But once, when one of the schoolchildren asked why priests wear black, I did not have a good answer, except to say that the color was considered a somber and serious contrast to the frippery and frivolity, the silks and satins, brocades and lace of the worldly courtiers and courtesans.
Later in the day I pondered the subject further, and my mind turned to my melancholy hero, Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Why did the prince wear black? The obvious reason is that he is mourning for his father; but the rest of the court have put away their black and Claudius and Gertrude remonstrate with Hamlet. The king asks why “the clouds still hang” upon him (Hamlet, I.ii.66), and Gertrude urges him to cast off his “nightly color.”
The prince replies bitterly that his inner sorrow is so great that his dark garb is merely a poor mirror of it (I.ii.68). Claudius reminds him that all fathers die, and all sons must lose their fathers. When a son loses a father, he is duty-bound to mourn, but to mourn for too long is unmanly and inappropriate.
After Claudius and Gertrude exit we hear one of Hamlet’s great soliloquies, “O that this too, too sallied flesh would melt, thaw and resolve itself into a dew,” and we learn that his black suit is more than mourning clothes to mark his father’s death. He is also grieving in disgust at his mother’s hasty and incestuous marriage, “within a month ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears had left the flushing in her galled eyes she married—O most wicked seed: to post with such dexterity to incestuous sheets.”
Hamlet’s black is therefore the sign for an even deeper grief. He grieves not only for his father’s death and his mother’s unseemly and incestuous lust. Their decadence is only part of a greater decay. We learn that the whole kingdom is seeped in immorality, drunkenness, violence, war and vice. In Shakespeare’s fourth scene, Hamlet meets Horatio on the battlements of the castle. As they wait in the darkness to see the ghost of Hamlet’s father they hear below the sound of the men in the castle laughing and dancing riotously. The King is there, draining “draughts of Rhenish down.” Hamlet opines that the drinking and carousing has ruined the whole nation so that they are known in other countries as a land full of drunken swine, and at the end of the scene Marcellus sums it up with the famous observation, “There is something rotten in the state of Denmark.”
The dissolute context of the play sheds light on Shakespeare’s time. One cannot escape the parallels to England at the end of Elizabeth I’s reign. The Tudor court was well-known for its decadence, Machiavellian maneuverings, and sexual immorality, and incest was at the top of the list of Henry VIII’s sexual crimes. Critics said that his marriage to Catherine of Aragon was incestuous because she had been married first to his brother, but the more serious rumors of incest involved the Boleyn family. Henry VIII had not only taken Anne Boleyn’s older sister Mary as his mistress, but rumors were that he had also bedded their mother, Elizabeth Howard, when he was a young man, and that Anne Boleyn was the product of the affair. Therefore the greatest opposition to Henry’s infatuation with Anne was that she was actually his daughter, making Elizabeth the daughter of his own child. The dates of Anne’s birth make this improbable because Henry would have had to conduct the affair with Elizabeth Howard Boleyn when he was only ten years of age.
The facts, however, are secondary to the rumors, inasmuch as the rumors inflame and confirm the general atmosphere of the Tudor court, which was one of intrigue, immorality, incest, espionage, corruption, murder, and war. Shakespeare has the court of Elsinore reflect the Tudor court. Something is rotten not only in Denmark, but in England, and the oppressive police state that grew up in the second half of Elizabeth’s reign meant that Shakespeare’s play had to be a subtle and symbolic comment on the rotten Elizabethan regime. He says as much later in the play when Hamlet says, “the play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.”
Why does Hamlet wear black? He’s mourning the death of his father, but he is also mourning the death and decadence of Denmark. Hamlet’s black signals the rottenness of his country and the deadly decay at the core of the court.
Perhaps now I have a better answer to the child who asks why I wear black. In future I will say, “I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be,” but like him I wear these “nightly colors” to mourn the descent into decadence of my own country. Furthermore, I wear black as a sign of my own too-frequent participation in collaboration with this decadence. Thus the black is also a sign of the ashes of my repentance. These black robes “denote me truly… for they are the actions that a man might play…. I have that within which passes show, these are the trappings and the suits of woe.”
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