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Hamlet’s Introspection Was Emblematic of 16th Century Religion, Says Kaufman

Posted on 2010-10-08 by William Nunnelley (205) 726-2800

Hamlet was not a Christian, but his extended meditations were emblematic of Christianity at the time the Shakespearian play was written.  So stated Dr. Peter Kaufman, Professor of Leadership Studies at the University of Richmond, speaking to religion students and University Fellows at Samford University Oct. 7.

In a lecture entitled “Hamlet’s Religion,” Dr. Kaufman said Shakespeare wrote “on the fly” and that his work reflected, among other things, the religion of the times.  “We can use Hamlet to get a better understanding of the religion around Shakespeare,” said Kaufman.

The religion of the late sixteenth century often represented a “duality between Catholicism and Calvinism,” said Kaufman, a medieval and Reformation-era historian.  Catholicism offered a set of rules for salvation, while Calvinism stated that salvation was pre-ordained.

“But many Christians were somewhere between these two poles in a kind of hybrid faith,” he said.  “They were in the atmospheric condition in which Hamlet was written.”

Deep introspection was central to the religion of the era, said Kaufman.  He cited Hamlet’s soliloquies: “To be or not to be,” “Conscience makes cowards of us all,” and “I do not know why I live.”  Such extended meditations made for the “true fortitude” that most Christians sought, he said.

Christians also looked for “a cleansing” of their souls, said Kaufman.  Shakespeare provides such an example with Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle who killed his brother to gain the throne of Denmark.  Claudius is looking for cleansing of his sin but cannot find it, Kaufman noted.

Devotionals and church literature of the day exhibited the same kind of “self-flagellation” in their content, said Kaufman, leading Christians to regard life somewhat somberly.  The character Angelo in Measure for Measure is heard to say, “We are all frail,” and Prospero in The Tempest adds, “My ending is despair.”

A student asked Kaufman if there was any joy in religion during the era.  “Yes,” he said with a smile, “there were happy people, but there was a whole lot of groaning going on.”

Kaufman holds the George Matthews and Virginia Brinkley Modlin Chair in Leadership Studies at Richmond’s Jepson School of Leadership Studies.  Also professor emeritus of history and religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he is the author of seven books and numerous scholarly articles in patristic, medieval and reformation studies.

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