According to Claudius, the usurping king in Hamlet, the main lesson reason teaches us is that we must die. Responding to Hamlet’s mourning and confusion over the death of his father, Claudius tells Hamlet that the common theme of reason from the beginning is “This must be so.”
Hamlet uses his reason throughout the play to ask it whether this is indeed the case and, if so, what it means.
Claudius is a proto-naturalist and he embodies the Machiavellian ethic of the naturalist in his activities. He takes power he is not fit to maintain. He takes a wife he cannot understand. He drives an entire court into confusion and paranoia, and he loses his kingdom to Fortinbras.
And when he explains the place of reason to Hamlet, he says that it’s one lesson is that “this must be so.”
Gertrude reinforces his doctrine, though she adds something rather critical.
“All that lives must die,” she says, “passing through nature to eternity.”
Yeah, there’s that eternity thing to worry about isn’t there?
In Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy, he may well be setting Gertrude against Claudius in debate format. “Whether tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or by opposing end them. To die. To sleep. No more. And by a sleep to end the thousand heartaches that flesh is heir to.”
That’s Claudius’s practical position. He didn’t like the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, being second to the king and loving his brother’s wife. But rather than commit suicide (to die), he committed fratricide and became an assassin. He killed his brother/king. And why not? “This must be so.”
Of course, Claudius’s conscience tells him there is something more, but he has trained that out of him through discipline. Probably lessons in rhetoric.
But Gertrude has a different position and is therefore susceptible to repentance. “To die,” says Hamlet. “To sleep. To sleep, perchance to dream. Aye, there’s the rub.”
Passing through nature to eternity.
Which of these is the lesson of reason, that “this must be so?” or that we pass “through nature to eternity?”
Your answer may depend on what you mean by reason. Hamlet is anticipating Bacon and Descartes, no doubt expressing something in the air at the turn of the 17th century. The worn out scholasticism of the 15th and 16th century and the Nominalism of Occam had reduced reason to something very modern.
Reason is what we now call rational and is stereotyped in Mr. Spock from Star Trek. It is unemotional, detached, impersonal, objective.
But that is simply not the reason of the Christian classical tradition from which Gertrude is speaking – and which is her only hope. This is the Divine Image manifested in our inquiry, in the wisdom of God on our hearts, in what Hamlet calls “conscience,” when he says that it makes cowards of us all.
Indeed, if your enterprises of great pith and marrow are for this world and in defiance of eternity, conscience ought to make a coward of you. What shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul. Reason’s function at such a time is to make you hesitate.
Conscience to Hamlet is not the bad feeling you get after doing something wrong, though it is related. It is con-scientia – an inner awareness or knowledge that what my senses take in is not all there is. It precedes conscious knowledge, and it permeates all our thinking.
The naturalist trains himself to ignore or explain away this voice. But when he does so, like Claudius, he creates a paranoid world where madness is a fact of life for more and more people. He removes the organ of perception and honor. If he has ultimate power, he makes it impossible for the world he leavens to survive.
So it comes down to this: What is reason?
Is it a means to calculate so we can survive, or is it a faculty of perception by which we can bless and be blessed?
It’s easy enough to defend either position, but both of them are embraced by faith.
What does it say?
“This must be so.”