Hamlet and Christmas?


David Tennant as Hamlet

Hamlet by William Shakespeare is one of my favorite plays.  It is full of questions about tragedy and suffering and injustice.  And it is written in the most beautiful poetry a human being is capable of.  Hamlet seems a strange thing to talk about as Christmas approaches, but hopefully you will bear with me.

On the night the ghost of Hamlet’s father walks abroad, Shakespeare makes a comment about the upcoming season of Christmas, and puts his words in the mouth of the character, Marcellus, who says:

Some say that ever ‘gainst that season comes
Wherein our Savior’s birth is celebrated.
The bird of dawning singeth all night long;
And then, they say, no spirit can walk abroad;
The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow’d and so gracious is the time (1.1.178).

“The bird of dawning” is the rooster, who crows all night on Christmas Eve and keeps the ghosts away.  Apparently Shakespeare may have invented the belief that during the Christmas season ghosts, fairies and witches become inactive and the stars and planets are not ill disposed towards human beings.  He may also be expressing his own faith when Horatio replies: So have I heard and do in part believe it (1.1.185).  These verses are some of the few rays of hope in the tragedy.  There is no misrule, no triumph of evil during the Christmas season, “so hallowed (holy) and so gracious is the time.”

I read a fascinating article by a Shakespeare scholar, Steve Roth, who says that the time frame of the play is based on the church calendar.  The play starts on Halloween with the ghost appearing and ends on Shrove Tuesday or what we call Mardi Gras, with the general mayhem of the swordfight.  In the middle is Twelfth Night, the end of Christmas, with the play within a play.  Each of these days was seen as a day of rebellion, when the lords of misrule and chaos prevailed.  We still have a bit of that today with Halloween, Twelfth Night and Mardi Gras.  They are times to let chaos reign.

But in the midst of the chaos Shakespeare tells us there is a “hallowed (holy) and gracious time”, the season of Christmas, wherein the power of evil and injustice is stayed and we are protected.  Isn’t that the message of Christmas?  “To you is born this day a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

In the midst of all our misrule, misplaced priorities, anger and depression, feelings of stress and wanting to get even, in the midst of all that chaos, God comes to us as Savior.  God is born as a child.  God is born as a child to honest, hard working parents, in a small town, on the edge of a big oppressive empire.  He comes not only as a Savior but he comes as Christ, the chosen one, who shows the way of honesty and truth, faith and courage, justice and goodness, the way of peace and love.  He can be that model and teacher for us, because he is no less than God and human being living in perfect harmony.

The prophet Isaiah tells us to expect such a Savior and Lord:

Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given;
Authority rests upon his shoulders,
And he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  (Is. 9:6)

If you feel that the chaos and stress of the world are overwhelming, let the Prince of Peace be your guide to a holy and gracious time.  If like Horatio you in part believe it, then let the believing part guide you to that holy and gracious time.

About John Fisk

I am a retired pastor, who served churches in New England for 33 years. I emigrated to the USA from England in 1974 and completed two graduate degrees in theology and pastoral practice at Andover-NewtonTheological School. In retirement I am focused on the teaching of Christian meditation, providing spiritual guidance, leading retreats and occasional preaching. I am particularly interested in contemplation, the mystical path and social justice.
This entry was posted in Spirituality, Theater and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Hamlet and Christmas?

  1. Laura Fisk says:


    As always, you do not disappoint.

    Thank you for your perspective.


    I sent this on to my friend Rich. He has been looking for something more.

    Love, Laura

    On Tue, Dec 20, 2016 at 6:42 AM, The Still Point wrote:

    > John Fisk posted: ” Hamlet by William Shakespeare is one of my favorite > plays. It is full of questions about tragedy and suffering and injustice. > And it is written in the most beautiful poetry a human being is capable > of. Hamlet seems a strange thing to talk about as Ch” >

    • John Fisk says:

      Thanks, Laura. It’s the 400th anniversary year of Shakespeare’s death so I wanted to honor him. There’s a celebration on PBS from Stratford on Avon – I think it is Friday evening.

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