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Hamlet’s Alchemy:
Response to Katherine Eggert

Katherine Eggert’s stimulating essay depends on a notion of conditional or functional belief. We are asked to imagine a spectrum or continuum at one end of which is belief, at the other end, disbelief. In between the two lies “conditional belief ” (46). One may pass diachronically from one end of the continuum to the other, possibly via the middle term (if so, this would be to make the passage to modernity). However, that middle term—conditional belief—is also a synchronic term: it allows belief and doubt to coexist, by means of compartmentalization. I take belief (as opposed to conduct) to be by definition, or categorically, unconditional. Yes, it is susceptible to change, but at any given moment, belief in something means believing it to be true.

Insofar as the Eucharist is concerned, belief pertains to a miracle; it is unconcerned with—it is categorically remote from—ordinary knowledge claims as to truthfulness or falsity. The miracle that is transubstantiation—the Real Presence within the sensible form—derives from a “reality” for which there is available no empirical confirmation. Hence, a dram of doubt cannot condition, or coexist with, belief (again, at any one moment, one either believes something or one does not). Belief, once voided, may be irrecoverable. Or it may await the day when once again, the impossible—the miraculous—mysteriously lodges inside he or she who has once again become an undoubting believer.

Certainly Aquinas was keen to prove that reason (Aristotelianism) and faith (Christianity) were in alignment. But we should proceed from this acknowledgment with care. Eggert writes that “for intellectuals in the know it was never possible to believe in the dogma of transubstantiation without already being skeptical about its ridiculous physics” (48). I would argue that believers believe in the Real Presence precisely because they cannot understand it. For some, the doctrine of transubstantiation provided an explanation for the miracle at hand; for others, it did not. That is, whether or not one deems the theory to be claptrap, one can still believe in the doctrine. Here is another way to pose this: Eggert writes that “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” (51; emphasis added). I do not think it is merely to play with words to respond that the distinction here is between belief in the Real Presence and an understanding of (not belief in) faulty physics. [End Page 58]

When Eggert turns to Descartes, she mocks him for his “rhetorical presentation,” for saying that he “‘sees no difficulty’ in believing in the dogma” of transubstantiation (51). But she has just quoted him saying that he sees “no difficulty in . . . the miracle of transubstantiation” (51). If Descartes believes in something that is “manifestly untrue,” it is not because he has fallen prey to “‘enlightened false consciousness’” (52), but because he believes in the miracle of Real Presence.1 At least, this is what transpires with regard to the Eucharist. But this is also the case when one believes in the Incarnation, that Christ is truly God and truly man—even though the physics of this (hypostasis?) is “ridiculous” (48). And what about love (where knowledge and belief are so often at odds with one another): “When my love swears that she is made of truth / I do believe her though I know she lies” (Sonnet 138.1–2)?2 Some have read this as cynical or self-serving, as knowing false consciousness. I make it out to be a miracle. Of course, such belief is confounding; but knowledge does not mitigate belief, which is no more willable than love. Knowledge and belief may but need not intersect; we may condition our knowledge and our behavior, but not our belief.

Alchemists apparently traded on the language of theology to achieve something like a warrant or a bona fide. Why not take a ride on faith’s coattails? As Eggert writes, “Alchemy and the dogma of transubstantiation shared more than a family resemblance” (53). But did theologians imagine that they had anything to gain from the discourse of alchemy? The alchemical sublime is apparently based on a new physics. The theological sublime is simply miraculous. [End Page 59]

Theodore Leinwand  

Theodore Leinwand is Professor of English at the University of Maryland, College Park. Recent essays published in his series on poets reading Shakespeare are on Ted Hughes, John Berryman, and Charles Olson. His essay on “The Shakespearean Perverse” appeared in the Yale Review in 2012.


1.  In The Pagan Servitude of the Church, Martin Luther writes, “When I fail to understand how bread can be the body of Christ, I, for one, will take my understanding prisoner and . . . I will firmly believe, not only that the body of Christ is in the bread, but that the bread is the body of Christ.” Eggert might say that this is another case of enlightened false consciousness. I think that it confirms that miracles do not submit to understanding. In any case, I hesitate to attribute bad faith to Luther or Descartes. See Martin Luther: Selections from His Writings, ed. John Dillenberger (New York: Anchor Books, 1962), 249–362, esp. 269. Richard Strier excerpts the phrase “take my understanding prisoner” in “Martin Luther and the Real Presence in Nature,” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 37 (2007): 271–303, esp. 290. He also generously helped me to elaborate on the intuition that was the germ of this response to Katherine Eggert’s essay.

2.  G. Blakemore Evans, gen. ed., The Riverside Shakespeare, 2nd ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997).