Heaven, hell and judgement

Life after death

The Soul

Christians believe that they have an immortal soul. In other words, a human being does not simply consist of a body which will die, but also has a spirit which will live on for eternity after the death of the body.

We are made aware of this belief in Hamlet by the appearance of the Ghost very early in the play — soon into Act I. Horatio, Marcellus, Barnardo and Francisco think that this is the spirit of the Old King (although the precise nature of the Ghost is problematic throughout the play).


Christians also believe that, after death, all humans will be judged by God according to their actions on this earth. Because of the religious turmoil which had taken place in England just before and during Shakespeare's lifetime, beliefs would differ about what might happen after God's judgement.

More on religious turmoil: For fuller details about the religious disturbances and Reformation in England in the sixteenth century, see Religious/philosophical context: The Reformation.

In Hamlet, however, it is clear that we are presented with three possible after-life existences: heaven, hell and purgatory.


Christians believe that heaven is a place of eternal joy, where God is enthroned and surrounded by angels— creatures of pure spirit who act as God's messengers to earth. It is depicted as a place of shining light and great beauty: the most famous vision of the Christian heaven is in the last book of the Bible, Revelation. No human being deserves to enter heaven because all are guilty of sin (see Imagery and symbolism: The Fall and original sin). However, the Bible teaches that those who repent of their wrong attitudes and actions, put their faith in the fact that Christ's death has saved them and seek to live in obedience to God while on earth, will spend eternity in heaven with him (see Themes and significant ideas: Mercy and forgiveness, and also Grace.) At the end of Hamlet, it is heaven which Horatio sees as Hamlet's destination after death:

‘Good night, sweet prince; / And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!'


Souls being freed from purgatoryHowever, in Hamlet, we are also made aware of purgatory — a place between heaven and hell where the souls of those who are not damned, but who are not yet fit for heaven, may go to be purged, or purified, of sin (though this idea is not found in the Bible).

The Elizabethan attitude to purgatory

Not all Christians of Shakespeare's time believed in purgatory.

More on attitudes to purgatory: In his critical discussion, ‘What happens in Hamlet', Dover Wilson sums up Elizabethan belief as follows:

‘Before the Reformation the belief in their existence [i.e. ghosts] … had offered little intellectual difficulty to the ordinary man, since the Catholic doctrine of purgatory afforded a complete explanation … Thus most Catholics of Shakespeare's day believed that ghosts might be the spirits of the departed, allowed to return from purgatory for some special purpose …

But for Protestants the matter was not so easy … for purgatory being an exploded tradition, the dead went either direct to bliss in heaven or prison in hell ... the orthodox Protestant conclusion was that ghosts … were generally nothing but devils.' (See Religious/philosophical context: The Reformation)

Nevertheless, purgatory is depicted vividly by the Ghost in Act I scene v as a place of imprisonment and torment:

‘Doom'd for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confin'd to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away. But that I am forbid
To tell the secrets of my prison-house,
I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood ...'

The Ghost is in purgatory because, although he was a generally virtuous man, he was murdered before he had time to repent of the sins of which, as a human being, he was inevitably guilty.


The Bible taught that those who had rejected Jesus on earth, and were guilty of evil acts of which they did not repent, would be condemned by the judgement of God to hell — a place of eternal torments (far worse than those believed to take place in purgatory).

Although the Bible does not provide a detailed description of hell, Christian tradition has included the following beliefs:

  • Hell is a place of fire and suffering. (It is because of his awareness that he may go to hell for the murder of his brother that Claudius tries to repent in Act III scene iii)
  • Hell is the abode of devils and demons— evil spirits (traditionally, angels who have rebelled against God). These devils torment souls in hell, and also tempt humans on earth
  • Hell is the home of Satan, the chief evil spirit, whose name means ‘enemy' (as he is the enemy of God and of humankind).

These beliefs help us understand Hamlet's fears that the Ghost may be a demon (Act II scene ii):

‘The spirit that I have seen
May be the devil. And the devil hath power
T'assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps …
Abuses me to damn me.'

For further information see Big ideas: Devils.

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