Cooper Street Scarlet Review

The Bard and the Bible

Determining Shakespeare's Christianity Through his Texts

Bill Epstein

We can see that Shakespeare understands the faith even if he does not believe it. On the other side though, we have a distinctly realistic and human-centered worldview running through his characters.
William Shakespeare
Jacob Foster

During the late 1500's and early 1600's religion was a subject of high debate. Between Christianity, Protestantism and the heretical Atheists of the time, religion could raise you to the highest position of social power or crush you to the lowest. Playwrights during this time were especially keen to the influence of religion over society, and would show this in their dramas. However there was one such playwright and poet who would show both sides of the religious argument in his works: William Shakespeare. The question is, was Shakespeare a full fledge Christian? By showing how ridiculous religious supremacists look to the common folk, as well as showing how unreligious people can thrive in the worlds of Othello, Macbeth and King Lear, we can see the in-depth knowledge that Shakespeare had over Christianity and religion, while also seeing his equally prevalent view against organized religion.

Before we can understand the religious aspect of Shakespeare's plays, we need to understand the world he came from and how society shaped his views. The 17th century was a time of immense social and religious reform. Between the 1520's and 1642, London suffered multiple riots over food and social class (Fitter 2). During these intense moments of social fighting, the people would turn to the church for help. However, the church was also going through its own reformation. People like Martin Luther and John Calvin were outraged with the state of the English church and created their own religions to combat the greed rampant in Catholicism. Fights between these religious groups were intense throughout London. The upside to all this was that knowledge between the three religious groups was readily available to those who would want to seek it out, like William Shakespeare. By living in this era of reformation, he had intimate knowledge of the churches and their subjects which is easily apparent in his writings.

One of the major aspects that these three religions shared that directly influenced the people, especially Shakespeare, was the idea of divine right to rule. Kings and their subjects believed that God had given the monarch the right to rule and that right meant that anything the King said came directly from God himself. This power was also backed by the Christian faith, with the church being in favor of the monarchy stating that it was necessary to have a divine leader to prevent natural and original sin. In Shakespeare's times, James I was the monarch and with the church and the populace backing him, he would abuse his power, causing strife and conflict between the upper and lower class.

At the same time as this debate within the Protestants, Catholics and Calvinists, we also have subtle attacks against organized religion. As with any era there are occult groups that exist, putting the fear of witchcraft into London citizens as well as royalty. Even King James I was a believer and intensely opposed witchcraft, showing that the supernatural was a major part of this time. On the other side, we have a strong humanistic world view emerging with Machiavelli and his novel The Prince. Within the book, Machiavelli teaches prospective rulers to be duplicitous: that they should appear pious in the streets but ruthless behind curtains, as well as promoting murder, thievery and cheating to achieve one's goals. Machiavelli’s teachings were in direct opposition to what the church believes. However, despite The Prince’s banning it is evident in Shakespeare's writings that he had acquired and read a copy, showing that the bard had knowledge not only of religion but of many aspects of intellect.

The question then becomes, with this intense knowledge of many aspects of religion, would Shakespeare still have been a Christian? We can look to his plays as evidence, with one of the most prominent examples of his slights against religion existing within Macbeth. After Macduff's family has been brutally murdered, we get a small interaction between Malcolm, Macduff and a Doctor discussing the power of the English King. The Doctor speaks out in regards to the healing touch of the king, stating “but at his touch (such sanctity hath heaven given his hand) they presently amend” (4.2.163-165), with Malcolm confirming the Doctors faith by saying “He hath a heavenly gift of prophecy, and sundry blessings hang about his throne that speak him full of grace” (4.2.179-181). Shakespeare is in a sense pandering to the courts by agreeing with the divine right to rule, which would please James I. This would help him get past the censor but when shown in the cities, the lower class would understand exactly the absurdity of the situation. Likewise, when looking at it from an acting standpoint, this line has much deeper meaning. Spoken with intense sarcasm and unnecessary enthusiasm, this line would show the absurdity of blindly following the monarchy. Shakespeare is using his knowledge of the church and their followers to make a mockery of institutionalized religion, which he only would have done if he himself was anti-religious.

As mentioned before, Shakespeare was knowledgeable about anti-religious texts like Machiavelli, which he brings into play during Macbeth. Both of the titular characters, Macbeth and his wife, embody the ideas put out by The Prince. They are ambitious and bloodthirsty, and they fear no god or rather do not even believe in God. “I could not say “Amen” When they did say “God bless us.” (2.2.40). After Macbeth murders Duncan and his guardsmen, he retells the moment to Lady Macbeth. When he mentions the guards praying to God for mercy, Macbeth could not utter the words to God. This would have been unheard of during Shakespeare's time; a character verbally and publicly denouncing his faith. As always, the counter argument lies within Macbeth's sanity or lack thereof, but wouldn't the power of God be able to overcome and save the thoughts of a madman? Using Macbeth's inability to believe in God, Shakespeare disproves God’s power, and by doing so disproves both Divine right and God himself.

Much like the Macbeth's ambition and disapproval of God and divine right, we have possibly the most Machiavellian and human driven character in any Shakespeare play, Iago from Othello. Honest Iago, cunning Iago and a sociopathic Iago. A man who is described as both a member of the working class, while also being the cleverest and arguably most intelligent person in any of Shakespeare's texts, Iago will not let anything stand in the way of his machinations, including petty ideas such as morals or virtue. Case in point, when speaking to Roderigo on the topic of virtue, Iago declares that virtue cannot decide a man’s actions, only man himself can control their destiny. “Tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus” (1.3.361) or in other words, nobody controls their destiny but themselves. By showing an incredible amount of ambition and self-power, Iago goes against everything Calvinistic and the ideas of predestination. This, in turn would reflect in the audience showing them that the main character of the play, somebody who has already been shown to sympathize and relate to the audience, does not believe in religion. If Iago is anti-Christianity and he's just like us, then why should we follow the church?

We can see that Shakespeare understands the faith even if he does not believe it. On the other side though, we have a distinctly realistic and human-centered worldview running through his characters.

Besides the Atheistic and Machiavellian viewpoint of Iago, we get something even more powerful for this era. Iago's intellect offers the idea that he is neither Christian nor Atheist but instead a follower of Pagan and Greek beliefs. “But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve for daws to peck at: I am not what I am” (1.1.69-70). This quote conjures imagery of the Greek God Prometheus, the God who brought fire and knowledge to the masses of earth and was punished by having his liver pecked at for all eternity by crows. So if Iago wants the same punishment to suit him, it suggests that he believes himself to be on the same level of the Greek God, which would then disprove the fundamental ideals set forth by the Christian Church. If Iago was a true Christian, he wouldn't dare put himself on the same level of a God, so this shows his faith lies in a different school. We can also view this one step further as a way for Shakespeare to show his displeasure with the Christian faith and those that follow it. Iago is one of the smartest characters in a Shakespearean play and he does not follow the Christian faith, while those he enacts his ruthlessness onto do follow the faith. What Shakespeare is suggesting then, is that the smart and knowledgeable members of society are the ones who don't follow Christianity, while the people who do are gullible and weak.

We can see another example of religious imagery, although not pagan in nature, in King Lear. We see this form of imagery in many of Shakespeare's women but above all we can see it in Cordelia. Right from the start of the play Cordelia shows us she is unwavering in her ideals. When she is banished from the kingdom for not praising her father, Cordelia does not lose faith. Instead her ideals become emboldened and she returns to London, not for revenge but to absolve and save her father from her sisters. Lear recognizes her sanctity and begs her for forgiveness, but also equates her suffering to that of Christ. “Upon such sacrifices, my Cordelia, The Gods themselves throw incense” (5.3.22-23). A prominent figure in any religious text is the image of Jesus, the literary character of the savior. The character who above all else is forgiving, nurturing and will absolve any mistakes that a un-righteous man has made. The belief in Christianity is that Jesus died for our sins to absolve us and here Lear is stating that he recognizes that Cordelia has suffered because of his sins and forgiven him. Does Shakespeare leave it at this? With a nearly perfect Jesus analogy to please the church and the masses? Of course not. At the end of the play, Shakespeare subverts the traditional happy ending by brutally killing Cordelia off screen. When Lear enters with her body, he is convinced that she is either still alive or will be resurrected, much like Christ would have done. However, Cordelia stays dead countering the religious ideas Shakespeare has put forth already. How can Cordelia be a true Jesus analogy if she does not come back from the dead? The ramifications this would have had to the audience would have been massive. Since many of them would recognize the symbolism in Cordelia as well as the intense religious overtones within the play itself, to have them suddenly flipped and destroyed would have caused most members of the audience to be outraged, depressed or both. What it also would do is cause them to think about the sanctity of the Church doctrines. If Cordelia, as a Jesus analogy, could die and not come back then how can we trust the Bible's story of Jesus? Shakespeare is telling us we can't and subtly asking the masses to question the church.

Despite the use of the Jesus image, King Lear also intensely disproves the belief in God. In Act 4 of King Lear, during a conversation between Gloucester and Edgar, after being blinded and cast out by his family and forced to face the cruel realities of the world, Gloucester thinks to plead with the Gods but stops himself stating, “as flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods. They kill us for their sport” (4.1.42-44). On a purely literary level, we can view this as Gloucester equating humans as nothing more than insects in the mind of Gods. Going back to the ideas of John Calvin we can see a distinct predestination world view in Gloucester's thinking. Gloucester is stating that man has no power in his life, that everything is decided on the whims of Gods. Calvin himself has been quoted saying a similar phrase, “God ride's man like a horse”. You could argue that this is Shakespeare agreeing with Calvin and with Christianity but given what we know about the pessimist, there is more to this in Shakespeare's mind.

He is calling into question one of the fundamental laws of Christianity, that the Lord is just and merciful. Of course he can get around any censorship by having Gloucester, who indeed has had despicable acts done to him, question the justice and legitimacy of God because Shakespeare would have been familiar with the downtrodden citizens of the city who would say the same things. However, by having Gloucester, who was once a nobleman, say these heretical phrases it would make the Upper class watching begin to think about the nature of religion. If God couldn't or wouldn't prevent Gloucester's torture, what's to stop him from preventing something happen to the current lords? Shakespeare has twice now placed the seed of doubt into the minds of his audience using Gloucester and the entire work of King Lear.

What Shakespeare has done is set up two opposing world views in these three plays. By showing us the glory and holiness of the Church and of Christianity, albeit sometimes sarcastically, he gives us a side of him that is knowledgeable about the faith. He has in-depth knowledge about what it means to be faithful and what truly pious men would say, which he only could have gotten from studying the faith itself or being around that society. We can see that Shakespeare understands the faith even if he does not believe it. On the other side though, we have a distinctly realistic and human-centered worldview running through his characters. Characters understand that in order to further themselves in the world they must give up religion, that morals and faith will only hold them back. Religion, as Shakespeare shows us, serves as a restriction to the full potential that humans have. The question posed at the start of this paper asked, “was Shakespeare a Christian?” As shown using Macbeth and Iago we can see that his characters are certainly not Christian. Those who do show the faith, like Cordelia, Gloucester and Othello, end up dead or tortured. Comparing the high levels of human achievement that those who ignore the faith get to, even if it has the same conclusion, shows us that faith is a weakness to Shakespeare. So I conclude that no, Shakespeare was not a Christian. He was knowledgeable of the faith but he was not a believer. Shakespeare believed heavily in human achievement, in the Machiavellian principles that anybody could achieve greatness. He wanted to extend these ideas to London society, but knew that he would be branded a heretic and executed if it happened. So he hid his ideas in the lines of his plays, knowing that those in the crowd who understood the world the way he did would find them and agree, spreading his intellect across the city.

We have observed multiple aspects of Shakespeare's life, his education and most importantly his writing, to answer the question “was Shakespeare a Christian?” By looking at actions and words performed in Macbeth, as well as the sarcastic portrayal of the English King we can see a displeasure in the faith. Using Iago's almost pagan ideologies as well as his strictly Machiavellian pursuit of life in Othello, we can see Shakespeare's love for human achievement. Finally, in King Lear, Shakespeare gives the audience exactly what they want. Shakespeare built a body of work filled with overt religious imagery and dialogue, focusing his audiences into this mindset. He then crushes this mental view, forcing his audiences to reevaluate and find the flaws in their religion. He was less trying to advocate against the idea of organized religion and more so trying to educate the masses so they could create their own opinions. The Bard had his own Bible and within it were goals of human achievement and lines of prose sanctifying mankind as independent of the Church. He wanted the best for humanity and as we are still reading his works today, he achieved his goal.