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How important is some knowledge of the basic religious beliefs of Shakespeare's audience to an understanding of Hamlet?

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Introduction

How important is some knowledge of the basic religious beliefs of Shakespeare's audience to an understanding of Hamlet? Shakespeare wrote Hamlet in the early 17th century, in the Elizabethan period, and it is inevitable that the religious beliefs of that time will differ from those of today. In this essay I will be assessing these differences and how they affect a modern understanding of the themes and actions in Hamlet. The first scene illustrates a main theme in the play as Hamlets father appears as a ghost to Horatio. Today, we would not describe ghosts as an everyday occurrence, but their appearance in books and films is far from uncommon. Therefore it is a theme we understand, even if we do not have first-person experience of it. Neither does Horatio: "I might not believe this without the sensible and true avoch of my own eyes". The Elizabethans did believe, though, that ghosts could be evil, as Hamlet worries: "The devil hath power t'assume a pleasing shape", in this case the devil may have appeared to Hamlet to convince him to commit murder. This connection with religion is absent from most modern representations of ghosts, but the understanding of ghosts as a vision of the living dead remains the same. ...read more.

Middle

Marriage has changed dramatically in the last 4 centuries. The first divorce of the Church of England (Henry VIII) occurred just outside of Shakespeare's lifetime; now divorces are very common. The reduction in religious beliefs means today marriage carries less of a religious aspect. Hamlet obviously considers these vows important when he scolds his mother for making "marriage vows as false as dicers oaths". Today, though, we can still appreciate the insensitivity in Gertrude marrying her brother in law so quickly: "The funeral baked meats did coldly furnish the marriage tables". Hamlet has very strong views on this marriage, illustrated when he organizes the play to "catch the conscience of the king". The 'Player Queen' makes a long speech about the sanctity of marriage and the sin of remarrying: "None wed the second but murdered the first". Hamlet also scolds his mother for forgetting so quickly her previous husband: "A beast that wants discourse of reason would have mourned longer". Later Hamlet asks his mother "What devil was't that hath cozened you at hoodman blind", implying that the devil was working in Gertrude when she remarried. Today, a widow remarrying would not be frowned upon, but within that time span and with the dead husband's brother it certainly would be. ...read more.

Conclusion

As a religious man, Hamlet believes in the damnation that comes with suicide, but does not consider hell, rather an "undiscovered country", opening up the possibility that Hamlet is questioning his faith. Analysts have also questioned whether Gertrude drinks the poison intended for Hamlet on purpose (as an escape from the situation Claudius has brought her to) or not. Even Horatio considers suicide too, so it is an undeniably strong theme. The weight of the decision to commit suicide then was far greater, and so it has to be seen in this context when so many characters consider or commit suicide. Our understanding of it is far removed from the heavily religious view of Shakespeare's time. Hamlet's soliloquies therefore carried a much more ominous weight then, when instead of mere death, suicide meant eternal damnation. In conclusion, knowledge of the basic religious beliefs of Shakespeare's time is important, because many of the play's themes are based around Christianity. Today, religion is undeniably less relevant and less practiced in our society, but generally this does not drastically alter our understanding of the religious morals or teachings displayed in Hamlet. The strong religious aspect of suicide, and to a lesser extent the theory of purgatory, are two main themes a modern audience will not be familiar with, certainly not in the way a contemporary audience would have been. This makes a basic understanding of these specific religious beliefs vital. ...read more.

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