By Parker Thomas Staff writer
On Sept. 29, guest Professor Mary Flyod-Wilson delivered a lecture titled “The Puzzled Will: Passion, Conscience, and Potent Spirits in Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’” in Stretansky Concert Hall at 7 p.m.
Flyod-Wilson is a distinguished professor on Shakespearean studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Her lecture for the evening focused on the underlying religious and psychological beliefs during the time of Shakespeare and how these aspects contribute to the multiple ways of interpreting “Hamlet.”
The lecture began with an overview of melancholy and the perception that it could lead to mental confusion. An extended amount of melancholy was seen as a diseased mental state.
Around the time of Shakespeare, England’s king had the official religion of the state switched from Catholicism to Protestantism. As part of that change, John Calvin’s predestination doctrine had a large impact on how people perceived consciousness of the sin.
Predestination applied to the idea that people were set from birth to go to either heaven or hell, and thus people looked constantly at themselves to determine their faith.
Many people were worried that those suffering from melancholy would confuse their depressed reflection on the self for consciousness of one’s sins.
The character of Hamlet borders this line of mental confusion following the death of his father at the beginning of the play. To many Protestants this was a vulnerable state, in which demonic thoughts could infect one’s mind.
Flyod-Wilson also discussed the background knowledge that Catholicism determined that spirits were either heavenly, people from purgatory or demonic.
Under Protestantism though, purgatory no longer existed and thus perceived spirits of recently dead relatives were deemed demonic.
The background that “Hamlet” was written during Protestant England thus suggests that the spirit of Hamlet’s father is a demonic spirit, or possibly the devil, come to infect Hamlet’s vulnerable mind and cause physical destruction to those around him.
“I’m posing the possibility that we read ‘Hamlet’ through the lens that we are thinking about the ghost as the devil,” Flyod-Wilson said.
“What does it mean if we read it as the devil? Yes, there are these conflicting discussions that it could still have a residual Catholic notion to it, and if so it could be Hamlet’s father visiting from purgatory,” she continued.
“Yet, if we read it as the devil, what do we do then with all of this demonic imagery in the play and the way the devil could plant thoughts and infect via contagious disease, and distract people? What does that mean for a reading of Hamlet as a whole?”
“I’m suggesting ultimately… that it could mean we have to read the play less as just a story about this individual psyche, and more as a kind of pervasive, corrupting diseased state, like Denmark itself, which has been corrupted on a level that we can’t understand,” she continued. “Particularly Claudius is the seed of that and his corruption ended up happening before we could think about the spread of this contagion.”
Further, Flyod-Wilson brought up the argument that the character of Claudius is the intial root of evil and possibly the son of the devil due to his initial corruption in the killing of his brother.
This action, she argued, resembles the biblical story of Cain and Abel.
Knowing of Flyod-Wilson’s history in writing about passions, Rachanna Sachdev, associate professor of English, contacted her to give this lecture, after an eight-year interval since first meeting her at a seminar at the Folger Shakespearen Library.
To Flyod-Wilson’s benefit, she is currently writing a book on the devil and demonic spirits and was able to use that knowledge in order to construct the background to the evening’s lecture.