Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark can be analyzed through many critical approaches, positions, and lenses. For instance, it is commonly recognized by critics as one of the most diverse works in English literature. Shakespeare illustrates the topics of feminism, insanity, power, romance, and religion. However, one issue discussed in its pages often goes unnoticed but plays a large role in the mechanics of the plot. The ghost of Hamlet’s Father inspires and persuades major actions in the play and is used to show ideas of spiritual visitation and purgatory. When investigating Hamlet’s religious background ideas on Protestantism and Catholicism commonly come up. These mixed ideas of his religious background are believed to be due to the events of the Protestant Reformation in England during Shakespeare’s life.
Shakespeare’s indecisive approach to Religion
William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, England on April 1564 to John Shakespeare and Mary Arden. According to the historical record, both of Shakespeare’s parents were practicing Roman Catholics. However, after King Henry VIII’s son, Edward VI took power after his father’s death in 1547 at the early age of nine. Due to his young age, the Nation was ruled by a council of regency. Which was controlled mostly by his uncle Edward Seymour (mother’s side of the family). Hiding behind the mask of King Edward VI, Edward Seymour helped add fire to the Protestant Reformation of England. However, when King Edward VI became of age he too showed his devotion to the Protestant faith and pushed the reformation. This created religious persecution for Catholics and more than likely lead to Shakespeare being a closet Catholic. (even though most of the citizens were Catholic) Due to his environment, it can be seen in his writing that he leans between Catholic and Protestant beliefs to suit both audiences.
Shakespeare shows two distinct Catholic beliefs in regards to Purgatory in Hamlet. King Hamlet brings attention to his situation as a time of purging and preparing for entrance into heaven. This idea of purging and preparing for heaven is directly a Catholic belief. After Hamlet asks his father about his situation, he answers:
GHOST: I am thy father’s spirit,
Doomed for a certain term to walk the night
And for the day confined to fast in fires
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away. (1.5.14-18)
His position appears to be explicitly Catholic in that he is confined to roam the night “For a certain term”, which will relieve him of his “Foul crimes… are burnt and purged away.” The ghost even goes as far as explaining his place of confinement as a “prison-house”. Shakespeare uses the idea of Hamlet’s father’s ghost to convey his Catholic beliefs.
King Hamlet’s Ghost can be seen as the main reason for Hamlet’s personal struggle with his religious identity. In the play it is stated by his mother,
QUEEN: Let not thy mother lose her prayers,
Hamlet. I pray thee, stay with us. Go not to Wittenberg. (1.2.122-123)
That he was living and studying in Wittenburg during the time of his father’s death. Wittenburg is the birthplace of the Protestant Reformation. Implying that during his studies he adopted the Protestant Faith. Protestants do not believe in Purgatory but do believe in Angels and Demons. Explaining Hamlet’s line in his soliloquy:
“May be the devil, and the devil hath power
T’ assume a pleasing shape. Yea, and perhaps
Out of my weakness and my melancholy,”
Hamlet’s religious beliefs are seen as only including Angels and Demons. This shows that he could be in fact Protestant, creating a difficult moral question. Will he trust the possible Demon or will he make his own decisions? This moral question drives the plot of the play and ultimately leads to Hamlet’s and the downfall of the kingdom.
Shakespeare’s uses of Allusions to the Bible to describe his present society
In The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Shakespeare used allusions to the bible to directly target Christian audiences in order to share Hamlet’s personal struggle with religion. In the play, Shakespeare uses the biblical story of Cain and Abel to convey the severity of King Claudius’s actions.
KING: O, my offence is rank it smells to heaven;
It hath the primal eldest curse upon ‘t, A brother’s murder .(3.3.40-42)
This is a direct allusion to when Cain leads Abel out into a field to kill him. Similar to the biblical story King Claudius killed his brother King Hamlet out of lust and jealousy.
5 Yet in truth, he did not look with favor on Cain and his gifts. And Cain was vehemently angry, and his countenance fell.
6 And the Lord said to him: ‘Why are you angry? And why is your face fallen?
7 If you behave well, will you not receive it? But if you behave badly, will not sin at once be present at the door? And so its desire will be within you, and you will be dominated by it.’
8 And Cain said to his brother Abel, ‘Let us go outside.’ And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and he put him to death. (Genesis 4:5-8)
The stories of Hamlet and that of Cain and Abel share the common theme that mankind’s actions are shaped by there own personal motivations. This becomes a common theme in the play and begins to becomes yet another factor in Hamlet’s personal struggle with his religion. Due to his desire to avenge his father’s death, he must decide whether to kill and take revenge or follow his faith and go against his own personal motivations.
Shakespeare’s allusion to Cain and Abel can be found throughout the play. While Hamlet was at the graveyard he encounters a gravedigger that is being too rough with the bones. Hamlet responded in outrage, saying:
HAMLET: That skull had a tongue in it and could sing once.
How the knave jowls it to the ground, as if
it were Cain’s jawbone, that did the first murder! (5.1.77-79)
In Hamlet’s response, Shakespeare alludes to the biblical story again. Using it this time to describe that the gravedigger is being too rough with the bones and that only murderers should be treated in that manner. This shows the audience that Hamlet is not a cold-blooded killer but yet sensitive to the idea of how people should be treated after death.