Despite what many modern critics say, Shakespeare's plays are written from a profoundly Christian perspective. This site presents literary criticism demonstrating that. To submit your essay for publication (arguing either for or against this position), email us - kevin @

Homeschooled Students on "Hamlet"

Three Essays on Hamlet

Three Essays on Hamlet
by students of
Kevin O'Brien

I am teaching several courses for Homeschool Connections, essays from three of which I'd like to share with you.

My prompt for each of these essays was ...

What aspects of Hamlet seem to you to be showing the distinction between a Catholic worldview (there are no Catholics in this play) and a modern/Protestant or post-Protestant one?  What parts of the play and the attitude of the characters are Catholic?  What parts are modern or nihilist or secular?


             Ryan Bagley
Shakespeare draws a distinction between a Catholic worldview and a modern/Protestant or post-Protestant one in Hamlet by pitting the ghost of King Hamlet against usurper King Claudius, with young Hamlet’s words and deeds caught between them. The ghost explains that he is suffering in purgatory because he was killed “unhouseled, disappointed, unaneled,” that is, he died without viaticum, confession, and last rites. Although he urges Hamlet to avenge his death, the ghost of King Hamlet appears to want something more like Aquinas’s justified tyrannicide than the modern idea of revenge. Just as the old king embodies Catholicism under attack, so too Claudius personifies rebel Protestantism. Luther’s “snow on a dunghill” theory is played out to its logical end in Claudius and Gertrude, who believe that their souls are beyond cleansing and try to ignore that by living blindly in the moment. Even more like Luther, Claudius splits from the rightful order of succession and induces chaos. With “antiquity forgot, custom not known,” the rabble shouts for a complete overthrow of the royal bloodline, just as the Protestant mobs destroyed everything popish. Hamlet is caught between the two camps. While testing the veracity of the ghost’s claims and wrestling with his conscience about killing Claudius, he simultaneously grapples with the worldviews the two kings represent.

Catholic plot elements and character attitudes in Hamlet abound. Polonius’s advice to Laertes as he leaves for France is Catholic in tone. He encourages his son to enjoy his time there, but act prudently. Furthermore, Hamlet gives counsel to his mother that is a solid defense of ritual and tradition: “Assume a virtue if you have it not. … That to the use of actions fair and good / [Habit] likewise gives a frock or livery / That is aptly put on.” Finally, the apt definition of theater as a mirror held up to human nature is perfectly aligned with the mission of truly Catholic artists even today.

Modern, nihilist, and secular philosophies are not only present in the play, but thoroughly analyzed. Gazing upon the Norwegian army, Hamlet longs for meaning in life as he faces the modern idea that man is merely a rational animal. He recommits to taking revenge, feeling that having a will to power is the only way to find purpose. Further exploring nihilism as he struggles to find reasons to accept misfortune, Hamlet toys with the notion that death spells oblivion, but cannot deny the sheer probability of afterlife in his “To be, or not to be” soliloquy. In the end, Hamlet embraces a much more Catholic mindset that allows him to both accept trials and bring Claudius to justice, but Laertes’ highly secular idea of honor eventually kills him. Instead of unconditionally accepting Hamlet’s apology and refusing to proceed with the assassination plot, Laertes decides not to taint family honor—and accidentally receives the poison of his own blade.

             Gabrielle Braud

Eternal God, in whom mercy is endless, and the treasury of compassion inexhaustible, look kindly upon us, and increase Your mercy in us, that in difficult moments we might not despair, nor become despondent, but with great confidence submit ourselves to Your holy will, which is Love and Mercy itself (950).” This is the optional concluding prayer to the Divine Mercy Chaplet. The character Hamlet is a man of Divine Mercy and trust. His eventual confidence in God’s will is striking.
In the beginning, Hamlet seems depressed and is contemplating suicide, but successfully rids himself of that temptation through his goal, bringing justice to the murderer Claudius. Hamlet seeks the truth in a spinning world, and justice in a morally broken one. He is living where things are not what they seem, where men are only shadows, and their true selves are hidden. He comes out of a suicidal state of mind through the ultimately Catholic thoughts of trust and mercy to an ending glory. He is the bearer of justice, sinner though he is, and is rewarded by the hinted at glory we find in the requiem which concludes the play. Hamlet is not a “real” tragedy, for justice is accomplished, true resolution is found, especially for Hamlet, as he meets his reward. He is not perfect by any means, but he trusted, like King David, and was rewarded.
Claudius could have taken advantage of God’s Divine Mercy, and actually repented of his immoral and sinful lifestyle, but instead he tries to pray once, finds he cannot, and gives up after that. We cannot find mercy if we ourselves are not merciful, and do not repent of our sins. We must take off our dirty clothes to bathe. Claudius is not willing to give up his ways, and so does not find mercy. Instead, he receives justice in death, a more merciful end than he deserves, for living shamelessly with a murder on his head would have haunted him, potentially driving him mad.
Polonius is an atheistic, sterile man, the production of a Godless society. He is a materialist, and worships himself. He has no use for beauty, truth or justice, except when it can exalt or benefit him. The advice he gives to his son is cold and empty. There is no real love between him and his children. He is the center of his universe, therefore he loves himself the most.
Hamlet is about shadows and reality. In mens’ case, it’s usually what man is pretending to be, and what he actually is. “If God created shadows it was to better emphasize the light”, St. John XXIII tells us. Shadows vanish when the sun moves high enough.

Hamlet is unfailingly Catholic, while Polonius is a self-centered secularist. Claudius and Gertrude stubbornly cling to their sins while begging for mercy, and Laertes remains bewildered by the twisted world around him. He is not as clear headed as Hamlet, and was nearly destroyed by his father’s twisted philosophy. He, above all others, is the Influenced. He has a chance for mercy, though. If he will accept it.  

Michael Marcham

           The Tragedy of Hamlet is not only Shakespeare’s most widely known work, but also his most experimental. An inconsistent character at best, the young prince Hamlet’s troubled mental state makes gauging his thought process and ultimate goal difficult for much of the play. This frustrated me until I realized that Hamlet is not used by Shakespeare as a character in the conventional sense. One of the advantages to having a character who is constantly lapsing in and out of insanity, is that one is able to express many different (and often conflicting) philosophies/worldviews through a single character. The prince’s purpose then, and that of the play as whole, seems to be the exploration of various philosophies/worldviews and an illustration of their effects on people’s lives.
One of the more confusing aspects of Hamlet is its sense of spirituality, which is Catholic in belief, but not in practice. The characters clearly believe in God, in an afterlife (even going so far as to affirm the existence of Purgatory), and in Divine Providence, but there is very little evidence of prayer or other religious practices (the two exceptions being Claudius’ prayer of repentance and Ophelia’s funeral). Hamlet, struggling to cope with the death of his father, is understandably moody and dark, seeing no purpose in his existence. This attitude is driven in many different directions by his insanity.
The dominant mindset for the first half of the play strongly resembles that of the Puritans and Quietists. Hamlet, in a monologue reminiscent of the book of Ecclesiastes, dismisses the beauty of nature and of the human person as the “quintessence of dust”(Act 2, Scene 2, Page 13) He later takes this idea a step farther by proclaiming that man is ultimately evil, no matter how hard he strives to be virtuous. (Act 3, Scene 1, Page 5). This ultimately leads him to reject marriage and procreation as evils, as he believes they only serve to continue the wicked legacy of man upon the earth. It also leads Hamlet to reject Ophelia, which drives her insane just as he was driven insane by her rejection of him.
A modern/secular train of thought can also be detected. Hamlet’s serious depression, coupled with his obvious insanity, lead him to consider taking his own life. However, he knows that if he does this he will most likely go to Hell. This in turn leads Hamlet to feel trapped in the material world. In a conversation with his friends, the prince compares Denmark to a prison and later expands this comparison to cover the whole world. (Act 2, Scene 2, Page 11) Such sentiments are probably what lead him to abandon prayer, which as mentioned earlier plays a very small role in this play.
Despite all of this, Hamlet’s suffering manages to produce slightly more positive results in the last act. He is able to see the success of rashly made decisions contrasted with the failure of well laid plans as evidence that God has a Plan for us, no matter how often we mess up. (Act 5, Scene 2, Page 1) He later resigns himself to this Plan, comforted by the knowledge that God will assure that justice prevails. As a result, he is relatively calm for the remaining scenes leading up to the climax and is able to peacefully accept its result.