Ignorance is often hidden behind an urbane surface. Many otherwise educated people lack the most elementary understanding of certain subjects. One of these is religion.
When I was an aspiring Shakespeare scholar during my college days, I was surprised to find that most commentators on Hamlet missed the play’s religious aspect. Prince Hamlet is evidently a Catholic, but he has been a student at Wittenberg, home of the Reformation. He puns on the Diet of Worms. His father’s ghost laments that he was murdered without a chance to receive the sacraments, a fact Hamlet recalls when he hesitates to kill his uncle at prayer; Hamlet later sends two former friends to their deaths without confession. Ophelia, an apparent suicide, is given a Christian burial, to the scandal of her gravediggers.
None of this would have been lost on the ordinary Elizabethan playgoer. Whether the ghost comes from purgatory or hell, whether the old sacraments are efficacious, whether Ophelia is damned — these are questions that would have occurred to everyone in the audience, Catholic, Anglican, or Protestant. Modern scholars consign them to footnotes. But Elizabethans would have agreed with the Anglican Samuel Johnson (writing two centuries later) that Hamlet has descended to a diabolical level by seeking the damnation of his enemies.
Read the rest: Joe Sobran On Christianity and History | the mind-body politic.