To Do or Not To Do? How many times does one find themselves shirking responsibilities they accepted, or avoiding promises they made? One who often finds himself in such situations, will most likely be able to relate with William Shakespeare’s character, Hamlet. In Hamlet, Hamlet is commanded by his father’s ghost to avenge his murder. Whenever Hamlet is presented with an opportunity to do so, he delays his action. Hamlet’s inability to act is a product of the time period during which the play was written. Shakespeare wrote Hamlet during the 1600s in Elizabethan England, during the time of the Renaissance and the Reformation.
The Renaissance and Reformation’s belief in ghosts, ways of thinking, views on revenge, and doubts about the afterlife cause Hamlet’s inability to act on his father’s request. The effects of the Renaissance and the Reformation on Hamlet’s character, are manifest even before he meets the ghost. Formal mourning was taken seriously during the Renaissance, and most had people heeded a custom (which was usually upheld by a law) which forbade a widow to remarry earlier than a year following the death of her husband.
In the start of the play, following his father’s death and his mother’s hasty remarriage, Hamlet enters with his suit of black, complete with mourning cloak and hood. At this point, Hamlet is already established as a Renaissance figure. Furthermore, Hamlet asks Gertrude and Claudius if he can return to university. Gertrude replies “go not to Wittenberg” (1. 2. 119). Hamlet studied at Wittenberg, a center of the Reformation. Hamlet’s past behavior gives evidence that he is affected by the Renaissance and the Reformation.
The effect that the Renaissance and Reformation have on his actions is most apparent in his inability to avenge his father’s murder. Hamlet learns from the ghost of his father that his death had been a murder, and that “the serpent that did sting thy father’s life now wears his crown” (1. 5. 46-47). The ghost asks Hamlet to “Avenge his foul and most unnatural murder” (1. 5. 26). Hamlet is eager to undertake this responsibility, and says “Haste me to know’t, that I, with wings as swift / As mediation or the thoughts of love / May sweep to my revenge” (1. 5. 30-32).
But in actuality, Hamlet rethinks his commitment, and procrastinates. One instance of Hamlet procrastination is when he decides that he will not kill Claudius until he has actual proof of Claudius’s crime. Hamlet presents Claudius with a play. One sene of the play “comes near the circumstance,” (3. 2. 76) it’s plot is similar to Old Hamlet’s murder. Hamlet tells Horatio to “Observe mine uncle. If his occulted guilt / do not itself unkennel in one speech” (3. 2. 79-80). Hamlet wants Horatio to detect any sign of Claudius’s remorse or guilt. Why does Hamlet suddenly begin to doubt the reality of the ghost?
Hamlet’s uncertainty is due to his protestant upbringing. “[Hamlet] attended Wittenberg, a Protestant school . . . and Protestants did not believe in ghosts” (Neuman). The Reformation had given rise to a new faction of the Church, the Protestants. Hamlet was educated by Protestants, who didn’t believe in ghosts, therefore he is reluctant to accept the ghost’s message. Hamlet’s hesitation to believe the ghost can also be related to Renaissance skepticism. Renaissance humanism and individualism, emphasized the belief in human reason, and Humanists started challenging and questioning the world around them.
Hamlet is affected by Renaissance skepticism, and therefore is suspicious of the ghost’s reality. Another obstacle that stood in the way of Hamlets revenge was the opposition of the church and state, of Renaissance English, to taking revenge. The state viewed revenge as taking the law into one’s one hands and undermining the political authority of the state. They felt that the right and correct response to the original crime would be to allow the legal system to take over. The church disproved of revenge because they considered it disgraceful and a result of jealousy and hatred. In their opinion, God was the ultimate avenger.
Hamlet’s struggles between society’s opposition to revenge and his own personal desire to avenge his father’s death. The belief of the afterlife is another cause for Hamlet’s inaction, lies in. The Protestant Reformation caused many debates about the existence of Purgatory and the road to Heaven. Catholics believe that “how we behave – will determine where in the afterlife you will eventually end up” (Zammit). One who dies in “God’s grace and friendship and [is] perfectly purified, live[s] forever in [heaven]. ” If one dies and is still “imperfectly purified,” he will “undergo purification” (biblehistory) in Purgatory.
If one dies “in a state of mortal sin, [he will] descend into hell” (Catechism of the Catholic Church). On the other hand, Protestants believe that anyone who accepts Jesus, receives him by faith and repents will go to Heaven. Those who reject God are sent to Hell, a place of torment and separation from God. Purgatory is never explicitly mentioned in the bible, therefore Protestants reject the Roman Catholic teaching that there is also a transitional place or process of purification of the soal. According to the Protestants, there is no Purgatory. Hamlet is unsure about the afterlife.
At times he accepts the Catholic view, and at other times he trusts the Protestant view. Hamlet is presented with a perfect opportunity to kill Claudius. He approaches a kneeling, praying Claudius, but “he is consumed with the Christian notion of the afterlife. The conception that if one died while in prayer, they would automatically go to heaven” (A Christian Excuse for Cruelty). Hamlet wants to kill Claudius “when he is drunk asleep, or in his rage,/ Or in th’incestuous pleasure of his bed,/ At gaming, swearing, or about some act/ That has no relish of salvation in’t” (3. 3. 89) so that Claudius will go to Hell.
Although in the pervious instance, Hamlet leans towards the Catholic approach, he later discusses his uncertainty about the afterlife. Hamlet feels that if he cannot act, he can at least kill himself to escape his situation. But, in his “To be or not to be” soliloquy, Hamlet dismisses his suicidal plans because of his doubts about the afterlife. As Smith points out, at one point in his soliloquy, Hamlet “thinks for a moment that [death] may be like a deep sleep,” which seems like a fairly pleasant situation. But then, Hamlet wonders, “To sleep: Perchance to dream: ay there’s the rub; /
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come” (3. 1). Hamlet is afraid of the dreams of the after life, the “pains that the afterlife might bring” (Smith). Hamlet continues to discuss the “dread of something after death,” and comes to reject his plans of committing suicide because of his dubiousness of the afterlife. Hamlet’s inability to act is largely a byproduct of the time period during which he lived. Hamlet was influenced by society’s views, doubts and beliefs. Even today, people’s actions are largely effected by the characteristics of the time period, and by society’s pressures.
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