Sin & Salvation in Hamlet


Scarlett has a Ph.D. in English and has taught literature and composition for both high school and college.

In this lesson, we will explore the theme of sin and salvation in ''Hamlet'' through the lens of the three moral contexts that inform Hamlet's approach to revenge. By the end of the lesson, you will be able to analyze Hamlet's delay in carrying out his revenge in light of the ancient warrior code and both Catholic and Protestant theology.

Hamlet's Dilemma

When Old Hamlet's ghost tells Hamlet that he was murdered by his own brother, he commands Hamlet to 'Avenge his foul and most unnatural murder'. Caught up in the moment, Hamlet promises the ghost, 'I will sweep to my revenge'. However, Hamlet soon realizes that he has promised more than he can deliver. Why? Because murder is as serious a matter in the context of the play as it is today, and killing a king was treason. Complicating matters even more, Hamlet is stuck between not two but three different moral universes that view revenge killing in very different ways. The ancient warrior code says that in order to preserve his family's honor, a man must avenge a murdered relative. It was the right thing to do. The Catholic tradition would say murder is wrong, but on the other hand, the faithful are obedient to an authority higher than themselves--in this case, not the Church, but the father who stands in for the Church. The Protestant tradition, which was not very old by the time Hamlet was written, tells a person to follow his conscience, whether it goes against authority or not. Situated among these three traditions, Hamlet has to decide which way lay sin, and which way salvation.

The Ancient Warrior Code

The ancient warrior code says a man must avenge the murder of his loved ones. We can assume Shakespeare was aware of this tradition partly because he chose Denmark as the play's setting. Denmark is also the setting for the ancient epic Beowulf, which is all about the ancient warrior code, revenge, and restoring one's honor. With no impartial justice system to punish murderers, people were left to fend for themselves! Thus, Old Hamlet invokes the ancient warrior code when he commands Hamlet to murder Claudius.

Fortinbras and Laertes: Foils

Shakespeare also writes other characters into the play as foils for Hamlet in connection with revenge. A foil is a character who is in the play as a contrast to the main character. They provide a fuller context for the main character's actions. Three other guys are foils to Hamlet regarding the revenge theme. One is Fortinbras, who is on the march to take back the lands his father, Old Norway, lost to Old Hamlet before the time of the play. (Old Norway was killed in the process.) Laertes, Ophelia's brother, also has to avenge his father Polonius' death at the hands of Hamlet. For Fortinbras and Laertes, revenge is not a complicated matter. They understand what is required of them as sons of murdered fathers, and they are both prepared to avenge their fathers' death with no hesitation. In Act II, Shakespeare also includes an extended speech about the Greek hero Pyrrhus, who avenged his father Achilles' death on Priam, King of Troy.

Hamlet and Catholicism

Hamlet is not as gung-ho about avenging his father's murder as those other guys are, and his hesitation is directly related to play's Catholic setting. We know the setting is Catholic because the ghost is in purgatory, a middle ground between heaven and hell that exists only in Catholic theology. It is because Old Hamlet is in purgatory that he is able to come back as a ghost. The only problem is that Hamlet does not trust ghosts. He fears that the ghost could actually be a demon or goblin taking the shape of his father in order to trick him into committing a serious sin, an unjustified murder. Hamlet's doubts and his struggle to verify the ghost's authenticity propel the action through the next two acts. What's important here is that Hamlet's problems are caused by a core belief of the Catholic faith, the idea that a spirit can exist in a limbo state. Think of it this way: if the setting were not Catholic, there could be no ghost, and therefore, no conflict. Emphasizing Hamlet's troubled relationship with Catholic beliefs is the fact that he is questioning his father, who seems to stand in for the Church itself in matters of authority and obedience.

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