How is religion relevant to William Shakespeare's Hamlet?

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vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Religion plays an obviously crucial role in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Religion is mentioned repeatedly in the play, and religious issues are often the subject of extended discussion. To mention just two instances: Hamlet seems to contemplate the possibility of suicide in his famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy, and at the end of that speech he seems to refrain from suicide, in part, because he cannot be sure what will happen to his spirit after his death. Fear of the aftermath of death, as much as any desire to continue living, prompts Hamlet to refrain from killing himself.  Another scene in which the importance of religion is obviously important is the scene in which Claudius tries to pray as Hamlet stands secretly and quietly nearby, wondering whether he should take advantage of this opportunity to kill the new king.  Ultimately, Hamlet decides against such a course of action. Yet he makes this decision not so much because he thinks that killing Claudius would be a violation of religious law, but rather because he worries that if he kills Claudius as Claudius tries to pray, he may, ironically, send Claudius to heaven (and perhaps himself to hell). In other words, very pragmatic considerations, rather than deeply religious worries, prevent Hamlet from taking advantage of his opportunity to murder Claudius.

One of the major debates concerning religion in Hamlet concerns which religious ethic, if any, applies to this play.  Should we see the play’s events from a Protestant point of view? If so, then the ghost (according to many critics) is almost surely an evil spirit sent by Satan to tempt Hamlet to commit a crime that will damn his soul to hell.  Protestant readings of the play are more likely than other kinds of readings to see the ghost as evil. On the other hand, readings rooted in Catholic theology are more likely to consider the ghost a figure briefly released from Purgatory in order to help right a serious spiritual wrong (Claudius’s murder of the old king). According to this approach, the ghost is not necessarily an evil spirit and may indeed function as an instrument of divine justice. Finally, yet another approach – which might be called a “pagan” approach – would suggest that few Elizabethans would really have been troubled by Hamlet’s plans for revenge or by the ghost’s efforts to encourage revenge.  According to this approach, most Elizabethans would have sympathized with Hamlet’s to discover the truth about his father’s death and to avenge himself on Claudius when Hamlet becomes convinced that Claudius is indeed the murderer of his father.  These readers would point to the praise of Hamlet offered by Horatio at the end of the play. If Horatio (these readers would argue) is not shocked and disgusted by Hamlet’s behavior, neither should we be. After all, near the very end of the final scene, Horatio says to the dead or dying Hamlet,

Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince, 
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!

Horatio seems to assume that Hamlet is not going to hell but to heaven. Horatio, in other words, does not seem to have any religious qualms about Hamlet’s conduct.

Religious interpretations of the play, however, are many and varied and are often in great conflict with one another.