Right after Hamlet confronts his father’s ghost, he and Horatio have a brief discussion about what had just occurred.
Horatio. These are but wild and whirling words, my lord.
Hamlet. I’m sorry they offend you, heartily;
Yes, ‘faith heartily.
Horatio. There’s no offence, my lord.
Hamlet. Yes, by Saint Patrick, but there is, Horatio,
And much offence too.
– Hamlet (1.5.)
I’ve often wondered what the reference to St. Patrick, if any, signified. As with every other line in every other one of his plays, Shakespeare is telling us more than he is saying, but his modern audience does not have the benefit of quickly recognizing subtle 17th century cultural references. It is up to us to pay attention and find the double meaning, the other layer in the onion that makes Shakespeare so enjoyable.
So for this St. Patrick’s Day I decided to look into the reference. As it turns out, I learned something new about Ireland’s most famous Saint.
The small island of Lough Derg, off Ireland’s coast was once thought of as the gates to Purgatory or Hell, depending on which piece of lore you follow. According to myth, St. Patrick was visiting the island when he discovered a small cave and upon entering it, experienced visions of hell. Some stories go so far as to say Jesus himself showed Patrick the cave and caused the visions. In both stories Patrick used the cave to show his pagan converts that the afterlife does exist and what to expect if they did not profess belief in Christ. There is no proof that any of this took place, including Patrick even visiting the island, but that didn’t stop the locals from profiting from the story.
During the Middle Ages, the island acquired the reputation as the strictest and most demanding of European pilgrimage sites. Visitors had to complete a three day barefoot sojourn of contemplation around the island, as if already in Purgatory. The Catholic owned island still welcomes spiritual pilgrims seeking relief and rest from the modern world. This island promises:
Lough Derg is an island of pilgrimage set in calm lake waters, offers no distraction, no artificialities or interruptions. Instead you are warmly welcomed and cared for: there are no strangers here.
I don’t know about you, but this sounds like my kind of vacation.
So, what does this have to do with Hamlet’s line about St. Patrick? Well, it turns out a lot. The ghost of Hamlet’s father talks of being a spirit trapped in Purgatory.
I am thy father’s spirit,
Doom’d for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confined to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away. (1.5.9-13)
Perhaps Shakespeare pictured old Hamlet going to Purgatory via Ireland, or perhaps he wrote the play in March of 1602 and had St Patrick and the story of the gates to Purgatory on his mind. Whatever the reason, this layer of the onion is further proof that Shakespeare continues to expand my world and why I enjoy sharing his work with all of you.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day!
Hamlet quick quotes Shakespeare on-line.com
Lough Derg .loughderg.org/
St. Patrick’s Purgatory Newadvent.org