Protestant Reformation serves as a primary historical background in Hamlet. The period in the text is evident through domestic details and relationships between the characters. Indeed, Hamlet demonstrates several qualities that can be considered uncommon for Catholics’ behavior. It is not surprising, as the action of the play takes place in Denmark. The country became primarily Protestant when Shakespeare wrote Hamlet.
This religious movement emerged as an attempt to change the Catholic church. These alternations mainly concerned practices and beliefs held by Catholics. Protestant Reformation took place in Western Europe and lasted from 1517 to 1648. Hamlet was written in 1599, in the heat of the upheaval. The historical context could not but be reflected in the text. The factual circumstances of a literature piece can provide perspective to narrative points.
Purgatory is a crucial element in the Catholic faith. It is a place for people who should redeem themselves before ascending to heaven. The concept of redemption is vital for the Catholic beliefs, which King Hamlet holds. After death, he goes to Purgatory to atone for his sins. His ghost state also represents this place between heaven and hell, where he exists.
Nevertheless, Purgatory is absent in Protestantism. A person ends up either in hell or heaven, according to their deeds and sins. Hamlet, being a younger man, must feel close to the new Protestant movement. Otherwise, he at least represents it in the play.
O all you host of heaven! O earth! what else?
And shall I couple hell? O, fie! Hold, hold, my heart.
(Act 1, Scene 5)
This difference between the two confessions explains one of the dialogues between Hamlet and his father. Purgatory is not alluded to directly in the text. The father claims to remain in the state of a ghost until his sins are “purged.”
I am thy father’s spirit,
Doom’d for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confined 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…
(Act 1, Scene 5)
Such a statement provokes Hamlet’s confusion. It is complicated for him to grasp an unfamiliar concept. It highlights the difference between the generations that follow different religions.
The relationships between Hamlet and his father push the plot. That is why every detail of their interaction is informative. It helps to place the work in a broader historical context. Also, it encourages one to see the details of the rapport between the characters. The allusion to purgatory reveals Hamlet’s disinterest in his father’s eternal fate. This religious belief provides a more in-depth view of connections between the two.