President Zelensky’s address to the UK Parliament was a masterful presentation of truth-telling, conviction and heartfelt oratory. Touching lightly on classic speeches of British history and literature, he appropriated the words of Hamlet to sum up his country’s plight – and the question ‘to be’. As Shakespeare’s character suggests, the choice to continue living is not without cost or consequence. Some may see the determined resistance of Ukraine’s fighters as a hopeless last stand – almost suicidal in the face of overwhelming odds. Others can only applaud with both awe and admiration the courage of people unwilling to let go of their life, freedoms and sovereign identity.
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them. To die—to sleep
Seldom do heads of state face the suddenness of the question as to whether their nation should be – or not be. It is little wonder that European minds turn back to the 1930s when looking for a comparison with the present crisis. Countries falling under the sway of an aggressor who refuses to listen to the voices of other nations, but is more than willing to deploy military force against civilians. Propaganda and brutality at home: fear abroad. It is an approach used by dictators for as long as human history. Like all bullying it is effective only until one slash with the sword suddenly echoes with the ring of steel. What was supposed to be quick and easy meets its match – mettle answers metal. I cannot believe that President Putin imagined that the conquest of Ukraine would be so slow; so costly in Russian lives; or so devastating to the Russian economy. There has been a miscalculation or a misunderstanding; delusions of power or the fear of a successful, prosperous, democratic neighbour. Or perhaps he simply doesn’t care, confident that gradual escalation will lead to ultimate victory.
Part of the reason it is so moving to hear President Zelensky’s speech is the possibility that he may not be alive for very much longer. He has chosen to stay in Kiev, and must be the number one target for Russian forces. It is difficult to think that Ukrainian defiance will be quite as determined or as effective without this charismatic leader so visibly present in the war.
One of the oddities about Hamlet’s soliloquy alluded to by Zelensky, is its departure from what many would regard as orthodox thinking about death. For the Church, the afterlife was much more than a dream filled sleep. There is only one implicit reference to religion, describing death as ‘a consummation devoutly to be wished’. In this soliloquy it seems there is no heaven; no Christ; no God; no judgement. Vladimir Brljak’s paper entitled ‘Hamlet and the Soul-Sleepers‘ identifies the presence of popular 16th century beliefs about a state of sleep which preceded the general resurrection and last judgement. This belief was initially advocated by Martin Luther and was shared by other Reformers in England. The audiences for Hamlet would recognise this heresy in the words of the young Prince studying in a city at the heart of the Protestant Reformation. With reference to the First Quarto edition of Hamlet, Brljak finds even stronger evidence that this wayward doctrine was the basis for Hamlet’s soliloquy.
… the sleepers saw themselves as pious Christians, but their opponents relentlessly misrepresented them as denying the immortality of the soul and consequently bordering on atheism.Brljak, V., 2018. Hamlet and the Soul-Sleepers. Reformation & Renaissance Review, 20(3), pp.187-208.
In the space of just two weeks the people of Ukraine have been forced to face urgent questions of sovereignty and mortality. In their response to the Russian invasion the two things have been welded together, with countless examples of individual sacrifice and tenacity. If the primary issue is the survival of a nation, there is also an implied question for other democratic countries. If this can be ‘allowed’ to happen, what else can be done by a powerful totalitarian state without the threat of consequences? If Finland begins an application process to join NATO we may discover just how far Putin will go to ensure neighbouring states conform to his wishes. At a time when Ukraine is facing an existential threat, there are other countries now living with a question about the scope of their freedom ‘to be’. If the West tries to sleep through this crisis, hoping it will eventually go away, we may all learn to our cost just what kind of nightmares might suddenly become our reality.