Hamlet is my favorite Shakespeare play for no other reason than I read it in high school and liked it better than Julius Caesar and Romeo & Juliet. It’s also the only Shakespeare play to be featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000, so that’s something.
When I learned that Dramaten was putting on a production of Hamlet, I conferred with friends, found what were maybe the last four seats (all together) for the season, and booked our nosebleed cheap seat tickets for March 3.
Because I’m pretty familiar with Hamlet, I thought a Swedish version would be a challenging test of my language skills and, in terms of translation, provide some food for thought. I wasn’t wrong. In fact, I was smarter than I realized to pick a play I already knew well, because my own background knowledge of the story was sometimes the only thing that helped me follow just what was going on despite the very modern language. (Though, sambo mentioned later that he also had problems following what people were saying, so part of it was certainly related to theatrical, dramatic elocution rather than to my poor Swedish. Part of it.)
The translation is a new one by Ulf Peter Wallberg, in the collectionDet blodiga parlementet. I might take a break from everything I’m reading now to dip into this and see if my reading comprehension fares any better than my listening.
Yesterday, Christians across the world celebrated Ascension, known here in Sweden as Kristi himmelsfärsdsdag: the date of Christ’s ascension into heaven on the fortieth day after Easter. Unlike in the United States, Ascension is observed as a national holiday. The religious nature of yesterday (well, not here; Swedes just love an excuse for a long weekend in spring!) got me thinking about all of the expressions we use in English courtesy of Christianity and the Bible, particularly related to the story of Easter.
You’ll find plenty of lists online of “Christian idioms” or “Biblical idioms,” but many of them are more like explanations of outdated language often encountered in the Bible rather than references or turns of phrase still used today. Here are a few, all related to the Easter story, that are still in contemporary use.
A cross to bear
The image of Christ carrying his cross to Golgotha has remained in English as a metaphor for an unpleasant duty to fulfill, or a burden one has to carry. Most commonly misheard, in “kiss this guy” style, as “cross-eyed bear” in Alanis Morisette’s You Oughta Know.
And I’m here to remind you
of the mess you left when you went away.
It’s not fair to deny me
Of the cross I bear that you gave to me.
You, you, you oughta know.
(“It’s not to fair to deny me of the cross I bear…” is a little awkward; it should be “It’s not fair to deny me the cross I bear…” but the extra “of” helps the rhythm so there it is.)
If we want to emphasize that the issue at hand is especially difficult, we might talk about a heavy or difficult cross to bear. Either way, it’s not a bear with eye problems.
When something is a cross to bear, the suggestion is that it’s a life-long issue, or at least for an extended period of time. Managing an addiction, dealing with trauma, getting over a past relationship (as is the case in You Oughta Know), or living with a chronic illness is someone’s cross to bear. A trip to the grocery store when it’s full of people is not a cross to bear. Nor are the heavy groceries you have to carry back home or to the car.
Speaking of crosses, we often use the verb crucify (to be hung from a cross in the Roman style) to describe being the object of public outrage and derision, or of persecution. Generally speaking, crucify is often used to describe the public’s desire to see a figure suffer.
Christ, you know it ain’t easy.
You know how hard it can be.
The way things are going
they’re going to crucify me.
“The Ballad of John and Yoko,” John Lennon
Why do we crucify ourselves
I crucify myself;
nothing I do is good enough for you.
and my heart is sick of being in chains.
“Crucify,” Tori Amos
A doubting Thomas
This is another expression from the story of Easter. Anyone who is skeptical or suspicious can be a doubting Thomas(even a woman!). Here is the story, from the gospel of John:
On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.
Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
Now Thomas (also known as Didymus[a]), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”
A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”
Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”
Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
Thomas’s skepticism earned him the eternal nickname (in English) of “doubting Thomas.” More specifically, a doubting Thomas is someone who requires physical evidence of a belief or assertion rather than just taking it on faith. To call someone a doubting Thomas isn’t necessarily rude, but it’s usually intended in a mildly disparaging manner—like the doubting Thomas is someone who has overly stringent standards, or someone who should learn to trust other people.
“Don’t be such a doubting Thomas! I tried this recipe before and it’s delicious, I promise.”
Now if being a doubting Thomas isn’t an entirely awful thing, being a Judas definitely is. If you’re unfamiliar with the story of Easter, Judas was the disciple who betrayed Christ for 30 silver coins. He’s also anyone who betrays you.
Just like Julius Caesar
was betrayed by Brutus.
Who’d think an accountant
would turn out to be my Judas?
“Betrayed,” from The Producers (Mel Brooks)
To wash your hands of something
This is an image that came to English via the story of Pontius Pilate condemning Christ and has later been reinforced through Shakespeare’s Macbeth. In the Easter story, Pontius Pilate offers the crowd a chance to spare Christ, but they refuse and insist he release Barabbas instead.
Now at the feast the governor was accustomed to releasing to the multitude one prisoner whom they wished. And at that time they had a notorious prisoner called Barabbas. Therefore, when they had gathered together, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release to you? Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?” For he knew that they had handed Him over because of envy.
They said, “Barabbas!”
Pilate said to them, “What then shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?”
They all said to him, “Let Him be crucified!”
Then the governor said, “Why, what evil has He done?”
But they cried out all the more, saying, “Let Him be crucified!”
When Pilate saw that he could not prevail at all, but rather that a tumult was rising, he took water and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, “I am innocent of the blood of this just Person. You see to it.”
And over a thousand years later, Lady Macbeth attempts to wash her hands as a means of assuaging her guilt over the murder of Duncan.
Out, damned spot! Out, I say! … What, will these hands ne’er be clean?
If you wash your hands of something, it means that you no longer wish to be associated with it in any way, and that you no longer wish to have responsibility for it.
This typically happens when you’re completely and totally frustrated with something, or possibly tinged with guilt over it. Since we opened with a lyric from Alanis Morisette, let’s bookend things and close with one, too: Hands Clean.
We’ll fast forward to a few years later
and no one knows except the both of us.
And I have honored your request for silence
And you’ve washed your hands clean of this.