“Religious Repression of Reality ”


Religious Repression of Reality


Philosopher, Althusser, shares his views about how ideology and its many apparatuses influence the structure of society. Using his idea of Ideological State Apparatuses and how they guide each individual’s life, we can decipher the actions of the characters in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The realities of Prince Hamlet, as well as, proceeding characters are shaped by their Ideological State Apparatuses following Althusser’s model of structure of the state, predominantly through religion.

Althusser introduces the idea that everyone is affected by ideology, “which represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence” (Althusser, p.1498). He explains that these are ideals that shape the the outlook an individual living under the ideology, although they do not directly correspond with reality. Althusser goes on to explain the Ideological State Apparatus (ISA) as “a certain number of realities which present themselves to the immediate observer in the form of distinct and specialized institutions”, for example, the church, education, family, and political apparatuses are the common ISAs that structure people’s lives to maintain their social order (Althusser, p.1489). These apparatuses condition a person based on the regulation of the Ideological State Apparatuses with which they live under the affect of. “Churches use suitable methods of punishment expulsion, selection, etc. to ‘discipline’ not only their shepards but also their flocks. The same is true of the Family…” Althusser explains how people are secondary repressed by the ISA, not by force, but by the imaginary regulations of the Ideology (Althusser,  p.1490). The nonviolent Ideological State Apparatuses are successful in maintaining the order of people of the state to this day and age.

One evident ISA found amongst the characters in Hamlet is religion or The Church. It is portrayed throughout the play and is an evident ideological state apparatus to many characters in the play including Hamlet. One scene where The Church directly affects a great decision of Hamlet’s revenge in the play was when he was hiding in the church with intentions to murder Claudius, but instead was watching him pray.


Hamlet: I might do it [pat], now ‘a is a-praying;

And now I’ll do’t, and so ‘a goes to heaven,

And so I [reveng'd]. That would be scann’d:

A villain kills my father, and for that

I, his sole son, do this same villain send

To heaven. (3.3.72-77).

By analyzing the scene, we see that the rules and punishments of The Church do not not allow Hamlet to kill Claudius and obtain his idea of a suitable revenge for the murder of his father, an eternity in hell. Because the King is praying, if he were to be killed he will go to heaven and not hell because in that moment Claudius is repenting his sins in the church. Their religion is an invisible force that is determining how Hamlet views his concrete actions of taking revenge on Claudius. Hamlet ultimately decides to murder Claudius when he is doing something evil because as the Church states, that is when a sinner will go to hell. This further provides evidence that the ISA of religion keeps Hamlet from making certain decisions and actions while in the church because he believes in the outcomes the ideology holds.

From this passage, we also see religion represses and causes struggle in Claudius’s life thoughts and actions when he takes shelter in a church and is praying to God. Whereas Hamlet is obeying his apparatus of religion by believing in the sacredness of Claudius praying, Claudius is actually struggling against the influence of his religion. Moments before Hamlet came upon him kneeling in the church, Claudius exclaims, “A brother’s murther. Pray I can not…My stronger guilt defeats my strong intent, And, like man to double business bound, I stand in payse where I shall first begin” (3.3.38-42).  Claudius knows he has violated the ISA of religion by murdering his brother, thus he feels that choosing to pray to God now feels wrong after committing such a sin. Claudius’s feels influence from the ISA because it has structured so much of his life, but due to his straying from his Christian path and commiting murder, his immense guilt from sin causes him to fight against his conditioning of a religious life. However, Claudius does, in the end, still show the material representation of the apparatus by praying.

Another example in the play where Althusser’s idea of Ideological State Apparatus of religion is used to structure the characters of Hamlet, was during the burial scene of Ophelia:

First Clown: Is she to be buried in Christian burial when she willfully seeks her own salvation?

Second Clown: I tell thee is, therefore make her grave straight. The crowner hath sate on her, and finds it Christian burial.

First Clown: How can that be, unless she drown’d herself in

her own defense?

Second Clown: Why, ’tis found so…

But is this law?

First Clown: Ay, marry, is’t– crowner’s quest law.

Second Clown: …If this had not been a gentle woman, she should have been buried out a’ Christian burial (5.1.1-8, 20-25).

This scene provides further evidence that the ideology of religion influences the views of the characters and cause them to question Ophelia’s body being buried in the cemetery due to the fact her death was by suicide. They see someone dying by suicide an ultimate sin because that is what their apparatus of religion has conditioned them to believe. To proceed with a Christian burial would be against the word of God, yet a Christian burial is what they are expected to carry out for her because she is a “gentlewoman”. This shows a further interpolation of another apparatus evident in Hamlet: the political. The class of Ophelia and her family is being considered by the crowner who decided that the Christian burial could proceed because of the family’s stature in society. Ophelia’s family is allowed to go against the apparatus of religion for her burial due to the overarching political apparatus. This is an example of when different apparatuses can create a complex interpolation under ideology. This scene provides further evidence that ISAs do in fact maintain social structure by making sure those in power keep their power. By analyzing this dialogue between the two gravediggers we see how the ideology of religion influences not only the beliefs and opinions of characters, but also how the political apparatus structures the social hierarchy of the more powerful as well as shows the complexity of multiple ISAs acting in one situation .

Althusser’s ideas of Ideological State Apparatuses hold true in the lives of the characters in Shakespeare’s work. His ideas give the audience an insight into the social structure of individual characters due to effects of the ideology of The Church. The audience can conclude through the actions of Hamlet as well as Ophelia’s burial scene, the many characters in Hamlet are influenced by prominently the ISA of religion acting on behalf of the state.


Wofford, Susanne. Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism: William Shakespeare Hamlet., Bedford Books of St. Martain’s Press, 1974.

Althusser, Louis. “Ideology” and “Ideological”,Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism p.1483-1509


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