Religious Themes in Shakespeare’s Hamlet

From the Lecture Series: How to Read and Understand Shakespeare

By Marc C. Connor Ph.D., Washington and Lee University

Understanding Shakespeare’s work is impossible without considering the religious ideas underlying his plays. The key to understanding Hamlet is that this play is a ghost story. Throughout the play, every decision is made with the supernatural in the foreground.

Statue of William Shakespeare.
Hamlet is Shakespeare’s most personal play expressing his intimate thoughts. (Image: Claudio Divizia/Shutterstock)

Differences between Macbeth and Hamlet

In Macbeth, although there are strong supernatural elements like witches, their supernatural power is never proven to exist. Banquo’s ghost is only visible to Macbeth, so it can be safely assumed that the ghost is a mere manifestation of his own guilty conscience.

In Hamlet, on the other hand, at least four characters see the ghost, which makes it difficult to dismiss it as a fantasy.

Artwork showing Macbeth and Banquo encountering the witches for the first time.
In Macbeth, the witches’ supernatural power is not proven to exist. (Image: Théodore Chassériau/Public domain)

According to C.S Lewis, the Renaissance Literature critic, the distinctive elements of the play are visible to everyone, even to a child. These elements are night, ghost, a castle, a lobby, a willow-fringed brook, a sad lady who is drowned, a graveyard, and a terrible cliff above the sea, and most importantly, a pale man in black clothes. The mood of Hamlet is one that is filled with horror, uncertainty, loneliness, waste, dust, and emptiness. In this mood, we feel the richness of heaven and earth, and we see the comfort of human affection going away.

This is a transcript from the video series How to Read and Understand Shakespeare. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Appearance versus Reality: A Strong Religious Theme

To many readers, Hamlet is Shakespeare’s most personal play expressing his most intimate thoughts.

In order to determine if Claudius, his uncle, has killed his father, Hamlet has actors perform a play in front of him and Claudius. The mousetrap play depicts the murder scene exactly as it was in reality. After the play is finished, Claudius is left alone, which is unprecedented in the whole play. Unlike Claudius, Hamlet is depicted alone in many other scenes.

Image of painting titled Actors before Hamlet by Władysław Czachórski.
Painting showing actors putting up the mousetrap play before Hamlet and Claudius to prove Claudius’s guilt. (Image: Władysław Czachórski/Public domain)

Now, Claudius is alone to face his guilt of killing his brother, an act reminiscent of Cain killing Abel.

“O, my offense is rank,” he regrets, “it smells to heaven; / It hath the primal eldest curse upon’t– / A brother’s murder.” And yet, although he confesses to his guilt and has a sense of wrongdoing, he says that he cannot pray, “though inclination be as sharp as will”.

In this scene, Claudius knows that he is guilty, but he is still hopeful that God will forgive him. But his desire for redemption and forgiveness is not strong. He cannot forget the advantages that the murder has brought him. So, he knows any form of repentance would be futile since he is pleased with what he has done.

Here is seen another repeated theme that is present in both Hamlet and Macbeth. Although he knows his guilt is terrible, Claudius still hopes in the mercy of God: “What if this cursed hand were thicker than itself with brother’s blood, / Is there not rain enough in the sweet heavens to wash it white as snow?”

But there is no hope for Macbeth to cleanse his hands of blood: “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood / Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather / The multitudinous seas incarnadine, / Making the green one red.”

Learn more about appearance versus reality in Twelfth Night.

Appearance versus Reality

There is the theme of appearance versus reality that is underpinned by religion. Claudius appears to be repenting, which has no bearing in heaven. The same theme can be seen in the Gospels, with scribes and Pharisees scorned by Christ as hypocrites.

Also, in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, the Pharisee prays at the temple devotedly, but at heart, he feels scorn for his fellow-creature. On the other hand, the seemingly sinful tax collector prays whole-heartedly for God’s mercy and forgiveness.

So while initially Claudius still hopes that without sincere prayers and repentance, he will be pardoned for his crime, he finally manifests Shakespeare’s religious theme of appearance versus reality and says, “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below. / Words without thoughts never to heaven go.”

So, he finally gives up trying to receive grace because he knows his prayers are not sincere and prefers to indulge in this world’s pleasures.

This religious belief is not limited to Hamlet, and is evident in other Shakespeare’s plays as well. In Merchant of Venice and Measure for Measure, the same belief runs through the stories.

Learn more about the tragic woman in Macbeth.

Common Questions about Religious Themes in Shakespeare’s Hamlet

Q: Who killed Hamlet’s father?

Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle, killed Hamlet’s father. Although he appears to be praying and repenting, his regret is not sincere. He finally gives up repenting because he knows that it is not genuine, and his present pleasures are better to be sustained.

Q: What does Claudius do in Hamlet?

Claudius is King Hamlet’s brother and Prince Hamlet’s uncle. He murders his brother, but fails to repent from the depth of his heart.

Q: How does Hamlet find out his uncle killed his father?

The ghost of his father tells Hamlet that Claudius killed him. Hamlet organizes a play to depict the real murder, which makes him confident of his uncle’s murder.

Q: What is the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector?

The parable of Pharisee and the tax collector shows the difference between appearance and reality. The Pharisee prays at the Temple devotedly, but at heart, he feels scorn for his fellow-creature. On the other hand, the seemingly sinful tax collector prays whole-heatedly for God’s mercy and forgiveness.

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