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Decoding Shakespeare's Hidden Humanism

by Kenneth Craven: Author, Intellectual Historian

Andrew Gurr, the distinguished Shakespearean, in his Foreword to my Hamlet of Morningside Heights emphasizes the book’s “staggeringly wide-ranging implications” in revealing the design of the play Hamlet based on its two major sources of wisdom neglected since 1600.


Shakespeare has a panoramic humanistic view entwining the wisdom of Saint Paul from scripture with the image of Fortune from the classical tradition and ancient history. For this humanist, despair or triumph for the sovereign state and the individual rested on the neglect or reinforcement of those wisdoms.


The play limits human choice between two divided paths: devotion to either the good of love and virtue or the evil of fortune and vice. On one hand, in the service of the good, Saint Paul’s community-spirited credo of love thy neighbor methodically set down in Romans 12-13 and long buried at the play’s thematic core requires sacrifice, non-conformity, and self-examination. On the other hand, the play shows us that those who choose Fortune join the ranks of the living dead, exploiting their neighbors for selfish motives of fortune, social status, and political power. For Shakespeare, the human condition limits everyone to one chosen arc, the path to either good or evil. The wrinkle of a middle path under pretense to good, such as parading “devotion’s visage,” is a way of hiding one’s evil.


Through the discourse of classical drama and biblical references, Shakespeare reveals his humanistic cause to rally against the destructiveness of Fortune. Using references to Dante’s Divine Comedy and classical notions of the fickle wheel of fortune, Shakespeare’s humanist architecture takes precedent over Hamlet’s revenge plot.


Turning to Shakespeare’s second major source, the scriptural wisdom of the play draws on the goodness of Saint Paul’s credo of love thy neighbor codified in the entirety of Romans 12-13 and is at odds with the evil credo of all fortune seekers like Polonius who depend on exploiting their neighbors through mere appearances of love. Shakespeare’s marvelously inverted parody of Paul’s credo by the false courtier Polonius when advising his son has a double use. The play reveals its profound biblical source and, at the same time, mocks the superficial elitist maxims that have been substituted for Elizabethan virtue. Both of these religious and satiric thrusts have remained hidden to our time because of our economic gospel and its inevitable meltdown.


In the mischievous course of time, Polonius’s maxims of selfishness have been transformed from Elizabethan vices to American and global virtues. Ironically, the ethical reversal has buried Shakespeare’s humanist argument for 400 years until this book.