Prince Hamlet: Heaven, Hell, or Purgatory?

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Scholars and ordinary people alike are searching for an answer to the questions regarding the afterlife and the places of the souls of those people who have departed from this life and are entering into the next. The fascination with this question is fundamental to the human condition and one that cannot simply be ignored when exploring a character’s actions and reactions to the events of one’s life. In William Shakespeare’s tragedy, Hamlet, the afterlife of the soul is explored throughout the play in the character Hamlet. He is faced with many tragic events in his life which cause him to feign an antic disposition after his reactions to the other characters: Queen Gertrude, Laertes, Polonius, and King Claudius. Hamlet’s actions can be carefully scrutinized to draw a sensible conclusion as to where the soul of Hamlet will go in the afterlife, in the light of his opportunity for forgiveness before his death. William Shakespeare carefully outlines the afterlife and religious implications of the decisions and events of the life of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.

Those who die in God’s grace and friendship are flawlessly purified, whether in their life on earth or in a period of time in purgatory, will live eternally with Christ in heaven. Those in heaven see God face to face forever. Heaven is the ultimate end and fulfillment of the human desire to be with God, in eternal happiness. Hamlet clearly understands that he should desire heaven and should desire it for those whom he cares for deeply. This is evident when he says to his mother, Gertrude, “Confess yourself to heaven / Repent what’s past, avoid what is to come.” (Shakespeare 3.4.151-152). Hamlet is warning Gertrude that if she does not repent what she has done in the past, she will be sent to hell, the place of eternal damnation. If she wants to avoid this fate, she must receive forgiveness by making a confession to God. The avoidance of this fate will allow her soul to enter heaven when she dies, that she may share in eternal happiness and glory.

Just as Hamlet warns his mother about the necessity for forgiveness, he understands that this is a necessary component of salvation for himself. In the last scene of the play, Laertes begs for the forgiveness of Hamlet with his dying breath: “Exchange forgiveness with me, noble Hamlet. / Mine and my father’s death come not upon thee, / Nor thine on me.” (Shakespeare 5.2.322-324). Laertes is asking that Hamlet exchange forgiveness with him so that Hamlet may be forgiven for the death of Laertes and Polonius and Laertes may be forgiven for the death of Hamlet. Hamlet understands that for forgiveness to be received from Laertes, he must first grant forgiveness to Laertes; he grants it. Although Claudius is the mastermind behind the plan to kill Hamlet, he manipulates others to carry out the scheme. He forgives Laertes for his part in the plan of Claudius to kill Hamlet: the duel. The soul of Hamlet is expected to be in heaven because of the opportunity of forgiveness he receives before his death.

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Some souls must first experience purgatory before gaining the reward of entering heaven. Purgatory is the waiting place before heaven where all sins are purged and souls are purified. Nothing unclean or not purified will enter heaven because this place is perfect and flawless because it is the dwelling place of God who is perfection itself. The Catholic Church offers this explanation of purgatory: “All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.” (CCC 1030). It is believed by those in this time period that ghosts of human souls can return to earth to be purified, to be cleansed of any unforgiven sins that they have retained. The ghost of Hamlet Senior is suspected to be in this state of purgatory when he says during his appearance to Hamlet, “I am thy father’s spirit, / Doomed 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.” (Shakespeare 1.5.14-18). Hamlet, himself, clearly knows the effects and occurrences of purgatory, detailed to him by the ghost of his father. The soul of Hamlet is likely not in purgatory because this is the waiting place where sins are purged and one’s soul is perfected for heaven.

Immediately after death, the souls of those who die without the grace, friendship, and forgiveness of God, in a state of sin, enter hell, where they suffer the eternal punishments. The main punishment is eternal separation from God, in whom all people possess life and true happiness, for which they are created and for which they long. Hamlet has a strong understanding of hell and the eternal punishments of it; therefore he has a strong reaction when he contemplates suicide: “O, that this too, too solid flesh would melt, / Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew, / Or that the Everlasting had not fixed / His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter!” (Shakespeare 1.2.133-136). Hamlet wishes to carry out self-slaughter because he is having a difficult time coping and processing the murder of his father by his uncle, Claudius, and that his mother almost immediately marries Claudius. Hamlet wishes to perpetrate suicide, but ultimately he decides not to do so because of God’s law forbidding it. His deep faith and longing to be in heaven and not face the wrath and fire of hell allows him not to act on his wishes.

Hamlet’s deep fear of the eternal punishments of hell allow him to make conscientious and wise decisions regarding his actions. He receives specific instructions from the ghost of his father to avenge his death by killing Claudius. At the same time, he is instructed to not worry or concern himself with his mother, Gertrude, but to allow God to take care of her. Hamlet comes upon Claudius at the most opportune time to kill him, but he appears to be praying for forgiveness. It later comes to light that Claudius is merely posing as if he were praying and his words are not sincere. Hamlet understands that if he were to kill Claudius while he is praying in this way, Claudius would be sent to heaven and Hamlet himself would be doomed for hell. Under the instructions of his father, Hamlet wants Claudius to feel the full punishment for the murder of Hamlet Senior. Because of this directive, he decides that he will not murder him at this point, but instead he will find another way: “About some act / That has no relish of salvation in’t, / Then trip him, that his heels may kick at heaven / And that his soul may be damn’d and black / As hell, whereto it goes.” (Shakespeare 3.3.91-95). Hamlet feels very strongly about Claudius and truly wishes that his soul be sent to hell, the place as black as his soul. Hamlet’s soul, above all else, because of the forgiveness he has the opportunity to share with Laertes before his death, is not fitting to be in hell but follows the path to heaven, the place of eternal glory.

The soul of Hamlet is welcomed in heaven because of his opportunity for forgiveness that is not received by other characters before their death. The afterlife and religious significance of the decisions and events of the life of Hamlet are examined and presented by William Shakespeare through heaven, purgatory, and hell. Hamlet’s reactions to the characters of Queen Gertrude, Laertes, Polonius, and King Claudius and the events surrounding them are made with a great deal of thought, although he is faced with the tragic events of his life. He is deeply affected by his thoughts of the afterlife, his own soul, and the souls of those around him. The question and fascination with the afterlife and the effect events and decisions have on one’s soul is speculated about each day by intelligent minds. Although those on earth, mere mortals, cannot fully understand the path a soul takes after it departs from the body at death, one can speculate about the afterlife based on the choices made during one’s life. How have the events of your life affected your soul?

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Prince Hamlet: Heaven, Hell, or Purgatory? (2020, September 17). WritingBros. Retrieved November 28, 2021, from https://writingbros.com/essay-examples/prince-hamlet-heaven-hell-or-purgatory/
“Prince Hamlet: Heaven, Hell, or Purgatory?” WritingBros, 17 Sept. 2020, writingbros.com/essay-examples/prince-hamlet-heaven-hell-or-purgatory/
Prince Hamlet: Heaven, Hell, or Purgatory? [online]. Available at: <https://writingbros.com/essay-examples/prince-hamlet-heaven-hell-or-purgatory/> [Accessed 28 Nov. 2021].
Prince Hamlet: Heaven, Hell, or Purgatory? [Internet] WritingBros. 2020 Sept 17 [cited 2021 Nov 28]. Available from: https://writingbros.com/essay-examples/prince-hamlet-heaven-hell-or-purgatory/
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