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KRONOS Vol IV, No. 1
"HEAVEN AND EARTH": CATASTROPHISM IN HAMLET-II
Copyright (C) 1978 by Irving Wolfe
This article is the conclusion of an essay on Hamlet, the first part of which was
published in the previous issue of KRONOS, Vol. III, No. 4, Summer-1978, pages 3 to 18.
Francis Fergusson, in his study of the ritual and mythic basis of drama, The Idea of a
Theatre, (32) argues that Hamlet consists of five dramatic divisions that are similar to the
prototypical five-part structure of Greek tragedy in general and of Sophocles' Oedipus Rex in
particular. It should be pointed out, however, that these divisions do not correspond to the
conventional five-act divisions imposed upon Shakespeare's plays a century after his death and
accepted by most critics with little change ever since. That is an arbitrary convenience which
we retain for ease of reference. Instead, the plays move to a different rhythm, one much older,
less intellectualized, and more natural. It is the rhythm of certain ancient rituals as they are to
be found almost identically in many of the world's cultures. The structure of the rituals
contains five sections corresponding to those found equally in Oedipus Rex and Hamlet.
Thus, the Prologue is to be found in the play's opening three scenes. Fergusson takes
the question of the health of Denmark to be the essential issue of the play and contends that
the first three scenes demonstrate a dangerous rottenness pervading Denmark. A ghost has
appeared at the royal fortress and the cause must be found. Different characters sense that
something is wrong and try to determine its nature as far as their understanding permits. It is
purported to be a threatened war with Norway, or impending civil disorder, or Hamlet's
lovesickness or his jealousy of Claudius, or some dark crime that must be revealed. Though
all search for the answer, only Hamlet is able to perceive a glimmering of the full danger that
The conflicts or Agons occur in the rest of the first act, all of the second act and 3.1.
In this portion, various people and factions try in an atmosphere of mistrust to discover the
sickness of the body politic. Hamlet has been given the correct clues but must set about to
verify what they imply, while Claudius must find the cause for Hamlet's animosity to his
kingship. The scenes of the Agon constitute a series of contrasts, the comic or the wasteful
set off against the huge and heroic, with the different groups working blindly at cross
Thus the struggles which develop in this part of the play are all struggles in
the dark, as though the antagonists, waiting and listening, could not find
each other and fought only briefly and desperately when they happened to
bump together. (33)
By 3.1, however, the central outlines of the conflict have emerged Claudius and Hamlet each
recognize the other as his deadly antagonist and the stage is set for a direct confrontation.
The next three scenes, 3.2 to 3.4, the Gonzago playlet and its immediate aftermath in
Claudius at prayer and in Gertrude's bedroom, contain the Climax, Peripety and Recognition.
In this section, the concealed national disease is opened to public view - the Ghost was
correct, as were Hamlet's intuitions, and Denmark is found to be ruled by an adulterous
murderer, a regicide whose monarchy threatens to sever Denmark's ties to divine blessing and
bring upon it a destructive curse. Claudius admits his crimes to himself, Gertrude admits her
errors to Hamlet, Polonius is killed and the tragic conclusion thereby becomes inevitable.
Hamlet's strategy of unearthing proof of the king's guilt has led to a point of no return.
The fourth act contains the Pathos and Sparagmos, wherein many suffer as a result of
Hamlet's cutting open the infection. Laertes returns and rebels; Ophelia goes mad and
commits suicide; Fortinbras approaches with his troops; Hamlet returns to threaten Claudius;
while the King tries to cover the wound and pretend it does not exist.
The last act presents the Epiphany or Collective Revelation. Here, the true meaning of
the action as it applies to the society of its audience is finally revealed, but only through a
process of violent and comprehensive scourging. Denmark, symbolized by the skulls being
dug up in the graveyard, suffers ritual disorder - the Prince hides among tombstones and jokes
with a Clown, Ophelia's funeral rites are truncated and Claudius' final court assembly is a total
mockery of the order and justice it should symbolize and uphold. Yet the result of this
galloping social putrefaction is not the disintegration of society, but its opposite, for in the
working out of the final corrupted ritual all the tainted Danes responsible through commission
or omission for Denmark's illness perish. Then after Denmark has been thoroughly purged,
has cleansed itself and is ready to don fresh robes, so to speak, Fortinbras assumes command
with hope for a better future in which deceit, treachery and spying will no longer be necessary,
order will reign, institutions and their representatives will be respected and will deserve respect
and the rituals of society will be able to produce social and natural harmony once more.
Disorder at every level - from father-son relationships to ruler-ruled and even ruler-God - is
replaced by an all-pervading integration. With poetic license, we might say that both stories,
the Greek as well as the Shakespearian, have gone from political instability to catastrophe to
stability. I have of course not chosen these words gratuitously, for, as we shall see in a
moment, the play presents a ritual progression that may represent an astrophysical scenario. *
[* In a private letter, Dwardu Cardona has cautioned that a cosmic interpretation of
Hamlet cannot be restricted to the catastrophes of the fifteenth and eighth-to-seventh centuries B.C.E. set forth in Worlds In Collision.
As Velikovsky has stated time and again, there were other, earlier,
catastrophes, some of which were more disastrous than the Venusian and
Martian ones. Because of the fact that the reconstructions of these earlier
celestial dramas have not yet been published, it behooves us all to be wary of
our cosmic interpretations.
The most significant earlier catastrophe in Cardona's opinion involves the planet
Hamlet reflects an encumbered and dramatized version of the Saturnian
catastrophes, one of the earliest that man remembers . . . the Saturnian
experience has been the greatest "single" event which has most affected
mankind through the ages - as it still continues to do to this day.
Cardona is of course correct, but specific illustrations of the parallels between the
stories of Oedipus, Hamlet, and Saturn-Kronos, and their reflection in myth and
religion, will be presented later. For the moment, we need only keep Cardona's
warning in mind that mankind has experienced several planetary catastrophes over
thousands of years, each of which may be recorded in myth and art.]
The importance for Fergusson of establishing structural similarities between Hamlet
and Oedipus Rex is that it permits him to draw important connections between the creators of
these plays. To him, even though Shakespeare and Sophocles lived many miles and many
centuries apart, they both seem to have drawn from the same well.
If there is an art of drama in its own right, not derived from the more highly
developed arts and philosophies, but based upon a uniquely direct sense of
life, then Oedipus Rex and Hamlet are crucial instances of it. (33a)
They are primordial responses to primordial frameworks of belief.
Hamlet, like Oedipus and the Purgatorio, can take myth and ritual as still
alive. Its imitation of human action "undercuts" or precedes all theory. If it
is "the" modern play, it is also very ancient, the heir of the great
Hamlet is therefore ritual drama presented in a ritual theatre whose stage symbolized the
medieval cosmos and whose facade can be traced back to Greece.(35)
The Elizabethan theatre may thus be regarded as the heir of the Greek
tragic theatre with its ritual basis . . . and the ritual component in its drama
has similar deep and general meanings (36)
Fergusson thus makes the same point as Murray - the pattern beneath Hamlet is ancient,
mythical, ritualistic, and universal.
Having established that Hamlet is ritualistic in general, Fergusson proceeds to examine
the dramatic function of certain specific overt rituals in the play, the socio-religious public
gatherings and ceremonies. Their purpose, he tells us, is
to focus attention on the Danish body politic and its hidden malady: they
are ceremonious invocations of the well-being of society, and secular or
religious devices for securing it .... In general, they throw doubt upon the
efficacy of the official magic, as when Hamlet refuses to take Claudius' first
court at its face value; yet even the most cutting ironies of Hamlet do not
disavow the mystery which the rituals celebrate, or reject the purposes that
The essential meaning of Claudius' socio-political rituals, we are told, is not secular but deeply
But in the Renaissance the monarchy and its rites was taking over some of
the religious significance of the Church and its rites .... The Tudor monarch
was the symbol, and the visible center of the traditional world order ....
The role of the monarch in Shakespeare's time (and in his plays) was thus
very close to Sophocles' Oedipus or Creon: he was at once ruler, high
priest, and father of the community. And the ceremonies which
Shakespeare and Hamlet's Danes engaged in . . . were taken as celebrating
and securing the welfare of the whole, of the monarchy, and of the "lives of
many" that depended on it.(38)
In Denmark, however, the rituals do not work. The thrust of the first two acts is to
demonstrate that a moral-religious condition of putrefaction, a diseased rottenness, exists in
the state. The source of the sickness, of course, is Claudius.
As Tudor monarch, father, king, and high priest - the massy wheel upon
which the lives of the many depend he makes, so to speak, the spiritual
weather in Denmark.(39)
Numerous other critics have echoed this observation and elaborated upon its implications for
the state. As the killer of the elder Hamlet, an act that
does violence to both the natural cycle of life and the social organism, the
murderer is symbolically diseased.(40)
Because he is King, there is a danger that his violence will infect the entire state.
And, because the state is identified with its ruler, Denmark shares and
suffers also from his bloodguilt. Its natural cycle interrupted, the nation is
threatened by chaos.(41)
Such a situation exists because, in the Elizabethan vision, social order and natural order are
inextricably linked, one being a reflection of the other, with both being divinely ordained, so
any attempt to break this divine ordinance (for example, by insurrection or
assassination) would result in catastrophe - that is, social, political, and
What is being implied, of course, is that the sickness that infects Denmark is not merely
political but moral, not simply physical but metaphysical.
To appreciate how closely the moral norms in Shakespeare's plays are
related to those of ancient vegetation myths, we need only to note how
often images of disease and corruption are used to symbolize the evil that
has blighted Hamlet's Denmark.(43)
Thus, Hamlet's observation that the times are out of joint is a metaphor indicating a vast, all-pervading dislocation in Denmark, for the country has lost contact with natural and
Hamlet's problem and mission, therefore, are to purify the condition of Denmark, to
cut away the infection.
The action of the play as a whole is "to identify and destroy the hidden
imposthume which is endangering the life of Denmark."(44)
Thus, the general pattern of the play is similar to that of Oedipus Rex. Denmark begins in ill
health, but a series of violent events exposes and removes the source of danger and the
cleansed country ends the play like a patient in a hospital, weakened from the ordeal but
assured of surviving into better health.
Both plays may therefore be categorized as fertility plays, a dramatic form whose ritual
origin is now known to precede Greek drama itself by thousands of years.(45) The type is
ubiquitous and eternal in Western culture.
Fertility ritual in primitive societies appears to be almost universal, and its
form is strikingly similar in societies thousands of miles apart.(46)
The ritual, as far as is known, centered about a god of spring and fertility and traced his birth,
growth, aging, death and rebirth. His society is sick and in danger, but it is saved through his
deeds, particularly his sacrifice or self-sacrifice. The composite tragic hero of the two plays
we are comparing can be seen to undergo a five-part process similar to that of the spring god -
he begins with power, rises in glory, but then wanes and suffers and dies. The rebirth occurs
not to the hero himself, but in the acquisition of tragically bought wisdom by the hero or more
often by his people and in the rejuvenation of his formerly endangered society.(46a) In the
process, the hero becomes both a sacrifice and a scapegoat, one who takes upon him the sin or
curse of his society but who is also great and therefore suitable as an offering to the gods. As
a result, his society is cleansed through his death, the gods are appeased and the culture is
reborn to new health. Although the cost was great, the cure was necessary.
This is precisely what occurs in Hamlet and Oedipus the King Fergusson notes that
in both plays a royal sufferer is associated with pollution, in its very
sources, of an entire social order. Both plays open with an invocation of
the well-being of the endangered body politic.(47)
The tragic hero is called upon to discover and tear out the source of pollution and in the
process he passes through the five prototypical phases of the spring god or fertility-play
protagonist, first flourishing then suffering, then dying, but causing by his death both the
rejuvenation of the state and the acquisition of insight into life's meaning. We may therefore
be led to agree that
The play's thematic heart is the ancient, archetypal mystery of the life cycle
itself; its pulse is the same tragic rhythm that moved Sophocles' audience at
the Festival of Dionysos and moves us today through forces which
transcend our conscious thought processes.(48)
It is precisely this tragic rhythm that I wish now to discuss, a rhythm that affects us
through forces which transcend our conscious thought processes. Such words bring
questions to the mind at once. What is the nature of these forces? How do they transcend
consciousness? Why should they move us now and why did they move the Greeks of 2300
years ago? Why should the situations in Thebes and Denmark be identified with an interrupted
natural cycle whose result is natural chaos? If we are to classify Hamlet within the genre of
the fertility play, what does this mean, precisely? Does the play simply use nature as a
referrent, or does it actually reflect the essence and workings of nature? Perhaps these
questions can be replaced by another, which is this - Does Hamlet indicate somewhat more
precisely than the passage being quoted just what archetypal mystery of the life cycle it
embodies in its structure and action? I contend that it does and in support I turn again to
Francis Fergusson and to a particular line of enquiry that he undertakes.
Having established the sickness of Denmark as a major image of the play, Fergusson
hastens to add that Shakespeare carefully extends the relevance of this condition far beyond
Claudius. The appearance of Fortinbras and what he symbolizes
"places" the action of the play by suddenly revealing a new analogue of this
action. The effect . . . is not to provide us with an intellectual key, an
explicit philosophy, but to release us from the contemplation of the limited
mystery of Denmark by returning us to the wider mystery of life in the
world at large.(49)
But what is this wider mystery of life to which he refers? He tells us we must perceive it by
the analogue, or ultimate meaning of the play, can only be sought through a
study of the analogical relationships within the play and between the world
of Denmark and the traditional cosmos.(50)
Overtly, Fergusson seems to say that nature is the ultimate analogue. The death of Hamlet's
father, the deed that creates the sickness in Denmark, is described
to make us feel that a natural and divinely sanctioned order has been
betrayed and lost.(51)
More than that, he seems to suggest that Hamlet is almost self created like a plant or tree.
Because it is rooted in an ancient tradition, and in a theatre central to its
culture, it is not only a work of art, but a kind of more-than-individual
natural growth, like the culture itself, and Shakespeare is not so much its
inventor as its god-like recorder.(52)
Profound and perceptive words. Fergusson is saying here what Murray had also said, and
what many other critics have reiterated, that great works of art have a life of their own
independent of their creator, a life derived from universal patterns of action that force
themselves to be reembodied in man's art time after time.(52a) One might therefore think that
such god-like recording occurs in an atmosphere of contemplative Wordsworthian tranquility.
A closer look, however, reveals that what is being recorded is a picture of devastation.
Consider, for instance, Caroline Spurgeon's assessment of the real difficulty that threatens
Denmark. Shakespeare, she feels, sees it
not as the problem of an individual at all, but as something greater and even
more mysterious, as a condition for which the individual himself is
apparently not responsible, any more than the sick man is to blame for the
infection which strikes and devours him, but which, nevertheless, in its
course and development, impartially and relentlessly annihilates him and
others, innocent and guilty alike. That is the tragedy of Hamlet, and it is
perhaps the chief tragic mystery of life.(53)
That which is amiss in Denmark is a condition that is greater than man and destroys
indiscriminately. Our next clue is Fergusson's description of Denmark after such destruction.
Act V unrolls for us, first of all, a picture of Denmark after it has been torn
asunder, its deathliness or its nonentity laid as it were flat and open to the
eyes of the audience and the eyes of Hamlet.(54)
Equally significant is Fergusson's description of the experience of the play in the theatre, of
the peculiar rhythm of Hamlet as a performance. Denmark is shown as
waiting, as it were, in the darkness of its ineffective ceremonies and hollow
communal prayers while the infection, "mining all within, " divides every
man in secret from every other, and bursts forth, from time to time, in
savage but brief and ineffective fights.(55)
Both critics, in seeking to express their sense of the essence of the play's major actions, use
images of natural cataclysm - an annihilating scourge, savage bursts of light in darkness,
Denmark laid waste and flattened as if in death. This is the picture that is being recorded, one
of immense natural devastation. But then, with the accession of Fortinbras, this picture of
is gone like a bad dream, and we are returned, with the healthy rhythms of
young Fortinbras, to the wider world of the order of nature, with the
possibility at least of divine sanction.(56)
Worldwide natural disorder has been imaged forth in the symbol of Claudius' Denmark, but the
final vision with which we are left, which subsumes and obliterates the others, is one of natural
tranquility and order into which both the physical world and human society are once again
integrated. Thus, to pursue Fergusson, the largest analogue to Hamlet is not simply nature, as
Fergusson argues, but nature aroused but then quiescent, destructive but then re-creative,
passing from storm to calm, from disorder to order.
To anyone familar with the catastrophes that Dr. Velikovsky reconstructs in Worlds In
Collision, the parallels between them and this description of the action of Hamlet are
inescapable, and herein lie the answers to the questions we had set ourselves a moment ago.
We had asked why Hamlet should move modern audiences as a similar tragic rhythm had
moved the Attic Greeks, and we had wondered what energies are at work in the pattern which
transcend our conscious thought processes. If the action of the play as Fergusson has just
interpreted it is not merely analagous to natural disorder but actually pictures it, such an action
must move us unconsciously as its mythical counterparts moved the classical Athenians, for
we all possess the same buried ancestral memories of the Velikovskian catastrophes to which
the action refers.
Here is the source of the pattern's consistent and ubiquitous appeal and the reason why
it functions at a level that transcends conscious thought. The rhythm and the mystery are the
The parallels, however, are not consistent throughout, for there is one very obvious
difference. The play's conclusion is rather more aesthetically and morally satisfying than the
actual geophysical events it symbolizes, but that is after all one of the reasons for the drama's
appeal. When history is transmuted into art, the emphasis is laid upon order, not disorder.
Chaos must be superseded by rebirth. It may therefore be possible that the fertility-play
pattern in Hamlet and Oedipus the King is a mask by means of which actual catastrophic
events may be safely presented in surrogate and then overcome. The pattern may be a
fictional equivalent to the sequence Dr. Velikovsky describes, placed within a frame we can
This is suggested in a rejoinder made by Theodore Gaster to Sir James Frazer's
identification of resurrected gods as simply representative of annual seasonal cycles.
It is now no longer accepted that the "dying and reviving" gods of ancient
religions, i.e., such figures as Tammuz, Adonis, Attis and Osiris, merely
personify vegetation .... Rather are they to be considered as embodiments
of "providence" in general - that is, of the divine force which permeates a
community or region and gives it life and increase. The myths and rituals
associated with them are thus no mere allegories of sowing and reaping, but
are designed rather to account for the rhythm of nature by furnishing
reasons . . . why that providence is periodically withdrawn or absent.(57)
If Frazer's stories of resurrected gods are variants of a universal apprehension of the life force
on Earth, then the rhythm of nature that they account for - the sequence of alternations in
which providence is periodically withdrawn or absent - must refer to periodic natural
catastrophe, since the stories of such gods are explicitly said to be no mere allegories of
sowing and reaping. The resurrected-god narrative deals with the perturbations of nature
rather than simply its peaceful cycles. If Hamlet, therefore, like Tammuz, represents
"providence" in general, this means he represents the cause for the periodic anger of nature
that the story of Tammuz and his peers is intended to explain. Now, if we accept Dr.
Velikovsky's contention that the Tammuz-Osiris Adonis myth is a fictional description of
planetary catastrophe, (57a) then Hamlet must represent the same phenomenon.
We are now in a position to look jointly at Hamlet and A Midsummer Night's Dream.
We had earlier categorized the comedy as a fertility play and had demonstrated its catastrophic
substructure, * and then we found the same to be true of the tragedy. This must lead us to
question the usefulness of the concepts comedy and tragedy and ponder the limits of their
applicability. Do they denote differences that are essential or only superficial? Are comedy
and tragedy ultimately different?
* Kronos will be publishing Dr. Wolfe's analysis of the comedy in a forthcoming
article titled "The Seasons Alter: Catastrophism in A Midsummer Night's Dream" -
Research into the origins of dramatic form supports the view that all forms are related.
Francis Cornford, in a statement that still holds up, says
the ritual drama lying behind Comedy proves to be essentially of the same
type as that in which Gilbert Murray has sought the origin of Tragedy.(58)
Behind this ritual drama itself lies religious practice, (59) which means that both dramatic
forms derive from the same matrix of religious rites and beliefs and therefore from the same
meanings, energies, and impulses that those rites and beliefs possess. Now, Cornford and
Murray refer in the first instance strictly to Greek tragedy and old comedy, but Murray himself
extrapolates his observations to include Hamlet, as we have seen, and Cornford's thesis can be
similarly extended to include A Midsummer Night's Dream, as we have also seen.(60) Thus,
when we show independently that both Shakespearian plays contain catastrophic substructures
and then connect the plays as fertility-ritual variants, the two genres are seen to flow from the
same source, as do their Greek counterparts. The implication is that all drama is religious in
origin. The universal impulse for theatre is the product of a desire to expound metaphysical
truth, to describe the nature of existence.
As for the cause of this universal impulse, the solution can be propounded as precisely
or as vaguely as one wishes. Cornford, in seeking to explain what he has discovered in Greek
drama, simply says
That Tragedy and Comedy should have the same divine protagonist, the
dying god whose defeat is a victory, the ironical Buffoon whose folly
confounds the pretense of wisdom - this is a mystery of Dionysiac
With the help of Dr. Velikovsky's discoveries, we can unravel the mystery. Drama is historical
truth in disguise. It takes many surface forms, as Polonius reminds us, but the underlying
purpose is common to all. Drama tells of that which we cannot face directly but must
acknowledge, this being principally our ancestral unconscious knowledge of catastrophe.
Because of this common purpose, the singers may vary but the song is the same. Naturally,
what happens in the two plays must differ in certain respects because of overt differences in
genre. In the comedy (A Midsummer Night's Dream), we saw that people possessed
dangerously excessive characteristics and that numerous obstacles to private and social well-being existed, but these impediments were overcome with gentle instruction, penitent change
and good humor. In the tragedy, the dangers and passions were much greater and the cure
more drastic in its workings, but the general process in both cases has been shown to lead to
social and vegetative regeneration inextricably intertwined with a return to geophysical
stability, as if the last were necessary to guarantee the other conditions. The picture of
worldwide order that both plays equally offer at the end pertains from the smallest sparrow to
the cosmos, and it follows or terminates a sequence that may be described as confusion leading
to worldwide disorder. On the evidence of both plays, therefore, it would appear that the
fertility pattern is a fictionalized depiction of rare and excessive natural disorders which human
society has survived, but at a certain cost and with unavoidable change.
So much for the disorder-order sequence. The pattern of Hamlet's action may be
connected to catastrophism in one other important way. Hamlet, as we have noted, may be
described not only as a fertility play but also as a scapegoat play, which indeed the fertility play
is in its tragic manifestation. The concept of the tragic hero as a scapegoat, a royal scapegoat,
appears to relate to actual planetary events as described by Dr. Velikovsky.
Let us look at the dramatic situation once more. At the beginning, as we have already
noted, something is amiss in Denmark as it was in Thebes, something whose injurious
consequences are affecting the entire state. In both cases, it is an unsuspected and unnatural
evil. Thebes is ruled by a king who has killed his father and married his mother, which has
brought upon them a curse from heaven, while
Claudius' "foul and most unnatural murder" of his King brother has
subverted the divinely-ordained laws of nature and of kingly
This hidden evil must be rooted out, as we have noted. When it is accomplished in a comedy
such as A Midsummer Night's Dream, its violence is ultimately painless, much like the blows
received by the typical movie cartoon character that seem to annihilate but have no real effect
whatever, for the character bounces back in a moment, ready for more. No one is hurt, no one
dies and suffering is soon replaced by joy. In most instances where this pattern appears in a
tragedy, however, he who accomplishes the rooting-out must be himself destroyed and the
action assumes the form of a ritual sacrifice. The hero first cleanses his society, and then he
himself, at the height of his achievement, is cleansed from that society. Such is the case
particularly in Hamlet and Oedipus Rex.
In both, the destiny of the individual and of society are closely intertwined;
and in both the suffering of the royal victim seems to be necessary before
purgation and reward can be achieved.(63)
This duty falls upon Hamlet for two reasons, first because he is the most acceptable
offering, being without blemish and in first manhood, the rose of the fair state, and second
because, in the entire court of Denmark, he alone seems to be aware that something may be
Hamlet's role in the drama is that of the Prince-Hero who, to deliver his
nation from the blight that has fallen upon it, must not only avenge his
father's murder but also offer himself up as a royal scapegoat. As a member
of the royal family, Hamlet is infected with the regicidal virus even though
he is personally innocent . . . Hamlet's task is to seek out the source of this
malady and to eliminate it.(64)
In accordance with a primordial and universal pattern, Hamlet will indeed cleanse Denmark,
but will lose his life in the effort.
Only after a thorough purgation can Denmark be restored to a state of
wholesome balance .... The bloody climax of the tragedy is therefore not
merely spectacular melodrama but an essential element in the archetypal
pattern of sacrifice-atonement-catharsis. Not only must all those die who
have been infected by the evil contagion (Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius,
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern - even Ophelia and Laertes), but the Prince-Hero himself must suffer "crucifixion" before Denmark can be purged and
reborn under the healthy new regime of Fortinbras.(65)
This is Hamlet as a scapegoat play.
As for the phenomenon in actuality, the practice of expelling or destroying a
scapegoat, animal or human or inanimate, is known to have existed in most of the ancient
Mediterranean and Mesoamerican cultures, as well as those of the Far East.(66) It has
persisted not only among those whom Frazer condescendingly refers to as savages, but in
Europe itself, the so-called apex of rational civilization, and it continues to rear its head in the
twentieth century, not only at a local level but nationally and even internationally, as recent
history amply witnesses. It is an ineradicable human phenomenon arising innately among all
groups of men, and we might ponder its origins and purpose.
Some rather differing answers have been offered from different quarters. The
sociologist might say that the function of the scapegoat is to expiate man's sense of guilt at
having offended nature by such unnatural practices as agriculture and society. This would
mean that the scapegoat does not deflect adversity by carrying off man's evil, but by mocking
all human order in his role as the surrogate king who is destroyed, thereby acting as a tribute
to the greater power of nature.(67) This would further imply that man knows all his rituals
and panoplies cannot make him as powerful as nature, and that they are in fact a covert
admission of this, while appearing to be the opposite.
The Freudian would perhaps rejoin that the scapegoat is a substitute for one's
unconsciously-known but consciously-unadmitted feelings of guilt and inadequacy. We
therefore transfer such feelings to the scapegoat and inflict punishment on him to relieve the
tension of having to harbor an unpleasant knowledge of ourselves.
The Jungian might qualify that somewhat by saying that the scapegoat is a projection
or exteriorization of certain of one's own less than admirable characteristics that one cannot
admit to oneself, even subconsciously. The scapegoat thus becomes a surrogate through
whom we act out the inclinations we would otherwise never permit ourselves to perform, and
we do so secure in the knowledge that it is he who will be held to blame, not us, which is a
way of having one's pie and eating it. This might explain the period of licentious misrule very
often associated with the reign of the scapegoat.
The anthropologist would then suggest that the practice is not attributable to private
tensions of any sort, but to communal, racial needs and fears arising from the cycles of the
seasons and vegetation and breeding and tribal life, from observed natural phenomena. In this
case, the practice is designed to secure the continued co-operation of nature by simultaneously
offering it a sacrifice and cleansing the suppliant group.
The sociologist might argue that the basic factor behind the phenomenon is the desire
to provide a constantly vigorous and effective leader or leadership apparently immune from
the exigencies of time. The scapegoat, therefore, would obviously represent the weak old
monarch, or the weaknesses of the monarch, being removed to leave the leader refreshed or
reborn and free of fault.
There is little doubt that each of these reasons may be partly true, for not one of them
categorically excludes any of the others. Together, they cover a large gamut of possibilities,
from individual causes individually acquired to collective causes individually perceived to
pragmatic causes to racial causes. I wish to explore another part of the picture, and that is the
area of unconscious causes racially acquired through the ancestral experience of vast natural
First, we must notice what happens when the scapegoat is transposed into narrative
art. The scapegoat in actual practice, we are told, was a social instrument for the public
expulsion of collective evil.(68) Its role was therefore openly acknowledged in collective
ritual. In literature, it has acquired certain rather different characteristics. It obviously cannot
continue to be explicit, for that would destroy the possibility of its being subsumed in art,
unless one were to write a narrative about the practice itself. Nor can it retain its rituals in
their overt form, with their frank statements of meaning, for the same reason. This is not to
say that it is stripped of ritual once it enters the domain of art. Quite the contrary, it maintains
its full complement, but the nature of the rituals is changed. Instead of being overt and
realistic they become covert and perhaps surrealistic. Where they had once been intended to
be directly understood, they can now only be sensed indirectly, as we respond unconsciously
to their timeless racial patterns.
It is in this way that the scapegoat prototype with its appropriate accoutrements has
found its way into literature, altered in costume perhaps, but recognizable in its lineaments and
undiminished in its power, as much criticism testifies. In a sense, therefore, as it has lost its
actual popularity in practice, it has acquired a second life as an archetype in narrative art. This
clearly demonstrates its eternal power over the human imagination, in fact as well as fancy,
and we can now turn our attention directly to the idea that the deepest source of this
phenomenon's continued appeal may be found described in Worlds In Collision.
The specific planetary events to which I refer occurred during the more recent period
of instability that Dr. Velikovsky describes, that is to say, the eighth and early seventh
centuries B.C.E.* and involve the planet Mars in particular. In Worlds In Collision Dr.
Velikovsky tells us that, at the height of the planetary interactions of this period, it was the
apparent intervention of the planet Mars that seemed to save the Earth from great destruction.
According to his reconstruction of the sequence, Venus, which was then a comet orbiting
within the solar system, appeared to be on a collision course with the planet Earth. Disaster
seemed imminent. Then Mars, a heretofore insignificant planet occupying a different position
in the solar system relative to the Earth than it now does, became suddenly brilliant and
prominent in the sky as a result of severe disturbance caused by the approaching comet. In its
new and more awesome form, Mars interacted with the comet before it could reach Earth and
received the brunt of the resultant devastating effects.
The possible magnitude of such effects would have been unconsciously remembered by
the viewers of this frightening celestial spectacle because they had occurred to the Earth itself
some 700 years earlier, during a previous close approach by the comet Venus, and the
memories had become part of man's racial heritage. To people on Earth who believed the
planets and stars to be heavenly deities, it could well have seemed that the intervention of the
suddenly-royal planet Mars, now the blazing princely warrior of heaven, was a necessary
sacrifice to save the Earth from an otherwise inevitable cataclysm such as it had experienced
before and had begun to reexperience in the new round of planetary disturbances. The
cataclysmic effects were not entirely averted, for the Earth did suffer grievous damage, but
Mars took most of it and was never again as glorious as it had become during this period of
planetary interaction, while Earthly civilization survived into a new age, decimated but alive.
The parallels with Hamlet as fertility tragedy are inescapable.
This does not mean that the events to which I have just referred necessarily constitute
the origin of the scapegoat practice, for evidence concerning scapegoats in early recorded
history is slender. One must also be careful to distinguish scapegoat from sacrifice and from
surrogate.(70) For this reason, we cannot at this point specify whether the celestial events to
which I have referred were the prototype for the scapegoat pattern or whether a pre-existing
pattern was read into the events.(71) Either case, however, would account for the powerful
presence of this impulse in human behaviour evident since then. Which came first is not
important for us here. What is significant is that a direct relationship appears to exist between
celestial disorder as described by Dr. Velikovsky and the universal social practice of the
scapegoat, and that it seems to be directly reflected in the action of Hamlet as a scapegoat
Incidentally, the scapegoat expelled from ancient Rome at the beginning of the Roman
year was called Mamurius Veturius, meaning Old Mars.(72) Might we not see in this practice
a desire to ritualistically exorcise the possibility of the reappearance of the old, fiery,
destructive Mars, so the new and more peaceful Mars could take its place with the hope of
natural stability, dependable weather and good crops?
Before we leave Oedipus, I wish to add a bit of startling evidence from our own
century in support of a catastrophic interpretation of his story. It is my theory that, if an
ancient narrative embodies a catastrophic pattern, then a later artist who uses this narrative in
his own creation may be led to produce certain unexpected and unusual images, words, themes
and even events whose provenance can only be explained by postulating that some ancestral
feature in the source has elicited these responses from his unconscious racial memory.(73) I
have applied this dictum to each of the Shakespearian plays analyzed in this book, and it
appears that the same sort of process may have occurred quite recently.
I refer to a translation and adaption of Oedipus the King by the novelist Anthony
Burgess.(74) The translation is much freer than most, but it is in Burgess' adaptations, or,
more precisely, in his additions, that surprising intimations of Velikovsky are to be found. I
have no idea whether Burgess is familiar with Worlds In Collision or not, but, upon comparing
his text with a standard version of the Sophoclean play, it will become apparent that his
additional lines systematically evoke Velikovskian associations. It is almost as if he had set
out consciously to modify the original in order to give it strong and precise catastrophic
For example, just before Oedipus discovers the full truth about himself, as he is waiting
for the Old Shepherd to arrive who will be forced to tell him who he is, he ponders his
identity. In the original, he associates himself with the months, (75) but Burgess extends this
idea to suggest that Oedipus is part of the very rhythms of vegetative life.
Kin to the seasons - four-legged spring,
Summer upright in its pride, tottering winter,
I rise and fall and rise and fall with the
Rising and falling and rising year.(76)
The suggestion is put forth that he is an elemental force, an embodiment of what the Greeks
took to be the powers that control natural order.
We can separate out from four legs, two legs, and three legs a figure of
resurrection, since 3 leads on to 4 and resumes a cycle. Oedipus, seeing
himself as a creature of unknown parentage, exults in being a sort of
creature of nature, an animal-human member of a family which is itself the
cycle of the seasons.(77)
But the incest of which he is guilty, Burgess contends, is an image that represents natural
disorder. It is
the crime which, in primitive societies, is so abhorrent that it is associated
with the total disruption of nature.(78)
The riddle that Oedipus must solve is thus cosmic and devastating in its scope.
The riddle may stand for . . . the knot which holds natural or social order
together, untied at our peril though so tempting to untie .... [It is] the
ultimate organic creation's emissary, rather, granted a voice. With this
voice it says: Dare to try to disturb the mystery of order. For order has
both to be and not to be challenged, this being the anomalous condition of
the sustention of the cosmos.(74)
This passage deserves very close scrutiny. Burgess says the riddle in myth is the knot
which holds natural or social order together. One would think it so essential that no man
would dare tamper with it, for it is only untied at our peril, but Burgess adds that it is so
tempting to untie. It is given an erotic quality, the temptation of forbidden fruit. Oedipus is
clearly described as an elemental force, a member of a family which is itself the cycle of the
seasons. To the primitive mind, this must mean he is a member of the solar system, for the
wandering stars were universally believed to control the seasonal cycles.(80) He is, in other
words, a planetary deity.
The riddle, as Burgess says, is the challenge of the ultimate organic creation's
emmissary. Therefore, when Oedipus answers the riddle and is led to commit incest, this
means that, as a planetary deity, he behaves erratically and comes too close to another planet
whom he should not approach if order is to be maintained. As a result, he does indeed upset
the balance of the heavens. or disturb the mystery of order. That is why, in the primitive mind
incest is associated with the total disruption of nature - that is what it stands for. But it is a
disruption that leads to a healthier condition than before, as mythology knows. An old world
age sickens and perishes, but is subsequently replaced by a younger, healthier new age.
Oedipus could not resist becoming attracted and involved, and perishes as a result, but Thebes
is regenerated thereby. Oedipus as errant lover must therefore represent the planet Mars of
Worlds In Collision and Jocasta Venus, as do Antony and Cleopatra, respectively; and this
contention is supported by another of Burgess' observations. After having described Oedipus
as an element of the force that directly controls the cycle of nature, Burgess adds
But he ends as a kind of mutilated god who helps to keep that cycle
This is inescapably parallel to the picture of Mars offered in Part Two of Worlds In Collision,
where it is described as a suddenly awesome planet which gave up its recently-acquired power
and glory to restore earthly order, to keep that cycle alive and is now consigned to a lesser
role in the heavens, much darker and smaller in appearance and shorn of glory, a mutilated
god.(81a) We had noted the similarity in our analysis of the scapegoat, and now it appears
also in Burgess' vision of the cosmological meaning of Oedipus. It is another confirmation
that the reference of the Oedipus legend may be planetary and catastrophic - as may be the
case with Hamlet.
The riddle is especially significant with regard to the idea that mythology embodies
certain profound mysteries concerning existence. Claude Levi-Strauss has written that myths
present, in many variations, the insoluble conundrums of existence, which are certain human
situations to which there is no clear-cut answer.(82) However, he confines himself to social
and psychological issues kinship versus self-interest, autocthonous versus heterosexual birth -
but, if we suggest that a much larger issue may be at stake, not man's relation to his wild
desires nor to other men but to the awesome and unpredictable forces of nature, another
connection emerges between Burgess' Oedipus and the theories of Dr. Velikovsky.
Burgess says that the cosmos is paradoxically sustained through the repeated
challenging of order, which Oedipus attempts with devastating results. Most mythologies tell
us(83) that the world is sustained, equally anomalously, through the repeated catastrophic
termination of world ages, which Dr. Velikovsky argues is caused by planetary disorder with
equally devastating results. This means two things. First, a direct comparison may be
established between Burgess' Oedipus as cosmic order-disturber and the planets Mars and
Venus of Worlds In Collision. Naturally, the comparison would also apply to any other
character similar to Oedipus, including Hamlet. Second, it suggests that the paradox that man
must try to come to terms with is not the limited and conscious problem of kinship, but the
irreconcilable unconscious knowledge that the world order is always doomed to be destroyed
but will always survive into a new age, as if the cyclical destructions are necessary for survival.
Here may be the true origin of the insoluble mystery which Levi-Strauss says is embodied in
Levi-Strauss argues that mythology reflects, in its structure, certain innate non-rational
tendencies in the human brain, but never seeks the cause of those innate tendencies. He argues
that mythology is a code that tries to resolve undesirable contradictions, but he limits those
contradictions to private, personal or interpersonal matters. If we retain his form but replace
his content, we can arrive at catastrophism as the cause of the features he has discovered
Most of Burgess' subsequent additions may be interpreted in the same way. For
example, when Oedipus has learned the truth about himself and staggered off, the chorus
contemplates what it has just heard. In the original, it simply laments. In Burgess, it offers a
poetic description of how such an event can enter and live in the racial memory
Our king, our king - stamped like ash into the earth.
But the story is stamped forever in our brains,
In our books, in our very loins. It is
Woven into the light of the sky,
Beats in the blood of the yet unborn,
Is with us, is with you.(84)
Notice first of all the image of Oedipus as formerly fiery but now merely cinders, like the Mars
of Part Two of Worlds In Collision; and the further suggestion, more poetic than concrete, of
debris from the destruction of the high-flying personage falling upon the Earth. Oedipus will
disappear but the memory of his actions cannot. It is imperishable, Woven into the light of the
sky. In Worlds In Collision, Dr. Velikovsky argues that the catastrophes he reconstructs were
so unsettling that they are, to use Burgess' words, stamped forever in our brains and, even
more, in our very loins.(85) The suggestion put forth is that events that impinge enormously
and unforgettably upon human consciousness produce permanent memories in the brain that
are then able to be genetically inherited.
This concept makes conventional biologists shudder, but a form of it was propounded
by Lamarck less than two centuries ago and a modified version is acquiring popularity today,
despite official opprobrium.(86) It happens to be supported as well by virtually all archetypal
and anthropological literary theory, not to mention most myth and religion. This is clearly
what Burgess suggests in the passage quoted - the Oedipus story is so awesomely
unforgettable that it is not only forever in our books but in our racial inheritance, for it Beats
in the blood of the yet unborn.
A moment later, a Messenger comes onstage to relate the death of the Queen, and the
words added by Burgess are a capsule demonstration of Dr. Velikovsky's theory of Cultural
Officer. Note what I say,
Preserve what happened before the horror
Rushes into full realization and
Makes me tongueless - (87)
It is Dr. Velikovsky's contention that the events he reconstructs were so horrible that the full
realization wiped them out of conscious memory and produced in mankind a collective
amnesia, an inability to remember the actual occurrences and an unwillingness to discern
records of those occurrences in ancient history, myth and religion.
Lastly, we have the Chorus' exclamation upon first seeing Oedipus blinded. In the
original, the lines evince only pity and revulsion, but in Burgess the Chorus bursts into an
exclamation that could almost have been taken directly from Worlds In Collision.
Horror. Horror of horrors.
The eyes of the world are out.
The gods scream,
Finding poison in the wine cup.
The mountains are molten,
The sea blood.
The mounting moon
Turns her face away.
Day will never return.(88)
Notice the unbroken chain of explicitly Velikovskian catastrophic images. What is happening
is horrible, all is darkness, no one can see, loud and horrid shrieking fills the air, the
atmosphere is poisoned, mountains melt and change shape, the sea has turned red, the moon
has apparently altered position and may even have flipped over and the sun does not rise when
it should. This is the Chorus' description of what is happening round about, on earth and in
the skies, as a background to the unfolding of Oedipus' travails. Its similarity to Worlds In
Collision is too obvious to require further comment.
The passages quoted are entirely Burgess'. They are additions with no parallel or
suggestion whatever in the original. How are we to explain them and their singular and
consistent Velikovskian reference? The answer is clear - in the same way that we explained
the correspondence between Puck's description of natural disorder in A Midsummer Night's
Dream and the Papyrus Ipuwer; in the same way that we explained otherwise inexplicable
images of land melting and world foundations crashing in Antony and Cleopatra, in the same
way that we have just explained correspondences between Hamlet, Mars and scapegoats or
Hamlet, Orestes and creation myths and will explain those between Pericles, Odysseus and
tempests. They are all products of the same phenomenon. Memories of catastrophe, eternally
present in the collective unconscious, become available in some way to the creative artist when
he responds ancestrally to a narrative such as that of Oedipus, which has proven itself to be
central to the consciousness of the Western mind.
When Burgess began to work closely and creatively with the Oedipus pattern, his
unconscious fired off images suggestive of the Velikovskian catastrophes because that is the
true historical meaning of the pattern. It lies dormant in the racial memory, waiting for the
creative artist to bring it to life. He responds unconsciously and ancestrally to the catastrophic
meaning of the narrative, and what he produces as a consequence - in this case, images of
heaven screaming and mountains melting and the memories burned into one's loins affects us
unconsciously because we all share the same ancestry. Now, if Hamlet's story is structurally
and ritualistically similar to Oedipus', it too must embody and evoke the same associations.
32. Fergusson, op. cit., pp. 124-139.
33. Ibid., p. 119.
33a. Ibid., p. 109.
34. Ibid., p. 110.
35. Ibid., pp. 128-130.
36. Ibid., pp. 129-130.
37. Ibid., p. 125.
38. Ibid., p. 129.
39 Ibid., p. 146.
40. Guerin, op. cit., p. 129.
41. Ibid., pp. 129-130.
42. Ibid., p. 129.
43. Ibid., p. 128.
44. Fergusson, op. cit., p. 146.
45. Theodore H. Gaster, in Editor's Foreword to Francis M. Cornford, The Origin
of Attic Comedy,
paperback edn., Anchor Books, Doubleday, New York, 1961, p.
46. Kenneth M. Cameron and Theodore J. C. Hoffman, A Guide to Theatre
Study, Second edn., Macmillan, New York, 1974, p. 36.
46a. Ibid., pp. 37-38.
47. Fergusson, op. cit., p. 130.
48. Guerin, op. cit., pp. 129-130.
49. Fergusson, op. cit., p. 152.
50. Ibid., pp. 152-153.
51. Ibid., p. 149.
52. Ibid., p. 153.
53. Ibid., pp. 145-146.
54. Ibid., p. 149.
55. Ibid., pp. 125-126.
56. Ibid., p. 150.
57. James G. Grazer, The New Golden Bough, edited with Introduction and
Additional Notes by Theodore H. Gaster, Criterion Books, New York, 1959,
Introduction, p. xvii.
57a. Velikovsky, Worlds In Collision, p. 183.
58. Cornford, The Origin of Attic Comedy, op. cit., Introductory, p. xxix.
60. In "The Seasons Alter: Catastrophism in A Midsummer Night's Dream
(Part of the commemorative Anthology presented to Dr. Velikovsky in December,
1975, it will constitute a chapter of Prof. Wolfe's forthcoming book, Shakespeare &
Velikovsky: Collective Memory and the Springs of Art
61. Cornford, op. cit., p. xxx.
62. Guerin, op. cit., p. 129.
63. Gergusson, op. cit., p. 130.
64. Guerin, op. cit., p. 130.
66. Frazer, The New Golden Bough, op. cit., pp. 509-556.
67. The Scapegoat: Ritual and Literature, ed. J.B. Vickery et al., paperback,
Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1972, pp. 36-51.
68. Frazer, The New Golden Bough, op. cit., p. 554.
69. Velikovsky, Worlds In Collision, p. 264.
70. Frazer, The New Golden Bough, op. cit., p. 554.
71. Dwardu Cardona believes that Mars functioned as a scapegoat-saviour during
the Saturnian catastrophe thousands of years previously.
72. Frazer, The New Golden Bough, op. cit., p. 540.
73. The theory is presented with full elaboration in the concluding chapter of my
74. Sophocles, Oedipus the King, translated and adapted by Anthony Burgess,
paperback, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1972.
75. Sophocles, Oedipus the King, translated by David Grene in Greek
Tragedies, Vol. I, eds. David Grene and Richmond Lattimore, Phoenix Edition,
paperback, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1968.
76. Oedipus the King, Burgess, op. cit., p. 66.
77. Ibid., pp. 4-5.
78. Ibid., p. 5.
79. Ibid., p. 6.
80. Velikovsky, Worlds In Collision, p. 261.
81. Burgess, op. cit., p. 5.
81a. Worlds In Collision, pp. 364-370.
82. Edmund Leach, Lévi-Strauss, paperback, Fontana Modern Masters,
Fontana/Collins, London, 1970, pp. 57-71.
83. Velikovsky, Worlds In Collision, pp. 46-52.
84. Burgess, op. cit., p. 73.
85. Velikovsky, Worlds In Collision, pp. 302-315.
86. See, for instance, C.J. Ransom, The Age of Velikovsky, Kronos Press and
LAR Publishing, 1977, pages 239-240.
87. Burgess, op. cit., p. 74.
88. Ibid., p. 78.