Religion’s Role in Hamlet
It is known that William Shakespeare did not follow or support any one religion. However, he evidently had a great deal of religious education. In his play, Hamlet, Shakespeare uses his knowledge of religion and culture to manipulate the reactions of the audience for which it was originally intended. This is seen by observing the way in which he exploits the Elizabethans' confusion concerning religion, his use of conflicting cultures
to evoke responses in the audience, and the significance of Hamlet
's Christian knowledge.
The time in which Shakespeare's Hamlet was performed was one of great religious confusion for the Elizabethans. They had only recently come under Protestant rule, but they were all familiar with Catholic beliefs
. Shakespeare used this knowledge to his advantage. The Ghost in Hamlet is an example of this. According to the Catholic belief system, the spirit of Hamlet's father is in purgatory. This means that he is not harmful but merely doing penance ‘till the foul crimes done in [his] days of nature are burnt and purg’d away.’ (I. v. 12-13) This is necessary because he was ‘cut off even in the blossoms of [his]sin.’ (I. v. 76) This attitude was not unknown to the Elizabethans. However, according to Protestant beliefs, purgatory did not exist, and any ghost was evil. This is reflected in Horatio’s scholarly concern that the ghost ‘bodes some strange eruption to our state.’ (I. i. 69) Because of this confusion, not knowing whether Old Hamlet’s ghost was ‘a spirit of health or goblin damn’d,’ (I. iv. 40) the Elizabethan audience would have supported Hamlet in his choice to be sure before killing Claudius, his father’s murderer. This shows how Shakespeare uses the audience’s uncertainty to manipulate their response to the play.
Shakespeare also uses conflicting culture to control the audience’s reactions. Hamlet is set in Denmark, but written for an English audience. According to the Danish tradition of the blood feud, the King’s murder requires vengeance, and filial duty dictates that Hamlet ‘was born to set it right.’ (I. v. 189) However, to the Christian audience, murder for any reason violated the highest Christian ethic -- love. This includes love for one’s enemies. Therefore the blood feud conflicted with the audience’s Christian views. By juxtaposing Danish culture with Christian morals, Shakespeare again persuades the Elizabethan audience to have a certain reaction to the play. Hamlet’s knowledge of Christianity is shown when he does not take the opportunity to kill Claudius while in the church. Hamlet does not want Claudius to go to Heaven, so he waits until his soul is in greater jeopardy. When Hamlet kills Polonius, mistaking him for Claudius, he thinks Claudius is being incestuous and will therefore go to Hell. Likewise, when Hamlet kills Claudius in the midst of a murder plot, his desire is to send him to eternal damnation and avenge his father’s death. This knowledge of Christianity is not typical for a Dane. In other words, Hamlet is basically an English play set in a foreign land. This contradiction serves to appeal to the intended audience, the Elizabethans.
Thus by examining Hamlet’s odd Christian education, the use of cultural conflict, and the way this plays on the Elizabethans’ own religious upheaval one can see how Shakespeare’s knowledge of religion was useful in writing Hamlet. He used this education to manipulate his audience by incorporating English and Danish cultural and religious elements as it suited his purpose. Perhaps he was able to do this because of his own lack of attachment to a certain set of religious beliefs.