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Divine Providence in Hamlet

From The Riddles of Hamlet by Simon Augustine Blackmore. Boston, Stratford & Co.

After mature reflection upon these incidents, Hamlet comes to see more than ever the interposition of Divine Providence in the affairs of men. In self-reliance, he had boasted that he would "delve one yard beneath their mines, and blow them to the moon;" in self-reliance, he had gone forth with the enemy upon the cruise to England, confident of rescue by the counter stratagem of a pirate ship; but when his "deep plot" apparently had failed, and left him helpless, like a fettered prisoner in the throes of despair, the scheme which flashed upon his mind, without thought or effort of his own, he now recognized as a Divine inspiration. It brought him what he had so long and eagerly desired, — a positive and tangible proof of the murderer's guilt. His death-warrant, written by the hand of the King, and bearing the royal seal, was beyond dispute a convincing proof. The precious document he entrusts for safe-keeping to Horatio, because of the presentiment of his own speedy death. It will justify before the world the avenging blow which he is soon to strike. It will unmask the seeming virtuous villain, and consign him to everlasting infamy.

Hence, with a sense of thankfulness for the unexpected proof which he procured solely by the intervention of a higher power, he openly professes his faith in the guidance of divine Providence:
"There's a Divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them how we will."
His conclusion is approved by his fellow student of philosophy with the emphatic reply, "that is most certain." Both agree that our rashness or indiscretion sometimes serves us well when our deep plots do fail. Had not the pirate ship failed to overtake the royal vessel on the appointed day, Hamlet on that eventful night, when in mental conflict between hope and despair, would not have been blessed with the happy inspiration of purloining the secret letter of the King, and of substituting a counterfeit; nor would he have returned with the original to Denmark, armed with the first visible and most absolutely damning proof against the secret criminal. This happy intervention of a higher power, which inspired and aided him to turn his failure to success, is now so clearly seen that, henceforth, he appears more disposed to rely upon its guidance than upon his own unaided efforts.

The metaphor, to shape our ends, some say, is borrowed from the making of skewers; but a comparison so feeble and undignified appears unworthy of the grandeur of Hamlet's thought. Far preferable is the opinion which detects in the figure a reference to sculpture. Common artisans may rough-hew a block of marble into the general shape of the statue required; but an artist's skill is further needed to chisel it into the distinctive shape of some individual human form. In the quarry of life, man, from the limitations of his knowledge and experience, can hew out his ends or purposes in the rough; but he needs the aid of the Supreme Artist, — the great First Cause — Who, according to his good pleasure, shapes and completes them to their final and rational form.

Divine Providence is the ordination and application of means, by which God leads his creatures to their destined end. To thwart or reject this guidance, is fatuously to risk the attainment of one's destiny. Man is assured of this Providential guidance, if, in conformity with the will of God, he faithfully observe His divine law.

In Hamlet, the Poet gives a dramatic representation of the free will of man under the governance or guidance of the Divine Will — a Will which subordinates in some mysterious and incomprehensible manner all human actions and events to the accomplishment of purposes often inscrutable to the human mind. When, under stress of circumstances, Hamlet had in vain exhausted all his powers of thought and reasoning to lift the veil of darkness which enveloped him, then a mysterious Higher Power came to his aid, and, by the employment of some seeming unimportant incidents, — means apparently "rash and indiscreet," struck the hour for immediate and proper action.

Before his awakening to the guidance of this Higher Will, we have seen how, in the consciousness of his intellectual dexterity, he had delighted in his skill and rejoiced in the contemplated success of his counterplot. Its apparent failure, as well as the success of his secondary plot, are in harmony with the development of the drama; they are introduced, not to create surprise, but to unfold the character of the hero. For the overruling destiny, which he recognizes, rises above the tumult, and is represented, not as a cold remote power of marble majesty, but in intimate connection with human affairs:
"Reckoning time, whose million'd accidents
Creep in 'twixt vows, and change decrees of kings,
Tan sacred beauty, blunt the sharp 'st intents,
Divert strong minds to the course of altering things."
(Sonnets, CXV.)
These lines read as a commentary on the fortunes of Hamlet, and should, says Professor Minto, be printed at the beginning of all copies of the play, both to emphasize the lofty vein of reflection developed by the Poet as the main effect of the whole, and to undo the wretched criticism that would make it a sermon against procrastination. [Characteristics of English Poets]

Nothing is more remarkable in Shakespeare's plays, and nothing contributes more to make them a faithful image of life, than the prominence given to the influence of so-called chance, or of undesigned accidents. As a word, chance has always been, and always will be popularly accepted; and its use is correct in so far as we overlook or ignore, for the moment, the more universal connection of events. That the law of causation is universal in its reach, is maintained by science and religion; and all men practically act upon its assumption.

It is strictly and philosophically true that there is no such thing as chance or accident; since these words do not signify anything really existing, anything that is truly an agent or the cause of any event; but they merely signify man's ignorance of the real and immediate cause. Most tragic events turn on most trifling circumstances. The fate of Richard II, is traced to a momentary impulse, — an impulse which cost him his kingdom and his life. Poor Desdemona's fate hangs on the accidental dropping of a handkerchief. The unhappy death of Romeo and Juliet result on the miscarriage of a letter. The noble Caesar would not have met his untimely death, had he not postponed reading the schedule of Artemidorus. Wolsey fell from the full meridian of his glory by a slight inadvertence, which all his deep sagacity could not redeem. But of all the Poet's plays, the predominance of chance over human designs, is most powerfully brought home in the tragedy wherein the fate of Hamlet turns on accident after accident. These fortuitous events are variously denominated, as Destiny, or Fate, or Chance; but, in the poetical religion of Shakespeare, they are recognized as the direction of a Providence that exercises supreme control over human affairs.

To the Christian dramatist there can be no such thing as chance, and, accordingly, he expounds to his reader the same idea that has been expressed by a later Catholic poet in the words:
"All nature is but art unknown to thee;
All chance, direction which thou canst not see;
All discord, harmony, not understood;
All partial evil, universal good."
Because of the error of several commentators, it is important to note that in Shakespeare's view, the guidance of a Higher Power or His intervention does not destroy man's free will, nor ignore it, nor relieve him from the necessity of guiding his actions aright by the light of reason and the voice of conscience. Hence he places on the lips of the most detestable of his characters, Iago and Edmund, the strikingly distinctive truth that it lies in our free will to be or not to be what we are. Against sceptics and modern Reformers who hold the fatalistic view which disputes or denies freedom of will, Shakespeare unfailingly portrays man, not as the pagan dramatists of old — a hapless, helpless being who is subject, in spite of himself, to a fate, made inevitable by decree of the gods — but as a rational agent, who is the free architect of his own character and the arbiter of his destiny for good or for evil.

Reverting to the text, we see that when the hero of the drama, by reason of the objective difficulties which surround him, is unable, notwithstanding all his efforts, to proceed to his "revenge," a Higher Power leads him forward with scarce a suspicion of how surely and quickly he is reaching the goal. Accidental was the arrival of the players at Elsinore, yet they enable him to reach, for the first time, a positive conviction of the King's guilt; accidental was the slaying of Polonius, yet it is the turning point of the play, at which Claudius assuming the aggressive, is in spite of his cunning lured on to judgment; accidental was the delay of the pretended pirate ship, yet it led to another unpremeditated incident, the purloining of the secret letters, which gave Hamlet the only proof he could so far offer the public in justification of his "revenge."

Of all these accidents, the killing of Polonius was the most important. Though it was a thrust in blind passion and a seeming blunder, the effects of which were completely hidden from Hamlet, yet it was a most opportune and propitious act; for then, when most helpless, Providence stepped in to direct him and to ripen his cause for victory. That blind stroke of passion, roused the criminal to action for his own safety, which he saw was involved in Hamlet's destruction; and to attain it, he proceeds from crime to crime, only, all unconsciously, to afford the Prince the long-desired public proofs which alone withheld him from striking the avenging blow of justice. At the present stage of the drama, Hamlet's cause is almost ripe for the final act; another has made possible a seeming impossibility. A Providence that never errs is guiding him freely, and shall use his willing arm for the execution of divine judgment. Under the higher guidance of this Providence, Hamlet himself feels that he has almost reached the goal: now, "the readiness is all."

How to cite this article:
Blackmore, Simon Augustine. The Riddles of Hamlet. Boston: Stratford & company, 1917. Shakespeare Online. 2 Aug. 2011. < >.

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What is Divine Providence?

Bishop Jonathan Weaver, in his sermon on Divine Providence (1891) wrote that "God governs and controls the affairs of this world after the counsel of his own will. Mysteries there are, deep and inexplicable mysteries in God's dealings with the children of men. It seldom, if ever, appears to any man that all things are working together for his good. There are crosses and losses, afflictions and disappointments, about which the very best of men have been tried. There are strange, uneven paths into which good men are sometimes forced, for which at the time they can see no reason. What God has written even a fool may learn to read, but a wise man can not read what God has not written. For
God moves in a mysterious way,
His wonders to perform;
He plants his footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm."

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