In "Hamlet, is Shakespeare commenting on how religion may be a help or a hinderance to people?If so, how? If not, why not? Characters in this play often use their religious beliefs to dictate their...

In "Hamlet, is Shakespeare commenting on how religion may be a help or a hinderance to people?

If so, how? If not, why not?

Characters in this play often use their religious beliefs to dictate their courses of action, or their requests of others. This especially true for characters contemplating death or the afterlife. Provide three examples of this and explain what role religion helps or hinders characters?

Asked on by sadyb

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lmetcalf's profile pic

lmetcalf | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Senior Educator

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Hamlet is most definitely a character who is influenced by his religious beliefs.  His supposed lack of action in the play is very much related to his concern over his religious convictions and his understanding of what happens after death.

The first place we see this is in his first soliloquy.  He says

Or that the Everlasting had not fix'd
His canon 'gainst self-slaughter! O God! God!

He is so upset over the loss of his father and his mother's quick remarriage that he has actually contemplated suicide, but decides against it because it is against God's laws and he presumably doesn't want to damn his soul.

He is thinking about the same subject when he comes to his believing the ghost's words.  He wants to believe the ghost, but must find independent proof that Claudius murdered King Hamlet.  Hamlet knows that ghosts can be "true" or can be the devil is disguise who are really out to damn the soul of the living by getting them to commit some sinful act (like murder).  He spends a good part of the play trying to determine Claudius's guilt and only feels ready to act after the play within a play proves his guilty.

Even once he is ready to act, he thinks about his religious beliefs.  Right after the play within a play he sees Claudius alone, raises his sword to strike him, and then talks himself out of it.  His hesitation comes from the idea that if he kills Claudius when he is at prayer, then Claudius's soul will be completely free of sin and his soul with go straight to heaven.  Hamlet is disturbed that Claudius would then have a better after-life than his own murdered father who died with sins on his soul and is now suffering his appointed time in Purgatory.  Hamlet delays killing Claudius then and decides to wait until Claudius is engaged in some sinful act that will damn his soul straight to hell.  All of these decisions are based on his understanding of his religious beliefs.

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