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Shakespeare Stages Ecclesiastes

By David Basch

Famous actor, Paul Muni, wrote of the experiences of his father, who had been dedicated to the ideal of creating a Yiddish theater. One day his father chanced to see a play in Yiddish in which the saddened son of a great Rabbi has been called home from the yeshivah only to learn that his father was dead and his mother had quickly remarried to his father's brother, who had now become the new dynastic Rabbinic leader.

Of course, unknown to Paul Muni's father, what he was watching was a Yiddish version of Shakespeare's Hamlet. So moved was he by the play that he blurted out, "Now this is Yiddish theater!" How right Muni's father was.

The more one analyzes Shakespeare's play, the more it becomes evident that it translates the Book of Ecclesiastes (Kohelet) into the play form. Among other things, Ecclesiastes is a reflection, a stream of conscious, by wise King Solomon, called Ecclesiastes (Kohelet) the preacher, about the meaning of life and the confrontation with authority in the guise of the power of a king. This reflective personality is picked up in the character of the studious Prince Hamlet with his "vexation of spirit" in Shakespeare's play. The events that befall him, with surprising regularity, parallel Ecclesiastes.

For example, Hamlet's predicament in "rotten" Denmark, rotted by the "flies in the ointment" of the rumored corruption, can be summed up by line 8:4 of Ecclesiastes:

Where the word of a king is, there is power: and who may say unto him, What doest thou?
As has already been noted for the Yiddish Rabbi's son, Hamlet, already vexed in spirit by the sore travail of seeking out wisdom as a student (ecc 1:3-4), is further made melancholy at the sudden turn of events in which his smooth uncle, Claudius, has taken over everything from his suddenly dead father -- his inheritance and his mother.

To him, the injustice of being robbed of his throne as the rightful crown prince and the impropriety of his mother's action lead him to be think that existence has no meaning. This meaninglessness, as expressed by Ecclesiastes (1:2), becomes "vanity of vanities; all is vanity," with the Hebrew word "hevel" translated as "vanity," but which literally means "vapor" -- the insubstantiality of the vapor of breath. See how magnificently Shakespeare has Hamlet express this very thought into a form where "hevel" becomes "pestilent vapours" under the "golden fire," the sun:

this most excellent canopy, the air, look you,
this brave o'erhanging firmament, this majestical roof
fretted with golden fire, why, it appears no other thing to me
than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.
So when the visitation of the ghost of Hamlet's father occurs that tells Hamlet of his uncle's murderous treachery and urges Hamlet to act in vengeance, he finds he has to tread carefully: He must conduct himself with a heart not "hasty to utter any thing" (Ecc 5:2), lest the new powerful king discover what he is about.

Unlike earlier versions of the revenge story, Shakespeare's Hamlet is rightly concerned that the devil of his own imagination is tempting him to kill his uncle by assuming a "pleasing shape" -- the shape he wishes to see as his evil uncle. This is an amazing departure from the earlier stories. What other avenger needed more than the word of a ghostly figure to confirm self-serving suspicions? However, since law is not in heaven -- a famous biblical and Talmudic doctrine ("Hatorah lo bashamayim") -- Shakespeare's Hamlet, in this mode, struggles mightily against committing a rash and unjust attack before he can prove guilt right here on earth. This new Hamlet is a modern man with a great sense of justice and integrity.

Like Ecclesiastes-Solomon, who is a student of wisdom and who applies his heart "to know the wickedness of folly, even ... madness" (Ecc 7:25), Hamlet, the university student of wisdom, plays at madness -- feining as did the Bible's David -- to protect himself and to trip up the watchful King Claudius.

Also, like Ecclesiastes, Hamlet finds "more bitter than death the woman, whose heart is snares and nets" (Ecc 7:26). This occurs to a bitter Hamlet as the women in his life play just such roles. Thus, his mother, having been such a snare, swiftly remarries to her late husband's murderer, and Ophelia, Hamlet's young, impressionable girl friend, spies on him at the behest of her father, Polonius.

In another famous incident of the play, Hamlet has succeeded in publicly proving his uncle's guilt as a result of his uncles's shocked reaction to a play Hamlet stages showing the crime. Hamlet then comes upon his uncle in prayer, but does not kill him -- a fatal mistake for himself and puzzling to Shakespearean commentators. But, as is clearly expressed, Hamlet, craving strict justice, feels that his now penitent uncle would escape punishment in the afterlife. Hamlet had failed to heed Ecclesiastes' warning (7:16):

Be not righteous over much; neither make thyself over wise: why shouldest thou destroy thyself ?

At the very end of the play, Fortinbras, the young "unimproved" warrior, who Shakespeare at the very beginning takes pains to identify as one who is yet untested, reaps the harvest of the throne of Denmark. This occurs after the famous last scene, where the righteous and the wicked -- Hamlet, the Queen, King Claudius, and others -- meet their deaths. Truly "there is one event to the righteous, and to the wicked" (Ecc 9:2).

The accession to the throne of Denmark by the "unimproved" Fortinbras is the punch line of Shakespeare's play, which can be aptly summed up by Ecclesiastes 2:19 concerning a king's successor:

Who knoweth whether he shall be a wise man or a fool? yet shall he have rule over all my labour wherein I have laboured, and wherein I have shewed myself wise under the sun. This is also vanity.

The vanity in the play, Hamlet, reflects the happenstance and insubstantiality -- as the wind -- of the material life of ambition and power in which, through human failing, accident, and error, careful plans come to naught.

Even Hamlet's personal conclusion in the play, as he emerges from his melancholy, is that "the readiness is all" -- which he implies is the readiness to seize the opportunity to render justice -- heaven's will -- as encountered in its time (Ecclesiastes' "in its season"). This readiness is akin to the readiness to do one's "duty" under the "awe" of heaven that is concluded as the "sof davar" (final word) in Ecclesiastes. Interestingly, this "readiness" can be summed up by the Hebrew word "Hineni" -- "Here I am (at your service)" -- spoken by Abraham and the Prophets to note readiness to do G-d's will.

Finally, it is to be observed that among the many strictly, non biblical, Judaic touches in this play is the clear use of the Talmudic Pirke Avoth's reference to a skull floating on the water. Like Rabbi Hillel, Hamlet also discovers a skull -- the world famous skull associated with the line "Alas poor Yorick, I knew him Horatio." Hamlet had earlier mused that perhaps this skull was that of a politician who could "circumvent G-d" but is now being "over reached," overruled, by the lowly grave digger -- the same moral of "measure for measure" drawn by the Jewish sage, Hillel.

This is an updated version of the article that first appeared in The Jewish Press 9/16/94 David Basch is the author of the THE HIDDEN SHAKESPEARE and SHAKESPEARE'S JUDAICA AND DEVICES and now recently published is THE SHAKESPEARE CODES: The Sonnets Deciphered. Further information can be obtained on the Web Page


from the December 2005 Edition of the Jewish Magazine




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