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Was Shakespeare a Christian?

By Richard Gunther


Shakespeare's early life and influences.

It 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.

But, 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.

This 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.

Shakespeare 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.

Elizabethan literature (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 people.

Out 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.

Shakespeare 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.

Shakespeare's home, 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.

As 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 :

"I saw a smith stand with his hammer, thus,

The whilst his iron did on the anvil cool,

With open mouth swallowing a tailor's news;

Who, with his shears and measure in his hand,

Standing on slippers, which his nimble haste

Had falsely thrust on contrary feet . . ."

Shakespeare's boyhood 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.

The 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.

In 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).

While Shakespeare grew up the new regime of Protestantism was moving into place. The Marian priest was replaced by a Protestant vicar (Bretchgirdle).

In 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.

Boys 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.

Shakespeare refers to this time in

" the whining schoolboy, with his satchel

And shining morning face, creeping like snail

Unwillingly to school."

Morning and afternoon school opened and closed with a reading from the Bible, a psalm sung, and prayers - Shakespeare quotes a lot from these repetitions.

When 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.

Since 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.

Aesop, was, by tradition, a writer of Greek fables. His stories are satirical and illustrate moral points.

Cato was Marcus Porcius 234-149 BC, a Roman politician, senior magistrate. His farming manual is the earliest surviving work in Latin prose.

When 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 stories.

Shakespeare learned poetry from Mantuan, a Renaissance Christian, and Latin comedy from passages from Terence and Plautus.

Terence was Publius Terentius Afer, a Roman dramatists - 190-159 BC. Six of his comedies have survived, all of which reflect a Greek influence.

Plautus 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'.

Another popular Renaissance text was Palingenius' 'Zodiacus Vitae', from which Shakespeare drew two famous speeches about the Ages of Man. For example :

"All the world's a stage,

And all the men and women merely players:

They have their exists and entrances;

And one man in his time plays many parts

His acts being seven ages."

When Shakespeare wrote 'The Tempest' he regurgitated more of the 'Zodiacus Vitae' in Prospero's farewell.

As 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.

As 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.)

Ovid 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.

Coupled 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.

As 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.

And 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'.

The Church 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.

There 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).

According 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 29).

Shakespeare, 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 1546).

So, 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 :

"The heavens themselves, the planets and this centre

Observe degree, priority and place,

Insisture, course, proportion, season, form,

Office and custom, in all line of order . . ."

Yet 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.

In 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.

Mrs 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.

The 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.

It 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.

So 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.

Shakespeare's plays.

It 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.

He 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.

But 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 Protestant.

The 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.

Shakespeare's 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)

William 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.

Shakespeare 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."

Nothing 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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