Hamlet Is Free:
A Calvinist’s Case for Free Will
The Christian high school I attended has a yearly coming-of-age test for students: a class-wide argument over predestination. It normally begins with a snarky Baptist kid saying something about being predestined to punch a snarky Reformed kid, and like that, every entry-level New Testament student becomes a theologian. Do people have free will, or are their destinies predetermined by God? For a few days, everyone seems to know.
I was once a snarky Baptist kid, but I’ve changed a lot since then. And no matter what my opinion has been, the predestination question has always mattered a lot to me. I often used to wonder about free will and the destiny of my soul; I wondered about them when I read through Romans and wondered about them when I couldn’t sleep. The Bible seemed to say that God predetermined all of mankind, but logic seemed to say that man must be free. After all, what could be the point of a world filled with pain and death, if human souls were simply characters in a prewritten play?
I am not arrogant enough to think I can provide new answers to one of the oldest questions in theology. But by shedding new light on old ideas, I want to share what provided me with clarity when I needed it. While I am a five point Calvinist (for those who like labels), I hope this article can be a force of unity for those of all beliefs. Does God entirely determine man, or does He empower man with the free will to determine himself? My answer: Yes, and yes.
In Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis explains his journey to faith in God:
I thought [God] projected us as a dramatist projects his characters, and I could no more “meet” Him, than Hamlet could meet Shakespeare. . . [But] my own analogy, as I now first perceived, suggested the opposite: if Shakespeare and Hamlet could ever meet, it must be Shakespeare’s doing. Hamlet could initiate nothing.
Lewis’s analogy seems to imply that human free will is not a part of salvation. Hamlet, after all, is a character authored entirely by Shakespeare. For creation to meet its creator, the creator would need to ordain such a meeting entirely by himself. Lewis continues:
Shakespeare could, in principle, make himself appear as Author within the play, and write a dialogue between Hamlet and himself. The “Shakespeare” within the play would of course be at once Shakespeare and one of Shakespeare’s creatures. It would bear some analogy to Incarnation.
The “Author who entered his own story” analogy is one of the oldest ways to explain the Christian relationship between God and man. But Lewis’s analogy is unique, because The Tragedy of Hamlet is centered directly on the concept of free will – it’s one of the most important themes of the play. Hamlet is a troubled character, grieving over the murder of his father and seeking to avenge his death. He painstakingly contemplates every action he takes, waiting to make decisions while weighing the consequences of his actions. In the end, his choices destroy him. The moral of the story, many critics say, is that man’s free will determines his destiny – for good or for ill.
Ask any playgoer of The Tragedy of Hamlet if Hamlet is free. Nearly all will say yes. Yet at the same time, they will all understand that they’ve just seen something prewritten entirely by the mind of William Shakespeare. Playgoers know that by going to a play they are engaging another world – a world of fiction.
In Hamlet’s fictional world of medieval Denmark, Hamlet is free. In Shakespeare’s real-life world of seventeenth century England, Hamlet is pre-determined. Shakespeare created him; wrote down his every word, thought, and feeling. He initiated Hamlet’s birth, and determined his tragic death. Hamlet is thus both a predestined product of Shakespeare, and also a free man.
Some might raise a challenge to this analogy: “Doesn’t the comparison fail because human beings are real and Hamlet is not? Hamlet is only words on paper, so he can’t have free will at all. Humans have real-life free will, and that means they can’t also be predestined.”
This criticism is flawed for two reasons. First, Hamlet is real – at least partially. “Being real” has two halves: existence and essence. Existence is “being real” physically and spiritually, and essence is “being real” in the conceptual world – real in people’s minds. Though humans exist in the physical world and Hamlet never did, in essence Hamlet was and is very real. He is alive in the minds of people who read about his life or watch his portrayal in a play. In fact, his essence is more well-known than the overwhelming majority of existing human beings. You will only ever know a tiny percentage of the 108 billion people who have been born since the earth began. But chances are, you know Hamlet. So yes, Hamlet is real.
Secondly, and more importantly, if the Hamlet analogy doesn’t work because of a difference between the creations (humans exist and Hamlet does not), the same must go for their creators. If humans are “more real” than Hamlet, how much “more real” is God than Shakespeare? While humans are separated from Hamlet by one half of what it means to be real – existence – God is separated from Shakespeare by infinity. Just as a human playwright can create fictional characters, the God of the universe is capable of creating his own characters, and making them actually exist.
So like Hamlet, humans are dualistic creatures straddling two different worlds – our earthly world of freedom, and our creator’s heavenly world, in which we are predestined. Also like Hamlet, humans undergo heartbreaking sorrow and death, and constantly wonder what the purpose of pain could be.
When Hamlet poses western literature’s most famous question: “To be, or not to be?” he is asking whether it is better to be alive and endure pain than to be dead and endure nothing. By dying, “we end / The heartache and the thousand natural shocks / That flesh is heir to.” In Hamlet’s tragic world – the world in which he has free will – life is painful, and the pain is inexplicable.
But in Shakespeare’s world – our world – Hamlet’s inexplicable pain is explicable. It serves a higher purpose; it speaks to us, inspires us, and lends us words to describe our own pain. Hamlet cannot imagine his value in our world. He cannot imagine the young man who begins to ponder the universe upon hearing the introspective soliloquy in Act 3. He cannot imagine the depressed woman whose pain is eased by having his sorrowful words from Act 1 to express herself. And he definitely cannot imagine the snarky Baptist kid who comes to a better understanding of predestination by studying his play.
Hamlet cannot understand these things because no one entered his world to tell him about them. If Shakespeare had written himself into Hamlet’s play and told him about our world, Hamlet would have been given hope and would not have died in tragedy.
In our world of free will, pain and sadness seem pointless. Could it be that in another world – the world in which our stories are written – such pain and sadness is redeemed?
When Hamlet is contemplating suicide, he wonders aloud: “For in that sleep of death what dreams may come / When we have shuffled off this mortal coil / Must give us pause.” He means that he is worried about his destiny, given pause by the notion of an unknown world he may enter after death. But while Hamlet can only dream about his purpose and destiny beyond his play, we are able to know ours, because we are able to know our playwright.
In his world, Hamlet is free, and in our world, so are we. But we have been given a gift more wonderful than freedom: knowing God. We must not lose our ability to wonder at this. We ought to wonder at the immensity of our freedom, wonder at the beauty of our destiny, and most of all, wonder at the author/character incarnate who entered our shattered play to purchase with his life our eternal future in a far greater world.