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The Contrast Between The Renaissance Prince Hamlet And Old Hamlet

Although Hamlet’s father is dead before the main action of the play takes place, his presence is notably felt in the events of the play. In his interaction with Hamlet there are several contrasts between the influence of the Renaissance which drives the son, and the more medieval worldview which shapes the thoughts of his father. It is also worth bearing in mind that even the way in which Shakespeare represents Hamlet’s disposition needs to be understood in its Renaissance context.

The most notable difference between Hamlet and his father is the difference in their religion. Although it is not explicitly referred to in the text that Hamlet is Protestant and his father is Catholic, there is historical and theological evidence as to why this is the case. Old Hamlet informs his son that the time is near at hand ‘when I to sulphurous and tormenting flames / Must render up myself.’ (1.5.3-4) These flames are the flames of Catholic purgatory, which he must endure before ascending to heaven. However the Ghost itself is a figure that Protestants would not have believed in as they did not believe in purgatory. Nevertheless, Hamlet not only accepts the existence of the Ghost, he appears to believe what it says, which is a curious development, because Hamlet himself follows a very distinct Protestant line of thought. As Stephen Greenblatt has observed, Hamlet is a Protestant man haunted by a Catholic Ghost [1].

Hamlet's Renaissance education was at the college of Wittenberg, which is most famous as the University where Martin Luther (1483-1546) taught philosophy. Luther is of course the man who nailed his list of ninety-five protests to the church door of Wittenberg, which ultimately led to the split of the Catholic Church and the foundation of Protestantism. The University of Wittenberg was founded in 1502, but became one of the main institutions for the spread of the new ‘philosophy’ of Luther [2]. The play, however, does not resolve the conundrum of why Old Hamlet, an austere and militaristic Catholic king, would send his son to be brought up in the Protestant faith and infused with Protestant philosophies.

Even the request of help from his son to gain revenge for his murder demonstrates the contrast in both men’s styles. Old Hamlet, who won land and military honour by slaying Fortinbras’s father in combat, asks that Hamlet exacts a similar punishment on Claudius. However, Hamlet has moved away from the old style of his father whereby the acquisition of land and glory was the true measure of a king. Instead Hamlet displays characteristics which a modern audience may find odd, but which to a contemporary audience, would firmly locate him as a Renaissance protagonist. For example, while Hamlet is described as melancholy, which to a modern audience would be evidence of his indecision over how to go about his revenge, in Shakespeare’s time it would have been closely linked to Renaissance concepts of the mind. Medical practitioners argued that melancholy was one of the four ‘humours’ of the human body, and it was generally agreed among them that a man should experience at least a little of this humour [3]. Therefore his experience is not necessarily linked to mental ill-health, but it does make him contrast sharply with his father, who would not share the Renaissance mindset of his son.

Despite the differences of the father and son, Joseph B. Wagner has pointed out that the Ghost does exert a good deal of influence on Hamlet. As the play develops, Hamlet moves away from the position of the Renaissance scholar, and more into the role which his father wants him to play as his avenger. This is reflected in the latter speeches of Hamlet which rely heavily on the words that were spoken by the Ghost when the two first met [4].

Ralph McLean


1. For more on the division of Hamlet and his father on religious lines see: Greenblatt, Stephen, Hamlet in Purgatory (New Jersey: 2001). For more on the denial of purgatory within the play see: Low, Anthony. ‘Hamlet and the Ghost of Purgatory: Intimations of Killing the Father.’ English Literary Renaissance 29 (1999), pp. 443-67. Return to text.

3. Bertram Joseph, Conscience and the King: A Study of Hamlet (London, 1953), p. 27. For a contemporary description of these humours see: H. Cooke, Mikrokosmourafia: A description of the body of man (London, 1615), p. 7. Return to text.

4. Joseph B. Wagner, ‘Hamlet Rewriting HamletHamlet Studies 23 (2001), pp. 75-92. Return to text.



General Background
Antony and Cleopatra
King Lear
A Brief Overview Of British Social And Political History
The Politics of the Catholic Church
The Influence of Montaigne on Shakespeare
International Relations and Politics
James VI and I and his Patronage of the Arts
Kingship in the Renaissance
Early Modern Attitudes to Madness
Political Theatre
Elizabethan and Jacobean Revenge Tragedy
The Religious Reformation, 1529-1559
The Influence Of Machiavelli On Shakespeare
The Succession of James I
Suicide in the Renaissance
Textual Variations in Shakespeare’s Plays
The Tragic Hero
The Transition from Medieval to Renaissance Drama
The Battle of Actium
Sources for Antony and Cleopatra
Marc Antony
The Contrast Between the Renaissance Prince Hamlet and Old Hamlet
New Words in Hamlet?
Is Hamlet a Problem Play?
Sources for Hamlet
Concepts of Heaven, Hell and Purgatory in Hamlet
‘And My Poor Fool Is Hanged’
The Double Role Of Cordelia And The Fool In King Lear
The Enclosure Acts
The Theme of Nature in King Lear
Nature and Cosmic Order in King Lear
Sources for King Lear
The Publishing and Performance History of Othello
Race in Othello
Sources for Othello
The Wife as Property in Othello