One of my goals last year was to read all of Shakespeare’s plays. It was an epic fail. Instead of all of Shakespeare’s plays, I read only one, Hamlet.
I have long been mesmerized by the play since my days of teaching the Life of David at the Institute of Biblical Studies and the International School of Theology. It was during my study of David’s life that I entertained the idea of leaving the ministry to work on a Ph.D. in English Literature. It was a pipe dream and I would have been a terrible academic, but the play captured my attention because the guilt-ridden King (the murderous uncle of Hamlet) seemed to have much in common with the King Saul, David’s predecessor.
In Act 3, Scene 3, the play reaches the crux of the whole play. The king is in the chapel and his monologue reveals the tension of his heart.
O, my offence is rank, it smells to heaven;
It hath the primal eldest curse upon’t,
A brother’s murder. Pray can I not,
Though inclination be as sharp as will:
My stronger guilt defeats my strong intent;
And, like a man to double business bound,
I stand in pause where I shall first begin,
And both neglect. What if this cursed hand
Were thicker than itself with brother’s blood,
Is there not rain enough in the sweet heavens
To wash it white as snow? Whereto serves mercy
But to confront the visage of offence?
And what’s in prayer but this two-fold force,
Or pardon’d being down? Then I’ll look up;
My fault is past. But, O what form of prayer
Can serve my turn? “Forgive me my foul murder”?
That cannot be; since I am still possess’d
Of those effects for which I did the murder,
My crown, mine own ambition and my queen.
May one be pardon’d and retain the offence?
. Act 3 Scene 3, Line 36-56
A few lines later the guilty king makes his attempt at prayer and confession of his sin with these words to alert the audience of his intentions:
Bow, stubborn knees; and, heart with strings of steel,
Be soft as sinews of the new-born babe!
All may be well.
. Act 3, Scene 3, Line 69-71
It’s a plea to his own heart to be soft and truly repentant for his ambition and lust that led to murder and adultery. And while he is on his knees engaged in his silent prayer, Hamlet enters and considers ending his uncle’s life for his treachery toward his father but in the end leaves the scene as the king rises from his attempted confession. His words tell the product of his prayer.
My words fly up, my thoughts remain below:
Words without thoughts never to heaven go.
. Act 3, Scene 3, Line 97-98
It is a scene that plays out the corruptions of the king’s heart. He wants forgiveness but he knows that forgiveness requires repentance and he is unwilling to truly repent. He wants a cheap grace that receives the blessing of God without the necessity of true repentance.
And that is our struggle every day.
Will we bow our “stubborn knees” which is really only a metaphor for our stubborn hearts? Hamlet’s uncle wanted a softened heart, an innocent heart like a new-born babe, but he didn’t want the process. He wanted his sin and the acquisitions of his sin more than he wanted forgiveness. Exactly our struggle. And in contrast to the king of Shakespeare’s play, exactly the process we must pursue.