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Peter Lake, Hamlet’s Choice: Religion and Resistance in Shakespeare’s Revenge Tragedies
by John E. Curran, Jr.

Peter Lake, Hamlet’s Choice: Religion and Resistance in Shakespeare’s Revenge Tragedies. New Haven:Yale University Press, 2020. 228 pp. $45  ISBN 9780300247817, hardback

I deeply regret having to express disappointment about Peter Lake’s Hamlet’s Choice. It is not a bad book. Sometimes the author phrases the ironies and paradoxes at work in Shakespeare’s two revenge tragedies in a peculiarly illuminating way, and some remarks on how contemporary confessional problems tell on Titus Andronicus and Hamlet are thought-provoking; as: 

What we have here is the Andronici acting towards the regime of Saturninus just as some English Catholics reacted to the depredations of the Elizabethan regime – with petitions for justice to the gods, to the authorities and, indeed, to the people, and with complaints about the absence thereof in their current treatment. (28)

And so with Hamlet, as Lake invites us to pause and

recast Hamlet’s dilemma in slightly more abstract terms, in order to see which group, if any, in Elizabethan England might be thought to be similarly trapped between, on the one hand, the claims of the past, of conscience, of both divine and human justice, and on the other hand, their current relationship to the structures of power, and indeed to the political and moral assumptions of the majority of their contemporaries. (85) 

But the book is sloppily written, under-researched, and on the whole flimsy, and it cannot but disappoint us as we look back on the oeuvre of one of our all-time greatest teachers of Elizabethan and Jacobean religious and political culture. Patrick Collinson, Debora Shuger – the list of scholars in Lake’s class is short. His works on Anglicanism and Puritanism remain, simply, indispensable (and prove the abiding usefulness of those terms, if properly nuanced), and his various studies of the ways religion and politics intersect with popular and literary culture, particularly his co-authored Anti-Christ’s Lewd Hat, are massively instructive as well. This strand would include his foray into Shakespeare studies, How Shakespeare Put Politics on the Stage, which seems a worthy addition.

Hamlet’s Choice, however, does not. It is peppered with ‘of course’s and ‘in short’s and with annoying colloquialisms, and has a frustrating, confusing way of deferring its thesis statements. It ignores whole sectors of relevant commentary, and many points, whether the debt is acknowledged (Mercer on playing the revenger) or not (Kaufman on ‘holy desperation’), have been made prominently before;[1] meanwhile, Lake rehashes, with dubious relevance, his own earlier research,repeatedly citing the murder pamphlets he has so fruitfully discussed in other places. And finally, it does not argue much that is very insightful. While it is absurdly unfair to censure any commentator on Hamlet because of specific interpretive disagreement (who of us can agree on Hamlet?), some arguments here are so insecure as genuinely to detract. Is Hamlet ‘positively heroic’ in conceiving the ‘Mousetrap’ (138)? Denmark’s transition of power happens smoothly (156), when the ruling family has been wiped out, with Hamlet Sr.’s legacy erased and his foreign enemy’s son ascending the throne? Hamlet undergoes a thorough ‘Christian conversion’ and becomes ‘providence’s instrument’ (175), when he saves no one at all, maintains no public or in any way redemptive cause, and with gratuitous cruelty murders Rosencrantz and Guildenstern? But more significantly bothersome is that Lake’s major lines of inquiry turn out not to go anywhere. With both Titus Andronicus and Hamlet, he explores how confessional alignments inflect political ones, especially in the casuistical dynamics of resistance to tyranny overlapping with, or threatening to devolve into, revenge. However, with each play, this exploration is countermanded in favor of an ‘a-confessional version of mere Christianity’ (176, 179) which is better than mere atheism. Lake tries to account for the slender payoff by claiming a place for this ecumenical vision in Western development (184), but slender, and even somewhat self-defeating, it is.

What does Hamlet’s Choice have to interest Spenserians? There are some things, mostly having to do with Lake’s formulations of late Elizabethan anxieties that we know Spenser was confronting too. Most obviously in Book Five, but implicitly throughout The Faerie Queene, we find ‘The question of how far even men of the greatest virtue can determine their own fate and save or re-found the state,’ and to it is joined ‘the question of the compatibility of decisive political action and effective rule with the basic values of Christianity’ (76). Of similar pertinence is overhanging worry about the political and religious state of precariousness:

While propagandists for, and supporters of, the Elizabethan regime trumpeted the (relative) peace enjoyed by England under the rule of Gloriana, Elizabethan Englishmen and women could never be sure that the exigencies of religious division, an unsettled succession and European war would not, at any moment, visit such a fate upon them. (190)

Otherwise, Lake considers the layering and mixing of genres and of ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture, always a paramount concern of Spenser studies, and, as he has been for many decades, so here he is worth hearing on how the problematics of intra-Protestant doctrinal cleavages resonate. A section on predestination (168-73) provides a taste to remind us of how much we have learned from Lake in the past.

This section, like the book in general, loses its momentum, though. Hamlet’s Choice is by no means devoid of use for Spenser scholars. But they will not profit from it in any way commensurate with what they are accustomed to from this magisterial author.           


                                                                                                                        John E. Curran, Jr.

[1] Peter Mercer, Hamlet and the Acting of Revenge (Houndsmills, Basingstoke and London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1987); Peter Iver Kaufman, Prayer, Despair, and Drama: Elizabethan Introspection (Urbana and Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).


  • Mission Viejo Green Tree Service 5 months, 2 weeks ago

    Is Hamlet ‘positively heroic’ in conceiving the ‘Mousetrap

    Link / Reply
  • Richmond Mobile Truck Repair 5 months, 1 week ago

    Can’t have hot coffee bouncing around in the cab. Nor does one relish the idea of fishing a 2 week old roast beef sandwich out from under the seat.

    Link / Reply

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Cite as:

John E. Curran, Jr., "Peter Lake, Hamlet’s Choice: Religion and Resistance in Shakespeare’s Revenge Tragedies," Spenser Review 51.1.8 (Winter 2021). Accessed May 23rd, 2024.
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