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Central Themes in “Hamlet”- Attaining Salvation

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  • Pages: 2
  • Word count: 491
  • Category: Hamlet

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In the play “Hamlet”, there are many recurring themes. One of the central themes of the play is attaining salvation, a goal which many of the characters hope to achieve. The after life and the hopes of being accepted into heaven were of utmost importance to the people of Hamlet’s time. If one died with a venial sin (a “minor” sin such as stealing or lying), on their soul, they would be destined to spend a period of time in purgatory as punishment. If the sin was a mortal one (such as murder), without forgiveness, the persons soul was doomed to eternal hell.

Although Claudius believes that prayer has the power to forgive those who have plummeted into a life of sin, he knows that he himself is unable to ask for forgiveness. Claudius murdered Hamlet’s father, and thus can not be forgiven. He has also denied Hamlet’s father the opportunity to pray for his own salvation (the king could not go to heaven without absolution) before he was killed. Claudius realizes that he has committed a mortal sin and therefore, in a twisted way of thinking, decides he might as well finish what he started (by also killing Prince Hamlet) and further his errant ways.

At one point in the play, Hamlet walks in on Claudius praying. Hamlet originally intended on killing him at this point, but spares Claudius’ life because he assumes that he is praying for forgiveness (which he is not). If Hamlet was to kill Claudius while he was repenting, Claudius’ soul would go straight to heaven. Instead, Hamlet decides to try to catch Claudius off guard while is unrepentant and has sin on his soul. By doing so, Claudius will either be sentenced to a certain amount of time in purgatory, or a lifetime in hell, depending upon how major his sins are at the time. Hamlet wants to make sure Claudius is unrepentant at the time of his death, so that just like his father, Claudius will not be at rest in the after life.

For some, Hamlet’s intention towards Claudius was too horrible to contemplate. This view was believed to be true by a 17th century critic by the name of Samuel Johnson. To think that Hamlet could be so vengeful to condemn Claudius to eternal damnation in hell is much too cruel for anyone to inflict on another person. It is said “vengeance is mine sayeth the Lord,” so Samuel Johnson being of the 17th century, would probably believe that dying without hope of redemption was much too mean on Hamlet’s part.

Sadly, many of Hamlet’s characters were never able to attain the salvation they so desperately desired. And so, although as Christians we know that there is always hope for salvation if only we ask God’s forgiveness, the flawed characters of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, were either unwilling or unable to ask for the forgiveness they so desperately sought.

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