What to make of Hamlet’s sparrow?
Shakespeare’s use of language is so beautiful, his scope so fraught with meaning that we miss the brutality of his tragedies. Hamlet, for instance, is a highbrow slasher flick. If Hamlet isn’t inflicting death on somebody, he’s thinking about it. Perhaps strangely, in Stephen Greenblatt’s course last term, we got into the issue of whether Hamlet’s actions at the end of the play suggest something about Elizabethan attitudes towards God’s role in life. Hamlet is a man of faith who has faith in nothing, least of all himself. He prefers murder to turning the other cheek, and suicide to hope. We discussed in class what the idea of ‘special providence’ meant to Shakespeare, based on these lines from Act V, Scene ii, where Horatio is trying to talk his friend Hamlet out of a duel meant to leave Hamlet dead.
[T]here’s a special providence in
the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be
not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come:
the readiness is all. Since no man knows aught of what he leaves,
what is’t to leave betimes? Let be.
First, a word on providence. Providence is God’s pre-ordaining, setting the course, of the way the world works, as opposed to predestination, which is God’s pre-ordaining whether a human will be saved. Providence comes in two forms: general providence is God’s ordinary way of working — crops growing, for instance. Special providence is God doing something special (it may or may not look like a miracle), setting up a chance meeting that changes a life, for instance. [Thanks to Ward Holder for this discussion of providence and predestination]
In class we discussed this scene and what it may have said about Elizabethan religious attitudes. Shakespeare was born in 1564 (the year John Calvin died). While England had not only broken away from the Catholic Church but banned the practice of Catholicism, religious tension was rife in the country. Was Hamlet’s sparrow Shakespeare expressing something about his own ideas of predestination? Hamlet does seem to be saying his fate was predetermined and he should not avoid the duel, even though it looked like a set-up. To Hamlet, either God had determined he would live despite the set-up, or it was his time to go, and he should be ready.
One site I found sees Horatio’s reaction as a sign of truest friendship and Hamlet as noble in his readiness, instead of holding a death wish. A different site offers a religious interpretation of Hamlet’s sparrow, arguing that he merely accepts Providence for what it is, making him an acolyte of Christ, in the sense of Matthew 10:39 and Mark 8:35, “Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
I think John Calvin would disagree, for reasons worth thinking about.
Calvin makes two specific references to the sparrow as part of his discussion of God’s general providence in The Institutes of the Christian Religion (Book I chapter xvi 1 and 5, in the final 1559 edition). It isn’t merely sparrows that attract God’s attention, either. Calvin cites David in I xvi 5 that God gives food to the young of the ravens. Calvin goes on to say “Surely if the flight of birds is governed by God’s definite plan, we must confess with the prophet that he so dwells on high as to humble himself to behold whatever happens in heaven and in earth.”
In Book I ch. xvii 3 of The Institutes, Calvin says believers “will not, as if carried off by the fates, out of desperation cast themselves to destruction like that youth of Plautus: ‘Unstable is the loss of things, the fates drive men according to their own pleasure. I will betake myself to the precipice, that there I may lose my goods with my life.’ And they will not ….cover up their own evil deeds with the name “God.”
Calvin then attacks a sect of “profane men” known as Libertines, who apparently said that all crimes are virtues, because they are subject to God’s ordinance. Calvin says that God sets our limits but also trusts us to care for ourselves, to take precautions, to foresee dangers, to use remedies God has given. In particular, God does not want us to suffer fatal acts, Calvin says.
It is a subtle argument on Calvin’s part. But it strongly suggests that Horatio, not Hamlet, followed the truer path according to Calvin. Calvin would likely argue that Hamlet was obviously not among the remnant predestinated to salvation (I found no references to sparrows in Calvin’s discussion of predestination). He would certainly be appalled at those who supported Hamlet’s foolishness in accepting the duel. There are many reasons to disagree with Calvin on predestination, not least the twisting of his words into instruments of judgment by many Puritan sects, including historically my own Presbyterians. But his view on Hamlet suggests that if Shakespeare wanted us to see Hamlet as something other than a Stoic taking his medicine in due course.
Shakespeare would have known of the life and death of Sir (and Catholic Saint) Thomas More, martyred in 1535 for his belief that Henry VIII should not get a divorce. I read “A Man For All Seasons” this term and Robert Bolt’s More represents a truer Catholic than Hamlet. In Bolt’s play, Thomas More takes every precaution he can to adhere to his principles without having to die for them. He dies because Henry cheats. In the end, though Bolt leaves this unspoken, More seems to go to his death with readiness.
Here’s the only version of Hamlet Act V Scene 2 I could find on Youtube: