Some vicious mole, some habit,
the stamp of one defect—
“David wrote a letter,
and sent it by the hand of Uriah” —2 Samuel 11:14
At times in Shakespeare, we find ourselves surprised by a sudden and unexpected philosophical turn. Yet, such is part of the Shakespearean magic. There is more here than entertainment or intrigue or laughter. Indeed, the famous words, to be or not to be, open such a philosophical question. Contrary to popular interpretations, Hamlet is not discussing suicide but rather the meaning of life and the struggle against evil. In this article, however, we will be analyzing words from a different scene.
The dram of eale, a well-known scene in Hamlet, proffers a disturbing philosophical turn of the inner workings of evil. The discussion is brief, covering only a few lines, but those few lines sound unseen depths about the rotting of the soul and of everything that soul touches.
In the play, the backdrop to this philosophical turn is that of a drunken festival in which the royal court overwhelmingly approves and engages. Horatio, a university student of Hamlet’s, is surprised at the debauchery unfolding before him; “What does this mean, my lord? Is it a custom?” Hamlet responds by saying the custom would be more honored in its breach than in its observance. The phrase, dram of eale, comes at the end of Hamlet’s answer to Horatio. In between are brief philosophical glimpses of the insidious nature of evil. Our focus, though, is on the immediate meaning of the words, dram of eale.
To be sure, dram of eale is a perplexing phrase with a syntax that is equally perplexing. Yet, the ambiguity of the phrasing seems quite deliberate. The words may seem elusive, but the context is clear enough. Whatever Hamlet is saying must have some reference to Horatio’s question. Given the context of a drunken festival, dram of eale probably should be understood as a small drink of evil with eale having both the indeterminate sound of ale and ail (evil). Seemingly, Shakespeare wants us to hear both words at once. In the drinking of ale, Horatio was also seeing the drinking in of ail (or, evil). The ale and drunkenness may have been obvious, but the insidiousness of evil was not.
The mere drinking of ale, though, was not the problem. The resulting intoxication and accompanying irrationality are but symbols of something far more sinister. Like the drinking of ale, the dram or small drink of evil deposits corruption within the man. Just as what we eat and drink becomes us, the dram of evil also becomes us. Evil works from within; its beginnings are but a dram. From the acorn grows the oak. From the dram grows the vile decay.
Elsewhere we read of a thirst for evil, of evil being swallowed eagerly and naturally as if it were water (Job 15:16). Like a shipwrecked man drinking in seawater, his thirst can never be quenched by what he drinks. The more seawater he drinks, the worse his thirst grows until complete madness sets in. Coleridge’s well-known refrain, water, water everywhere, depicts such a scene. In his The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the albatross is hung about the neck—
And a thousand thousand slimy things
Lived on; and so did I.
I looked upon the rotting sea,
And drew my eyes away;
I looked upon the rotting deck,
And there the dead men lay.
Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink.
Once within us, the evil we have imbibed begins the rotting of our very soul. We drink in seawater. At first, the decay may seem imperceptible, even gradual, a mere dram of evil. However, like the soul that is hidden even from ourselves, the corruption works its harm unnoticed and in silence. We may have only pecked at the cup, but the evil we swallowed began a horrid destiny not to be denied. “A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump” (Gal. 5:9). It does not take much for the poison of rot to take hold.
Rot may have small beginnings, but rot always eats its way from within. Other phrases used by Hamlet likewise depict the unnoticed incipience of evil. He further explains to Horatio that evil begins like a mole, or outward blemish. Like some vicious birthmark, this small defect eventually undermines all of a man’s defenses and even his virtues—
Some vicious mole of nature in them, as in their birth . . .
The o’ergrowth of some complexion,
Oft breaking down the pales and forts of reason . . .
Some habit too much o’erleavens . . . that these men—
Carrying, I say, the stamp of one defect . . .
Their virtues else– be they as pure as grace . . .
Shall in the general censure take corruption
From that particular fault. . . . (I.iv.24-35)
T his notion of evil undermining the good we may do in life can be easily traced in the story of David and Bathsheba. His illicit affair not only led to more and more heinous evil, but even besmirched every good David had done in life. Admittedly, David boldly confessed his sin and took all responsibility for what he had done on himself, but this one defect of character followed him all his life to the grave. The adultery with Bathsheba changed his life and set in motion a course of evil that would have been unthinkable just days before. We remember David as the boy who killed Goliath. We remember David as the man who exhibited nobleness toward an unworthy Saul. We remember David for his words, “The LORD is my shepherd.” We also remember David for his adultery with Bathsheba. In fact, for many people, David and Bathsheba, are more easily said than the words, David and Goliath. When we think of David, we cannot help but think of Bathsheba.
The language and the details of the adulterous affair are related with a perfunctory, cold tone. With the exception of Bathsheba’s brief grieving over her dead husband, there is no human emotion whatsoever.
David sees a naked woman at night, he summons her, he commits adultery with her and later has her husband killed in battle in an effort to cover up an unwanted pregnancy. Admittedly, Scripture often depicts the failures of a character in an objective way, relating both the good and the bad the character may have done. To paraphrase Cromwell, warts and all are in the story alike. Nothing is painted over.
However, in the story of David and Bathsheba, the incident should have been charged with some passion and moments of panic. Yet, the sacred record conspicuously omits emotion from the narrative. Even the lusts of David for Bathsheba become impersonal, and distant, and unfeeling. A cursory reading of the highlights of the story makes the perfunctory tone even more apparent—
|The Adultery Narrative
2 Samuel 11:1-27
|David tarried still at Jerusalem. 2And it came to pass in an eveningtide, that David arose from off his bed, and walked upon the roof of the king’s house: and from the roof he saw a woman washing herself; and the woman was very beautiful to look upon.
4And David sent messengers, and took her; and she came in unto him, and he lay with her; for she was purified from her uncleanness: and she returned unto her house.
5And the woman conceived, and sent and told David, and said, I am with child. 6And David sent to Joab, saying, Send me Uriah the Hittite.
8And David said to Uriah, Go down to thy house. 9But Uriah slept at the door of the king’s house with all the servants of his lord, and went not down to his house.
14And it came to pass in the morning, that David wrote a letter to Joab, and sent it by the hand of Uriah.
18Then Joab sent and told David all the things concerning the war. . . . 23And the messenger said unto David, The men prevailed against us. Some of the king’s servants be dead, and thy servant Uriah the Hittite is dead also.
26And when the wife of Uriah heard that Uriah her husband was dead, she mourned for her husband. 27And when the mourning was past, David sent and fetched her to his house, and she became his wife, and bare him a son. But the thing that David had done displeased the LORD.
F rom the record we know that Bathsheba mourned her husband, and that the LORD was displeased with how David had acted. Other than these two passing reference to emotion, nothing else is said. Bathsheba herself is mentioned by name only once and that at that at the start of the narrative. All other references to her are impersonal: “a woman washing herself,” ‘the woman conceived,” “the wife of Uriah,” “David sent and fetched her, and she became his wife.” The impersonal tone might lead us to think that Bathsheba submitted to David because she had no other choice. After all, he was king and as such had absolute authority. However, the sacred text does suggest some sense of willingness on the part of Bathsheba. David sent for her, but “she came in unto him, and he lay with her” (2 Sam. 11:4). Bathsheba did not merely enter the king’s chamber, rather “she came in unto him.” The implication is important here. The following independent clause depicts the adultery itself, “he lay with her.” The syntax is rather intriguing. Indeed, you might say that the two clauses are joined together in the same way that Bathsheba and David were joined together. David’s lust brought her to him, but something other than naked lust caused her to give herself to David: “she came in unto him.” From a rhetorical perspective, the two joined clauses form a chiasmus—
A she came in
B unto him,
B and he lay
A with her
Since Bathsheba is mentioned both at the opening and close, she is on the periphery, but the two references to David are both in the center. David is at the core of what is being said. Bathsheba may have come in unto him, but he has the greater fault. David summoned her. David lay with her. David was the king. The appeal to David about her pregnancy illustrates that the power belonged to David, not Bathsheba. The LORD was displeased with David for what David had done.
The loyal devotion of Uriah, however, stands in marked contrast to Bathsheba’s and David’s infidelity. After being summoned from battle, Uriah slept at the foot of David’s door along with servants of the king. By abstaining himself from his wife, Uriah broadcast his commitment to David and to others who fought on the battlefield for David. Uriah, of course, would have understood that the risk of battle might mean that he would never be with Bathsheba again. Neither that risk, nor the contrived underhanded maneuverings by David could deter him. Ultimately, David orchestrated the death of Uriah, but the battle strategy also resulted in the death of a number of other soldiers, soldiers who, like Uriah, probably had wives and families at home.
When the tragic outcome of the battle is announced to David, the death of Uriah the Hittite is mentioned last of all. Indeed, only Uriah is mentioned by name as a casualty of the battle. It was as if David only wanted to hear that Uriah had died in the attack. The fact that others had also died seemingly did not interest David. Elsewhere in Samuel we find a catalogue of the valiant men of David, and at the end of that list of honor, we again find the name of Uriah the Hittite
(2 Samuel 23:39). Uriah was faithful to his wife. Uriah was faithful to his king even in his death.
Adultery had made David’s heart calloused. The sinister plan David had implemented was for David’s sake, not for Bathsheba’s. At this point, David may have thought that he was in control, but the death on the battlefield of innocent men clearly pointed in another direction. David could plan, he could plot, he could maneuver, but he could not control the course that evil would follow: “When lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death” (James 1:15).
After Uriah had died, Bathsheba fulfilled the mandatory days of grief required by divine law, and then immediately afterwards became David’s wife. Unless she married quickly, her unexpected pregnancy could expose both her and David. Whether David ever reflected on what he had done, the narrative does not say, but for almost a year or longer, David lived what seemed a normal life. From the Psalms we learn that David’s sin was ever before him (51:3). In due time, God sent Nathan to confront David: “Thou art the man . . . Thus saith the LORD, Behold, I will raise up evil against thee out of thine own house” (2 Sam. 12:7, 11).
Such is a brief synopsis of the evil David caused against another man, and of an impending evil to be unleashed by God against David. However, if we look at what happened from the perspective of a dram of eale, we might come closer to understanding both David as well as ourselves. How can we account for what happened? We may be stunned by the suddenness of what transpired. Sin always takes a man further than he ever intended. It may be easy for us to see David’s faults, but we need to remember that his downfall is not as unique as we might like to think. “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).
Perhaps, most of us would say that looking at the nakedness of Bathsheba as she bathed at night resulted in the adultery that followed and in the evil that followed the adultery. Admittedly, the passion of the moment stole David’s reason. Overcome by what he saw, David wanted her. We might dismiss everything as impulsive passion of the moment. If David had turned his head rather than looking upon her naked beauty, the story would have undoubtedly turned out very different. The passion of the moment overcame David, and he became reckless, but passion alone is not his dram of evil.
Mere sensual excitement by itself cannot explain all of David’s rash behavior. Bathsheba may have been beautiful and may have been naked, but she was at a distance from David. She was beyond his physical reach. What this means is that between David and Bathsheba were both time and distance. If a sudden urge to sleep with her unaccountably leaped into his mind, David had a number of openings to escape the seduction in his soul. He did not know her name. He did not know that she was married. He did not know that she was the wife of Uriah. Such disclosures should have given David pause. Also, since David had to send for her, some brief moments of time had to have elapsed. Bathsheba was not immediately and magically in front of him. David may have been overcome by what he saw, but David had a chance to think the matter through. Certainly, sheer passion of the moment is part of David’s adultery, but it is not the whole of his adultery.
Someone might argue that having a harem must have led to a growing lust within David. Granted, David did have a number of wives. However, there is nothing to suggest a core licentious behavior in David. The facts of the case are David had an affair with one woman on one night. Unless we have misread the sacred record, he did not repeatedly sleep with Bathsheba. What he did was wrong, but what he did was totally out of character for David.
Neither can the adultery with Bathsheba be accounted for on the basis of any sensual need. Again, David had a number of wives, so physical craving, however strong, could have easily been assuaged. David was not in some foreign land thousands of miles away from a wife. Nor was David in a bad marriage, defrauded by some internal struggle with a spiteful wife, attempting to force him into the arms of another woman. Rather, David was at home and among familiar surroundings and in a protected environment. If anything, life seemed mundane. During the siege of Rabbah, David inexplicably stayed behind in Jerusalem:
After the year was expired, at the time when kings go forth to battle . . . David tarried still at Jerusalem.
—2 Samuel 11:1
Nor can the age of David fully explain his adultery. David probably was in his fifties when he first encountered Bathsheba. At least, a chronology of his life would seem to suggest something like that. Did the nakedness of a younger woman somehow appeal to David’s awareness of his loss of youth? In committing adultery with her was David trying to stay the inevitable onset of growing older? After all, we all have seen the comical hairstyles of a balding man in a futile attempt to hide what is clearly obvious. Sometimes the hair is parted just above the ear, and then thrown across the scalp in frayed strands. Perhaps the younger Bathsheba made David feel younger. Rather than fulfilling a physical need in David, Bathsheba may have fulfilled a psychological need. This seems plausible enough. And yet, if such were the case, we cannot account why David acted on a whim. Outside of the illicit affair with Bathsheba, there is nothing to suggest that he was enamored of younger women. Indeed, if David needed a younger woman to make him feel younger, left unexplained is why he needed this particular woman on this particular night. His adultery with Bathsheba was a careless, almost inexplicable act. Such considerations lead us to a very different conclusion.
The dram of eale, or character defect, did not begin that calm spring night. Something other than adultery brought the adultery about. In fact, if we review Nathan’s words, we are given some insight into why David acted as he did. God looks at the heart. God understands what happened and the motive behind what happened. What is of particular interest here is that the LORD never directly mentions adultery. This seems puzzling. What God does mention, though, is the aftermath of the adultery as well as an attitude deep within David. Let’s look at some of the words—
I anointed thee king over Israel, and I delivered thee out of the hand of Saul; And I gave thee thy master’s house, and thy master’s wives into thy bosom, and gave thee the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would moreover have given unto thee such and such things.
Thou despised the commandment of the LORD, to do evil . . . thou hast killed Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and hast taken his wife to be thy wife. . . thou hast despised me, and hast taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be thy wife . . . By this deed thou hast given great occasion to the enemies of the LORD to blaspheme.
—2 Samuel 12:7-10, 14
God had made David king, had protected David from Saul, but in response David had disregarded God. Clearly, David had taken another man’s wife to be his wife for no other reason than as king, David could do as he wished. Pride goeth before a fall. David fell for pride before he fell for Bathsheba. Swayed by the trappings of being king, David momentarily set aside God, and in that brief moment, a dram of evil took hold of his soul. That evil grew quickly and raged decisively. After all, hubris is far more destructive than adultery. Yet, the adultery with Bathsheba exhibited an undeniable ruthless exercise of power. Being able to wield absolute power can corrupt any man, and in this sense, David was no exception. David was becoming like his unstable predecessor, Saul. Saul had tried to retain himself as king even after God had rejected him. The power of wanting to remain king eventually drove Saul into madness and ever increasing desperation. His obsession with killing David was as much as obsession as it was an affront toward God. God had rejected Saul, but Saul had other plans. Saul would be king regardless. The lure of power had that much control over him. David, of course, never exhibited the obsession of Saul, but his adultery does suggest something other than adultery.
Consider the narrative told by Nathan. David was outraged by what he believed to have been a legal case presented for him to render judgment. The story that evoked the famous line, Thou art the man, is the story of two men, one with many flocks, and one with a small ewe lamb. David was the man with the abundance; Uriah, the man with one lamb which lay in his bosom and drank of his own cup. Compared to David, Uriah had little in life, but he loved Bathsheba deeply. She was all he had. David had not fallen in love with Bathsheba and then later, committed adultery. David saw Bathsheba, summoned Bathsheba, and took Bathsheba to be his wife at the cost of Uriah’s life. The story Nathan told to David has a touch of decided cruelty. David exploded at the perceived effrontery the scenario depicted—
As the LORD liveth, the man that hath done this thing shall surely die . . . because he did this thing, and because he had no pity. —2 Samuel 12:5, 6
The irony here is that David ordered the execution of an accused man without even knowing the name of the man, or hearing the man’s defense. He sentenced the man to death without a judicial hearing of the facts of the case, rendering an irrevocable verdict with an oath. What we notice is that David rashly took an oath just as he had rashly taken Bathsheba months earlier. In neither instance did David pause to calculate what he was doing. As we noted earlier, his adultery with Bathsheba is described with an air of aloofness, indifference, and unimportance. Like the dictum of Caesar— veni, vedi, veci, David came, David saw, David conquered.
Self-importance has destroyed many a soul. As we noted earlier, Saul, for instance, could not allow himself to abdicate the crown even though God had renounced him as king. The power to govern had a grip on his soul that could not be released. Saul was very much aware that impending disaster awaited him. Seemingly, he could not change course. Once having tasted absolute power, he could not return to the quiet life. With David, we somehow understand his affair with Bathsheba as human frailty. Not that we condone David, but we can understand how someone can become involved with another woman. With Saul, though, we encounter something very different. The lust for power is more of a spiritual malady and therefore, much more diabolical and ruinous. If the lust of the flesh is a sin of the flesh, the lust for power is a sin of the soul.
We make a mistake, though, if we suppose that the two regimes are not somehow interconnected. The lust of the flesh may differ from the pride of life, but the two share a common bond. In either case, a rotting soul is the end result. Nor should we suppose that adultery and the lust for power are necessarily mutually exclusive. Indeed, some men commit adultery as a display of raw power over another human being. In some convoluted and malevolent way, such men find gratification in knowing that they have broken a woman’s heart, destroyed her marriage, and mocked her husband. David was not a man bent on causing pain. His adultery happened more as result of an unrestrained whim than anything else. Yet, David summoned Bathsheba and just as easily dismissed her when he had finished with her. As king, David exercised absolute power, a power that holy Scripture describes in very chilling terms—
He doeth whatsoever pleaseth him. Where the word of a king is, there is power: and who may say unto him, What doest thou? — Ecclesiastes 8:3, 4
When Nathan confronted David, he must have done so at the risk of his own life.
Perhaps, this bond between adultery and the lust for power can be illustrated in another way. An article in a magazine from Mexico once featured men in front of a brothel, the prostitutes attempting to cover their bare breasts with their hands, the men, holding up the prostitute’s face for the camera much as a hunter might hold up a kill after a hunt. The women were embarrassed; the men, proud of the humiliation they could inflict—
So I returned, and considered all the oppressions that are done under the sun: and behold the tears of such as were oppressed, and they had no comforter; and on the side of their oppressors there was power; but they had no comforter. —Ecclesiastes 4:1
The men in the photograph sought to break the women even further. They wanted to publicly display the faces of the women so that all hope of any respectable marriage would be forever erased. They had purchased the woman as if she had been a meal served on some disposable plate. Having eaten their fill, they now would throw the plate into the trash and do so with contempt.
It is to David’s credit that he did not display the cruelty of such base men. It is to David’s credit that when confronted by Nathan, David confessed his sin, never once blaming others, never once excusing himself for what he had caused. It is to David’s credit that he never complained, not even once, of the divine retribution imposed on him. Unlike Cain, David never said, “My punishment is greater than I can bear” (Genesis 4:13). The story of David is the story of a good man gone wrong. The story of David is the story of hope for any man. David is described as a man after God’s own heart and for good reason. We are never told when God made that pronouncement whether before the adultery, or afterward. That is hidden from us. What is not hidden is the story of David’s fall and of the God who would not ignore what David had done, either evil or good.
“The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit:
A broken and a contrite heart,
O God, thou wilt not despise.”