AP English Lit. – 8th
6 December 2013
The Prevalence of Religion
In 17th century England, an overwhelming number of individuals would have been well versed in both religion and Shakespearean drama. Throughout Shakespeare’s epic, tragic drama, Hamlet, the playwright strategically weaves an underlying theme of religion while simultaneously offering insight to the drama of the period, the turmoil of the Catholic Church versus Protestantism. Particular characters and events create connections and contrasts between the traditional Catholic Church and progressive Protestantism. In the wake of the turmoil that accompanied the English Reformation, Shakespeare lent his religious and political beliefs to the public in a discreet manner – offering his most private thoughts in an outwardly public way. The contrast of traditional, pious religion to the rogue, rebellious convictions of the Protestant Reformation creates a critical analysis both in Hamlet’s Denmark as well as Shakespearean England. The English Reformation was a facet to the much larger Protestant Reformation which spread across Europe in the 16th century. Started by Martin Luther, a German monk, the breaking away from traditional views began a wild domino effect across the European continent. The Protestant Reformation, largely regarded as starting in 1517 with Luther’s Ninety-five Theses, reformers rejected the conventional practices and malpractices such as doctrines, rituals, good works, and sale of indulgences and clerical offices. The English Reformation followed suit, manifesting its own set of new, raw ideas and practices that opposed those of the Pope. Many factors are believed to cause this schism and are seen throughout the play of Hamlet, such as the decline of feudalism, rise of common law, the rise of nationalism, and promotion of knowledge in the upper classes. The separation of the Church of England from the large, mighty, influential Catholic Church caused much controversy during the time and influenced many themes within Shakespearean plays. Factors that caused the Reformation are seen in Hamlet. In regards to the decline of feudalism, Act V of Hamlet paints a scene in which Laertes and Hamlet fight over the grave of Ophelia. In a feudal system, land and honor was highly regarded, but in this particularly violent brawl, Ophelia’s grave and memory were all but forgotten. According to Katherine Romack from University of West Florida, “In a world in which land was tied to status and identity, Shakespeare is showing us just how much the feudal system had decayed”. In addition, one can see the rise of nationalism with the threat of war looming on the horizon. Hamlet exhibits loyalty towards the state, but also within his decision to honor his father, the King of Denmark. Since he ultimately puts the nation above his individual interests, this patriotic loyalty can be viewed as nationalism because it would be in Hamlet's best interest to act otherwise. Primary analysis of religious influence on Hamlet requires identification of outward religious actions and references throughout the play. However, more critical thought of such references provides complex insight into the role of each reference. Beginning with Catholic references, one of the most easily identifiable connections to the conservative Catholic Church is when the Ghost describes himself as residing in “sulfurous and tormenting flames” (1.5.6). The Purgatory described by the dead king is a traditionally Roman Catholic teaching. The Ghost’s “prison house” has a distinctly negative connotation, which falls in line with another major Catholic connection in the play: the revenge tragedy (1.5.19). The revenge tragedy, as characterized by the Senecan model, almost invariably includes a secret murder, a ghost of the murdered individual, feigned madness, a period of plotting, a period of general violence and catastrophe, and demise of the antagonist. Revenge tragedies...
Cited: Chapman, Alison A. "Ophelia 's "Old Lauds": Madness and Hagiography in Hamlet." Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England 20 (2007): 111-35. EBSCO History Reference Center. Web. 12 Nov. 2013.
Romack, Katherine. " 'In This Distracted Globe ': What Ophelia Remembers." University of West Florida Book Club. University of West Florida English Department, n.d. Web. 9 Nov. 2013.
Ronson, Pamela. "Religious Elements in Shakespeare 's Hamlet." 08.01.09: Religious Elements in Shakespeare 's Hamlet. Yale National Initiative, n.d. Web. 11 Nov. 2013.
Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Ed. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992. Print.
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