AP English Lit. – 8th
6 December 2013
The Prevalence of Religion
In 17th century England, an overwhelming number of individuals would have been well versed in both religion and Shakespearean drama. Throughout Shakespeare’s epic, tragic drama, Hamlet, the playwright strategically weaves an underlying theme of religion while simultaneously offering insight to the drama of the period, the turmoil of the Catholic Church versus Protestantism. Particular characters and events create connections and contrasts between the traditional Catholic Church and progressive Protestantism. In the wake of the turmoil that accompanied the English Reformation, Shakespeare lent his religious and political beliefs to the public in a discreet manner – offering his most private thoughts in an outwardly public way. The contrast of traditional, pious religion to the rogue, rebellious convictions of the Protestant Reformation creates a critical analysis both in Hamlet’s Denmark as well as Shakespearean England. The English Reformation was a facet to the much larger Protestant Reformation which spread across Europe in the 16th century. Started by Martin Luther, a German monk, the breaking away from traditional views began a wild domino effect across the European continent. The Protestant Reformation, largely regarded as starting in 1517 with Luther’s Ninety-five Theses, reformers rejected the conventional practices and malpractices such as doctrines, rituals, good works, and sale of indulgences and clerical offices. The English Reformation followed suit, manifesting its own set of new, raw ideas and practices that opposed those of the Pope. Many factors are believed to cause this schism and are seen throughout the play of Hamlet, such as the decline of feudalism, rise of common law, the rise of nationalism, and promotion of knowledge in the upper classes. The separation of the Church of England from the large, mighty, influential Catholic Church caused much controversy during the time and influenced many themes within Shakespearean plays. Factors that caused the Reformation are seen in Hamlet. In regards to the decline of feudalism, Act V of Hamlet paints a scene in which Laertes and Hamlet fight over the grave of Ophelia. In a feudal system, land and honor was highly regarded, but in this particularly violent brawl, Ophelia’s grave and memory were all but forgotten. According to Katherine Romack from University of West Florida, “In a world in which land was tied to status and identity, Shakespeare is showing us just how much the feudal system had decayed”. In addition, one can see the rise of nationalism with the threat of war looming on the horizon. Hamlet exhibits loyalty towards the state, but also within his decision to honor his father, the King of Denmark. Since he ultimately puts the nation above his individual interests, this patriotic loyalty can be viewed as nationalism because it would be in Hamlet's best interest to act otherwise. Primary analysis of religious influence on Hamlet requires identification of outward religious actions and references throughout the play. However, more critical thought of such references provides complex insight into the role of each reference. Beginning with Catholic references, one of the most easily identifiable connections to the conservative Catholic Church is when the Ghost describes himself as residing in “sulfurous and tormenting flames” (1.5.6). The Purgatory described by the dead king is a traditionally Roman Catholic teaching. The Ghost’s “prison house” has a distinctly negative connotation, which falls in line with another major Catholic connection in the play: the revenge tragedy (1.5.19). The revenge tragedy, as characterized by the Senecan model, almost invariably includes a secret murder, a ghost of the murdered individual, feigned madness, a period of plotting, a period of general violence and catastrophe, and demise of the antagonist. Revenge tragedies are iconic of predominantly Catholic countries such as Italy and Spain (Ronson). All such aspects are present within Shakespeare’s Hamlet. When analyzing the contradicting dilemma presented, the allegiance to God and family as presented by the Catholic Church versus Hamlet’s desire to avenge his father’s death by killing Claudius, the latter takes over the good conscious of Hamlet even though his inaction demonstrated his moral compass. The rejection of the ideals upheld by the Catholic Church furthers Shakespeare’s subtle disregard for traditional ideals and promotion of less conservative beliefs. This is further proliferated by the mentions of Protestant ideas. Gertrude’s instructions for Hamlet to “Go not to Wittenberg”, indicates a possible disdain for Protestantism by the crown of Denmark (1.2.119). Wittenberg, a German city where Martin Luther first posted his Ninety-five Theses, is often regarded as the birthplace of Protestantism. Hamlet, the hero of the play, wishes to study in Wittenberg and therefore creates a positive connotation for the place in the audiences’ minds, in contrast to Elsinore with its growing corruption. Another instance is Hamlet’s internal conflict of whether or not he should kill his uncle. In line with beliefs presented in the Catholic Church, that utmost loyalty should be held towards God and family, Hamlet undergoes a lengthy internal debate over whether or not he should or can avenge his father, though he believes he is: A dull and muddy-mettled rascal, peak
Like John-a-dreams, unpregnant of my cause
And can say nothing – no, not for a king
Upon whose property and most dear life
A damned defeat was made. Am I a coward? (2.2.594-598)
or whether he should let God take vengeance as his religion requires. Ultimately, Hamlet rejects what is right, according to his religion, and takes action himself in order to kill King Claudius, moving away from his previous feelings in which he was unable to take action. William Shakespeare also used religion to highly influence another character: Ophelia. Throughout Hamlet, Ophelia makes allusions to various religious texts and songs. Some scholars believe that Ophelia's love songs are merely that and are fueled by her madness and proliferated by her erotic behavior, however, “Such reasoning … mistakenly imposes a modern understanding of sex and religion as separate categories onto an early modern worldview that saw them as profoundly connected” (Chapman 111). When informing Laertes about the death of his sister, Gertrude says that Ophelia drowned while “chanting snatches of old lauds / As one incapable of her own distress” (4.7.176-177). Lauds are forms of praise and are most commonly associated with religion, but more specifically, Catholic associations. The morning service, or a laud, frequently employed the word “laudate” (Chapman 111). It is ironic that at Ophelia meets her death as she resorts to a form of Catholic piety. Furthermore, Hamlet orders Ophelia, “Get thee to a nunnery” in Act 3, before she meets her death in a stream (3.1.131). The Catholic practice of convents provides irony in the fact that Ophelia should have sought refuge in the Catholic religion, but rather meets her death singing the very praises that should have saved her. Ophelia’s burial is a great debate among scholars because of its religious ties. In Act 5, a question about the ceremonies brings among the question of whether or not Ophelia should have a Christian burial because “her death was doubtful” (5.1.234). The “maimed rites” as performed by the Priest suggest that certain aspects of a typical Catholic burial were missing since “no more be done” (5.1.244). In further analysis of Ophelia as a young woman during the Reformation, Shakespeare connects the everyday life of those who would have seen the play to the work itself. The love story between Ophelia and Hamlet exemplifies the schism between those who were tied to the old tradition and those who broke away. Hamlet, the young scholar from Wittenberg who attempts to break away from tradition and order, courts a young woman situated in proper societal norms, such as rigidly following the wishes of her father. This is similar to what was actually happening at the time in England as the Protestant Reformation was in full effect. Most young Catholic women of the time were pressured into holding to the steadfast convictions of her family and the Church when encountering a Protestant suitor. Disobedience, a sign of rebellion, would have been frowned upon in a society in which Protestantism was a rogue rebellion of the Catholic Church. Within Shakespeare’s tragedy, Hamlet, a variety of religious influence is present within the plotline. The split between the Catholic Church and the Protestants was a tumultuous period, and the political and religious drama of the time carried heavy weight on the arts of the period. William Shakespeare masterfully wove current events into a dark drama that continues to engage audiences around the world. The role of religion drives an underlying tension between the rebellious Protestant movement and traditional Catholic Church. The references and allusions to religion add new texture to the murder, deception, lies, madness, and corruption that characterizes Hamlet. Though this be unrighteous, there is religion in’t.
Chapman, Alison A. "Ophelia's "Old Lauds": Madness and Hagiography in Hamlet." Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England 20 (2007): 111-35. EBSCO History Reference Center. Web. 12 Nov. 2013. Romack, Katherine. "'In This Distracted Globe': What Ophelia Remembers." University of West Florida Book Club. University of West Florida English Department, n.d. Web. 9 Nov. 2013. Ronson, Pamela. "Religious Elements in Shakespeare's Hamlet." 08.01.09: Religious Elements in Shakespeare's Hamlet. Yale National Initiative, n.d. Web. 11 Nov. 2013. Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Ed. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992. Print.