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Religious Themes in Hamlet - Blog Entries


Act III Sc i: In the famous "To be or not to be " soloiloque Hamlet reflects on our attitudes to the sufferings of life - we can put up with them ("suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune") or fight them ("take arms against a sea of troubles"). Suffering people opt away from self-destruction because of the "dread of something after death", perhaps judgement and punishment for that sin. (Clip above features Mel Gibson as Hamlet)

Shortly after he vents his anger on Ophelia. "Get thee to a nunnery" he tells her, lest she be "a breeder of sinners". Those running nunneries might not be too pleased at his characterisation of their establishments. Hamlet's jaundiced view of women is expressed viciously to Ophelia and stems from what he feels as his betrayal by her (she has spurned him on the insistence of her father Polonius) and by his mother Gertrude (who had an affair with his Uncle Claudius, whom she married after the murder of her husband by the same Claudius). His harsh words to her seem to be directed at women in general - "God hath given you one face and you make yourselves another ... you jig, you amble and you lisp, and nickname God's creatures".


Act II Sc ii: In his discussion with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Hamlet shows a high opinion of human nature, seeing it perhaps as God's work, and suggesting the idea of people being made in God's image: "What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculties! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god!" And yet, in the next breath man is the "quintessence of dust" - a hint of what we learn about ourselves on Ash Wednesday. Towards the end of the scene (clip above, featuring David Tennant as Hamlet) the troubling issue of revenge comes up again. Hamlet thinks he is "Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell". Earlier Hamlet had followed Christian teaching in relation to suicide, but now seems to regard revenge as his duty. Again he wonders if this ghost has been sent to fool him, though this may be another ply of his, perhaps subconsciously, to avoid doing what he feels is his duty - "The spirit that I have seen may be the devil". He also realises that sometimes evil can present itself as something pleasant and attractive - "the devil hath power to assume a pleasing shape".


Back to Hamlet now in English class, on the revision trail, so I thought I'd better get back to my study of the religious themes in Hamlet. Didn't make much progress at last attempt.
Act I Sc iv sees Hamlet meeting the ghost of his dead father. Hamlet is aware of the need for spiritual protection ("Angels and ministers of grace defend us"), in case this apparition is a "goblin damn'd". He follows it against the advice of his friends - he knows it can't harm his immortal soul: "for my soul, what can it do to that, Being a thing immortal as itself?".

Act I Sc v: The ghost, Hamlet Senior, seems to be in Purgatory (described with traditional imagery, making up for his sins) - "confin'd to fast in fires, Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature Are burnt and purg'd away". He's not allowed to tell what it's like there, but hints that it's most unpleasant: "I could a tale unfold whose lightest word Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood, ". It seems close to the Catholic teaching on Purgatory, yet he is allowed to walk the earth at night, and urge his son to get revenge for him ("Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder "), hardly a very Catholic or Christian idea. He is understandably aggrieved that being murdered he didn't get a chance to repent of his sins and be prepared for judgement: "Unhous'led, disappointed, unanel'd, No reckoning made, but sent to my account With all my imperfections on my head". Towards the end Hamlet seems to warn Horatio to allow for the spiritual aspects of life: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy".
To be continued...

On holidays at last, and I get to catch up on Hamlet. Act I Scene iii features the departure of Laertes for France. He warns his sister Ophelia to mind her honour with Hamlet, but she's a sharp one, reminding him to practice what he preaches, giving Shakespeare a chance to get in a dig at hypocritical clergy who don't follow their own teaching. Ah the timelessness of it!
" ... But, good my brother
Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven,
Whilst, like a puff'd and reckless libertine,
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads"
I have found that saying farewell to family members going on long journeys is a special but sometimes painful experience. Laertes recognises how much of a blessing it can be, especially as he gets a chance for a second farewell:
"A double blessing is a double grace;
Occasion smiles upon a second leave".


Finally I get to Hamlet. As I'm doing this with a 5th Year English I thought I'd reflect on the religious references that abound in the play. When he sees a ghost (Hamlet's father) in Act I Scene i Horatio, Hamlet's friend, on seeing a ghost declares "Before my God, I might not this believe /Without the sensible and true avouch /Of mine own eyes." - this reminded me of the apostle Thomas not believing in Christ's resurrection until he could feel the wounds. The ghost disappears when the cock grows for dawn leading Marcellus to say that there's a legend that approaching Christmas the cock crows all night long so that ghosts can't appear at all, even at night: "Some say that ever, 'gainst that season comes/Wherein our Saviour's birth is celebrated, /The bird of dawning singeth all night long; /And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad". In Scene ii Hamlet is heartbroken that his father is dead and his mother remarried to his uncle Claudius. He won't however commit suicide as it's against God's law: "O that the Everlasting had not fix'd /His canon 'gainst self-slaughter!" (see clip above, with Kenneth Brannagh as Hamlet). Needless to say Hamlet is shocked to hear that his father's ghost is appearing, and reckons it's a sign that evil has been afoot, but will be revealed: "Foul deeds will rise, /Though all the earth o'erwhelm them, to men's eyes". To be continued ....