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Heaven and Earth: Confession as Performance in Hamlet and Measure for Measure

From: Theatre Symposium
Volume 21, 2013
pp. 78-89 | 10.1353/tsy.2013.0011

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Staged confessions function as performances for two audiences: the earthly audience of paying spectators and the heavenly audience of God. In Measure for Measure and Hamlet, both written around the turn of the seventeenth century, Shakespeare makes the decision to stage the confessions of the plays' two villains, Angelo and Claudius. In both plays, Shakespeare draws a distinction between the Catholic practice of giving confession in the presence of a priest and the Protestant form of addressing God directly. He also juxtaposes heavenly and earthly law by presenting a series of practical questions and conflicts comparing religious and legal modes of confession. Shakespeare's plays do not present confession as a simple process of contrition and forgiveness. Instead, both Measure for Measure and Hamlet present the ritual as a complex process that is difficult to understand or perform properly; the innocent and guilty alike struggle to distinguish between the sacred and the secular in their efforts to achieve absolution.

Shakespeare was not the first playwright to introduce confession to the English stage. The sacrament was a staple of medieval morality plays, most notably The Summoning of Everyman in the late fifteenth century. Everyman presents the sacrament as a clearly defined and accessible way to avoid Purgatory and damnation. When Everyman is encouraged by Knowledge and Good Deeds to confess his sins, he leaves the stage confident of his ability to complete the sacrament, saying: "Now of penaunce I wyll wade the water clere,/ To saue me from Purgatory, that sharpe fyre." Everyman's penance mirrors the Catholic sacrament, which is composed of three parts: contrition, confession, and satisfaction. After Everyman acknowledges his own guilt and confesses his sins, absolution is conveyed to him by a holy representative of God.

With England's break from the Catholic Church, however, the procedure of confessing one's sins to a priest that is glorified in Everyman was abolished in favor of a contrition process that emphasized a more personal communication with God. Under Henry VIII, theologian Richard Morison argued against the idea that a priest's absolution could stand in for God's, stating that confession required only the joining of contrition and faith. As David Beauregard explains, the English Reformation reimagined the sacrament as "a purely interior form consisting of four parts or movements: contrition, confession, faith, and amendment of life. Confession was made to God, not a priest."

With the establishment of the Church of England, the monarch became both the sacred and secular leader, the head of both Church and State. In Hamlet, Shakespeare begins to explore the precarious transition between achieving the satisfaction of reconciliation through communication with a priest and the more complex process of communicating directly to God through faith and amendment of life. The problematic relationship between heaven and earth is personified in Claudius, who is both sinner and king, both an offender against heaven and an authority on earth. This is especially apparent in Claudius's confession scene, in which he attempts to combine contrition, confession, faith, and amendment before a triple audience (God, of whom he is aware, and Hamlet and the theater audience, of whom he is not). In a play about inaction, this scene focuses on two aborted actions: Claudius's confession and Hamlet's unattempted assassination of Claudius. The play investigates the relationship between crimes and divine and earthly justice, exploring the appropriate response to sin.

Claudius begins his confession (or lack thereof) by stating, "My offense is rank: it smells to Heaven." Through these lines the "something rotten" is named. Claudius has sinned against the State by killing the king and taking his crown and has sinned against God and nature by killing his brother and taking his wife. His crime bridges the space between the sacred and the secular, corrupting both the earthly state of Denmark and the heavenly state of his soul. Unlike Everyman, Claudius has no confessor to help him turn his contrition into proper confession to achieve absolution; he remains trapped between his heavenly aspirations and his earthly ambitions:

My fault is past. But, O, what form of prayer
Can serve my turn? 'Forgive me my foul murder'?
That cannot be; since I am still possess...

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