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SHAKESPEARES HAMLET: RENAISSANCE RULING ON REVENGE AND

RELIGIOUS REDEMPTION

A Thesis
Presented
to the Faculty of
California State University Dominguez Hills

In Partial Fulfillment
of the Requirements for the Degree
Master o f Arts
in
Humanities

by
Michele Witte
Spring 2007

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PREFACE

Formulating an undiscovered, viable topic for a possible M.A. thesis based on


Shakespeares Hamlet Prince o f Denmark has been a daunting task. Hamlets
psychological complexity has been examined and re-examined by thousands of scholarly
critics. However, it is important to consider the ways in which Hamlets psychological
makeup reflects the interest and beliefs held by the Elizabethans. There have been few
more interesting times in history than when civilization became modem through a break
from the medieval world, closely followed by a newly-developed challenge to the
powerful Roman Catholic Church: the Protestant Reformation. In Shakespeares Hamlet,
Elizabethans were able to appreciate a tragic hero who contemplated important religious
ideologies.
After researching the theological beliefs of the Protestant Reformers as well as the
papal edicts valued by Catholics, I realized that Queen Elizabeth and her constituents
were faced with critical responsibilities that would reshape Western religion. Although I
had read Shakespeares Hamlet in high school, then again in my second year o f college,
and still again in England at Oxford University where I was given the unique opportunity
to psychoanalyze the play with the guidance of an interesting and highly-educated Don, I
only recently began to consider the religious implications in the play. Formerly, I viewed
Prince Hamlet as a strictly-psychological character. I did not previously realize that
Hamlets psychological makeup can be seen as a direct reflection of the religious
pandemonium during Elizabethan times. I believe this shift in critical awareness came
with my readings o f two contemporary New York Times Best Sellers: Dan Browns The
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DaVinci Code and Karen Armstrongs A History o f God: The 4,000 Year Quest o f
Judaism, Christianity and Islam. I decided to read the former because my devout IrishCatholic mother told me that it was banned by the Pope and to read it was a mortal
sin. The latter I stumbled upon in the writing o f this thesis. While spending my
childhood in Catholic schools with weekly masses and an organized system of receiving
sacraments, I ignored the idea that religion is a man-made interpretation of the Bible.
The DaVinci Code caused thousands of Catholics to question their faith. Some formed a
new belief in the Gnostic Gospels while others now believe in a revised story o f the Holy
Grail. Neither was the case for me. However, it is interesting to me that the author was
able change the ways some people viewed their faith through an intellectual and accurate
description o f legendary symbols altered by historical individuals and organized
religions. The novel is powerful in that it causes one to contemplate not only individual
beliefs but beliefs held by others. A History o f God argues that religion is an organized
creation of mans interpretation of the Scriptures. The author examines the historical
influences that shaped three monotheistic religions. The book is valuable in that it is a
factual, historical study about the fundamentals of religions with little commentary or
opinion. After reading these two works and researching the ideas of the great Reformers,
I developed a newly-found interest in the history o f religions. It is interesting to consider
that had there not been a printing press, or if Luther had not been able to translate the
Bible, or if there had not been the ability to mass-produce the Bible so that commoners
could read it, or if Martin Luther had been burned at the stake, would the Reformation

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have existed? Would Luthers Articles been so widely received? Would there be a later
need for a search for religious freedom in a New World?
As I sit here in the suburbs of the great city o f New York, contemplating the stilltoo-recent events of 9/11,1 am beginning to recognize the power of awareness. This
power can lead to a very necessary acceptance and tolerance of world religions. This
type of awareness surfaced, in part, with the great thinkers known as the Protestant
Reformers and continues with the American right to freedom of religion. Examining
Hamlet as a play that recognizes and illuminates religious variations without a concrete
statement about the right religion will possibly lead the reader to conclude that
individuals must coexist with each other regardless of religious beliefs.

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TABLE OF CONTENTS

PAGE
COPYRIGHT PAGE............................................................................................................... ii
APPROVAL PAGE................................................................................................................ iii
PREFACE................................................................................................................................ iv
TABLE OF CONTENTS.......................................................................................................vii
LIST OF FIGURES............................................................................................................... viii
ABSTRACT............................................................................................................................ix
CHAPTER
1. INTRODUCTION.............................................................................................................. 1
2. A FIVE ACT REVELATION ABOUT REDEMPTION................................................ 9
3. SHARED BIBLICAL MARKERS.................................................................................. 18
4. IMPLIED CATHOLICISM.............................................................................................. 23
5. IMPLIED PROTESTANTISM........................................................................................27
6. CONCLUSION................................................................................................................. 40
WORKS CITED..................................................................................................................... 43

vii

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LIST OF FIGURES

PAGE

1. Historical and Literary Events in England from 1483-1603..........................................8

viii

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ABSTRACT

This thesis addresses the Catholic and Protestant markers in Shakespeares


tragedy Hamlet Prince o f Denmark. I examine specific primary sources including the
writings of Martin Luther and John Calvin as well as the sixteenth-century Book o f
Common Prayer. Secondary sources include new historicists critiques of the play that
reflect Hamlets Humanist thought patterns. I argue that Hamlet is a representation of a
Renaissance man and analyze the ways in which the play might have appealed to
Shakespeares society: Elizabethan England. The Elizabethans were able to appreciate a
tragic hero who contemplated important religious ideas and questioned issues such as
salvation, religion, redemption, and societal laws and order. The ambiguous religious
direction of the play reflects the disconcerted religious sensitivity of Elizabethan
England.

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CHAPTER 1

INTRODUCTION
I do not distinguish by the eye, but by the mind,
which is the proper judge.
Seneca
In Paradise Lost, John Milton writes: Revenge, at first though sweet, / Bitter ere
long back on itself recoils (9.171-72). At the very end of Paradise Lost, Adam and Eve
take their secluded lives in the Garden of Eden into the real world. In Genesis, it is in
this real world that their son, Cain, is branded and fated to miserable life because of
jealousy and the murder of his brother. In Shakespeares Hamlet Prince o f Denmark,
another jealous brother commits murder and his nephew-son is fated to a miserable life.
Hamlet must assume a political role that conflicts with his religious and moral values.
His internal conflict and the circumstances that lead to his tragic downfall are a result of a
psychological complexity that reflects the religious turmoil of Elizabethan England.
While Queen Elizabeth ruled England, England endured religious unrest, a new
Church of England state religion, a constant threat of war with powerful Roman Catholic
European nations, and a Queen who opted to avoid marriage, a political decision to
appease both Catholics and Protestants. It is easily understood why an English
playwright would choose to write a play with conflicting religious implications.
Shakespeare used the motifs of deceit and pretense throughout the play to question issues
such as salvation, religion, redemption, and societal laws and order. Because these issues
are central to and in many ways define the Elizabethans, Hamlet reveals the religious
pandemonium of its times.

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Unlike the traditional Roman revenge tragedy, Shakespeare highlights Hamlets


predicament rather than acts of violence within the play. The revenge storyline existed
centuries before the birth of the famous English writer. Its origins can be traced to Greek
and, later, Roman tragedies. Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4 B.C.-A.D. 65) wrote several
Roman tragedies based on Greek myths. Shakespeare presented several elements of the
Senecan revenge tragedy in Hamlet.
Like Seneca, Shakespeare did not exploit on-stage violence but rather related it to
the circumstances of the tragic hero. Senecas distinctive use of the supernatural such as
witches and ghosts is highlighted in the Ghost of Hamlets father. And finally
Shakespeares use o f soliloquies and asides parallels Senecas changing of the traditional
Greek tragedy.
The 1100s Saxo Grammaticus The History o f the Danes, Books I-IX contains a
story about a character named Amleth who, like Hamlet, slays the uncle who has
murdered his father. It is likely that Thomas Kyd capitalized on the popularity of revenge
tragedies in Elizabethan England and wrote an earlier version of Hamlet, now lost.
Although Saxo Grammaticus told a similar story of revenge, adultery and feigned
madness four hundred years prior to the Elizabethan version, Kyds lost version
includes the Ghost as the seeker of revenge. Shakespeare was most likely familiar with
his contemporarys work and wrote Hamlet as a re-enactment of this story. Shakespeare
includes the Ghost of King Hamlet: the most illuminating Catholic marker in the play.
Hamlets father remains trapped in purgatory and needs his son to help aid in his
ascension into heaven. The existence of the Ghost and Hamlets reaction to it begins the

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action of the play and highlights Hamlets search for religious truths, a quest that
represents his tragic flaw.
Although the true authorship of Kyds version of Amleth is not provable with
documents, critics can turn to Kyds play, The Spanish Tragedy, which includes other
elements which Shakespeare seems to have incorporated into Hamlet: a procrastinating
protagonist who berates himself for talking instead of acting and who dies as he achieves
his revenge and a play within a play, a heroine whose love is opposed by her family,
and another woman who becomes insane and commits suicide (Boyce 238-39).
From 1601 to 1611 Shakespeare focused on the tragedies and romances and
during this second phase of his writing he wrote Hamlet. According to Russ
McDonald, Shakespeares dramatic structures faithfully represent the variety and
complexity o f the theatrical culture he inhabited (81). English audiences knew that in a
tragedy they would witness the misfortune o f a powerful individual. Death is the tragic
counterpart to the marriage that concludes comedy. However, Hamlets suffering does
not begin or end with his death; his unspeakable suffering includes failure, waste,
disappointment and self-destruction. Hamlet is not a procrastinator but rather a seeker of
truth.
Hamlet does not make one fatal mistake based on an incomplete self knowledge.
Hamlet does not contain a clearly identifiable tragic flaw. However, Hamlets mistakes
are consistent with Aristotles description of hamartia (error or flaw). Hamlet is
internally conflicted between religious uncertainties. His flaw is that he procrastinates in
killing Claudius while he searches for religious truths. Through Hamlets hamartia, the

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audience experiences catharsis through Hamlets spiritual and emotional cleansing in his
readiness is all speech and subsequent tragic death.
McDonald continues to argue that the play represents the collision between the
heros admirable aim and the traps and obstacles that the world places in his way. His
idealism ends in the tragic death of Polonius, Ophelias suffering and suicide and the
entrapment o f a hero in the very world he has set out to oppose (81-108). It is
important to consider that Shakespeare highlights this idealism and opposition through
the use of Catholic and Protestant markers throughout the play. Hamlet opposes a world
that cannot give him definite answers for his religious questions. Although succession
and regicide, critical issues in Shakespeares day, are illuminated in the play, the Prince
of Denmark can be best appreciated for his complicated psychological dimension that
causes a variety of spectators to relate to him in various ways.
Although Shakespeare drew most of the context for his historical plays from
Raphael Holinsheds reporting of the histories of England, Scotland, and Ireland in 1577
known as Holinshed s Chronicles, the information presented can also be seen in his
tragedies, namely Hamlet. William Harrison, in A Description o f Elizabethan England
written for Holinsheds Chronicles, asks: Is it not strange that a peevish order of religion
(devised by man) should break the express law of God, who commandeth all men to
honour and obey their kings and princes, in whom some part of the power of God is
manifest and laid open unto us? (5:1). In Hamlets late medieval Danish society he
would be doubly justified in killing King Claudius: he would be avenging his fathers
death and the death of a noble king. But rather than an honor, avenging his fathers death

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is a curse on Hamlet: The time is out of joint: O cursed spite / That ever I was bom to
set it right! (I.v. 189-90). Based upon social and political principles, Hamlet should
have avenged his fathers murder immediately after the Ghosts initial appearance.
However, Hamlets procrastination in avenging his fathers death is a result of his natural
instinct to question what is right, lawful and just. He struggles with making the decision
to do what is moral, and unsure (IV.iv.7). If Hamlet is to rightfully avenge his fathers
most brutal murder, he must first abandon the idea that God will decide individual fate.
To the Elizabethans, religious questions were divided between two groups: Protestants
and Catholics. Within Protestantism, most were divided between the passionate beliefs
of Martin Luther and the political agenda of John Calvin. The implied religious conflicts
in Hamlet highlight the various beliefs affecting these groups and Hamlets search for
religious truths while causing his tragic downfall.
When grouped together, the church and religion, spirituality, and ones individual
interpretation of the Bible often cause confusion, frustration and disparity. Such
challenges divided Queen Elizabeths constituents, neighboring European Nations, and
Shakespeares Prince Hamlet. Although the Bible serves as a foundation for both
Protestant and Catholic religions, interpretations of the Scriptures are often contradictory,
much like Hamlets paradoxical thoughts and actions in the play. The great reformers,
Luther and Calvin, as well as the great confessions of Protestantism such as The French
Confession o f Faith (1559), The Second Helvetic Confession (1566), The Thirty-Nine
Articles of the Church o f England, attest to a fact that the Bible is the written Word of
God. Luther states: The preacher must preach only the Word of Holy Scripture, for the

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Bible is the very Scripture o f the Spirit.. .it can [not] be otherwise, for the Scriptures are
divine; in them God speaks, and they are His Word. To hear or to read the Scriptures is
nothing else than to hear God (qtd. in Bridges 15). Catholics conform to the same idea:
the Scriptures are paramount and fundamental, although they add the tradition of the
papal edicts and the early Church Fathers. By rejecting the idea of an infallible pope,
Protestants separated themselves from Catholic tradition. Thus, Elizabethans were faced
with the challenge of separating the Scriptures from its Catholic orientation. This, of
course, was an issue of debate, a question that caused turmoil and conflict throughout
England and European Nations while Shakespeare was writing his plays. Hamlet mirrors
conflicting religious theologies such as those seen in Martin Luther and Saint Thomas
Mores writings and sermons as well as John Calvins Institutes o f Christian Religion.
Hamlet has two consciences: one that tells him to avenge his fathers death and
one that tells him killing the murderer is wrong. This parallels two conflicting Biblical
passages in which both Catholics and Protestants believed. Contradicting the Old
Testament, Jesus delivers an alternative to an eye for an eye: You heard that it is said,
an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, offer no resistance to one
who is evil. When someone strikes you on your [right] cheek, turn the other one to him as
well (Mt. 5:38-42). Prince Hamlet must decide whether it is nobler to seek revenge or
turn the other cheek and allow God to decide Claudius fate. This form of double
consciousness makes Hamlet a complicated character. Although Hamlet would be right
in avenging his fathers death based on the historical context as well as the historical
setting of the play, his procrastination is evident and caused by an inner moral

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conscience: whether it be / Bestial oblivion, or some craven scruple / O f thinking too


precisely on th event (IV.iv.39-41). Hamlet becomes a seeker o f truth, causing his
procrastination throughout the play and becoming his tragic flaw.
The Ghost of Hamlets father and the existence o f purgatory, Ophelias right to a
Christian burial and Claudius inability to pray are but a few reflections of the
discrepancies between Catholic and Protestant faiths. Likewise, the implied political
conflicts presented in the play reflect several political and religious situations. Queen
Bloody Mary and her persecution of Protestants, her sister Elizabeths Protestant
beliefs, a later James I and his passing o f the treason act in Parliament may explain issues
in the play such as Claudius drastic measures to usurp and keep the crown that clearly
belonged to Hamlet and Hamlets political role in ridding Denmark of a treasonous King.
However, the most illuminating religious implications can be seen in Hamlets inner
consciousness. Hamlet states: conscience doth make cowards of us all ( III.i.82).
Although most editors agree that conscience here is the ability to think and reason, for
Hamlet it is also his moral questioning about sin and how to achieve salvation in the
afterlife. Ironically, it is Hamlets equivocating thoughtfulness and moral scruples on the
subject of murdering Claudius that make him the plays compelling hero. The Biblical
and religious insinuations in the play offer Elizabethans insight into the religious
quandary that the Elizabethans endured.

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Martin
Luther
d.1546

Queen Mary,
Catholic
monarch,
reigned until
1558,
persecuting
Protestants

A ct of
Uniformity
forbade the use
o f Catholic
Mass

1492 |

1509

Henry VIII,
Defender o f
Faith, becomes
King o f
England;
Birth o f John
Calvin:
Protestant
Reformer

1549

punishable by

V
|

Act o f Uniformity of
Common Prayer
passes, making nonattendance at church

1552

Prayer Book
of 1549
modified and
implemented

1553

law.

The 39 Articles
are ratified by
Queen
Elizabeth

a
1558

Queen
Elizabeth,
Protestant
monarch,
succeeded her
sister Mary and
proceeded to
restore the work
o f her father,
Henry VIII. She
reigned for 45
years.

1559

James I
commissions
English
translation of
King James
Bible

V
1564

W illiam
Shakespeare
bom

1571

c.1601

1603

Shakespeare
writes Hamlet
Prince o f
Denmark

Figure 1: Timeline representing important historical and literary events before and after W illiam Shakespeares creation of H am let Prince o f
Denmark.

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00

CHAPTER 2

A FIVE ACT REVELATION ABOUT REDEMPTION


Saepe intereunt aliis meditantes necem
[Those who plot the destruction o f others
often fa ll themselves]
Phaedrus
The foundation of Hamlets internal conflict is mostly parallel to the religious
conflicts that engulfed the sixteenth century: predestination vs. free will, Divine grace vs.
papal indulgences, and Catholic theology vs. that of Luther or Calvin, the Sacrament of
Penance vs. Gods redemption, paramount Scriptures vs. the infallible pope. With all of
the contradictions stemming from different interpretations of the Bible it is
understandable that Hamlet, a representative character of a Renaissance man, spends his
time searching for the way to salvation. Roy W. Battenhouse, in his study o f Elizabethan
and Jacobean drama, accurately defines Hamlet as a representation of Elizabethan times:
In an age when thinking was emerging from the dominance of Christian dogma to
become once again, as in Classical times, man-centered - when Pico was raising new
hopes by his Oration on the Dignity o f Man, and Calvin new anguish by his outcry over
mans lost dignity - Shakespeare brought the mood of the times to a focus in Hamlet
( 1).

Hamlets procrastination after meeting the Ghost and learning about his fathers
most unnatural murder reflects his desire to understand the truth about salvation, a
religious quest that leads to his downfall. Although some scholars suggest that Hamlet
procrastinates because he doubts the Ghosts honesty, a closer reading o f Act I may

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suggest the opposite. Hamlet cries out to the Ghost: Art you there / Truepenny?
(I.v. 150-51), in order to learn more about the murder. Hamlets belief that the Ghost is a
truepenny rather than counterfeit suggests that he believes the Ghost is a trustworthy
source. His procrastination throughout the next four Acts reflects his search for religious
truths, the truth about his purpose in life and his place in Eternity. Although critics argue
that Hamlet questions the validity of the Ghost and feigns madness accordingly, it is also
conceivable that Hamlet believes the Ghost from its first appearance and that he
procrastinates due to his rejection of what religions dictate, what he is told, and what he
has learned. Although Hamlet procrastinates in order to learn what path he should take to
assure a secured afterlife, he is clear about his mission to aid in his fathers ascension
from purgatory to heaven, a distinctly Catholic idea. He wants to learn the truth about
salvation and the afterlife. The chaotic ideas that come to Hamlet in his feigned madness
are caused by his religious quandary which, in turn, causes him to delay. His
predicament reflects the Elizabethan state o f religious confusion.
When Hamlet learns that his uncle killed his father to usurp the crown, his first
course of action is to use the Mousetrap Play in order to deceive Claudius into revealing
his guilt while he continues to contemplate a course of action for revenge. The actors in
Hamlet share a commonality with the actors in the Mousetrap Play. The actors in Hamlet
are dramatizing, not a historical truth but a truth, nevertheless, about this world - is it
real or illusory? - in which we the audience exist (Cannon 208). Reality and illusion are
highlighted in the Mousetrap Play, mirroring Hamlets ability to feign madness. By
feigning madness Hamlet is able to procrastinate while determining whether his political

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role to rid Denmark o f a treasonous King parallels Gods plan for him, if there is one. In
both the play and the play within the play, ideas are separated into contradictions:
appearances and reality, fact and fiction, theater and life - are metaphorically rejoined
(209). Horatio, the learned scholar, will serve as a witness to the Kings reaction. As
planned, Claudius is unsettled at the ending of the Mousetrap Play, proving his guilt.
However, Hamlet needs further proof that killing Claudius is the right course of action
and decides to continue to feign madness while he formulates a plan. Hamlets quest to
learn what is unsure had begun in Act I. He compares earth not to one of Gods greatest
creations but rather an unweeded garden ... rank and gross in nature (I.ii. 135-36). It
is not a paradise, a Garden of Eden, but rather a place where he is trapped to mourn the
loss of his father while contending with the marriage of his mother to his uncle. The
story of creation begins the Bible and a description of Gods creation of man. His
purpose in life and his place in the afterlife are questions of concern for Hamlet. He
spends the next four Acts attempting to find the answers and, in the final Act, dies, to
some extent because o f his religious procrastination.
In Act II, Hamlets lack of understanding about mans purpose in life becomes
apparent. When Polonius asks Hamlet, What do you read, my lord? Hamlet responds,
Words, words, words. This repetition highlights the idea that Hamlet is not quick to
accept an idea simply because it is written. When probed further about the matter that
Hamlet reads, Hamlet explains that what he reads is slander: the author of the book is a
satirical rogue who argues that old men have grey beards, their faces are wrinkled,
and they have a plentiful lack of wit. Hamlet contemplates the course o f a mans life.

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12

His point to Polonius is that if a man can go backwards through life, Polonius shall grow
old like Hamlet. The insult, according to Polonius, is madness, yet there is method in
it yet (Il.ii. 196-206). Later in the scene, Hamlet explains to Rosencrantz and
Guildenstem that the earth is a sterile promontory, that humans are mere dust and
that air is foul and pestilent. Man delights [him] not - nor woman neither (297-309).
Hamlet begins to recognize that the courtiers are agents of Claudius and, after
Rosencrantz states the worlds grown honest, Hamlet determines that honest people
such as himself are imprisoned in the rotten state of Denmark. Ronald Knowles, in his
article Hamlet and Counter Humanism, describes Hamlets belief that there is nothing
either good or bad, but thinking makes it so as a skepticism that Hamlet is unable to
adopt fully. What is considered bad in one society is perfectly acceptable in another
(1056). Hamlets melancholy is caused by his exposure to the society that surrounds him.
Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.
Hamlet continually expresses his discontentment with his place in the world.
Customs are damned, fortune is outrageous, Denmark is a prison with many
confines, wards and dungeons. He longs that his too too solid flesh would melt. He
detests earthly things and longs for the afterlife. But the way into Eternity is unclear; he
must use his reason and logic to learn the path rather than blindly follow religious ideas.
However, his logic and reason become tools for procrastination. Throughout, particularly,
Acts I and II, Hamlet questions everything but understands nothing. Hamlets Denmark
is a land of Christianity in decay.. .his behavior oscillates between Euphuistic courtesy
and savage spleen, between torments of conscience and rejection of all conscience,

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13

between intricate caution and revenge (Battenhouse 38). Hamlet, a scholar who
ironically lacks so much knowledge, is a contradicting force of nature. His conflicting
viewpoints and attempts to better understand truths about the nature of man, sin,
redemption and religion are his hamartia.
After experiencing the loss of his father, facing the remarriage of his mother to his
uncle, learning that his father has been murdered as well as the shocking identity of the
murderer, being visited by his dead father and asked to avenge that death, and losing his
connection with Ophelia, Hamlets burden becomes catastrophic. He must decide
whether his free will to murder the king will lead to an unknown place in heaven, hell or
purgatory. Salvation has become a gamble, a risk Hamlet will not readily take. His
procrastination in ridding Denmark of a treasonous king is understandable. He questions
all ideas of redemption and salvation, knowing that his decisions will affect his place in
the afterlife. As a thinker and an intellectual, Hamlet searches for an unknown, nonprovable awareness. This search has become a daunting task and one that leads him to
have irrationally-rational suicidal thoughts in the famous Act III To be, or not to be
soliloquy: Whether tis nobler in the mind to suffer / The slings and arrows of
outrageous fortune, / Or to take arms against the sea of troubles (Ill.i.55-58). Hamlet
questions what dreams might come true in his final sleep. This unknown is the reason
why people make the calamity of life so long (65-68). According to Knowles, in his
essay on counter-humanism, Hamlets dilemma finds perfect expression, yet its
significance is beyond his grasp:

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We have the opening exordium; To die, to sleep adds a confirmatory


argument; To sleep, perchance to dream offers a rebuttal; For who
would bear the whips and scorns of time offers an extensive dilation,
followed by the epilogue, Thus conscience does make cowards of us
all... The particular locution, To be, or not to be, forces upon us, but
not Hamlet, the awareness that the question he asks, and the speech which
seemingly considers it, neutralize the suffering being between words and
actions. (1052)
Soon after this contemplation, Hamlet abruptly murders Polonius. He has no remorse:
A rat? Dead like a ducat, dead. The Lord Chamberlain, who has spent his days
meddling in peoples lives with his words, words, words, lies dead on the floor while
Hamlet explains to Gertrude that heaven hath pleased it so / To punish me with
[Polonius], and [Polonius] with me / That I must be their scourge, and minister (Ill.iv.
173-75). Hamlet transforms from a prince with integrity into a scourge of God when
he abandons his ethics and brutally kills Polonius. Hamlet begins to recognize his place
in the world and his lifes course. He must send a message that one must not follow what
one is told but rather make decisions based on what is righteous.
In Act IV, as Hamlet plays Hide fox, and all after, the British game of hide and
seek with Polonius body, he explains to Rosencrantz and Guildenstem that Polonius
body is with the king, but the king is / not with the body, the king is a thing (IV.iii.2627). When asked what Hamlet means by a thing he explains, quite simply, Of
nothing (29). This exchange might serve as a statement about the Elizabethan view of

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kings and nobility. The King (the head of the body, or the people) is not the rightful
supreme ruler. After Hamlets transformation in Act III, his inaction is reversed. He kills
Polonius and is ready to make his own decisions about ridding Denmark o f its corrupt
King.
It is abundantly clear by the final Act in the play that Hamlet is not satisfied with
one definite answer about salvation, redemption, honor, politics, religion or the afterlife.
He continues to question the ambiguity of what is right and moral. However, he begins
to recognize that Gods will determines mans fate. His journey at sea seems to have
been not only a physical one but also spiritually transforming. Hamlet is exuberant as he
explains his finding of the fateful letters sent by Claudius to England through courtiers
Rosencrantz and Guildenstem. After a feeling of restlessness, Hamlet finds the letters
that are meant to seal his death. He says to Horatio: There's a divinity that shapes our
ends (V. ii. 10). He also conveniently finds the Kings seal: Why, even in that was
heaven ordinant (V. ii. 48). Through Gods will, Hamlet realizes, his life was spared
allowing him to accomplish what he is supposed to do: kill the treasonous Claudius.
As Hamlet watches the gravediggers unearth skulls, he comes to understand that
man is bom from dust and to dust he will return. A lawyer, a great buyer o f land, the
inheritor of that land, will, according to Hamlet, remain as dead as the parchments that
secured their lives. In the end, neither the man nor his legal documents offer assurances,
and those who seek assurance in such parchments are sheep and calves (V. iv.122).
Hamlets one true understanding is that people should not follow the common way of
thinking. Hamlet offers this advice to Horatio: We must speak by the card, or

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equivocation will undo us. By the Lord, Horatio, this three years I have took note of it:
the age is grown so pickd that the toe to the peasant conies so near the heel of the
courtier, he galls his kibe (135-40). Kings, princes and courtiers, who are said to be
godly in nature, are no different from peasants or commoners.
The celebration o f man found in Renaissance humanism is countered by Hamlet.
Hamlets actions throughout the play contradict the thoughts he reveals through different
soliloquies within the play. It is his internal quest to learn the truth about life, death and
the afterlife that results in each step he takes towards resolving the external conflict,
avenging his fathers death. Hamlet begins to realize that his quest to understand the
physical and spiritual worlds may soon result in his tragic death.
Hamlets psychological makeup includes adherence to and rejection of religious
beliefs, a dilemma Elizabethans may have shared. Thomas Macaulay, in The History o f
England from the Accession o f James the Second, reasons that this religious dilemma was
inevitable: Yet even in the sixteenth century a considerable number o f those who quitted
the old religion followed the first confident and plausible guide who offered himself, and
were soon led into errors far more serious than those which they had renounced (1: 13).
In Hamlets case, he uses his conscience as both a plausible moral guide and ability to
reason. Throughout the play, Hamlets indecisiveness in killing Claudius is based on
religious and moral conflicts. He is summoned to complete a task and although it is his
duty to do so, Hamlet delays throughout four acts. By the end of the play one must draw
ones own conclusions about sin, salvation and redemption, which becomes the apparent
purpose of Hamlets earthly existence: to assure the unsatisfied that their ability to

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reason and individual morals are more important than what religion dictates to them.
Goethes Hamlet does not convey to the world a warning example of justice: it is by
mere accident that the criminals are at last punished (qtd.in Steinberg 2). Hamlets
questioning of religious truths causes him to procrastinate in ridding Denmark of its
treasonous King.
The audience cannot classify Hamlet as a Catholic, Protestant, scholar, madman,
or enlightened. The play begins with the appearance of a ghost that represents the
spiritual world. In the final Act the appearance of Yoricks skull represents the physical
world. Hamlets quest to learn the meaning o f both the physical and spiritual worlds is
exploited throughout Shakespeares longest play. When confronted with death, Hamlet
turns to his trusted friend Horatio: Report me and my cause aright / To the unsatisfied
(321-22). Hamlets fate is secured, and the known function o f his life is posthumous: his
story will help others who are unsatisfied to question for themselves what is just, moral
and righteous.

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CHAPTER 3

SHARED BIBLICAL MARKERS

The incident that begins the action of the play, Prince Hamlets realization that his
father was killed by his uncle, mirrors the Biblical passage about one brother that kills the
other in an act o f jealousy. This Biblical passage serves as an explanation of the
existence o f good and evil: Cain murders his benevolent brother in an act of jealousy, lies
about the murder, the murder is discovered and Cain is damned. Deception is a key
element in what is known as the worlds first murder. God asked Cain Where is your
brother? Cain attempted to deceive God: How should I know? I am not his keeper
(Gen. 4: 28). Although it appears that Claudius initial reasoning for killing his brother
was to usurp the crown, the fact that he then marries his brothers wife proves that he
desired all that belonged to his brother. Claudius disobeys several commandments by
killing the King and usurping control over Denmark and also commits one of the seven
deadly sins by allowing envy to overpower his morality. A mirror o f Cains story begins
the action of the play.
Hamlets initial conflict mirrors two simple but fundamental Biblical commands
to which both Catholics and Protestants could relate: Honor your father and your
mother, that you may have a long life in the land which the Lord, Your God, is giving
you. You shall not kill (Ex. 20:12-13). The belief is reinforced in Jesus command
spoken in the Gospel of Matthew: If you want to have life forever, obey the
commandments (19:17). Hamlet cannot obey both commandments simultaneously. He

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cannot honor his father by aiding in his ascension into heaven and avenging his murder
without murdering Claudius. This presented a dilemma that even the most devout would
find difficult to resolve. Hamlet must first contemplate the value of free will. Free will
and determination and the idea of ideal grace provoked the thoughts of Renaissance men
as did the idea of predestination. If man is predestined, then God has an unknown plan
regardless o f mans free will. If free will determines ones fate, then man must make the
right decisions or risk heavenly consequences. Both beliefs contradict the idea that
Fortune spins her wheel to determine mans fate. Hamlet is a representation of a
Renaissance man, a Renaissance man confronted with the modem predicament of what
to do with his free will, an intellectual whose growing disgust with m an.. .drives him to
feign madness, wish for the final sleep, or seek consolation in the only occupation he can
still enjoy: the play (Lamont 2). By the end of the play, Shakespeare once again
reminds us o f the Biblical brothers. While watching the gravediggers dig Ophelias
grave, tossing skulls from the earth in the process, Hamlet says to Horatio: That skull
had a tongue in it, and could sing once. How the knave jowls it to the ground, as if twere
Cains jawbone, that did the first murder! This might be the pate of a politician, which
this ass now oer reaches one that would circumvent God (V. i. 72-75).
Hamlet analyzes the physical world and realizes that man comes from dust and to dust he
will return. Gods will is important in that it will lead one into eternity.
Ophelias right to a Christian burial is a divisive issue in the play. Whether or not
Ophelia committed suicide highlights the Catholic belief that denies Christian funerals
for people who destroy Gods greatest creation by committing suicide. However, the

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Protestant markers are also illuminated in this final scene before Hamlets death. The
contradicting beliefs are highlighted by the gravediggers. The First Clown argues that
Ophelia drowned herself: she willfully seekd her own salvation (V. i. 2). However, his
ignorance is highlighted by his lack of wit. He pretends to know Latin but uses the term
se offendendo for in self defence rather than the accurate se defendendo. The First
Clown argues that Ophelia could not have drowned unwittingly, explaining to the Second
Clown: If I drown myself wittingly, it argues an act, and an act hath three branchesit
is to act, to do, to perform (11-12). Again, the Clowns ignorance is highlighted. The
Clown confuses the British law that one had to be in ones right mind to be held
accountable for his or her actions. According to British law, Ophelia would have had to
imagine committing suicide, decide to commit suicide, and complete the act of suicide.
The Clown simply uses synonyms for one phase of the law. By ignoring the
premeditation or a prior imagining of the act, the Clown does not see the point that
Ophelias madness made her not responsible for the act of suicide and entitled to a
Christian burial. The conversation between the Clowns highlights the re-occurring theme
of mans lack o f wisdom and need of knowledge.
In his commentary Ecclesiastical Law in HAMLET: The Burial o f Ophelia,
originally presented before The Shakespeare Society o f New York on June 9, 1885, R.A.
Guernsey discusses Ophelias rights to a Christian burial:
By the canon law, whether Ophelia was sane or insane, if she deliberately
caused her own death, she was not entitled to the burial rites of the church,
for churchmen contended then as now that in all cases of suicide the

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deceased should be denied the burial rites of the church, and the clergy
ought not to be bound by the decision of the Coroner's jury in such cases.
(3:1)
However, before 1603 the statute law required a minister to attend and bury all persons in
the parish churchyard, and to read or sing certain prayers as approved in the act of
uniformity o f worship without regard to the religious belief or doctrine of the deceased:
Under the ancient law as well as under the 39 articles of the church, the
decision o f the coroner's jury, he being a magistrate, must be followed by
the church as to the voluntary or involuntary act of self-destruction. If the
former was found by the coroner, the body was denied the church rites of
burial and was buried by the coroner according to the local custom of the
parish. If the latter was found, as was the case when the subject was
deemed insane, then the rites of burial must be used by the ministers, but
only in the parish churchyard, under the penalty prescribed in the act of
uniformity of Elizabeth and in the 68th canon of 1603. (3:2)
This explains the Doctors unenthusiastic and reluctant attitude at Ophelias burial: Her
death was doubtful, / and but that great command o ersways the order, / she should in
ground unsanctified been lodgd (V. i. 223-35). The priest argues that to sing a requiem
should profane the service o f the dead (34).
Shakespeare is ambiguous about the nature of Ophelias death. However, it is
after witnessing the burial o f Ophelia that Hamlet finally comes to the determination that
nothing happens that is not o f Gods design. Intellect and conscience as the ability to

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reason may conflict with religious ideologies and create a dilemma that caused Hamlet to
procrastinate in killing Claudius while he attempted to understand sin, revenge, and
redemption. Hamlet makes the fateful decision to go to the match against Laertes even
though he fears the outcome: 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 (V. ii. 212-14). Catholics
and Protestants understand Hamlets Biblical reference to Matthew 10:29: Are not two
sparrows sold for a farthing? And one of them shall not fall to the ground without your
father. Hamlet will let what is meant to be happen: .. .the readiness is all. Since no
man, o f aught he leaves, knows what ist to leave / betimes, let be (215-17).
John Donnes sermons reflect Anglican views derived by the Book o f Common
Prayer. In one o f his sermons about the idea o f original sin, Donne explains that Gods
world is a uniformity or several unified parts of an instrument perfectly in tune.
However, due to original sin men put the instrument out of tune. But God rectified all
again by putting in a new string, semen mulieris, the seed of a woman, the [Messiah] (2).
He explains that people, due to Christs birth, work, death and resurrection, must turn
from sin and be obedient to Gods will. In recognizing that Gods will is paramount,
Hamlet makes the decision to assume a political role that will be determined by Gods
will. Hamlet quickly becomes the tragic hero: he enters the fencing contest, is wounded
by Laertes, watches his mother die from poison, and finally kills Claudius, avenging his
fathers death and ridding Denmark of a treasonous king.

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CHAPTER 4

IMPLIED CATHOLICISM
Reason directs those who are truly pious
and philosophical to honour and love only what is true,
declining to follow traditional opinions, i f these be worthless.
Saint Justin Martyr
Although many o f the religious references in the play reflect shared beliefs
between Catholics and Protestants, several scenes in the play serve as strictly Catholic
markers. The characterization of the Ghost o f Hamlets father and Hamlets desire to do
what is right is central to the implied Catholic references in the play. The appearance of
the Ghost in Act I begins the action o f the play and the Catholic implications.
Conventional Catholics, although often criticized in Europe during the Elizabethan era,
would sympathize with but not pity the Ghosts predicament. The Ghost must spend time
in purgatory, a place o f torment where he will pay for his sins before going to heaven:
Doomd for a certain term to walk the night (I.v. 10). The Ghost explains to his son that
Claudius killed him before he had the opportunity to assure himself a place in heaven.
While the Ghost slept, his evil brother Cut off even in the bosoms of my sin, or killed
him before he was able to confess his sins. The Sacrament of Penance, where Catholics
confess their sins to a priest in order to seek absolution, is a fundamental necessity if one
wishes to enter the gates of heaven. Catholic doctrine requires a belief in the existence of
purgatory and the receiving of the Sacraments. Upon seeing the Ghost, Horatio states:
Ill cross it, though it blast me, possibly a pun on making the sign of the cross (I.i.27).
However, his belief that the Ghost is stuck in a place between heaven and hell is apparent

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when he begins speaking to the ghost. Horatio, after asking the ghost whether it has
come to warn them about the future of Denmark, continues by asking:
.. .if thou hast uphoarded in thy life
Extorted treasure in the womb of earth,
For which, they say, your spirits oft walk in death,
Speak o f i t . . .(136-139)
Horatio is alluding to the Catholic belief that one must suffer in purgatory if his sins were
not sufficient enough for Hell, yet were sins that should have been confessed and
repented. While waiting for the Ghost to reappear and before knowing the ghosts
identity, Bernardo explains to Horatio and Marcellus that the ghost is portentous because
it Comes armed through our watch so like the King / That was and is the question of
these wars (110-111). Horatio also seems bitter towards the former King, calling the
King our valiant Hamlet but sarcastically following with: For so this side of our
known world esteemd him (84-85). King Hamlets partial responsibility for the present
state of Denmark contributes to the explanations of why his soul is lingering in purgatory.
The Ghost continues to explain that he was poisoned Unhousled, or without Eucharist
and without the Catholic Sacrament of Anointment. He was murdered unaneld, or
unanointed, which further explains his position in purgatory (77).
Hamlets initial belief that he must aid in his fathers ascent into heaven further
highlights this Catholic marker. The new historicist pioneer Stephen Greenblatt, in
Hamlet in Purgatory, gives an intellectual account of purgatory as both a belief and an
institution. He explains that in the mid-sixteenth century, English authorities abruptly

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changed the relationship between the living and dead by declaring that purgatory was a
false "poem" and banning the practices that Christians relied on to ease the passage to
Heaven for themselves and their dead loved ones. Greenblatt discusses the immense task
lawmakers and bureaucrats had in trying to dissolve the system of purgatory, a system
that brings real gold and silver into the coffers of the Catholic Church (39). However,
it was clear that paying the Catholic Church for prayers to assure a loved ones passage
into heaven was financially beneficial to the Church and economy. Greenblatt refers to
John Donnes Elegy VI, which states: I hate dead names. Donne warns his mistress
that she is teaching him to fall away from his old faith:
Thus taught, I shall
As the nations do from Rome, from this love fall when I
Am the recusant, in that resolute state,
What hurts it me to be excommunicate? (qtd. in Greenblatt 40)
Greenblatt explains the reasons why Catholic tradition assigns souls to purgatory:
theologians had for centuries pondered the fate of those Christians who were neither
completely good nor completely bad, and, in particular, the fate of those at the brink of
death burdened with some sins for which they had not done (or had begun but had not
completed) the canonical penance. The sins in question were not the gravest ones, mortal
sins for which Hell was the inescapable punishment, but lesser ones (venial sins, as a
distinction frilly formulated in the twentieth century put it), for which, if justice were to
be satisfied, some punishment was still due (43).

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Hamlet shares the dilemma presented. Although he must sin by killing Claudius, he
seeks to determine whether his sin is indeed a lesser one, considering the fact that he
would be ridding Denmark of a treasonous King as well as avenging the death of a noble
one. He must further contemplate if some punishment will be due upon his death. Will
he be one for whom the bells toll? As a scholar, Hamlet can understand what Greenblatt
calls the poetics o f purgatory: [Protestants] charted the ways in which certain elemental
human fears, longings and fantasies were being shaped and exploited by an intellectual
elite who carefully packaged fraudulent, profit-making innovations as if they were
ancient traditions (46). Greenblatt discusses the opposing positions that challenge each
other in the play. He suggests that Hamlet is a young man from Wittenberg with a
distinctively Protestant temperament who is haunted by a distinctively Catholic ghost
(240). Greenblatt suggests that what we call ideology, then, Renaissance England
called poetry.
Although the Catholic references and implications in the play pale in comparison
to the Protestant markers, Queen Elizabeths constituents might have sympathized with
Hamlets dilemma and might have wondered if he would share the same fate as Thomas
More, the devout Catholic, knighted by Henry VIII, named lord chancellor of England,
beheaded for treason while Luther and Calvin were spreading ideas that would form the
Reformation.

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CHAPTER 5

IMPLIED PROTESTANTISM
The three great elements o f modern civilization:
Gunpowder, Printing, and the Protestant Religion.
Thomas Carlyle
Hamlets procrastination in killing Claudius and avenging his fathers murder
results in an internal struggle that eventually causes his tragic downfall. Much of this
struggle is based on Hamlets inability to conform to one moral belief about death and the
afterlife. Shakespeares contemporaries had various opinions about death and
redemption and the Protestant reformers sought a change in the widely-held Catholic
beliefs mentioned in Chapter 4. A break up of the medieval world cannot be attributed
simply to the new Protestant beliefs held by Martin Luther; Elizabethans reaped the
rewards o f a modem civilization that was developed by events such as the end of
feudalism, the rise of humanism, increased trade and commerce, and the development of
the printing press. However, Luthers greatest contribution mirrors Hamlets questioning
of what is unsure. Dr. John Dillenberger, president of the Graduate Theological Union in
Berkeley and former teacher at Princeton, Harvard, Columbia and Drew Universities,
analyzes Martin Luthers central contribution to the Protestant Reformation that so
greatly affected the Elizabethans: Generally, the medieval church defined the
righteousness o f God as the demanding justice of God; for the mature Luther, by contrast,
the righteousness o f God was fundamentally the mercy of God (xviii).

The demanding

God that entraps the Ghost of King Hamlet in purgatory is in sharp contrast to the
merciful God whom Hamlet requires.

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While mourning his fathers death and mothers remarriage to his uncle, Hamlet
asks the new King if he can return to Wittenberg, a college made famous as the school
Martin Luther attended to study theology. Lectures in the Bible were an important part of
reformed universities in Europe: Under the impact of Humanism, the Wittenberg
University was recognized in 1518 to provide instruction in the Bible.. .It is likely that
Melanchthons Loci Communes (1521), the first systematic theology o f Protestantism,...
replaced the Lombard in the Protestant universities (Green 12). It is Hamlets education
in philosophy and theology at Wittenberg that makes him believe that life on earth is
weary, stale, flat and unprofitable; Hamlet longs for the afterlife: O that this too too
solid flesh would melt, / Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew (I.ii.129-133). In this first
soliloquy, Hamlets conflicting religious values become apparent even before he learns
about his fathers murder. Or that the Everlasting had not fixd / His canon gainst self
slaughter (132). Fixing the Catholic canon was the focal point of the reformers.
Elizabethan and Jacobean drama often reflects the laborers that formed the 1640
English Revolution. Ben Jonsons character Zeal of the Land Busy in Bartholomew Fair
was a comic figure with an uncompromising commitment to a political ideal; he can be
compared to the Calvinist saints who were described as men o f hypocritical zeal,
meddlesome, continually on the move, nervously and ostentatiously searching for godly
things to do (Walzer 3). Jonsons dramas, like Shakespearean drama, were not confined
by any strict limits o f structure. Realism and restraint scored a triumph once in a while,
as in the satirical comedies of Ben Jonson, but most of the great plays give evidence o f a
frank desire to exploit emotion and set forth the glory of man in action upon the stage just

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as Raphael, Titian, and Michelangelo had set it forth in painting and sculpture (Bradner
14). Shakespeares Prince Hamlet serves as a direct reflection of such emotion.
Hamlets contradictory thoughts about death and the afterlife mirror those of
Shakespeares contemporaries. On the one hand, Francis Bacon argues that fear of death
is weak and cowardly because death is a natural part of life: Men fear death, as children
fear to go in the dark; and as that natural fear in children is increased with tales, so is the
other (1). Yet it is a fear o f death that dissuades Hamlet from suicide:
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause, theres the respect
That makes calamity of so long life. (III.i.65-68)
According to Hamlet, not knowing what the afterlife will be causes people to withstand
their lives on earth. The Anglican priest John Donne, in his own funeral service that he
wrote and delivered shortly before he died entitled Deaths Duel (1631), discusses the
importance o f the last moments of life: The tree lies as it falls its true, but it is not the
last stroake that fells the tree, nor the last word nor gaspe that qualifies the soule.. . . Our
critical day is not the very day o f our death: but the whole course of our life (153).
French philosopher Michel de Montaigne, who lived in the century prior to Donne,
disagrees (1575): in this last scene between ourselves and death, there is no more
pretense. We must use plain words, and display such goodness or purity as we have at the
bottom o f the pot (343). Hamlet questions what the afterlife might be if he dies with sin

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or without living a good, moral earthly life. Although Catholic, Montaigne is also
skeptical about what has been said about death:
We put one question, and they return us a whole hive. As no event, no
face, entirely resembles another, so do they not entirely differ: an
ingenious mixture of nature. If our faces were not alike, we could not
distinguish man from beast; if they were not unlike, we could not
distinguish one man from another; all things hold by some similitude;
every example halts and the relation which is drawn from experience is
always faulty and imperfect. Comparisons are ever coupled at one end or
the other; so do the laws serve, and are fitted to every one of our affairs,
by some wrested, biased, and forced interpretation. (343)
Hamlet shares this skepticism. He is determined to rely on his own ability to reason to
determine his actions. However, Montaigne understands that humankind is indeed
human: Chaque home porte la forme entiere de Ihumaine condition [Every man
beareth the whole stampe o f humane condition] (qtd. in Ryan 29). Kiernan Ryan, fellow
of New Hall, Cambridge, examines this point and argues that "what starts to evolve is the
understanding that every individual is also a human being, whose facilities, experiences
and aspirations are shared, or sharable, with the rest of the species (29). Hamlet
procrastinates in killing Claudius throughout most of the play because he wants to first
determine for himself the moral course of action. Protestantism and Catholicism, because
they are religions devised by man, leave many questions to blind faith. An intellectual
thinker like Hamlet might reject any type of blindness to facts. Hamlet does not trust

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written words and corrupt politics. Hamlet might understand Montaignes description of
laws that are served by biased and forced interpretations. Lars Engle explains
Montaignes point: Montaigne's bottomless self-awareness and his humane skepticism
demonstrate that modem tendencies to understand human individuality in terms of
psychological interiority and the capacity to retain private judgment had a prominent and
widely read Renaissance exemplar (227). However, Hamlet is not just an individual; he
is a prince whose purpose in life is to inherit the throne. Concerning princedom, Luther
turned to Proverbs 28:16: A prince that wanteth understanding will oppress many with
injustice. Likewise, Calvinists appreciated the sin of trying to understand Gods will.
Luther investigates the issue:
No matter how good and equitable the laws are, they all make exceptions
of cases o f necessity, in which they cannot be enforced. Therefore, a
prince must have the law in his hand as firmly as the sword, and decide in
his own mind when and where the laws must be applied strictly or with
moderation, so that reason may always control all law and be the highest
law and rule over all laws. (393)
Hamlets dilemma is for the prince to understand whether or not he should allow his
conscience to create reasons for and against killing Claudius. Luthers message is clear:
A prince must follow [Moses] example to proceed with fear; he must depend neither
upon dead books nor upon living heads, but cling solely to God (394). However,
Luther rejected the idea that man should use his ability to reason in order to understand
the unexplained. Karen Armstrong explains this rejection: God, [Luther] insisted,

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strictly forbade speculative discussion about his nature. To attempt to reach him by
means of reason alone could be dangerous and lead to despair.. .the Christian should
appropriate the revealed truths of scripture and make them his own (278).
If Hamlet is to avenge his fathers murder by killing the murderer, would he
achieve salvation? Explaining that men are sinners and not perfectly spiritual, Luther
states that men will achieve this perfection only on the last day, the day o f the
resurrection of the dead (67). John Calvin advises men not to indulge in curiosity, not
to speak, or think, or even desire to know, concerning obscure subjects, anything beyond
the information given in the Divine Word, to forsake unprofitable speculations, which
have neither certainty nor daily use to leave to God the knowledge of himself (qtd. in
Walzer 24). In a discussion about the differences between Calvinist, Lutheran and
Catholic ideologies, Walzer explains that Calvins writings might be called a theology
anti-theological, noting that Calvin was not sympathetic to men tortured by the
problem of salvation. Luther was a theologian whose compelling concern was always
with the private knowledge o f God. Catholics combined Christian morality and
salvation, refraining from sin and receiving absolution through the Sacrament of Penance
after sinning in order to achieve salvation. Protestantism attempted to push the same
further and further apart. As these differences became more and more apparent,
Protestant Christianity came to suggest either a privately cultivated communion with God
or a social religion (Walzer 23-25). The Protestant references throughout the play
contradict the Catholic markers previously discussed. Hamlets attempt to understand
religious quandaries causes him to procrastinate as he seeks religious truths.

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33

Hamlet considers his own lifes course and decides that the sin of killing Claudius
will make him unprepared for Heaven. He does not, however, consider the actual sin
itself. Sir Thomas Mores godly instruction, written while imprisoned in the Tower of
London (1534), states: Bear no malice nor evil will to no man living. For either the man
is good or [wicked].. .If he be nought, either he shall amend and die good and go to God,
or abide nought, and die nought, and go to the devil (119). Hamlet ignores the words of
the Catholic martyr. He is concerned with his own afterlife and not with justifying the
murder o f Claudius.
Protestantism was founded in part by Martin Luthers challenges to the Popes
authority on the issue o f receiving sacraments, forming a belief system that dismisses the
necessity of Penance and the validity of purgatory. Luther argued that purgatory was
simply a financial resource to benefit the Church rather than a scripturally-based valid
belief. The question o f the sacraments, particularly the Sacrament o f Holy Communion,
was debated perhaps most passionately by Luther. The issue needed to be addressed as
Luther argued which sacraments should remain in Protestantism due to their scriptural
foundations and which sacraments should be banned due to their place in the Catholic
canon. The questions about Jesus physical and spiritual body greatly increased in the
second half of the sixteenth century. Although both Catholics and Protestants agreed that
the scriptures state Do this in remembrance o f me, there remained questions as to what
constituted the body o f Christ. Lee Wandel, in his examination of the Eucharist in the
Reformation, notes the importance o f the Eucharist to sixteenth century Europeans:

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34

What is my body? What does it mean to have a body? What sort of


body did Christ have? In that moment, in the sixteenth century, 1500 years
after his death and resurrection, did he sit corporeally at the right hand of
the Father or was he corporeally present among Christians on earth? Was
Christs body human?...The questions revealed a visceral diversity among
human beings who had held themselves unified by a single text, (xi)
Luther and Calvin attempted to answer such questions. Luther wanted the holy bread and
wine to be made available to the laity and not just priests. Calvin, on the other hand,
examined the power, or lack thereof, of the Eucharist. He warned that understanding the
body and blood o f Christ is too high a mystery to express in words. However, he
warned people never to subscribe to the falsehood that Christ is not present in the
Supper if he is not secreted under a covering o f bread (Institutes 270). Calvin wrote this
explanation in Book Four, the title of which can be translated to: Outward Means by
which God Helps Us. Catholics disagreed and remained loyal to their beliefs in the
Sacrament o f Holy Communion. This religious seesaw of ideas mirrors Hamlets
paradoxical thoughts about salvation.
Neither Hamlet nor Claudius considers a need of Penance. This Protestant marker
is based on the premise that the Sacrament of the Reconciliation is not Biblical but rather
used to bring the Roman Catholic Church money and power. Hamlet must kill
Claudius in order to aid in his father's ascension into heaven. This contradictory Catholic
marker is based on the canon: one must receive the Sacrament of Penance to be absolved
from sin or, in death, atone for his or her sins in purgatory. Shakespeares use of irony to

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35

highlight Hamlet's "soul searching" or seeking the truth about what happens to one's
soul after leaving the physical world causes him to make the fateful decision not to kill
Claudius when given the ideal opportunity. His procrastination while truth seeking
contributes to his downfall. If Hamlet would have killed Claudius while Claudius was
at prayer Hamlet, Gertrude, Laertes and Polonius would not have encountered their
tragic ends.
Hamlet believes that the Ghost needs his help and is indeed in purgatory, a
distinctly Catholic belief. However, the same Hamlet who believes his father is trapped
in purgatory cannot kill Claudius while thinking he is praying. If Claudius were a
Catholic seeking redemption, his prayers for forgiveness would have required a priest
since Catholics cannot be absolved from sin without a priests absolution. Hamlets
reaction to seeing Claudius on his knees in prayer is to delay in his revenge until Claudius
is less fit for heaven. Claudius inability to pray does not surface from a Catholic belief
that a priest must be present, but rather the fear that his intentions are unjustifiable:
.. .what form of prayer
Can serve my turn? forgive me my foul murther,?
That cannot be since I am still possessd
O f those effects for which I did the murther. (III. iii. 51-54)
Claudius predicament lies not in the fact that a priest is not present, but rather that he
still reaps the rewards of his sin: [his] crown, [his] own ambition, and [his] queen (55).
Hamlet decides not to kill Claudius in his present state of prayer: And am I then
revenged / To take him in the purging of his soul, / When he is fit and seasond for his

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36

passage? No! (84-87). Shakespeare uses Protestant and Catholic markers to hint at a
solution to Hamlets rational questioning of unsure religious truths about salvation.
Hamlet remains skeptical and, moments later, kills Polonius, yet another mistake caused
by his search for religious truth.
The irony that Claudius is unable to pray and Hamlet cannot kill Claudius while
believing him to be in prayer contributes to the recurring theme of how one might
achieve salvation. The issue o f the sacraments, particularly penance, was debated by the
reformers. Martin Luthers belief in the grace o f God, a focal point of his sermons and
letters, directly contradicts the Catholic argument that forgiveness can come only through
a priests absolution. In his 52nd out of 95 theses, Luther states: It is vain to rely on
salvation by letters o f indulgence, even if the commissary, or indeed the pope himself,
were to pledge his own soul for their validity (495). Like letters of indulgence, the
monetary value o f purgatory to the Roman Catholic Church had Elizabethans questioning
the validity o f a place called purgatory. The sacrament of reconciliation must be
preformed regularly in order to escape purgatory. Challenging the Catholic belief, Martin
Luther states: In the world you see how hard it is to approach the Roman emperor and
gain help; but a devout Christian can always come to God with a humble, believing
prayer and be heard (244). Donne also contradicts this belief, although not until on his
deathbed:
if my infirmity overtakes me, thou forsake me not. Say to my soul, My
son, thou hast sinned, do so no more; but say also, that though I do, thy
spirit o f remorse and compunction shall never depart from m e.. .thy long-

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37

lived, thy everlasting mercy, will visit me, though that which I most
earnestly pray against, should fall upon me, a relapse into those sins which
I have truly repented, and thou hast fully pardoned. (23)
Here, Donne addresses sin, forgiveness, salvation, but not purgatory. Although Donnes
sermons were written after Hamlet was first preformed, his Anglican beliefs reflect ideas
that stemmed from the Book o f Common Prayer, of which Elizabethans were very
familiar. The Anglican Church, finalized by James I shortly after Shakespeare wrote
Hamlet, was comprised o f a belief system already common to Elizabethan England.
Elizabethans could appreciate Shakespeares presumably deliberate variations between
Catholic and Protestant markers in Hamlet.

Hamlets belief in purgatory and religious

questions about how one achieves salvation mirrors both the Catholic belief in salvation
and the Protestant uncertainty about fate.
Hamlets preoccupation with sin and salvation delays his duty to kill Claudius,
inadvertently causing the death of his mother and ultimately causing his own tragic
downfall. As the dutiful Ophelia meets Hamlet in Act III, she carries the book Polonius
had previously given her, presumably the Book o f Common Prayers. Hamlet greets her:
The fair Ophelia. Nymph, in thy orisons / Be all my sins remembered (Ill.i.88-89).
Here, Hamlet is combining fate and myth (Nymph) with religious prayer (orisons).
He is preoccupied with sin and the way to salvation. The same Hamlet that believes his
father is trapped in purgatory seeks the grace that Martin Luther so passionately
defended.

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38

It is important to consider that the only characters to see the ghost reflect a
younger, educated generation. Horatio, a Wittenberg scholar and possible representation
of stoicism, is the only character that is trusted to help Hamlet execute his plan to reveal
the kings guilt. Likewise, Shakespeare leaves the present state of religion in Denmark
ambiguous. Hamlet initially appears as the only person mourning his fathers death.
He does not really remember why or how he should remember his father; he has
forgotten the old way to pray for the dead (Low 461-463). At the beginning of the play,
Hamlet is melancholy, mourning his fathers death. However, he does not offer prayers
for the dead. This Protestant marker reflects Luthers belief that Gods ideal grace will
bring salvation. However, Hamlet believes that his fathers soul is lingering in purgatory
and will remain so until Hamlet aids in his ascension. Hamlet delays in helping his
suffering father while he contemplates religious questions both consciously and with
conscience. In the 1559 Book o f Common Prayer, the reasons for the eradication are
clear:
the moste weightie cause of the abolishement of certain Ceremonies was,
that thei wer so farre abused, partly by the supersticious blindnesse of the
rude and unlearned, and partly by the unsaciable avarice of such as sought
more their owne lucre, then the glorye of God: that the abuses could not
well be taken awaye, the thing remaining still. (8)
Although the ceremony o f a paid prayer for the dead was abused and subsequently taken
away, mourning and remembrance continued to be a preoccupation for many
Elizabethans who experienced the deaths of loved ones. Hamlet shares this

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39

preoccupation. Throughout the play, he attempts to understand his earthly moral


responsibilities and his place in the afterlife.

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40

CHAPTER 6

CONCLUSION
I f you look at history you'll fin d that no state has
been so plagued by its rulers as when power has
fallen into the hands o f some dabbler in philosophy
or literary addict.
Erasmus
Hamlet is a prince, a Wittenberg scholar, a philosopher, a thinker, a humanist, a
Catholic, a Protestant, and, most importantly, Shakespeares tragic hero. He is not an
Erasmus or a John Colet lecturing at Oxford nor is he a Saint Thomas More imprisoned
and executed for his beliefs. Hamlet is a character who reflects a Renaissance man, a
complicated character whose tragic downfall is at least partly caused by his lack of
understanding about mans physical and spiritual, earthly and heavenly existence. It has
been said that there have been few more turbulent times than the Renaissance. The
Protestant Reformation marked great changes in England, changes that were both well
and ill-received, causing triumph for some and disappointment for others. Hamlet
attempts to understand what it takes to achieve salvation, how ones sins are redeemed,
and whether man or God is responsible for revenge. He is not heroic in a traditional
sense, i.e. ridding Denmark of a treasonous, tyrannical King. He is heroic in that he
followed his own morals as well as his ability to reason, ultimately drawing the
conclusion that Gods will is paramount. He transcended his beliefs from ones that made
him a coward to ones that would serve as an example of a workable solution to questions
o f faith.

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41

Religious beliefs, based on Biblical scriptures, vary as greatly as Hamlets


personal philosophies. Martin Luther and John Calvin attempted to challenge the widelyaccepted beliefs instilled by an infallible Pope supported by the wealthy and powerful
Roman Catholic Church, a daunting task for even the highly educated and passionately
devout. They were successful. Lutherans and Calvinists have reaped the rewards of their
efforts for over four hundred years. Hamlet cannot conform to an organized system of
belief. He questions and falters, makes decisions, then quickly changes his mind.
However, this flaw makes him the plays hero: his story will be told to the unsatisfied.
Hamlet begins with allusions to Biblical passages and ends in the same. The play
is circular: the beginning leads to the end which takes the reader back to the beginning.
Hamlet never fully answers the questions he asks, and the audience is challenged to
decide for itself whether or not Hamlet acted morally and justly. A Catholic Hamlet is as
doomed as a Protestant Hamlet; both theologies would lead him to his tragic downfall.
Elizabethans were faced with contradicting, conflicting religious ideals that defined the
era. Hamlets suffering does not end with his death. He is afflicted with failure and selfdestruction. Hamlets hamartia is his procrastination as he seeks religious truths.
Hamlet begins a quest to avenge his fathers brutal murder. His primary
motivation is to defend a cause on behalf of others. Shakespeare incorporates several
elements o f a quest narrative in his tragedy. Hamlet is called upon by a presumably
Catholic Ghost, seeks the help and guidance o f Horatio, a learned, stoic scholar, in order
to complete his quest, and upon completion o f his quest transforms from a melancholy

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42

questioner of truth to the hero whose story will encourage others to use reason and logic
rather than dictated beliefs.
The conflicting and contradicting religious implications in the play allow one
insight into the religious pandemonium of Elizabethan times. The disputes that divided
Queen Elizabeths constituents and neighboring European Nations mirror many of
Hamlets paradoxical thoughts and actions in the play.

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WORKS CITED

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