Hamlet was written during an age of severe upheaval in Britain. Between the religious wars of Catholics and Protestants, the many killings ordered by King Henry VIII—including of his own wives—and the general sense that death is inevitable, a common person had little hope of a long, pleasant life by today’s standards. There was poor sanitation, proneness to disease, moral confusion, and political oppression for select groups. Hamlet captures the sense of gloom of uncertainty and inevitable death. From Barnardo’s opening line of “Who’s there?” to the ascension of the Fortinbras regime, this Shakespearian play is saturated in uncertainty, reflecting the deep-seated confusion that the typical Englishperson would have felt at that time and drawing out a sense of sympathy from the relatable audience.
There are 441 questions in Hamlet.1 These questions not only illustrate the play’s general inquisitiveness, but also of the people of England as well. With the death of Elizabeth I in 1603, the English people would have had reason to be concerned about whether there would be continued political stability which Queen Elizabeth I had brought.
The theological atmosphere was also one of questioning. Hamlet’s narrative contains elements of both Catholic and Protestant faith systems, which makes sense given that it was written by a man living in a nation that had been struggling to find its identity as either a Catholic or a Protestant nation. Elizabeth had established the country as Protestant, but her successor, King James VI of Scotland, also known as James I of England, took the throne as a baptized Catholic, childhood Calvinist, and ruling Anglican. The blurred lines between the different faiths in James I’s life describes the ultimate lack of uniformity of Christianity in England.
One example of the elements of Catholicism and Protestantism is found in the self-professed ghost of Hamlet’s dad. The ghost implies that he is a purgatorial ghost, then shows signs of being a demon as well. This furthur confounds Hamlet, who shows that he does not fully trust the ghost’s testemony of his murder. Thus, Hamlet made up a test whereby he could determine the validity of what the ghost was alleging. The prince had actors portray his uncle-turned-father-in-law, pouring poison into the ear of his brother. At this Cloudius rose and went away from the play because of the guilt which it inspired in him.
Hamlet then inquired of Horatio: “O good Horatio, I’ll take the ghost’s word for
a thousand pound. Didst perceive?”
Horatio: “Very well, my lord.”
Hamlet: “Upon the talk of the poisoning?”
Horatio: “I did very well note him.”
Hamlet: “Ah ha! …”
This shows that Hamlet, in order to verify his empirical experiences with the ghost, had it validated by his friend empirically observing the facial expression of Cloudius for any sign of remorse for the alleged murder. Hamlet is convinced that the ghost had led him correctly, until the prince finds Cloudius praying (or at least preparing to pray). Hamlet is about to carry out the vengeance the ghost instructed him to carry-out, but recognizes that killing his uncle, who is preparing to pray, would be more of a favor than a disservice. Hamlet says, “A villain kills my father, and for that, I, his sole son, do this same villain send, to heaven.”
The theological questions this raises are interesting. Hamlet’s most famous speech shows the main character’s ponderance of suicide. According to Hamlet, who had a cringy home life, life is full of horrible circumstances and events, and putting an end to it would be nice, except for that he might go to eternal Hell as a result,
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,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover’d country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.–Soft you now!
The fair Ophelia! Nymph, in thy orisons
Be all my sins remember’d.
By this point it should be obvious that Hamlet is starting to drift from pretending to be insane into actual mental illness.
The main point of resolution in the play is when Fortenbras’ forces take over and restore order. Granted, most of the characters have died by that point, but, with all the possible and confirmed immorality, maybe it is not really such a bad thing for it to all be put to an end through incidental mass death plus regime change.
- Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet Prince of Denmark. Folger Shakespeare Library, https://www.folgerdigitaltexts.org/download/pdf/Ham.pdf. Accessed 10 Feb. 2020.