In plays, many outside forces such as geography, other characters, religion, culture, and society play an important role in the development of characters. In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Hamlet’s strong beliefs in Christianity influence his behavior and lead to his internal struggle of action versus inaction and ultimately tragedy.
Hamlet’s Christian beliefs about heaven and hell deter his desire to take revenge for his father’s murder. Upon seeing Claudius’s obviously guilty reaction to the play, Hamlet’s yearning for revenge grows stronger. He finds Claudius praying and draws his sword but hesitates to stab him in the back, saying “And so ‘a goes to heaven, /And so am I revenged. That would be scanned” (Shakespeare 3.3.74-75). Hamlet’s rationale in not murdering Claudius is that if he murders him while he prays then Claudius’s soul will be sent straight to heaven. His reasoning for not killing Claudius in that moment is almost sacrilegious. He hopes to take revenge on Claudius in a more morally compromising position so that he can have him suffer in hell. His thought process is somewhat twisted, and yet is still grounded in the Christian concept of heaven and hell. To truly punish Claudius for murdering his father, Hamlet wishes for him to suffer eternal torment in hell. Hamlet’s hesitancy to exact revenge for his father’s murder is based on his desire to see Claudius suffer.
Even though Hamlet’s beliefs in heaven and hell cause him to falter in taking revenge, his Christian beliefs on incest motivate him. Although Claudius and Gertrude are not related by blood, their relationship is incestuous in Hamlet’s eyes. He expresses his extreme disapproval by saying his mother “married. O, most wicked speed, to post/With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!” (1.2.156-157). Hamlet emphasizes the quickness of their marriage in relation to his father’s death (only a couple months prior) and the comfortability with his mother in performing a heinous sexual act. He views their marriage as an act of betrayal by his mother and finds their physical relationship repulsive. According to Christian religious law, “the marriage of a brother to his deceased brother’s wife was as much an act of incest as if a brother and sister who shared the same mother and father had married” (Hamilton 171). Hamlet’s adherence to his Christian values causes him to vehemently despise their marriage. In addition, what makes Gertrude’s marriage to Claudius more extreme is that it perverts a sacred sacrament in Christianity, the sacrament of marriage (Hamilton 171). Hamlet’s “moral world” comes falling into chaos as he has to deny his mother, who he loves, “all true womanhood” (Snider 68). His mother’s marriage has “touched to the very core the profound ethical nature of Hamlet” and therefore leaves him feeling as though his “family relation is essentially annihilated” (Snider 68). His repulsion to his mother’s marriage, specifically as an opposition to Christian law and a destroyer of family relations, influences him to take revenge for his father’s murder.
The only other person with this viewpoint in the entirety of the play is King Hamlet, who is Hamlet’s biggest influence in acting but also causes some initial hesitation. Upon initially seeing the Ghost, Hamlet thinks that it is “not the ghost of his father, but an evil spirit taking on the earthly form of his father for its own malicious purposes” (Rea 208). Hamlet’s Christian beliefs and upbringing is what leads him to his thought process. When Hamlet and the Ghost are alone, the Ghost convinces Hamlet that he is truly his father. Yet when Hamlet is alone again, he begins having doubts and questions himself saying that “The spirit that [he has] seen/May be the devil” (2.2.610-611). The Ghost wants Hamlet to commit an extremely heinous crime-the murder of a king-and if the devil lures him with false pretenses then Hamlet’s soul would be captured (Rea 213). Hamlet decides that he cannot solely rely on the Ghost’s word and needs more proof before acting. Hamlet ends up deciding to host a play in order to test the Ghost’s validity. Once the Ghost is proven correct, Hamlet becomes extremely willing to take revenge. This inclination to believe his father comes from Hamlet’s idolization of him. Hamlet compares him to many Greek gods and that compared to Claudius he is “So excellent a king…Hyperion to a satyr” (1.2.139-140). The comparison to Hyperion, the god of heavenly light, showcases the exaggerated image that he has of his father. Because of his idolization of his father, King Hamlet’s testimony to his own murder directs the entire course of the play; his testimony is Hamlet’s main driving force (Snider 69). King Hamlet specifically mentions that the reason Prince Hamlet needs to “revenge his foul and most unnatural murder” is not only because Claudius is a murderer but because Claudius is “an incestuous…adulterate beast” by having physical relations with Gertrude (1.5.42). So not only are Hamlet’s Christian beliefs driving him against his uncle and mother’s relationship, but the voice of his father is as well. King Hamlet “gives pathos to Hamlet [and] furnishes the basis of his action” (Snider 69). Although Hamlet’s faith in his father initially wavers, he eventually believes him, and the Ghost becomes Hamlet’s main motivator in taking revenge.
Hamlet’s Christian upbringing leads to his internal struggle of whether he should take revenge or not. His beliefs about heaven and hell cause him to not only hesitate in killing Claudius but question the validity of his father’s Ghost. However, Hamlet’s abhorrence to his mother’s incestuous marriage, which is perpetuated by his father’s disgust as well, and the Ghost’s insistence on taking revenge provoke him into action. Ultimately, the play ends in the tragic death of all the main characters.