommunica-
tion, which developed into “Erastianism,” or what can be summed up as the
theory “that the civil magistrate exercised all sovereignty within the state,
that the church exercised no coercive power, and that excommunication
should not be exercised” (Hillerbrand, “Erastianism”). Well before the time
of the publication of Lüber’s work, the governments of most Protestant cities
and areas were in fact already Erastian, as had been the case in England with
the passage of the Act of Supremacy (1534) under Henry VIII. The Refor-
mation in Denmark (c. 1522–40) had employed measures that were similar
in some respects to those taken in England. A Lutheran creed had been
adopted, the monasteries had been appropriated, a new liturgy had been
devised, and the Bible had been translated into the vernacular. The king came
to exercise supreme power over the church (Hillerbrand, “Denmark”).
Influential in England, Lüber’s work, by virtue of its argumentation, rein-
forced the position of John Whitgift, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1583
to 1604, against Presbyterian arguments in favor of the separate jurisdiction
of church and state. In late medieval England neither canon law nor liturgical
ritual was subject to royal command or civil law,22 but in Reformation
England, Henry VIII had changed all that and made the church subject to
the crown. With the Act of Supremacy he repudiated papal supremacy, des-
ignated himself “the only supreme head in earth of the Church of England”
and thus collapsed the distinction between temporal and spiritual jurisdic-
tion. In Henry’s wake, Elizabeth revised the Act of Supremacy in 1559, call-
ing herself somewhat more modestly “the only supreme governor of this

On this point, see Skinner 144–48. Skinner mentions that Suarez and other Jesuit theolo-
gians “insist on the traditional claim that the visible church is unquestionably an independent
legislative authority, operating its own code of canon law in parallel with, and never in subjec-
tion to, the civil laws of the commonwealth” (2: 145).

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62 D. Beauregard / Religion and the Arts 11 (2007) 45–73

realm . . . in all spiritual or ecclesiastical things as well as temporal.” John

Jewel, in An Apology of the Church of England (1562), attempted a defense of
this claim on the basis of examples from the Old Testament and church his-
tory. Following him, both Whitgift and Richard Hooker worked to buttress
the notion of royal supremacy.23 In the 1570s, Whitgift wrote several works,
and finally in 1593 Hooker published The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity,
although book 8, dealing with relations between church and state, was not
published until 1648. Thus, as Sir Edward Coke later put it:

And as in temporal causes, the king by the mouth of his judges in his
courts of justice, doth judge and determine the same by the temporal
laws of England, so in causes ecclesiastical and spiritual . . . the same are
to be determined and decided by judges according to the king’s ecclesi-
astical laws of this realm.24 (qtd. in Mortimer 58–59)

In the seventeenth century, by a circuitous route, the term “Erastian” became

synonymous with the supremacy of the crown over matters traditionally
under the control of the church.
In accordance with this conception, Elizabeth did not hesitate to use vari-
ous measures to effect a “settlement.” Following the path laid down by her
father her and brother, Edward VI, she carried out an Erastian attack on tra-
ditional Catholic ritual. After the Marian interlude, she reissued the Prayer
Book in 1559 with a few alterations. With the Act of Uniformity (1559),
she abolished the Mass, and in the Injunctions of 1559 she undertook vari-
ous other Erastian measures. In her turn as monarch, Elizabeth showed no
qualms about using her position to eradicate or reshape Catholic liturgical
forms. Toward the middle of her reign, she more notoriously used the rack
and the gallows as a weapon to enforce conformity and eliminate Jesuits and
mission priests.
Against this background, the theme of royal power and “maimed rites,”
not to mention Claudius’s tyrannical style, his paranoid spying, and his fear
of conspiracy, takes on a pointed historical resonance. In Hamlet Shakespeare
of course does not directly attack Erastianism in a full and explicit form, but
he subtly alludes to the power of the state over the church. He shows a par-

On Erastianism in England, see Crowley and also Nichols 21–24.
For a historical survey, see especially Houlbrooke, “Ecclesiastical” 7–20, 249 (on

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ticular aversion to an Erastian interference in religious ritual by royal power.

Critics have never called attention to the full theological implications, the
Erastian dimension, of the “maimed rites” theme in Hamlet.25 For example,
one commentator has called attention to the “general breakdown of cere-
mony” throughout the play. But what we have is hardly a “breakdown” of
unspecified causation but rather a disruption attributed to royal power. The
theme of disrupted ritual is clearly significant, occurring as it does in some
five instances with a marriage and four funerals. In the course of the play, this
general disruption of ceremony is made repeatedly apparent with the hasty
remarriage of Gertrude, the curtailed period of mourning for Hamlet Sr., the
burial of Polonius “hugger-mugger,” the funeral of Ophelia, and the execu-
tion of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern “without shriving time allow’d,” a
clearly Catholic phrase.
Of particular significance is Shakespeare’s treatment of funeral ritual
which, as Eamon Duffy has written, constituted “one of the most recalcitrant
areas of continuing Catholic practice” (Duffy 577–78). It seems clear that
Shakespeare has developed the sources of his play by expanding the number
of funerals and altering their significance. In Belleforest’s Histoires Tragiques
(1576), the marriage of Horvendile (Hamlet Sr.) and Geruth (Gertrude),
and the funeral of Collere (Fortinbras Sr.), are celebrated “according to the
ancient manner,” and there is no mention of an absence of shriving time for
Hamlet’s companions (Rosencranz and Guildenstern) (Gollancz 183–4,
233). Shakespeare not only adds Ophelia’s and Polonius’s “maimed” funerals
but also folds into the deaths of Hamlet Sr. and Rosencranz and Guilden-
stern the theme of sacramental deprivation involving the Catholic sacra-
ments of extreme unction and penance.
The root cause of all this disruption and deprivation is of course Clau-
dius. It is he who has deprived Hamlet Sr. of the reception of the last rites
(1.5.74–9). It is he who has mixed “mirth in funeral and dirge in marriage”
(1.2.12). It is he who has interred Polonius “hugger-mugger” (4.5.84) and
left him without a proper funeral rite. And finally it is Claudius whose “great
command” has “o’ersway[ed] the order” of Ophelia’s funeral (5.1.219–38),
again both restoring and depriving her of certain elements of a traditional
rite. The single possible exception to this Erastian pattern is Hamlet’s
cold dispatching of Rosencranz and Guildenstern “to sudden death, / Not

On maimed rites, see Quinlan 303–6. See also Frye 297–309, who is seriously corrected
by MacDonald 309–17 and Holleran 65–77.

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64 D. Beauregard / Religion and the Arts 11 (2007) 45–73

shriving time allow’d” (5.2.46–47), depriving them of the sacrament of pen-

ance, but this maneuver is itself the transformation of an action designed by
Claudius and adroitly exploited by Hamlet (see 5.2.12–55).
If we trace the unfolding of Claudius’s actions through the play, certain
Erastian dimensions become gradually apparent. First of all, Claudius is
immediately portrayed as a king with latent Erastian tendencies. His initial
speech opens with the mention of Hamlet Sr.’s death. The lines, “Though yet
of Hamlet our dear brother’s death / The memory be green,” define his situa-
tion as calling for a natural, extended grief. But Claudius proceeds with “dis-
cretion” to balance sorrow over his brother’s death with joy at his own
marriage to Gertrude. The claim of balance and discretion, undercut by his
haste in pursuing the marriage, suggests that his egotistical “remembrance of
ourselves” reflects the mentality of a self-centered tyrant. Again, his subse-
quent reference to the mixture of “mirth in funeral and dirge in marriage”
(1.2.12) is proceeded by a heavy self-serving wit: “with a defeated joy, / With
an auspicious, and a dropping eye” (1.2.10–11). But this rhetorical flourish
provides the sketch of a portrait that awaits a fuller development.
That development comes after Claudius turns first to the subject of Fortin-
bras’s uprising, then to Laertes’s departure for France, and finally to Hamlet.
Although Claudius offhandedly alludes to the disorder of “mirth in funeral
and dirge in marriage,” the haste with which the marriage has followed the
funeral scandalizes and provokes Hamlet, who is drawn into a full expression
of his shock in a soliloquy of thirty lines (1.2.129–59) and in a consequent
dialogue with Horatio (1.2.176–81). Several elements in the scene are of
interest. In his grief, Hamlet describes his mourning apparel, referring to his
“inky cloak” and his “customary suits of solemn black.” This was of course
quite in keeping with the traditional ritualized manner of expressing grief.
Then after Claudius urges him to leave off grieving, Hamlet soliloquizes on
the disturbing fact that his mother has remarried “within a month.” He
repeats this phrase obsessively some four times (1.2.138, 145, 147, 153).
It is significant that Claudius conceives of Hamlet’s mourning as immod-
erate, and he may indeed reflect something of the Protestant conception of
the proper length of mourning, as David Cressy has described it:

Moderate mourning was acceptable, thought the Elizabethan reformer

James Pilkington, so long as ‘it be not too much, and seem to grudge at
God’s doings in taking our friends from us’. Two or three days was
sufficient, a week at the utmost . . . Extended mourning, paced by periodic

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intervals, might seem to mimic the old catholic practice of month’s

minds and year’s days. (Cressy 438)26

Clearly, Hamlet’s reflections stress the need for an extended period of mourn-
ing. His words suggest the decline in the remembrance of the dead, which
had its roots in the liturgical changes introduced by the Prayer Book. The
Edwardine Prayer Books had curtailed the rite for burial of the dead, with
profound social and cultural implications:

But in the world of the 1552 [Prayer Book] the dead were no longer with
us. They could neither be spoken to nor even about, in any way that
affected their well-being. The dead had gone beyond the reach of human
contact, even of human prayer. There was nothing which could even be
mistaken for a prayer for the dead in the 1552 funeral rite. The service
was no longer a rite of intercession on behalf of the dead, but an exhorta-
tion to faith on the part of the living. Indeed, it is not too much to say
that the oddest feature of the 1552 burial rite is the disappearance of the
corpse from it. So, at the moment of committal in 1552, the minister
turns not towards the corpse, but away from it, to the living congrega-
tion around the grave. “Forasmuche as it hathe pleased almightie God of
his great mercy to take unto himselfe the soule of our dere brother here
departed: we therefore commit his body to the ground, earth to earth,
asshes to asshes, dust to dust.” Here the dead person is spoken not to, but
about, as one no longer here, but precisely as departed: the boundaries of
human community have been redrawn. (Duffy 475)

Later, the Ghost of Hamlet Sr. bids Hamlet, “Adieu, adieu, adieu! Remember
me.” And in response Hamlet repeats the word “remember” almost hysteri-
cally, suggesting a Catholic frame of mind (1.5.92–111).
A second “maimed rite” occurs with Polonius’s funeral, a disordered
funeral ritual to which Laertes objects:

His means of death, his obscure funeral—

No trophy, sword, nor hatchment o’er his bones,

On the Catholic tradition regarding widows and remarriage, see Kehler.

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No noble rite nor formal ostentation—

Cry to be heard, as ’twere from heaven to earth,
That I must call’t in question. (4.5.214–18)

In this case, the corpse has indeed disappeared, along with the proper rites
and remembrance of the deceased. Laertes emphasizes the absence of both
the rite and its proper form, together with the funerary objects that would
provide some tribute to and remembrance of his dead father.
Again, Claudius is the moving force behind Polonius’s “obscure” funeral.
His motivation lies mainly in concern for himself:

Alas, how shall this bloody deed be answer’d?

It will be laid to us, whose providence
Should have kept short, restrain’d, and out of haunt
This mad young man. (4.1.16–19)

A question naturally arises at this point: why does Claudius not get rid of
Hamlet by simply accusing him of the crime? Why all this indirection and
cover-up? Why the hurried and “obscure” funeral? Fear of popular blame,
the explanation given in passing, seems hardly enough to account for Claudi-
us’s actions. Later, after his encounter with Laertes, the king after all is quite
willing to be direct and “let the great axe fall” on Hamlet (4.5.219). The
answer seems to lie in Shakespeare’s desire to portray Claudius as an Erastian
tyrant whose self-protecting cover-up disrupts the traditional order. As with
Hamlet’s frenzied desire to remember his father in act 1, the theme of remem-
brance of a father enters again with Ophelia’s lament for Polonius:

There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray you, love, remember.

And there is pansies, that’s for thoughts. (4.5.175–77)

If Ophelia re-enacts as “ritual priestess” all the elements of her father’s

funeral—the removal of his body, his death, the sense of loss and grief, the
distribution of flowers, the offering of prayers—she also reflects the disorder
of the funeral rite (Holleran 80–86). Indeed, she is its very image.
If we might digress for a moment, Shakespeare makes an additional
anti-Erastian point with the clowns. In discussing Ophelia’s death and
burial, one of the clowns apes scholastic logic and touches on the subject of

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Will you ha’ the truth an’t? If this had not been a gentlewoman, she
should have been buried out ’a Christian burial. (5.1.23–25)

That is, royal power determines whether one will be excommunicated or

not. The second clown also jokes about the ultimate power behind the
authority of the church: “Now thou dost ill to say the gallows is built stron-
ger than the church” (5.1.47–8). The quip alludes of course to the civil power
used to buttress the Elizabethan church. In the context of Elizabeth’s perse-
cution of Catholic priests, such a remark calls to mind the execution of
Edmund Campion, Robert Southwell, and Robert Debdale, all of whom
were hanged and quartered in the 1580s and 1590s. Shakespeare very prob-
ably knew them all.
There is finally Ophelia’s funeral itself, which her brother Laertes finds
incomplete, just as he does the funeral of his father Polonius.

Laer. What ceremony else?

Doctor. Her obsequies have been as far enlarg’d
As we have warranty. Her death was doubtful,
And but that great command o’ersways the order,
She should in ground unsanctified been lodg’d
Till the last trumpet; for charitable prayers,
Shards, flints, and pebbles should be thrown on her.
Yet here she is allow’d her virgin crants,
Her maiden strewments, and the bringing home
Of bell and burial.
Laer. Must there no more be done?
Doctor. No more be done:
We should profane the service of the dead
To sing a requiem and such rest to her
As to peace-parted souls. (5.1.225–38)

On a first reading, it might seem that Claudius is using his royal power
benevolently, that he has commanded that the church order be softened for
Ophelia over against the “churlish” priest who is reluctant to allow Ophelia
her “virgin crants” and “charitable prayers.” In allowing these traditional
features of the funeral, Claudius’s desire is to allay Laertes’s anger. As the pre-
ceding scene comes to a close, he says to Gertrude, who has just described
Ophelia’s death:

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Let’s follow, Gertrude.

How much I had to do to calm his rage!
Now fear I this will give it start again,
Therefore let’s follow. (4.7.192–5)

Thus Claudius allows Ophelia some of her burial rites over and against a
reluctant churchman who would deny her a full and proper traditional
But this reading requires some qualification. The theme of “maimed rites”
carries considerable historical resonance. The “maimed rites” observed by
Hamlet are what an Elizabethan Catholic would have found familiar. It has
been rightly argued that formally the scene presumes the propriety and full-
ness of a traditional Roman Catholic funeral on several counts (Noble 84–
85; Holleran 68–69). When the priest suggests the uselessness of “charitable
prayers,” he is rejecting a distinctly Roman Catholic practice, since prayers
for the dead were said as part of the traditional Catholic funeral ritual and
were attacked by the Reformers (Cressy 386–87; Houlbrooke, “Ecclesiasti-
cal” 249). He also mentions that Ophelia has been “allow’d” her “virgin crants
[and] her maiden strewments,” that is, the casting of flowers into her grave.
This also was a Catholic practice (Cressy 402). Again, Ophelia is denied a
sung “requiem.” In the traditional Catholic funeral ritual, a requiem Mass
was sung in Latin and preceded the burial. The Latin hymn “In Paradisum,”
which ended “Aeternam habeas requiem,” was sung by members of the funeral
procession (Quinlan 305–6). This sense of liturgical disruption and incom-
pletion provokes Laertes’s complaint “Must there no more be done?”
(5.1.235). Thus, all three of the elements mentioned in Ophelia’s funeral
rite—the sung requiem, the strewing of flowers, and charitable prayers—are
in keeping with traditional pre-Reformation ritual. All were progressively
eliminated by the Tudor regime, and Laertes’s expectations and disappoint-
ment are what an Elizabethan Catholic might have experienced.
It seems apparent, then, that Claudius’s royal interference provides an
action analogous to the Erastian disruptions that occurred in Elizabethan
England. Shakespeare’s overall point clearly seems to be that “great command
o’ersways the order.” Just as Henry and Elizabeth had usurped the spiritual
supremacy of the Catholic Church in England, specifically suppressing and
reshaping various rituals, so the funeral rite has been “maimed” by Claudius’s
royal interference. In spite of his concessions of certain traditional elements
of the funeral rite—charitable prayers, “virgin crants, [and] maiden strew-

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D. Beauregard / Religion and the Arts 11 (2007) 45–73 69

ments,” still the traditional sung requiem is not allowed. Thus Claudius’s
attempt at a “via media” produces a “maimed rite,” something between the
traditional Catholic ritual and the reduced Elizabethan rite.
The priest-Doctor is less a churchman than a servant of the crown, similar
to a Church of England cleric serving royal authority. Although his rejection
of “charitable prayers” would associate him with Protestantism, he has
executed the warrant to “enlarge” Ophelia’s obsequies, a warrant that comes
from royal and not ecclesiastical authority, clearly identifying him with
Protestant Erastianism. With the hard words of the priest and the angry
objection of Laertes, Shakespeare elicits sympathy for Ophelia, who accord-
ing to canon law should be allowed the full traditional ritual, disrupted and
in part suppressed by the English Reformers.27 Claudius’s action thus resem-
bles that of Elizabeth in that he is a tyrant who has overreached himself by
interfering in religious ritual. And Laertes reminds us of the Catholic experi-
ence of disrupted rituals and “maimed rites.” Shakespeare clearly goes against
the grain of the Erastian developments in the late Elizabethan church.
Over the full course of the play, then, Shakespeare manifests a Catholic
perspective. His conception of Purgatory, his attitude towards the Ghost, his

Some interesting historical considerations can be brought to bear on the scene. To begin
with, the burial of suicides in “sanctified ground” was forbidden by Roman Catholic canon
law, a law that until 1662 the Church of England still followed as custom (MacDonald 314).
However, significant qualifications would have allowed Christian burial for Ophelia. There
were obvious distinctions between canon and civil law, and between sane and insane suicides.
According to canon law, suicides in their right minds (felo de se) were denied burial in conse-
crated ground, but insane suicides (non compos mentis) were allowed such burial. It appears
that by virtue of government financial interest Elizabethan civil courts were harsh and severe
in presuming sanity and rendering felo de se verdicts (MacDonald 310–11; see also the later
treatment by MacDonald and Murphy 15–41). The Tudors produced “a huge growth in the
number of convicted suicides,” more rigorously enforcing the law whereby their goods were
forfeit to the crown. (On late medieval and Reformation funerals, see Cressy 396–420
and Houlbrooke, Death 255–77; on suicides, see Houlbrooke, Death 210–11].) But canon
law was more lenient, since mortal sin requires full deliberation and full consent of the will.
(On the leniency of canon law, Frye cites the Council of Braga, 563 A.D.; the Decretals of
Gratian, mid-twelfth century; Henry de Bracton, thirteenth century; William Lyndwood,
fifteenth century; and Robert Burton, 1621 [299–300]. MacDonald argues from actual civil
cases.) Ophelia’s death is clearly not deliberate and willful but is non compos mentis. In keeping
with Gertrude’s description of her madness and accidental death, and in keeping with canon
law, a strict consistency would logically lead to affording Ophelia burial in consecrated ground.
She was clearly insane, she died accidentally, and therefore she may be accorded a full burial
rite as canon law provides.

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70 D. Beauregard / Religion and the Arts 11 (2007) 45–73

position on revenge, his use of Thomistic moral terminology, his use of Luis
of Granada, and his anti-Erastian perspective position him well outside the
pale of the Elizabethan church. By contrast with the numerous Catholic
references in the play, the allusions to Wittenberg are few, and the various
theological commonplaces, such as the prudence of the flesh, individual con-
science, and providence, are not sharply distinctive enough to align him with
Lutheran or Calvinist theology.28 Similar notions can be found in Augustine
and Aquinas, to cite the most obvious authorities. It is possible, of course,
that Hamlet drifts from a Catholic into a Reformed mentality, whether posi-
tively or negatively construed, but this trajectory needs considerably more
clarification and specification than it has received.29

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