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Analyzing the Theme of Religion in William Shakespeare's "Hamlet"

Updated on April 4, 2017
Luke Holm profile image

Luke works as a middle school English, ELD, social justice, and mindfulness teacher in the sanctuary city, San Jose, CA.

Introduction to William Shakespeare's "Hamlet"

Our story begins with a “nipping and an eager air” (I.iv.2). A season of “twelf” draws near and a spirit stalks the night outside Elsinore Castle, Denmark. Hamlet, a young prince soon to be bound by a mission from the grave, waits in anticipation of his father. His father–not a man, but a ghost–enters and reveals a revelation to Hamlet. This revelation will call forth all filial piety Hamlet can muster. Hamlet’s mission, if he so chooses to accept, is to avenge his father’s death. For the revelation the ghost gives witness to is treachery; “Murther! / The serpent that did sting thy father’s life / Now wears his crown” (I.v. 26, 38-39).

Overview: "Hamlet" by William Shakespeare

Hamlet, written by William Shakespeare, is a tragedy concerning a young prince named Hamlet and his quest to avenge his father’s death. One cold night, Hamlet is told by an apparition claiming to be his father that Hamlet’s Uncle Claudius murdered King Hamlet. From that point on, Hamlet dedicates himself to this revenge. However, Hamlet, an intellectual and thoughtful actor, displays a hesitance to commit such a mortal sin. What is the reason for Hamlet’s hesitance? Does Hamlet merely feign intellectual reasoning (as an actor might), or is there a deeper problem that troubles him?

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Religious Revelations and the Stifling of Hamlet's Revenge

In Ivor Morris’ review of religion in Shakespeare’s tragedies, he states, “A religious consciousness and potentiality is thus to be seen at work in Hamlet; yet by no stretch of the imagination can it be said that the play reveals him throughout as a man of faith” (405).

I disagree. In my essay, I will argue that Hamlet’s hesitance to avenge his father’s death comes from something deeper than meditation on another man’s life, a sort of faith. I will use three scenes in Shakespeare’s Hamlet to establish that the reason for Hamlet’s hesitance is religion and the fear of his own eternal damnation in hellfire. First, I will ascertain that Hamlet is indeed religious. Second, I will state how religion stifles Hamlet’s revenge. Third, I will conclude that once religion and eternal damnation are no longer a factor, Hamlet is capable of finishing the task his father destined him to fulfill. In the end, I hope to provide strong evidence that shows it is religion that stifles Hamlet’s attempts of revenge, not his own melancholic status.

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Hamlet as a Religious Character

First, I will ascertain that Hamlet is indeed religious. Religious intention throughout Shakespeare’s plays has made Shakespeare’s own views a bit vague. For instance, critics have come to many different conclusions about Hamlet’s religious content. It seems that, in Hamlet, there is a mixture of old and new religious connotations. Shakespeare’s play creates a dichotomy between religious and secular world views. In the play, it seems as though Shakespeare uses religious references where the Ghost is made to represent Roman Catholicism and Hamlet to represent Protestantism.

During Ghost and Hamlet’s conversation, the audience is led to think that the ghost is stuck in a type of purgatory. Hamlet’s father is, “Doomed for a certain term to walk the night, / And for the day confin’d to fast in fires, / Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature / Are burnt and purg’d away” (I.v.10-13).

The American Heritage Dictionary defines “purgatory” as “Roman Catholic Church; A state in which the souls of those who have died in grace must expiate their sins.” Mark Matheson argues Hamlet’s father is Roman Catholic when he states, “He has gone to his death ‘unhouseled’ and ‘unaneled’ (I.77)–that is, without benefit of the Eucharist and extreme unction--introduces a language that is unambiguously Roman Catholic” (384). If Hamlet’s father is religious, then we may surmise that Hamlet is also religious.

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Hamlet is Protestant

While it may be determined that Hamlet’s father was a Roman Catholic, Matheson states, “The feudal Catholic world ... cannot provide Hamlet with a secure identity or an ideological basis for action” (389). If Hamlet is not viewed as a Roman Catholic, what, then, is his religious denomination? The answer becomes clear when we look closely at the text. As a student of Wittenberg, it is most likely that Hamlet was Protestant. Wittenberg is the university where Protestant reformation leader Martin Luther posted his ninety-five theses. Since Wittenberg is home to the Protestant movement, it is most likely that Hamlet is Protestant.

Later in the play, Hamlet further defines himself as a Protestant when he says to Horatio, “Not a whit, we defy augury. There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be [now], ‘tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it [will] come–the readiness is all” (V.ii.219-22). When Hamlet speaks of a “special providence in the fall of a sparrow,” he is most likely recollecting a lecture he was taught at Wittenberg. Matheson states, “By alluding to this text, Hamlet projects the vision of a creation governed in every detail by the divine will” (394). In the Bible, Matthew 10:29 speaks of Christ’s followers as more important than any sparrow. Since God is present even at the fall of a sparrow, he will most assuredly be with a follower of Christ. Since Hamlet is a Protestant, he believes that his soul will be annexed to God’s holy multitude upon his death.

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Hamlet Crippled by Religious Confrontation

As we further scrutinize the scene between Hamlet and Ghost, it becomes clear that Hamlet is not invincible to religious anxiety. It may be possible that people during Hamlet’s days had vague lines between reality and myth, but once again, Shakespeare directly alludes to religious references when Hamlet exclaims to the Ghost, “Be thou a spirit of health, or a goblin damn’d / Bring with thee airs from heaven, or blasts from hell” (I.iv.41-41). Not only does Hamlet have trouble distinguishing the ghost between angel, demon, or father, he does so by directly asking which religious realm it hails from.

While Hamlet never gets a direct answer as to what the ghost is, Robert West, author of "King Hamlet’s Ambiguous Ghost", feels that “the ghost really is Hamlet's murdered father, dramatically turning the tables on his perfidious brother and tragically involving his loving son” (1116).

As Hamlet is tragically involved, we see his anxiety and depression grow throughout the play. Matheson makes the claim that, “the way Hamlet responds to the edict suggests that for him it carries the residual force of a religious obligation” (384). If Hamlet’s interaction with his father’s ghost was filled with religious references and duty, it must be concluded, then, that Hamlet is indeed religious. Furthermore, it seems as though his conversation with his father was based completely within a dichotic religious context.

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Religion Frustrates Hamlet's Revenge

As we move from conversation to inner turmoil, we begin to see how Hamlet is stifled not because of his own brooding and passionate ways, but moreover because of his religious background and filial piety. The second scene I will discuss is when King Claudius is feeling remorse for the sins he has committed and appears to be praying for forgiveness. In this scene, the audience discovers much of where Hamlet’s hesitation to avenge his father’s murder comes from. As Hamlet is given the perfect opportunity to take revenge, he is stopped, not by his own love for human life, but by religion.

At the end of Act III, Scene III, Hamlet has reached the pinnacle of religious confusion. As he passes Claudius, he wonders, “Now might I do it [pat], now ‘a is a-praying; / And now I’ll do’t–and so ‘a goes to heaven, / And so am I [reveng’d]. That would be scann’d: / A villain kills my father, and for that / I, his sole son, do the same villain send / To haven” (III.iii.73-78).

Here, Hamlet is in quite a quagmire. As he plots of stabbing Claudius, he does not want him to have the possibility of purgatory with his father (since Hamlet now may believe in purgatory because of the apparition he previously encountered). Instead, Roy Battenhouse, author of "The Ghost in Hamlet: A Catholic “Linchpin", states, “He wants to send Claudius to hell, in order to revenge adequately the ‘audit’ the father faces, an audit which Hamlet thinks stands ‘heavy with him’” (176). Not only does this scene get Hamlet questioning his father’s ultimate placement in religious realms–“And how his audit stands who knows save heaven?” (III.iv.82), his uncle’s ultimate destiny– “As hell, whereto it goes” (III.iv.95), but also his own ultimate destiny.

A Religious and Spiritual Conundrum

Here, Hamlet must face the judgments of his own religious doctrine. Can Hamlet murder another man for revenge and still attain peace in heaven? Was Hamlet’s father’s ghost really his father, or was it some demon twisting and playing with Hamlet’s ultimate fate? This confusion currently comes from the religion that is preventing Hamlet from fulfilling his father’s task. However, it also coincides with Hamlet’s earlier soliloquy about life and death when he questions, “To grunt and sweat under a weary life, / But that the dread of something after death, / The undiscover’d country, from whose bourn / No traveller returns, puzzles the will” (III.i.76-79).

So far, everything Hamlet was taught about religion and what he has experienced are quite opposites. On one hand, Hamlet is taught, as a Protestant, that there is no such thing as purgatory. On the other, Hamlet has experienced a ghost who seems to be in a purgatory-like state, and who is his father nonetheless. Because of all this religious confusion, Hamlet misses his opportunity to kill Claudius. Religion, it might be said, is the ultimate reason for Hamlet’s demise.

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Heaven and Hell, Life and Death

Why is religion the reason for Hamlet’s demise, one might ask? Since Hamlet was stifled by religion in his initial killing of Claudius, Claudius lives on and eventually plot’s Hamlet’s death. If Hamlet would never have thought that killing Claudius while he was praying would send him to heaven, he would have avenged his father’s death at that very moment. Alas, Hamlet chose to wait until a more ideal moment so that he can guarantee Claudius’ descending journey into hell.

While Hamlet is waiting, he commits a mortal sin by accidentally killing Polonius (possibly sending Hamlet’s soul to hell), and meanwhile makes time for Claudius to plot Hamlet’s death. After Hamlet kills Polonius, Laertes then wants to avenge his father’s death by taking revenge against Hamlet. This allows for both Claudius and Laertes to plot Hamlet’s death together.

Hamlet Overcomes Religious Barriers

As treachery is again formulated against royal blood, we move to one of the final scenes in Hamlet, Act V, Scene II. In this scene, it can be argued that Hamlet is taken out of the world of thought and religion. Once he no longer thinks of religion, he is able to finally fulfill his father’s request.

After Gertrude drinks from the poisoned cup, Hamlet discovers that the fight he is partaking in has all been an elaborate hoax to lure him into his own death. Hamlet cries, “O villainy! Ho, let the door be lock’d! / Treachery! Seek it out” (III.ii.311-12). Laertes then announces, “It is here, Hamlet. [Hamlet,] thou art slain. No med’cine in the world can do thee good” (III.ii.313-14). In Hamlet’s dying rage, he sees that his mother has also fallen to the hands of villainy. Finally, he comes to a point where he is affected by neither religious thought nor persuasion.

With his head clear, he charges his uncle and fulfills his long time quest for revenge by stabbing Claudius and saying, “The point envenom’d too! / Then, venom, to thy work” (III.ii.321-22). Once Hamlet’s task has been completed, he may then again turn back toward religion. Right before Hamlet dies, he makes amends with Laertes, stating, “”Heaven make thee free of it! I follow thee” (III.ii.332).

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Revenge in the Wake of Religious Reflection

In conclusion, it seems quite plausible that religion is indeed what slows Hamlet’s movements toward revenge throughout the play. Discovering first that his father was possibly Roman Catholic and that Hamlet was Protestant, the play begins with good religious connotations that surrounded the characters.

Then, as Hamlet mustered up the courage to finally do his dirty deed, we saw religion again stifling Hamlet’s attempts. In the scene where Claudius is “praying,” Hamlet does not avenge his father’s death because he is confused by dichotomous religious standards that present themselves throughout the rest of the play.

Finally, we learned that as soon as the realm of thought and religion are no longer a factor in Hamlet’s life, he is ready and able to take revenge against King Claudius. In the end of the play, Hamlet feels as though his filial piety has been completed. He makes amends with Laertes, and ascends upward into the grace of heaven.

Works Cited

Battenhouse, Roy W. "The Ghost in "Hamlet": A Catholic "Linchpin"?" Studies in Philology 48.2 (1951): 161-92.

Matheson, Mark. "Hamlet and "A Matter Tender and Dangerous"" Shakespeare Quarterly 46.4 (1995): 383-97.

Morris, Ivor. Shakespeare's God The role of religion in the tragedies (Routledge Library Editions: Shakespeare). New York: Routledge, 2005. Print.

Pickett, Joseph P., ed. "Purgatory." The American Heritage Dictionary. 4th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2007.

Shakespeare, William. “Hamlet.” Riverside Shakespeare. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.

West, Robert H. "King Hamlet's Ambiguous Ghost." PMLA 70.5 (1955): 1107-117.

Crash Course: Hamlet

© 2017 Luke Holm

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    • Luke Holm profile image
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      Luke Holm 8 months ago

      Thanks, Sakina. I think Hamlet is my favorite Shakespearean play. He's such a brooding sort, very relatable for me. I learned this argument in college, so I'd be interested to hear what other professors have to say on the subject. Thanks again :)

    • SakinaNasir53 profile image

      Sakina Nasir 8 months ago from Kuwait

      Great job with this Luke. Loved it and I have been studying Shakespeare plays too, for college. If I have to study Hamlet some day, I will refer to your hub. :) You have explained everything and thanks for sharing this with us.

    • Luke Holm profile image
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      Luke Holm 8 months ago

      Paula, thank you so much for the kind review. This was, in fact, inspired from a group discussion back in college. Shakespeare is sometimes so difficult to access, I really enjoyed making this easy to understand (for myself and my audience). I'm glad you enjoyed it :)

    • fpherj48 profile image

      Paula 8 months ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

      Luke.....Fascinating critique. It has been so very long ago I'd been involved with studying and analyzing Shakespeare's classic works, I found this enlightening. Group-type discussions of this nature are always intellectually stimulating.....(especially when we aren't under the pressure of working toward a grade!! :)

      This is beautifully presented. Thank you. Paula