Hamlet, E.M.Bounds, and Prayer
Ever feel like praying leaves you high and dry? As though no one is listening? We all have moments when we're tempted to feel that way. Like the murderous Claudius in Shakespeare's Hamlet we leave our knees feeling that our efforts were fruitless.
Don't believe it!
Shakespeare was a literary genius and could portray characters with faulty theology to a turn. The question is, do you recognize when your theology regarding prayer is faulty? Had the characters in the play done so things might have turned out quite differently.
Here's a meaty quote from theologian E.M.Bounds. Afterwards, I'll post some of the lines from Hamlet where first the guilty King draws a false conclusion based on his own reasoning rather than Scripture; and then a surprising line from the young prince himself that hits closer to the truth.
Prayer, in one phase of its operation, is a disinfectant and a preventive. It purifies the air;
it destroys the contagion of evil. Prayer is no fitful, short-lived thing. It is no voice crying unheard and unheeded in the silence.
And now, lines from Shakespeare's Hamlet. (Faulty theology can really ruin your day.)
Claudius killed his brother to usurp the Queen and the throne. He vacillates between thinking prayer can save him, or despairing that his guilt is too great because he isn't really sorry for what he's done. Poor Claudius! We've all been there.
What if this cursed hand(45)
Were thicker than itself with brother's blood,
Is there not rain enough in the sweet heavens
To wash it white as snow? [Yes, Claudius, there is.]
But, O, what form of prayer
Can serve my turn? 'Forgive me my foul murder?'
That cannot be; since I am still possess'd(55)
Of those effects for which I did the murder— [False conclusion]
My crown, mine own ambition, and my queen.
May one be pardon'd and retain the offence?
Try what repentance can. What can it not?
Yet what can it when one cannot repent? [He admits he's not truly repentant.]
O wretched state! O bosom black as death!
O limed soul, that, struggling to be free,(70)
Art more engaged! Help, angels! Make assay. [He asks angels, not the Lord, to help him.]
Bow, stubborn knees; and heart with strings of steel,
Be soft as sinews of the new-born babe!
All may be well.(75) [He dares to hope and falls down to pray.]
Unfortunately, he ends up where he began, as follows:
O, my offense is rotten. It smells to heaven,
It has the oldest, basic curse on it,
A brother's murder! I can’t pray,
Though my desire to is as sharp as my will.
My stronger guilt defeats my strong intent,
And, like a man bound to double business,
I can’t decide where I should begin.
My words fly up, my thoughts remain below.
Words without thoughts never to heaven go.
Hamlet enters the room to find Claudius upon his knees and
puts off his mission of revenge, thinking the murderer is seeking forgiveness and thus ablution.
Now might I do it pat, now he is praying;
And now I'll do't. And so he goes to heaven,
And so am I revenged. That would be scann'd. [Don't miss the sarcasm, here.]
A villain kills my father; and for that,
I, his sole son, do this same villain send
O, this is hire and salary, not revenge!
Hamlet recognized that no one is beyond repentance, but ironically, he seems to think once the King is no longer on his knees, he can safely be dispatched (no longer going to heaven). If the King had truly repented and sought forgiveness, he would have found it, however, and been "saved" as we Christians say.
Recall what Bounds said:
Prayer is no fitful, short-lived thing. It is no voice crying unheard and unheeded in the silence.
If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land. 1 Chronicles:7:14
All that the Father giveth me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out. John 6:37
Both Claudius and Hamlet mistake the matter. As I said, Shakespeare was a literary genius but Hamlet is certainly not a treatise for Christian doctrine, nor was it meant to be.
In the end, we can say with E.M.Bounds of prayer that:
It is a voice which goes into God's ear, and it lives as long as God's ear is open to holy pleas,
as long as God's heart is alive to holy things.
God shapes the world by prayer.
PS: Bounds wrote numerous books on prayer. Here is one to download that is free online.