The intriguing stories presented in Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale and William Shakespeare’s Hamlet are filled with religious quandaries and religious extremes. This allows religion to become a significant catalyst to both stories. While religion in The Handmaid’s Tale and Hamlet are treated differently, religion still is a monumental factor to the choices and actions of characters and societies in both stories, Although religion is unmanipulated and unchanged in Hamlet in The Handmaid’s Tale it is changed to reflect Gilead’s best interest and does not hold the same stability. Religion is also a major catalyst to the events of both stories, the religion depicted in The Handmaid’s Tale is an exaggerated version of christianity whereas in Hamlet the religion of choice is conflicting. There are many religious conundrums between the republic of Gilead`s biblical practices, religious morals also play a part in Hamlet’s contemplation of carrying out the wishes of his father’s apparition. Religion heavily influenced Gilead’s society, dictating the way people dressed, spoke and behaved.Faith heavily influenced Hamlet’s decisions because of the thought of eternal damnation.
Religion in The Handmaids Tale has a profound effect on society in the form of christianity, the countries own name Gilead comes from the bible as a mountainous region east of the jordan river (Genesis 31:25 New Standard Revised Version). In, the Handmaid’s Tale the origin of the society of Gilead is not clear and any known information is attributed to Offred’s account. What can be gathered from her account is that through times of fear and hopelessness “The Sons Of Jacob” used the christian bible to form a theocratic government to rule over a religious society. Religion is the fundamental influence to the rules and standards of Gilead, specifically the christian bibles old testament. Throughout the society of Gilead’s nomenclature many positions of authority are given biblical names. Positions like, Commanders Of The Faithful, Guardians Of The Faith, Angels and Eyes of the Lord. There are even biblical references to the clothing worn by people in the society of Gilead, the wives of commanders are dressed in blue to represent the christian Virgin Mary. This representation of Mary goes even further by having the Wives believe that they are given the gift of a child from god through the handmaid’s. People living under the society of Gilead have had their culture merged into one. Prior denominations of Christianity are erased and members of gilead are not shown to attend church. Some literary critics disagree with the religious aspects think that Atwood’s Gilead society has nothing to do with christianity, literary critic Barbara Ehrenreich said “[Atwood’s] regime is a hodgepodge: a theocracy that’s not recognizably Christian, that most Christians don’t accept”(The New Republic, Barbara Ehrenreich). These changes to religion are used as a start to reform an entire community and society, this then allows this religion to change individuals in the Gilead society. Although there is no religious change in Hamlet their religious society also creates a catalyst in Hamlet but with some distinct differences. The society of Hamlet’s main religion is that of christianity, just like the society of Gilead.Both societies try to practice and uphold the same values and moral codes and believe in the same God. Apart from the same faith being predominantly practiced, there are many differences between their two societies. Hamlets society allows for other denominations of christianity to be practiced as well as totally separate faiths to be practiced. Pagan traditions and gods are also talked about and mentioned, for example hamlet mentions the God of the sun Niobe saying “Like Niobe, all tears- why she, even she (O God! a beast that wants discourse of reason Would have mourn’d longer) married with my uncle” (Hamlet, II.2, 181-182). This lack of unity and lack of established faith allows room for strife. For example when Hamlet witnessed the ghost he has trouble distinguishing its religious origin saying “Be thou a spirit of health, or a goblin damn’d / Bring with thee airs from heaven, or blasts from hell” (Hamlet,I.4,41). This distortion between the ghosts form as an angel or a demon, forces hamlet to question its religious origin. Unlike the Handmaid’s Tale, Hamlet has discrepancies that allow for more options in faith, in the Handmaid’s Tale the thought of a ghost would be unambiguous.Since the university of wittenberg where Hamlet attended is home to the protestant movement it is assumed that Hamlet is protestant, this is crucial because Hamlet’s Father and most of Denmark at the time would be roman catholic. These different denominations have separate beliefs on “ghosts”, from Hamlet’s perspective as a protestant the ghost he saw would have to be evil as protestants don’t believe in righteous ghosts(Ludwig Lavater’s Of Ghosts and Spirites Walking by Nyght, 1572). Since hamlet is influenced by a roman catholic society he also looked at the ghost from a roman catholic point of view, this means the ghost could be a ghost sent from God(uscatholic.Paranormal activity: Do Catholics believe in ghosts?). Because of the lack of unity regarding religion within Hamlet’s society this would allow Hamlet to continue his quest for vengeance. Unlike the Handmaid’s Tale the ghosts origin is up for debate it can be interpreted in different ways, whereas in The Handmaid’s Tale the opinion on whether ghosts are real would be left to the republic of Gilead and their word would be law, no other discrepancies,what their theocratic government said would be the only conclusion to be drawn.
This relates to the next point on how religion is a monumental factor in the mindset of the characters in Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale specifically Hamlet and Offred. In Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale Offred makes many religiously fueled decisions that lead to her escape/doom. Although The Handmaid’s Tale and Hamlet have completely separate settings both Offred and Hamlet are religious. Although Offred doesn’t show the same level of faith towards her God she still makes an effort to pray. Offred alters the christian “Lord’s Prayer”in order to suit her needs, she says “My God. Who Art in the Kingdom of Heaven, which is within. I wish you would tell me Your Name, the real one I mean But You will do as well as anything.”(Atwood, 225). The similarity in their characters is prevalent here,Offred’s narrative of these events show that she is struggling internally. Although their societies are years apart Offred’s society forces a strict religious code to their citizens and Hamlet’s does not this allows Gilead’s citizens internal emotions to vary slightly. Literary critic Alix Madrigal said this about Offred’s narrative “ Offred’s narrative is fascinating in a way that transcends tense and time: the record of an observant soul struggling against a harsh, mysterious world”. Even tho the setting of The Handmaid’s Tale is very unique Offred’s struggles are relatable and similar to Hamlet’s. The eternal struggles of Hamlet are kindred to Offred’s but Hamlet’s struggle with his religion was far more poignant, his struggle affected the entire story and ultimately changed his society and himself. Hamlet struggled with the morality of his father’s ghost’s plans. This morality was completely dependant on his religious position. Discussed earlier was Hamlet’s christian denomination, Hamlets earlier quarrel with himself about his faith continues to affect other aspects of the play. Hamlet as a protestant would not have believed in purgatory, but after seeing and believing this ghost Hamlet now believes in the existence of Hell. This newfound belief starts Hamlet’s uncertainty, when brought upon an opportunity to enact his revenge whilst Claudius is praying, Hamlet instead questions the aftermath. Hamlet says “Now might I do it [pat], now ‘a is a-praying; / And now I’ll do’t–and so ‘a goes to heaven, / And so am I [reveng’d]. That would be scann’d: / A villain kills my father, and for that / I, his sole son, do the same villain send / To haven” (III.3.73-78).Hamlet wonders if killing Claudius while he prays would send Claudius to heaven, this divergence causes Hamlet to postpone his plan for revenge.
Hamlet’s religion is a topic of much discussion in Hamlet but it is mostly agreed upon that Hamlet was a man of religion. Literary critic Ivor Morris said this in his review of Hamlet “A religious consciousness and potentiality is thus to be seen at work in Hamlet; yet by no stretch of the imagination can it be said that the play reveals him throughout as a man of faith” (405).
There are many religious similarities and differences with characters and societies of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. These differences and similarities helped start chain reactions that affected the societies and the people within those societies. It is no doubt that religion played a monumental role in the events of both books, whether it affected their societies standards or the characters mindset, religion’s impact was seen through the beginning and the end.
- Shakespeare, William, et al. Hamlet. American Scholar Publications, 1965.
- ATWOOD, MARGARET. HANDMAID’S TALE. DOUBLEDAY, 1985.
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- “Paranormal Activity: Do Catholics Believe in Ghosts?” USCatholic.org, www.uscatholic.org/articles/201309/paranormal-activity-do-catholics-believe-ghosts-27887.
- “Ghosts in Shakespeare.” The British Library, The British Library, 9 Nov. 2015, www.bl.uk/shakespeare/articles/ghosts-in-shakespeare.
- Fallon, Claire. “What Critics Said About ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Back In The 1980s.” HuffPost Canada, HuffPost Canada, 13 Apr. 2017, www.huffingtonpost.ca/entry/handmaids-tale-original-reviews_us_58e7de23e4b058f0a02f0adb?ec_carp=329188608355054295.