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Human Condition: Essay on How Religion Sculpts Human Existence

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It has been said that “the human condition … is one of living as the fallen image of God”. In light of this view on human condition, this essay explores how religion sculpts people’s understanding of human existence in Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’ and Blake’s ‘Songs of Innocence and of Experience’.

Religion was a fundamental component of life in the early modern period and hugely shaped the literature of this era, enabling writers to explore the nature of the human condition in the light of the religious beliefs prevalent in their societies. Texts such as ‘Hamlet’ and ‘Songs of Innocence and of Experience’ were powerfully guided by Christianity, as a form of the Christian Church dominated England during both times of writing. Shakespeare would also have been influenced by the effects of the Renaissance movement, whereby scholars began to query the ideas of the Church: for example, the questioning of the divine right of kings is significant in ‘Hamlet’. We see a progression in thought between the Renaissance and Blake’s time, with the Enlightenment bringing shifting attitudes to God and religion. The movement towards rationality through scientific thinking and observation spurred Blake to draw upon his notions of spirituality, to counter the emerging ideas of the Age of Reason and expose ‘the two contrary states of the human soul’. Blake and Shakespeare both hold the lens of religion over human corruption, an awareness of mortality, the role of women, and the idea of humans being created in the image of God. Elements of both texts portray the sacred, divine nature of humanity, arguably indicating that humans are indeed formed in God’s image; interestingly, in the exploration of this image, the writers indirectly explore the idea of God himself. However, it could also be argued that the pervading themes of corruption and moral degradation in the texts provide a stark contrast to this, demonstrating humanity’s state of Fallenness. It is thus possible to argue that each text presents a hyperbolic dichotomy of human nature: the two incomplete views within each text-only begin to truly represent humanity when juxtaposed.

Firstly, the lens of religion is used to explore the image of humans in comparison to the image of God. For example, ‘The Divine Image’ suggests that man and God are indeed alike since both embody the Christian virtues of ‘Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love’; the poem’s regular quatrains and lilting meter create a sense of hymnal serenity to support this. However, this idea is arguably slightly dissimilar to the idea of humans being created in God’s image, as the assertion that God ‘is’ these values implies that he is simply the apotheosis of human virtues – a somewhat mental creation. This was consistent with the beliefs of many Dissenters, who focused on the existence of the Holy Spirit within each person, and this is supported by Blake’s belief that ‘all deities reside within the human breast’. ‘The Human Abstract’ further expands on these ideas, analyzing the ideals and arguing that if this is our understanding of the constitution of God and of human nature, humans have accepted the suffering of others, since these virtues would not exist without their negative antitheses. Writing that the ‘fruit of Deceit’ grows ‘in the Human brain’, Blake argues that humanity has regressed into a divided existence, constructing oppressive social values to maintain this state. ‘Fruit’ alludes to the Biblical story of the Garden of Eden, further establishing this notion of Fallenness. In a similar way, Shakespeare exposes an almost paradoxical contrast between different aspects of human nature as Hamlet questions, ‘What piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, … in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god: … – and yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?’ In his monologue in Act 2, Scene 2, Hamlet initially depicts human beings using the semantic field of divinity, comparing them to ‘an angel’ and ‘a god’, insinuating that humans do exist as God’s image. However, he contrasts this with the moral corruption of humanity, and thus declares humans worthless – a ‘quintessence of dust’. Critic Harrison claims that humans ‘see the earth as a matrix of pain, death, corruption, and tragedy’, and this is arguably true of Hamlet, who seems to corroborate the belief that humanity’s true state is one of Fallenness. Hamlet’s constant deliberation and indecision as he contrasts views on humanity and morality can be seen as similar to the structure of ‘Songs of Innocence and of Experience’. In creating a collection of two separated, hyperbolic views, Blake obliquely suggests that it is necessary to analyze both parts of the dichotomy to ascertain the truth about the human condition.

Hamlet’s assertion about humanity being a ‘quintessence of dust’ alludes to a line from Ecclesiastes 3:20 – ‘dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return’. Religion is shown to shape characters’ awareness of mortality, and this idea of death as a corollary of life is used by authors to explore the meaning of life itself. For example, in Blake’s ‘Laughing Song’, the maxim ‘Come live, and be merry’ echoes the phrase ‘Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die’ – a conflation of verses from the Biblical books Ecclesiastes and Isaiah – thus implying the philosophy of carpe diem and suggesting that the brevity of life means that people should seize the moment. The poet’s use of regular quatrains reflects his decision to employ a style of children’s verse in order to mimic the controlled, moralistic verses typical of Enlightenment poetry. Conversely, instead of delineating constraining rules, Blake parodies the form and message of these poems and encourages artless joy. However, the childlike tone and simplistic repetition of words such as ‘merry’ and ‘laugh’ throughout the poem arguably convey the speaker’s naivety, indicating that this view of life is flawed and incomplete. This view from ‘Songs of Innocence’ is contrasted in ‘The Fly’ from ‘Songs of Experience’, which instead suggests that the transience of life renders it somewhat inconsequential, equal to that of a fly. The metaphor of the ‘thoughtless hand’ brushing away the fly is used to create a subtle parallel with the insignificance of human life to our supposed creator. Comparably, in Hamlet’s soliloquy in Act 1, Scene 2, he laments on the pointlessness of life: ‘How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable/Seems to me all the uses of this world!’ The sense of meaninglessness and hopeless dejection – emphasized by the exclamation and the adjectives ‘weary’ and ‘flat’ – is also explored in Act 5, Scene 1. Upon the discovery of Yorick’s skull, Hamlet reflects on death’s ability to transform great rulers like ‘imperious Caesar’ into trivialities: ‘dead and turned to clay’. ‘Clay’ indicates a lifeless malleability in stark contrast to his previous ‘imperious’ regality.

However, an alternative idea about mortality that is explored by the authors is that death is liberating, primarily as it frees the soul from the burden of the mortal body. The importance of the soul is conveyed in ‘Hamlet’ by the Ghost’s anguish at being ‘unhoused, disappointed, united, as this relates to not having received three holy Christian sacraments conducive to the salvation of his soul. This triadic structure of adjectives with the prefixes ‘un-’ and ‘dis-’ emphasizes the sense of lacking and the unnatural nature of the Ghost’s situation. Similarly, ideas about the soul are portrayed in ‘The Little Black Boy’ and ‘The Chimney Sweep’, poems which depict that the mortal body is ephemeral but the spirit is enduring. ‘These black bodies and this sunburnt face/Are but a cloud’ and ‘naked & white, all their bags left behind’ connote the impermanence of the human body, with the ‘black’ and ‘sunburnt’ mortal body carrying implications of being tainted and sinful in comparison to the description of the souls, which has connotations of innocent purity as conveyed by ‘white’ and ‘naked’. The inevitability of death also renders it a powerful equalizing force: as Hamlet wittily states, ‘Your fat king and your lean beggar is but variable service—two dishes, but to one table’. The writers arguably use religion to explore various perspectives on mortality and the evanescence of life, without claiming one particular view to be the absolute truth.

The theme of mortality in literature often alludes to the concept of original sin, as the inevitability of death is viewed by some to be a consequence of the Biblical Fall of humankind. Therefore, this theme links to the authors’ use of religion to explore corruption. Blake introduces ‘Songs of Experience’ with a prophetic bard mourning the ‘lapsed soul’ of humanity, and this allows us to read subsequent poems in the collection – such as ‘Holy Thursday’ – in the light of the concept of Fallenness. This poem highlights society’s selfishness and avarice under the guise of piety, with phrases such as ‘eternal winter’ and ‘bleak and bare’ connoting the unnaturalness of this state of being. ‘Eternal winter’ demonstrates a cold, unfeeling lack of empathy, and the alliteration using the harsh, plosive ‘b’ consonants in ‘bleak and bare’ furthers the atmosphere of misery and hardship. Blake portrays the idea of deleterious false piety in order to expose the corruption of the Church and condemn organized religion. As a Dissenter, he abhorred the hierarchy of the Church, as well as the monarchy’s system of hereditary power and the inequality it caused; the influence of Paine’s book ‘Rights of Man’ on Blake is evident. As well as this, ‘Songs of Experience’ was shaped by Blake’s horror at the tyranny of the French Revolution – in this part of the collection, he more overtly explores the corruption of the Church, the monarchy, and the government. Corruption is also shown to be an agent of entrapment for humanity, symbolized by the ‘mind-forged manacles’ in ‘London’. Blake is revealing the idea that suffering has its roots in the physiological world, with the mind imprisoning humanity, and ‘manacles’ echoes the famous sentence from Rousseau’s ‘The Social Contract’: ‘Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.’ The imagery of restriction permeates the poem, with chartered implying a lack of volition and freedom, the repetition of ‘every’ showing the pervasiveness of suffering, and the use of antanaclasis with the words ‘mark’ and ‘marks’ creating a sense of being permanently tainted. As well as highlighting the misery caused by societal corruption, Blake is decrying the Industrial Revolution – the antithesis to Romanticism – and the poverty and torment it caused.

Similarly, ‘Hamlet’ too explores the theme of corruption, but this is focused more on the monarchy than in Blake’s collection. Grindlay argues that ‘King Hamlet can be seen as an embodiment of a fragile Eden which becomes despoiled by sin’, and this is evidenced by Shakespeare’s portrayal of Claudius’ sinful nature. King Hamlet states that Claudius has poisoned ‘the whole ear of Denmark’ and repeatedly describes him using the metaphor of a snake: ‘sleeping in my orchard,/A serpent stung me’; ‘The serpent that did sting thy father’s life/Now wears his crown’. ‘Serpent’ is redolent of the Biblical serpent from Eden, a powerful symbol of evil and deception. When Marcellus states, ‘Something is rotten in the state of Denmark’, he alludes to the questioning of divine right and the Great Chain of Being – the belief that God has decreed a hierarchical structure that runs throughout life, with the King at the apex of the human hierarchy. However, religion is shown to enable these corrupt characters to recognize and understand their sin, so it could therefore be argued that – while Fallen – these characters retain a sense of morality. This means that they do not stray entirely from the image of God if we define this as the paragon of human ideals. For example, we see the influence of Christianity on Claudius’ soliloquy in Act 3, Scene 3: ‘O, my offense is rank, it smells to heaven;/It hath the primal eldest curse upon’t -/A brother’s murder’. The ‘primal eldest curse’ he refers to is the curse of Cain, the son of Adam who killed his brother in an envious rage. A powerful dramatic device, this soliloquy elucidates to the audience that when Claudius is left alone onstage, his conscience overwhelms him. We can see the influence of morality plays on Shakespeare’s writing here – developed in the Middle Ages, these focused on the conflicts of individual souls.

Finally, writers use the lens of religion to explore the roles of women and what it means to be female. In Blake’s ‘The Sick Rose’, the rose is arguably a symbol of femininity, beauty, and female youth whereas the ‘invisible worm’ is redolent of the Biblical serpent, with the additional idea that this corruption is concealed. A similar idea about invisible corruption is proposed when Hamlet tells his mother, ‘rank corruption, mining all within,/Infects unseen’, although a difference here is that Hamlet is arguing that Gertrude is bringing the corruption upon herself. However, both examples contain the theme of women being easily corruptible, showing the limited change in attitudes towards women between Shakespeare’s and Blake’s eras. There is also a sexual element to Blake’s poem, with the worm being suggestive of a phallus and ‘crimson joy’ being reminiscent of passion, shame, sin, and pleasure. Blake is arguably highlighting the expectations of purity that burdened women of the time, with chastity being one of the seven Christian virtues, and lust being one of the seven deadly sins. Believing the Fall created a division between the sexes – separation where unity was needed – Blake felt that human sexuality had become distorted, possessive, and laden with inhibitions. Similarly, in ‘Hamlet’, the sexual inhibitions by which Ophelia is constrained are evident as Hamlet instructs her, ‘be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as snow’. The similes portray the extent to which Ophelia is expected to remain pure, but they arguably also show the cold, unfulfilling nature of this chastity that circumscribed all women during Shakespeare’s time. Critic Grindlay states that ‘imagery of the natural world that describes both Gertrude and Ophelia turns them into victims of a literary legacy of the Fall of Man: a gender ideology that blamed women, embodied by Eve, for mankind’s descent into sin’. Ophelia in particular is characterized by natural flower imagery, distributing flowers such as ‘a daisy’ and ‘rue’ according to their symbolism in the last scene in which she appears. In addition to their individual meanings, the flowers can be seen as representative of Ophelia’s blossoming sexuality and giving away the flowers also arguably signifies her symbolic ‘deflowering’. As well as this, Ophelia is found drowned with garlands of ‘crow-flowers, nettles, daisies and long purples, and Laertes later says, ‘from her fair and unpolluted flesh/May violets spring’. This association of flowers with death means that they are symbolic of transience, and offer an insight into the perceived fragility of women at the time. Indeed, Hamlet indirectly implicates his mother when he cries ‘Frailty, thy name is woman, but he is also accusing all women of displaying inherent spiritual and moral weakness. Flower imagery is used similarly in Blake’s collection, with the trio of consecutive flower poems ‘My Pretty Rose Tree’, ‘Ah! Sunflower’ and ‘The Lily’ in ‘Songs of Experience’ compound the impression of female ephemerality and vulnerability. Each poem consists merely of one or two quatrains, so the physical brevity of their form also adds to the notion of transience. With this nature imagery obliquely relating women to the Biblical Eve, it could be argued that religion contributes to the victimization and confined roles assigned to females in the texts.

In conclusion, through applying the lens of religion to the human world, writers achieve an understanding of multiple different aspects of the human condition. Both ‘Hamlet’ and ‘Songs of Innocence and of Experience’ juxtapose contrary aspects of humanity: its ostensible capacity for divinity and its terrestrial state of corruption. Shakespeare achieves this in part through the character of Hamlet, whose hesitance and deliberation offer contrasting ideas about morality and human existence; Blake achieves this through the separation of his collection into two almost polarised sections, which only begin to offer a rational viewpoint when explored together. A key theme of both texts is also the fleetingness of mortal life, and the writers examine several ways in which knowledge of life’s impermanence can mold our understanding of it. Corruption is also fundamental to the texts, but while Blake’s collection is largely preoccupied with censuring organized religion and industrialization, Shakespeare’s play is concerned with ‘the corruption of mortal flesh’ and of the monarchy. Finally, religion is drawn upon in the texts to help delineate what it is to be a woman, arguably creating detrimental restrictions that allow society to condemn females in the wake of the Fall of Man. Overall, it could be argued that humanity is portrayed to be fundamentally corrupt in the texts, yet a capacity for goodness and repentance is also demonstrated. Thus, if we define the image of God to be the culmination of human virtues and ideals, human beings are arguably still presented as existing somewhat in this image, albeit to a large extent in a Fallen state.

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Human Condition: the Prism of Religion to the Human World. (2022, May 17). GradesFixer. Retrieved September 26, 2022, from https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/human-condition-the-prism-of-religion-to-the-human-world/
“Human Condition: the Prism of Religion to the Human World.” GradesFixer, 17 May 2022, gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/human-condition-the-prism-of-religion-to-the-human-world/
Human Condition: the Prism of Religion to the Human World. [online]. Available at: <https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/human-condition-the-prism-of-religion-to-the-human-world/> [Accessed 26 Sept. 2022].
Human Condition: the Prism of Religion to the Human World [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2022 May 17 [cited 2022 Sept 26]. Available from: https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/human-condition-the-prism-of-religion-to-the-human-world/
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