William world. These religious tensions present in

William Shakespeare’s
‘Hamlet’ is a play that brings to life the religious conflicts found in Europe
across the sixteenth century and spiritual uncertainty within his characters. This
essay will provide a contextual analysis of the religious themes found within ‘Hamlet’,
as I believe this to be the fundamental theme within the play which sets up all
other action. This essay will also look at the historical, political, cultural
and social issues that were taking place throughout Shakespeare’s life and the
time that he wrote the play. I will answer the question above with the three
main points of: the general theme of religion itself within the play, Hamlet’s ‘To
be or not to be’ soliloquy found in Act 3 Scene 1 of the play and with this the
ideas that surrounded suicide in Elizabethan England, and finally the
adaptation of ‘Hamlet’ across time and how the theme of religion has remained
prominent throughout time.

 

Religion is a key
theme within ‘Hamlet’; that connects the characters within the play. Without the
theme of religion, the plot would be inexistent as the Ghost of Old Hamlet
would not be, “Doomed for a certain term to walk the night, / And for the day
confined to fast in fires, / Till the foul crimes done in his days of nature
/ Are burnt and purged away.” (Shakespeare, 2015) During the
Elizabethan era “deep tensions between Protestants and Catholics came from
England’s recent departure from the Roman Catholic Church, initiated by … King
Henry VIII” (Clunie, 2018). It was also speculated that
Shakespeare’s father was a Catholic in a Protestant world. These religious tensions
present in England from 1533 to 1603 and the rumours surrounding Shakespeare’s
father would certainty played a part in the importance of religion in ‘Hamlet’.

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If it was true that Shakespeare’s father was a Catholic, he would have been
trapped in society, not being able to be free, much like the Ghost of Old
Hamlet is. Furthermore, the fact that the Ghost is in purgatory, suggests that
he is a Roman Catholic, another indication that Hamlet’s father is a reflection
of Shakespeare’s father. The theme of religion is also important to many of the
characters within the play, in Act 3 Scene 1, Hamlet tells Ophelia to “get thee
to a nunnery” (Shakespeare, 2015), although it Hamlet
is not completely clear as to what he means by this, it is evident that
religion would provide some security and safety for Ophelia. Furthermore, in
Act 3 Scene 3, Claudius is found confessing his sins and is hoping for a pardon
from heaven, yet he cannot repent his sins as “he is in too much turmoil…but he
calls on angels to help, and kneels to pray.” (Shakespeare, Cambridge School,
2014).

In Act 5, there is a whole scene dedicated to the theme of religion through the
burial of Ophelia and the ambiguity surrounding her death. Therefore, the as
the theme of religion is present throughout the play, it is clear to an
audience that this is fundamental for the play to progress. As religion was
also highly important in Elizabethan England an audience would be able to
reflect on their own beliefs and sympathise with the characters they saw on
stage as they dealt with their own religious beliefs.

 

‘To be or not to be’
is perhaps one of Shakespeare’s most famous lines. It is this, Hamlet’s fourth
soliloquy, that Shakespeare shows the audience Hamlet’s philosophical nature. “Its
real significance (the significance of all Hamlet’s ‘philosophical’ comments)
is its relevance to his inner struggle” (Boorman, 1987). Hamlet contemplates
life and death and whether or not one should take the easy option in life by committing
suicide and ending all his pain. The depth of Hamlets speech reflects the
turmoil that he is in. During Tudor times, “both the church and the state took
a strict view on suicide, regarding it as a mortal sin which was linked to deep
despair and demonic pride.” (Shakespeare, No Sweat, 2018) Shakespeare needed
to tread carefully around this subject matter so not to offend his audiences; this
suggests why so many of his tragedies are set oversees, e.g. Hamlet is set in
Denmark and Romeo and Juliet is set in Italy. The audience can distant
themselves from the action whilst still getting to witness this very important
subject. Critics have suggested that the ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy in fact
does not show Hamlet contemplate suicide but rather he is discussing his father’s
death, Claudius’ guilt and his admiration for Horatio.

 

“The speech has suffered from being detached from its context: it is spoken,
that is, between the time when Hamlet has laid his plot and the actual
performance of the play … Hamlet is not discussing whether to kill himself or
not, but whether to kill Claudius or not, if the play proves his guilt.” (Muir, 1983)

 

Although this may be
true in relation to where the soliloquy is placed within the play, Hamlet’s
emotions do appear to be true and real towards himself. The audience has
already seen Hamlet accept the Ghost to be his fathers and acknowledged that he
shall tell whether or not Claudius is guilty when he says, “the plays the thing
wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.” (Shakespeare,
2015).

If Shakespeare’s did mean for Hamlet to begin to question his father’s Ghost
then the whole purpose of Hamlet exacting revenge would be pointless, the rest
of the play might as well not exist. Those who did commit, or attempted to
commit suicide in Elizabethan England were known as ‘self-murders’ and were
therefore often ostracised by their family and society as they were seen as committing
a criminal act. The audience can see that Hamlet has become isolated from his
family due to his differing opinions, especially regarding death and mourning
found in Act 1, and perhaps Shakespeare did this in order to reflect the expulsion
from society that those who thought about or actually did commit suicide.

 

In 2015 the Barbican
put on a production of ‘Hamlet’ starring Benedict Cumberbatch and directed by
Lyndsey Tuner. In early previews of the production, the ‘To be or not to be’
soliloquy opened the play, but Tuner’s decision to do this was not received
well by critics. There was an enormous outpour from the audience, demanding
that the speech should be moved back to Act 3 Scene 1. Tuner decided to listen
to her audience and the soliloquy retuned to where Shakespeare had intended for
it to be, but reviews were still poor, with it receiving two stars from The
Guardian (Billington, 2015). The issue with this
production was that Tuner tried to change Shakespeare, she played around with
the text and adapted Hamlet’s ideas and views on death and religion so that
they appeared acceptable in his society. The fact that audiences appreciate the
way that Shakespeare wrote the text for there to be such an outpour suggests
that we should really leave it alone and not try to adapt the play for ‘modern
audiences’. Yet what is there to really adapt? The theme of religion still
remains as an issue in modern society; audiences can go to a production and
still come out understanding the conflict that Shakespeare was writing about in
the seventeenth century.  

 

Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’
will remain as a play that will continue to work across time mainly due to the
fact that, although society has modernised itself, the fundamental issues are
still the same. There will always be conflict in the world regarding religion,
be it in the seventeenth century between Catholics and Protestants or even in a
more secular twenty-first century. The theme of religion also helps the play to
work well across different cultures, allowing it to be universal for its
audiences. It is clear that religion was something that influenced Shakespeare
a lot in his writing, as it is a theme that is mentioned across a number of his
plays. Whether or not modern productions try to change Shakespeare, the themes
will always remain the same and will continue to throughout the future. There
is no escaping the fact religion is important to Hamlet, just as it was to
Shakespeare.