Notes from “Free Will in Hamlet?: Shakespeare’s Struggle with the Issues of the Great Debate between Erasmus and Luther”

By Lee Oser


This essay is my second offering from a book-in-progress, Shakespeare’s Christian Humanism. Its predecessor, entitled “Bad Christians in The Merchant of Venice,” was published recently in Literary Imagination.

In many years writing on Christian humanism, both in modern and in early modern times, I have found no unifying definition to serve my purpose. The phenomenon is not systematic or monolithic. For Shakespeare, it is unfailingly volatile and unstable, cohering only in the unique forms of individual plays. Though not didactic, Shakespeare’s Christian humanism nonetheless has moral designs on a Christian audience.

These moral designs elude the lenses of Shakespeare scholars who (the world changes fast) do not know the Lord’s Prayer, do not know the order of the Gospels, and most certainly do not believe in a final judgment. Mainstream scholarship has nothing in common with the theater-loving Christians for whom Shakespeare wrote and performed. Really? Well, yes. For one thing, Shakespeare’s audience believed the Bible was the epitome of truth. For another, they had skin in the game of salvation.  

All this would be neither here nor there, except that it does substantially impact our interpretation of Shakespeare.

Given the inescapable, historical divide between Shakespeare and us, scholarship intent on keeping an up-to-date grip on Shakespeare has found it convenient to modernize him, usually in one of two ways: first, to dilute his religious sensibility with our skepticism; and second, to exploit his text as a resource for the contemporary academic market, subjecting him to what the poet W. H. Auden called “a foreign code of conscience.” We find these practices are common. They have the effect of rendering Shakespeare’s intentions superfluous. Another consequence has been a blight of bad productions, for example, the RSC’s most recent Merchant of Venice, in which Portia discards her father’s wishes with a cynical relish that somehow borders on hokey.  

Is it possible, at the present time, to conceive of a school of humanists entering imaginatively into the spirit of plays in which Christianity counts for a great deal? In preparation, these curious scholars and directors might take time to become acquainted with the best philosophical writing on the experience of belief, for example, Newman’s Grammar of Assent and Wittgenstein’s On Certainty. Newman and Wittgenstein resemble Shakespeare in this: for them, skepticism lacks its post-Cartesian authority.

The more complacent postmodern types, by contrast, might inquire of themselves whether at bottom they believe in anything at all. Then they might ask how the volcanic Christian ferocity of Hamlet could possibly emerge from an author for whom belief was on the level of theoretical and aesthetic problems:

Shakespeare may or may not have been a Christian author. He likely was Christian, but gauging the degree of his Christian ideas is problematic, simply because a character, rather than the author directly, is always voicing them. Christian ideas and allusions do pepper his plays. But that is another matter.

In its ubiquity, the “pepper theory” amounts to a form of mobbing. It diminishes Shakespeare. It has the calculated effect of shutting down debate. It protects the lazy and the dull.

When I first approached Shakespeare with scholarly ambitions, I was attracted to a number of energetic Catholic interpretations, in particular to the work of Dennis Taylor, who avoids the pitfalls of agenda-driven work. I still incline to believe that Shakespeare grew up in a Catholic household, and that he remained in some important ways attached to Catholicism, though not necessarily committed to it. It was not the hostile arguments of secularizing critics that altered my thinking. It was John Cox’s distinguished body of work, in particular his understanding of “Christian skepticism,” which, prior to Shakespeare’s uses of it, served various reformist purposes in sixteenth-century England.

Cox’s writings brought me into conversation with Jeffrey Knapp’s Shakespeare Tribe, a book that has the great virtue of focusing our attention on Elizabethan theater culture. For Knapp, of course, Elizabethan theater culture was Erasmian in its big-tent Christianity and preference for tolerance in religious matters. Knapp’s argument has its detractors, in particular, the formidable Peter Lake. But recognition of an Erasmian element in Shakespeare goes back at least as far as William Empson. Erasmus looms large in what we might call the Berkeley School of Rhetoric, which flourished in the 1970s and 1980s, and informs such indispensable works as Joel Altman’s Tudor Play of Mind.  Knapp’s attention to Erasmus was, in my view, an overdue correction to the influential anti-humanism of Stephen Greenblatt. 

Among the most brilliant contemporary readers of Erasmus is Ricardo Quiniones, whom I met at a conference of the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers. He humorously challenged me, before a group of distinguished if vinous scholars, to recite the opening section of T. S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” I obliged him, and he very generously sent me a copy of his magisterial book Dualisms—essential reading for anyone interested in the great debate between Erasmus and Luther. I quote Quinones to suggest how the great debate shaped the intellectual and religious destiny of Europe: “Erasmus represented the advanced stage of European consciousness in his time, while Luther was suspicious of consciousness, its traps, its lures, its self-flatteries and self-promotions.” That sentence is the germ of my essay.  

While Luther’s place in Hamlet scholarship is secure, Erasmus remains a stranger to the critical tradition. So I set about finding “an opening for Erasmus”:

That Shakespeare had some consciousness of the great debate cannot be doubted…Ben Jonson, for instance, took sides in his commonplace book, Discoveries, championing Erasmus over Luther. The debate marked the permanent divisions between Christian humanism and the Reformation—which is why Quentin Skinner referred to it as a “definitive breach.” The debate’s impact on Shakespeare’s mind was to foster an atmosphere of ideas that was by its nature traceable to many analogous sources, and reducible to none. To reconstruct this atmosphere entails risks: it is not a matter of nailing things down. But if we begin with Hamlet’s being a student at the University of Wittenberg, where Luther had held the chair in biblical theology, we may proceed by means of Shakespeare’s text to Luther’s argument for predestination and the bondage of the will, and thus to the debate in which that argument achieved its most memorable expression. If we go so far, it is impossible to exclude Erasmus.

Readers who object to the premises advanced in this passage will have little patience with my article. It helps me, though, that Gregory D. Dodds, in his 2009 book Exploiting Erasmus, makes a series of astute observations that I quote to buttress my case—and that may be of particular interest to readers of this journal: “in most accounts of English opposition to Calvinism, anti-predestinarianism simply appears in the 1590s.” Of the Elizabethan period, Dodds writes: “anti-predestinarian thought was present…in the writings and thought of Erasmus….Erasmus’s legacy was…firmly established in English religious culture.” And in Dodds’s account, Erasmian ideas influenced the controversy over free will that boiled over at Cambridge University in 1595, leading to the formulation of the Lambeth Articles. My work, then, takes its place as part of a larger and fairly sympathetic reassessment of the Erasmian legacy.  

The seminal clash between Erasmus and Luther generates a core instability that is always threatening to explode Hamlet’s Christian humanist synthesis. As I remark, “In Hamlet, the discourses of literature and theology, of humanism and reform, jostle and jar as a consequence of their occupying the same text. Hamlet embodies this core instability. He wants to hold ‘as ’twere the mirror up to nature’ and a ‘glass’ to his mother’s soul. He asks the players to ‘reform’ their bad acting, after declaring, ‘The play’s the thing / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of a king.’ Hamlet, in other words, shifts rapidly between, or may be said to condense, the registers and impulses of literature and theology, humanism and reform.” 

Aligning Erasmus with Shakespeare’s humanistic impulses, and Luther with Shakespeare’s theological consciousness, I study how the play voices but does not resolve the question of the freedom of the will versus its bondage. The possibility of framing this question on the stage is, I argue, Erasmian. The possibility of a distinctly Lutheran answer is never far from view.

The Mousetrap offers a case in point. Hamlet imposes his will on the stage-world of the players, as well as on Gertrude and Claudius, whose reactions he strives to “interpret,” much as he would “interpret” Ophelia’s “love” if he “could see the puppets dallying.” But his ability to establish moral agency is not clarified. Predestinarianism and the bondage of the will may reveal even Hamlet to be a puppet. There is no way of knowing, because the tension is inherent and structural: we are all actors trying to write our own scripts. Fixing his (double) audience’s attention on vows of love, Shakespeare makes these vows a test case for the will: “If she should break it now!” exclaims Hamlet, accidentally supplying an uncanny cue for the Player King’s comment: “’Tis deeply sworn.” Cooperation with God’s purpose regarding the union of woman and man becomes a crucial means of exploring the nature of the will in the light and heat of human sexuality.

As a kind of Hamlet in miniature, The Mousetrap calls the morality of the surrounding play into question. After all, what claim could the dramatist make for his art, what could “the purpose of playing” be, if the stage were essentially a puppet show—a reduction of “man” consistent with a world where “marriage vows” are “false as dicers’ oaths,” and “reason panders will”? Such vexatious questions, on a Lutheran reading, banish freedom to the marginal activity of theological speculation, and leave the audience grappling with terrifying insights into their own nothingness. On an Erasmian reading, there is potential comfort in ambiguity, in mystery and silence, which conserve the possibility of the will’s slender part in the drama of salvation. Either reading leads inevitably to the prospect of judgment—and to the reality of having skin in the game. 

I conclude that the Shakespeare of Hamlet attempted to illuminate the meaning of the most serious human actions, an effort that can be compared to chiaroscuro in painting, as humanism and theology cohere in a shadowy synthesis. In this sense, the indeterminacy of Hamlet’s fate is the sign of Shakespeare’s effort to master his own moral and dramatic limitations and come to grips with what he could and could not say. Shakespeare maintained the play’s action by pursuing the fate of the soul “beyond the reach” of humanism or theology, where the interpretation of words and actions breaks down and God alone can judge.     

The post above is adapted from the author's article, “Free Will in Hamlet?: Shakespeare’s Consciousness of the Great Debate between Erasmus and Luther,” published in Christianity & Literature 67.2 (2018). Read the full article by subscribing to Christianity & Literature or through your academic institution's academic database subscription.