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Was Shakespeare a Christian?
By Richard Gunther
early life and influences.
has long interested me as to where Shakespeare stood regarding the Christian
faith. It seems reasonable that, if he had a particular view of Christianity, he
would tend to express it somewhere - perhaps in his writings? If, for example,
he was a Catholic, he might insert into one of his plays something about Mary,
or the Mass, or the Pope. If he was a nihilist, he might 'let it slip' that he
not see any point to life; if he was a transcendentalist, he might consider the
unseen world as the true reality; and if he was a humanist he might see natural
justice and injustice in this life only, as the sum total of human existence.
as far as I know, in all 37 of his plays and in all his sonnets and other works,
there is not a single clear statement either way. This actually tells us a lot.
The very fact that he says nothing, tells us that he probably had no deeply held
convictions either for or against the Christian faith.
may be a premature assessment, so before we decide things too soon, let us look
briefly at the influences on Shakespeare's life from his childhood up.
was born in Warwickshire, in the heart of England. The times were labelled the Elizabethan
Age, so named because at that time Queen Elizabeth of England reigned. She
was the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. Through her Religious Settlement
she enforced the Protestant religion by law and had Mary Queen of Scots
executed (1587). Her conflict with Roman Catholic Spain led to the defeat of the
Spanish Armada in 1588 - an astonishing event attributed by many to divine
intervention. A commemorative coin was minted to mark the occasion in which
appear the words "He blew with His winds and they were scattered". The
Elizabethan Age was seen by many as glorious. During this time English
influence expanded tremendously - world exploration took place, the arts and
music flourished, and many notable people rose to prominence, such as Leicester,
Raleigh and Essex.
(produced during the reign of Elizabeth 1558-1603) was filled with a new
vitality, richness and energy. Three factors contributed to this resurgence of
creativity : 1. Renaissance humanism - that is, a renewed appreciation of being
human and the 'discovery' of wonderful human abilities such as creativity,
design, invention, building, etc, 2. The fact that new lands and new trading
opportunities were being opened up around the globe, 3. The Protestant zeal
which sprang from religious freedom and the opening of the Bible to the common
of this new lease on creative power came drama. It became the
dominant form of expression, and it was lead by William Shakespeare and
Christopher Marlowe, followed by other writers, such as Edmund Spencer, Sir
Philip Sidney, Francis Bacon, Thomas Lodge, Robert Greene and John Lyly.
was born 1564 and he died 1616. If he had been born 20 years earlier his
achievements would have been quite different - nothing so rich or full. He was
born at just the right time for his abilities to rise as high as they did. The
age he lived in was full of inspiration. Everything encouraged him and others to
work on his poetry, music and drama.
on Henley Street, in the town of Stratford, was small and rather cramped - in
the Elizabethan manner. What we might call a 'cosy little house'. In those days
people lived briefer lives, but, as if to compensate, they made them more intense
and gregarious. The living-room had an open fireplace made of brick and stone,
the ceiling was raftered, and at the back of the kitchen was an open hearth.
Upstairs was a big family bedroom. Out the back was a garden.
Shakespeare grew up he would have become familiar with his neighbours, who lived
in their equally small homes. Shakespeare's will shows that he was a family man,
a good townsman, with a sense of community - because he remembered a number of
his neighbours. Next door to him was a tailor, and further down was a draper,
who kept bees in his back garden and stored wax, honey and other things in his
'apple-chamber'. When Shakespeare came to write 'King John', he mentions a smith
and a tailor :
saw a smith stand with his hammer, thus,
whilst his iron did on the anvil cool,
open mouth swallowing a tailor's news;
with his shears and measure in his hand,
on slippers, which his nimble haste
falsely thrust on contrary feet . . ."
was spent in a rural setting. Pastures, woodlands, forests and the river Avon,
and the seasons running by, with many scenes of farming work and events. There
was also hunting of deer and other game.
town he grew up in lived chiefly by marketing to the country round about, by
trade, and by its main business, malting. Into the town came travellers and
buyers from near and far, including the Welsh, so Shakespeare was not cloistered
from the rest of England.
his days there was a move to bring the many crafts together, so as to ensure
that the apprentices were trained properly and the highest quality was
maintained - bakers were the first, followed by smiths and weavers, then came
those in the building trade, masons, joiners, carpenters and glovers.
Shakespeare's father Alderman Shakespeare was a glover (glove-maker).
Shakespeare grew up the new regime of Protestantism was moving into place. The
Marian priest was replaced by a Protestant vicar (Bretchgirdle).
Elizabethan days grammar-school education was much the same all over the
country, based on Lily's Latin grammar (he was the grandfather of the dramatist
John Lyly). At Stratford there was some elementary teaching prior to grammar
school - Shakespeare mentions this with several references to the 'Absey book'
(the ABC book) with its rows of letters beginning with a cross - called a
"Christ-cross row" at the start of the first line.
started school at about 7, ideally beginning the day with morning
prayers, and bidding his parents "Good morrow", then he would take his
satchel of books to his place in the school room while the Chapel bell rang.
School started at 6 in summer and 7 in winter.
refers to this time in
the whining schoolboy, with his satchel
shining morning face, creeping like snail
and afternoon school
opened and closed with a reading from the Bible, a psalm sung, and prayers -
Shakespeare quotes a lot from these repetitions.
Shakespeare was seven, he would have started school - in the year 1571, and
spent three years in the lower school under the usher Simon Hunt, a Protestant.
the boys were expected to be able to speak fluently in Latin, they began their
education with phrase-books and easy texts from Aesop and Cato.
was, by tradition, a writer of Greek fables. His stories are satirical and
illustrate moral points.
was Marcus Porcius 234-149 BC, a Roman politician, senior magistrate. His
farming manual is the earliest surviving work in Latin prose.
Shakespeare wrote Love's labour's Lost he included a parody of the Latin
lessons, and a great deal of the animal folklore in his plays comes from Aesop's
learned poetry from Mantuan, a Renaissance Christian, and Latin comedy from
passages from Terence and Plautus.
was Publius Terentius Afer, a Roman dramatists - 190-159 BC. Six of his comedies
have survived, all of which reflect a Greek influence.
was a Roman dramatist - 254-184 BC - who came from Umbria to settle in Rome,
where he worked in a bakery until he achieved success as a dramatist. He wrote
56 comedies, freely adapting them from Greek originals, of which 21 survive
today. Shakespeare based his 'The Comedy of Errors' on Plautus' 'Menaechmi'.
popular Renaissance text was Palingenius' 'Zodiacus Vitae', from which
Shakespeare drew two famous speeches about the Ages of Man. For example :
the world's a stage,
all the men and women merely players:
have their exists and entrances;
one man in his time plays many parts
acts being seven ages."
Shakespeare wrote 'The Tempest' he regurgitated more of the 'Zodiacus Vitae' in
Shakespeare progressed in school he began to read Ovid. Shakespeare,
along with Marlowe and others, adored Ovid's work, because Ovid made a cult
of love, in one form or another. Love itself was the object of their
worship, in all its many forms.
A.L.Rowse in 'Shakespeare the Man' says " The impression Ovid made
Shakespeare carried with him all his days. Along with the Bible and the Prayer
Book, Ovid makes the most constant refrain. The story of 'Lucrece' comes from
Ovid's 'Fast', and Ovid's 'Metamorphoses' provided the bulk of his classical
mythology. He used it in the original and in Golding's popular translation :
subjects, themes, characters, phrases come out of Ovid." (page 26.)
was Publius Ovidius Naso : 43 BC - AD17. He was a Roman poet who dealt mainly
with themes about love. He was banished by the Emperor Augustus for writing
about, and practising, it is said, immorality.
with the inspiration Shakespeare drew from the Latin books, we also need to take
into account his amazing aural memory. Shakespeare could take in words by
the armload, and then send them back out altered or changed into forms which
suited his own personality. In Elizabethan days, too, the whole education system
relied heavily on the use of memory - not nearly so much as our modern education
system does, so it was not unusual for Shakespeare to repeat from memory many
phrases and words which he learned at school.
well as the emphasis on memory, there was also the use of modes and methods, the
use of logic and rhetoric (speaking or writing effectively, using inflated or
exaggerated language), the question and answer drills, which Shakespeare also
used with great effect in his plays.
as he grew up, Shakespeare became a reading man. His historical reading included
Holished's Chronicles, 2nd edition of 1587, and North's Plutarch.
His attitude to history was typically Elizabethan - to find moral
examples. In Shakespeare's Elizabethan mind, good had to overcome evil, and
rewards had to go to the right, while the bad were never allowed to escape
unpunished. This is why Shakespeare worked on good kings and bad kings, the
duties of authority and the results of disobedience, and what happened when
government broke down. Church, school and society, in those days, saw history as
a teacher of morals - which is why Shakespeare wrote so much about anarchy, the
unleashing of passions, the infection of cruelty, devotion, loyalty, obedience
and 'taking the morally correct road'.
also fed into Shakespeare a huge amount of material. He started receiving input
from services from earliest childhood - catechism, teaching, sermons, singing of
psalms, prayers - and in those days regular attendance at church was compulsory.
are allusions in Shakespeare's plays to 40 books of the Bible, including the
Apocrypha (a section not found in Protestant Bibles). The story of the curse on
Cain is referred to 25 times (Gen.4).
to A.L.Rowse :"Shakespeare's numerous phrases from the Bible show that up
to 1596-7 those from the Bishop's Bible predominate, which was used in church.
After that readings from the Genevan version are more numerous, and he evidently
possessed a copy at home. Above all, he quoted the Psalms, or echoed their
phrasing, always in the Prayer Book version, and this is what he would have
heard Sunday by Sunday in church. When he quotes the commandments he does so in
the Prayer Book form, and phrases abound from most of its services." (page
as a Protestant, knew of only two sacraments - baptisms and Holy Communion.
There is not a trace of Catholic teaching in his work, nor had he any knowledge
of the Vulgate (the Latin translation of the Bible produced by Jerome about 400
AD and adopted by the Council of Trent as the official Roman Catholic Bible in
because of his background, Shakespeare had a deep sense of God being sovereign
over all Creation, in an orderly universe. This is expressed in such phrases as
heavens themselves, the planets and this centre
degree, priority and place,
course, proportion, season, form,
and custom, in all line of order . . ."
despite all this grounding in the Bible, Shakespeare seems to have had no
interest in holding any particular Bible doctrine, or doctrinal position. Like
most Elizabethans the Bible was, for him, just part of the prevailing culture,
just as was going to church, and attending school, and recitation of prayers,
and learning of homilies. (Stories with a moral to teach). That Shakespeare was
not particularly interested in obeying the Bible itself is seen by the fact
that, when he was 18 years old (1582) he got Anne Hathaway with child -
and she was 8 years older than he.
1592, while still married and with children, Shakespeare became infatuated with
another woman - she was six years younger than him, married, and very dark in
complexion - nicknamed the Dark Lady - and the subject of several sonnets
by Shakespeare in which he reveals his love, and lust, for her. At 29,
Shakespeare was middle-aged by the day's standards and hardly in the running for
a new wife such as she. 'Millia' Lanier did not love Shakespeare, which seems to
have distracted him a great deal.
Emilia Basana Lanier was 27 when she came to consult a Mr Forman, medical
practitioner and astrologer, in May 13th 1597. She was pregnant and Forman took
down all her particulars accurately because it was common in those days for
people to have prognostications made through astrological charts.
woman was the young, discarded mistress of the old Lord Chamberlain. She was
proud and tyrannical, half-Italian and musical. She came from the Bassano family
of musicians at Court, who were recruited from Venice. Emilia was the daughter
of Baptist Bassano and Margaret Johnson, who lived together but did not marry.
was also common for people to consult spirits, but in this case Mr. Forman made
no mention of such, but he did 'sleep' with Mrs Lanier, and at least one other
woman - according to his own notes.
our picture of Shakespeare is of a man who loved people, who loved his family
and wife, and who held strongly to duty, rather than obedience to God. He
obviously gave way to his immoral desires on many occasions. He was a
churchgoer, and also a man of the world, and not what we would call, by a strict
Bible definition, a "Christian". His plays are sprinkled with
references to his views and understanding of life - Bible and Prayer Book, Latin
forms, country scenes, manual labour, trades and commerce, histories, poetry,
fables, Greek and Roman myths, hunting, and bawdy conversations. He was a full
man, highly intelligent, and driven by his intellect on one hand, and his
passions on the other. A much-liked man, and remembered for his expansive
manner, a Protestant who believed in natural justice and in the universal laws
of Right triumphing over Wrong, and stability based on the ranking and design of
God downward through all of Creation to the humblest creature.
is common for every writer, at some point or other, to 'let slip' things from
his or her own life into the work they do. Shakespeare made many references to
local people, hunting, birds, bees, dogs, plants and many of the country scenes
which he grew up with. He also describes the language of lawyers, actors, common
people and school teachers. He was a keen observer of people, and his amazing
memory stored everything away for future use.
was also aware of the many changes in life. In his plays he explores and reveals
different themes, such as homecoming, innocence tried before adversity,
estrangement and separation, forgiveness, reconciliation, guilt, madness, fear,
love, lust, stupidity, happiness and loneliness - to name but a few. He
understood the real condition of humanity - that it is always ready to slip into
chaos, that it needs the constant rule of higher laws and authority to preserve
it from self-destruction. He supported the reigning queen, and later James I
because they represented the hierarchy of stability which he believed God had
ordained in the universe to keep the world from falling apart.
what of Shakespeare's religion? It remains a mystery. Some literature
claims him as a true Catholic, while other writers claim him as a true
difficulty is made clearer when we remember that all plays had to be submitted
to government censorship, (the censor was called the Master of Revels) which,
because of the huge, sweeping Protestant reforms, strictly forbade any public
religious arguments in plays. In the background, that is in the crowds who came
to see the plays, there were both Catholics and Protestants, and outside the
walls of the theatres - absolutely against the plays - were the Puritans.
father, John, was a Catholic. We know this because after he had fallen
into financial difficulties in 1577 and had to part with property, he slipped
out of public life and was later fined 40 pounds, possibly because he went to
Catholic services and not the parish church. He regularly failed to attend
around 1592, though the law required it. His will too, suggests Catholicism.
('Who Was Shakespeare' by Robin May, page 43)
was part of the Tudor establishment. He was therefore an upholder of the
Church of England. He couldn't have been a Puritan because the Puritans were
hostile to actors and playwrights. He was therefore a conforming Anglican.
Despite his outward churchgoing obedience, we see him in London tormented by
sexual desire, frustration and bitterness. To a Bible-believing Christian, he
was hardly a true follower of Christ, though still considered a 'son of the
Church' by the culture of his day.
died as he had lived - a conforming member of the Church of England. His will is
based on the usual Protestant formula : "I commend my soul into the hands
of God my Creator, hoping and assured by believing through the only merits of
Jesus Christ, to be made partaker of life everlasting."
has changed. There are thousands of people in our modern world who also consider
themselves to be Christians, (just as Shakespeare probably considered himself
one), but who have never been "born again" (John 3) and received the
Spirit of God. 'Church' for them is all outward forms and ceremonies, and their
confidence is in their membership rather than their sonship. They have never
come 'face to face' with the Lord Jesus, or kneeled before him, submitting their
lives to his command. They have never 'walked' with him through life, or called
on him as a true Friend. They, like Shakespeare, belong to the outward church,
but not to the Family of God.
Shakespeare's life, wonderful though it was, is missing one thing - an open confession that Jesus was his own, personal Lord and Saviour. He may have sat many times inside a church building, but, as far as the records of his life and works show, Jesus never resided inside his heart. This, perhaps, is the greatest tragedy of them all.
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