Hamlet and Calvin
In Shakespeare play, Hamlet, one of the questions that arise from the text is whether or not Hamlet has free will? It is difficult to reconcile the questions concerning why he seems to choose otherwise when the circumstances demand his action. Calvin’s doctrine of providence also adds an interesting contribution when considering Hamlet. The purpose of this paper is to juxtapose Shakespeare’s play Hamlet with Calvin’s doctrine of providence in his literary masterpiece The Institutes. It will be argued that Hamlet has a very limited free will that determines his end.
There are three reasons why Hamlet has a limited free will. The first reason is because Hamlet chooses to obey the voice of his father’s ghost (1.5.25). Hamlet accepts to avenge his father’s death and it is based on this choice his fate is determined. In an indirect way, as the reader knows, Hamlet is also willing to take responsibility for the consequences that come along with revenge. His father’s ghost came to Hamlet during a time of mourning and anger. Hamlet was upset that his father had died and is angry that his mother has married his Uncle. Hamlet is nearly lifeless, and arguably is willing to end his life. The ghost enters into Hamlet’s life with a purpose. Hamlet has no other reason to go on living, no ambitions, he has lost the right to the throne and the ghost comes into his life to compliment what Hamlet is missing. Hamlet cannot control the situation that he is in, Hamlet cannot be held responsible for the death of his father, and he is certainly not responsible for his mother’s marriage. Based off of what one knows of Hamlet this makes him angry and sad, something that he also has little control over. So Hamlet’s choices are very limited. He could choose to avenge his father’s death, or he could choose to continue to live without a sense of purpose. Both of them have negative consequences but the former weighs more in favor in contrast to the latter. This is Hamlet’s dilemma. As a result of finding his purpose in killing his Uncle, Hamlet’s decisions become even more limited. From this point onward Hamlet progressively puts himself in situations where the choices to do what is right is going to be nearly impossible to choose.
A second reason why Hamlet has a very limited fee will is because his choice has limited options to prevent him from his destruction. No longer are his options equally presented before him to choose otherwise. For example, once a man has chosen to purchase a yellow car with only 15,000 dollars, he cannot also chose to purchase a blue car that is the same price. That man has to deal with the consequences and choices of choosing a yellow car. In Hamlet’s situation he has chosen beyond the rationality of human persuasion and his own reasoning, and rationality to obey a ghost (1.4.46). Closely tied to this reasoning is reason three. Hamlet only has a limited free will because his life exemplifies times when he does not act when circumstances seemed best for him to do so. The first example of this is when Hamlet freely chose to wait and not kill his Uncle while he is praying (3.3.68-79). Hamlet still wants to kill his Uncle. He no longer contemplates the option of whether or not he wants to kill him that has been determined already. He contemplates how he wants to kill him, and the best possible way to kill his Uncle. The last example is Hamlets own destruction. Revenge has consequences and Hamlet choose all the negative choices that lead to his tragic death. Hamlet, was no longer presented with the equal choice, “To be or not to be” his purpose was attainable, he fulfilled that purpose and once his purpose was fulfilled he has no reason to go on living (3.1.56). Hamlet died because he chose to die, whether he knew that his choices would result it death or not.
On the other hand Calvin’s view of providence completely rejects the interpretation that is put forth above. There is no free will in Calvin’s understanding of providence. For example Calvin writes, “Has a murderer killed an innocent man? He has only, they say, carried out God’s will” (77). He adds further that no one “can oppose God, who had planned it all from eternity.” He draws upon Proverbs 16:9 to support his interpretation. In an earlier part Calvin also adds that God’s omnipotence is not idle and inactive, but rather he is also “caring, effective, energetic and always active” (71). In Hamlet, the interpretation that is put forth above does not completely dismiss free will. It also does not completely disagree with Calvin’s view. God knows Hamlet’s inevitable doom because of the choices Hamlet will make that will determine his end and destruction, but that does not mean that he was coerced to act against his will.
One of the reasons why Hamlet, the play, has survived its antiquity is because of Shakespeare extraordinary ability to make his characters believable. The readers are absorbed instantly into the character because one can relate with the same tragic downfalls, and joys that are experienced in the play. Hamlet is hardly fictional and Calvin wrote about reality as it presented itself to him. It was argued that Hamlet had a limited free will that determined his destruction. This view does not agree with Calvin who argues that God has already predetermined everyone’s choice.