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 after death.
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