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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.

In considering how Hamlet stages a turn from a ritualized medieval past to a disenchanted modernity, Stephen Greenblatt and Sarah Beckwith both suggest that the play anticipates—or even, perhaps, attempts to engineer—the mind-body split of modern skepticism. Their emphasis is on different halves of that split, to be sure. Greenblatt, arguing that the play traces the bumpy road from a Roman Catholic emphasis on the material sacrament to a Protestant emphasis on the transcendent sign, takes the side of the body, calling attention to Hamlet’s “insistence on irreducible corporeality.” Beckwith, more interested in the rift between Hamlet’s spiritual anguish and the inadequate religious ritual he witnesses, takes the side of the mind, noting Hamlet’s “distrust in appearances.”1 But Greenblatt and Beckwith concur on one major reason for skepticism’s arrival. Modern skepticism is born when Christians begin to question Roman Catholic ritual, particularly the sacraments, whose authenticity depends on an unstable pairing of outer and inner, physical and transcendent. Although Beckwith quarrels with Greenblatt on whether a distrust of physical reality ought to be assigned to Catholics or Protestants, she recapitulates Greenblatt’s focus on “the persistence and what we might call the embarrassments of matter” involved in the sacrament of the Eucharist.2 If a sacrament is, as in Richard [End Page 45] Hooker’s familiar formulation, an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace, then it structurally poses the skeptical dilemma of trusting the evidence of one’s eyes. How can water confer salvation, or a piece of bread Christ’s sacrifice?

Underlying both Greenblatt’s and Beckwith’s analysis is a narrative of a fall from grace that is the fall from unconditional belief to conditional belief. Once skepticism is a possible response to the sacrament, even those who believe in a sacrament’s efficacy can engage a skeptical dynamic as long as they notice the nagging split between the sacrament’s materiality and the spiritual change it is supposed to effect. What makes skepticism possible—even if it does not make disbelief inevitable—is the believer’s awareness of and propensity to dwell upon the inevitable disjunction between the material sacrament and the immaterial spirit. Implicit in such a formulation is a temporal shift. Before I was aware of the split between my inner state and my external perceptions, I could not but believe; after I was aware, I had a choice.

That “before” is a historical epoch, as well as a span of the state of a person’s consciousness. For Greenblatt, the era before sacramental skepticism is pre-modernity. For Beckwith, things are a bit more complicated, since she argues that medieval Roman Catholic Eucharistic ritual (and, even more, the Corpus Christi plays that grew up to support that ritual) already points to the disjunction between the material form of the sacrament and the transcendence it imparts. However, Beckwith evinces considerable nostalgia for the “before” time of belief in Eucharistic transubstantiation—for a preskeptical age—when she argues that the same ceremony that highlights the skeptical rift also heals it: the Eucharistic ritual or the Corpus Christi play overcomes disbelief on the way to creating “a community of the faithful in the Eucharist as a bond of love between God and neighbor.”3 This “before” of a loving, believing, consensually unskeptical community is the paradise of shared conviction that the Reformation loses. Thus, although Beckwith inveighs against Greenblatt’s implication that Hamlet represents “the beginnings of a deracinated modern consciousness,” she emphasizes a quite traditional split between a medieval community satisfied by its sacramental rituals and a modern individuality left unsatisfied by “maimed rites,” material trappings of ritual that do not match the believer’s spiritual longings.4 Beckwith’s disappointed, skeptical, modern Hamlet is thus merely a slightly less enterprising version of Lee Patterson’s late medieval alchemist, who inaugurates modernity [End Page 46] by equating alchemy and religious practice, both of them external activities unconnected to the inner person, as similar technologies of self-improvement.5

Patterson’s identification of the advent of modernity with the late-medieval alchemy craze points us, however, to a flaw in the teleological line of reasoning that finds modernity in skepticism, skepticism in querying the sacraments, and querying the sacraments in Hamlet—and hence modernity in Hamlet. For the fact is that Hamlet raises the question, not of the materiality of the sacraments in general, but of the materiality of the transubstantiated Eucharist: the king who goes through the guts of a beggar, as Greenblatt brilliantly parses Hamlet’s line. But the Eucharist is a special kind of sacrament in that its materiality, unlike the water of baptism or the consecrated oil of extreme unction, poses a particular problem for medieval and early modern natural philosophy. We would now call it a physics problem. What is matter made of, and how does it change? Insofar as they invoke the Eucharist, Hamlet’s musings upon the state and the fate of human flesh are also musings upon technical questions of medieval and early modern matter theory. In this essay, I first address those technical questions in order to dispute the historicity of skepticism as it has been applied to the play’s treatment of the Eucharist. I then turn 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 Hamlet than one that imagines a medieval community of believers disaggregating into an early modern individuated skepticism.

Theologically speaking, using transubstantiation to mark the end of belief and the beginning of skepticism is a highly dubious move. The dogma of transubstantiation was quite unlike those that accompanied the other sacraments in that it required violating the laws of physics as the Middle Ages and Renaissance saw them: that is, the laws of Aristotelian physics. More precisely, the dogma of transubstantiation required the invention of an alternative physics, a kind of “intelligent design” of its day. That alternative physics, however, was recognized as balderdash from the moment of its proposition, and this reputation for claptrap dogged transubstantiation throughout the Middle Ages and well into the seventeenth century, when scientists like Galileo began to prove through laboratory experiment that Aristotelian matter theory itself did [End Page 47] not hold up. In other words, for intellectuals in the know it was never possible to believe in the dogma of transubstantiation without already being skeptical about its ridiculous physics.

In order to speculate on what it means for belief in the transubstantiated Eucharist and skepticism about its material nature to coexist, I must first explain briefly what the alternative physics of transubstantiation was and how it came to be. The Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 declared transubstantiation to be true doctrine. But transubstantiation gained philosophical authority only later in the thirteenth century, after Aristotelian theory came to dominate scholarly discussions of material form and material change. For Aristotle, any individual physical body is made up of its substantial form—its essence, a composite of prime matter and the form that Nature imposes on that prime matter—and its accidents—inherent qualities that, were they to change, would not change the essence of the physical body.6 Importantly, Aristotle found it nonsensical to imagine a substantial form’s being separated from all of its accidents. Some accidents are more loosely connected to substantial form than others, of course. A man can lose an arm (part of his accident of “quantity” or extension in space), and still be a man. Some of his accident of “quality” may change—his hair from brown to white, for example—and he is still the same man. Still, the accidents appropriate to humanity and to masculinity must inhere in his substantial form for him to be a man. The Eucharist thus poses a conundrum for Aristotelian matter theory. What the priest consecrates at the altar must transform from the substantial forms of bread and of wine to the substantial form of the body and blood of Jesus Christ. At the same time, however, the accidents of bread and wine, their taste, smell, color, and texture, must remain; if they did not, we would be repulsed by the prospect of cannibalizing Christ and would not be able to stomach ingesting the Eucharist.

Thomas Aquinas solved this problem by postulating that in this one singular case, the case of the Eucharist, a non-Aristotelian physics holds: a substantial form is severed from all of its accidents. While the bread and wine’s substantial forms are annihilated, replaced by the substantial form of Christ’s body and blood, their accidents remain.7 Crucial for Aquinas’s theory of Eucharistic matter is his reconceptualization of one accident in particular, the accident of quantity. The nature of quantity, which comprises a material’s number, size, and extension, goes to the heart of the physics problem that troubles transubstantiation. If [End Page 48] Christ’s body and blood are truly in the sacrament, how could he possibly be in so many places, so many masses, at the same time? The usual Aristotelian explanation that a body’s accidents inhere in its substantial form fails to answer this question. As Aquinas points out, the accidents of the consecrated bread and wine— its taste, smell, color, and so forth—cannot inhere in the body and blood of Christ, since Christ’s resurrected body is in heaven, at the right hand of God. Nor can they inhere any longer in the bread and wine, whose substantial forms have been annihilated and replaced by the substantial form of Christ. Rather, Aquinas proposed, the bread and wine’s taste, smell, color, and texture inhere in the bread and wine’s “dimensive quantity,” their extension in space. In the special case of the Eucharist, in other words, the accident of quantity serves as a kind of substitute substantial form, one in which the rest of the bread’s accidents inhere. Thus, there can be endless supplies of consecrated bread and wine, without there having to be infinite quantities of the body and blood of the risen Christ.8

While Aquinas’s alternative physics came to be the dominant theory of Eucharistic matter and was endorsed by the Roman Catholic Church, the matter was never settled, since the physics of transubstantiation as Aquinas proposed it never seemed plausible.9 Philosophers of nature simply could not agree with the way that Aquinas confuted Aristotle, splitting accidents from substance for the purposes of accounting for this unique kind of matter. Nominalists like Duns Scotus and then William of Ockham worried in particular over Aquinas’s rather precious reclassification of the bread and wine’s accident of quantity as a kind of substitute substance in which the rest of the bread and wine’s accidents might inhere. William of Ockham argued that you simply cannot differentiate between a substantial form and its accident of quantity: a body is coextensive, axiomatically, with its extension. If Christ’s substance is present in the Eucharist, his quantity must be there, as well—a logical absurdity, since that would require Christ’s body and blood to multiply vastly in quantity [End Page 49] to supply every mass that will ever take place. On the other hand, if Christ’s quantity is not there in the Eucharist, his substance is not there, either.10

In the end, William of Ockham, like Duns Scotus, evaded charges of heresy by asserting that he accepted the doctrinal, Thomist formulation of transubstantiation simply because it was doctrinal, not because it made physical sense—because it was given, not because it was true.11 From its origins, then, the doctrine of the transubstantiated Host required belief in something patently false. Nor did subsequent centuries forget that Thomist transubstantiative physics was claptrap. The Scholastic debate over the physics of the Eucharist remained front and center throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, as dissenters of various stripes reproduced William of Ockham’s ironclad proof that Thomist transubstantiation violated Aristotelian principles. John Wyclif, for example, notes that if God could require Christ’s substantial form to be in multiple places at once—as it must be, in transubstantiative terms, when simultaneous masses are performed—then God could require the same of any object or body, a conclusion that would eliminate the coherence of time and space.12 Well into the sixteenth century, the continuing dominance of Aristotelianism in matter theory meant that theological arguments about the nature of the Eucharist continued to hammer at Aquinas’s eccentric physics of transubstantiation.13 Jean Calvin is offended especially by Aquinas’s logical manipulation of the accident of quantity, arguing that to make Christ’s substance ubiquitous in the Eucharist, “assign[ing] to him a body of boundless dimensions, diffused through heaven and earth,” is to deny him his humanity.14 [End Page 50]

The same reiteration of the Thomist debate also occurred among Roman Catholics, for whom the conundrum of transubstantiation became so central to matter theory that early modern post-Aristotelian theories of matter, even if they did not mention the nature of the sacraments, were measured against Thomist Eucharistic physics. As Pietro Redondi has demonstrated, the Roman Catholic Church found Galileo’s experiments in optics challenging because they proved Aquinas’s theory of transubstantiation impossible.15 In turn, Descartes’s philosophical works were placed on the Roman Catholic Index of Forbidden Books in part because his revision of matter theory, though initially intended to “solve” the riddle of transubstantiation, thoroughly debunked Aquinas’s transubstantiative physics instead. Like William of Ockham, Descartes denied that a body’s “quantity” or extension could be separated from that body, and furthermore denied that accidents existed at all except in the mind of the perceiver.16 While he believed that something changed when the Eucharist was consecrated, he did not think that the substance of the bread and wine disappeared. In other words, Aquinas was wrong: “I see no difficulty in thinking that the miracle of transubstantiation which takes place in the Blessed Sacrament consists in nothing but the fact that the particles of bread and wine, which in order for the soul of Jesus Christ to inform them naturally would have had to mingle with his blood and dispose themselves in certain specific ways, are informed by his soul simply by the power of the words of consecration.”17 Descartes’s rhetorical presentation of his refutation of Aquinas is effectively the same as William of Ockham’s: having disproved the Thomist physics of transubstantiation, he declares that he “sees no difficulty” in believing in the dogma nonetheless.

The physics of the Eucharist, in other words, means that to believe sincerely in transubstantiation means also to believe sincerely in something one knows to be manifestly untrue. The state of mind in which simultaneous belief and unbelief hold sway, both of them entirely conscious states, of course summons up a number of theories of intellectual displacement: Freud’s disavowal, Sartre’s bad faith. But perhaps most useful for describing the intellective work underlying a belief in transubstantiation is Slavoj Žižek’s application of Peter Sloterdijk’s [End Page 51] concept of “enlightened false consciousness.”18 Rather than Marx’s naive ideological consciousness, which Marx boils down to the phrase “Sie wissen das nicht, aber sie tun es” (They do not know it, but they are doing it), Sloterdijk characterizes our current age of “cynical reason,” as—in Žižek’s paraphrase of his argument—one in which “they know very well what they are doing, but still, they are doing it.” Žižek, who is interested in this cynically enlightened false consciousness’s psychoanalytic underpinnings or what he calls “ideological fantasy,” in turn extends Sloterdijk’s formulation into “they know very well how things really are, but still they are doing it as if they did not know.”19 While both Sloterdijk and Žižek intend their analyses to apply specifically to postmodern ideology, a similar dynamic seems to be at work when both William of Ockham and Descartes react to Thomist Eucharistic orthodoxy: they know that the facts do not support belief, but they believe anyway. Because their state of belief consists only in their “seeing no difficulty” in taking transubstantiation as true—that is, in their acting as if transubstantiation is true to the extent that belief is required, advantageous, or simply pleasant—their belief is not incompatible with their skepticism.

Understanding the intellectual tradition of Thomist transubstantiative physics allows us to return to the questions of belief, skepticism, and periodization that occupy Greenblatt and Beckwith, and to ask those questions in a new way in regard to sacramentality in Hamlet. First of all, we must replace the diachronic timeline of belief-then-skepticism about the genuineness of the transubstantiated Host—a timeline that conforms to a timeline of medievalism-then-modernity—with a synchronous functional belief and philosophical skepticism. Second, we must also recognize that this synchronous belief and skepticism was as true for Nominalism as it was for Descartes. If Hamlet is wracked by anguish about what he is to believe about physical matter, then his condition, by these lights, is to suffer not from too much skepticism, but from too little. Obviously, getting along politically in Denmark (as in most places) requires amiably assenting to what one knows may be counterfactual statements, and Hamlet proves ill-suited to such yes-manship. But the crying need for a similar tolerance for believing what may very well be false also shadows Hamlet’s encounters with—and his inexplicable inability to fathom—more fundamental questions of the physical universe and physical change.

I will take up three such encounters in the remainder of this essay: flesh, ghost, and skull. These encounters are significant because they link physical [End Page 52] matter not only to Eucharistic ritual, but also to alchemy. Hamlet’s first description of physical change, his wish that “this too too solid flesh would melt, / Thaw and resolve itself into a dew” (1.2.129–30),20 evokes the alchemical goal of subjecting mineral ores to distillation and/or sublimation processes that would turn solids into a purer vapor, a “resolved” dew that releases the substance’s vital spirit from its impure dross.21 Alchemical purification seems also to be on the mind of the Ghost, whose juxtaposition in Act One, Scene Five of the “sulph’rous” fires of purgatory in which he spends his daylight hours and the “quicksilver” swiftness of the poison that killed Old Hamlet renders his very body (insofar as ghosts have bodies) a pre- and postmortem alchemical experiment (1.5.3, 66). Mercury and sulfur in alchemy are presumed to be the prime metals, capable of breaking impure substances down into prima materia and hence preparing them to be reformed as purer and more valuable metals, like gold or silver.

While seldom remarked upon, the alchemical language in these and a few other passages in Hamlet is not a trivial happenstance. Rather, alchemy in fact is associated with the play’s references to the Eucharist in the sense that the physics of alchemy had remarkable commonalities with the Thomist theory of transubstantiation. Having both made their first appearance in Europe at about the same time, alchemy and the dogma of transubstantiation shared more than a family resemblance. Indeed, they focused intently on the same issues in physics—so intently, in fact, that alchemists sometimes claimed not only that their transformations were like the physical changes brought about by transubstantiation, but that they were those physical changes. Transubstantiation and alchemy confuted Aristotelian matter theory in the same way: both required a severing of a body’s substantial form from all of its accidents. This interrelation helps explain why theories of alchemy directly threatened Roman Catholic Eucharistic dogma: alchemy denied the uniquely counter-Aristotelian physical status of the transubstantiated Host by being another counter-Aristotelian instance in which a substantial form might be stripped of its accidents. [End Page 53]

Alchemy also resembled transubstantiation in one other important respect, however. As popular and as compelling as it was in the thirteenth through seventeenth centuries, alchemy was also, and always, recognized as claptrap. Like transubstantiation, alchemy was declared physically impossible precisely because it violated Aristotelian matter theory.22 While post-Reformation anti-Catholic polemicists obviously had partisan incentive for equating alchemy and transubstantiation as junk science—for example, the virulently anti-Catholic George Goodwin joked that “Popish Chymicks make a thousand Gods: / . . . [The priest] makes and vnmakes God, each houre”23 —other contemporary remarks along these same lines get to the essential fact that both alchemy and transubstantiation grapple with the same physics problem, namely, the problem discussed above: the accident of “quantity” or extension. To reiterate that problem, this time in the words of John Donne, “They that pretend to enlarge this [risen] body [of Christ] by multiplication, by making millions of these bodies in the Sacraments, by the way of Transubstantiation, they doe not honour this body, whose honour is to sit in the same dimensions, and circumscriptions, at the right hand of God.”24 How can Christ’s body be here on earth and there in heaven at the same time? The language accompanying the discussion of quantity conflates alchemy with transubstantiation in the sense that Protestant polemicists regularly accuse priests of “multiplying” Christ during the mass, using a term so often attached to alchemy that it seems that “multiplying” defines for most people what alchemists do.25 Alchemists themselves regularly referred to “multiplication” as the penultimate stage of alchemical purification.26 In explaining alchemical “multiplication,” alchemists throw Aristotelian matter theory out the window entirely by replacing Aristotle’s description of how metals are formed in the earth with his theories of both sexual and spontaneous generation. With alchemy, as with the generation of life, you can get more, infinitely more, at the end of the process than was [End Page 54] put in at the beginning.27 Multiplying Christ or multiplying the substantial form of gold or silver beyond all logical limits, the priest and the alchemist thus both work within an intellectual schema that both claims and defies probability.

Through its associations with transubstantiation, the tincture of alchemy with which Hamlet begins his consideration of the nature of physical change— the melting flesh, the sulfurous/mercurial Ghost—also touches Hamlet’s encounter with the grave. Greenblatt’s reading of Hamlet’s Eucharistic anxiety coalesces around Hamlet’s revulsion at the materiality of the human remains of Julius Caesar and Alexander, who, like Christ in the crumbs of the Host, once were kings and now are reduced to the basest of bunghole-stoppers. For Greenblatt, the too solid flesh of Hamlet’s first soliloquy leads us here: to our gorge rising at the stink of the father figure’s skull. Given the alchemical connotations of melting flesh, however, these two descriptions of physical change are not only connected, but also ironized. As Margreta de Grazia has pointed out, earth in Hamlet is not only the product and repository of decayed bodies, both common and royal, it is also the ground of just about everything else that is important in the play: nation, class, generation, inheritance, and the early modern shift from fiefdom to capitalism.28 Earth is also, however, the ground of alchemy, the model and touchstone of experiment. In the alchemist’s mind, earth does not yield only loam and moldering skulls; rather, it also incubates gold and silver in alchemical fashion. The alchemist’s project replicates earth’s capacity to incubate metal, but he goes earth one better in that he completes that incubation faster and perhaps even in better fashion than nature can. When Hamlet asks Gertrude, “now, mother, what’s the matter?” (3.4.8), he invokes the maternal prima materia of which all matter is made. But when he wishes that he might somehow engineer the sublimation of his own flesh into something finer, or when he hears the ghost describe his own baser matter being purged away by fire, or when he recalls those processes of alchemical purification in his wish for a “native hue of resolution” (3.1.86) that would turn his “resolved,” sublimed flesh to action, Hamlet indulges in the alchemist’s fantasy of outstripping natural processes of material refinement. Like the politician, one of the occupants of the grave whom Hamlet imagines, he too “would circumvent God” (5.1.73).

Throughout the play, Hamlet proves himself interested in the metaphorics of humans as either base or refined metal/mettle. He prefers to sit by Ophelia’s side at the play because she is “mettle more attractive” than Gertrude (3.2.99); [End Page 55] he worries that he is a “dull and muddy-mettled rascal” (2.2.544); and, having wept over Polonius’s body despite his madness, he proves himself “like some ore / Among a mineral of metals base” (4.1.24–25). It is thus fit that he contemplates in the graveyard what happens to matter in the earth. Here, however, he is stopped short by the thought that even the most august of men, Alexander, died, was buried, and “returneth into dust,” decomposing into “base uses” rather than subliming into finer material (5.1.193, 187). Hamlet seems to have expected Alexander to undergo the alchemical sea change of Ariel’s song—“those are pearls that were his eyes.” But this cemetery earth incubates nothing precious; the “bones” found there “cost no more the breeding, than to play at loggats with ’em” (ll. 83–84). The slight verbal and considerable contextual echo between “loggats” (small wooden pieces tossed in a horseshoe-like game) and the “lots” played for Christ’s garments by the soldiers at his crucifixion seems to bring even Christ’s resurrected flesh into question here. No wonder Hamlet feels the dismal pain of the loss of the exalted body. But because they are associated with alchemy as well as transubstantiation, Hamlet’s realizations in the graveyard undo their own profundity. Like transubstantiation—and for the same reasons—alchemy never inhabited an epoch of unproblematic belief. If Hamlet brackets the fate of the flesh with alchemy and transubstantiation, it has also exposed the hopeless nostalgia for a medieval, pre-skeptical, Eucharistic-style unity of body and spirit that Greenblatt finds in Hamlet as false nostalgia. That theory of matter never held water in a factual sense; it was always the object of a belief that was held because it was held, not because it was true.

The shared intellectual background of transubstantiation and alchemy has important implications for a reading of Hamlet’s bestriding the rupture between medieval and early modern. Understanding the relevant matter theory allows us to view Hamlet’s perspective on human physicality with something of a squint eye: we see that it is his own version of an alternative physics. If we were to accept that transubstantiation was once an unshakeable theory, we would endorse Hamlet’s memory of the past. He remembers his father as quasi-divine, and he cherishes a memory, particular only with him, in which everyone—especially his mother—believed his living father so. In his son’s memory, Old Hamlet holds the impossible status of a truly transcendent physical body, the product of a transubstantiation or an alchemy that indisputably worked. “Hic et ubique?” asks Hamlet of the Ghost, who seems to have multiplied his dimensiveness—“here and everywhere”—in a fashion that Aquinas claimed was available only to Christ’s substantial form in the Eucharist (1.5.158). If he were such a form also in life, as Hamlet seems to remember him, Old Hamlet would also have been the alchemical “quintessence of dust” that, far from being debased matter, would be matter improbably refined [End Page 56] (2.2.298).29 Hamlet’s belief that there was once such a man also suggests that he would wholly approve of Patterson’s argument that alchemy is the mark of modernity: alchemy replaces the sacraments in the sense that the technology of self-improvement replaces the belief in being improved by God’s presence. Such an argument would bolster Hamlet’s attempts to replace, over the course of the play, the lost transcendent object of his father with the newly formulated story of the transcendent achievements of his own previously too solid flesh, a substitution that is signaled by Hamlet’s assumption, at last in the graveyard, of his father’s name: “This is I, Hamlet the Dane” (5.1.241–42).

Forearmed by the knowledge that neither alchemy nor transubstantiation was ever truly true, however, we can label Hamlet’s impressions both of his medieval father, the lost transcendent father, and of his modern self, the newly technologized son, as exactly what they are: poppycock. Like Horatio, who observes what Hamlet observes but never voices agreement with the conclusions Hamlet draws, we can decline to confirm that Hamlet’s deeply felt loss of a transcendent being ever meant there was such a being in the first place.30 And if we do so, we will cease to endorse Hamlet’s supposition that he is quite the modern man. Skeptical and de la mode as he seems to be, Hamlet takes both transubstantiation and alchemy far too seriously. Unlike Martin Luther, who was expert in Aristotelian matter theory and who knew full well how the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation deliberately got it wrong, Hamlet continues to voice such questions as whether the body of Christ passes, in the form of the Eucharist, into the feces of communicants as if they were serious questions.31 A prince who took his education in Lutheran Wittenberg should know better. These were never serious questions. They were always the accouterments of Žižekian ideological fantasy: not a belief in what is true, but rather knowing it is not true but still acting as if we did believe. [End Page 57]

Katherine Eggert  

Katherine Eggert, Associate Professor of English at the University of Colorado at Boulder, is the author of Showing Like a Queen: Female Authority and Literary Experiment in Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton (2000) and of essays in journals such as ELH, English Literary Renaissance, Renaissance Drama, and Representations. She is currently completing a book titled Disknowledge: Alchemy and the Uses of Ignorance in Renaissance England.

For their valuable comments on earlier versions of this essay, I am grateful to Colette Gordon, David Schalkwyk, and the members of the 2012 Shakespeare Association of America seminar “The Theater as Skeptical Lab,” particularly Tom Bishop, Cody Reis, Victor Lenthe, and Jason Denman. Special thanks go to Joseph Loewenstein, leader of that seminar, for his advice and encouragement.


1.  Stephen Greenblatt, “The Mousetrap,” in Stephen Greenblatt and Catherine Gallagher, Practicing New Historicism (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2000), 136–62, esp. 154; and Sarah Beckwith, “Stephen Greenblatt’s Hamlet and the Forms of Oblivion,” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 33 (2003): 261–80, esp. 274.

2.  Greenblatt, 141. For Beckwith, early Protestant reformers ascribe skepticism to Romanism by pointing out how the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation requires you not to believe your senses: what you eat and drink is not bread and wine, but the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Beckwith’s Reformers think that Catholics are required not to believe that what they see is material, whereas Greenblatt’s Catholics, worried about a mouse defecating the body of Christ, are embarrassed that what they see may be only material, and hence not spiritual.

3.  Beckwith, 271. For a similarly nostalgic account of how the Roman Catholic community coalesced around Eucharistic ritual, see David Aers’s scathing critique of Greenblatt, “New Historicism and the Eucharist,” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 33 (2003): 241–59.

4.  Beckwith, 274.

5.  Lee Patterson, “The Place of the Modern in the Late Middle Ages,” in The Challenge of Periodization: Old Paradigms and New Perspectives, ed. Lawrence Besserman (New York: Garland Publishing, 1996), 51–66.

6.  Ross Hamilton, Accident: A Philosophical and Literary History (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2007), 12–13.

7.  Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province, 2nd ed. (1920), IIIa, q.77, a.1; New Advent web site by Kevin Knight, http://www.newad-vent.org/summa (accessed 13 January 2013).

8.  Aquinas, IIIa, q.77, a.1–7. On the distinctions Aquinas makes regarding the Eucharistic accident of quantity, see Stephen E. Lahey, John Wyclif (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009), 102–34.

9.  For the ongoing debates over transubstantiation, see James F. McCue, “The Doctrine of Transubstantiation from Berengar through Trent: The Point at Issue,” Harvard Theological Review 61 (1968): 385–430; Robert Whalen, The Poetry of Immanence: Sacrament in Donne and Herbert (Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2002), 3–21; and Lee Palmer Wandel, The Eucharist in the Reformation: Incarnation and Liturgy (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2006). For medieval Scholasticism’s difficulties in aligning Aristotelian metaphysics with the doctrine of transubstantiation, see Miri Rubin, Corpus Christi: The Eucharist in Late Medieval Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1991), 12–82; Gary Macy, “The Dogma of Transubstantiation in the Middle Ages,” Journal of Ecclesiastical History 45 (1994): 11–41; David Burr, Eucharistic Presence and Conversion in Late Thirteenth-Century Franciscan Thought (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1984); and Richard Cross, The Metaphysics of the Incarnation: Thomas Aquinas to Duns Scotus (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002).

10.  Marcus Hellyer, Catholic Physics: Jesuit Natural Philosophy in Early Modern Germany (Notre Dame, IN: U of Notre Dame P, 2005), 93–100.

11.  Rubin, 32. Aquinas also resorted to the circular reasoning of proving transubstantiation is true by asserting it is true: “Some have held that the substance of the bread and wine remains in this sacrament after the consecration. But this opinion cannot stand: first of all, because by such an opinion the truth of this sacrament is destroyed, to which it belongs that Christ’s true body exists in this sacrament” (IIIa., q.75, a.2).

12.  Lahey, 128.

13.  For the persistence of Aristotelian physics in Renaissance learning, see Charles H. Lohr, “Metaphysics and Natural Philosophy as Sciences: The Catholic and the Protestant Views in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries,” in Philosophy in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries: Conversations with Aristotle, ed. Constance Blackwell and Sachiko Kusukawa (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 1999), 280–95; and Henry S. Turner, “Nashe’s Red Herring: Epistemologies of the Commodity in ‘Lenten Stuffe’ (1599),” ELH 68 (2001): 529–61, esp. 538–40.

14.  John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1989), 2:571. Calvin discusses the nature of the Eucharist in book 4, chapter 17 of the Institutes, and transubstantiation and the physics of the Eucharist in sections 12–19. See Kilian McDonnell, John Calvin, the Church, and the Eucharist (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1967), 32–39.

15.  Pietro Redondi, Galileo Heretic, trans. Raymond Rosenthal (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1987), 9–11.

16.  Hellyer, 100–107. For the origins of Descartes’s matter theory in the Eucharistic puzzle, see Tomaso Cavello, “Real Accidents, Surfaces and Digestions: Descartes and the ‘very easily explained’ Transubstantiation,” in The Poetics of Transubstantiation: From Theology to Metaphor, ed. Douglas Burnham and Enrico Giaccherini (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2005), 11–25.

17.  René Descartes, Philosophical Letters, trans. Anthony Kenny, quoted in Steven M. Nadler, “Arnauld, Descartes, and Transubstantiation: Reconciling Cartesian Metaphysics and Real Presence,” Journal of the History of Ideas 49 (1988): 229–46, esp. 236.

18.  Peter Sloterdijk, Critique of Cynical Reason, trans. Michael Eldred (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1987), 5.

19.  Slavoj Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology (London: Verso, 1989), 29, 32.

20.  William Shakespeare, Hamlet, in Stephen Greenblatt, gen. ed., The Norton Shakespeare, Based on the Oxford Edition, 2nd ed. (New York: Norton, 2008).

21.  Lyndy Abraham, A Dictionary of Alchemical Imagery (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998), 55–56. Alchemical imagery in these passages from Hamlet has not drawn extensive comment; instead, critics have dwelled upon, for example, the physiological implications of Hamlet’s and the Ghost’s descriptions of the human body. However, Sidney Warhaft, perhaps the first to use early modern humoral theory to defend F’s “solid flesh” over Q1 and Q2’s “sallied” and Dover Wilson’s “sullied,” remarks that “there remains a possibility that some text in alchemy lies behind the thaw-melt-resolve series. This is after all a form of transmutation of a base substance into a less base. Resolution also seems to have been applied to alchemical change; certainly solution is one of the alchemical processes.” See “Hamlet’s Solid Flesh Resolved,” ELH 28 (1961): 21–30, esp. 27n23.

22.  For alchemy’s violations of Aristotelian matter theory, see William R. Newman, Promethean Ambitions (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2004), 34–114.

23.  George Goodwin, “Of that Loude Lye, and Fond Fiction of Transubstantiation,” in Babels balm: or The honey-combe of Romes religion, trans. John Vickers (London, 1624), sig. L1r. This edition is a translation of Goodwin’s Melissa religionis pontificae (London, 1620).

24.  John Donne, “A Sermon Preached in Saint Pauls in the Evening, November 23. 1628,” in Sermons, ed. George R. Potter and Evelyn M. Simpson, 10 vols. (Berkeley: U of California P, 1953–62), 8:289.

25.  Reginald Scot, for example, baldly states that alchemy is “otherwise called multiplication”; see The Discoverie of Witchcraft, ed. Brinsley Nicholson (1886; repr., Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield, 1973), 294.

26.  See Abraham, 132–33. The image alchemists associated with “multiplication” was that of the pelican, who feeds her young with her blood; this is Eucharistic imagery as well, since Christ feeds his flock with his blood.

27.  Newman, 169–71.

28.  Margreta de Grazia, “Hamlet” without Hamlet (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007), 22–44, 129–57.

29.  I owe the insight that Hamlet’s “quintessence of dust” violates Aristotelian science to Kristen Poole, Supernatural Environments in Shakespeare’s England (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007), 1–2.

30.  For the ways that Horatio both enables and subverts the story that Hamlet wishes to have told of himself, see Christopher Warley, “Specters of Horatio,” ELH 75 (2008): 1023–50.

31.  Luther’s training at the University of Erfurt qualified him to discuss matter theory with authority. He cited William of Ockham as one of his great influences, and in 1517, at about the same time he was writing the Ninety-Five Theses, he was also planning a commentary on Aristotle’s Physics, a book he later (in 1520) recommended “be altogether discarded, together with all the rest of his books which boast of treating the things of nature. See “An Open Letter to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation Concerning the Reform of the Christian Estate,” in Luther’s Works, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut T. Lehmann, 55 vols. (St. Louis: Concordia, 1955–86), 44:200. For Luther’s plans to write a commentary on the Physics, see his letter to John Lang of 8 February 1517, in Luther’s Works, 48:38.