Hamlet’s Alchemy: Transubstantiation, Modernity, Belief


This essay addresses the history of disputes over the physics of transubstantiation in order to dispute the historicity of skepticism that is typically applied to the treatment of the Eucharist in Hamlet. It then turns to the way that Hamlet’s pondering of the nature of physical change also touches on alchemy, whose own theories of material change are inextricable from medieval and early modern theories of Eucharistic transformation. Alchemical imagery flashes only occasionally in Hamlet, but alchemy’s associations with transubstantiation should lead us to perceive quite a different model of belief in the play than one that imagines a medieval community of believers disaggregating into an early modern individuated skepticism. Because both transubstantiation and alchemy had always been associated with bad—that is, counter-Aristotelian—physics, acceding to them had always implied a simultaneous state of belief and unbelief. When Hamlet brackets the fate of human flesh with alchemy and transubstantiation, it exposes Hamlet’s hopeless nostalgia for a medieval, preskeptical, Eucharistic-style unity of body and spirit as false nostalgia.