illustrated portrait of English playwright and poet William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare

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Was William Shakespeare a humanist?

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William Shakespeare can be considered a humanist in terms of the content of his work, although his lack of a humanistic education might have distanced him from application of the term as understood in his own day.

In the late 14th–16th centuries, humanism was associated with the change to a modern understanding of the human position in the universe, as distinguished from a medieval worldview that emphasized the importance of religion—especially Catholicism. Many critics have noted that, despite having moral qualms, many of Shakespeare’s characters do not show strong traditional religious motivations. Humanism was also closely associated with the arts, history, and philosophy, and it was distanced from strictly professional education. Shakespeare draws on a wealth of materials from these and related disciplines.

The centrality of the human being within their own moral and intellectual universe is a defining characteristic in all of Shakespeare’s works. His deep concern for the moral repercussions of individual decisions carries through works concerned with vastly different times and places. For example, in Julius Caesar and Macbeth, among others, treason is examined not only as a crime against the state but for the moral damage it inflicts on the treasonous killers. The primary obligation of individuals to make their own choices, as an element of self-expression that supports ethical precepts, is one of his major themes. Such concerns connect such apparently disparate characters as Hamlet, wracked by indecision, and Macbeth, vainly trying to resist jealousy. While operating within the biases of his day, Shakespeare also examines the humanity in diverse social and religious groups, as poignantly expressed by Shylock: “if you prick us, do we not bleed?”

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Shakespeare was clearly a Renaissance humanist, judging from the content of his plays. Renaissance humanism has two major prongs.

The first prong is the revival of Greco-Roman literature and arts. Humanism went beyond the Bible and stories from the Church, such as of the saints, as source material for literature and art, and leaned heavily into Classical examples. We can see that Shakespeare relied often on such Classical sources. He set plays such as Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and A Midsummer Night's Dreamin the Classical world. He uses Classical writers, such as Ovid, for source material. Even plays set in Europe allude to Classical literature: the players that arrive at the Danish court in Hamlet, for example, know the story of the Trojan War, and Horatio is well aware of the omens that foretell the death of Julius Caesar and the start of a civil war.

The second strand of Renaissance humanism is a belief in the great worth of human beings and the desire to cultivate and promote such virtues as kindness, courage, endurance, good sense, and mercy. In this strand, Shakespeare's humanism could hardly shine out more fully. His plays fully promote humanist values, and this is one reason we still read him. For example, in a speech to Rosencrantz—which is complicated because Hamlet is having...

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mocking fun with Rosencrantz—Hamlet nevertheless espouses and summarizes the humanist philosophy and locates his depression in his divorce from it. He states:

What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world. The paragon of animals.

Shakespeare approves humanist values in his other plays as well. One example of many would be Portia in A Merchant of Venice, who gives a famous speech in support of the concept of mercy. Shakespeare also shows how he values all humans, including women (unlike the depressed Hamlet), by having Portia, disguised as a man, eloquently and successfully defend Antonio in court.

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As with most speculation about William Shakespeare, the idea that his writing springs from a specific philosophy cannot be determined for certain. However, there is a body of evidence that Shakespeare used humanist ideas to inform his writing; humanist sources note that many of the characters speak disparagingly of religion and hold up Man over Gods in a manner inconsistent with the religious, spiritual, and superstitious beliefs of his era. One of the most important pieces of evidence for this stance is also one of Shakespeare's most famous lines:

This above all, – to thine own self be true;And it must follow, as the night the day,Thou canst not then be false to any man.(Shakespeare, Hamlet,

This is line is explicitly pro-Man "above all," and can be interpreted as a warning against the habits of religion; if Man is loyal to God above all else, then it is hard to say what is inherently moral and what is simply blind faith. Instead, Polonius cautions to be true to the self, to one's own moral and ethical compass, and make all decisions based on personal principles of integrity. This is not an anti-religious statement, but it is a very pro-secular one, and similar lines in other plays hint that Shakespeare may have simply been a humanitarian, not necessarily a Humanist as defined by modern philosophy.

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