Protestantism changed the way English people thought about themselves. The Catholic Church taught that the way to achieve salvation was to live a good life. A believer who obeyed all the teachings of the Church, made regular confession, did penance, and gave generously to the poor could be confident of going to Heaven. The founder of the Protestant movement, Martin Luther, argued that the only path to salvation was true faith in God. Unlike the acts of good behavior Catholicism espoused, true faith could not be seen from outside. It could only be experienced from within. This meant that for Protestants, the only way to know you were saved was by examining your own faith to work out whether it was genuine or not. For this reason many Protestants devoted a lot of time to examining their own consciences. Some Protestants kept journals, where they wrote down their thoughts so they could examine them more closely.
Shakespeare’s plays are shaped by this new interest in self-examination. Shakespeare’s soliloquys show his characters arguing with themselves, questioning their own motives, and second-guessing their own thoughts. Many of Shakespeare’s most famous characters, including Richard II, Brutus (
), Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, Richard III and Iago (
), devote soliloquys to examining their consciences for signs of guilt, weakness and bad faith. Hamlet, the title character of Shakespeare’s best-known play, has studied at the University of Wittenberg, the place where Martin Luther launched the Protestant movement. Hamlet’s soliloquys, which are among the most famous speeches in theatrical history, show Hamlet wrestling with his own thoughts as he tries to answer pressing moral questions about murder, sexuality, and suicide. Hamlet is tortured by self-doubt. He repeatedly asks himself whether he really believes what he thinks he believes.