Fear of the Afterlife in Hamlet

Throughout Hamlet, Hamlet has an array of moments in which to kill Claudius, such as right after the ghost tells him of Claudius’s crime, or when Claudius is praying. But Hamlet is never able to follow through on his plan for revenge. This is because Christianity influences his thoughts of death and the afterlife. Like Hamlet, many of the characters behave the way they do in part because of their religious beliefs. In “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” Louis Althusser argues that ideological state apparatuses like the religion influence people’s behaviors, and these behaviors uphold the disparate social order. Using Althusser’s theories, we gain further insight as to why characters are governed by their own beliefs. Their faith in Christianity causes them to behave obediently and devotedly so that after death, they go to heaven. Thus, the rulers benefit because their subjects will not revolt or cause trouble, because the subjects fear the afterlife.

Althusser, in “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” differentiates between ideological state apparatuses (ISAs) and repressive state apparatuses (RSAs). While ISAs, like family, culture, and religion, are operated mostly by ideologies, RSAs, like the government, the police, and prisons, are operated by violence as the name suggests. However, he makes clear that RSAs are not only regulated by violence; ideology is also a part of RSAs, but violence is the major factor. The same goes with ISAs: they are operated largely by ideology, but violence is also a component.

By ideology, Althusser means a powerful fiction substantiated by material institutions; family, culture, religion, the arts, and so on are all operated by rules imposed by society. Althusser puts forth two theses about ideology. The first is that ideology “represents the imaginary relationship” between people and their existence (1498). In essence, people come up with theories to help them understand their existence. The second thesis is that ideology “has a material existence in the world” (1500). Though these two theses seem counterintuitive, what Althusser means is that the theoretical explanations for life are depicted through material actions of people. So, for example, the way education is set up was made up by people. They chose what is taught, including respect and obedience along with math and reading. The immaterial beliefs in what should be taught and how schools should be set up has a material existence in the actual schools of the country. Each individual’s beliefs, or the more hypothetical thoughts, influence the way they behave. Ideologies also maintain the structure of a society that benefits the people in power. Moreover, Althusser argues that people are “interpellated” by ideologies, meaning ideologies make individuals into subjects; that is, individuals become a part of the inequitable societal structures through their ideologies.

Religion guides the way the characters of Hamlet behave towards suicide, including Ophelia’s suicide and Hamlet’s thoughts of suicide. The way in which Ophelia dies causes the people around her to question what to do about her funeral. Because she committed suicide, many people think that Ophelia does not deserve a Christian burial due to their belief that suicide is a mortal sin. This belief is shown when the Doctor expresses his disdain for Ophelia’s funeral:

Doctor: Her obsequies have been as far enlarg’d

As we have warranty. Her death was doubtful,

And but that great command o’ersways the order,

She should in the ground unsanctified been lodg’d

Till the last trumpet; for charitable prayers,

[Shards,] flints, and pebbles should be thrown on her.

Yet here she is allow’d her virgin crants,

Her maiden strewments, and the bringing home

Of bell and burial.

Laertes: Must there no more be done?

Doctor: No more be done:

We should profane the service of the dead

To sing a requiem and such rest to her

As to peace-parted souls. (5.1.212-225)

Because Ophelia’s death appeared to be a suicide instead of an accident, she should have been buried “unsanctified,” with “shards, flints, and pebbles… thrown on her” instead of flowers. Like Althusser states, the belief in their religion influences their behavior; the people’s religious belief that committing suicide sends you to hell manifests itself in the way they perform the burial. Thus, ideologies are both immaterial, in that they are theoretical rules, and material, because they cause people to take certain actions.

Ophelia’s funeral also shows how ideology maintains the unequal structure of society. Though many people believe Ophelia committed suicide, she still receives a Christian burial. People who committed suicide usually did not receive Christian burials, as it was believed they were bound for hell. The two clowns reveal that Ophelia gets a Christian burial because she is of a higher class: “Will you ha’ the truth an’t? If this had not been/ a gentlewoman, she should have been buried out a’/ Christian burial” (5.1.22-24). By giving Ophelia a Christian burial even though she committed suicide, the powerful reinforce the fact that people of a higher class deserve more than those of a lower class. Even the Clown’s use of the word “should” instead of “would” indicates that there are privileges associated with the higher class. Religion and class are connected in that wealthy people are allowed to bend the rules of religion to their benefit. Because ISAs like religion are in place to control the behaviors of people to keep them obedient to the ruling class, it makes sense that the rules are stricter for poor people. They have more incentive to try to change the order, but if they have the beliefs impressed upon them more harshly than the affluent, they will have no opportunity to revolt.

The belief that those who commit suicide will go to hell is first expressed through Hamlet. After he is asked why he is still mourning his father’s death, he berates Claudius and Gertrude for their marriage, but ultimately promises not to go to Wittenberg, Hamlet is then left alone with his depressing thoughts:

O that this too sallied flesh would melt,

Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!

Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d

His canon ‘gainst [self-]slaughter! O God, God,

How [weary], stale, flat, and unprofitable

Seem to me all the uses of this world! (1.2.129-134)

In this passage, Hamlet declares he does not commit suicide because he knows “the Everlasting,” or God, ruled against it. If there were no rules against suicide, then Hamlet would most likely kill himself. His beliefs are influencing his actions. Hamlet’s belief that God is watching him benefits authority figures because the subjects always behave well due to their belief in the “Everlasting.” They think God will punish them if they step out of line, and stepping out of line includes going against authority figures. Obedience to God and obedience to those in power are the same thing. Religion is set in place to ensure that subjects regulate their own actions. Therefore, the ideological function of religion is fulfilled.

Another scene in the play where Hamlet shows his obedience to God, and therefore to people in power, is the “to be or not to be” speech. Before this speech, Claudius, Gertrude, and Polonius conspire to figure out why Hamlet is acting so strangely and send Ophelia to meet him to see if his love for her is causing his crazy behavior. Without knowing that the other characters are watching him, Hamlet wonders if killing himself would be easier than killing Claudius:

Hamlet: But that the dread of something after death,

The undiscover’d country, from whose bourn

No traveller returns, puzzles the will,

And makes us rather bear those ills we have,

Than fly to others that we know not of?

Thus conscience makes cowards [of us all]… (3.1.77-82).

Because Hamlet does not know what will happen after death, if killing himself really would send him to hell or if there is nothing, he does not kill himself. Not knowing what happens after death, Hamlet asserts, is why people do not commit suicide. Here, Hamlet thinks it’s a moral qualm that holds people back from suicide. Due to the moral aspect of suicide, there is also a moral aspect of obedience to the powerful. In this scene, Hamlet shows his interpellation by ideologies. Hamlet is aware that he will not commit suicide because of the religious stigma surrounding it, but even in knowing this he still acts as society expects him to. He has become a part of the society that he does not want to be a part of.

The most telling scene in which religion directly influences a character’s behavior is just before Hamlet is about to kill Claudius after the play. Hamlet finds Claudius praying, and so he decides to kill his uncle later when his soul is not purified:

Hamlet: But in our circumstance and course of thought

‘Tis heavy with him. And am I then revenged,

To take him in the purging of his soul,

When he is fit and season’d for passage?


Up, sword, and know thou a more horrid hent:

When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage

Or in th’ incetious pleasure of his bed

At a game a-swearing, or about some act

That has no relish of salvation in’t– (3.3.83-92)

Hamlet hesitates to kill Claudius while he is praying because Claudius’s soul is prepared for heaven. He wants Claudius to pay for killing Old Hamlet and go to hell. Heaven would be too great a reward, with no sense of revenge, for Claudius. Hamlet’s religious belief that praying purges a soul of its sins affects his actions. There is nothing real forcing him to refrain from killing Claudius. Only his beliefs cause his hesitation, which directly correlates to Althusser’s statement that a person’s “ideologies” or beliefs will affect their actions.

Because the characters’ beliefs affect their actions, Hamlet prompts us to think about what we believe in. Althusser’s work is rather difficult to wrap our heads around, because it basically says our beliefs affect our actions, and our actions only benefit the oppressive societal structures. It reminds us that we are a part of unjust ways of society, even if we do everything we can not to be. Based on this, we need to be more mindful of our thoughts and how they affect what we do.

Works Cited

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

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet: Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism. Edited by Susanne L. Wofford, Bedford/ St. Martin’s, 2009.