The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, is a tragedy written by William Shakespeare between the years 1599 and 1601. Many of Shakespeare’s plays are characterized by a religious theme or undertone. However, Hamlet does not focus on a single belief but rather is full of religious ambiguity and uncertainty. Hamlet himself constantly struggles with religious doubt and with making ethical decisions. These religious qualities are exemplified by the character of the ghost in Hamlet who was killed by his brother Claudius for the throne. There is evidence to suggest that the ghost is a religious figure, either hamlet’s father trapped in purgatory or a demon tempting him into sin, the only two explanations Hamlet entertains.
Religion plays an important role in Hamlet. This is evident in Hamlet’s famous soliloquy when he states “To be, or not to be, that is the question, Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles”. He longs to commit suicide to free himself from the cruel world he is in, but God’s law prohibits him from doing so. He constantly finds himself grappling with religion and whether or not he will abide to God’s will. While it might seem that most characters in the play have a Protestant background, this is not true as there is “Claudius, whose reasoning in several passages has been shown to agree with Aquinas; and there is Horatio, mouthpiece of “antique Roman” stoicism and thus non-protestant in an opposite direction” . Another example of religion in Hamlet occurred when Claudius killed Hamlet’s father before he could confess his sins, leading for his soul to end up in purgatory. Similarly, Hamlet hesitates in killing Claudius while he is praying fearing that he will send him to heaven, a paradise he does not deserve, and possibly himself to hell.
Hamlet asserts that “And so am I revenged: that would be scanned: A villain kills my father, and for that, I his sole son, do the same villain send / To heaven”. There are many different religious lenses to look at Hamlet and the ghost. The Protestant point of view suggests that the ghost is an evil spirit sent by the Devil to tempt Hamlet to commit a crime that would condemn his soul to hell. The Catholic outlook explains the ghost as the spirit of Hamlet’s father who was released shortly from Purgatory to avenge his death. It is a popular opinion in the literary world that the ghost is the spirit of Hamlet’s father trapped in purgatory coming for revenge against Claudius. The belief in purgatory suggests he is Catholic, but the ghost is considered a “controversy — a spirit from Purgatory to part of the audience, a devil to another part, and a puzzle to still another”. The ghost in a sense can be from whatever religious origin the audience needs or wants him to be. However, more evidence for a Catholic ghost comes over his concern for the sacraments. This is demonstrated by the ghost’s “lament at having been dispatched “Unhouseled” (without the Eucharist), “disappointed” (unprepared by Penance), “Unaneled” (without the holy oil of Extreme Unction)”.
He laments about having been killed before he could repent his sins and receive the Holy Eucharist one last time. Hamlet himself is “convinced that he is an “honest ghost,” and is therefore what he claims to be, his father’s spirit come from purgatory and consequently a good spirit”. Hamlet loved his father deeply, and truly believes that his ghost has returned from purgatory. If Shakespeare “wanted the apparition understood to be a devil, he must have eliminated the ghost’s concern for Gertrude” (Joseph 493). The ghosts apparent concern for Gertrude and his instructions for Hamlet to leave her out of his revenge, also hints to a Catholic origin. While it is certainly possible that the ghost is Hamlet’s father stuck in purgatory, there is another theory relating to its religious origin. There is evidence in Hamlet to suggest that the ghost is a demon from hell tempting Hamlet with revenge, and preying upon and fostering his apparent delusion. This is demonstrated when the ghost states “I am thy father’s spirit, Doom’d for a certain term to walk the night / And for the day confined to fast in fires Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature Are burnt and purged away.” . The ghost is only interested in revenge as opposed for a longing for communion with God, and he wants Hamlet to exact it for him. Normally “souls in Purgatory are adorned with charity, by the which their wills are conformed to the divine will”.
The ghost seeking revenge hints at the fact that he is a demon from hell since asking another to kill is not how a soul gets to heaven from Purgatory, but rather through prayer and clemency. Adding on to this theory, Horatio’s and the castle guard’s apparent mistrust of the ghost seems to support the conclusion that the it is an evil apparition, and they warn Hamlet to be aware of his true intentions. Religion is an important theme in Hamlet and the actions of the characters. Theological beliefs differ from character to character and often are the root of conflict in the play. The theme of religion is present in the character of the ghost. While the religious origin of the ghost is called into question, it is speculated that he is either the spirit of Hamlet’s father from Purgatory, or a demon from hell meant to lure Hamlet into sin. Either way, the ghost has an apparent religious origin which dictates its actions and the actions of others during the play.
- Battenhouse, Roy W. “The Ghost in ‘Hamlet’: A Catholic ‘Linchpin’?” Studies in Philology, vol. 48, no. 2, 1951, pp. 161–192. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4172970.
- Joseph, Miriam. “Discerning the Ghost in Hamlet.” PMLA, vol. 76, no. 5, 1961, pp. 493–502. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/460542.
- Roberts, Edgar V., and Robert Zweig. Literature: an Introduction to Reading and Writing. Longman, 2012.