‘Hamlet’ and Protestant vs Catholic Ideology

 

Shakespeare uses religious concepts in Hamlet to further the protagonist’s detection of Denmark as in immoral state. Themes such as “Purgatory” are so frequent in the text in binary opposition to Hamlet, who is repeatedly identified as coming back to Denmark from the noted ‘Reformation University’ of Wittenberg. It was this university where Luther established himself shortly after its foundation and opposed the idea of Purgatory.

There’s suggestion that Shakespeare was a covert Catholic as the play’s allusions suggest. This issue was first broached by scholars like Peter Millward (The Catholicism of Shakespeare’s Plays), as, like most Elizabethans, Shakespeare remained saturated in Catholic tradition, whatever his formal commitment. He was surrounded by people who had been Catholics, like his parents, and his mother’s whole family, the Ardens and his close friend, the Earl of Southampton. As for Wittenberg, it was a newly founded university associated closely with Luther and the play’s Protestant references are therefore quite significant. Denmark would have been perceived as Catholic and therefore decedent to the Puritan-educated Hamlet, much like Angelo reforming a corrupt Catholic Vienna in Measure for Measure. Old Hamlet appears to be largely a pre-Christian Scandinavian monarch, armed like Beowulf and committed to primitive rituals such as trial by duel: despite his hints of an impending Christianity, his call for revenge seems pagan. So, in one way, the play is also about the need for the coming of Christian pacifism to the old revenge-structured pagan culture of Scandinavia. Young Hamlet perhaps aspires to reform Denmark in two senses, first in rejecting the heroic pagan values, and secondly as a Reformation Puritan rejecting the immoral morals of incurable medieval society. Hamlet is thus a reformer against his father’s revenge culture, and also against the increasingly Machiavellian culture of old Catholic Europe, as reflected by his ambivalent uncle, a Borgia-like figure, avenging not only his

So, in one way, the play is also about the need for the coming of Christian pacifism to the old revenge-structured pagan culture of Scandinavia. Young Hamlet perhaps aspires to reform Denmark in two senses, first in rejecting the heroic pagan values, and secondly as a Reformation Puritan rejecting the immoral morals of incurable medieval society. Hamlet is thus a reformer against his father’s revenge culture, and also against the increasingly Machiavellian culture of old Catholic Europe, as reflected by his ambivalent uncle, a Borgia-like figure, avenging not only his father but his state and religion.

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