Shakespearean critic E.M.W. Tillyard described the tragedy of Hamlet as “one of the most medieval as well as one of the most acutely modern of Shakespeare’s plays.”1 As the Scientific Revolution, the Protestant Reformation, and the humanistic Renaissance triggered the cultural shifts that birthed the modern era, Shakespeare placed his inky-cloaked, brooding Prince on the precipice of the brave new modern world. The well-ordered theistic cosmos that shaped the medieval imagination was beginning to be dismantled and replaced by the modern perspective wherein man and not God was the new measure of all things. The foundation for knowledge and authority in Western culture was slowly shifting from the transcendent to the material until, at last, Darwin’s theory of natural selection fully inaugurated the change of regime. Once the miracle of life became fully explicable through material causality alone, the ‘God hypothesis’ seemed no longer necessary and the rational mind of man appeared to be the zenith of being, the lone crown of the cosmos. So now, like Hamlet four hundred years before, we find ourselves living within the cosmic court of an illegitimate king, for man was not created to be an authority unto himself. We too are Claudius, Gertrude, and the treasonous court of a God-haunted kingdom. Thus, through the motif of regicide developed in the tragedy of Hamlet, Shakespeare provides us a prophetic vision of our modern atheistic world. Neither a kingdom that condones the reign of the murderous usurper Claudius nor a culture that rejects God as the source of authority will any longer be able to justify morality, discern the truth, or perceive the meaning of beauty.

Sick with corruption, uncertainty, and anxiety, the rotten state of Denmark offers a clear window into the nature of the modern, godless cosmos, for regicide is a rejection of the transcendent moral authority through which any just government rules. As King David knew, to kill the Lord’s anointed is to reject the anointing of the Lord. When the rightful king is murdered, the ordering center of the kingdom is shattered. Thus, after the treacherous murder of King Hamlet, Shakespeare shows all of Denmark cast “out of joint.”2 Horatio compares the events in Denmark to the unnatural disasters which befell Rome after Julius Caesar was murdered. As the head was treacherously cut off from the body politic, the “sheeted dead / Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets,” and the heavens forebode disaster through falling stars – “disasters in the sun” and a moon “Sick almost to doomsday with eclipse.”3 As in Rome, so too disaster looms in Denmark as the false king begins his reign under threat of war yet “with mirth in funeral, and with dirge in marriage.”4 The guards have become “sick at heart” and a ghost haunts the castle gate.5 One man’s will to power has abolished the source of legitimate authority and turned the entire kingdom upside down. Shakespearian scholar Joseph Pierce argues that Hamlet was not “a madman but . . . a man maddened by the moral madness that surrounds him.”6 Denmark’s acceptance of the usurper and the maintenance of business-as-usual were the true lunacy.

Like Claudius, moderns too have murdered the true King and thrust the whole of our Western kingdom into chaos. It was Charles Darwin’s final rejection of teleology that enabled Nietzsche to announce the death of God, though it had “not yet reached the ears of men,” for “deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard.”7 Yet Darwin’s denial of purposeful design within the material realm was in essence a denial of the ordering rule and presence of God. Before Darwin wrote his On the Origin of the Species, design had been the default paradigm for understanding the world. For example, Cicero wondered, “which is there among [things celestial and things terrestrial] which does not clearly display the rational design of an intelligent being?”8 In his Autobiography, Darwin admitted to “the extreme difficulty or rather impossibility of conceiving this immense and wonderful universe . . . as the result of blind chance or necessity. When thus reflecting I feel compelled to look to a First Cause . . . and I deserve to be called a Theist.”9 However, the “very old argument from the existence of suffering against the existence of an intelligent First Cause” seemed compelling to Darwin, and he believed he had found an alternative to special creation in the theory of natural selection.10 If Darwin was correct, then all the apparent design, intelligence, and beauty we encounter in the material world is not in fact a meaningful manifestation of the Creator’s wisdom but merely the fortuitous result of impersonal, blind processes. Darwin believed that “the old argument from design in Nature, as given by Paley, which formerly seemed to me so conclusive, fails, now that the law of natural selection has been discovered.”11 In that last stronghold of the old kingdom, Biology, the Creator was removed. Life had been the last physical reality resisting a mere material explanation. But now that the theory of natural selection seemed to rebuff the possibility of perceiving divine action anywhere at all, Nietzsche astutely concluded that “belief in the Christian God has become unworthy of belief.”12 The King is dead, and as Nietzsche told us, “We have killed him – you and I. All of us are his murderers.”13

When a culture denies the transcendent source and ground of all being, the ordering principle which holds reality together, it will lose its grasp on the qualities of being, namely goodness, truth, and beauty. Let us first consider goodness. In the pre-modern world, goodness was defined by our ability to fulfill divine purposes – what Aristotle called the telos or end goal of things. Darwin’s denial of teleological, or purposeful, design destroyed the classical meaning of goodness, for without reference to a Divine Creator, objective purposes and values cannot exist. If the cosmos is designed by a good creator for certain purposes, then goodness can be defined by the fulfillment of those objective purposes. If a watch is made to tell time, then a good watch will be one which fulfills this purpose by accurately keeping time, and a bad watch will be one which does not fulfill its purpose to tell time. Likewise, if God created man to be the image of God, then a good man will be one who reflects the character of God and a bad man will be one who does not. However, Darwin’s substitution of blind forces for God’s purposeful action has removed the concepts of purpose and design from our understanding of the biological world. Consequently, a being’s goodness can no longer be defined according to a being’s design. Without the reality of a purposeful design, there can no longer be a meaningful distinction between that which is and that which ought to be.

Such is the court of Claudius who in killing the King for his own personal gain denied the design and purpose of the crown and thereby destroyed the moral stability of the kingdom. There can be no goodness in a government founded on treachery. A king’s right to rule can only be established by the objective existence of an outside authority. This is why David refused to kill King Saul. David understood that he could not become the legitimate king of a stable kingdom through murder, for if he could slay the Lord’s anointed, what would there be to prevent another man from slaying him? We can only form a coherent and peaceful social order when we are all ruled by something higher than ourselves that unites us. When Denmark is overtaken by a murderous usurper such as Claudius, all moral order and the possibility of legitimate authority is undermined, for the kingdom is now united not by loyalty to a higher principle but only by the selfish will of Claudius. Without lawful succession to the throne, the right to rule becomes merely a question of the will to power, and a kingdom created by the personal will to power can only lead to endless violence and the inevitable destruction of the social order. In the court of Claudius, political authority is no longer derived from the moral center of a rightly ordered cosmos; thus, behavior in the kingdom is no longer regulated by adherence to a transcendent Good but rather by compliance to the selfish desires of a tyrant. Thus, in Denmark one can smile and yet be a villain.14

This is the moral tragedy ensnaring Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who are called in to faithfully serve the king yet by that obedience are forced into betrayal. For Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, as for all the subjects of Denmark, to obey the false King is to participate in his tyranny and injustice. Those who, like Prince Hamlet, remain loyal to the Good are put into inevitable conflict with the tyrant. Thus, tyrants always create such fractured, sick societies for there will always be faithful men who love the Good more than power.

In order to support the pretense of Claudius’s right to the throne – which ought to have been handed in lawful succession to the king’s son, the young Hamlet – the entire court is drawn into this world of deceit. Moral corruption can only ever sustain itself through lies, for the true and the good are inseparable. Evil always involves a distortion of truth, for evil action itself implicitly claims that harm is a good. Living in the Gulags, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn learned that “violence does not live alone and is not capable of living alone. It is necessarily interwoven with falsehood. Between them lies the most intimate, the deepest of natural bonds. Violence finds its only refuge in falsehood, falsehood its only support in violence. Any man who has once acclaimed violence as his METHOD must inexorably choose falsehood as his PRINCIPLE.”15 Such a man is Caudius, who having obtained the crown by violence must now rule by deceit. The language of the court has been uprooted from reality and put in the service of Claudius’s lie. The king’s speeches are full of contradictions, distortions, and equivocations. He chides Hamlet’s grief as “unmanly” and showing “a will most incorrect to heaven,” “A fault to heaven / A fault against the dead, a fault against nature,” when in truth Hamlet is the only one still interested in the will of heaven or faults against the dead. Polonius would convince Ophelia that Hamlet’s love is mere show, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern come as friends turned to spies. Denmark has become a kingdom where “words fly up [but] thoughts remain below.”16 Because Claudius cannot speak the truth to his people without giving up his false crown, the dialogue of Denmark has become like Derrida’s ‘outsideless’ language.17 Words in the Danish court no longer point toward a true reality but instead have become mere vehicles for political posturing.

The breakdown of language in the court of Elsinore mirrors the breakdown of language in our post-truth world where words no longer serve as a medium through which we access an objective, knowable reality. Cut off from its foundation in the Divine Logos, truth in an atheistic world can no longer be known with certainty, for we no longer have a real, stable truth to which words can refer. Rather, as the poet Malcom Guite explains, in the postmodern conception of language “every decoding is another encoding;” thus, “supposedly meaning-laden language is reduced to ultimate meaninglessness.”18 The general rejection of theism severs language from truth and now, like Hamlet, we seem to merely play with “words, words, words.”19 The linguistic world of the materialist – a world formed only by self-referential externals – has no real meaning. The material things we see, the things which show, have no meaning unless they are connected to spiritual realities, to an objective correlative that stands outside the physical realm. Things can only mean something in relation to something else. The material realm itself cannot be meaningful unless it exists in relation to another realm that can provide a stable reference point.

Thirdly, for both the grieving Prince Hamlet and the atheistic modern, the loss of goodness and truth reduces beauty to no more than an illusion. For the medieval theist, beauty was “truth shining into being” and the glory of God beckoning the human heart toward communion with the transcendent.20 However, the denial of teleology and God’s meaningful presence in the world entails that our sense of the beauty in nature is no more than a neurological phenomenon or a mere artifice of fancy. As Darwin explained, the rejection of the design argument means “we can no longer argue that, for instance, the beautiful hinge of a bivalve shell must have been made by an intelligent being, like the hinge of a door by man. There seems to be no more design in the variability of organic beings . . . than in the course which the wind blows.”21 Darwin might have quoted directly from Hamlet in order to express the way in which purposelessness transforms beauty to an illusion, to the mere “quintessence of dust.”22 Without a transcendent source of beauty, there is no more reason to call a bivalve shell beautiful than there is a sewage drain. Without the presence of the King to infuse nature with his glory, Hamlet rightly sees that “this most excellent canopy the air . . . this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire – why it appeareth no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors.”23 While Darwin began his life as a theist who experienced a sense of the transcendent through the beauty of nature, in later years he confessed that “the grandest scenes would not [now] cause any such conviction and feelings to arise in my mind. It may be truly said that I am like a man who has become colour-blind.”24

Like Darwin, moderns now trod the earth with eyes blinded to the handiwork of God. Our inability to perceive the transcendental qualities of goodness, truth, and beauty inherent in the material world has rendered our society increasingly immoral, incoherent, and ugly. Without transcendent significance or inherent goodness, the beauty of this world cannot mean anything more than that which happens to stimulate pleasure in the observer. In a purposeless world, there is no objective reason why symmetry, harmony, or balance should be any more objectively beautiful than discord, asymmetry, or brute simplicity. As the Marquis de Sade understood, in a godless world even deriving pleasure from cruelty is perfectly rational and permissible.

Yet modernity, like Claudius, must reach the end of its reign. The absurdity and insipidity inherent to tyrannical rule will eventually bring about its own collapse. Although the aged kingdom is sick with conflict and deceit, it is not truly void of meaning. Like the ghost of King Hamlet, real goodness, truth, and beauty cannot truly die. The world is not a vacuum in which we can construct a fresh, clean reality that will suit and serve our selfish ambition. God has embedded transcendent values and meanings into the whole of his creation. Like our own immortal soul, the meaning of things can be twisted and damaged – we can damn them – but we cannot exterminate them. Neither Claudius, nor Darwin, nor we can escape that which truly is. The King – the source of all goodness, truth, and beauty who is the foundation of a just and flourishing culture – still and always reigns. As Hamlet came to understand, even in a world that seems turned upside down, there is yet “special providence in the fall of a sparrow.”25 Though all the world kiss the tyrant, still we with Hamlet can choose the right. “The readiness is all.”26

Notes:

1 Quoted in Joseph Pearce, introduction to Hamlet by William Shakespeare, Ignatius Critical Edition, ed. By Joseph Pearce (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2008), xii.

2 William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Ignatius Critical Edition, ed. By Joseph Pearce (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2008), 1.5.189.

3 Shakespeare, Hamlet, 1.1.115-120.

4 Ibid., 1.2.12.

5 Ibid., 1.1.8.

6 Pearce, introduction,xxv.

7 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Joyful Wisdom, trans. Thomas Common (1924), Book 5, No. 343, in the eBooks@Adelaide digital library, accessed February 18, 2018, https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/n/nietzsche/friedrich/n67j/book5.html.

8 Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods, II.XXXVII.

9 Charles Darwin, Autobiography, in The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever, ed. Christopher Hitchens (Philadelphia: Da Capo Press, 2007), 96.

10 Ibid., 95.

11 Ibid., 94.

12 Nietzsche, The Joyful Wisdom, Book 5, No. 343.

13 Ibid.

14 Shakespeare, Hamlet, 1.5.108.

15 Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, “Nobel Lecture” (1970), NobelPrize.org, accessed 12 Apr 2024, https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/1970/solzhenitsyn/lecture/.

16 Shakespeare, Hamlet, 3.4.97.

17 Malcolm Guite, Faith, Hope, and Poetry: Theology and the Poetic Imagination (London: Routledge, 2016), 8.

18 Guite, 9.

19 Shakespeare, Hamlet, 2.2.191.

20 Quoted in Luci Shaw, “Beauty and the Creative Impulse,” in The Christian Imagination: The Practice of Faith in Literature and Writing, ed., Leland Ryken (Colorado Springs: Waterbrook Press, 2011), 82, Kindle.

21 Darwin, Autobiography, 94.

22 Shakespeare, Hamlet, 2.2.307.

23 Ibid., 2.2.299-303.

24 Darwin, Autobiography, 95-96.

25 Shakespeare, Hamlet, 5.2.211-212.

26 Ibid., 5.2.215.