Religion and Theology
Religion and Theology
Critics have adopted a variety of approaches to explore the religious and theological dimensions in Shakespeare's plays. They have identified specific religious themes, explicated biblical allusions, and shed light on numerous theological subtexts. Late twentieth-century commentators almost uniformly decline to speculate about whether Shakespeare held particular sectarian views and, if so, what these might be. Instead they focus on his treatment of religious disputes in early modern England and the controversies that split the Christian church and led to the Reformation. Throughout the period when Shakespeare was writing his plays, religious systems of thought continued to be unstable, and doctrinal issues were vigorously contested. Many critics find evidence of Shakespeare's familiarity with these conflicts—as well as with centuries of Christian discourse—in his histories, comedies, and tragedies.
In her assessment of the Christian aspects in Shakespearean tragedy, Helen Gardner (see Further Reading) emphasizes the dramatist's evident knowledge of the Bible and contemporary theological writings. Gardner maintains that some of the most characteristic features of Shakespearean tragedy—especially those found in King Lear—are closely associated with Christian attitudes toward the mysteries of human existence. René Fortin (1979) also examines King Lear and finds both Christian and secular interpretations of the play to be equally valid. Acknowledging that the play's final scene poses a unique challenge to Christian or redemptive readings of the tragedy, he suggests that the death of Cordelia, far from contradicting Christian doctrine, confirms the Catholic and Protestant notion of God's judgments as unknown and inexplicable. Similarly, Daryl Tippins (1997) proposes that King Lear may be viewed as either nihilistic or transcendent. Cautioning readers to be wary of basing a definitive interpretation of the play as a whole on a reading of its final scene, he claims that the seeming pessimism of this episode does not negate the effect of previous scenes that represent compassion, reconciliation, and Christian optimism.
Alan Sinfield (1980) maintains that optimistic humanism is a critical issue in Hamlet, and argues that the play depicts the disintegration of the notion that human reason by itself can form the basis of moral action. But, he further contends, it also shows that the Calvinist belief in providential justice is an equally inadequate response to the grim realities of this world. Ronald G. Shafer (1990) considers that Hamlet is only temporarily attracted to humanism and that ultimately the prince reaffirms his belief in Christian values and his reliance on the will of God. Both Robert N. Watson (see Further Reading) and Julia Reinhard Lupton (1997) discuss questions of religious differences and theological doctrine in Othello. Watson asserts that the play's rendering of Catholic theology is burlesque, intended to caricature the idea that salvation can be earned and to endorse instead the Protestant tenet that salvation is a gift from God, unrelated to individual merit. Lupton examines Shakespeare's depiction of the Moor as at once a Christian hero and a barbarian forever excluded from the covenant of universal brotherhood.
Some critics detect significant religious motifs in the comedies as well as the tragedies. For example, Paul A. Cantor (1987) asserts that in The Merchant of Venice these issues are more complex than is ordinarily recognized. The play does not merely represent Christianity's triumph over Judaism, he contends, for its near-tragic ending features the downfall of Antonio, the play's representative Christian, as well as Shylock, its representative Jew. Both G. M. Pinciss (1990) and Julia Brett (see Further Reading) assess the religious dimensions of another Shakespearean comedy, Measure for Measure. Pinciss reads the play in terms of the Protestant belief in the positive value of despair: that is, as an integral part of the struggle to progress from recognition of one's sins to a state of true penitence and the achievement of forgiveness and salvation. Brett is particularly concerned with the distinction between Christian allegorizations and Christian interpretations of Measure for Measure. She stresses the importance of appraising the play's religious features in the context of its corresponding concern with political or secular issues, especially with regard to the Duke's dual responsibility as spiritual guide and temporal ruler. Maurice Hunt (1993) and David N. Beauregard (1999) evaluate religious aspects of two other Shakespearean comedies: Twelfth Night and All's Well that Ends Well. Hunt calls attention to Twelfth Night's many references to non-Christian forces shaping human destiny and to its satirical treatment of Puritanism, concluding that the play's support for the Anglican view of providence is ultimately indeterminate. Beauregard maintains that All's Well is steeped in the Roman Catholic theology of grace. He particularly remarks on the play's disparate treatment of Protestant and Catholic attitudes toward merit and free will.
Commentators have also found intimations of a number of different sectarian and doctrinal issues in Shakespeare's histories. For instance, Robert G. Hunter (1978) examines the various means Falstaff uses to keep up his hopes of preferment—both in this world and the next. Hunter also proposes that Hal's rejection of Falstaff may be read as the triumph of the Protestant ethic, for the new king turns his back on Sir John in order to carry out the responsibilities of the monarchy to which, he believes, God has called him. By contrast, Roy Battenhouse (1985) argues that Henry V demonstrates a remarkable talent for transferring onto other people's shoulders responsibilities that are rightly his. Moreover, Battenhouse contends, Henry surrounds himself with flatterers and assumes a spurious piety, thus demonstrating the shallowness of his commitment to Christian norms. In his discussion of anticlericalism in Shakespeare's histories, Jeffrey Knapp (see Further Reading) focuses on the pseudo piety of a series of English bishops—from 1 Henry VI to Henry V—who are principally concerned not with saving souls but with inciting violence. James C. Bryant (1984) maintains that Shakespeare presents the religious quarrels in King John in a political context that diminishes their significance. In his judgment, the play is on the side of Protestantism to the extent that it upholds the notion that an English monarch rules only by the grace of God and therefore need not answer to any other temporal or spiritual authority. Finally, R. Chris Hassel, Jr. (1986) maintains that Richard III presents Richmond as God's chosen agent to liberate England from the heavy hand of Richard's rule. In his analysis of the parallels between this play and the Book of Revelation, Hassel emphasizes the dramatic motifs of prophecy, the Last Judgment, and the destruction of the Antichrist.
Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
SOURCE: Battenhouse, Roy. “Introduction: An Overview of Christian Interpretation.” In Shakespeare's Christian Dimension, pp. 1-14. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.
[In the following essay, Battenhouse surveys 150 years of commentary on the Christian aspects of Shakespeare's art.]
Many ordinary readers have felt instinctively that Shakespeare and the Bible belong together. Yet inevitably there have been others who claim for the poet their own reductive beliefs, despite his burial in a church and a Last Will that names Christ his savior. At the turn of the present century, for instance, we find Shakespeare described by Churton Collins as a “theistical agnostic,” and A. C. Bradley saying that he painted the world “without regard to anyone's beliefs.” John Robertson (a celebrated Disintegrator) declared that Shakespeare was groping his way toward the “sanity” of Auguste Comte. And England's poet laureate John Masefield, when writing on Shakespeare and the Spiritual Life (1924), was confident that to the dramatist “orthodox religion” meant almost nothing, since he “held to no religion save that of humanity and his own great nature.” A follow-up to this contention was voiced by D. G. James in his Dream of Learning (1951), where Christianity is equated with “a fierce censorship” and we are assured that Shakespeare “did not write as a Christian.” Even...
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Hunter, Robert G. “Shakespeare's Comic Sense as It Strikes Us Today: Falstaff and the Protestant Ethic.” In Shakespeare: Pattern of Excelling Nature, edited by David Bevington and Jay L. Halio, pp. 125-32. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1978.
[In the following essay, originally presented in 1976, Hunter views Falstaff as the antithesis of the Protestant ethic.]
If there are such things as antibodies (and I am told that there are), then let there be such things as antiembodiments and let Falstaff be one. Let him also be an embodiment (there is plenty of room), for Falstaff embodies a large part of my subject, Shakespeare's comic sense. Simultaneously he antiembodies the Protestant ethic. What he is, it is not. What it is, he is not. Did Shakespeare's comic sense serve the body politic by generating Falstaff in an attempt to immunize comparatively Merrie England against those foreign organisms, the Puritan Saints? If so, the attempt failed, and Shakespeare knew it would. The Henriad, I will maintain but not demonstrate, dramatizes, in the rejection of Falstaff, the victory of the Protestant ethic, presenting that social triumph as a psychological event, the decision of Henry the Fifth to labor in his vocation, to do his duty in that royal station to which it pleased God to call him.
Thus Falstaff came into being, almost four centuries ago, during the first insurgency of the...
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SOURCE: Fortin, René E. “Hermeneutical Circularity and Christian Interpretations of King Lear.” Shakespeare Studies 12 (1979): 113-25.
[In the essay below, Fortin asserts that a Christian reading of King Lear is as compatible with the “facts” of the play as a secular one, but that neither one is authoritative. Noting that the death of Cordelia is the principal impediment for Christian interpreters, he suggests that the play's ending, far from contradicting Christian doctrine, confirms the Catholic and Protestant notion of God's judgments as unknown and inexplicable.]
Attempts to redeem King Lear by appealing to intimations of Christian transcendence in the play have been summarily, if not vehemently, dismissed by secular critics. Christian critics, we are told by W. R. Elton and others, are simply wrong because they do not attend to the “facts” of the play; seeking to escape the dire significances of the tragic vision, they are in effect guilty of wishful thinking, of imposing their own a priori assumptions upon the play. “The record” of Lear interpretations, says Nicholas Brooke, “is of a long series of strenuous efforts to circumvent the pain; and it is accompanied by a will to release large and encouraging affirmations once the pain is evaded.”1 Brooke insists that the greatness of King Lear derives, rather, from the “perfect completion of...
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SOURCE: Sinfield, Alan. “Hamlet's Special Province.” Shakespeare Survey 33 (1980): 89-97.
[In the following essay, Sinfield discusses the connection between Hamlet's reference to “a special providence in the fall of a sparrow” and the question of whether the play's conception of the world is pagan or Christian.]
We defy augury: there is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all. Since no man owes of aught he leaves, what is't to leave betimes? Let be.
(Hamlet, v, ii, 210-16)1
[God is] a Governor and Preserver, and that, not by producing a kind of general motion in the machine of the globe as well as in each of its parts, but by a special Providence sustaining, cherishing, superintending, all the things which he has made, to the very minutest, even to a sparrow.
(Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion)2
Fate guides us, and it was settled at the first hour of birth what length of time remains for each. Cause is linked with cause, and all public and private issues are directed by a long sequence of events. Therefore everything should be endured with fortitude, since...
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Bryant, James C. “Shakespeare's Use of Religious Controversy in King John.” In Tudor Drama and Religious Controversy, pp. 129-49. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1984.
[In the following essay, Bryant maintains that in King John Shakespeare was able to achieve a measure of objectivity in his treatment of late fifteenth-century religious disputes.]
Shakespeare was too much an artist and too much a businessman to make himself vulnerable to either the antitheatre officials in London or the anti-Romanist agents at Court. He wrote for a popular audience and was completely dependent upon the pleasure of that general public during the last decade of the sixteenth century. It seems unlikely, therefore, that Shakespeare would have used the stage to support his private notions about religion. At first he seemed more interested in reflecting public taste, not in prescribing it.
Like other successful dramatists of his period, Shakespeare held the mirror up to not only nature but also contemporary attitudes, including the instinctive religious beliefs of his audience. That mirror reflected the attitudes and fears generated by the recent, infamous Spanish Armada and its resultant surge of anti-Roman Catholic hostility in the name of patriotism.
Hostility against Roman Catholic subversive activity reached an apex in 1591 when Elizabeth issued a proclamation...
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Battenhouse, Roy. “Henry V in the Light of Erasmus.” Shakespeare Studies 17 (1985): 77-85.
[In this essay, Battenhouse evaluates Henry V in terms of the principles set forth by the sixteenth-century Catholic humanist Erasmus in his Praise of Folly and The Education of a Christian Prince, contending that Shakespeare presents Henry as a monarch who repeatedly evades personal responsibility and only counterfeits the role of ideal Christian king.]
In a Cambridge edition of Henry V in 1947, John Dover Wilson described Henry as a king inspired by religion. He even likened this hero's faith to “that of the martyrs.” He judged Henry's bishops to be upright men, and he viewed the play's chorus as an “entreaty from the playwright's own lips.” J. H. Walter, in his Arden edition seven years later, sought to bolster Wilson's interpretation. He provided, therefore, among other things, a tabulation of “parallels” between passages in the play and ideas of kingship he found in a treatise by Erasmus, the Institutio Principis Christiani (1516). But on examining closely Walter's so-called parallels, I find them misleading. Some of them fail to notice that a surface similarity to a precept by Erasmus may actually signal a counterfeiting of it. Others of the listed “parallels” simply bypass a big contrast between what Erasmus enjoins and what Henry does. Let me...
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SOURCE: Hassel, R. Chris, Jr. “Last Words and Last Things: St. John, Apocalypse, and Eschatology in Richard III.” Shakespeare Studies 18 (1986): 25-40.
[In the following essay, Hassel calls attention to similarities in substance, style, and structure between Richard III and the Book of Revelation. Characterizing the play as a vivid depiction of earthly apocalypse, he remarks on its repeated allusions to the day of final judgment, the prophetic visions of Clarence, Richard, and Edmund, and the contrasting portraits of Richmond as an agent of divine retribution and Richard as a diabolic Antichrist.]
Although attempts to understand Richard's Pauline allusions have become almost epidemic recently, they have also usually been interesting. John Dover Wilson holds the most traditional view: he sees them as part of Richard's gleeful hypocrisy, specifically his characteristic “mock-Puritan piety.” Geoffrey Carnall thinks that Richard is “positively impersonating, with mischievous exhilaration, the unscrupulous Apostle of the Gentiles.” Other connections are argued by John Harcourt, particularly a parallel to Acts 23:12, when certain Jews swore like Richard with Hastings that they would not eat “till they had killed Paul.” Alistair Fox develops Harcourt's idea of “the theme of grace in its Pauline context.” Paul, like Richard, was afflicted with thorns in the flesh, but with...
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SOURCE: Cantor, Paul A. “Religion and the Limits of Community in The Merchant of Venice.” Soundings 70, nos. 1-2 (spring-summer 1987): 239-58.
[In the following essay, Cantor identifies devotion to religious principles as the quality that links Shylock and Antonio in The Merchant of Venice, asserting harmony is only achieved by the defeat of both the Jew and the merchant, whose commitment to the values of their respective religions threatens the traditional values of comedy.]
The Merchant of Venice continues to be a controversial play, the most controversial of all Shakespeare's romantic comedies. Indeed for a comedy, the play deals with unusually weighty subject matter, raising fundamental issues about religion one would not expect to see brought up in a humorous context. Critics have come to view the play as portraying the conflict between Christianity and Judaism, but they disagree as to Shakespeare's evaluation of the conflict. Some see Shakespeare as siding exclusively with the Christians and treat Shylock as the pure villain of the piece. Others argue that Shakespeare is in fact sympathetic to Shylock and making a plea for religious toleration. The critics who take a purely negative view of Shylock tend to be the ones who discuss The Merchant of Venice as a comedy, viewing Shylock in the context of the tradition of comic villains. By...
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Pinciss, G. M. “The ‘Heavenly Comforts of Despair’ and Measure for Measure.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 30, no. 2 (spring 1990): 303-13.
[In the following essay, Pinciss contends that in his role as friar, Duke Vincentio assays the spiritual well-being of each of the central characters in Measure for Measure, successfully guiding Claudio, Angelo, and Isabella from a state of religious despair to a renewed faith in God's forgiveness and their own salvation.]
To a modern audience the notion expressed in Measure for Measure that being reduced to a state of despair can result in “heavenly comforts” (IV.iii.109) sounds paradoxical if not down-right contradictory; like the imprisoned Claudio sentenced to die, we might well ask “What's the comfort?” (III.i.53).1 Yet the words come from the ruler of Vienna, who combines political power and religious authority. To his mind this painful spiritual condition is highly desirable. And his view is scarcely idiosyncratic: the benefits that can come out of despair are hard to overestimate, for the belief that losing hope in one's salvation can be a necessary first step to gaining it is confirmed in the Articles of the Church of England and in the sermons of influential English clergymen in the late sixteenth century.
In Renaissance thinking, despair can produce two...
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SOURCE: Shafer, Ronald G. “Hamlet: Christian or Humanist?” Studies in the Humanities 17, no. 1 (June 1990): 21-35.
[In the essay below, Shafer charts what he sees as Hamlet's temporary abandonment of Christian principles for the precepts of humanism—and his ultimate reversion to orthodox religious values. In his humanistic phase, the critic proposes, Hamlet is arrogant and egotistical, elevating his own volition above God's sovereignty, but after he acknowledges the righteousness of Christian morality, he humbly submits himself to God's will and becomes an agent of divine retribution.]
A good starting point for understanding the moral dimension of Shakespeare's Hamlet is with Irving Ribner's Patterns in Shakespearean Tragedy (1960). Ribner maintains that Shakespeare fashioned all of the elements of the play in such a way as to produce “the emotional equivalent of a Christian view of human life”; it is, thus, “an affirmation of a purposive cosmic order” (65). Hamlet's problem involves his denial of a “purposive and benevolent God” (66) and his failure to realize that “the punishment of the wicked” is God's “own prerogative” (67). To Ribner, the chief issue in the play is whether Hamlet will let “his Christian religion … guide him” (68) and become “a passive instrument in the hands of God” (69). To be victorious, Hamlet must do nothing but recognize that...
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SOURCE: Hunt, Maurice. “The Religion of Twelfth Night.” CLA Journal 37, no. 2 (1993): 189-203.
[In the following essay, Hunt discusses the attitudes toward providence expressed by various characters in Twelfth Night, as well as the play’s satirical treatment of Puritanism.]
Much has been written about the Christian allusions in Twelfth Night, especially those to the Feasts of Epiphany and Candelmas. Foremost among critics adopting a Christian perspective is R. Chris Hassel, who has illustrated the relevance for the play of certain liturgical events in the Church year.1 Recently Shakespeare's comic staging of the Annunciation has been demonstrated in Twelfth Night.2 Yet despite these Christian allusions (and other, more generalized ones to the idea of being a good steward of one's talents), the religion of Twelfth Night is not as consistently Christian as might be supposed. Characters' references to Jove, Fate, Fortune, and Time as the providence of the play's world cause playgoers to question whether Shakespeare intended to represent a single deity consistently ruling the play's events. Not all of the allusions to non-Christian ruling forces can be interpreted as foils calculated to make the staging of the true doctrine of the Epiphany appear brighter. Several of the allusions, especially those spoken by Viola, make the Christian religion...
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SOURCE: Lupton, Julia Reinhard. “Othello Circumcised: Shakespeare and the Pauline Discourse of Nations.” Representations 57 (winter 1997): 73-89.
[In this essay, Lupton maintains that in Othello religious difference is more significant than racial difference, for—according to Renaissance doctrine—if the Moor was a Muslim rather than a pagan before his conversion to Christianity, he is forever barred from the congregation of universal brotherhood.]
In his essay “Is There a Neo-Racism?” Etienne Balibar proposes that we now live under a new ideology of the nations, a “racism-without-races” that promotes various forms of ethnic cleansing under the alibi of “cultural” identity, purity, or autonomy, a discourse that co-opts and neutralizes the postwar vocabulary of liberal humanism and pluralism. Balibar links this neoracism of the late modern to the protoracism of the early modern period:
A racism which does not have the pseudo-biological concept of race as its main driving force has always existed, and it has existed at exactly this level of secondary theoretical elaborations. Its prototype is anti-Semitism. Modern anti-Semitism—the form which begins to crystallize in the Europe of the Enlightenment, if not indeed from the period in which the Spain of the Reconquista and the Inquisition gave a statist, nationalistic...
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SOURCE: Tippins, Darryl. “‘Can you make no use of nothing?’: Nihilism and Meaning in King Lear and The Madness of King George.” In Performance for a Lifetime, edited by Barbara C. Ewell and Mary A. McCay, pp. 159-80. New Orleans: Loyola University New Orleans, 1997.
[In the following essay, Tippins offers a reading of King Lear that attempts to mediate between absurdist or pessimistic interpretations of the play and religious or redemptive ones.]
At the heart of any dialogue is the conviction that what is exchanged has meaning.
And yet this nothing / is the seed of all—heaven's clear / eye, where all the world's wonders appear.
Fierce debates rage over the ultimate meaning and purpose of Shakespeare's greatest tragedy, King Lear. On the one hand, the so-called “Idealists” (that is, the humanists and Christian readers) value the play as a story of redemptive suffering. A. C. Bradley spoke for this group when he maintained that Lear died, not in despair, but in ecstasy, believing that Cordelia was alive (252-53). Joseph Summers argued a different kind of hopeful ending: though Lear dies knowing that Cordelia was indeed dead, he dies knowing that what she taught him about love is “truly more alive than anything else in his world” (Summers 92). Many others agree...
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SOURCE: Beauregard, David N. “‘Inspirèd Merit’: Shakespeare's Theology of Grace in All's Well that Ends Well.” Renascence 51, no. 4 (summer 1999): 219-39.
[In the essay below, Beauregard asserts that Roman Catholic teachings regarding sin, repentance, and salvation are central to the plot and characterization of All's Well that Ends Well. The first half of the play is concerned with the concepts of miracle and merit and the second with pilgrimage and prayer, the critic contends, and together the two parts delineate the Catholic doctrines of grace, merit, and free will.]
Ever since the publication of Roland M. Frye's Shakespeare and Christian Doctrine (1963), interest in the role of theology in Shakespearean drama has suffered an unfortunate decline. Frye made the influential claim that Shakespeare held the mirror “up to nature, and not to saving grace” (267), arguing that Shakespearean drama was autonomous and confined to the temporal sphere “independent of theological systems” (268). The inadequacies of Frye's thesis are manifold,1 but they become particularly evident when one considers the theological anthropology implicit in Shakespeare's dramatic practice, especially the operations of sin, penitence, and grace, not to mention various religious roles (abbess, pilgrim, novice, friar), confessional scenes, and theological shading of sources.2...
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Brett, Julia. “‘Grace is grace, despite of all the controversy’: Measure for Measure, Christian Allegory, and the Sacerdotal Duke.” Ben Jonson Journal 6 (1999): 189-207.
Provides an extensive review of religious and political readings of Measure for Measure.
Diehl, Huston. “‘Infinite Space’: Representation and Reformation in Measure for Measure.” Shakespeare Quarterly 49, no. 4 (winter 1998): 393-410.
Maintains that in Measure for Measure Shakespeare appropriated Calvinist theories of representation, epistemology, judgment, and reformation to explore the nature of his dramatic art and legitimate the stage.
Gardner, Helen. “Shakespearian Tragedy.” In Religion and Literature, pp. 61-89. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971.
Asserts that Shakespeare's tragedies comprise unique expressions of his imaginative response to centuries of Christian thought and tradition.
Geller, Lila. “Cymbeline and the Imagery of Covenant Theology.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1800 20, no. 2 (spring 1980): 241-55.
Argues that the covenant motif is the central unifying principle of Cymbeline, suggesting that the play's themes and dramatic action replicate the contract between God and man that leads to...
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