Hamlet, Luther, and the Protestant Hero

Matt Higdon

Abstract


Literary criticism of Shakespeare's play Hamlet suffers from a light treatment, or a relative absense, of its title character's association with Protestantism. The purpose of this paper is to propose a fresh connection between Prince Hamlet and the Protestant champion Martin Luther. Only two books draw specifically Protestant parallels: John Curran, Jr.'s Hamlet, Protestantism, and the Mourning of Contingency: Not to Be, and Roland Mushat Frye's The Renaissance Hamlet. The former argues that Hamlet, by adopting a kind of fatalistic Calvinism, loses his possibility to act within the possibilities of choice. The second explores Hamlet's use of religious themes, including Protestant themes, and observes similarities between some of Hamlet's words and some of Luther's. These sources demonstrate how Hamlet has on occasion been read through a quasi-Protestant lens, pointing out similar motifs, but both fail to account for similarities of action and attitude that both Prince Hamlet and the earliest Protestant heroes share at a deeper level. Thus, my thesis is that as a type of Protestant hero, Prince Hamlet, through his final confrontation with King Claudius, lives up to the bold resistance of the great champion Martin Luther.

First, the historical Martin Luther was known as a champion of Protestant faith through his brave resistance to the Catholic Church. The unfolding of his confrontations with the Church establishes his heroic resistance. Second, Hamlet arranges six elements around its title character: (1) Hamlet's education in Wittenberg; (2) the way his soliloquy mirrors Luther's combativeness; (3) the way Hamlet's exile parallels Luther's excommunication; (4) Hamlet's "convocation of worms" and Luther's Diet of Worms; (5) the similarity of "readiness" in both Hamlet and Luther; and (6) the parallel confrontation scenes--Luther's at Worms, Hamlet's in the fencing match. Since the memory and myth of Martin Luther as a Protestant hero inform these six parallels, Hamlet eventually lives up to Martin Luther's brave/heroic resistance of Catholic authority. My paper thus suggests new possibilities for interpreting the relationship between Hamlet's religious content and characters.


Keywords


Hamlet; Protestantism; Martin Luther

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