Understanding Hamlet Through Religious Elements

From the Lecture Series: How to Read and Understand Shakespeare

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

Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle, murders his brother, Hamlet’s father. When Claudius is trying to pray, Hamlet comes upon him. However, Hamlet, aware of Claudius’s guilt, still does not kill him at that moment. This is one of the most significant ironies that raises the most famous question about the play: Why doesn’t Hamlet kill Claudius?

An old illustration of Hamlet representation by French Imperial Music Academy.
Religion is the key to understand Shakespeare’s plays. (Image: Marzolino/Shutterstock)

Why Does Hamlet Defer Killing Claudius?

At first, Hamlet is convinced that he should kill Claudius. He even draws his sword to do so. But then he notices that Claudius is engaged in the most sincere form of prayers; one that grants him forgiveness. He thinks that if he dies at this moment, he will go to paradise.

Now the words of the ghost to Hamlet gain significance. It seems that these words are always sticking in Hamlet’s mind.

“Doom’d for a certain term to walk the night, / And for the day confin’d to fast in fires, / Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature / Are burnt and purg’d away.”

He tells Hamlet that he is in purgatory, which is a terrible form of existence. He tells Hamlet that by being murdered by Claudius, he could not make his last reckoning. Through the words that don’t leave Hamlet’s mind throughout the play, he says:

Cut off even in the blossoms of my sin, Unhousel’d, disappointed, unanel’d, No reck’ ning made, but sent to my account,
With all my imperfections on my head.
O horrible! O horrible! most horrible!

So, Hamlet is convinced that killing Claudius at this moment is not the revenge he deserves. He has to be killed and sent to the exact place where his father was living. To Hamlet, “this is hire and salary, not revenge”. It would not be the supernatural revenge that the ghost had asked him to take.

Horatio, Hamlet, and the ghost
The ghost of Hamlet’s father tells him that he lives in purgatory. (Image: Robert Thew/Public domain)

Thus, he is convinced that Claudius is praying and repenting from the depth of his heart, and he will go to heaven with a clear conscience. He fails to see the treachery disguised in the form of prayers, although he is the master of identifying appearances and reality. He only postpones vengeance based on the appearance of Claudius’s prayer.

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

The Afterlife: A Powerful Religious Theme

Hamlet’s soliloquy at the beginning of the play is also a religious one: To be or not to be. He is questioning the worth of continuing this earthly life, which is full of torture. He prefers to end this life, but he pauses for one reason: the afterlife.

He goes through all tortures of life like age, decline, oppression, lost love, and injustice, among many others. He then asks, what is the point of tolerating all such tortures? And he answers with “the dread of something after death, / The undiscover’d country, from whose bourn / No traveler returns, puzzles the will, / And makes us rather bear those ills we have / Than fly to others that we know not of”.

The idea of the afterlife is not a mere fantasy for him. It is certainty fortified by the ghost of his father, who has clearly told him that he is living in purgatory.

Moreover, Hamlet’s father was a good man: “He was a man, take him for all in all—I shall not look upon his like again.” Although he was not a saint, he was a good man who had ended up being tormented in the purgatory.

The Plays of William Shakespeare. By Sir John Gilbert, 1849.
A religious theme is seen in many of Shakespeare’s plays. (Image: John Gilbert/Public domain)

Near the end of the player king’s speech, Hamlet tells Polonius to make sure that all actors are treated well. Polonius however replies that they are just actors and are treated according to their social class. But Hamlet answers, “God’s bodkin, man, much better. Use every man after his desert, and who shall scape whipping?”

The similarities between these words and “to be or not to be” are clarified here. He thinks that no human being deserves forgiveness from God. If we are treated based on what we deserve, we will receive nothing but punishment.

This theme is present in other Shakespeare’s plays like Merchant of Venice and Measure for Measure as well. Thus, it can be concluded that this idea is an essential part of Shakespeare’s religious beliefs.

Hamlet, thus, doesn’t postpone revenge because he is indecisive or cowardly, as most critics are inclined to believe. Instead, he is fearful of what will happen to him in the afterlife.

At the end of his monologue, he says, “Thus the native hue of resolution / Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought.” He has been rendered indecisive because of his disturbed mind that lives in a state of grim darkness. His fear of being dead is more powerful than his desire not to be alive. And Hamlet is unable to release himself of this religious crisis.

Learn more about staging Hamlet.

Common Questions about Understanding Hamlet Through Religious Elements

Q: How does religion affect Hamlet?

Religion is the most important reason why Hamlet doesn’t kill his uncle Claudius. Hamlet thinks that if he kills his uncle after his sincere repentance, his uncle will go to heaven.

Q: Is the ghost that Hamlet sees his father?

Yes, the ghost that Hamlet sees is his father’s. He tells Hamlet how he was killed by Claudius and that he lives in purgatory.

Q: Why does Hamlet fail to kill Claudius?

Hamlet is convinced that Claudius is given grace and mercy because of his prayers. He knows that his father’s ghost is in purgatory. So Hamlet doesn’t want Claudius to go to heaven.

Q: Is Hamlet indecisive?

Hamlet is not indecisive when he doesn’t kill Claudius. He has religious reasons as he wants a more supernatural act of revenge on his uncle. He wants him to go to hell or purgatory instead of heaven.

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