Catholicism vs. Protestantism in Hamlet

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The writings of William Shakespeare, as with many other authors, reflect many of the social issues that relevant to the time in which his works were written and received by the general population.  One of these issues that had a particular effect upon the literary world and with general society as well was the shift in religious principles and ideology from purely Catholicism to that of Protestantism.  The shifting religious ideology and the effect upon the writings of Shakespeare are evident and can be seen clearly within the characters of Hamlet.  The motivations, interactions, internal conflicts, and decision making of the characters, particularly with Hamlet himself, can be seen as having direct motivation and influence from the religious ideology of the time.  In particular, the differences between the ideologies of Catholicism and Protestantism are distinctly displayed in the way in which Hamlet’s character is developed and acts throughout the play, which leads to the unique manner in which the actions of the play transpire and create a story that is reflective of the principles and ideologies that are expressed through Protestantism over that of Catholicism.

Hamlet itself is seen as one of the most influential and memorable pieces of literature that Shakespeare wrote as a playwright.  Written somewhere between the late 16th to early 17th centuries, Hamlet draws a great deal from some previously written stories, plays, poems, etc. in order to tell a grand tale focused around revenge, treachery, and moral corruption.  The presentation of the characters in the play is a representation of some of the vilest traits that were seen in society of the time as well as some of the nobler, notable ones that our society is taught to cherish.  The interplay between these factors, both the desirable and detestable, form the backbone of the character development by creating individuals that have both the power to perform acts of greatness and acts of the lowest regard for human morality.  Shakespeare expertly crafts this combination of good and evil in his work in order to accurately portray the constant struggle that faces each of the characters in the work, specifically how they each deal with adverse situations within their lives.  This difference in reaction to these adverse situations is constantly a driving force in the character’s actions and serves as a means for progressing the plotline and forming a means of symbolically portraying the time’s societal values and shifts in cultural norms that were occurring during the time in which Hamlet was originally written.

One of these shifts in the way in which society operating that is on full display in the play Hamlet is the role of religion and how it interlocks with the play’s characters’ development, emotional states, and actions.  It is important to realize that during the time of Hamlet’s production and release, there was a fundamental shift in the general population’s religious affiliations and beliefs.  Of course, in this circumstance, the shift in ideology was from that of a predominantly Catholic society to the much more general belief in and practice of Protestant ideology.  What is of particular relevance in the struggle played between these two religious ideologies is the unique presentation that is given to that their distinct ideologies throughout the play and the way in which Protestantism is shown to be logical and sound where Catholicism is shown to fail and be irrelevant whenever it is portrayed as a means of moral identification, judgment, and action.

It is important to recall that during the time of that Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, Protestantism was not only the religious affiliation that was accepted by the citizens of England but was the national religious affiliation that was forced to be followed by law.  The Quakers stood firm on these religious beliefs in the New World. For this reason, Hamlet continuously portrays the Catholicism ideology as being a worse way for an individual to go through their life as a means of guidance and personal principles.  From the onset of the play, Hamlet displays an attraction to the ideology of Catholicism and its, “humanistic attitude” (Curran, pg. 2) and continues to be, “deeply committed and tries to adhere throughout the play’s first four Acts,” (Curran, pg. 2).  As noted, since Catholicism was outlawed during the writing and release of Hamlet, the practices to the religious principle’s that Hamlet attempts to display and adhere to throughout the play are continually, “discredited, nullified, and made irrelevant at every point Hamlet tries to apply it,” (Curran, pg. 2).  Hamlet eventually accepts the ideology of that of Protestantism in the form of changing his own personal mentalities and outlooks in life in the later Acts of the play, but in doing so loses a great portion of himself and is returned to the audience as a lesser being than he originally is shown as.  

This sort of character shift can be seen as a criticism that Shakespeare himself has with society in the forcing of the common people to accept a particular form of religion and to be limited to only its practices.  The actions that transpire within Hamlet are a sort of showing from Shakespeare’s perspective on, “the very high intellectual and emotional cost of the newer religion’s very hard doctrine,” (Curran, pg. 3).  The audience can see such critics in the form the character motives and actions of Hamlet, as he contemplates the murder of his uncle, Claudius.  Hamlet speaks on the matter by saying: 

“Now might I do it pat, a now ‘a is a-praying; And now I’ll do’t. And so ‘a goes to heaven; And so am I reveng’d. That would be scann’d: A villain kills my father, and for that, I, his sole son, do this same villain send  To heaven. Why, this is hire and salary, not revenge. ‘A took my father grossly, full of bread, With all his crimes broad blown, as flush as May; And how his audit stands who knows save heaven? But in our circumstance and course of thought, ‘Tis heavy with him. And am I then reveng’d, To take him in the purging of his soul, When he is fit and season’d for his passage? No! Up, sword, and know thou a more horrid hent. When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage, Or in th’ incestuous pleasure of his bed, At game a-swearing, or about some act That has no relish of salvation in ‘t. Then trip him, that his heels may kick at heaven, And that his soul may be as damn’d and black. As hell, whereto it goes.  My mother stays. This physic but prolongs thy sickly days.” (Stanford, pgs. 310-311)

What this speech clearly shows is the torn nature that Hamlet feels on the notion of taking one’s life, regardless of that wrong doer’s actions and identity.  This contemplation can be carried out even further to a sort of dialogue about the differences displayed between Protestant and Catholic ideologies, as the battle between the two doctrines is a clear theme within the play.

This sort of battle of ideology can be extended to the character’s roles and relations within the play as well between such characters as King Hamlet and his son Prince Hamlet, the latter being the central character of the play and being a much more complex, in-depth character.  King Hamlet is “idealized as the embodiment of humanism, religion, manhood, meaning, and properly ordered relations irretrievably lost by his death,” (Grady, pg. 260).  This is not the case of his son, Prince Hamlet.  He, “suffers a general crisis of melancholy and meaning embodies in unprecedented theatrical language and intensity,” (Grady, pg. 260).  The visit from his dead father serves as a perfect example of the difference between the two and a means of exemplifying the use of religious undertones that serves as a driving motivation for the characters of the play.

In the middle of the night, Hamlet has a visit paid to him by his dead father, King Hamlet, who is supposedly in purgatory.  The advice that is given to Hamlet by his deceased father is that of taking revenge upon his uncle Claudius, who murdered his father by poisoning him in order to take the throne (Stanford, pg. 262-267).  Hamlet believes the ghost to be true to his word and a good spirit and swears to get the revenge that was asked of him from his dead father.  What this sort of interaction shows is some of the religious tones set forth by the predominating religions of the timeframe.  Specifically, the notion that a spirit could not be at rest is of particular importance that is summed up in the dead king’s spirit remaining in purgatory.  This notion is further put into light by the fact that Hamlet sees the spirit as originally pure intended and trustworthy, but later doubts its intention and uses the doubt as a means of inaction.  Because purgatory is a place seen, as not in either Heaven or Hell, it cannot be attributed to being either purely good or evil.  The same notion is, therefore, applied to the advice that the spirit gives to Hamlet.  It is first shown as solid and worthwhile, but then questioned and disbelieved, as would be the notion of being caught in between worlds such as with purgatory.

As with any sort of religion, one of the issues that are presented and personified through throughout Hamlet comes from the conflict between the soul and the body.  The audience of the play is introduced to Hamlet as a vessel of a man who firmly believes in his set of morals and principles at the onset of the play.  With the meeting of his father’s spirit, Hamlet is asked if he will seek out the revenge that is necessary to act upon Claudius for his part of the murder that leads to his place on the throne.  Feeling that the spirit’s intentions are initially well placed, Hamlet accepts the direction of plotting and carrying out his vengeance upon his uncle for his late father.  As the play carries on, however, Hamlet is continually tried and tested upon the set of values and morals that he believes in, until the point that he actually questions and changes his stances on many of the issues.  

This sort of dual nature of the body and soul are painted through the struggles that Hamlet faces through the play.  He is constantly put in scenarios where he must throw off his original beliefs and accept newer, lesser morals than he originally had.  The basic pattern can be summed up like this: “because man exists in the shadow of original sin he falls and suffers but eventually repents,” (Dollimore, pg. 164).  The audience is shown how Hamlet must betray the very matters that he holds to be true to himself in order to seek out a sort of justice for the crimes that transpired that lead to both his father’s death and his uncle’s seizure of power.  Ultimately, this leads to the death of many characters, but this in itself can almost be seen as a means by which Hamlet transpires the physical world and gains peace from his death.  Though he suffered greatly for his actions that occurred within the play, because Hamlet is overall a good man, his death puts him into a place where he can be at peace in the afterlife and have set the spirit of his father at rest for carrying out the justice for his murder.

What is interesting still is how applicable the character of Hamlet is even to today’s audience.  Because of the complexity of the character and the way in which he is developed, Hamlet continues to be one of the most analyzed and examined stories in the literary world.  It could be said, “Hamlet is the figure and great pivoting mirror of the Western soul, the normative creation of character which life but sadly imitates, and as each one must come to terms with what man is, so he and she must come to terms with Hamlet,” (Fendt, pg. 2).  Some of the reflections of Shakespeare’s time are put into the play in terms of the religious struggle between Catholicism and Protestantism, but on a deeper level still, one can see Hamlet as the embodiment of the battle between accepting what has happened and learning the power of forgiveness over that of revenge.  

Obviously, the notion of accepting what has transpired and learning to forgive and move on are some of the fundamental cores of the two aforementioned religions above, but this concept can be applied even without religious undertones and analogy.  The actions that Hamlet carries out over the play show just how far one can journey for vengeance and the consequences that these plans and actions have on all of those that are connected to the individual’s life that makes the plans.  It takes the inevitable death of himself for Hamlet to reflect upon what has transpired in his own life that leads to his demise, and he reflects in the following way.

Heaven make thee free of it! I follow thee. I am dead, Horatio. Wretched Queen, adieu! You that look pale and tremble at this chance, That but mutes or audience to this act, Had I but time-as this fell sergeant, Death Is strict in his arrest-O, I could tell you- But let it be. Horatio, I am dead; Thou livest. Report me and my cause aright To the unsatisfied  Give me the cup! Let go! By heaven, I’ll ha’t. O God, Horatio, what a wounded name, Things standing thus unknown, shall I leave behind me! If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart, Absent thee from felicity awhile,  And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain (Stanford, pgs. 355-356).

What is shown is that Hamlet’s entire quest for vengeance has clouded his judgment and blinded him to the reality of what has transpired, and only at the end of life, can he see what vengeance has cost him and those he cares about.  Had he been able to do as one should and turn the other cheek, he may have been able to avoid the deaths of so many individuals, many of which were ultimately unnecessary.

The placement of religion of Hamlet is of particular importance and interest.  The events that had transpired within Shakespeare’s time are reflected within the characters and their struggles throughout the play, particularly with the interactions, motives, and emotions of the lead character Hamlet.  The manner in which Hamlet must abandon his set of morals and principles and adopt a different set to complete the revenge quest for his murdered father is quite similar to the way in which the people of England of the time had to abandon their Catholic ideas in order to adopt the Protestant faith, as was the law of the land in that time.  Though the play shows how Hamlet’s adaptation of the new ideology was necessary for his ultimate justice upon his uncle, the manner in which the adaptation process is done shows how he loses a bit of his identity in the process and ultimately loses his life and the lives of many he holds to be dear to him.  Since the battle between the conflicting religious ideologies can be seen as the driving force between the shift in ideology for Hamlet throughout the course of the play, it is not far from the truth to lay claim to the notion that Hamlet is a means of Shakespeare to subtly display his displeasure for the religious shift that occurred within England in the time of the play’s creation.  Under this idea, one can see that the actions of the play are a sort of warning to the idea of a fundamental shift in mentality and what that can have on those that the changes are forced upon.      

Works Cited

Curran, John E. Hamlet Protestantism and the Mourning of Contingency Not to Be. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2006. Print. 

Dollimore, Jonathan. Radical Tragedy: Religion, Ideology, and Power in the Drama of Shakespeare and his Contemporaries. 3rd. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2004. Print. 

Fendt, Gene. Is Hamlet a Religious Drama?. Marquette University Press, 1998. Print. 

Grady, Hugh. Shakespeare, Machiavelli and Montaigne: Power and Subjectivity from Richard II to Hamlet. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. Print. 

Stanford, Judith. Responding to Literature: Stories, Poems, Plays, and Essays. 5th. McGraw-Hill Humanities/Social Sciences/Languages, 2005. Print.