Hamlet Dramaturgy

Informing Bethany Lutheran College's Spring 2013 Production. Shows at: April 19, 20, 26, 27 at 7:30pm and April 21 at 2pm

Hamlet and Catholicism

I was watching the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2009 production of “Hamlet” starring David Tennant and something that struck me was the references to Catholicism in the script.

The ghost of Hamlet’s father talks about how he roams the earth at night and during the day he burns away for his sins. This seems a fairly blatant reference to purgatory. And I suppose that makes sense, a royal family would be Catholic at the time of Shakespeare’s writing the world was dealing with the Reformation and England would be Protestant under Queen Elizabeth’s rule.

Perhaps what Shakespeare is looking at, in part, is the struggle within Hamlet between the churches. In Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” speech he is contemplating suicide, but in the Catholic church at that time, anyone who commits suicide is condemned. Hamlet says:

“There’s the respect That makes calamity of so long life. For who would bear the whips and scorns of time, Th’ 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 th’ unworthy takes,When he himself might his quietus make With a bare bodkin?” (Act Three, Scene I).

These words might also mean that he struggles, not knowing what comes after death, but afraid that he will get what he deserves. Later in the soliloquy he says “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all” that could certainly indicate a fear in knowing his sins.

I will do more research on the ways Catholicism or religion as a whole acts on the script and link articles for your reading pleasure to this post.

UPDATE: I have found a couple articles, not on Catholicism precisely, but on conscience in “Hamlet” and I think that is a key part of Shakespeare’s language in this play that got me thinking in terms of Reformation. The Hamlet’s words throughout the script reveal this obsession with the afterlife and questions of what is beyond this world.

That puts an interesting spin on his final line in the production: “the rest is silence.” What is “the rest” and what does it mean that it is “silent”? I think the connotations that I connect with immediately come from my Confessional Lutheran background but I can’t say with certainty that what I’m thinking is what Hamlet is feeling. Thoughts?

Lydia Grabau, Dramaturg

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2 comments on “Hamlet and Catholicism

  1. Josiah Willitz
    February 22, 2013

    Your idea of Hamlet being torn between faiths might also be evident in the fact that Hamlet, prior to the action of the play, is a student in Wittenberg (the “birth-place” of the Reformation). Although we are not as knowledgable of the condition of Hamlet’s spiritual life while there, we can be sure that since his father’s death, and thus his departure from Wittenberg, a jarring change has come over Hamlet. This is evident in the lines:

    “I have of late—but wherefore I know not—lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises; and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory…”

    Hamlet begins much more rigorous and serious contemplation on life after death (or religion/faith in relation to death). We can assume that Hamlets obsession with death, and perhaps also his “wrestling of faiths,” occurs only after he leaves the stronghold of Wittenberg. Upon leaving Wittenberg, he is confronted with ideas that reflect a Catholic nature, and perhaps challenge what he has learned in Wittenberg.

    Maybe a forced interpretation on my part, but interesting none the less.

    • hamletdramaturgy
      February 22, 2013

      Totally! We are totally discussing this over on the “Suicide in Elizabethan England” tab. Check it out!

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This entry was posted on January 10, 2013 by in Notes from the Dramaturg, Text and tagged , , , , .

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