Was Shakespeare a Christian Writer?
Part One of our summer series "Shakespeare on the Stream."
William Shakespeare is the English-speaking world’s greatest writer. In fact he’s also very popular outside it. Very far outside it, in fact. (Which is why you really need to read the Bard in the “original Klingon”.) Shakespeare is one of the three pillars of Western literary culture, along with Homer’s works and of course the Bible. And one of the 10 guiding principles of this venue is that “culture comes before politics.” So let’s see if we can navigate “Shakespeare by The Stream.”
I’m Not An English Professor …
First off, allow me some confession of my true state (to paraphrase Hamlet, Act III, Scene 1). I’m not a Shakespeare expert — just an educated fan. I’ve read 25 of his plays, seen 16 performed on stage, and acted in three (Much Ado About Nothing, Henry IV Part 1, Julius Caesar). As I write this I’m listening to the soundtrack to Sir Kenneth Branagh’s great 1989 movie version of Henry V. So I’m a historian who dabbles in Bardology. Not an English professor steeped in post-modern deconstructionism of Shakespeare, or anything else.
Just A Humble Community Theater Thespian
Last summer, after being blessed to portray King Henry IV in the aforementioned play, I wrote about it here. Therein I identified three major contributions Shakespeare can make to modern America. First, he gives both conservatives and liberals common ground on which to cooperate. (And not just because the former love sword fights, the latter cross-dressing.) Second, getting out to see his plays helps keep community alive in this age of substituting Facebook and Twitter for true social intercourse. Third, live Shakespeare productions, and movies, serve as a standing rebuke to the “hey hey, ho ho, Western civ has got to go” vandals so prevalent today.
Shakespeare Was A Christian
Was Shakespeare a Christian writer? There’s little to no doubt that he was a Christian. Almost everyone in England was then. (Jews would not be allowed back in that country until 40 years after his death. By Oliver Cromwell.) Most likely he belonged to the Church of England, notwithstanding modern attempts to link him to Rome. This helps explain why he made fun of Puritans, who when they controlled Parliament shut down the theaters. (Which Lord Protector Cromwell maintained, although he did allow the staging of operas.)
How Did Shakespeare View History?
But how much did Shakespeare’s Christian faith inform his writing? I surveyed the scholarship on his issue. Back in 1955, Sylvan Barnet wrote (in “Some Limitations of a Christian Approach to Shakespeare,” English Literary History, 22. 2, pp. 81-92) that while the English playwright’s works are rife with Christian sentiments, his tragedies in particular are not always true to that faith. For example, in the Roman plays suicide is not treated as a mortal sin. Irving Ribner argued much the same in 1964 (“Shakespeare, Christianity, and the Problem of Belief,” The Centennial Review, 8, 1, pp. 98-108). He saw the Bard as “a writer of the Christian Renaissance.”
More recently Neema Parvini fleshed out Ribner’s take (in a chapter on “Shakespeare’s Historical and Political Thought in Context,” in Shakespeare’s History Plays, Edinburgh, 2012). He identified the three strains of historiography in that time as providential, Italian humanist, and antiquarian. The first, a medieval holdover, gave God all causality. The second said individual humans drove history. The third mined history to help create national identity. Parvini said Shakespeare wrote from the latter two perspectives, focusing on “historical causality” to explain the mistakes of previous English rulers (like Richard II and Henry IV).
The Bard Used The Bible A Lot
Against these close readings of the plays’ texts, we can set a more strategic view. There are 400 references to “God” in Shakespeare’s 39 plays, as well as 115 to Christ/Christian/Christendom. (You can do such searches here.) An entire reference book was published by Naseeb Shaheen, in 1999, on Shakespeare’s use of the Bible: Biblical References in Shakespeare’s Plays. Deborah T. Curren-Aquino, in reviewing Shaheen (Shakespeare Quarterly, 52, 1, Spring 2001 pp. 148-151), points out that sometimes the Bard inserted Biblical images into pre-Christian plays.
For example, he worked the book of Revelation into Antony and Cleopatra. Shakespeare also did similarly in King Lear, argues Nathan Lefler (in “The Tragedy of King Lear: Redeeming Christ?,” Literature and Theology, 24, 4, September 2010, pp. 211-226). Shakespeare turned that pagan king of Britain into an analog of the suffering Christ. Minus, of course, any actual redemptive power.
But He Also Used Pagan Beliefs
Shakespeare also made extensive use of pagan mythology. In fact Curren-Aquino claims that he used it more than he did the Bible. Without providing any statistical evidence, alas. However, this site lists 345 references to pre-Christian Graeco-Roman beliefs in his plays. It also points out that despite the many classical mentions, “his characters are all essentially Elizabethan men and women set in mythological, historical, and remote geographical settings.” The actual Prime Mover in Shakespeare’s works is the Christian God.
Neither Pagan Nor Puritan — Rather, A Renaissance Devotee
But I do think Ribner and Parvini are correct to see Shakespeare, while Christian, as a Renaissance humanist one. God is present behind the scenes. But “in centring history on individuals, Shakespeare was, at least in part, opposing long-held beliefs inherited from the medieval period about the primacy of God’s will in historical events” (Parvini, p. 107). Shakespeare thus, in effect, let God off for the atrocities in English history. It wasn’t His fault that Richard III ordered all those murders. Or that Claudius poisoned King Hamlet. Such evil actions were Richard’s and Claudius’ alone.
Shakespeare and Bono?
So was Shakespeare a Christian writer? Not to equate the two artists, but consider an analogous question. Is U2 a Christian (rock) band? Many think so, based on the legion of Biblical references in their songs. (Some Episcopal churches have even come up with a U2-based Communion service.) But face it, U2 isn’t as overtly Christian as Amy Grant (the best-selling Christian artist ever), Petra, or even Kanye. Do you want your Christian artistry straight (medieval Chaucer/Amy Grant)? Blended (Renaissance Shakespeare/U2)? Or in a strange, eclectic cocktail (Kanye)?
I’m taking option two. And based on Shakespeare’s (and U2’s) popularity, I’ll have lots of company.
Timothy Furnish holds a Ph.D. in Islamic, World and African history from Ohio State University and a M.A. in Theology from Concordia Seminary. He is a former U.S. Army Arabic linguist and, later, civilian consultant to U.S. Special Operations Command. He’s the author of books on the Middle East and Middle-earth, a history professor and sometime media opiner (as, for example, on Fox News Channel’s War Stories: Fighting ISIS). He currently writes for and consults The Stream on International Security matters.