Concepts of Heaven, Hell and Purgatory in Hamlet
Although the twelfth-century source text for Hamlet tells a story that takes place in pagan Scandinavia, critics of Hamlet tend to treat the play as reflecting on the preoccupations of Shakespeare’s day: ‘its themes were quintessentially those of the Renaissance and Reformation’  In its evocations of heaven, hell and purgatory, Shakespeare’s Hamlet makes reference to the Christian ideas of the early modern period. One of the religious questions concerning Hamlet is where the ghost of Hamlet’s father comes from. Hamlet does not know whether the ghost is ‘a spirit of health or goblin damned,’ attended by ‘airs from heaven or blasts from hell’, and whether its intent is ‘wicked or charitable’.  In following the ghost’s command to exact vengeance upon Claudius, it is not clear whether Hamlet would be dispensing divine justice, or, led by the Devil, committing as bad a sin as Claudius’ original act of murder.
The Ghost himself claims to come, not from heaven or hell, but from purgatory, saying ‘I am your 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’.  While both heaven and hell were places of eternal reward or punishment, purgatory, a concept originating in the twelfth century,  was a place where sins could be gradually atoned for after death. Souls assigned to purgatory could be reprieved by the prayers of the living.  Hamlet has pity for the ‘poor ghost’,  saying ‘rest, rest, perturbed spirit’.  He states that he will ‘go pray’  after seeing the ghost, although he is in a vengeful, rather than a prayerful mood. This may indicate that Hamlet believes that it is by taking revenge on Claudius that he can alleviate his father’s suffering in purgatory.
During and after the Reformation, Protestants debated the existence of purgatory. Some theologians, Luther among them, believed that, after a person’s death, the soul ‘slept’, to re-awaken at the Day of Judgement. ]According to this view, ‘Heaven is empty of the Saints till the resurrection of the dead’ and ‘No man is yet in hell, neither shall there be any there untill the judgement’.  This meant that the souls of the dead did not have a chance to improve themselves in purgatory.  For Catholics, however, the concept of purgatory endured. One account describes ‘a subterraneous cave, filled with flames and horrid instruments of torture’ which the ‘confined and imprison’d soul must, till expiated endure’.  This corresponds to the ghost’s description of the ‘sulphurous and tormenting flames’ in his ‘prison-house’ and its harrowing nature,  and to his moving about underground after his disappearance. 
However, there is some evidence to suggest that the ghost is not in purgatory. His appearance is frightful: he is called a ‘dreaded sight’  and an omen of disaster,  he shrinks away from daylight,  and he never mentions atonement. He preaches murder and revenge, rather than mercy or forgiveness. All of these aspects seem to link the ghost with hell rather than with purgatory or heaven.  This conflicts with Hamlet’s view that his mission is one of divine justice: ‘heaven hath pleased it so/ That I must be their scourge and minister’.  Hamlet’s use of the plural could suggest that he refers to pagan gods, who would not fit into such clear-cut patterns of good and evil, when he says ‘heaven’. However, if we accept a Christian context for the play, the ghost’s malignity lends an unholy aspect to Hamlet’s revenge.
Hamlet’s ideas about heaven are flawed: his refusal to murder Claudius during prayer because that would send Claudius’ soul to heaven  suggests that Hamlet is arrogating to himself God’s power of judgement. Hamlet’s desire that Claudius’ ‘soul may be as damned and black/ as hell whereto it goes’  shows him to be altogether without mercy. When Hamlet invokes the name of heaven, he often uses it for dark purposes: he swears ‘by heaven’ to remember the ghost’s commandment, in the same breath with which he calls his mother ‘most pernicious woman’ and Claudius ‘damned villain’.  Although Hamlet recognises ‘a divinity that shapes our ends’ whereby his sleeplessness allows him to discover the plot against him, he uses this chance to order the murders of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, stipulating that ‘no shriving time’ be allowed, condemning their souls to perdition.  In the early modern period, heaven was seen as ‘the nearest enjoyment of God’,  and ‘the Height and Perfection of all Glory, Bliss and Joy’.  Failure to understand or approach this concept of heaven is one of the flaws that dooms Hamlet and makes his story tragic.
1. Susan Brigden, New Worlds, Lost Worlds: The Rule of the Tudors 1485-1603
(London: Lane, 2000), p. 364, cited in William Shakespeare, Hamlet
, ed. by Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor, The Arden Shakespeare, 3rd Series (London: Thomson Learning, 2006), p. 38. Return to text
4. Philip C. Almond, Heaven and Hell in Enlightenment England (Cambridge: CUP, 1994), p. 67. Almond discusses seventeenth-century (and earlier) as well as eighteenth-century attitudes. Return to text
10. Thomas Edwards, Gangraena: or a Catalogue and Discovery of many of the Errours, Heresies, Blasphemies and Pernicious Practices of the Sectaries of this time (London, 1646), I, 27 and 36, cited in Almond, p. 43. Return to text
12. Thomas White, The Middle State of Souls. From the hour of death to the Day of Judgement (London, 1659), p. 3, cited in Almond, p. 72 Return to text.
18. Cf. Eleanor Prosser, ‘Spirit of Health or Goblin Damned?’(1967;1971) in Shakespeare’s Christian Dimension: An Anthology of Commentary, ed. by Roy Battenhouse (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), pp. 386-91. Return to text
22. Hamlet, 1.5.104-6, p. 219. Cf. Roy Battenhouse, ‘Hamlet’s Evasions and Inversions’ (1969) in Shakespeare’s Christian Dimension: An Anthology of Commentary, ed. by Roy Battenhouse (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), pp. 395-405, esp. p. 396. Return to text
24. Richard Baxter, The Saints’ Everlasting Rest, (c.1650) (London, 1846), p. 18, cited in Almond, p.101. Return to text
25. John Dunton, An Essay Proving We shall Know our Friends in Heaven, (London, 1698) p. 29, cited in Almond, p. 103. Return to text