Quips and Quotes: Relieved by Prayer

Author: Sarah Cahalan '14

Editor's Note: As soon as I graduated from Notre Dame, I realized that I never took proper advantage of one of the biggest perks of being at a university: all those lectures. You may not be able to pop by DeBart 101 every week to listen to experts opine about cell biology or geopolitics, but, in this new series, we're bringing the lecture hall to you. Our editors will scour the campus for one presentation per week to attend and share with our readers, reporting back with a quote and a few highlights from the latest event in the life of the mind. 

"Penitence means being honest witnesses against ourselves." 

"'Relieved by Prayer': Power, Shame and Redemption in Shakespeare's Drama" — a November 26 Notre Dame Forum lecture by former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams — was primarily a literary lecture, discussing the role of a certain motif (prayer) in the works of a certain famous writer (the Bard). But I found this statement halfway through the talk to be an effective nugget of theological wisdom, regardless of its literary and theatrical context.


Williams made this statement in his remarks on what he says is the most famous prayer in all of Shakespeare — that of Claudius in Act 3, Scene 3 of Hamlet. The prayer is significant in the play because it thwarts Hamlet in his plan to kill the king, stopping him short because, he assumes, a penitent man murdered would go straight to heaven. But Williams points out that Claudius is, in fact, not penitent in this moment. As he says, penitence requires us to be honest witnesses against ourselves, and Claudius can't bring himself to do that — the king acknowledges that he still "is possess'd of those elements for which" he sinned, namely, his crown and his queen, and he asks, "May one be pardon'd and retain the offence?"


The answer, Williams suggests, is no, making this one of many instances in Shakespeare's works where the corrupting and tempting influence of power makes true penitence and redemption impossible for the character bowed in prayer.


To hear the rest of Williams' comments, you can view the full lecture and an accompanying Q&A on YouTube. In fact, the magazine staff can attest to this method — with our winter issue going to the printer this week and our schedules extra-busy, YouTube is how we watched this lecture, too. 


Sarah Cahalan is an associate editor of this magazine.