At the time of Shakespeare’s writing The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (hereby referred to as Hamlet), the two most commonly practiced denominations of Christianity in Europe were Catholicism and Protestantism. Within the play itself, Shakespeare references the traditions and ideas of both religions freely, creating cause for debate among modern scholars as to what part, if any, religious context plays in Hamlet. The influence of both religions is evident; however, as Shakespeare mixes the two, difficulties arise in finding a clear interpretation of the opposing religious contexts. The idea of Catholicism as the foremost religion in Shakespeare’s Hamlet arises as a direct result of several specific references within the text; namely, Old Hamlet’s implied residence in Purgatory following the denial of his last rites having been performed. Additionally, one may look at the traditionality of revenge tragedies (of which Hamlet is) in the Catholic faith as well as viewing Hamlet’s struggle to bring himself to kill Claudius as an issue arising from the paradoxical nature of his situation. On the other hand, the idea of Protestantism as the primary religion in Hamlet is supported by the location and time frame within which the play is set and references in the text to Wittenberg, a city considered to be the “birthplace” of Protestantism.
Following Old Hamlet’s death at the hands of Claudius, he was denied his last rites. Traditionally, the last rites are a series of prayers to be given to Catholics before they die. As Old Hamlet was murdered, his last rites were denied to him. This, in turn, meant that Old Hamlet could not ascend to Heaven and must, instead, dwell in Purgatory. The idea of Old Hamlet’s residence in Purgatory is further supported by the similarities between his reply when questioned by Hamlet and the Catholic idea of Purgatory: “I am thy father’s spirit / Doom’d 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” (1.5.9-13). The images created by Old Hamlet’s speech coincide with Catholic beliefs about Purgatory and what purpose it serves. Another fact which also lends credibility to Catholicism’s supposed importance in the context of the play is that of the “revenge tragedy” and its origins in Catholic nations. The revenge tragedy as a narrative construct has its roots in Spanish and Italian literature, with Spain and Italy playing the parts of strongly Catholic nations at this period in time. Also noteworthy is the possibility of viewing Hamlet’s apparent reluctance to take revenge and kill Claudius as an internal struggle resulting from a paradox created by the Catholic faith. While it is universally accepted that a Catholic’s duty is to God above all else, it is stated in the New Testament with reference to man’s duty to his family that “... if any not provide for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith and is worse than an infidel” (1 Timothy 5:8 King James Bible). The question then posed is this: Is Hamlet right to take revenge and kill Claudius on behalf of his father, and in that commit the mortal sin of murder, or should he wait and allow God to exact vengeance on Claudius and possibly face “denying the faith” and as a result, be condemned to Hell himself?
In accepting Catholicism as the primary religion in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, one denies historical fact in that Hamlet is set in Denmark at an uncertain point in time somewhere between 1599 and 1602 A.D. During this time period, Denmark was considered a Protestant (and more specifically, Lutheran) nation. It has never been made clear whether or not Shakespeare intended to mirror the true-to-life Denmark in his work, but the references can be easily inferred. One of the most important pieces of evidence related to Protestantism in Hamlet is in reference to the University of Wittenberg, which Hamlet, Horatio, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern attend during the course of the work. Wittenberg, the city in which their university is located, is widely known as the birthplace of Protestantism and was made famous in part by Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation and the nailing of the 95 Theses to the door of the All-Saints Church. The university itself also has significant ties to Protestantism; Martin Luther himself was a professor at the University of Wittenberg and it was during his tenure as Wittenberg’s “Doctor of Bible” that Luther conceived of his famous 95 Theses. In addition, the University of Wittenberg served as a center of the Protestant Reformation movement in Europe. Therefore, it can be inferred that during their time at the university, Hamlet and his acquaintances would likely have been very heavily exposed to and quite possibly even expected to serve the Protestant faith.
Shakespeare’s Hamlet was written during a time of religious conflict in Europe and set during a time period of more vicious religious strife; and as such, the play itself is rife with allusions to both Protestantism and Catholicism. In mixing Protestantism and Catholicism together, Shakespeare creates conflicting imagery which can be difficult to interpret. However, by separating the evidence from the whole work and viewing it on its own, or with historical context, one can see how religion can and does influence the actions and thoughts of the characters within and how religion itself influenced Shakespeare.
Rishabh Goswami is an undergraduate computer science student at Ashoka University. Rishabh previously worked with Mahmudabad Estate and currently working as a data analyst intern at Adobe Inc.