A Level English: The omnipresence of religious influence in “Hamlet”

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The mass of religious imagery present in “Hamlet” arguably reflects the ubiquity of religion in the lives of Elizabethans in the 16 and 17th centuries. It can be seen in the labelling of Claudius as a “serpent” and the other allusions to the Garden of Eden; it is echoed in references to “Wittenberg”, Martin Luther’s own university; when Gertrude says “all that lives must die, passing through nature to eternity” it could be seen not simply as a shallow dismissal of Hamlet’s grief, but more importantly as reflecting an ideology shared by most of the characters in the play- that though bodies decay, the soul is immortal, knowledge which has important implications for the decisions made by the major characters (note how Hamlet rejects suicide arguably because he understood that he would be judged by “the Everlasting” for his sins upon death). Religion is used to accentuate the notion that something is “rotten” in Denmark (witness the complete disregard for “noble rite[s]” and “formal ostentation[s]”) but also in the conflict between the Christian and ancient Roman codes of honour, which plays out extensively in Hamlet’s mind.

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Jessica Tieman, in her interesting and informative essay, The Failure of Religion in Hamlet, writes that:

If perhaps Shakespeare intended to promote the Christian ideals of peace and forgiveness, “Recompense no man evil for evil” (Romans 12:17), it seems counterproductive for his story to end with a revenger restoring order within Denmark. Hamlet thus seems to become a play about Christians who fear the afterlife but are unable to leave justice to God, as the Bible teaches Christians to do so.

Some critics have challenged this in arguing that the “damned incest”, duplicity and deception associated with the old regime of Claudius was purged by the end of the play; Fortinbras, presented as not being guilty of the vices of Claudius’ reign, could instead be seen as restoring order in Denmark. Note that the characters guilty of sinning- Gertrude, Laertes and Claudius, died at the denouement of the play; it could be argued that Hamlet’s death was inevitable after he broke the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” (Exodus) by killing Polonius and sending Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths. Thus, the strength of religion could be seen in the deliverance of heavenly justice by the end of the play. The Christians who “are unable to leave justice to God” that Tieman mentions are punished with death; it is arguably, a confirmation of the power of God and an example of the danger of deviating from the teachings of religion.

However, there are numerous ways of reading the play; there is no ultimate ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer.

1. You might argue that the fact that religious teaching was undermined and disregarded in the first place in “Hamlet” presents a dangerous challenge to the authority of the Elizabethan church.

2. Perhaps you see a social message in the disregard of religious teaching- of Shakespeare’s desire to present the ruling class as attempting to escape the restraints religion places on them through their powerful statuses on earth (an example being the 2nd clown’s assertion of the “truth” as that if Ophelia had not been a gentlewoman, “she would have been buried out a christian burial”)

3. Alternatively, one might believe that the censoring of plays in the Elizabethan era prevented Shakespeare from exercising any clear message on the issue, or instead you might disagree with all these views, believing Shakespeare upheld and perhaps even endorsed the teachings of the church.

4. You might have a completely different view

It seems apt for me to conclude that this rich debate on ‘Religion in Hamlet’ is an important aspect of our reading of the play, in which we continue to find new insights which help shape our own outlook on “Hamlet”, and perhaps even life itself.



What do you think about this issue? Feel free to comment!

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