Congratulations to Maryanne Mongin, winner of the 2023 Senior Essay Contest

This article was posted on: December 1, 2023

Each year, seniors attending the seven Catholic high schools in the Diocese of La Crosse write an essay of roughly 500 words analyzing a significant piece of literature. The students are given one class period, approximately 45 minutes, to complete their essay.

ESSAY PROMPT: In the play Hamlet, there are several elements that suggest that the titular character may have been a practicing Catholic. Despite the fact that Shakespeare’s audience is Protestant, the play contains religious imagery and themes that align with Catholic beliefs and practices. Some scholars have even suggested that the evidence in this and other plays suggests that Shakespeare himself may have secretly been a member of the Catholic Church despite the risks imposed on Catholics by Queen Elizabeth, who had martyred well over 150 Catholics, including priests and mothers. Analyze the language of the play, specifically the religious imagery, and provide evidence to support or refute the idea that Shakespeare may have been a Catholic in hiding and willing to teach the basic truths of the Catholic religion through the words and actions of his characters. Be sure to cite specific examples from the text to support your analysis.

Assumption Catholic High School – Wisconsin Rapids

Purgatory in Shakespeare’s Hamlet

Hamlet confuses many people with its subtle religious undertones. It seems to embody ideas quite foreign in Elizabethan England. Shakespeare fails to uphold the orthodox teachings of Protestantism and is instead reverting to the illegal Catholic religion. In the play Hamlet, Shakespeare upholds the Catholic belief in the existence of purgatory, first by having the ghost be tormented for the sins of his past life and then by having the main character postpone his revenge until the murderer has a guilty soul.

Shakespeare first argues for purgatory by having the ghost admit to being tormented for the sins of his past life. The ghost of the protagonist’s father groans that he is in torment, doing penance for his sins. “(C)onfined to fast in fires/ till the foul crimes done in my days of nature; Are burnt and purged away” (IV.1n 16-18). He is punished for his sins by being kept in purgatory until they are expiated. Again, the ghost bitterly rebukes his murderer, who allowed him no time for confession or the sacraments. “No reck’ning made, but sent to my account/ With all my imperfections on my head” (I.V.1n 85-86). Because his soul was still unpurified, he must undergo trials before entering paradise. In his writing, the author makes a clear argument for his belief in the existence of purgatory by the dialogue of the ghost on the need for him to atone for sin in the next life.

In addition, Shakespeare has his protagonist carefully plan his revenge so that the kin will be sent to purgatory on account of his own guilty soul. Hamlet is unwilling to stab his father’s murderer while he prays before the altar. “And so he goes to heaven,/ And so am I revenged. That would be scanned…: (III.III.1n 79-80). He refuses to kill the king because he wants him to suffer in the next life for his sins, not go straight to paradise. Therefore, he resolves to strike when his victim is unprepared. “When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage,/ Or in th’ incestuous pleasure of his bed,/ At game a-swearing, or about some act/ That has no relish of salvation in’t-“ (III.III.1n 94-97). He knows the kin will be forced to undergo purgation in the other world if he is cut off of life with a bad conscience. Shakespeare again argues for purgatory by explaining the motives for Hamlet’s decision to postpone his revenge until the kin has a guilty soul.

Shakespeare shares a belief in the Catholic doctrine of purgatory, proved first by the torments of Hamlet’s father in the afterlife and then by the decision of Hamlet not to kill until the king is in a state of sin. The old king Hamlet is suffering in purgatory as a punishment for his sins. His son Hamlet chooses to wait to take his revenge until the murderer is likewise in a state of sins needing purification. Both the suffering of the old king and the need to put the assassin in a similar state of sin are examples of Shakespeare clinging to the Catholic doctrine of purgatory.

Published in the November/December 2023 issue of Catholic Life Magazine

The Catholic Diocese of La Crosse
3710 East Ave. South
La Crosse, WI 54601

Subscriptions & Advertising 
Pam Willer

Story ideas, submission inquiries
Erik Archer

Individual Subscriptions

Find us on Facebook

Your Faith


Copyright © 2023 Diocese of La Crosse. All Rights Reserved.

To Top