Hamlet: The Precipice of Belief and the Validity of Witness

I’m going to see Raoul Bhaneja’s one-man performance of Hamlet on Friday at the Yukon Arts Centre.  I’ve heard good things about it, and saw a good article in the Yukon News, and I love Shakespeare, but I’m going to see it because of the way Hamlet speaks about “belief.”  One of the main questions, arguably, is whether or not Hamlet should believe the ghost of his father.  He tells Hamlet that he was murdered by the King’s brother, Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle.  It is also this ghost that asks, begs, persuades Hamlet to avenge his murder.  Without the ghost, no play.  With the ghost, several dilemmas at once, not the least of which is whether you believe a spirit that you’ve seen.

I’m teaching a class this semester at the Whitehorse United Church in Writing about Faith, a nebulous topic, a difficult endeavor.  You neither want to sound as if you were deluded or over-zealous, but neither do you want to play down your experiences until they mean nothing.  The spiritual things that happen to us are a keen part of our lives–sometimes they are the anchor that holds us rooted when the world tosses us around, and other times, they are an anchor dragging behind us, stopping us from moving forward.  Either way, what value we give them determines how we proceed with our life: either our spiritual side is a nice addendum to everything else we have in our lives, or it is something profoundly different that affects our course of action. (Or we just ignore it altogether)

Hamlet is caught in a crisis of belief.  If he believes a ghost—just stop there to see how preposterous that sounds—then he has to believe that his father was murdered, and that his uncle is the villain, and that his mother could have been an accomplice.  Further, if that’s true, then the ghost must also be believed that he, Hamlet, can set it right.  That everything that Hamlet does hinges on the  believability of the words of a ghost means that the play is really about our belief, and how much it informs our real decisions.

Did God tell me not to take that job?  Or did I merely find it too boring?  Did God help me find my true love?  Or was that coincidence that we ended up in the same coffeeshop?  Does my horoscope warning really mean something in the meeting I have today with the Boss?  I have a gut feeling that this will go bad, and it does, what does that mean about my feeling?  I prayed and something happened.  I prayed and nothing happened.

Even in Shakespeare’s time, belief in the supernatural guided decisions of the everyday people.  These weren’t just princes and kings who were making decisions about this.  That Hamlet even listened to the ghost of his father says a great deal about the beliefs of the common man in Shakespeare’s time.  Ignoring his father would have made Hamlet despised and unmemorable–he would have been roundly blamed for perpetuating the corruption.  Doing exactly what his father’s ghost said would have made Hamlet a patsy, too easily swayed by a hallucination.  It is his indecision–that thing that most critics hail as his worst fault–that makes Hamlet so human. That he waffles on whether to believe his father’s ghost or not, that he’s unsure if the request of a dead man should guide the life of a living man, or that a son should avenge his father with his own life, if necessary—this creates the human drama placing Hamlet where we all sit: on the precipice of belief.

If he completely believes he gives up any control of his own life–acting out only the drama of his father’s revenge.  If he ignores it, then what does this mean about belief in general?  Should we never believe in something we can’t verify through science and logic?  Is there no room for the spiritual in the age of the digital?

There is also the validity of the Witness to consider.  When someone says they have seen a miracle, or seen Heaven, or angels, or experienced the movement of God in their lives—what do we say?  Are they considered a valid Witness to God?  What makes one testimony more valid than another’s?  Whether it’s plausible or whether it fits in with past occurrences?  But Moses had a Burning Bush, Abraham met angels, and Joseph had dreams, Samson had strength, and Ezekiel saw a wheel, and Peter had a dream, and countless biblical men and women heard the voice of God.  If we believe them, why shouldn’t we believe others?  There was no burning bush before the burning bush and there hasn’t been one after.  Who says that God will build up a narrow set of communication variations so that we know it’s him.  The way he communicates is often a message itself.

When Hamlet sees his father’s ghost, and follows it, he doubts his own eyes, and cannot really find anyone to corroborate what he’s seen.  But he must decide if he is a valid Witness of what he saw.  It’s ironic that he plays a madman to fool everyone else–because if he’d told people that he’d seen his father’s ghost, he would have been thought a madman anyway.  Here, he is at least in control of his media coverage.

Remarkably, Hamlet, though critiqued for waffling, actually follows through on his father’s plea.  It is more difficult for us, in this non-superstitious age, to believe anything that lies outside of what we can touch.  We don’t follow through on the premonitions, the visions, the dreams, the prayers, the voice of God.  We barely listen to it.  And while our lives may be all the more safe because we didn’t follow every ghost on the precipice, they are also less full because we’ve Hitchensed and Dawkinsed God or anything smacking of “supernatural” away.   We may have, as Hitchens believes, the glory of the totality of our own “real” experience to explore, but I would argue that part of our “real” experience is our spiritual experience and without it, we naturally limit our world.

I’m going to Hamlet to see how we even discuss this issue of belief and witness.  And to enjoy Raoul voicing every side.

Raoul Bhaneja’s solo performance of Hamlet is on this Thursday and Friday, Jan 13, 14, at the Yukon Arts Centre.  Right now there are over 230 tickets left for Thursday night, and near 180 tickets left for Friday.  Tickets are on sale at the YAC and Arts Underground.

2 thoughts on “Hamlet: The Precipice of Belief and the Validity of Witness

  1. Jimbo October 15, 2011 / 9:59

    Normally I’m against killing but this article slaughtered my inorgacne.

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