Posted by William Nunnelley on 2010-10-08

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.

Samford is a leading Christian university offering undergraduate programs grounded in the liberal arts with an array of nationally recognized graduate and professional schools. Founded in 1841, Samford is the 87th-oldest institution of higher learning in the United States. The Wall Street Journal ranks Samford 1st nationally for student engagement and U.S. News & World Report ranks Samford 66th in the nation for best undergraduate teaching and 104th nationally for best value. Samford enrolls 5,683 students from 47 states and 19 countries in its 10 academic schools: arts, arts and sciences, business, divinity, education, health professions, law, nursing, pharmacy and public health. Samford fields 17 athletic teams that compete in the tradition-rich Southern Conference, and ranks 6th nationally for its Graduation Success Rate among all NCAA Division I schools.