Study Guide

Hamlet Religion

By William Shakespeare

Religion

Act I, Scene ii
Gertrude

QUEEN
Let not thy mother lose her prayers, Hamlet.
I pray thee, stay with us. Go not to Wittenberg.
(1.2.122-123)

"Wittenberg" is shorthand for "Protestant," since that's the city and university where Martin Luther wrote his Ninety-five Theses. But the play can't seem to make up its mind about whether or not the play is set in a Catholic or Protestant world—just like England itself, throughout most of the 16th century.

Hamlet

HAMLET
Fie on 't! ah fie! 'Tis an unweeded garden 
That grows to seed. Things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely. That it should come to this: 
But two months dead—nay, not so much, not two.
So excellent a king, that was, to this
Hyperion to a satyr; so loving to my mother
That he might not beteem the winds of heaven
Visit her face too roughly.
(1.2.139-146)

Hamlet insists that Gertrude's hasty marriage to Claudius (after Old Hamlet's death) has turned the world into an "unweeded garden." So, was Denmark some kind of idyllic Eden when his father was alive? If you consider that Hamlet never had to think about his mom having sex before she remarried—then, to him, it probably was.

O, that this too, too solid flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew,
Or that the Everlasting had not fixed
His canon 'gainst self-slaughter!
(1.2.133-136)

Tricky. Hamlet wants to die, but "self-slaughter" is a sin. Cue a major religious and moral dilemma that will haunt him (and us) throughout the play.

Act I, Scene v
The Ghost

GHOST
Adieu, adieu, adieu. Remember me.
(1.5.91)

We're going to let super famous literary critic Stephen Greenblatt handle this one: in Hamlet in Purgatory, he argues that the Ghost tells us about the complexities of the 16th century debate about Purgatory. Praying for Purgatorial spirits, argues Greenblatt, was a important way for the living to remember and express grief for lost love ones, so, when the Anglican Church officially rejected the doctrine of Purgatory in 1563, it eliminated an important social and psychological function for the living—kind of like Claudius ordering Hamlet to stop grieving.

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)

Hmm. This is interesting. The Ghost not only claims to be Hamlet's "father's spirit"; it also suggests that it's a Purgatorial ghost. Purgatory was often imagined as a fiery place where souls "purged away" their sins before going to heaven. Major difference, though: Purgatorial spirits returned to ask loved ones for prayers that could help them reach heaven faster. This ghost? He's a little more interested in revenge.

GHOST
Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.
(1.5.31)

Purgatorial spirits weren't in the habit of asking living relatives to murder other people (murder being a major sin for both Protestants and Catholics) to help them get to heaven. That's more along the lines of a vengeful ghost. Is Shakespeare just picking and choosing? Or is he purposefully weaving together multiple literary and cultural traditions?

Act III, Scene iii

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)

Talk about major religious allusion: this is a reference to the biblical story of Cain and Abel. Comparing his sin of killing Old Hamlet to Cain's sin of killing Abel really ups the "major sin" factor of Claudius' treachery.

Act V, Scene i
Hamlet

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)

Here, Hamlet is complaining that the gravedigger is being a little rough with the bones—only murderers deserve to be handled so roughly. This says a lot about our sensitive protagonist. Despite all his emo musings about death and suicide, Hamlet values life.

Laertes

DOCTOR
No more be done.
We should profane the service of the dead
To sing a requiem and such rest to her
As to peace-parted souls.

LAERTES
Lay her i' th' earth,
And from her fair and unpolluted flesh
May violets spring! I tell thee, churlish priest,
A minist'ring angel shall my sister be
When thou liest howling.
(5.1.244-252)

Since Ophelia's death is suspect, the Priest refuses to do anything more than the bare minimum for Ophelia. But Laertes isn't having it: he thinks that the stingy burial rites aren't doing Ophelia's memory justice. He understands what the priest doesn't: burial services are rituals for the living.

Act V, Scene ii
Hamlet

HAMLET
Not a whit, we defy augury. There is a
special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be
now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be
now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The
readiness is all. Since no man of aught he leaves,
knows, what is 't to leave betimes?
(5.2.233-238)

When BFF Horatio warns Hamlet that he'll lose the duel with Laertes, he reveals that he's decided to give in to God's "providence," i.e. fate. The reference to the "fall of the sparrow" is from Matthew 10.29 —"Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father" —which is taken to mean that God oversees the life and death of every single creature, even the sparrow. Was Hamlet's delay just a way of resisting fate all along?