Religion in Hamlet

Religion in Hamlet
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  • 0:03 Shakespeare and Religion
  • 0:50 Religion and Hamlet:…
  • 1:57 Religious Beliefs of…
  • 5:14 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Lucy Barnhouse
Shakespeare's nuanced treatment of religion in Hamlet has been the subject of much scholarly debate. This lesson discusses the apparent convictions of the play's characters and their implications for the drama and how it was perceived by Shakespeare's first audiences.

Shakespeare and Religion

Both William Shakespeare's own religious views and his treatment of religion in his plays have been the subject of much scholarly investigation. In sixteenth-century England, the English Reformation and its aftermath caused great upheaval, as successive monarchs embraced opposing religious practices. Queen Elizabeth, during whose reign Hamlet was written, forged compromises. Members of the Church of England were privileged, but many Roman Catholics practiced in secret, and very many people, regardless of confessional identity, were confused about correct belief. And getting religion right wasn't just a matter of politics or preference; it was a matter affecting the immortal soul. As we shall see, Elizabethan ideas and anxieties about religion are reflected in Hamlet.

Religion and Hamlet: Theories and Themes

Typical of Shakespeare's works, Hamlet does not articulate a single set of beliefs but rather several different positions, dramatizing religious debates. Shakespeare could even be seen as poking a bit of fun at academic debates on theology when Hamlet famously says to his friend from university, 'There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / than are dreamt of in your philosophy' (1.5.187-88, Folger edition).

The question of free will is central to the drama of the play. Hamlet's intense self-examination becomes more understandable in this light. Hamlet clearly has a strong sense of moral responsibility to himself, as well as to others. Also central to the play are the reality of death and the question of what - if anything - comes after it. The ghost of Hamlet's father speaks of being in purgatory, forced to atone after death for his sins. His suffering is in part attributable to the fact that he was murdered without a chance to confess, giving Hamlet an added motive for revenge. Hamlet's reactions to the ghost reveal a complicated worldview in which Christianity and folk belief are not entirely separate.

Religious Beliefs of Hamlet's Characters

Hamlet

Hamlet clearly spends a lot of time thinking about religious duty. When he first meditates on the temptation to suicide, he expresses the wish 'that the Everlasting had not fix'd / His canon 'gainst self-slaughter,' or in other words, that it was not a sin in the eyes of God to kill oneself (1.2.135-36). Hamlet also experiences religious doubt, however. In his famous soliloquy beginning 'To be, or not to be,' he asks himself whether it is 'nobler in the mind' to suffer, or to end suffering through suicide (3.1.64-65). This philosophical dilemma ignores the theological dimensions of the question entirely. Toward the end of the play, Hamlet's doubts seem to grow; his exchange with the gravedigger in Act 5, Scene 1 shows that he views death as absolute.

Ophelia

In the character of Ophelia, Shakespeare presents a challenging paradox. With the possible exception of Horatio, she's the most obviously good person in the play. When Hamlet says, 'Nymph, in thy orisons / Be all my sins remembered' (3.1.97-98), he doesn't mean that he wants Ophelia to keep track of his sins, but rather to pray for their pardoning. His order that she should go to a nunnery is cruel in context, but also shows his admiration for her spiritual goodness.

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