Episode 28 - Angels and Ministers of Grace


Look, my lord, it comes!

Enter Ghost

Angels and ministers of grace defend us!
Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damn'd,
Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell,
Be thy intents wicked or charitable,
Thou comest in such a questionable shape
That I will speak to thee: I'll call thee Hamlet,
King, father, royal Dane: O, answer me!
Let me not burst in ignorance; but tell
Why thy canonized bones, hearsed in death,
Have burst their cerements; why the sepulchre,
Wherein we saw thee quietly inurn'd,
Hath oped his ponderous and marble jaws,
To cast thee up again. What may this mean,
That thou, dead corse, again in complete steel
Revisit'st thus the glimpses of the moon,
Making night hideous; and we fools of nature
So horridly to shake our disposition
With thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls?
Say, why is this? wherefore? what should we do?



We will have much to discuss about Angels in this play - not least their final mention, which appears in one of my very favourite lines Shakespeare ever wrote. Hamlet was written at a liminal moment - the new faith of the Protestant Church of England was still only a generation old. Indeed it had come about in order to facilitate the union of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, whose only child, Elizabeth I, was head of the Church. Praying for the intercession of angels - or indeed their protection is a particularly Catholic thing, with which perhaps Shakespeare himself may have grown up. Hamlet's call to "angels and ministers of grace" makes him sound distinctly Catholic, and would not have gone unnoticed. He, Claudius and later Horatio all refer to angels throughout the play. 

Goblins (and sometimes the deluxe version, Hobgoblins) appear occasionally in Shakespeare's plays. Surprisingly, the most supernatural of all the plays, Macbeth, doesn't feature any, but they get mentioned in a good variety of others. There are a great many variations of goblins across Europe - from the friendly trickster hobgoblins of English lore to the malevolent Erlking or Erlkonig immortalised in Schubert's fiendish art song. The only Danish goblins I can find in literature all appeared a good while after Hamlet, and were all written by Hans Christian Andersen. It's worth noting that Hamlet's reference in this chunk of text is not in any way cute or kid-friendly - he's thinking that the apparition before him could be a fiend from hell. 

When I started to write a note about burial customs and their significance in the play, I wound up re-recording Episode 28 entirely! So, not much more to say than is now included in the podcast. But for a brief discussion of the differences between burial customs in Shakespeare's time and our own, click here