Religion’s Role in Hamlet

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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.

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