How does religion help or hinder the characters in William Shakespeare's Hamlet?
William Shakespeare's Hamlet is a revenge tragedy full of murder and almost-incestuous relationships. Those do not sound like the typical elements of a story that is at all concerned with religious themes; however, the issues of mortality and the afterlife play a significant role in this play.
Hamlet was written in the 16th century in England, when religion was a tremendous source of violence and anxiety. The Protestant Reformation introduced a new kind of religious thinking to the English people, and the way Catholics and Protestants saw the important issues of life and death were still confusing to people at this time.
We know that Hamlet's constant indecision is the cause of most of the trouble he and other characters face throughout the course of the play; consider the reason for his indecision. We hear it from him almost from the first time we meet him, and it is a consistent theme throughout the play.
Hamlet is despondent because his father is dead and his mother has remarried much to quickly--and her new husband is her old husband's brother. That would cause some consternation for a young man who is sensitive to the issues of life, death and the afterlife. In his first soliloquy, Hamlet says:
O, that this too too solid flesh would melt
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not fix'd
His canon 'gainst self-slaughter!
Clearly the only reason he does not commit suicide is because he believes God ("the Everlasting") has proclaimed it a sin.
Later, in Act III, Hamlet speaks these lines in a soliloquy:
Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveler returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
This is a similar position to the Act I soliloquy, and Hamlet believes no one would bother to endure a difficult, burdensome life unless they felt some uncertainty about what happens after death ("the undiscovered country").
This hesitation to kill himself because of eternal consequences carries over into his plans to exact revenge on Claudius on behalf of his father. Hamlet has several opportunities to kill Claudius, but he hesitates and defers until the very end.
In Act III scene iii, Claudius is alone and admits to killing his brother, using a biblical reference to Cain and Abel, and knows that he has been cursed by God for the deed. He feels unworthy to pray because he is still reaping the benefits of his unholy deed, yet he does seem to be suffering from guilt.
Claudius finally kneels to pray, and that is when Hamlet sees him and refuses to kill a man who is praying because he believes Claudius will have a better afterlife if he has asked forgiveness for his sins.
Hamlet's Ghost talks about the horrors of purgatory, a place Catholics would have believed in and understood, but Protestants did not believe in it. Hamlet has been studying in Wittenberg, the home of Martin Luther, so we assume he is a Protestant.
Ophelia's suicide prompts another religious issue; she is not supposed to be given a church burial, but both Hamlet and Laertes are horrified at the nominal burial rites she is given. It prompts both men to action.
Hamlet both acts and fails to act because of his religious beliefs. Denmark and nearly everyone in this play is impacted by those actions and inactions: Polonius, Ophelia, Laertes, Claudius, Gertrude, Hamlet, and even Horatio and Fortinbras.