Setting 'Hamlet' within a Christian world view
Hamlet is noticeably set in a Christian universe, which strongly affects the ideas which permeate it.
- Christians are followers of Jesus Christ, who they believe to be the Son of God (the word Christ means anointed). Although divine, he was born in human form to a virgin, Mary
- The New Testament (the second section) of the Bible tells of the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus and the setting up of the Christian Church by his followers. Christians believe that the coming of Jesus as the Messiah, or Saviour, is foretold in the Old Testament (the Jewish writings which form the first part of the Christian Bible), so Christians read and know both parts of the Bible. (The word Bible simply means a collection of books.)
- Christianity began in the Middle East over two thousand years ago but, well before the time of Shakespeare, had spread throughout Europe — the area of its influence was known as Christendom.
For further detail see Big ideas: Christians
The faith setting of Shakespeare's plays
Although Shakespeare was almost certainly a Christian (and in any case would have had to attend church by law) not all his plays are set in a Christian world.
More on the faith setting of other plays:
- Shakespeare's Roman plays, such as Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra are set in a world where people believe in ancient pagan gods such as Jupiter. The same pagan world is the background to King Lear. In these plays there is no suggestion of a life after death, whereas those set in a Christian universe strongly present the idea of heaven, hell and judgement (see Themes and significant ideas: Heaven, hell and judgement).
- Some plays present a mixed set of beliefs, for example The Winter's Tale, where pagan gods are mentioned alongside a reference to Whitsun, a Christian festival.
- It is very important that Shakespeare consciously chooses to set plays such as Macbeth, Othello and Hamlet in a Christian universe, because what may happen to characters after death is as much an issue in these plays as what happens to them in life.
The worldview of Hamlet
The time of year when Christ was born is not actually known, but long ago it was decided to celebrate it in December, at the festival we now know as Christmas (or Christ mass — a mass is a Christian religious service).
Very early in Hamlet we know that we are in a Christian world because in Act I scene i Marcellus, describing the disappearance of the Ghost, recalls the story of ‘Our Saviour's birth' — a time, he says, when:
‘no spirit dare stir abroad,
The nights are wholesome, then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow'd and so gracious is that time.'
More on biblical allusions: The word ‘hallowed' means holy and would be particularly familiar to Shakespeare's audience as it occurs at the beginning of the prayer known as the ‘Lord's Prayer'. The well-known Prayer Book version is adapted from Matthew 6:9, and starts:
‘Our Father, which art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name'.
The word ‘gracious' refers to grace — the undeserved forgiveness, and gifts, of God — which is an important concept in many of Shakespeare's plays, including Hamlet. (See Big ideas: Forgiveness, mercy and grace.)
More on the Bible Shakespeare knew: Quotations from the Bible in this guide are all taken from the Authorised Version (sometimes called the King James Bible after the monarch who authorised it) which was the most familiar to Christians from its publication in 1611 until the middle of the twentieth century. Its language is very close to that of the slightly earlier translation of the Bible known to Shakespeare and his audience.
Among many other references in the text which remind us that we are in a Christian universe in Hamlet are phrases such as:
- ‘Yes by Saint Patrick but there is, Horatio' spoken by Hamlet in Act I scene v
- A reference to ‘Gis (Jesus) and Saint Charity' in Ophelia's song in Act IV scene v.
Much more significantly, the characters in the play are conscious of sin
and of God's judgement
whereby they will go to heaven, hell or purgatory
- English Standard Version
- King James Version
1Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. 2Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 3But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 5And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 6But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 7And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. 8Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. 9Pray then like this: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. 10Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. 11Give us this day our daily bread, 12and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 13And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. 14For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, 15but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. 16And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 17But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, 18that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 19Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, 20but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. 22The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, 23but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness! 24No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money. 25Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? 28And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, 29yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? 31Therefore do not be anxious, saying, What shall we eat? or What shall we drink? or What shall we wear? 32For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. 33But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. 34Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.
1Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven. 2Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. 3But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth: 4That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly. 5And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. 6But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly. 7But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. 8Be not ye therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him. 9After this manner therefore pray ye: Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. 10Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. 11Give us this day our daily bread. 12And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. 13And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen. 14For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: 15But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. 16Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. 17But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face; 18That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly. 19Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: 20But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: 21For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. 22The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light. 23But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness! 24No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon. 25Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment? 26Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they? 27Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature? 28And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: 29And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith? 31Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? 32(For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. 33But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. 34Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.
Name originally given to disciples of Jesus by outsiders and gradually adopted by the Early Church.
(c. 4 BCE- c. 30 CE). The founder of Christianity, whose life and teaching are described and interpreted in the New Testament. Jesus is the Greek form of the Hebrew 'Joshua'. He was also given the title 'Christ', meaning 'anointed one' or 'Messiah'.
The Bible describes God as the unique supreme being, creator and ruler of the universe.
In the Old Testament Kings and Priests were ceremonially anointed (touched with holy oil) to show that they belonged to God and as a sign of receiving God's power.
The mother of Jesus. The Gospels state that Mary's pregnancy was brought about by the Holy Spirit and not through a human relationship; she is therefore known as the 'Virgin'.
A 'testament' is a covenant (binding agreement), a term used in the Bible of God's relationship with his people. The New Testament is the second part of the Christian Bible. Its name comes from the new covenant or relationship with God.
The Christian Bible consists of the Old Testament scriptures inherited from Judaism, together with the New Testament, drawn from writings produced from c.40-125CE, which describe the life of Jesus and the establishment of the Christian church.
Literally, rising to life again. In the Bible it is specifically applied to Jesus Christ's coming to life after his crucifixion; and from thence, to the hope of all believers that after death, they will be raised to a new life in heaven.
1. Term for a worshipping community of Christians.
2. The building in which Christians traditionally meet for worship.
3. The worldwide community of Christian believers.
A Hebrew word meaning 'anointed one', describing someone who will be the saviour of the people. Title (eventually used as name) given to Jesus.
One who saves in particular, Christ as the saviour of the world.
A 'testament' is a covenant or binding agreement and is a term used in the Bible of God's relationship with his people). The sacred writings of Judaism (the Hebrew Bible). These also form the first part of the Christian Bible.
The beliefs, doctrines and practices of Christians.
A collective name for countries primarily inhabited by those who accept the Christian faith; it is a term which, in medieval and early modern times, was applied largely to Europe.
Term applied to those who are not Christian, particularly followers of the classical religion of Greece and Rome and of the pre-Christian religions of Europe.
This name came to be attached to the feast of Pentecost because of its being a major occasion for baptisms, where the candidates were frequently clothed in white.
'Mass of Christ', a celebration or feast of the birth of Jesus Christ.
The central religious service of the Roman Catholic Church, incorporating praise, intercession and readings from scripture. The central action is the consecration of the bread and wine by the priest.
Set apart, sacred.
Communication, either aloud or in the heart, with God.
A prayer taught by Jesus to his disciples.
Undeserved favour. The Bible uses this term to describe God's gifts to human beings.
1. The action of forgiving; pardon of a fault, remission of a debt.
2. Being freed from the burden of guilt, after committing a sin or crime, through being pardoned by the one hurt or offended.
Disobedience to the known will of God. According to Christian theology human beings have displayed a pre-disposition to sin since the Fall of Humankind.
2. A decision about guilt, and / or the passing of sentence by the person presiding over a court of justice.
3. In the Bible, God's verdict on human behaviour especially on the Day of Judgement at the end of time.
In traditional Roman Catholic doctrine, an 'antechamber' to heaven, a place between Heaven and Hell, where the souls of those dead who are not damned, but not yet fit for heaven, go to be purged (purified) of their sins.