Derived from the influential piece by Aristotle detailing the nuances of tragedy, ‘Poetics’, many of the commonly accepted characteristics of tragedy transpire as a result of uncertainty, and so the removal of one the greatest uncertainties in all human history, the debate over the existence of a God, would indubitably cause a collapse in the tragic play form, as it is the impossibility of certitude which allows tragedy to unfold at all.
The quote in the title comes from one Lucien Goldmann, a French philosopher and a prominent Marxist theorist: a well-known and key fundamentalist Marxist dogma, as stated by Karl Marx himself, is: “Religion is the opium of the people”1. This lends a degree of insight into the precise meaning behind Goldmann’s view: he believed that tragedy could only occur when God provides hope for people, a possibility of absolution, but the existence of a God is unknown, thus blinding people with faith to injustices in society, as they live with the hope of some final judgement which they cannot ascertain will occur.
This concept is found at the crux of Hamlet, as Hamlet’s delicately poised internal battle between his desire for revenge (also at times his nihilistic desire for escape from the world, via suicide – “shuffled off this mortal coil”2) and his fear of damnation (fear of punishment for killing Claudius, shown best in the scene where Claudius is praying, and also fear of punishment for killing himself: “Or that the Everlasting had not fixed his cannon ‘gainst self-slaughter”3) are representative of the relevance of the doubts surrounding the verity (or lack thereof) of God’s existence.
It is this very uncertainty which provides Hamlet’s hamartia – procrastination. His doubts concerning God, then, fuel one of the key aspects of tragedy, his fatal flaw, which leads inevitably to his own self-destruction. Without this overhanging doubt regarding not only what God wants him to do, but even if there is a God, Hamlet’s hamartia does not exist (or, if it does, exists on a greatly reduced scale), meaning that a hypothetical certainty pertaining to God’s existence would jeopardise, if not completely destroy, the foundations of a tragic work.
Somewhat fittingly, it is Hamlet’s meeting with the Ghost of King Hamlet, whom Prince Hamlet suspects to be some louche fiend taking on his late father’s form in his soliloquy at the end of Act II: The spirit that I have seen may be a de’il, and the de’il hath power to assume a pleasing shape4,
and their subsequent discussion which overrides Hamlet’s religiousness, leaving a vengeful determination in its wake: for when Hamlet ponders suicide after said meeting with the Ghost, he does not cite fear of damnation as a reason against it, as he had previously, rather a fear of the unknown represented by death (“For in that sleep of death what dreams may come”5). This may show that Hamlet feels that God has forsaken him (although Hamlet never goes so far as to deny God’s existence), and has turned to raw logic in order find some solution to his misery.
It is clear that Goldmann’s view echoes what is a rather cynical, and very Marxist, outlook that God is an inhibiting factor in life: Marx believed that “the abolition of religion as the illusory happiness”6 would lead people to “demand for their real happiness”7, and accordingly it is the fundamental reality of the Ghost which lends it an overriding authority exceeding that of the unseen God which Hamlet believes in, giving Hamlet a final purpose in life.
However, the ultimate decline in importance of God in Hamlet’s motivation does not detract from his tendency to postpone his actions, defying Goldmann’s view though, in the main (especially from a Marxist stance), the uncertainty concerning God is central to Hamlet’s hamartia and tragedy. So, it has already been established that a key criteria of tragedy, hamartia, would be negated by the confirmation or destruction of God as an entity.
However, this negation has somewhat of a ‘domino effect’, wherein (in this case) Hamlet’s conjectural lack of procrastination results in the obliteration of a multitude of vital aspects of tragedy. Let it be assumed, for example, that God is dead: initially, Hamlet contemplates suicide but cites God as a reason against it: Or that the everlasting had not fix’d his cannon ‘gainst self-slaughter8.
In the absence of God, Hamlet would be free to do so (or would else refrain from doing so for fear of the unknown), negating pathos, as the audience would view his actions to be fuelled by cowardice, and naturally think themselves above Hamlet – the original play maintains pathos in that Hamlet is only moved to fear the unknown after fearing God’s wrath, and his desperation for absolution is all too plain to see, as it has built up throughout the play.
Even if Hamlet lived on past this stage to receive his orders from the Ghost, the confirmation that God did not exist would allow him to exact revenge as he pleased, again negating pathos, as the audience (more an Elizabethan audience than a modern audience, but modern audiences also) now view him simply as one who has avenged his father through a continuation of violence, rather than the trapped figure of despair and uncertainty he actually is.
Whatever the case in this Godless scenario, the world would become a melting pot for the material whims of man, and true tragedy would not exist, as many of its key components become lost and there would be no empathy from the audience, and the purpose of tragedy for many is to have an effect on the audience: the reality of circumstance and emotion which links the audience to the play would be lost.