illustrated portrait of English playwright and poet William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare

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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...

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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 ofMeasure 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.

Robert G. Hunter (essay date 1976)

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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 Protestant ethic and, perhaps, in response to it. Today we are celebrating the bicentennial of one of that ethic's more elaborate offspring. And do we not sense today that we are living through the decadence and disappearance of the ethic, that we watch going down the great drain of history what Shakespeare saw coming up it? What will take the ethic's place? That seems to me one of today's more nagging questions, and I haven't the vaguest notion of its answer. But we might explore the question by consulting the comic sense of our particular oracle. Let us have a look first at the ethic and then at Falstaff as antiembodiment of it.

The phenomenon that I claim Falstaff antiembodies is authoritatively described and accounted for by Max Weber in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Weber identifies the main characteristic of that ethic as “worldly asceticism … a fundamental antagonism to sensuous culture of all kinds.” He sees the ethic as the result of two theological causes, one Lutheran and one Calvinist. The Lutheran cause is the “conception of the calling.” In reacting against the monastic ideal Luther did not entirely repudiate the worthiness of ascetic self-denial. What he did was to replace the insistence upon withdrawal from the world with a “valuation of fulfilment of duty in worldly affairs as the highest form which the moral activity of the individual could assume.” To this exaltation of the importance of laboring in one's vocation was added the Calvinist notion of absolute predestination. If you believe that humanity has been irretrievably divided into the elect and the reprobate, then it becomes a matter of some importance to convince yourself that you are a member of the right group. “In order to attain that confidence intense worldly activity is recommended as the most suitable means. It and it alone disperses religious doubts and gives certainty of grace.” As a paradoxical result, Protestantism, which proclaims that works are useless as a means of gaining salvation, ends by finding them “indispensable as a means … of getting rid of the fear of damnation.” “Getting rid of fear” is a key phrase for an understanding of the psychological power of the Protestant ethic and of Falstaff as a compendious alternative to that ethic. Hope of eternal life gets rid of the fear of death. Faith in our election gets rid of the fear of eternal damnation, and contemplating the success of our worldly activity ratifies our faith in election. Success is evidence of salvation. The Protestant ethic is a superb strategy for getting rid of those fears which are inherent in the human condition, fears of time, of death, and of damnation. It is one of the greatest in what Freud calls “the great series of methods devised by the mind of man for evading the compulsion to suffer.”

Falstaff is an anthology of such methods. I count and will try to define five, taking them in the order Shakespeare presents them to us. The first I label “living within appetite,” the second “play,” the third “success,” the fourth “carnival,” and the last, “hope.” Of these the first, second, and fourth are in direct opposition to the ideals and practices of the Protestant ethic. The third and the last are distorted imitations of Protestant ethic methods and I will call them serious parodies, though it makes me uneasy to claim that anything about Falstaff is serious.

The first of Falstaff's methods is the most effective and also the most difficult to sustain. It is common to all of us, originates in infancy, and antedates the fear of time itself. Our first clock is appetite, and time first presents itself to us as that which intervenes between appetite and its satisfaction, and its rebirth. The time we thus perceive through appetite is circular in nature, a time of eternal return. A day is that which separates breakfast from breakfast. There is nothing to fear in time thus perceived as circular, as the element in which pleasure, the satisfaction of appetite, takes place. And much in the reality we begin to perceive outside our bodies appears to confirm the truth of time's circularity. The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down and hasteth to the place where he arose. Spring, summer, autumn, winter—spring. Not much of this appetitive, circular time has passed, however, before its passing forces upon us the knowledge that our understanding of time is incomplete. The bodies whose appetites we have satisfied change permanently. Today is not yesterday despite the similarity in breakfasts. Summer returns but last summer will never return. Time, we find, is rectilinear, the shortest possible distance between birth and death. With that discovery our fear of time is born, and our minds must devise methods for evading the suffering in that fear. The method of the Protestant ethic is to glorify time's rectilinearity, to proclaim time the element not of pleasure, but of duty, of the worldly achievement that ratifies faith in our election. This, however, is not Falstaff's way.

Henry IV, Part One opens with the King doing desperate battle against the implacability of rectilinear time. “Find we a time” is his plea. A time for peace, for the establishment of order, for the crusade, the achievement that will expiate Richard's murder and convince the King that his soul is saved after all. The second scene begins when Falstaff first waddles into our consciousness on the line, “Now, Hal, what time of day is it, lad?” a question whose total banality inspires Hal to a rather wonderful tirade on the question: “What a devil hast thou to do with the time of the day?”, a question that Hal himself proceeds to answer: “Unless hours were cups of sack, and minutes capons, and clocks the tongues of bawds, and dials the signs of leaping-houses. …” Hal's conditional answers his interrogative. Falstaff's clock is Falstaff's paunch and the time it tells is circular, revolving from thirst to sack to thirst to sack. From hunger to capon to hunger to capon. From lust to wench to lust to fair, hot wench. Falstaff copes with the fact of time's linearity by stoutly denying it, by doing his best to live his life within the circular time of appetite. Such a life would be a life without fear of time, but of course no moderately conscious life can be so lived. It's not just that capons, sack, and wenches refuse to arrive on schedule—though that is annoying enough. The rectilinearity of time is constantly being forced upon our unwilling minds. Even our best friends are in the habit of saying things like “gallows,” and when we try tactfully to change the subject to something pleasant like “a most sweet wench,” they refuse to cooperate and we end up depressed, “as melancholy as a gib cat, or a lugged bear.”

When this happens to Falstaff, he moves to his second strategy. He answers the reproaches of his superego with the exhilarating language of play—purely verbal play at first. Falstaff copes with melancholy by playing with Hal at finding similes for it: a gib cat, a lugged bear, an old lion, a lover's lute, the drone of a Lincolnshire bagpipe, a hare, the melancholy of Moor-ditch. Having thus put the forces of his conscience on the defensive, he proceeds to polish them off by employing his favorite play method, role-playing. Falstaff has the ability to make anything appear ridiculous by pretending to be it. Here he represses his own tendencies to contrition by pretending to be contrite: “But Hal, I prithee trouble me no more with vanity … thou hast done much harm upon me, Hal, God forgive thee for it: before I knew thee, Hal, I knew nothing, and now am I, if a man should speak truly, little better than one of the wicked.” What Poins calls “Monsieur Remorse” is Falstaff's first and in some ways best role. Nowhere does Shakespeare make it clearer how the humorous man copes with the certainty of death and the possibility of damnation. By parodying his own fears, Falstaff answers the challenge Hamlet gives the skull of Yorick: he makes us laugh at that. But of course it is not just himself that Falstaff is mocking here. Monsieur Remorse is pretty clearly a Puritan gentleman. He is one of the Protestant Saints whom the Prince of Wales has so far misled as to make him doubt his own election and fear that his conduct indicts him as little better than one of the reprobate. Not only does Falstaff's role-playing purge him of his own melancholy, it accuses the Protestant ethic of being a role that the Puritan thinks (or pretends to think) he is playing in earnest. But it is not only the specific mockery, the parochial satire that the Protestant ethic would find offensive. Falstaff's roles release him from the depressing confines of reality and that, unless done religiously, will not do. Play in all its forms, from morris-dancing to the great Globe itself, is an inadmissible alternative to laboring soberly in one's vocation. But Falstaff, homo ludens, goes on playing. On Gadshill and in the tavern his roles increase and multiply: the young desperado ripping off the fat chuffs who batten on the commonwealth (“They hate us youth”); the battered survivor of a better time who sees a virile world of courage and honor among thieves degenerating, disintegrating around him: “Go thy ways, old Jack, die when thou wilt—if manhood, good manhood, be not forgot upon the face of the earth, then I am a shotten herring …”; and Sir John Fairbanks, Sr., driving before him two, four, seven, nine, eleven men in buckram; and finally, of course, the King, the Prince, himself. So Falstaff's Protean mind copes with itself, represses and escapes its fears by becoming not dying Jack Falstaff but anything and everything, turning all things to laughter.

But again this is not enough. On the morning after the night before the body whose appetites have been so assiduously satisfied informs the Protean mind that time is rectilinear and he is but Falstaff and a man: “Do I not bate? Do I not dwindle? Why, my skin hangs about me like an old lady's loose gown. I am withered like an old apple-john.” And we get a reprise of Monsieur Remorse, rather more Romanist in his second version, I think. Clearly, sterner measures than play are called for. Living in appetite is the strategy of the infant. Play is the strategy of the child. Falstaff is never such a fool as to put away childish things. He knows he needs all the strategies he can get. While retaining the two I have already identified, he moves to those of the mature man and specifically to an antiversion of the Protestant ethic itself. Having parodied the remorse of the Puritan, he now more seriously parodies its results: the determination to labor in one's vocation.

When, in their first scene, Hal interrupts the finger flights of Monsieur Remorse to ask Jack Falstaff where they should take a purse tomorrow, he gets the reply, “'Zounds, where thou wilt, lad, I'll make one.” Upon which the prince observes, “I see a good amendment of life in thee, from praying to purse-taking.” Monsieur Remorse's rejoinder is a model of Christian forbearance: “Why, Hal, 'tis my vocation, Hal, 'tis no sin for a man to labor in his vocation.” If one wished to be unfair to the Protestant ethic (and I do), one could say that Weber's description of the shift in Christian morality from the medieval exaltation of the monastic ideal to the seventeenth-century Puritan enshrinement of capitalist worldly ascerticism is encapsulated in Hal's phrase “from praying to purse-taking.” Falstaff's methods in purse-taking are not commercial and therefore his calling is not lawful. But he is not really a highwayman either. The night's exploits on Gadshill are closer to play than to vocation, an especially exciting game of cops-and-robbers. Ordinarily and whenever possible, Falstaff combines the crafts of the professional soldier and the confidenceman. He combines them very successfully. The £300 that he extorts from reluctant draftees compares favorably with the £250 Shakespeare is estimated to have made in a good year and very favorably indeed with the £20 annual salary of the Stratford schoolmaster. And Falstaff is a success on the battlefield as well. He does his duty by leading or somehow chivvying his soldiers into a position where they can be thoroughly peppered, and then he distinguishes himself by stabbing the corpse of Hotspur in the thigh. Does he expect anyone to believe that he and not Hal has killed Harry Percy? It doesn't matter, for there are distinct orders of success in lying. A liar may succeed because he is believed or because he cannot be contradicted. Falstaff is content with the more modest degree, and thus he achieves one of those reputations, common enough in fields other than the military, for having done something or other at some time or other.

The result of these successful labors is the Sir John Falstaff of Henry the Fourth, Part Two: Jack Falstaff with his familiars, John with his brothers and sisters, and Sir John with all Europe. Such are the secular rewards of laboring in one's vocation—self-fulfillment and a sense of one's identity confirmed by the respect of the community. And there is no strategy more successful than success for concealing from us our participation in the common human condition. For the Puritan, of course, the rewards of such laboring also include the conviction of one's election and a consequent faith in one's eternal salvation. Falstaff does not go that far, not by some distance. Indeed, his profession is an extension of his play. He has added a new dimension to his role-playing and has begun to pretend really to be what he is pretending to be. To what extent that makes him different from the rest of us, including the ethical Protestants, I must leave it to the subtler masters of the dramaturgical school of social psychology to decide. My point is that as a technique for dealing with our fears of time and death, becoming Sir John with all Europe works very well. Monsieur Remorse is no longer needed to repress the natterings of the superego. Being Sir John is enough.

Or almost enough, for again the body reminds us of our inevitable predicament. The owner of Sir John's urine may have more diseases than he knows for, but Sir John is aware of a good number of them: “A pox of this gout! or a gout of this pox! for the one or the other plays the rogue with my great toe.” That great toe, long invisible to its owner's eye, is transmitting the body's tedious message: you cannot conquer time. Falstaff's fourth method for jamming that communication is related to all of the previous three. Carnival is an attempt to regain occasionally and temporarily the bliss of living within appetitive time. It is that period which society sets aside for sanctioned play, for humor, wit, and role-playing. It is the necessary holiday in which we may rest from doing our duties in that station to which it has pleased God to call us. Except, of course, that the Puritans recognized no such necessity. They were opposed to Carnival, but they were equally opposed to Lent—not because they found its lugubrious self-denials distasteful (though they knew there was no merit in them) but because they thought it should be Lent all the year round. Once more, Sir John embodies a different point of view. After a hard day's labor devoted to evading the Lord Chief Justice, placating Mistress Quickly, devising methods for bilking Master Dommelton the slops-maker, and avoiding the importunities of a dozen sweating captains—after such a day, the warrior deserves his repose. Wine, women, and song, sack and canary, Doll Tearsheet and Sneak's noise—all the components of an ideal saturnalia are present in the great festive scene of Henry IV, Part Two. But Shakespeare is here aiming to present us with the real as well as the ideal, and real saturnalia has indecorous results: vomit, urine, syphilis, and violence. Our women enter talking of wine and its effects and when asked how she is doing now, Doll replies, “Better than I was—hem!” That “hem,” I suspect, is Shakespeare's suggestion to his boy-actor that he should indicate audibly but nonverbally why Doll is doing better than she was. Sir John enters with song: “When Arthur first in court,” and urine: “Empty the jordan.” A bout of wit follows between Doll and Falstaff on the subject of who is responsible for whose venereal disease. The episode with Pistol brings us to violence and Sir John's valor inspires Doll to ask her little, tidy, Bartholomew boar-pig when he will leave fighting a-days and foining a-nights and begin to patch up his old body for heaven. Carpe diem is a motto of carnival, but one of the things we ask of saturnalia is that it make us forget why it is that we want to seize the day. Doll's comment is malapropos and her most flattering busses cannot make Falstaff forget the consequences of linear time: “I am old. I am old.” And finally, in spite of the fun and games with Hal and Poins, it looks as if Shakespeare were going to let Falstaff be frustrated by age and time and by the demands of his vocation, for “The man of action is called on” and must leave the sweetest morsel of the night unplucked. Farewells must be said: “Well, fare thee well. I have known thee these twenty-nine years, come peascod-time, but an honester and truer-hearted man. …” I thoroughly agree with the Arden editor's note on peascod-time: “The precision with which Mistress Quickly dates a 29-year-old meeting is entirely touching.” Just how entirely that is, however, can be understood only if one apprehends the bawdy of “peascod,” and to do that one must reverse the syllables. Doing so emphasizes that the time that finally triumphs here is appetitive and circular. Bardolph reenters with a command: “Bid Mistress Tearsheet come to my master.” Poins was wrong: desire has not outlived performance. Codpiece time comes round again and Plump Jack lives!

This is a heartening conclusion to a brilliant scene and yet we suspect Shakespeare of suggesting that Falstaff is coming to the end of his strategies. This suspicion is strengthened by the King's magnificent speeches in the next scene on the book of fate, the revolution of the times, and the necessity of meeting one's necessities. The scene that follows informs us that old Double is dead and John of Gaunt, who loved him well, is dead and death is certain, very sure, all shall die, and that the one way left of coping with that perception seems to be to let one's shallow mind wander quickly to the price of a good yoke of bullocks at Stamford Fair. Yet Falstaff continues to labor cheerfully in his fraudulent vocation, and it is not until act 5, scene 3 that we discover that he has been doing battle with time and the prospect of death by employing one strategy more than the four we have already examined. Pistol interrupts senility's saturnalia in Gloucestershire with news of yet another death: the old king is dead as nail in door. Falstaff, whom Shallow and Silence have kept quietly amused to this point, now explodes with excitement: “I am Fortune's steward … I know the young King is sick for me … the laws of England are at my commandment … woe to my Lord Chief Justice!” This is the revelation of a life illusion. Since the first time we saw him in the second scene of the Henriad, Falstaff has never repeated to Hal or us his speculations on what will happen when the Prince becomes the King. We realize that he much overestimates Hal's devotion to sack and laughter, but we have small reason to know, until we find out, that Falstaff thinks Hal's accession will put the laws of England at Sir John's commandment. What here stands revealed is Falstaff's last strategy, his secular, temporal version of a religious faith in one's election to eternal salvation. Falstaff copes with his condition by living in hope, as which of us does not. We must cling to our faith in that intervening event (the doctorate, tenure, the professorship, retirement) which will with millennial effect transform the quality of our existence. Delusive hope was included in Pandora's box lest we should despair and destroy ourselves. What kills Sir John is the destruction of his delusive hope and the consequent knowledge that his future does not exist.

He would have died anyway. Falstaff, like everybody else, is killed by death. But that death is designed by Shakespeare to show us something. The King kills Falstaff's heart, but what impels the King to do so is the desire to do his royal duty by laboring in his vocation. I lack the time to demonstrate why I think Henry of Monmouth stands for the Protestant ethic but I believe that, consciously or not, Shakespeare has transposed into his early-fifteenth-century action the uncompleted spiritual and political struggles of the 1590s. Hal's psychomachia is a battle between Carnival and Lent, and Falstaff is on the losing side. Hal and the Protestant Ethic reject Falstaff, but Shakespeare does not reject Falstaff nor does he reject Hal for rejecting Falstaff.

Falstaff defines the Protestant Ethic by being what it isn't, but also by being a different variety of what it is: a means of coping with the fears engendered by the realities of the human condition. The ethic defeats Falstaff because of the superior strength that derives from the religious faith on which it is based—a faith that enables it to cope with our fears by denying that the realities that inspire them are ultimately real, by asserting that linear time will give way to eternity and that death is a transition to eternal life. Falstaff's being what he is, however, poses a great question to the ethic's answer: may not the ethic's faith be as illusory a strategy as any of Falstaff's, finally a form of delusive hope itself? Hal, in accepting his necessary form, must reject Falstaff because the Protestant ethical form cannot encompass the question Falstaff poses. But Shakespeare's art can and does. It encompasses, as always, question and answer and the questioning of the answer. And the questioning of the questioning, for what is the Falstaff action but a demonstration of the inevitable inadequacy of the strategies of which his character is composed? Shakespeare's sense, whether comical or tragical or tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, seems to me to be always interrogative. For me the great thing about Shakespeare's art is its ability simultaneously to reveal and accept our inadequacies, above all the inadequacy of our answers. The motto carved on the temple of our particular oracle is, “Your answers questioned here.”

René E. Fortin (essay date 1979)

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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 its negation and in the superb energy with which it is enforced” (p. 77).

Recently, however, René Wellek has posed an intriguing question: whether it is possible to conclude that there is indeed a single correct interpretation of the tragedies.2 Wellek's question is worthy of further consideration, for perhaps the root of the controversy between secular critics and “Christian” critics is the fact that our criticism lacks a solid hermeneutical base. It is quite evident that the typical interpretation of King Lear (and of the other tragedies as well) is offered as the “right” interpretation, setting forth the meaning of the tragedy all would derive if they would only see the plays aright. But perhaps we are now ready to awaken from our dogmatic slumber and reexamine the implicitly Lockean assumptions which have governed our critical practice. For time after time in the past several decades we have been cautioned that perception and cognition are highly complex activities and that the perceiving eye and mind are actively engaged in constituting or shaping the truth they are naively supposed merely to register.3 The conceptual model of a purely objective critical encounter, such as that called for by Morris Weitz (a model which would have the critic as spectator attempting to “see the object exactly as it is”), seems highly questionable at this time.4 It is now almost de rigueur in critical essays to offer ritual obeisance to E. H. Gombrich and his demonstration that our vision is largely a matter of projection, of seeing only what we are prepared to see.5 Specifically in literature the now familiar paradigm of the “included spectator” indicates an awakening to the creative participation of the viewer of a play,6 while Norman Rabkin's view of the complementarity of Shakespearean meanings has made remarkable inroads; Shakespearean structure, Rabkin tells us, sets up “the opposed elements as equally valid, equally desirable, and equally destructive, so that the choice the play forces the reader to make becomes almost impossible.”7 Specifically about King Lear, Rabkin states, “We find ourselves able at almost any point in the play to read it as godless or divine; these are the terms implicit in the action of King Lear and explicit in its language.”8 E. D. Hirsch, who has been a stalwart defender of “objective interpretation,” nonetheless concedes the shaping role of the interpreter:

The object of interpretation is precisely that which cannot be defined by the ontological status of a text, since the distinguishing characteristic of a text is that from it not just one but many disparate complexes of meaning can be construed. … the object of interpretation is no automatic given, but a task that the interpreter sets himself. He decides what he wants to actualize and what purpose his actualization should achieve.9

In this context Marvin Rosenberg's condescending observation about the “redemptionist” readers of King Lear impresses me as especially provocative: “All this [devastation] cannot prevent those who will from seeing exaltation in Lear's final vision of Cordelia's death, or from believing that what Lear has learned was worth the suffering. We perceive what we are prepared to, need to, perceive” [italics mine].10 Rosenberg goes on, of course, to dismiss such a response as tawdry sentimentality and to offer the real, objective truth about King Lear, that it is a play which ends in totally unrelieved “general woe” (p. 326).

Rosenberg's observation, however, raises the intriguing question whether it is only the “redemptionist” readers who are to be numbered among “those who will”; for it is difficult to determine precisely how the secular critics can lay claim to an epistemological transcendence denied other critics. Perhaps we have here, as Maynard Mack has suggested, merely a sentimentality of a different kind.11 I do not propose, I hasten to add, that secular readings of King Lear are wrong; indeed they are often quite persuasive and should be heeded. I wish rather to suggest that to consider the secular reading as exclusively valid is as much an act of dogmatic assertion as is the comforting vision offered by the Christian interpreters, since the assertion in either case is based upon a selection of evidence as well as a selective interpretation of that evidence. It is difficult, when one considers the Joseph's coat of Lear interpretations, to dismiss the specter of the hermeneutical circle so prominent in Bultmann's exegetical theory:

All understanding, like all interpretation, is … continually oriented by the manner of posing the question and by what it aims at. … Consequently, it is never without presuppositions; that is to say, it is always directed by a prior understanding about which it interrogates the text. It is only on the basis of that prior understanding that it can, in general, interrogate and interpret.12

One need not follow Bultmann's speculation into the intellectual swamp of relativism to appreciate the usefulness of the caveat; if critical objectivity is at all possible, as E. D. Hirsch insists it is, one does not easily attain it.13 Interpretations of Shakespeare's plays are, and will continue to be, colored by personal predispositions since an active, personal response is inherent in the critical effort. But that this is the case is not to be regretted, for the great diversity of interpretations is our most eloquent witness to the wealth of Shakespeare's world as well as our best defence against critical dogmatism.

The final scene of King Lear provides the best opportunity to pursue these questions, for in the death of Cordelia lies the most formidable challenge to any affirmative, religious view of the tragic experience. The Christian critic's attempt to wrest comfort from the dire outcome of the play is decisively repudiated by the secular critic because the events of the play—its “facts”—supposedly contradict the central tenets of Christianity. But what specifically are these tenets? If we examine closely the secular arguments, we find (1) that nothing short of poetic justice would validate a religious argument; (2) that a truly Christian play would have to dramatize the miraculous intervention of the gods or otherwise catch them red-handed as they intrude into the affairs of men; and (3) that the universe in which the tragic ordeal takes place would have to be transparently meaningful. Nicholas Brooke, for example, states: “I have never been clear what constitutes a ‘Christian play.’ I should have supposed that label would involve some effort to justify God's ways to men, to make the mysterious less inscrutable” (p. 74). He later adds, “Poetical justice has been dealt out to Oswald, but embarrassingly, the gods didn't do it themselves,” just as it is Edgar—and not God—who provides the “miracle” that saves Gloucester (pp. 80, 78). Elton likewise attaches great importance to miracles as signs of God's benevolent Providence: “In an unprovidential universe, it is suggested, miracles are absent and prayers are generally [?] ineffective. Such mention of miracles dramatically recalls to the spectator their absence—a sharply contrasting beam of tenuous light in a grimly dark and God-forsaken world.”14 Finally, Rosenberg joins this chorus with his utter certitude about the vacancy of Lear's final vision: “On this ultimate stage of fools, no one—except possibly Lear dying in illusion—is so foolish as to see any evidence of divinity at work. … Death everywhere, of the good as well as the ‘bad’” (pp. 325-26).

Such responses cannot be peremptorily dismissed even by the Christian interpreter, for the question of poetic justice and of the benign concern of the gods for man is at the very heart of the play. From the outset of King Lear the characters express faith in the concern and loving-kindness of the gods: the gods, Lear feels, will at once take his part against his daughters; Cornwall's servants pray that the blinding of Gloucester be speedily avenged; Albany sees the killing of Cornwall as evidence that the “justicers” are above; and Edgar constantly assures his father that the gods are sensitive to human anguish:

                                                            … therefore, thou happy father,
Think that the clearest gods, who make them honors
Of men's impossibilities, have preserved thee.(15)


What we notice, however, is a far less hospitable universe. As many commentators have pointed out, a conspicuous feature of the structure of King Lear is its irony, the rhythm of expectation and frustration to which the characters are subjected.16 It has been too infrequently noted, however, that the viewer is himself victimized by the same ironies. Our familiarity with the play—we all know how it ends—has largely blunted these ironies for us; like trained hounds we have been over the course before and are not likely to be led astray by false scents, as Lear, Albany, and Edgar are. But the “naive spectator,” the first-time viewer of the play, who lacks our synchronic, spatial sense of the play's form, would hardly be so fortunate—especially if he is familiar with the earlier Leir. The naive spectator, rather, is constantly being assured that all will be well; he is comforted by the discreet loyalty of Kent, by the early and persistent rumors of civil wars that will bring down the house divided of Goneril and Regan, by the tender care of Edgar (as Poor Tom) for his father, and especially by the perpetual promise of the return of Cordelia. What is especially noteworthy is how early the viewer is given these assurances: we hear of the “likely wars toward,” for example, in the first lines of Act II, while Kent offers us the promise of the “almost miracle” of Cordelia's return in Act II, scene ii—significantly before Lear's ordeal begins in earnest. It is as if the play is taking great pains to buffer the viewer from anguish, assuring him that the darkness is only temporary.

The peculiar cruelty of King Lear, of course, is that this promise is violated, most glaringly in the manner in which Cordelia—“Great thing of us forgot” (V.iii.238)—dies. Though we do see some measure of what could be taken for “rough justice” in the deaths of Cornwall, Oswald, Edmund, Goneril, and Regan, there is in the death of Cordelia no poetic justice, no “dark and vicious place” (V.iii.174) to account for her murder, no discernible incense thrown upon her sacrifice. The viewer is tempted, after this unconscionable mischief of the wanton gods, to accept as his the “cheerless, dark and deadly” world described by Kent (V.iii.292).

But does the play insist that we do so? Do the “facts” of the play, particularly its excruciating final scene, make King Lear absolutely incompatible with a Christian worldview? Any critic intending to offer an unequivocal reading of its ending should recall that he is witnessing a play that has throughout insisted upon the problematics of seeing and that this theme dominates the final lines of Lear:

Do you see this? Look on her. Look, her lips,
Look there, look there.


Five times in his final fourteen words Lear refers to vision. As Rosenberg has aptly stated, King Lear dwells upon “the necessity and difficulty of seeing to know. … seeing and knowing are never certain in Lear, for the play's dialectic insists upon ambiguity” (p. 344). Thus Lear's final statement presents to the viewers the ultimate challenge to vision: everything depends upon what is actually seen—or not seen—in these final moments. But here is perhaps the most devastating irony of the play: we do not and cannot see what Lear sees. What we see is merely Lear seeing. Philip Hobsbaum is at least partially right in arguing that “we cannot, to put it crudely, know whether or not Lear dies smiling. At the end of the play we are in exactly the same position as the spectators on stage. … Most of the critics who have dealt with the play seem to me wrong in opting for one or the other of these possibilities [hope and despair]: the values are more complex than that.”17

Hobsbaum's comment is particularly useful when we consider the scene in the light of Betrand Evans' concept of discrepant awarenesses, for the concept may be especially relevant, though in a different way than most would imagine.18 For where comedy typically offers to the viewer a cognitive perspective superior to that of the central figure (we know, for example, that Cesario is really Viola), it is possible that in King Lear it is the central figure who has the privileged vision, with the viewer able to see only from afar. Such a conclusion would be supported by the logic of the play, which postulates suffering as a precondition to accurate vision:

Let the superfluous and lust-dieted man,
That slaves your ordinance, that will not see
Because he does not feel, feel your pow'r quickly. …


Thus Lear, because he has suffered, may indeed see more than the survivors (Edgar, Kent, and Albany), who seem to see nothing more than “general woe” (V.iii.321), and more than the spectators, whose suffering is at best vicarious. In short, if we accept what Rosenberg has said, that the play dwells upon “the necessity and difficulty of seeing to know,” then we must be careful about arrogating to ourselves a clarity of vision superior to that of Lear, for what he sees, or cannot see, must remain for us only a matter of inference.

In order to be convincing, a Christian reading of King Lear must bravely push on beyond the “redemption” scenes of Act IV and take in fully the devastatingly ironic death of Cordelia. It is true, as secular critics have argued, that the death of Cordelia suggests the failure of the gods to provide the “chance which does redeem all sorrows” (V.iii.268), the saving miracle that would attest to their beneficence. Their failure to do so is particularly agonizing because it has occurred in a universe that seemed to support a faith in poetic justice but which instead decisively reasserts its opaqueness; we are left blindly staring at that which passeth all understanding.

But for the Christian critic the opaqueness of the Lear world is no insurmountable obstacle, for the very structural ironies which purportedly impeach the Christian worldview provide, when seen from a different perspective, a strong support for a Christian reading. To begin with, if the absence of visible supernatural intervention is to be the cudgel to beat down Christian interpretations—or Christian interpreters—one had better take a second look at the traditional beliefs of Christianity, for it is not at all presumed in the mainstream of Christian orthodoxy that God will intervene on call for his faithful; nowhere is a God of sweetness and light promised to man on this earth. Saint Paul, for example, preaches constantly that God is beyond human knowing: “How incomprehensible are his judgments and how unsearchable his wayes” (Rom. 11:33).19 St. Augustine similarly speaks of God's “hidden equity that cannot be searched out by any human standard of measurement, though its effects are to be observed in human affairs and earthly arrangements.”20 Moreover, in Shakespeare's own time Reformation theology, under the twin influences of St. Paul and St. Augustine, forcefully elaborated the concept of a “hidden God” whose power and purposes are not to be fathomed.21 In the words of Luther, God is “He for whose will no cause or ground may be laid down as its rule or standard. … God is wholly incomprehensible and inaccessible to man's understanding.”22 It is true that commentators, especially in the Catholic tradition, insisted upon the rationality of God, but even these writers were careful to respect the mysterium tremendum; Richard Hooker, for example, was strongly influenced by St. Thomas Aquinas and was therefore eager to defend the “light of reason” against the fideistic and voluntaristic emphases of the Reformers, but he nevertheless writes:

The book of this law [the eternal law of God] we are not either able nor worthy to open and look into. That little thereof which we darkly apprehend we admire, the rest with religious ignorance we humbly and meekly adore.23

The ordeal of Lear and the death of Cordelia are, to be sure, hard to cope with, but they do not contradict the image of God held in either Catholic or Protestant Christianity. In fact, an ear attuned to scripture would discern in Lear's ordeal resonances of the Book of Revelation:

I knowe thy workes, that thou art nether colde nor hote;

I wolde thou werest colde or hote. Therefore, because thou art lukewarm, and nether colde nor hote, it will come to passe, that I shall spewe thee out of my mouth.

For thou saist I am riche and increased with goods, and have neede of nothing, and knowest not how thou art wretched and miserable, and poore, and blinde, and naked.

(Rev. 3:15-17)

I think it is evident that the verses point to central themes of the play and suggest much about its imagery. The lesson that Lear learns in his suffering is that he has been morally callous; it is a lesson that he learns by becoming himself poor, naked, and—symbolically through his madness—blind. The suffering of Lear, seen against this background is at once punitive and propaedeutic, a necessary condition to his redemption:

I counsel thee to bie of me golde tryed by fire, that thou maiest be made riche, and white raiment, that thou maiest be clothed and that thy filthie nakednes do not appeare: and anoint thine eyes with salve, that thou maist se.

As manie as I love, I rebuke and chasten.

(Rev. 3:18-19)

Lear's “wheel of fire,” the garment in which he is clothed after his wanderings, and the regained sight which allows him to see the daughter he has rejected in his blindness assume a more specific significance in the light of this Scriptural passage. The suffering of Lear may be construed as the activity of a loving, albeit stern, God.

There still, of course, remains the death of Cordelia. It is true, as many critics have averred, that Christian interpretations generally ignore the final excruciating scene of the play: “This object poisons sight; / let it be hid” (Oth. V.ii.363-64). It is, however, equally true that secular interpreters tend to view the death of Cordelia as an isolated episode, apart from the rich context that the previous four acts of the play have provided.

Because this context has been effectively explored elsewhere, I shall limit myself to brief remarks about how it may support a Christian reading. First, what is especially remarkable about the final scene is its recapitulatory nature, its gathering up of themes which developed earlier in the play. It should be noted, for example, that the Lear whom we view in the final scene has come full circle, being in much the same position as he was in Act I: calling upon his one true daughter to utter the words needed to sustain value in his life and once again receiving as answer the silence which is the alpha and omega of the play:

What is't thou sayst? Her voice was ever soft,
Gentle and low, an excellent thing in woman.


But Cordelia's failure to speak now may be no more a denial of value than was her earlier silence, particularly when one construes that silence in the light of other themes and images. Above all, Lear's lament over the dead Cordelia, “And my poor fool is hanged” (V.iii.307), recalls the motif of folly which has been so prominent earlier in the play. We have seen folly constantly associated with virtue: in the Fool's poignant commitment to Lear despite his own worldly wisdom which counsels a different course; in the supererogatory loyalty of Kent, who serves Lear despite his unjust banishment; and particularly in the superfluity of Cordelia's loving forgiveness. Virtue, for all its foolishness, yet survives in an otherwise bleak world. The Christian reader will have little difficulty seeing in such instances of unlikely goodness reminiscences of the Pauline theme of Christian folly in the First Epistle to the Corinthians:

For brethren, you se your calling, how that not manie wise men after the flesh, not manie mighty, not manie noble, are called. But God hathe chosen the foolish things of the worlde to confounde the wise, and God hathe chosen the weake things of the worlde, to confounde the mighty things.


It is part of the Pauline scheme of things that true virtue be seen as folly or otherwise unpublished; Cordelia directs us to this view when she calls upon “All blest secrets, / All you unpublished virtues of the earth” (IV.iv.15-16) to remedy her father's distress.25 For a prominent feature of King Lear is that virtue, in a world overwhelmed by evil, chooses to or is compelled to conceal its presence, to operate covertly. The list of “unpublished virtues” in the play is impressive; it includes Kent and Edgar, who fulfill their obligations in disguise; Gloucester, who summons up unexpected moral strength to assist his king and to bear his own ordeal patiently; the servants of Cornwall, who unexpectedly lash out at the cruelty of their master; and finally, Cordelia, who can publish her love for her father neither at the beginning nor at the end of the play.

But does the list of unpublished virtues end there? No one, I think, will deny that the question Lear addresses to the dead Cordelia, “Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life, / And thou no breath at all?” (308-09), is really addressed to the gods who would allow such an abomination. The Christian interpreter, recognizing that Lear has been throughout his ordeal surrounded by goodness which he has had difficulty perceiving, may have warrant enough to see the dead Cordelia as but a further instance of a pattern which points beyond to the gods, the ultimate unpublished virtues of the world. The apparent absence of redeeming goodness has thus far proven to be no guarantee that it does not exist.

And thus a play which begins with a king announcing “darker purposes” which lead to the temporary loss of a daughter ends with a Higher Power (or powers) announcing infinitely darker purposes and apparently bringing the same victim to distress. The Christian viewer will accept the harsh fact that the world offers no cheap consolations but need not necessarily infer that God has forsaken that world.

Rather, the Christian reader who is responsive to the Biblical echoes of the play may view the play as an attempt to demythologize Christianity, to reassert the hiddenness of God against the presumptuous pieties and shallow rationalism of the Edgars and Albanys of the world. In the death of Cordelia the viewers are once more confronted with the Judaeo-Christian God who, from the Book of Job on, has chosen to remain hidden and refuses to render account of His “darker purposes” to man. As Ivor Morris has indicated, King Lear is preeminently a play of stripping—of clothing, of language, of social masks—in order to unveil what is most fundamentally real (p. 184); in Act V it is God himself who is stripped, divested of the conventional images man has created for him. The God who emerges in the final events of the play is not the majuscule God as prime mover and creator of all, nor God as supreme justicer, nor even the God of translucent love to whom Cordelia seems to point. He is rather an unaccommodated and unaccommodating God who refuses masks of any kind, who denies us either the explanations we seek or the miracles which would make such explanations unnecessary. He is the miniscule God of Pauline theology who denies both signs and wisdom:

For seing the worlde by wisdome knewe not God in the wisdome of God, it pleased God by the foolisheness of preaching to save them that beleve:

Seing also that the Jewes require a signe, and the Grecians seke after wisdome.

But we preache Christ crucified: unto the Jewes a stumbling block, and unto the Grecians foolishnes.

(1 Cor. 1:21-23)

For the Christian interpreter the death of Cordelia need not, cannot be explained away; as “stumbling block” it supports rather than contradicts Revelation, the true Biblical God, even and perhaps especially that of the New Testament, being a God of faith seen but through a glass darkly, whose promises are beheld from afar. The ending of King Lear, in short, presents a demythologized Christianity that offers mystery rather than justice and that is founded upon hope rather than fulfillment; once more the language of Paul offers the best commentary:

For we are saved by hope: but hope that is sene, is not hope: for how can a man hope for that which he seeth?

But if we hope for that we se not, we do with patience abide for it.

(Rom. 8:24-25)

Such a Christian reading, again, is not intended as the authoritative reading of King Lear; it is offered, rather, in an attempt to show that a Christian response to the play may be in conformity with both the “facts” of the play and with the doctrines of Christianity. Such a response, however, does not invalidate the secular reading, since even the most adamantly Christian of interpreters must feel the force of Edgar's admonition to “speak what we feel, not what we ought to say” (V.iii.326). What King Lear strongly suggests is that the lion of tragedy need not be devoured by the lamb of theology, for as Paul Ricoeur has suggested, tragedy survives the most ardent hermeneutical efforts of Christian thinkers:

Killed twice, by the philosophical Logos and by the Judaeo-Christian Kerygma, [tragedy] survived its double death. The theme of the wrath of God, the ultimate motive of tragic consciousness, is invincible to the arguments of the philosopher as well as of the theologian. … As soon as meaninglessness appears to swoop down intentionally on man, the schema of the wrath of God looms up and tragic consciousness is restored.

(p. 326)

To assert that King Lear admits both secular and religious interpretations is not, however, to argue for critical relativism, to consider the play as a tabula rasa awaiting any critical impression whatever. We must, as Murray Krieger has stated, “accept the hermeneutical gap that separates every critique from the work,” but we must do so without denying the intersubjective nature of poetic communication; “at some level,” says Krieger, “in spite of persuasive epistemological skepticism, all of us share Dr. Johnson's hard-headed, rock-kicking impatience with the unbridgeable private worlds of solipsism.”26 It is evident that the play, despite its apparent multivalence, creates its unique frame of discourse, channeling inquiry into specific areas of speculation and compelling attention to clearly-defined overwhelming questions. Thus a Christian interpreter can agree with much that Brooke, Elton, Rosenberg, and Stampfer have observed about the play: King Lear indeed dramatizes man's quest for justice; the folly, callousness, and brutality of which humanity is capable; the apparent injustice which man may suffer. It also dramatizes the unlikely perdurance of virtue under the most trying of conditions, as well as the moral awakening of several under the pressure of adversity. Calculations about what all of this adds up to may differ, and differ markedly, but it is most probably true that any interpretation of the play which denies that these are central concerns is simply wrong.

The open form of tragedy, its respect for the limits of human experience, allows readers to draw different conclusions: enough is given to allow interpreters to “see feelingly,” to infer an interpretation based upon their own personal experience of the play; but enough is withheld to compel respect for the tragic mystery, to remind us that our conclusions are, after all, nothing but inference. If we learn anything from King Lear, it is that we all must see in our way, that a personal response is mandated by the tragic structure, but that our own vision is necessarily limited. Perhaps this humbling truth, hermeneutical as well as theological in its implications, is the play's most valuable revelation.


  1. Nicholas Brooke, “The Ending of King Lear,” in Shakespeare 1564-1964, ed. Edward A. Bloom (Providence, R. I.: Brown Univ. Press, 1964), p. 77.

  2. “A. C. Bradley, Shakespeare, and the Infinite,” Philological Quarterly, 54 (1975), 98.

  3. Perhaps the most useful survey of this problem is in E. D. Hirsch, Jr., The Aims of Interpretation (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1976).

  4. Cf. M. H. Abrams, “What is the Use of Theorizing About the Arts?” In Search of Literary Theory, ed. Morton W. Bloomfield (Ithaca, N. Y.: Cornell Univ. Press, 1972), pp. 31-35.

  5. E. H. Gombrich, Art and Illusion (New York: Pantheon, 1960); see esp. ch. 9, “The Analysis of Vision in Art.”

  6. Robert Hapgood's “Shakespeare and the Included Spectator,” Reinterpretations of Elizabethan Drama, ed. Norman Rabkin (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1969) is, of course, the seminal article.

  7. Norman Rabkin, Shakespeare and the Common Understanding (New York: The Free Press, 1967), p. 12.

  8. Ibid., pp. 10-11; for a similar view, see Helen Gardner, Religion and Literature (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1971), pp. 35-36, 86-87.

  9. E. D. Hirsch, Jr., Validity in Interpretation (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1967), pp. 24-25.

  10. Marvin Rosenberg, The Masks of King Lear (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1972), p. 326.

  11. Maynard Mack, King Lear in Our Time (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1965), p. 115.

  12. Cited in Paul Ricoeur, The Symbolism of Evil (New York: Harper, 1967), p. 351.

  13. See especially Hirsch's “Appendix I. Objective Interpretation,” in Validity in Interpretation, pp. 209-44; the essay first appeared in PMLA, 75 (1960).

  14. W. R. Elton, King Lear and the Gods (San Marino: Huntington Library, 1966), p. 236.

  15. All references to the plays are to The Complete Signet Classic Shakespeare, ed. Sylvan Barnet (New York: Harcourt, 1972).

  16. See, e. g., Elton's “Irony as Structure,” pp. 329-34.

  17. Philip Hobsbaum, Theory of Criticism (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1970), p. 161.

  18. See Bertrand Evans, Shakespeare's Comedies (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1960), esp. p. viii.

  19. All Biblical references are to the Geneva Bible (1560), facsimile ed. (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1969).

  20. Cited in Morris, p. 147.

  21. See Paul R. Sellin, “The Hidden God: Reformation Awe in Renaissance English Literature,” in The Darker Vision of the Renaissance, ed. Robert Kinsman (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1974), p. 175.

  22. Cited in Morris, p. 147.

  23. Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, (New York: Everyman's Library, 1925), I, 153.

  24. For a fuller treatment of the relevance of the Corinthian letters, see Roger Cox, Between Heaven and Earth (New York: Holt, 1969).

  25. I have discussed the theme of “unpublished virtues” at greater length in “Shakespearean Tragedy and the Problem of Transcendence,” Shakespeare Studies, 7 (1974), 307-25.

  26. Murray Krieger, “The Critic as Person and Persona,” in The Personality of the Critic, ed. Joseph P. Strelka (University Park: Pennsylvania State Univ. Press, 1973), pp. 87-88.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

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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 more skeptical are some of today's deconstructionists who seem to say that any author's personal beliefs is irrelevant and also irrecoverable.

Nevertheless a growing body of scholarship tying Shakespeare's plays to Christian insights has been accumulating since the mid-nineteenth century, and so an overview of this history will be helpful as a background to some summary observations on the achievements the present anthology catalogs.

The religious contexts of action in Shakespearean drama are the focus of our anthology. They may help us recall that in Elizabethan England religion was considered the anchor of morals, and the God of Christian faith was generally believed to be the creator, sustainer, and judge of all mankind. The guidebook for understanding good and evil in all sorts and conditions of life was Holy Scripture, a capstone to testimonies provided universally in the Book of Nature. In such a context everyone's history could be one of journey toward self-knowledge and health, or else of opportunities squandered. Do not Shakespeare's stories imply this sense of history? Historical criticism in our time should be open to perceptions that a drama's horizons of understanding can be ultimately Christian in their outreach.

Of signal importance has been Hermann Ulrici's Shakespeare's Dramatic Art, which appeared in English translation in 1846 and grew to a third edition by 1880. Ulrici read Shakespeare as “a Christian in the truest sense” with a “Christian view of life.” He saw the dramatist's achievement as a blending of the “idealistic art” of the Middle Ages with the realism of modern history; and with this perspective he had no difficulty in accepting the ending of King Lear as a salvation of soul for Lear and Gloucester in their coming to see the true nature of love after undergoing a purification. Similarly, Ulrici read The Merchant of Venice and Measure for Measure as showing that human virtue is possible only in and through an inner love that combines strictness with mercy. In all of Shakespeare's comedies he saw what he called a “dialectics of irony” employed to neutralize one-sided obsessions, and he defended Shakespeare's puns as intrinsic to this comic method. Thus a portrait of the poet as moral philosopher replaced the wild genius presumed by eighteenth-century critics.

In this altered context, English writers began to speak of Shakespeare as Christian, and studies soon appeared in tribute to the national poet's congruence with the Good Book. Of these the most substantial were Bishop Charles Wordsworth's Shakespeare's Knowledge and Use of the Bible (1864) written for the Anniversary ceremonies and expanded in a third edition of 1880; J. B. Selkirk's (pseud. for James Brown) Bible Truths with Shakespearian Parallels (1872), which had a sixth edition by 1888; and, in America, William Burgess's The Bible in Shakespeare (Chicago, 1903; later reprints). Wordsworth devoted a long chapter to Shakespeare's biblical allusions and another to his “Religious Principles and Sentiments derived from the Bible.” He disagreed with Mr. Bowdler's excising from The Family Shakespeare the clown's speech in All's Well about the narrow gate and the porter's speech in Macbeth about the primrose way. He noted that in the tragedies the catastrophe results from sinful passions such as revenge and jealousy. He concluded his book by saying that no other Elizabethan “has paid homage to Christianity as effectually as Shakespeare.” Selkirk arranged parallel quotations from Shakespeare and the Bible on more than a hundred topics. He concluded that Shakespeare's genius had so assimilated and reproduced the Bible's great truths that his words seem to renew its authority. Burgess proclaimed Shakespeare a sincere believer of “the main doctrines of the Christian religion” and offered in evidence from the plays parallels filling 16 pages and 150 pages of quotations on topics such as Conscience, God's Attributes, Thankfulness, etc. He found eight references to Cain, a confused memory of the 23rd Psalm by Mistress Quickly, and “the very likeness of Ahab and Jezebel” in the Macbeths (here citing Thomas Eaton's Shakespeare and the Bible, 1857).

Are there shortcomings in these studies? By hindsight we can observe that some of the moral sentiments cited are less genuinely Christian than they sound. For instance, Iago's discourse on free will is listed by Selkirk among Shakespeare's Bible truths. Actually, however, Iago was here using a Pelagian language to lure Roderigo to enslave himself to his lustful passion. In other passages, even when the moral idea expressed is indeed Christian and may reflect Shakespeare's own faith, Selkirk fails to note that the speaker who voices it was actually using it hypocritically to mislead his listeners—as is the case, surely, in King Henry IV's reference to “Those blessed feet. … nailed / For our advantage to the bitter cross.” Here the king puts piety on display when, for his political advantage, he is about to postpone the crusade he had promised his feet would make. This truth of the drama can be overlooked by readers who look to Shakespeare simply as a storehouse of moral sentiments.

Let me discern also a misapprehension by Burgess when noting Canterbury's reference in Henry V to the Book of Numbers. This indicates, says Burgess, Shakespeare's versatility in using Scripture. A wiser inference would be that the Archbishop is being characterized as an irresponsible exegete, who cites from Numbers a text which (a canny reader might know) is a half-truth since it omits the more pertinent passage in Numbers where Moses disallowed a daughter the right to inherit land from her father if she marries a foreigner. Shakespeare's ironic point, wholly missed by Burgess, is that Henry V has no valid claim to France. A bigger mistake regarding Henry V is made by Wordsworth. He misreads the whole character of this king's piety by failing to see the irony in Shakespeare's having him fulsomely ascribe his Agincourt victory to God's arm alone, right after we have seen the battle won by Henry's order to cut the throats of prisoners. The Victorian Bishop's uncritical feelings of patriotism along with his liking for moral sentiment have left a blindspot in his ability to see. When tabulating Bible allusions he can point us to Matthew 2 as the source for Henry's mention of “Herod's bloody-hunting slaughtermen” but without perceiving in Henry a kinship with Herod. This blindspot, I must add, was also in Ulrici's vision and caused his declaring that Henry's career stands for “the moral purification and amendment of man.” Indeed, it can be said that the deceitfulness of this monarch's piety remained largely unexposed by literary critics until around 1950, when Professor Goddard focused his Quaker intelligence on the specifics of the action in Shakespeare's play. Only then did the possibility arise that our “country” poet might have viewed history with the irony of an Erasmus.

A disillusionment with romantic idealism emerged after World War I and was signalled by T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land. While this poem got its popularity from its truth-telling vignettes of hollow love quest, its anthropological diggings encompassed a scope of history from Agamemnon's times to the present day. And its author was eventually discovered to be, surprisingly, an apologist for Christian orthodoxy. His essays in appreciation of Lancelot Andrewes and Dante, while at the same time he questioned Arnold's humanism and Lambeth's churchmanship, made possible a revived scholarly attention to the history of religion and to medieval drama in particular, along with some modern experiments in churchyard drama, and some stageplays that hinted of Christian mysteries hidden in secular experience. Eliot himself proceeded not only to tell us that literary criticism needed to be “completed” by recourse to theological truths, but also to provide avenues to those truths in his Four Quartets begun in the 30s and concluded during World War II in the 40s.

Those two decades are usually described by historians of Shakespeare criticism as an era of “historical” approaches. That is true; but the wide range of history that was reinvigorating scholarship needs to be more fully appreciated. While some students were delving into the history of theatre in general, or of Elizabethan acting companies, or of medieval story conventions, others were looking into schoolbooks and Stratford schoolmasters (two of them of Catholic sympathies) during Shakespeare's boyhood, or assessing the extent of his familiarity with the Bible (42 of its books by R. Noble's count) and the Prayerbook, or reviewing the contents of the Elizabethan Homilies appointed for church use. The history of ideas became important with the publication of Lily B. Campbell's Shakespeare's Tragic Heroes (1930) and Howard Patch's The Tradition of Boethius (1935) and Willard Farnham's The Medieval Heritage of Elizabethan Tragedy (1936). And concurrently, scholars of Old English literature and the medieval poets began to re-estimate the Christian ingredients of Beowulf and the works of Cynewulf, Langland, and Chaucer. All this, when accompanied by the proddings from T. S. Eliot I have mentioned, provided challenging horizons for those of us who underwent our graduate training in the mid-30s.

Historic religion received an increasing attention during World War II when the B.B.C. put on the air some talks by C. S. Lewis, known for his witty Screwtape Letters but now offering the public a core of “mere Christianity.” His The Case for Christianity appeared in 1946. Almost everybody in those years seemed interested in Christianity's relation to culture. A stream of books around that topic issued from both Protestant and Catholic scholars, but was fed especially by Maritain's True Humanism (1938), Ransoming the Time (1941), and Christianity and Democracy (1945), along with Gilson's various expoundings of the medieval philosophers. De Lubac launched his multi-volume Exégèse Médiévale in 1941; and after a while Protestant and Catholic presses alike were publishing each a series of translations from the Church Fathers. Also new journals cropped up with titles such as The Christian Scholar and Christendom, college courses on the metaphysical poets flourished, and literary critics were shown by Erich Auerbach's Mimesis (Eng. tr., 1953) the special qualities characteristic of Judaeo-Christian stylistics.

Shakespeare's relation to Catholic tradition was first probed in the mid-nineteenth century by Richard Simpson, whose papers were assembled and amplified in Henry S. Bowden's The Religion of Shakespeare (1899). The contention of this book was the probability of a personal sympathy for the Old Faith by Shakespeare. Bowden began with some distinctions between Catholic and Protestant doctrines, and then showed how biographical documents relating to Shakespeare can have a hidden religious explanation. His coverage of the plays was chiefly impressionistic, noting the Catholic tone of lines such as “Unhousel'd, disappointed, unanel'd” in Hamlet, or the reference by the Countess in All's Well to “her prayers, whom Heaven delights to hear,” or Prospero's allusion to “her help, of whose soft grace” he has had aid. An overconcern for pious wording, however, misled Bowden to eulogize Henry V as an “ideal” king and to misattribute compassion to Pandulph in King John. His best insights are his likening the persecuted Catholics under Queen Elizabeth to the plight of Edgar in King Lear, and his reply to Harsnett by quoting Thomas More to the effect that occasional fraudulent miracles should not blind us to the reality of true miracles—the kind Bowden finds in the conversion of Lear, in the healing of the King of France by Helena, and in the cures by King Edward in Macbeth.

The argument that Shakespeare “retained a genuine esteem for certain aspects” of Catholicism was renewed by John Henry de Groot in his The Shakespeares and “The Old Faith” (1946). To Bowden's culling of Catholic phrases he added others; and as evidence of Shakespeare's familiarity with the Rheims New Testament he cited the words cockle, narrow gate, and not a hair perished, unique to that translation. But De Groot's important contribution was his convincing argument, based centrally on discoveries made by Herbert Thurston in 1923 and subsequently, that the Last Will and Testament of John Shakespeare, the poet's father, was indeed no forgery but reliable evidence of his probable contact with the Jesuit missioners, since the Will follows a formula for Testaments drawn up by St Charles Borromeo and imported into England by them. This historical evidence justified De Groot in postulating a home training of young William which could have included Catholic lore and its continuing witness in iconography, such as the wall tapestries referred to by Falstaff. Moreover, John Speed's reference in 1611 to the “papist” Robert Persons and “his poet” implies that the dramatist retained Catholic sympathies.

Mutschmann and Wentersdorf's Shakespeare and Catholicism (1952) explained why “religion mattered supremely to Shakespeare” and concluded, on the basis of a large array of evidence both historical and dramatic, that he was a secret Catholic all his life and may have died a papist. M. D. H. Parker in her The Slave of Life (1955) devoted an Appendix to capsulizing and reinforcing the biographical interpretations of Mutschmann and Wentersdorf, and in her earlier chapters she drew on doctrines in Augustine and Aquinas to account for the idea of justice that undergirds Shakespeare's dramaturgy. More recently, Peter Milward has summarized the biographical problem in his Shakespeare's Religious Background (1973), and in Shakespeare Yearbook 1 (1990) has written of Shakespeare's affinities with Thomas More, and has termed the plays “a synthesis of tradition and reform” in which allusions to the contemporary religious scene “cry out from between the lines.”

The horizons of history uncovered by the scholars I have just mentioned, it should be noted, are larger than those entertained by E. M. W. Tillyard in his Elizabethan World Picture (1943) and his Shakespeare's History Plays (1944). For although he attempted in the latter book a providential view of history, the sense of providence he relied on was that of Edward Hall's Protestant overview rather than that of Augustine's City of God (the textbook of More and Erasmus). Tillyard's unawareness of the difference can be seen to be, in retrospect, the cause of the difficulty he got into when interpreting Henry V. In following Hall's portrait of Henry as an ideal king, Tillyard complains, Shakespeare ends with a copybook hero whose platitudes depress us and whose coarseness suggests that the dramatist was “writing up something he had begun to hate.” The play's “slack construction” suggests that its author “had written his epic of England and had no more to say on the matter.” But are these remarks consistent with Tillyard's overall claim that the eight plays constitute a unified chain of moral interpretation? At odds with this is also his comment that in 3 Henry VI Shakespeare failed to make his material significant because he got tired or bored. It seems to me Tillyard approximates a satisfactory reading only when he views Henry Richmond as a godly minister of England's deliverance from Richard's tyranny. Yet, even here, he does not see that Hall's tracing of the happy outcome to a “policy” suggested by Buckingham has been replaced by Shakespeare's scene of the Queen's rejecting of Richard's “policy” pleas. Is not Shakespeare revising Hall's sense of providence by relying on Thomas More's sense of it in the material Hall borrowed from More and tried to overlay with moralizing on the glory of national unity?

Richmond's prayer to the “gracious” eye of God is not recorded by Hall. And when Tillyard cites it, his surrounding commentary reveals a twentieth-century fear of identifying Shakespeare with any settled beliefs:

If one were to say that in Richard III Shakespeare pictures England restored to order through God's grace, one gravely risks being lauded or execrated for attributing to Shakespeare personally the full doctrine of prevenient grace according to Calvin. When therefore I say that Richard III is a very religious play, I want to be understood as speaking of the play and not of Shakespeare. For the purposes of the tetralogy and most obviously for this play Shakespeare accepted the prevalent belief that God had guided England into her haven of Tudor prosperity. And he accepted it with his whole heart, as later he did not accept the supposed siding of God with the English against the French he so loudly proclaimed in Henry V.

(p. 204)

This passage leaves unexplained what Shakespeare did “accept” (believe?) regarding Henry V's status within a providential order, and also it seems to say that Tillyard thinks Calvin the only available interpreter of divine providence, and that “Tudor prosperity” is its goal. If Tillyard had consulted Augustine or Boethius, however, he could have learned that political prosperity is not identical with divine blessing, and that providence punishes a sinner centrally with his own sin and the interior weariness it entails (as in the vanity of “idol ceremony” confessed by Henry). But instead Tillyard supposes a Shakespeare of shifting belief, one who put his heart into Hall's (implicitly Calvinist?) belief when writing Richard III but lost enthusiasm for it subsequently.

Understandably, many readers of Tillyard have been unsatisfied with his explanations. Yet what warrants our skepticism, I would say, is not the premise that Shakespeare's histories reflect a divine providence but rather Tillyard's version of providence. Moreover, to grasp Shakespeare's chain we need to read the eight plays in the order given them in the folio's text rather than in their order of composition. Beginning with Richard's disowning of the balm of grace and ending with Henry Richmond's turning to grace and sacrament, the cycle places Henry V at a midpoint in the downward spiraling, a place in England's history analogous to Julius Caesar's in Rome's history, whereas the later Henry Tudor is analogous to Rome's Constantine.

The historical approaches I have associated with post-Bradleyan criticism were accompanied by a concurrent attention to Shakespeare's language of symbolism. One may regard this development as an amplifying of Romanticism's focus on the poet as a questing Seer, and perhaps as a continuation of Keats's idea that “Shakespeare lived a life of allegory” on which his works comment. G. Wilson Knight became its spokesman in 1930 with his metaphorically titled Wheel of Fire, for which T.S. Eliot provided a Prefatory Note. Eliot here wrote of the need to grasp the “whole design” of a poetic drama and to read both character and plot with an understanding of the work's “subterrene or submarine music.” He also emphasized that the greatest poetry speaks “on two planes at once,” a sensory experience within which there moves a pattern of deeper meaning. Eliot was perhaps remembering Augustine's analysis of a logic we listen for under time-borne sounds.

Knight saw Shakespeare's plays as having a spatial-temporal patterning of Tempest and Music set forth in a language of parable. And the most striking essay in Knight's many volumes was his early “Measure for Measure and the Gospels.” Here he uncovered the affinity of Shakespeare's drama to the parables of Jesus and defended the Duke of this play as embodying in his actions the ethical wisdom of Jesus. Knight was writing not from any knowledge of the history of theology but rather as a post-Romantic who valued human imagination as the key to insight into life; he found in Shakespeare a poet whose genius coincided here with that of Christ—each being, as Knight explained elsewhere, an independent pioneer who challenged “orthodox” morality. Knight's reliance simply on imaginative genius was later to betray him into uncritical admiration for the transrational poetry of Nietzsche, by the light of which his comments on the mystical humanism of Shakespeare became questionable. Nevertheless his emphasis on symbolism has done much to reinvigorate Shakespeare criticism. It has directed attention to dimensions of myth and miracle in Shakespeare's plays, besides encouraging the efforts of Northrop Frye to associate literary genres with seasonal phases in the cycle of human experience.

S. L. Bethell in The Winter's Tale: A Study (1947) probed more radically than either Knight or Frye. Noting this play's atmosphere of supernatural religion, he stated his conviction that Shakespeare wrote “from the standpoint of orthodox Christianity” while using archaic dramatic methods to put his audience into an experiencing of symbolic meanings. Bethell's earlier Shakespeare and the Popular Dramatic Tradition (1944) had called attention to a multiconsciousness in Shakespeare's language, tracing its source to medieval popular drama. Then in his Literary Criticism and the English Tradition (1948) he proceeded to emphasize that a poem's most significant level is the sequence of events it re-creates in the mind, a narrative that conveys by its author's attitude a criticism of life, for the grasping of which the real world must be co-present with the play world in the minds of the audience. Anticipating some of today's theorists, Bethell insisted that a work's quality of insight into human experience is what critics ultimately judge, and that in this matter

there is no critical neutrality; there are only Christian critics and Marxist critics and Moslem critics—and critics who think themselves disinterested but who are really swayed unconsciously by the beliefs they have necessarily acquired by being members of a particular society in a particular place and time. … The ‘pure critics’ of today adhere in fact to the dogmatic position of nineteenth-century humanism, which has been for so long the atmosphere of English academic circles that it is taken for granted like the air itself. … The Christian, on the other hand, knows that … assumptions, unexamined because scarcely realized as assumptions, are part of the lot of fallen man. Such dogma, untrue or unclear, reflects the curse of Adam, and against it we have only to set the revealed dogma which we experience as a partial clearing of vision. … The Christian critic has little reason for arrogance, and if he should fail to do justice in his calling the fault lies with him and not the Cause he has espoused.

(pp. 25-26)

A similarly Christian response to the special quality of Shakespeare's narrative language may be seen in Nevill Coghill's ground-breaking essay of 1950 on the medieval “Basis of Shakespearian Comedy.” Citing Dante's explanation of the four levels of meaning possible in a story of human journey, Coghill defined Shakespearean comedy as a journey from misery to joy and illustrated the presence of an allegorical import in several of Shakespeare's comedies.

Meanwhile in 1946 there appeared in PMLA my essay arguing that Shakespeare's Measure for Measure was informed by Christianity's doctrine of Atonement. The Duke's role, I explained, is a secular analogue of St Luke's “He hath visited and redeemed his people” and is replete with imagery of a star-led shepherd and king of love who rescues the lost and ransoms the guilty by a conquest such as the Church Fathers describe when explicating the Atonement story. The play's whole action, as I read it, participates by analogy in the biblical cycle of sin, law, sentence, intervention, faith, suffering, and reconciliation. This reading was curtly dismissed by Tillyard, who preferred to view the play as an artistic failure. Yet other scholars—notably Barbara Lewalski, J. A. Bryant, and R. G. Hunter—turned to biblical typology as an under-structure of Shakespeare's art; and by 1969 I was able to argue that biblical “premises” (a baptised Aristotelianism) governed his depicting of tragedy. “Typological Criticism” was the label David Bevington aptly used when discussing Christian interpretations in the Introduction to his textbook Shakespeare (3rd edition, 1980). He credited it, however, only with serving the cause of “image” study and remarked that its dissenters had made it assume “a defensive posture.” True, it has been elbowed to the sidelines during our post-Vietnam era. But in fact its leaven of insight has been quietly enlarging, as will be evident in the range of selections in my present anthology. Arthur C. Kirsch, for instance, has recently invoked the Atonement motif when explaining the structure of Much Ado and also of Cymbeline, while Frances Pearce has invoked it in her commentary on All's Well.

Crosscurrents among Christian interpreters do of course sometimes muddle its impact. Their variety needs to be taken into account. Roland M. Frye, for instance, brought a narrowly Protestant cast of mind to his book on Shakespeare and Christian Doctrine (1963), in which he assailed “The School of Knight,” his label for followers of G. Wilson Knight, especially J.A. Bryant. In Frye's view they were translating Shakespeare “out of dramatic into theological terms” not allowed by Luther and Calvin for secular drama. He therefore spoke of “blatant abuses of criticism” in theological analyses of Shakespeare and insisted that the plays should be read as employing Christian doctrine only for local characterizations and not as “essential” to his art. This argument, while it gave a welcome handle to anti-Christian readers, ignored the use of typology by Elizabethan poets such as Spenser. It also raised the hackles of Professor Knight, who proceeded to charge Frye with grossly misrepresenting him as medieval whereas in fact he regarded Shakespeare as looking “ahead to Ibsen and Nietszche,” and Knight's phrase “miniature Christs” was a “passing analogy” only. (See his Shakespeare and Religion [1967], pp. 293-303.) One can see in Knight's reply his own muddling of a Dionysian with a Christian ethic. Frye, on the other hand, was supposing that Christian typology is essentially irrelevant to everyday life. Barbara Lewalski, herself of Protestant sympathies, has commented on the error of Frye's stance (in a footnote to her essay on Twelfth Night, infra).

But did Bryant's treatment of Shakespeare's tragedies harbor sometimes an ambiguity akin to Knight's? One of Frye's objections was to Bryant's finding “redemptions” in the love-deaths of Antony and Cleopatra. Bryant describes the death of these lovers as a “selfless” expenditure which enabled them to achieve “the distinctively Christian ideal of humanity.” May not some readers question whether the suicides are really “selfless” and resemble a Christian sacrifice? Bryant qualifies by saying they “never really see the parallel” between their human action and “that perfect action which might have saved them.” Does he mean they grasped imperfectly the Christian ideal? I proposed rather, in 1969, that theirs is a parody version of true sacrifice. That is, they unwittingly enact a grotesque analogy to the Christian ideal. Swayed by Wilson Knight's view of Cleopatra, Bryant admired her “strong toil of grace” without noticing that hers is a “riggish” kind of grace beloved by worshipers of Isis. David Kastan, more recently, has commented on the tragic deceptiveness of Cleopatra's grace (see infra).

When interpreting Shakespeare's comedies Bryant made good use of biblical analogy, as have other subsequent critics alert to typology. Applying this approach to tragedy, however, can be more complex. For here an interpreter is tempted to go beyond seeing in the tragic hero a likeness to Saul or Jezebel or some other type of sinful Adamkind and imagine a change in the hero that results in a quasi-Christian serenity. A frequent divergence among practitioners of Christian criticism has been over whether Othello or Hamlet or Richard II can be supposed to have died a saved soul. While skeptics would simply rule out this question as irrelevant, the critics who tackle it do so sometimes unconvincingly.

Pertinent to this issue is some considering of a tragedy's traditional function of catharsis. Can a tragedy exercise our pity and fear if it ends with its hero triumphant? Critics such as O. B. Hardison and John Andrews discussed this. A purging of pity and fear, they argued, depends on our seeing some great failure or failures unintended by the tragic actor but fated by his mischoices. I myself agreed with this interpretation and proposed that ideally a spectator needs to be brought to say at the end of a tragedy, “There but for the grace of God go I.” The auditor needs to arrive at a valid state of pity and fear through the story's cleansing us of muddied or crude modes of pity and fear. In a similar way, a comedy should exercise our emotion of laughter and bring us to a purged mode of joy. Both comedy and tragedy, if thus viewed, are intended to be educative in a therapeutic way—not chiefly in a moralistic or didactic way. Drama is properly an invitation to self-discovery. It is the telling of a story which engages our emotions and minds in their unpurged condition (what Bethell referred to as the crude assumptions of our fallen nature). Then it proceeds to refine these as we react to the story itself, unless we resist or obstruct that process. Do not our best theologians (both nowadays and in early church history) engage us with a story, a “narrative theology,” and does not the dramatist Shakespeare make his appeal through some “old tale” of perennial relevance?

Francis Fergusson has been a critic helpful especially for understanding what Aristotle meant by the imitation of an action. Very simply, according to Fergusson, Aristotle was referring to a basic action of the human psyche, imitated by six means, plot being the foremost. Fergusson's essay on Macbeth, in 1951, defined the basic action of that play as a psychic impulse to “outrun the pauser, reason”—which we see the hero persist in to his own downward destruction. But also, in this unusual tragedy with dimensions more than Aristotelian, we see a counter-movement when Malcolm outruns the pauser reason in an upward and saving direction. Through an engraced faith he overcomes his rational hesitancy regarding the trustworthiness of Macduff, and then with him undertakes a rescue of Scotland under the aegis of “powers above.” A restoring of civic health “by the grace of Grace” closes the action. Supplementing Fergusson, other critics have elaborated on how sin and grace condition the two contrasting directions of psychic action imitated in this drama. It is as if the dramatist were aware of St Paul's providential view of history in Rom 5:20, that where sin increases, grace abounds all the more, since we see an Adam-like tragic fall by Macbeth followed by a grace of intervention by Malcolm (whose mother on her knees “Died every day she lived”) and by England's Edward, the Confessor-king.

For Christian critics there is significance in the fact that a typological reading of history was provided by St Paul's interpretation of the Red Sea crossing. Our forefathers, says Paul, were baptized in the cloud and in the sea (1 Cor 10:2) and drank of the Rock which is Christ. This means that they began to participate in Christian mystery when they escaped from Egyptian values and committed themselves to the faith of Moses. It means that the sea-experience of these pre-Christians was a washing analogous to Christian baptism. It means, by implication, that a washing or purgation can happen anywhere or anytime when a nation or a person undergoes some ordeal that dissolves an old orientation and gives birth to a new. In short, every tempest-moment in human experience can either drown or baptize, either wreck or educate. History is our schoolhouse, not a treadmill. Around that truth Shakespeare constructed his dramas.

King Lear is a foremost example. The spouting hurricanoes to which Lear bares his head serve to drown his pride. They dissolve it, as we see, into a madness like that of Nebuchadnezzar, who had to eat grass in order to discover grace. Critics who find in this play's hero an earnest of redemption—and there are today still many who do—see the saving process as under way but incomplete when the story closes tragic and open-ended. They see a purgation that involves his dying to a blind self and being raised out of that grave by a Cordelia who foreshadows Christ's role. And one recent critic, significantly, has outlined the logic of this story by invoking as its gloss the church's liturgy, for the eve on which candidates are prepared for Easter baptism. That liturgy, as reviewed by John Cunningham (in 1984 in Christianity and Literature) rehearses mankind's journey toward the Light in four stages: 1) into the wilderness; 2) into the baptistry; 3) out of the baptistry in new garments; and 4) at the gate of death, where the soul pants for a higher life. These are the stages Lear experiences analogously in his pagan Britain.

But if historical experience itself mediates baptisms, moments when an old order of life is replaced by a new, can we not apply this framework of understanding to our reading of England's history as dramatized in Richard III? By the end of 3 Henry VI Shakespeare has depicted a national history reduced to a swirl; imagery of wind and tide predominate. At this point the Machiavel Richard turns those waters into a vortex of fraud that drowns almost the whole community in an ordeal of bloodshed. A nadir is reached when innocent babes are massacred, as if by a biblical Herod. But this very outrage causes the warring queens to unite in a sisterhood of weeping mothers, so to speak. Together they renounce their addiction to Fortune's favors and turn to a rescuer from overseas. A secret supporter of this conversion is Lord Stanley (ancestor of the Lord Derby who in Shakespeare's day was suspected of Catholic sympathies), and another supporter is the Bishop of Ely (from whom Thomas More acquired his sense of history). Ely's desertion worries Richard with an anxiety comparable, say, to that felt by ancient Pharaoh when Moses escaped. And in the final showdown at Bosworth, the famous cry of the defeated Richard, “A horse, my kingdom for a horse,” echoes, I think, the Bible's tribute to God in Ex 15:21: “the horse and his rider he hath thrown into the sea.” Shakespeare has a biblical sense of history. Critics such as Tom Driver, Edward Berry, and Emrys Jones have articulated this point with various kinds of evidence.

Even in Shakespeare's lighter comedies it can be seen that the Bible's Red Sea crossing has a secular analogy in the purgation that precedes a lover's achieving of an adult maturity. “True lovers have been ever crossed,” says Hermia in A Midsummer Night's Dream, and in that comedy the cross is their night of misadventures in a moonlit woods. Idolatrous fancies enbondage them in follies until a corrective ointment frees their eyes and they escape from dotage into a daylight understanding. The barking dogs and hunters' horns which help them wake up have a function here like that in Shakespeare's The Tempest, where Ariel sings of watchdogs and chanticleer's cry when directing young Ferdinand's education. In both plays a cleansing of eyes and heart is a necessary preparation for marriage festival. This is the case also in the comedy of Much Ado, which depicts the victimization of lovers to ego-serving fashions until their folly is exposed and they repent it. Figuratively they must undergo a death and rebirth, as is emphasized in each of the plays I have mentioned. Until that crossing is made, the story in each play turns about the wayward antics of deluded questers—for instance, the trashing of marriage by Claudio in Much Ado, or the treacheries plotted by Antonio's party and Caliban's, or Titania's monstrous obsession and Bottom's dream.

Bottom's dream, by the way, has been discovered by Christian critics to be Shakespeare's travesty analogy of St Paul's experience. That is, Paul's report in 1 Cor 2:9 and 2 Cor 12:4 of experiencing a mystery that transcended his daily routine has its parody parallel in the experience Bottom reports in befuddled amazement over having experienced what “the ear of man hath not seen” and his tongue is “not able to conceive.” Bottom's wondrous perception that “Man is but an ass” has its exemplification in the absurd Pyramus and Thisbe story, which ends with pathetic suicides. By contrast, the lovers in Shakespeare's main plot are able to substitute self-mockery for suicide, make a successful transition from self-love to self-knowledge, and then join in wedding festivities which conclude with a hallowing of the household. In metaphoric terms, they have had a crossover experience, a kind of sacramental transformation.

Imagery of death and rebirth, as a little reflection can tell us, is basic to the structure of Shakespeare's romances. In All's Well Helena pretends a death as part of her St Francis strategy for shaming Bertram to death while offering him a rebirth into true love. Hermione in The Winter's Tale simulates death in order to become in due time the disguised bearer of new life for Leontes; and at that play's very middle we hear an old shepherd say, “Now bless thyself: thou mett'st with things dying, I with things new-born.” In Cymbeline Imogen must fall asleep in a grave and emerge as a disguised Fidele in order to re-win her husband while also converting Britain's king. In The Tempest Alonzo must be brought to a mudded state of guilty despair, and Caliban to a literal quagmire, before each of them can receive grace or become wise enough to seek it.

Pericles is the most spacious of Shakespeare's romances, traversing as it does a lifetime journey on the part of its hero, in voyages that involve two episodes of storm at sea and then a calm of melancholy before his being visited by a voice that touches on the music of the spheres and directs him to a temple of joy. The structure of this play—so Cynthia Marshall has recently argued (in 1991)—is a capsulized story of the human race through the Seven Ages of History discerned by St Augustine in the Bible and publicized in The Golden Legend, the people's manual of heroic adventure in medieval times. Thus, for instance, the first storm encountered by Pericles corresponds to that in the biblical Age of Noah; Pericles emerges from it with a recovered armor that symbolizes faith. A second storm accompanies his departure from Pentapolis and entails the seeming loss of a family member, as in the Age of Abraham. Many years later, however, a visiting of Pericles by Marina parallels the biblical Age of the Prophets that brings news of salvation. The poet Gower is the play's Chorus to guide us through what Marshall appropriately calls a Cosmic Overview.

We know that Pericles, along with King Lear, was on the repertoire of some touring actors who performed these plays in the country house of a Yorkshire Catholic family in 1610. Evidently, neither play in such circles was thought to be, as some moderns suppose, haphazardly episodic or destructive of Christian faith. Many evangelical Protestants, also, are likely to have welcomed these plays, since the biblical typology of Pericles is akin to that of those Protestants who chose to risk their lives in voyages to America, and we know (as pertinent to King Lear) that exorcism was practised in Puritan circles as well as Catholic ones (to the dismay of Samuel Harsnett, who had objected to exorcisings by the puritan John Darrell before turning his attack on the “papists”). These parties, alongside many Christians in general in the early seventeenth century, are not likely to have regarded The Tempest, as some of today's critics do, as a recording of European despotism, but rather to have perceived in it a meaning such as James Walter has expounded in an essay in PMLA (1983) which invokes Augustine's allegorical interpretation of Genesis as a key to the metaphors Shakespeare uses in telling the Tempest story of providence in history. As Kenneth Muir has remarked, contemporary voyage literature included William Strachey's account of a shipwreck in Bermuda which carried memories of Paul's shipwreck on an island in which not a hair perished (Acts 27:34).

There is abundant evidence, much more than I have here touched on, for taking seriously the Christian contexts of Shakespeare's dramatic art. But can it nowadays receive a fair hearing? Much of recent critical opinion is not encouraging. Near my desk is a series of books called “The Critics Debate” published by Humanities Press International. T. F. Wharton on Measure for Measure (1989) begins debate by saying that this play's “imperfections are obvious.” When he gets around to summarizing Christian interpretations he does this inaccurately and reductively, and then proceeds to cite with approval critics who help him argue that the Duke is a meddlesome manipulator with no holiness whatever. Bill Overton's review of The Winter's Tale (1989) avoids Wharton's dogmatic skepticism. Overton is painstaking in all his summaries of critics, and he praises Traversi, Bethell, and Knight for helping establish that the play is “worth the fullest attention.” But he objects to their letting the play become a “symbolic vehicle for ultimate truths about life.” He feels that Bethell has “imposed” a Christian perspective on the play. He believes more attention should be paid to “political questions” so as not to abstract the play from the processes of history. What he means by this is implied in his honest confession at the beginning of his study: “I practise no religion, and my politics are socialist.” Plainly, his hermeneutical circle conditions his range of appreciation.

We can expect the Christian dimension of Shakespeare's work to be downplayed or misrepresented by readers whose habit patterns of sensibility resist the acknowledgment of Christian mystery. St Paul recognized that to rationalists the cross would seem scandalous, while to legalistic moralists it was a stumbling block. He had to appeal beyond these obstacles to a latent capacity in human beings to learn through crisis-experience the reality of a divinely reasonable love and its higher moral law. Shakespeare's plays still exercise occasionally a similar function for some of their spectators today. Insofar as this is the case, should we not be grateful that they serve both a timely need and a timeless value? There is after all within today's culture some “good soil” capable of bringing forth a thirtyfold harvest so to speak, and occasionally a hundredfold.

Alan Sinfield (essay date 1980)

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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 things do not, as we suppose, simply happen—they all come.

(Seneca, ‘De Providentia’)3

The first passage quoted, where Hamlet declares that ‘there is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow’, is of key importance in the longstanding critical debate about Hamlet and Christianity. The way we relate it to the attitudes represented in the quotations from Calvin and Seneca bears crucially upon our choice between three rival interpretations of the play. Bradley recognises Hamlet's phraseology here as Christian but regards its tone and the play generally as pagan in implication: Hamlet expresses ‘that kind of religious resignation which, however beautiful in one aspect, really deserves the name of fatalism rather than that of faith in Providence, because it is not united to any determination to do what is believed to be the will of Providence.’4 Roland Mushat Frye believes these lines show Hamlet ‘relying upon an unmistakably Christian providence’ and hence achieving true faith.5 Roy W. Battenhouse agrees with Frye that the play has a Christian tendency but also with Bradley that Hamlet's own attitude is unChristian: ‘A biblical echo, the sparrow reference, when found in this upside-down context, alerts us to the tragic parody in Hamlet's version of readiness.’6 Hamlet is either a pagan in a pagan play, a good Christian in a Christian play, or a sinner in a Christian play.

A Senecan frame of reference seems appropriate in the first four acts of the play, for Hamlet's great need is Stoic tranquillity of mind. He values Horatio because he is ‘A man that Fortune's buffets and rewards / Hast ta'en with equal thanks; … not a pipe for Fortune's finger / To sound what stop she please … not passion's slave’ (III, ii, 65-70). By subduing his emotions Horatio frees himself from the effects of fortune and becomes the Stoics' wise and happy man.

It is not the principle of revenge which troubles Hamlet, but the achievement of a state of mind where he can do something coherent about it. Seneca declares,

The good man will perform his duties undisturbed and unafraid; and he will in such a way do all that is worthy of a good man as to do nothing that is unworthy of a man. My father is being murdered—I will defend him; he is slain—I will avenge him, not because I grieve, but because it is my duty.

(Moral Essays, ‘De Ira’, I, xii, 2)

Hamlet cannot act so calmly; he cannot focus sufficiently coolly upon any matter to determine a policy and carry it through. His most sustained venture is the mouse-trap play but it is all brilliant improvisation. He is nervous and excited before and wildly exuberant afterwards; he vaunts, ‘Now could I drink hot blood’ (III, ii, 380), but spares the praying King and strikes out recklessly, killing Polonius. Though he has the evidence he sought he leaves at Claudius's command for England. The issue which oppresses Hamlet is not how or whether to be revenged, but how to do anything purposeful at all. In the face of the manifold injunctions, distractions, plots and crimes which assail him he can hardly hold himself single-mindedly to any action.

Hamlet presents himself as an unsuccessful Stoic in his first exchange with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. They perhaps engaged in light-hearted philosophical banter as students, but here the subtext is their manoeuvring to discover each other's purposes. Rosencrantz denies that Denmark is a prison; Hamlet replies, ‘Why, then, 'tis none to you; for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so’ (II, ii, 248-50). This characteristically Stoic notion usually has a contrary import—that one can be happy and free if the mind chooses. Rosencrantz should be amused but is determined to turn the discussion to ambition. Hamlet replies, more earnestly, ‘O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams’ (II, ii, 253-55). Compare the Chorus in Seneca's Thyestes: ‘It is the mynde that onely makes a king … A kyng hee is that feareth nought at all. / Eche man him selfe this kyngdome geeves at hand.’7

It is of course Stoic to entertain suicide as a solution to intolerable emotional pressure. Horatio, at Hamlet's death, terms himself ‘more an antique Roman than a Dane’ (V, ii, 333). The secular manner in which Hamlet discusses it (III, i, 56-88) recalls the disputes between Oedipus and Antigone in Seneca's Phoenissae (1-319), and Deianira, the Nurse and Hyllas in Hercules Oetaeus (842-1030). For Seneca it is indeed a ‘question’ whether it is nobler to suffer or to kill oneself. Death is always the way out, yet it is base to flinch: ‘The brave and wise man should not beat a hasty retreat from life.’8 His main theme is that it is superstitious and irrational to fear death or what might follow it, but such anxieties preoccupy Hamlet, who again falls short of Stoic detachment.

For Seneca, the man who achieves Stoic self-mastery is godlike:

the wise man is next-door neighbour to the gods and like a god in all save his mortality. As he struggles and presses on towards those things that are lofty, well-ordered, undaunted, that flow on with even and harmonious current, that are untroubled, kindly, adapted to the public good, beneficial both to himself and to others, the wise man will covet nothing low, will never repine.

(Moral Essays, ‘De Constantia’, viii, 2)

Hamlet is perplexed and disillusioned at the failure of this ideal in others and in himself. Man is said to be ‘in apprehension, how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?’ (II, ii, 303-5). He ponders:

Sure he that made us with such large discourse,
Looking before and after, gave us not
That capability and godlike reason
To fust in us unus'd.

(IV, iv, 36-9)

But Hamlet is far from such cool judgement and unimpressed by the divine qualities of himself or those around him.

The plausibility of the godlike Stoic hero is questioned in similar terms by Marston in the Antonio plays, which seem strongly to have influenced Hamlet. In Antonio and Mellida Andrugio affects indifference to the loss of his kingdom but falls at once into a rage when it is mentioned: ‘Name not the Genoese; that very word / Unkings me quite, makes me vile passion's slave’ (IV, i, 68-9). In Antonio's Revenge Pandulpho remains tranquil about the murder of his son for many scenes, but suddenly declares, ‘Man will break out, despite philosophy. … I spake more than a god, / Yet am less than a man’ (IV, iii, 69-75).9 In fact the inadequacy of Stoicism is implicit in Seneca's writings, where alongside the godlike, rational man is an acute awareness of the difficulty of withstanding the adversities which afflict mankind. Miriam T. Griffin terms it ‘the schizophrenia endemic in Stoic philosophy, with its vision of the sapiens and its code of behaviour for the imperfectus’.10 In Seneca's plays there are almost no successful Stoics. The eschewal of passion is in theory a stance of strength and self-sufficiency, but it can easily seem a weak, fallback position—a retreat from the intolerable.

What is at issue in Hamlet is optimistic humanism—that strand in Renaissance thought which exalted man's capacity to achieve, through the exercise of rational powers, a moral stature which the incautious termed godlike. Even a man of Hamlet's intelligence and sensitivity cannot assert himself in this world and gain a workable degree of self-sufficiency, but is overwhelmed by emotional turmoil and the follies and crimes of his fellow men. When Ophelia laments his instability—‘that noble and most sovereign reason, / Like sweet bells jangled, out of time and harsh’ (III, i, 157-8)—she draws attention to the collapse of a whole world view.

It is usual and proper to contrast Hamlet with the other young men in the play. But we should notice also that Laertes is no more successful (he kills Hamlet but wishes he had not), and although Fortinbras is presumably elected king of Denmark, this is by chance not design—the throne he and his father fought and schemed for is gained not through their godlike qualities but by default. Only the stolid Horatio approaches the ideal, and when his test comes at the end of the play he is hardly dissuaded from suicide. It seems impossible to act meaningfully in a universe tragically ill-adapted to human kind. The only dignified option seems to be that offered in the plays of Seneca, Webster and Ford: a heroic death.

Thus far we have placed Hamlet in a secular context, but Protestant thinkers anticipated the failure of Stoicism. Calvin did not expect fallen men to achieve rationality and equanimity, let alone be godlike; he termed ‘absurd’ the Stoic hero ‘who, divested of humanity, was affected in the same way by adversity and prosperity, grief and joy; or rather, like a stone, was not affected by anything’ (Institutes, III, viii, 9). The error of ‘philosophers generally’ is that ‘they maintain that the intellect is endued with reason, the best guide to a virtuous and happy life, provided it duly avails itself of its excellence, and exerts the power with which it is naturally endued’ (Institutes, II, ii, 2). According to the Protestant analysis, we should not be surprised or disappointed at the collapse of the Stoic ideal in Hamlet.

Upon his return from England Hamlet seems to have accepted this view. He no longer expects to achieve mastery of himself or his circumstances. In the Graveyard he meditates upon a jester's skull, an emblem of the limits which confound mortal aspirations. The cause of his change seems to be the extraordinary turns events have taken—the appearance of the Ghost when Claudius seemed secure, the arrival of the players prompting the test of the king, Hamlet's felicitous discovery of the plot against his life and above all his amazing delivery through the pirates. The latter especially is so improbable, and so unnecessary to the plot, that we may suppose Shakespeare wishes the audience also to be impressed with the special interventions of providence. Hence when Hamlet describes how he discovered Claudius's letter and changed it he attributes the whole sequence to providence: ‘There's a divinity that shapes our ends, / Rough-hew them how we will’ (V, ii, 10-11). He was able to seal the altered instructions: ‘Why, even in that was heaven ordinant’ (V, ii, 48). Thus he reaches the assertion that ‘there is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow’ (V, ii, 212). In phraseology at least Stoic doctrine has been superseded by Christian.

The choice of Calvin to represent contemporary Protestant opinion should no longer need arguing. Amongst historians his influence upon the Elizabethan Church is scarcely disputed and several literary scholars have recently related it to plays of the period.11 Calvin is particularly relevant here because he insisted upon the doctrine of providence in the strong form which it takes at this point in Hamlet. One axis of his theology is the impotence of fallen humanity; the other is God's total power to govern the world in accord with his divine (though incomprehensible) plan.

Moreover, it is against Stoic fate or fortune that Calvin is arguing when he speaks of special providence and the fall of a sparrow—both in the quotation with which we began and again during the supporting argument:

The Christian … will have no doubt that a special providence is awake for his preservation, and will not suffer anything to happen that will not turn to his good and safety. … Hence, our Saviour, after declaring that even a sparrow falls not to the ground without the will of his Father, immediately makes the application, that being more valuable than many sparrows, we ought to consider that God provides more carefully for us.

(Institutes, I, xvii, 6)

In Calvin's Latin the words are usually ‘singularis providentia’; his French has alternately ‘la providence singulière’ and ‘la providence spéciale’; the translation by Thomas Norton (1561) has both ‘singular providence’ and ‘special providence’ (see I, xvi, 1, 4, 7).

Whether the allusion and phraseology shared by Calvin and Hamlet necessarily imply predestination is not entirely clear. Christ's remark about the sparrow is problematic for Christians who assert free will—Erasmus in his argument against Luther is obliged to take it as ‘hyperbole’.12 Bertram Joseph notices the term ‘special providence’ in several divines (though not Calvin) and thinks it consistent with free will, but he misses the dominant thrust of the phrase and the Reformation when he explains, ‘Calvinists, too, could agree … that God through His special providence creates the opportunity, and the individual, if he is the right man, will take it’.13 But Calvin and Luther alike believed that God has predetermined all events, and of the theologians Joseph mentions—William Perkins, Hugh Latimer, Joseph Hall and Lancelot Andrewes—all but the last took the same view. This is the doctrine Elizabethans generally understood in the tenth, eleventh and seventeenth of the Thirty-Nine Articles. When it was challenged at Cambridge in 1595 Archbishop Whitgift (no puritan) sponsored the Lambeth Articles to affirm it; they had no official status but indicate the position of the Church establishment.

Hamlet's words sound like predestination: ‘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’ (V, ii, 213-15); ‘ordinant’ (V, ii, 48) means ‘directing, controlling’. Notice also that in the ‘bad’ First Quarto Hamlet is made to say, ‘theres a predestiuate prouidence in the fall of a sparrow’. Even if this is no more than a faulty memorial construct it shows how one well-placed contemporary understood Shakespeare's meaning. However, my argument does not require that we take Hamlet's phrase as Calvinistic in the fullest sense, only that we see Hamlet proposing a high degree of divine intervention and suggesting predestination.

We seem to have arrived at a Protestant interpretation of Hamlet: the prince recognises the folly of humanistic aspiration and the controlling power of providence, and the shape of the action, with purposes eventually falling on the inventors' heads, confirms it. Some readers may wonder why, if the play is governed by providence, it is manifestly composed of ‘carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts’ (V, ii, 373) with very little of love, mercy and forgiveness. At this point our attention to Calvin is surely justified, for his account of earthly life is as grim as that of any tragedian:

Various diseases ever and anon attack us: at one time pestilence rages; at another we are involved in all the calamities of war. Frost and hail, destroying the promise of the year, cause sterility, which reduces us to penury; wife, parents, children, relatives, are carried off by death; our house is destroyed by fire. These are the events which make men curse their life, detest the day of their birth, execrate the light of heaven, even censure God, and (as they are eloquent in blasphemy) charge him with cruelty and injustice.

(Institutes, III, vii, 10)

Calvin does not repudiate this description of the human condition; nor does he throw any stress upon the consolation of an after-life. Instead he asserts through the concept of providence that all is due to the just will of God.

However dreadful and apparently unfair the affliction, ‘the rule of piety is, that the hand of God is the ruler and arbiter of the fortunes of all, and, instead of rushing on with thoughtless violence, dispenses good and evil with perfect regularity’ (Institutes, III, vii, 10). Calvin sustains this statement mainly by insisting that all men are fallen and sinful and so deserve the worst that can happen to them. Nevertheless, he distinguishes the sufferings of the wicked from those of believers. In the former case, ‘God is to be understood as taking vengeance on his enemies, by displaying his anger against them, confounding, scattering, and annihilating them’; in the latter ‘it is not properly punishment or vengeance, but correction and admonition’ (Institutes, III, iv, 31). But all receive afflictions. Even theologians who denied predestination believed with Calvin that human suffering is caused by God intervening in the world to afflict and punish good and bad men. Lancelot Andrewes in his ‘Sermon Preached at Chiswick in the Time of Pestilence’ (1603) refers to providence and the sparrow to show that God must be the cause of the plague. He concludes, ‘So our inventions beget sin, sin provokes the wrath of God, the wrath of God sends the Plague among us.’14

The violent and punitive providence of Calvin and even of Andrewes could certainly be the moving force behind the diseased action of Shakespeare's play. Thus it is that Hamlet can claim, with the deaths of his father, Polonius, Ophelia and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in mind, ‘there is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow’. That is how God was believed to manage affairs.

So Hamlet appears to be a Christian play in the Elizabethan sense of the term. We are slow to recognise this because we have been taught a more amiable conception of the Christian God. Indeed, dwelling upon the rigorous of Protestant doctrine produces an intriguing solution to the question of how Christian Elizabethans wrote and enjoyed such bleak tragedies. Perhaps it is not that they understood the plays differently from the modern reader: they too saw in Hamlet man's feeble attempts to act purposefully in a hostile world. But what they perceived as the working out in typical fashion of God's mysterious providential plan strikes us as bitterly tragic. We read the plays similarly but place them differently in relation to a shifting concept of Christianity.

A whole group of plays might fall within this insight. The Jew of Malta, The Spanish Tragedy, Richard III, Antonio's Revenge, Macbeth and The Revenger's Tragedy all suggest by the intricate, violent and inexorable way in which events work out that a deity of the Protestant stamp is in control, and the characters often invoke him. They call upon God to destroy the wicked and eventually he does; we need not take ironically their devout satisfaction. The sufferings of innocent by-standers are instances of the crosses we are required to bear.

Yet such an interpretation is not satisfactory for Hamlet, and the difficulties emanate from the very speech about providence and the sparrow. The issue is not the killing of the king, the moral status of which seems to be uncertain. Most Reformation Protestants would be pleased at the violent death of a manifest wrongdoer like Claudius, but they would question the action of the killer. Calvin was opposed to private vengeance though he believed that God works through it. However, like Aquinas, he was sympathetic to tyrannicide, at least when performed by lesser magistrates who ‘by the ordinance of God’ are the ‘appointed guardians’ of the people (Institutes, IV, xx, 31). Tudor propaganda, of course, saw rebellion as the worst of evils, but the Dutch and Huguenots developed from Calvin's hint a complete theory of controlled revolt. Already in the closet scene Hamlet regards himself as Heaven's ‘scourge and minister’ (III, iv, 175), and just before the appearance of Osric he recalls to Horatio Claudius's manifold crimes and asks,

                                                  is't not perfect conscience
To quit him with this arm? And is't not to be damn'd
To let this canker of our nature come
In further evil?

(V, ii, 67-70)

Politically, ethically, theologically it can be argued either way.

The more pressing problem is Bradley's sense that the tone and implication of Hamlet's speech, however Christian its terminology, are fatalistic. Some commentators feel that, having recognised God's controlling hand, Hamlet's proper course is to do nothing. This was not Protestant doctrine. Although predestination means that individual actions can make no difference Calvinists, always afraid of antinomianism, urged that the true Christian should show his delight in God's will by co-operating as far as he is able (Institutes, I, xvii, 3, 4). Hamlet believes that providence wants Claudius removed and that he should do it—‘the interim is mine’, he says (V, ii, 73). However, ‘the readiness is all’ refers not to action but to death. Hamlet plays with Osric (surely this scene is purposely desultory), competes with Laertes and makes no plans against the king. The final killing occurs in a burst of passionate inspiration and when Hamlet himself is, in effect, slain.

Consider also the context of the speech. Hamlet is not making a general statement about the rightness of God's control of the world, but sweeping aside Horatio's very reasonable suspicion about the duel. Thus he ignores Calvin's argument that ‘the Lord has furnished men with the arts of deliberation and caution, that they may employ them in subservience to his providence, in the preservation of their life’ (Institutes, I, xvii, 4). Hamlet's thought has a contrary tendency: he sees no point in troubling about what will happen. And this is implicit in the tone of the speech. Editors disagree about the last line; the Second Quarto has ‘since no man of ought he leaves, knowes what ist to leave betimes, let be’. However we emend this, it sounds fatalistic.

Hamlet acknowledges divine determination of events, but without enthusiasm. Our theme turns back upon itself, for his resignation, like his earlier godlike aspiration, is Senecan, Stoic world weariness is felt despite the distinctively Protestant phraseology; the context, the tone of the speech and Hamlet's subsequent inactivity all recall the quotation from ‘De Providentia’ with which we began: ‘it was settled at the first hour of birth what length of time remains for each. … Therefore everything should be endured with fortitude, since things do not, as we suppose, simply happen—they all come.’ Playing upon the ambivalence in Seneca's work, Shakespeare is developing the sense of futility which often underlies the theory of rational self-sufficiency. And this is in the very teeth of Calvinist doctrine for, as I have observed, it is actually whilst repudiating Stoic fate that Calvin alludes to providence and the sparrow. The Stoics ‘feign a universal providence, which does not condescend to take special care of every creature’ (Institutes, I, xvii, 6; see also I, xvi, 8), and it is against such an impersonal force that Calvin and Hamlet maintain a ‘special providence’ which cares for every individual in every detail of his life.

The intricate working out of events obliges Hamlet to recognise the precise control of the Protestant God but he does not find in himself the joyful response theologians anticipated. Calvin distinguished Stoic patience, which accepts what happens because ‘so it must be’, and Christian, which cheerfully embraces God's will ‘with calm and grateful minds’ (Institutes, III, viii, 11). Hamlet contemplates God's intimate and pervasive direction of the universe with only Stoic patience. It makes him wonder; temporarily, when he is sending Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their doom, it exhilarates him; but ultimately it depresses him. ‘There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow’ and in the corruption and suffering of Denmark, and it inspires in Hamlet not joyful co-operation but weary acquiescence. His attitude provokes the thought that the world is unjustly governed by such a God.

Commentators have disagreed about Hamlet's attitude to providence because it is confused, but I believe purposefully. Shakespeare is exploiting the contradictions in Stoicism and the embarrassments in Calvinism. For those who assert a beneficent order in the universe there are two alternatives with the problem of evil. One is that God allows considerable freedom to his creation; the danger here is that things begin to get out of control, the sense of God's concern slips away and we might as well regard events as absurd or the work of blind fortune. The other alternative is that God is in complete control, but then he has to assume an awkwardly immediate responsibility for evil. Seneca tries to slide between these two positions, partly by saying different things at different times, partly by proposing controlling gods who do not concern themselves with details.

The dilemma should trouble all Christians but Calvin confronts it head on: his doctrine of providence asserts defiantly that God directs everything and that he is perfectly good. All unpleasantness in the world occurs immediately and justly by God's will, and mere men should not expect to understand. Yet Calvin tries to explain, and runs repeatedly into difficulties. For instance, is it fair that God refuses to allow a man like Claudius (or Dr Faustus) to repent?

To some it seems harsh, and at variance with the divine mercy, utterly to deny forgiveness to any who betake themselves to it. This is easily disposed of. It is not said that pardon will be refused if they turn to the Lord, but it is altogether denied that they can turn to repentance, inasmuch as for their ingratitude they are struck by the just judgment of God with eternal blindness.

(Institutes, III, iii, 24)

Calvin falls back continually upon assertion and divine inscrutability: ‘The will of God is the supreme rule of righteousness, so that everything which he wills must be held to be righteous by the mere fact of his willing it’ (Institutes, III, xxiii, 2).

Calvin argues rigorously from his first principles and with ample scriptural support, and creates a superbly self-contained system. But he cannot make it satisfy ordinary, common sense morality. It is not that one cannot easily assemble signs of the operations of such a deity in the world; what is unacceptable is the demand that we marvel at its goodness and mercy. My contention is that the paradoxes of Protestant theology provoked alarm and confusion and that it is apparent in Hamlet and other tragedies.

Evidence of humane objections to Protestant orthodoxy ranges from Andrewes's complaint that the Lambeth Articles make God appear unjust to the development by General Baptists from about 1600 of a doctrine of universal salvation. Robert Burton (who, it may be noted, condemns in Calvin's manner Seneca's concept of fate)15 describes fully, among the ‘Causes of Despair’ in religion, how Calvin's favourite Biblical sentences

terrify the souls of many; election, predestination, reprobation, preposterously conceived, offend divers, with a deal of foolish presumption, curiosity, needless speculation, contemplation, solicitude, wherein they trouble and puzzle themselves about those questions of grace, free will, perseverance, God's secrets.

(Anatomy of Melancholy, III, 398-9)

Burton himself seems to hanker after a liberal theology: ‘For how can he be merciful that shall condemn any creature to eternal unspeakable punishment … But these absurd paradoxes are exploded by our Church, we teach otherwise’—and he goes on to restate Calvinist orthodoxy (III, 423-4).

Surely we cannot overestimate the impact upon the Reformation mind of the Church's insistence upon attributing good and bad alike to a special providence whose justice cannot be demonstrated to the ordinary intellect. It has much to do, I believe, with the peculiar theological stance of many Elizabethan tragedies. We have observed that characters often call upon a violent deity whose controlling presence is eventually confirmed by the intricate working out of events. At the same time, the beneficence of this system is brought into question by our sympathy for the characters, by the provocative interweaving of Jove, revenge, fate and fortune with Christian divinities, by a pervasive fatalism and by the harshness of some attitudes attributed to the deity—in Antonio's Revenge, for instance, the ghost of Andrugio declares, ‘Now looks down providence / T'attend the last act of my son's revenge’ (V, i, 10-11). We may be able to demonstrate from the Institutes the broad compatibility of such plays with Protestantism but we cannot feel comforted by the world they present. Hence the appeal of Seneca to Elizabethan dramatists: Stoicism offers complex variations upon Christianity in respect of its estimate of man and its conception of divine power. All this manifests a deep unease with Christian doctrine as it was customarily preached. These writers have gone half-way with Calvin: they are convinced that men are fallen and in a fallen world but have only nominal confidence in God's redemptive goodness. They lurch back towards fatalism; it is a recipe for tragedy.

Hamlet presents this dissatisfaction with orthodox theology in an unusually coherent form. By undermining humanistic Stoicism and positing a controlling deity in words deriving from Calvin the play takes us to the brink of a Protestant affirmation, but Hamlet's fatalistic attitude encourages us to question divine justice. We understand and respect his reluctance to co-operate with a divinity whose doings are so arbitrary and overwhelming. Senecan resignation seems a reasonable response.

It will be felt that I have been teasing out strands in popular plays that only a theologian would recognise in the theatre. This is true: the disquiet of these writers with Protestant doctrine was probably scarcely formulated. Their plays do not present a coherent philosophy but a confused sense of alarm and wonderment at the mysterious ways of providence. However, Marlowe for one seems fully conscious of the distinction between pagan and Christian and how it may be used to suggest a critique of providence. The Jew of Malta concludes, ‘So march away; and let due praise be given, / Neither to Fate nor Fortune, but to Heaven.’16 Ferneze prefers Christian doctrine to pagan and attributes events to God's providence, but the action makes us wonder whether fate or fortune is not a more likely presiding deity. In Hamlet Christian statements supersede pagan ones in a theologically precise form, but the action remains ambiguous.


  1. Plays by Shakespeare are quoted from the Complete Works, ed. Peter Alexander (London and Glasgow, 1951). Unattributed act, scene and line numbers are from Hamlet.

  2. John Calvin, Calvin's Institutes, [trans. Henry Beveridge], (Florida, n.d.), I, xvi, 1.

  3. Seneca, Moral Essays, trans. John W. Basore, 3 vols (Loeb edition, London and Cambridge, Mass., 1958), ‘De Providentia’, v. 7.

  4. A. C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy (1960), p. 116. See also H. B. Charlton, Shakespearian Tragedy (Cambridge, 1949), pp. 103-4.

  5. Shakespeare and Christian Doctrine (Princeton, 1963), p. 231. See also Ivor Morris, Shakespeare's God (1972), pp. 422-30.

  6. Shakespearean Tragedy, its Art and its Christian Premises (Bloomington, 1969), p. 250. See also Lily B. Campbell, Shakespeare's Tragic Heroes (New York, 1966), pp. 141-7.

  7. Seneca, his Tenne Tragedies, ed. Thomas Newton (1581), 2 vols (New York, 1967), I, 67.

  8. Seneca, Ad Lucilium Epistulae Morales, trans. Richard M. Gunmere, 3 vols (Loeb edition, Cambridge, Mass. and London, 1961), XXIV, 25.

  9. Ed. G. K. Hunter (1965, 1966).

  10. Seneca, a Philosopher in Politics (Oxford, 1976), p. 177.

  11. See Frye, Shakespeare and Christian Doctrine; William R. Elton, King Lear and the Gods (San Marino, 1968); Dominic Baker-Smith, ‘Religion and John Webster’ in Brian Morris, ed., John Webster (1970); Paul R. Sellin, ‘The Hidden God’ in The Darker Vision of the Renaissance, ed. Robert S. Kinsman (Berkeley and London, 1974); Robert G. Hunter, Shakespeare and the Mystery of the Gods (Georgia, 1976).

  12. Luther and Erasmus: Free Will and Salvation, ed. E. Gordon Rupp and Philip S. Watson (1969), pp. 83-4.

  13. Bertram Joseph, Conscience and the King (1953), p. 139; also pp. 136-41.

  14. Lancelot Andrewes, Works, 11 vols (Oxford, 1854), V, 224, 234.

  15. The Anatomy of Melancholy, ed. Holbrook Jackson, 3 vols (1968), III, 385, 387.

  16. The Plays of Christopher Marlowe, ed. Roma Gill (Oxford, 1971).

James C. Bryant (essay date 1984)

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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 against Jesuit missionary priests. Two years later the hostility against all Roman Catholics was so pronounced that Parliament passed the Act Against Recusants. The Preamble of that document reflects the official view concerning Roman Catholics in England.

For the better discovering and avoiding of all such traitorous and most dangerous conspiracies and attempts as are daily devised and practiced against our most gracious sovereign lady the queen's majesty and the happy estate of this commonweal, by sundry wicked and seditious persons, who, terming themselves Catholics, and being indeed spies and intelligencers, not only for her majesty's foreign enemies, but also for rebellious and traitorous subjects born within her highness's realms and dominions, and hiding their most detestable and devilish purposes under a false pretext of religion and conscience, do secretly wander and shift from place to place within this realm, to corrupt and seduce her majesty's subjects, and to stir them to sedition and rebellion. …1

The act, in short, provided that every English subject older than the age of sixteen, “being a popish recusant” and refusing to attend divine services of the Church of England, would be restricted to his place of residence, from which he was forbidden to travel more than a distance of five miles.

An anonymous play entitled Troublesome Reign of King John was printed in 1591, right in the midst of general anti-Roman Catholic hostility. It is as vitriolic as Bale's play. It was also in the midst of anti-Roman Catholic hostility that Shakespeare wrote his own King John, and for the same audience as the anonymous play. Since the days of Henry VIII's reformation of the Church of England, the historical King John had been regarded as a champion of English kings against the usurpation of Roman bishops. If Shakespeare did not have his fingers upon the pulse of the nation, it is impossible to explain why he chose such a subject as King John for a play at all.

It has been customary to say that Shakespeare's King John is a condensation of the anonymous Troublesome Reign, and that Shakespeare's play was written sometime during the years 1594-1597. But one editor, E. A. J. Honigmann, in the new Arden edition (1954), argues for an earlier date, 1590 or 1591. That would mean, of course, that Shakespeare's play would have had no necessary relationship to the Troublesome Reign, and that the Troublesome Reign could have been an expansion of Shakespeare's original. In view of the evidence we now have, there is as much to favor Honigmann's view as the traditional one. Should the earlier date theory prevail, all of the scholarship based upon Shakespeare's omission or toning down of the Roman Catholic derogation contained in the Troublesome Reign would have to be reevaluated.

Since placing a date on the writing of King John is an impossibility in view of present evidence, it seems far more beneficial to read Shakespeare's play without reference to the Troublesome Reign. And, of course, by reading King John as a self-contained whole, one is left with what is most desirable: Shakespeare's writing.

Shakespeare's The Life and Death of King John,2 unlike most of the Tudor drama in which the religious controversy plays a significant part, successfully avoids many individual grievances of Protestants against Catholics by sustaining the essentially Anglican point of view in matters of church and state that had been brought down in history from the time of William the Conqueror. That is, in the controversy between England and Rome, neither the English Church nor the English nation was to be dominated by foreign powers.

Shakespeare, with remarkable restraint when one considers the anti-Roman Catholic temper during the period of the play's composition, presents the bitter conflict as a matter of politics rather than merely a religious quarrel. Consequently, he raises certain questions in the drama which lift the entire problem above the vitriolic charges and countercharges for which the sixteenth century is noted.

The questions Shakespeare raises in King John are these: Does a king rule his dominions by the grace of God or by the grace of the pope? Does a de facto king have the right to expect absolute loyalty and obedience from his subjects, even when his right to the succession is questionable? Is rebellion against the king ever justifiable, even when the king proves to be wicked and an enemy of the Church? Do foreign princes have the right to interfere with a Christian king's administration of his own dominions? Having been raised to hear questions such as these resolved by the enforced preaching of the Book of Homilies, Shakespeare's audience would have known the right answer to a man. Further, official censorship would have guaranteed the correct response by dramatists in their plays.

When Shakespeare stresses the political nature of the religious dispute with Rome, he is writing within the range of a wide historical background, thoroughly familiar to the audience during the last decade of the century. It is no accident, therefore, that King John begins with allusions to the question of usurpation. While the king may have succeeded by “borrowed Majesty,” the problem of usurpation is dealt with on several levels as a recurring theme throughout the play.

From an Anglican point of view, however, the most detestable usurpation was perpetrated by the Roman papacy. One recalls that the queen had begun her reign upon the assumption that the popes had usurped ancient royal prerogatives by interfering with the internal affairs of England's citizens and her Church. Elizabeth's Act of Supremacy (1559) abolished all papal jurisdiction in England, so that “all usurped and foreign power and authority, spiritual and temporal” could be removed forever.3 Her Royal Injunctions (1559) began by ordering all ecclesiastics to preach sermons against papal usurpation. It need not be surprising to learn that homilies and propaganda tracts of the period coupled the name of the pope with usurpation.

If English subjects were not convinced already, Pope Pius V's bull excommunicating and deposing Elizabeth (1570) reinforced the charge of usurpation. In that document Pius referred to himself as “chief over all nations and all kingdoms, to pluck up, destroy, scatter, dispose, plant and build …”4 The presence of the papal legate, Cardinal Pandulph, onstage would have been a sufficient reminder to Shakespeare's audience that the question of Rome's usurpation was still a live issue.

In act 3 Shakespeare implicitly raises the question of whether a king rules in his own right by the grace of God, or whether he rules by permission of the pope. Pandulph, as legate from Rome, demands to know why King John defies the Holy Church by refusing to admit Stephen Langton, the pope's choice for England's archbishop of Canterbury. John answers as Henry VIII or Elizabeth would have answered: “What earthly name to interrogatories / Can task the free breath of a sacred king?” (3.1.147-148).

Ironically, Pandulph had made his entrance by addressing King John and King Philip of France as “you anointed deputies of Heaven!” Perhaps without realizing it, Pandulph gives lip service to the divine right of kings, while his message from the pope would seem to deny that right. It may be recalled that John Bale's King John had centered the stage action upon this very point: a king was God's anointed minister to rule over his people. As such, he was answerable to no other power under heaven. Henry's assumption of the title “Supreme Head” (1531) was an affirmation of the right to rule his own dominions in matters spiritual and temporal, answerable to God alone. Elizabeth recognized her function as “Supreme Governor as well in all spiritual or ecclesiastical things or causes, as temporal.” Political tracts and certain official homilies had stressed the point that kings, whether good or evil, reigned by divine sanction. Consequently, when John answers the cardinal, his words carry the whole force of the English understanding of a king's divine right to rule his dominions without interference from any foreign power, temporal or spiritual.

John's antipapal remarks can be seen, within the context of the times, not as being derogatory to the Roman Catholic Church but as an expression of the Reformation position. That position sees the pope as merely the bishop of Rome and an Italian priest with no more legal rights in the king's dominions than any other ecclesiastic.

Thou canst not, Cardinal, devise a name
So slight, unworthy, and ridiculous
To charge me to an answer, as the Pope.
Tell him this tale; and from the mouth of England
Add thus much more: that no Italian priest
Shall tithe or toll in our dominions,
But as we, under Heaven, are supreme head,
So under Him that great supremacy,
Where we do reign, we will alone uphold
Without the assistance of a mortal hand.
So tell the Pope, all reverence set apart
To him and his usurped authority.


The point is clear: John assumes the Anglican position that his authority to reign is independent of the pope's claims to the contrary. As Supreme Head of the Church in England, John does not require assistance from the pontiff. As Supreme Head he also retains Edward the Confessor's precedents of investing his own primate and administering ecclesiastical affairs in the national Church. Elizabeth had demonstrated her position when she wrote to Dr. Richard Cox, bishop of Ely, demanding his conformity: “You know what you were before I made you what you are now. If you do not immediately comply with my requests, I will unfrock you, by God.”5 Elizabeth did not unfrock Archbishop Grindal, but when he refused to comply with her wishes, she placed him under house arrest for five years and assumed his duties personally. Thus, John does not reply to Cardinal Pandulph as a spiritual subject of the Roman See, but as a “sacred king” who is subject only to God. Whenever the bishop of Rome attempts to interfere with this normal state of affairs, he does so by “usurped authority.”

The whole issue became clear in the Restraint of Appeals Act (1533) in which the king of England is referred to as the embodiment of ancient power, under whom “spiritualty and temporalty, be bounden and ought to bear, next to God, a natural and humble obedience,” for he rules by the sufferance of Almighty God and without restraint from any foreign powers. The act reiterates the statutes of the realm passed during the reigns of Edward I, Edward III, Richard II, Henry IV, and others, in an effort to preserve ancient royal prerogatives from the “annoyance” of the Roman See as well as “other foreign potentates.”6

The important First Act of Succession (1534) began with the explanation that such legislation is necessary because “the Bishop of Rome, and see apostolic, contrary to the great and inviolable grants of jurisdictions given by God immediately to emperors, kings, and princes, in succession to their heirs, has presumed, in times past, to invest who should please them, to inherit in other men's kingdoms and dominions.”7 Significantly, the act acknowledged England as “an imperial realm,” in which Henry VIII maintained the status of any other emperor: “rex est imperator in regno suo.” Clearly, Shakespeare's audience was prepared to share in King John's reply to Cardinal Pandulph and would have maintained that the king rules in his dominions without prerequisite permission from Rome.

King Philip probably represents a standard Roman Catholic response to John's bold defiance of papal jurisdiction: “Brother of England, you blaspheme in this” (3.1.161). After all, Pope Boniface VIII's famous Unam Sanctam bull (1302) was still in force as a reminder to loyal Roman Catholics that “it is altogether necessary to salvation for every human creature to be subject to the Roman pontiff.”8 Thus when King John derogates the papal office, he also defies the sacred decisions of Church Councils and popes over the course of several centuries.

But King John deviates from the general principle under discussion and alludes to certain objectionable features of Roman Catholic practices in a manner not characteristic of Shakespeare at his best. John answers Philip's charge:

Though you and all the kings of Christendom
Are led so grossly by this meddling priest,
Dreading the curse that money may buy out,
And by the merit of vile gold, dross, dust,
Purchase corrupted pardon of a man
Who in that sale sells pardon from himself,
Though you and all the rest so grossly led
This juggling witchcraft with revenue cherish,
Yet I alone, alone do me oppose
Against the Pope and count his friends my foes.


Pardons and indulgences were among the chief objects of Luther's attack upon the Church, and they remained the objects of abuse and satire throughout the century. In John's derogation of the “meddling priest,” the commonplace ridicule of the “curse that money may buy out” is not unlike similar attacks reflected in stage plays during the polemical period of the English Reformation. Elizabethans of the Settlement period would have understood John's implication of the Reformation position that while pardons may be purchased, it is for the profitable market of man and not sanctioned by Scripture, for only God has the power to pardon sin. Moreover, the allusion to indulgences as a part of “juggling witchcraft” is little different from official statutes of the realm which never seemed to tire of associating Roman Catholic practices with superstition.

The inclusion of such allusions at this point is further evidence of how closely Shakespeare reflects the attitudes of the Elizabethan Settlement of Religion. The audience may have seen John's solitary position among the temporal sovereigns of Europe as essentially the position of England during the period of the Counter-Reformation. For Shakespeare's audience, Elizabeth alone of the reigning princes was not “grossly led” by “witchcraft” to fill the coffers of Rome. Recent plots against the government not only placed English Roman Catholics under official surveillance as potential traitors, but almost of necessity “friends” of the pope became “foes” of the Protestant queen's government. Thus, John's anachronistic position had particular relevance for Shakespeare's audience because John's reply reflects precise English attitudes of the Reformation.

A second question Shakespeare's play raises demanded considerably more delicacy in handling on the stage: Does a de facto king have the right to expect absolute loyalty, even when his right to the succession is questionable? It required particular delicacy on Shakespeare's part because of the very tenuous claim to succession by the House of Tudor.

In the play, France accuses John of disregarding the natural order of succession by usurping the throne with utter disregard for Prince Arthur's more immediate right to the succession. John vindicates his role by implying that might makes right, “Our strong possession and our right for us” (1.1.39). Queen Mother Elinor responds to this significantly. “Your strong possession much more than your right, / Or else it must go wrong with you and me” (1.1.40-41). When Elinor and Constance debate the relative merits of the right of succession, Elinor says, “… Thou unadvised scold, I can produce / A will that bars the title of thy son” (2.1.191-192).

Thus far the problem is one which no doubt had occurred to Shakespeare's audience. Not only had the right of the Scottish line been overlooked in the English succession, but Mary Stuart had bypassed her own son, by terms of her will, in favor of Philip II of Spain as heir apparent. Moreover, while Cardinal Pandulph's quarrel with John is not at first directly concerned with his “usurpation” or his right to succeed to the throne, Pope Pius V's Regnans in excelsis (1570), excommunicating and deposing Elizabeth, had expressed the common Romanist position that Elizabeth was not the rightful successor to the throne. Pius's bull deprived the queen “of her pretended right to the aforesaid realm.”

The first Tudor king had solved the problem about his right to succession, even when there remained the possibility of Yorkist heirs more immediate in the line of succession. Henry VII helped secure his position on the throne by a marriage with a descendant of Edward IV, and in 1495 he led Parliament to enact legislation making it no treason to obey a de facto king. John seems to share the Tudor point of view by asking a most significant question, “Doth not the crown of England prove the King?” (2.1.273).

The problem of a dubious access to the throne can not justify the attitude assumed by the citizens of Angiers. They will not recognize King John nor obey him until they are assured that he is the rightful king: “… but he that proves the King, / To him will we prove loyal” (2.1.270-271).

An Elizabethan audience would probably have felt that France's “usurpation” of England's right to obey a crowned king was, as it proved to be in the case of Lewis, a mere pretext for personal gain. By the same token, Roman Catholic charges that England's queen had no right to rule would probably have impressed the audience as being a variation on the same theme, except in this case for the personal advantage of the pope.

At any rate, the fact that a king ruled in England by sanction of the Parliament should have been sufficient to answer the question about dubious rights to succession, and this had been the most effective means of answering those who pressed Mary Stuart's claims.

A third question raised by Shakespeare's play provides more effective dramatic possibilities: Is rebellion against the king ever justifiable, even when the king proves to be wicked and an enemy of the Church? No matter how much Englishmen may have changed their point of view on this question before the year 1649 when King Charles I was beheaded by Parliamentary consent, Shakespeare's audience had been instructed over a long period of time in the doctrine that rebellion against the prince was among the gravest sins imaginable. It was a part of the doctrine of Tudor absolutism.

The most relevant part of the rebellion theme occurs in act 3 when Cardinal Pandulph excommunicates King John.

Then, by the lawful power that I have,
Thou shalt stand cursed and excommunicate.
And blesséd shall he be that doth revolt
From his allegiance to an heretic;
And meritorious shall that hand be called,
Canónizéd and worshipped as a saint,
That takes away by any secret course
Thy hateful life.


Actually, such a charge against Roman Catholic policy had been at the heart of several plots to assassinate the queen, even extending to late in the century. For example, as late as 1594 one Hugh Cahill, an Irishman, is reported to have confessed voluntarily “that when at Brussels, Father Holt and others said it would be a most blessed thing to kill the Queen, as by it he would win Heaven, and become a saint if he should be killed; he that would do it would be chronicled for ever.”9

Sir Edward Coke, solicitor general, described a number of Roman Catholic attempts to incite rebellion and kill the queen.

To this end many needy and desperate young men are seduced by Jesuits and seminary priests with great rewards and promises to kill the Queen, being persuaded that it is glorious and meritorious, and that if they die in this action, they will inherit Heaven and be canonized as saints.10

Two pamphlets written probably by Cardinal Allen for distribution upon the occasion of the Spanish invasion (1588) are significant for the light they bring to this dark business. The first calls Elizabeth “an incestuous bastard, begotten and born in sin of an infamous courtesan,” and it calls upon Roman Catholics in England to rise up in arms against the “infamous, depraved, accursed, excommunicate heretic.”11 The second, called Declaration, calls for the “deprivation and deposition” of the queen in the pope's name, and for those who help to capture “the said usurper or any of her accomplices,” Plenary Indulgence is to be allowed.12

The point of view expressed in Allen's pamphlets is reinforced by Pope Gregory XIII's license for political assassination. Gregory had told a group of assassins that “whoever sends ‘the Queen’ out of the world with the pious intention of doing God service … gains merit.”13 Other allegations of ecclesiastical sanction of the assassination of Elizabeth are recorded by Holinshed in connection with various conspiracies centered around Mary Stuart's claims to the throne.14

The question of rebellion seems to fascinate Shakespeare. In the play, Pandulphus calls upon English citizens in the name of His Holiness to rebel against an heretical king. On the other hand, John Bale's thesis was that citizens never have a right to rebel, even when the king may be wicked, for rebellion against God's anointed minister is tantamount to rebellion against God Himself. Shakespeare seems to champion this doctrine in his plays, although it would have been practically impossible for him to have done otherwise in view of the vigilance of official censors.

The Northern Rebellion (1569) may have prompted the addition of the important homily “Against Disobedience and Wilful Rebellion” (1571) in the official Book of Homilies. It would have been difficult for any man in Shakespeare's audience to have escaped hearing this homily many times during his lifetime. Yet the homily is little more than a summation of absolutist doctrine extending from the first Tudor king and reiterated by statesmen and ecclesiastics of the New Faith for most of the century.15 The homily repeats the point from Paul's epistle to the Romans that Bale's King John had expressed: “The powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation” (Romans 13:1-2). The scriptural passage goes on to say that even wicked kings rule according to God's will and must be obeyed as though they were good. The homily further maintains that Satan is the author of rebellion.

The homily “Against Disobedience and Wilful Rebellion” discusses the possibility that the king may prove to be an enemy of the Church, and if he does, what should be the attitude of his subjects toward obeying his will? In the play, Cardinal Pandulph has stated the attitude of the papacy just as clearly as Pope Pius V had stated it in Regnans in excelsis: subjects are absolved from oaths of loyalty in such a case, and they are forbidden to obey an heretical sovereign. In 1580, however, Pope Gregory XIII qualified Pius's bull by allowing English Romanists to obey and accept Elizabeth as queen “rebus sic stantibus.” But, of course, the implication is that when the rebellion came, Roman Catholics in England were to be released from oaths of loyalty and participate in the rebellion against the queen's government.

But the homily states emphatically that subjects are no more qualified to judge the merits of their king than the foot is qualified to judge the head: the result could only be rebellion. And rebellion is the greatest of all mischiefs. Moreover, a rebel is worse than the worst prince, and rebellion is far worse than the worst government of the worst prince. Just as Bale had cited scriptural texts to indicate examples of good men who obeyed bad kings, the homily recites examples of those who obeyed wicked rulers, even when it meant great personal discomfort: for example, the Virgin, in advanced pregnancy, obeyed a decree of Caesar Augustus to submit to an official census. Indeed, says the homilist, rebellion represents a combination of all the sins against God and humanity.

Curiously, in the play John's subjects do not seem to rebel against him because of the cardinal's injunction. Shakespeare suggests rather that there are other motives more immediate than the pope's deposition. For example, Englishmen at large are in a state of unrest because they believe that King John is responsible for Prince Arthur's death. Hubert de Burgh relates to John the strange goings-on in the city and the widespread rumors circulating among the commoners: “Young Arthur's death is common in their mouths” (4.2.187). Even when the nobles are about to rebel against their king, it is not because of any religious dispute; it is because their king has abandoned what great princes must safeguard—magnanimity. Salisbury reflects the rumor concerning Arthur's death: “It is apparent foul play, and 'tis shame / That greatness should so grossly offer it” (4.2.93-94). It is after the nobles have discovered Arthur's dead body that Salisbury justifies his decision to rebel against his king upon the basis of John's wickedness.

The King hath dispossessed himself of us.
We will not line his thin bestainéd cloak
With our pure honors, nor attend the foot
That leaves the print of blood where'er it walks.


By the time rebellion breaks out in earnest, King John has submitted to Rome and acknowledged England as a papal fief. But even before the king's submission, Pembroke implies that Pandulph's deposition did not alter John's status as England's king.

This “once again,” but that your Highness pleased,
Was once superfluous. You were crowned before,
That that high royalty was ne'er plucked off,
The faiths of men ne'er stainéd with revolt.
Fresh expectation troubled not the land
With any longed-for change or better state.


Indeed, it is not a question of rebellion caused by the pope's demands, but of rebellion that occurs against a king who apparently has proven himself an evil ruler by “murdering” Arthur.

While the commoners and nobles may seem to have just cause for rebellion against their king, Shakespeare continues to deal with the question by demonstrating the truth expressed in the homily “Against Disobedience and Wilful Rebellion.” That is, rebellion is worse than the worst government of the worst prince. Salisbury, expressing the outrage of the “distempered lords,” not only determines to cease obeying his king, but he also dedicates himself to vengeance.

It is the shameful work of Hubert's hand,
The practice and the purpose of the King;
From whose obedience I forbid my soul,
Kneeling before this ruin of sweet life,
And breathing to his breathless excellence
The incense of a vow, a holy vow,
Never to taste the pleasures of the world,
Never to be infected with delight
Nor conversant with ease and idleness
Till I have set a glory to this hand
By giving it the worship of revenge.


The practical consequence of rebellion in the realm is the invasion by the French. To Shakespeare's highly patriotic and freedom-loving audience, nothing could have been more detestable, except perhaps a similar invasion by the Spanish. One can imagine the effect upon the audience hearing the Bastard's account of French successes.

All Kent hath yielded. Nothing there holds out
But Dover Castle. London hath received,
Like a kind host, the Dauphin and his powers.
Your nobles will not hear you, but are gone
To offer service to your enemy,
And wild amazement hurries up and down
The little number of your doubtful friends.


John submits to Rome only because he seeks to avoid the bloodshed of his subjects. Yet as he submits, the Bastard reflects a thoroughly English spirit of Elizabethan patriotism in his response to the news of John's new peace with the papacy.

                                        Oh, inglorious league!
Shall we, upon the footing of our land,
Send fair-play orders and make compromise,
Insinuation, parley, and base truce
To arms invasive?


It is almost too late when the rebels discover what a dear price England must pay for rebellion. With the Dauphin installed in London and refusing to cease hostilities, even after the pretext of invasion has been removed, the rebels realize, perhaps for the first time, that foreign domination by a greedy French prince will be the consequence of their own disloyalty and rebellion.

In such a case, rebellion proved to be worse than any alleged evil on the king's part. The rebels have committed an unnatural sin against God's laws in taking up arms against their anointed king and in betraying England to a foreign prince. Shakespeare underscores this point by assigning to the Bastard—here the voice of English nationalism—the most celebrated lines of the play.

This England never did, nor never shall,
Lie at the proud foot of a conqueror
But when it first did help to wound itself.
Now these her princes are come home again,
Come the three corners of the world in arms,
And we shall shock them. Naught shall make us rue
If England to itself do rest but true.(16)


Shakespeare's audience, if not convinced before, could hardly avoid a proper response to the question of justifiable rebellion, even in the case of a wicked king who may be an enemy of the Church. It is certainly possible that Shakespeare may have had English Roman Catholics in mind when he raised the question, since Cardinal Allen and the papacy assumed that Roman Catholics would rise up in armed rebellion when the anticipated foreign invasion of England began.

A fourth question raised by Shakespeare's play would have been timely while bringing into focus the case of John's submission to Rome and a clear example of Rome's policy with dissenting nations: Do foreign princes have the right to interfere with a king's administration of his own dominions?

The answer would have been easy for the highly nationalistic English of Shakespeare's day. But such an answer would have presupposed the whole controversy with the papacy reaching back to the days of William the Conqueror. William's case was well known: he was willing to accept the pope's spiritual jurisdiction, but he would not acknowledge Rome's temporal claims within his dominions. William insisted, successfully, upon the ancient right of English kings to appoint their own bishops (lay investiture). Yet when the German Henry insisted upon similar claims, Pope Hildebrand deposed him and forced his submission in the snow of Canossa. By acting as both governor of the Church in England and Defender of the Faith, William the Conqueror limited papal jurisdiction in England.

By the time Shakespeare's play was composed, the temporal claims of the papacy had increased to the point that loyal Roman Catholics could acknowledge as their sovereigns only those whom the papacy permitted. The right of a prince to rule in his dominions was dependent upon a prerequisite of obedience and loyalty to the Holy See. If a sovereign defected from such obedience, or if he succeeded to the throne without papal consent, the pope could depose him as a heretic and call upon loyal Catholic countries to effect the deposition.

On the other hand, throughout the Middle Ages England had maintained that while her kings owed spiritual fealty to Rome, the papacy had no right to interfere with the temporal administration of matters claimed by royal prerogatives from the time of Edward the Confessor. By the time of the English Reformation, the changed conception of papal jurisdiction could be regarded by England only as papal usurpation.

In the play, act 1 proposes a war between France and England on the pretext that John is a usurper. Consequently, France claims the right to invade England, if necessary, since John's usurpation “religiously provokes” such recourse. But Shakespeare makes it clear that France's real motive is more one of personal gain than religious provocation. As Philip confesses, France came to champion the widow Constance's claims for Arthur, but dropped the cause in favor of personal advantage and greed: “… In her right we came; / Which we, God knows, have turned another way / To our own vantage” (2.1.548-550).

The Bastard exemplifies the perceptive English subject as he comments upon France's apparent duplicity, “fickle France,” and he rightly sees that commodity is the real motivating factor in France's enterprise. In act 3, Cardinal Pandulph almost parallels instances of papal policy by urging Prince Lewis to invade England.

                                        The bastard Faulconbridge
Is now in England, ransacking the Church,
Offending charity. If but a dozen French
Were there in arms, there would be as a call
To train ten thousand English to their side,
Or as a little snow, tumbled about,
Anon becomes a mountain. O noble Dauphin,
Go with me to the King. 'Tis wonderful
What may be wrought out of their discontent
Now that their souls are topful of offense.


But while Lewis agrees to invade England upon a religious pretext, Cardinal Pandulph appeals to Lewis's covetousness to enlist his aid in the papal enterprise. He tells the prince that when Arthur is dead, Lewis becomes heir to Arthur's claims because of his recent marriage to Lady Blanch: “You, in the right of Lady Blanch, your wife, / May then make all the claim that Arthur did” (3.4.142-143). Lewis, taken in by the cardinal's Machiavellian policy, agrees to invade England and says significantly, “Strong reasons make strong actions” (3.4.183).

Shakespeare makes it clear that Lewis's invasion of England, though under the pretext of restoring the realm to papal control, was actually motivated by personal gain. When Lewis sees the cardinal approaching his camp at St. Edmundsbury, he tells the English rebels of his holy enterprise.

Look, where the holy legate comes apace
To give us warrant from the hand of Heaven
And on our actions set the name of right
With holy breath.


But even before the cardinal arrives, the Dauphin assures his English rebels that they will share with him in the spoils of victory.

Come, come; for thou shalt thrust thy hand as deep
Into the purse of rich prosperity
As Lewis himself. So, nobles, shall you all
That knit your sinews to the strength of mine.


When Cardinal Pandulph comes onstage he tells the Dauphin that since King John has submitted to Rome there is no further need for war; consequently, Lewis should withdraw from England. Yet, and this is the crux, Lewis reveals that he has no intention of being ordered about by the cardinal.

Your Grace shall pardon me, I will not back.
I am too high-born to be propertied,
To be a secondary at control,
Or useful servingman and instrument
To any sovereign state throughout the world.


He also accuses Pandulph of being the instigator of the whole business.

Your breath first kindled the dead coal of wars
Between this chastised kingdom and myself
And brought in matter that should feed this fire;
And now 'tis far too huge to be blown out
With that same weak wind which enkindled it.
You taught me to know the face of right,
Acquainted me with interest to this land,
Yea, thrust this enterprise into my heart.


Then the Dauphin lowers the shield of hypocrisy upon which he had justified his invasion of England and reveals his true motivation.

And come ye now to tell me John hath made
His peace with Rome? What is that peace to me?
I, by the honor of my marriage bed,
After young Arthur, claim this land for mine;
And, now it is half-conquered, must I back
Because that John hath made his peace with Rome?
Am I Rome's slave?


Thus fired by his own covetousness, Lewis assumes a position not unlike that taken by John at the beginning of the play in his attitude toward Rome. Shakespeare demonstrates that Lewis's sense of holy mission is merely a pretext for invading England in his own right. When the papal legate tries to stop him, Lewis defies the legate and refuses to be ruled by Rome.

The parallel to Spanish Philip's pretext for the Armada is too apparent at this point to be ignored. While Philip claimed to be the champion of the papacy in restoring “heretical” nations to the Roman See, in the case of his invasion of England his motivation was that of pressing his claim to the English throne. He claimed the right of succession in England on three grounds: (1) his previous marriage to Mary Tudor, (2) his inheritance of the English throne from Mary Stuart's will, and (3) his descent from John of Gaunt. Shakespeare's play implies that foreign invasions of England in the name of the Holy Church are in reality no more than the personal ambitions of greedy princes. It is certainly true in the case of the Dauphin.

If Shakespeare's audience felt a sense of betrayal because of John's submission to Rome while foreign powers plundered the realm, it would have felt a pleasant relief when the Bastard announces that King John was not entirely serious about the whole business. The king has not submitted to Pandulph as thoroughly as it may have seemed.

                                                                                                    For at hand,
Not trusting to this halting legate here,
Whom he hath used rather for sport than need,
Is warlike John; and in his forehead sits
A bare-ribbed Death, whose office is this day
To feast upon whole thousands of the French.


During the last battle, the rebellious English nobles return to John's camp, the Dauphin's armada is wrecked on Goodwin Sands, and King John himself is maliciously poisoned by a monk at Swinstead Abbey. Yet it is a victory for England, and the French forces are compelled to withdraw. Future hope for England becomes apparent in the magnanimous spirit of the king's son, Prince Henry.

Shakespeare's play supports the general Elizabethan consensus that all such efforts on the part of foreign powers to invade England were without legal and moral justification. They were, in fact, no more than instances of usurpation—whether they were initiated by the papacy or by covetous princes. King John's early response to King Philip's interference may very well reflect the attitude of Englishmen in this regard: “Alack, thou dost usurp authority” (2.1.118). It is, therefore, essential to understand the technical aspects of the political-religious point of view before one can appreciate how skillfully Shakespeare has managed the question he raises. His attitude in the play is thoroughly Protestant insofar as he denies the papacy any right to invade by force the dominions of a reigning Christian prince. Shakespeare also seems to vindicate the Protestant assumption that since kings rule as anointed ministers of God, they are not answerable to any foreign power, temporal or spiritual. No foreign princes have the right to interfere with a Christian king's administration of his own dominions.

In King John Shakespeare has used the highly charged materials of ecclesiastical controversy for their artistic value. By reducing the controversy to basic political questions and lifting them above the contemporary strife to an earlier, more remote period of English history, he is able to maintain a degree of objectivity missing in the writings of other dramatists who had used similar materials.

While Shakespeare does not seem to be a violent partisan of the Settlement position, one cannot avoid observing that he comes through as a wise and perceptive spokesman for his age. For example, while the traditional commentaries relegate to Shakespeare an uncommon tolerance for Roman Catholics and the Old Faith, it is difficult to ignore the fact that he has made of Cardinal Pandulph a character much darker than necessary—almost the Vice of the play. A careful study of the cardinal shows him to be the cause of discord and strife among nations. He is the instigator of rebellion, he demands that King Philip break his sacred vows of peace and friendship with England, he appeals to the Dauphin through dubious means to invade England, and he seems to serve all the while at the altar of Commodity. Lewis made these exact charges against the legate, and the cardinal himself confessed that he alone was responsible for the rebellion in England and the foreign invasion.

It was my breath that blew this tempest up,
Upon your stubborn usage of the Pope;
But since you are a gentle convertite,
My tongue shall hush again this storm of war
And make fair weather in your blustering land.


But, of course, not even the papal legate could restrain the forces of discord he had released. If one persists in the contention that Shakespeare was always fair in dramatizing the Old Faith, it is indeed difficult to explain his treatment of the cardinal.

What is nevertheless gratifying about Shakespeare's use of religious controversy in King John is that he universalizes the conflict on a purely human basis. Pandulph may function as a papal legate in the play, but at the same time he is a fallible human being, subject to invoking unworthy policy for what he considers a worthy end. By the same token, John may be a Christian prince, but he is also subject to the same disintegrating forces that enter into the experience of all mortals: he is covetous, often ignoble, and Machiavellian in policy, but he is no villain. When his land is torn apart by hostile armies, he submits to the pontiff to spare his subjects further bloodshed. King Philip leads his armies against England in the name of justice for Prince Arthur, but he is vulnerable to Commodity and soon forgets his worthy commission. The Dauphin invades England on behalf of Cardinal Pandulph, but he too serves Commodity.

The issues, therefore, are never a simple matter with Roman Catholics as Vices and Protestants as Virtues. Rather, each character pursues his own course through the drama as a fallible human being. Perhaps it is such an awareness of human character as this that separates Shakespeare from other Tudor dramatists.


  1. See “Act Against Recusants,” in Gee and Hardy, 498-508.

  2. References to the play are to the text in G. B. Harrison, ed., Shakespeare: The Complete Works (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1952) 547-78.

  3. See the “Supremacy Act of Elizabeth,” in Bettenson, 332-33.

  4. See “Regnans in excelsis,” in Bettenson, 340-41.

  5. G. B. Harrison, ed., The Letters of Queen Elizabeth (London: Cassel and Company, 1935) 121.

  6. See “Restraint of Appeals,” in Gee and Hardy, 187-95.

  7. See the “First Act of Succession,” in Gee and Hardy, 232-43.

  8. See the excerpt from Unam Sanctam, in Bettenson, 161-63.

  9. G. B. Harrison, Elizabethan Journals (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1955) 288.

  10. Harrison, 289.

  11. Philip Hughes, The Reformation in England (London: Hollis and Carter, 1950) 3:380.

  12. Hughes, 3:381.

  13. E. I. Watkin, Roman Catholicism in England from the Reformation to 1950 (London: Oxford University Press, 1957) 37.

  14. For example, the celebrated case of Dr. William Parry's treason produced as evidence the following letter from Cardinal di Como in Rome, dated 30 January 1584: “Monsignor, the Sanctity of our Lordship first has read the letters of your Lordship in full faith and cannot but praise the good disposition you profess towards the public welfare, for which his Sanctity exhorts you to persevere so that you might attain the ends that your Lordship promises. In order that you may be further assisted by that good spirit which moved you, he grants you his blessing and full forgiveness of all sins, as your Lordship has requested, assuring that besides the reward that your Lordship will have in heaven his Sanctity will also put himself in your debt recognizing the merits of your Lordship in the best manner, and so much more so because your Lordship shows great modesty in expecting nothing. So carry out your saintly and honored intentions and be well. Finally I offer you from my heart and wish you every good and happy success.” Holinshed, 4:573. Translated from the Italian by Frida A. Norman, professor of Italina, Georgia State University, Atlanta GA.

  15. Irving Ribner cites other Tudor documents in which this doctrine of absolutism appears: John Cheke's The hurt of sedicion howe grevous it is to a communwelth (1549, repeated in Holinshed in 1587), an Edwardian homily entitled An Exhortation concerning good order and obedience to Rulers and Magistrates, John Jewel's Apologia Ecclesiae Anglicanaes (1562, 1564, 1581, 1591), John Whitgift's Defence of the Answer to the Admonition Against the Reply of Thomas Cartwright, Richard Hooker's Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, and Thomas Bilson's True Difference Between Christian Subjection and Unchristian Rebellion (1585). The English History Play in the Age of Shakespeare (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957) 311-12.

  16. Compare the following passage from Holinshed's account of Campion's trial (1581): “This little Lland, God hauing so bountifullie bestowed his blessings vpon it, that except it prooue false within it selfe, no treason whatsoeuer can preuaile against it, and the pope being hereof verie well persuaded, by reason that all his attempts haue prooued of no effect: he hath found out a meane, whereby he assureth himselfe to speed of his desire. Secret rebellion must be stirred here at home among our selues, the harts of the people must be obdurated against God and their prince: so that when a foren power shall on a sudden inuade this realme, the subjects thus seduced most ioine with these in armes, & so shall the pope atteine the sum of his wish.” 4:449. (Italics mine.)

Further Reading

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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 salvation.

Greenblatt, Stephen. “Shakespeare and the Exorcists.” In After Strange Texts: The Role of Theology in the Study of Literature, edited by Gregory S. Jay and David L. Miller, pp. 101-23. University: University of Alabama Press, 1985.

Examines the relation between King Lear and A Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures (1603), Samuel Harsnett's attack on the Catholic practice of exorcism. Greenblatt contends that, particularly through the agency of Edgar as Poor Tom, the play endorses Harsnett's central argument that the notion of demonic possession is fraudulent and that exorcism is a form of theatrical illusion.

Hunter, G. K. “Shakespeare and the Church.” In Shakespeare's Universe: Renaissance Ideas and Conventions, edited by John M. Mucciolo, pp. 21-8. Aldershot, England: Scolar Press, 1996.

Asserts that although it is evident that Shakespeare was thoroughly conversant with Catholic vocabulary and sensitive to its historical reverberations, it cannot be determined, on the basis of the attitudes represented in his plays, whether he was a Catholic or a Protestant—or even whether he cared deeply about the doctrinal differences between the two churches.

Kaula, David. “‘Let Us Be Sacrificers’: Religious Motifs in Julius Caesar.Shakespeare Studies 14 (1981): 197-214.

Suggests that Christian allusions in Julius Caesar obliquely reflect sixteenth-century religious controversies and imply Shakespeare's skeptical view of religious extremism—whether Protestant or Catholic. Kaula calls particular attention to Cassius's characterization of Caesar as a virtual demon or Antichrist, Antony's similarly propagandistic portrait of him as the savior of Rome, and Brutus's vision of the assassination as a sacramental action.

———. “Hamlet and the Image of Both Churches.” Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 24, no. 2 (spring 1984): 241-55.

Links the juxtaposition of polar opposites—especially Christ and Antichrist—found in Revelation and in sixteenth-century Protestant polemical literature to the oppositions featured in several apocalyptic passages in Hamlet.

Keefer, Michael H. “Accommodation and Synecdoche: Calvin's God in King Lear.Shakespeare Studies 20 (1988): 147-68.

Perceives a darkly ironic association between Calvin's conception of God and the dramatic world of King Lear. Emphasizing Calvin's apprehension of God's will as absolute and utterly incomprehensible, Keefer reads Shakespeare's tragedy as a bleak representation of the chasm separating natural law and divine providence.

Knapp, Jeffrey. “Preachers and Players in Shakespeare's England.” In Preachers and Players in Shakespeare's England, edited by Christopher Ocker, pp. 1-27. Berkeley: Center for Hermeneutical Studies, 1995.

Evaluates the anticlericalism of Shakespeare's history plays, tracing the progression of Shakespeare's increasingly dark representation of English bishops from 1 Henry VI to Henry V.

Lewis, R. W. B. “Shakespeare's Pericles.” In Literary Reflections, pp. 28-43. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1993.

Observes that although the religious dimension of Pericles is chiefly expressed in pagan terms, the play's miraculous conclusion alludes to the Christian humanist conception of grace.

Lynch, Stephen J. “Sin, Suffering, and Redemption in Leir and Lear.Shakespeare Studies 18 (1986): 161-74.

Argues that despite its pagan setting, Shakespeare's Lear is more deeply concerned with spiritual issues than is its source: the ostensibly Christian True Chronicle Historie of King Leir. Lynch maintains that Lear's sins are more heinous than his predecessor's, his suffering more extreme, and his redemption more thorough and profound.

Maguin, Jean-Marie. “The Anagogy of Measure for Measure.Cahiers Élisabéthains 16 (October 1979): 19-26.

Finds that the key to the spiritual or mystical significance of Measure for Measure is the representation of Isabella and Angelo as religious archetypes. Maguin suggests that it is Isabella’s betrothal to Christ that rouses the devil in Angelo and compels him to desecrate that which is pure.

Marx, Steven. “Holy War in Henry V.Shakespeare Survey 48 (1995): 85-97.

Calls attention to some similarities between biblical descriptions of holy war and the complex representation of war, politics, and religion in Henry V.

Matheson, Mark. “Hamlet and ‘A Matter Tender and Dangerous.’” Shakespeare Quarterly 46, no. 4 (1995): 383-97.

Argues that Hamlet subscribes to the Renaissance concept of Christian humanism, which, with its emphasis on reason, represents a rejection of the medieval Catholic precepts espoused by the Ghost. However, the critic maintains that in the final scene the prince expresses a new-found belief in both the reliability of individual conscience as a basis for action and in the range and power of providence—an attitude that links him with radical Protestantism.

Muir, Kenneth. “The Advantages and Disadvantages of Secularity.” In Parallel Lives: Spanish and English National Drama 1580-1680, pp. 211-23. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1991.

Maintains that the principal difference between the golden age of drama in Spain and England is that Spanish playwrights were invariably Catholics writing for a Catholic audience, while English playwrights wrote for a secular theater and a religiously diverse audience. Muir outlines the impact of religious orthodoxy on the work of the Spanish dramatist Calderón and compares this with the way Shakespeare's freedom from doctrinal constraints allowed him to express his characters' convictions on the basis of dramatic logic—without revealing his own beliefs.

Nelson, Timothy G. A. “The Fool as Clergyman (and Vice-versa): An Essay on Shakespearian Comedy.” In Jonson and Shakespeare, edited by Ian Donaldson, pp. 1-17. London: Macmillan, 1983.

Calls attention to the complementary and contradictory roles of pious fools and farcical priests in Shakespeare's comedies. Nelson's discussion focuses on Sir Hugh Evans in The Merry Wives of Windsor, Touchstone, Feste, and Olivia's priest in Twelfth Night, Lavache in All's Well that Ends Well, and the Friar in Much Ado about Nothing.

Poole, Kristen. “Saints Alive! Falstaff, Martin Marprelate, and the Staging of Puritanism.” Shakespeare Quarterly 46, no. 1 (spring 1995): 47-75.

Documents Falstaff's links to Sir John Oldcastle, a fourteenth-century antagonist of religious orthodoxy, and to “Martin Marprelate,” the imaginary author of late sixteenth-century tracts that ridiculed the established church.

Rees, Joan. “Falstaff, St. Paul, and the Hangman.” Review of English Studies n.s. 38, no. 149 (February 1987): 14-22.

Regards St. Paul's epistle to the Ephesians, with its warnings of dire consequences for those who do not observe restraint and sobriety in every aspect of their lives, as a discreet subtext of 1 and 2 Henry IV.

Richmond, Hugh M. “Richard III and the Reformation.” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 83, no. 4 (October 1984): 509-21.

Asserts that Shakespeare's references to traditional religious topics and vocabulary in Richard III do not discredit religion but heighten the audience's awareness of it. Richmond also compares Richard's unflinching insight into his own depravity to the Puritan propensity for pitiless self-examination.

Schwindt, John. “Luther's Paradoxes and Shakespeare's God: The Emergence of the Absurd in Sixteenth-Century Literature.” Modern Language Studies 15, no. 4 (fall 1985): 4-12.

Places Shakespeare's tragic perspective in the context of the view of the human condition developed by Martin Luther and his contemporaries. Schwindt does not claim that Luther's theology directly influenced Shakespeare, but he does suggest that it foreshadows the dramatist's tragic vision of a world where the only way to endure is to abandon reason and turn to faith.

Slights, Camille Wells. “The Politics of Conscience in All Is True (or Henry VIII).” Shakespeare Survey 43 (1991): 59-68.

Reads Henry VIII as a complex interrogation of Protestant reliance on individual conscience rather than external authority to resolve moral questions.

Vitkus, Daniel J. “Turning Turk in Othello: The Conversion and Damnation of the Moor.” Shakespeare Quarterly 48, no. 2 (summer 1997): 145-76.

Maintains that Othello draws on early modern anxiety about Turkish imperialism as well as on stereotypes linking Islam with violence, tyranny, and religious conversion, and suggests that the Moor's suicide firmly establishes his identity as an infidel.

Waddington, Raymond B. “Lutheran Hamlet.” English Language Notes 27, no. 2 (1989): 27-42.

An explication of Hamlet's “diet of worms” speech (IV.iii.19-25) as an allusion to the 1521 Edict of Worms, which condemned Martin Luther as a heretic. Remarking on the parallels between the Danish prince and the leader of the Protestant Reformation—particularly their shared traits of profound melancholy and obsessive concern with the depravity of human nature—Waddington considers the possibility that Shakespeare modeled Hamlet after Luther.

Watson, Robert N. “Othello as Protestant Propaganda.” In Religion and Culture in Renaissance England, edited by Claire McEachern and Deborah Shuger, pp. 234-57. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Describes a subliminal Christian allegory in Othello whose purpose is to parody the Catholic theology of salvation through good works and thereby strengthen the Protestant loyalties of his original audience.

Willis, Paul J. “‘Tongues in Trees’: The Book of Nature in As You Like It.Modern Language Studies 18, no. 2 (summer 1988): 65-74.

Examines the religious function of the Forest of Arden in As You Like It as a version of the book of nature: that is, as a text analogous to the scriptures in revealing the glory of God.

Wittreich, Joseph. “Image of That Horror’: The Apocalypse in King Lear.” In The Apocalypse in English Renaissance Thought and Literature, edited by C. A. Patrides and Joseph Wittreich, pp. 175-206. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984.

Explores the implications of apocalyptic motifs, images, and ideas in King Lear. The play's apocalyptic framework does not support or discredit either Christian or non-Christian readings, Wittreich asserts, but it does enhance Lear's representation of sacred and secular history.

———. “Angling in the Lake of Darkness.” In Image of that Horror: History, Prophecy, and Apocalypse in King Lear, pp. 3-13. San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library, 1984.

The opening chapter of a book-length treatment of King Lear that approaches the play from the perspective of the Book of Revelation in particular and the prophetic tradition in general. Wittreich contends that in its terrifying evocation of the Last Judgment, Lear represents the climactic expression of Shakespeare's view of history as a recital of all the circumstances of human tragedy.

Womersley, David. “Why Is Falstaff Fat?” Review of English Studies n.s. 47, no. 185 (1996): 1-22.

Argues that on the eve of the battle of Agincourt in Henry V, the king becomes aware of his spiritual unworthiness, rejects Catholic theology and practices, and submits to the will of God.

Roy Battenhouse (essay date 1985)

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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 say, incidentally, that an excellent assignment for seminar students is to ask them to read the whole of Erasmus's The Christian Prince and assess King Henry in the light of it. When I do so, the students notice various disparities; and then I can direct class attention to The Praise of Folly, a work by Erasmus that Walter did not bother to consult. Praise of Folly (1511, expanded 1514) contains passages of satire on pseudo piety that fit remarkably with aspects of behavior the play exhibits in Henry and in his associates. Thus the true parallels are ironic ones. But this means that the view given of Henry by editors such as Wilson and Walter collapses if subjected to the light of Erasmus's comic sense and the Christian norms that underlie it. This essay illustrates this point.

Praise of Folly has a middle section aimed at what Erasmus calls the “theatrical pomp” of playacting bishops and princes who pretend to piety. Here he remarks that whereas charity should prompt bishops to “settle wars, resist wicked princes, and freely give not merely riches but even lifeblood for Christ's flock” (p. 111),1 this responsibility is often retranslated. What we see instead, he says, are churchmen who fish for lands and defend these with fire and sword (pp. 110, 113). We see bishops for whom the function of “overseer” means keeping a sharp lookout for money. Instead of feeding the flock, they feed themselves. And whereas Chrysostom, Basil, and Jerome confuted pagans by leading good lives and performing miracles, there are nowadays bishops who consider miracles out of date and out of step with the times (pp. 94, 112). “They settle everything with the sword, just as if Christ has perished completely and would no longer protect his own in his own way” (p. 113).

In Shakespeare's play the bishops of Canterbury and Ely fit this portrait. They declare that miracles have ceased.2 They are modern and secularized churchmen. Their concern is for temporal lands. Their aim is not to settle wars but to remove all “bars” that might hinder Henry's going to war. When Canterbury urges Henry to “unwind your bloody flag!” he is not thinking of Christ's blood or of giving his own for the flock. He is shrewdly sanctioning Henry's ambition in exchange for his own advantage. He can see clearly enough that if Henry takes one-quarter of England into France the bishops will be left with “thrice such powers” at home. Henry seems unaware that he will thus, in effect, hand over domestic rule to the bishops. Perhaps he has been lulled by Canterbury's smooth proposal: “While that the armed hand doth fight abroad, / Th' advised head defends itself at home.” But these words imply, do they not, that if Henry chooses the role of “hand,” Canterbury will accept the role of “head.”

We are given also by the archbishop a lesson from the honeybees. A picture is elaborated of various classes of functionaries—masons, merchants, magistrates, and so forth, all contributing to “one purpose.” But what is this purpose? Prominent in the picture are soldiers going merrily forth to take booty and bring home pillage. The hive has an emperor, but notice how he is depicted. He is described as “busied with his majesty.” He “surveys” the building of “roofs of gold,”3 and “poor mechanic porters,” and the surly hum of a “sad-eyed Justice,” whose one task is to give death sentences to idlers. Isn't this, indeed, a sad version of justice? In this community, if we examine the imagery, human beings have become “poor” mechanics toiling to the tune of gold and pillage. Such is Shakespeare's irony. He has Canterbury end the fable by boasting an ability to defend his nation's “name of hardiness and policy.” Indeed so; hardiness and policy are this bishop's stock-in-trade, instead of a bishop's proper function of Christian overseer. And Henry, likewise, is only a surveyor, not a shepherd-watchman. When the fable depicts him as “busied with his majesty,” do we recall perhaps Falstaff's early assessment (1H4, I.ii.15) that Prince Hal would have majesty but no grace? Not even enough, said Falstaff, to say grace before bread and butter. Divine grace has no representative in the archbishop's fable.

Harold C. Goddard, after noting that this fable mentions no churchmen and that it transforms bees communing with flowers into soldiers armed with stings, comments that the archbishop is as deficient in his science as in his symbolism. “What fun,” he remarks, “Shakespeare must have had making such a fool of the Archbishop, knowing all the while that his audience would swallow his utterances as grave political wisdom.”4 I surmise, however, that Shakespeare hoped at least a few of his auditors would recognize the foolishness of such wisdom and hence would find amusement in the archbishop's distortion of traditional fable.

Might not learned auditors recall, for instance, that the fable as told by Vergil made no mention of roofs of gold, or of an emperor, or of merchants, or masons, or indeed of any “sad-eyed Justice”? Vergil's bees, it is true, league together “under the majesty of law” to serve the community in various ways—some watching over the gathering of food in the fields, others caring for the young, and others building honeycombs to fill with nectar before winter comes, while to still others “it has fallen by lot to be sentries at the gates,” where they watch the rains of heaven, take the loads of incomers, and “in martial array” drive from the fold the lazy drones. But those details from the Georgics, Book IV, differ significantly from the amplifications provided by the archbishop. Vergil's “sentries” were neither mechanic porters nor soldiers marching abroad for booty.

T. W. Baldwin, when comparing Vergil with Shakespeare, has tried to account for the reshaping by bringing in some commentary by a sixteenth-century editor of Vergil, Willichius; but Baldwin has to admit that the Platonic classifications of office expounded by Willichius provide no more than perhaps a “suggestion” for Shakespeare's phraseology. “Apparently,” says Baldwin, Canterbury's mention of “merchants who trade and soldiers who plunder for the good of their emperor are, like the emperor himself and the magistrates, Shakespeare's own modern application of Vergil's ancient generalization.” Baldwin thinks this “modern application” accords with Shakespeare's “own fundamental concept of the English commonwealth.”5 I think we can say, rather, that it is shaped to accord ironically with Canterbury's modern concept, a concept that neither Vergil nor Willichius would have approved. And it is unlikely, I think, that Shakespeare approved of the kind of “empery” Henry resolves to display, namely, a bending of France “to our awe / Or break it all to pieces.” This is a case of “commonwealth” gone askew.

Erasmus in his Education of a Christian Prince referred to the bees, but with an application far different from that of the archbishop. As Andrew Gurr has pointed out, Erasmus begins by saying that a young prince should be told that “the king [bee] never flies away” from the hive and that “it is the part of a good prince always to remain within the limits of his realm.” Furthermore, Erasmus goes on to say, “Plato calls it sedition, not war, when Greeks war with Greeks; and if this should happen, he bids them fight with every restraint. What term should we apply, then, when Christians engage in battle with Christians, since they are united by so many bonds to each other? What shall we say when on account of a mere title … a war is waged?” Gurr, in citing these passages, has noted that Henry's practice reverses the views of Erasmus. Gurr observes also how the “one consent” preached by the archbishop incorporates a wide variety of motives that “work contrariously”; and if we spell out these motives they are a concern by the prelates to keep their lands, a concern by the nobles for personal glory, and Henry's concern to secure his insecure titles; thus the “one purpose” that unites is an obedience to commodity or self-interest as the mainspring of the action.6 For Erasmus, however, commodity-serving was not the proper goal of a commonwealth.

At this point, let me add a mention of another commentary on the bees, that of John of Salisbury in Policraticus, VI.21-22. The twelfth-century John, after citing Vergil's saying that the ordering of a commonwealth should be borrowed from the bees, goes on to warn that the happiness of the whole cannot be lasting unless its head gives an undivided attention to the practice of justice. To illustrate a failure in this respect, John then describes the irresponsibility of Dido in too quickly bestowing favor on Aeneas, “an exile and a fugitive, of whose plight and motives she was ignorant.” “With what curiosity,” John exclaims, “did the ears of the chief men drink in the fabulous tales of a man who was striving to clear himself from blame, who was seeking his own glory and reaching out for something wherewith to captivate the minds of his hearers!” And so, with “smooth words” and “seductive flattery” the tales won for him hospitality, followed by the “frivolity of a hunt and other delights”—the eventual fruit of which was the city's destruction.7 This story, I suggest, has aspects of analogy to the tactics of Henry in winning public acceptance and then instigating a foreign hunt that would ultimately prove ruinous to England's commonwealth.

But to return to Erasmus. In his Praise of Folly we find him jesting at courtiers who control a foolish crowd with silly tricks of fable. Was it a philosophical oration, he asks, or rather a childish cock-and-bull story, when a certain Roman flattered his audience with a story about the belly and its parts (p. 40)? Erasmus is referring here to a fable used by Menenius and reported by Livy. We may recall how Shakespeare, when dramatizing this fable in Coriolanus, highlighted the absurd primacy it gives to the belly, the “sink” of the body politic; Menenius depicted Belly as the giver of all public benefit.8 Surely the honeybee fable, in the version given it by the archbishop, is similarly beguiling and likewise absurd.

Further, let us notice some commentary that may be pertinent to Canterbury's pronouncing on Henry's claim to France. In Praise of Folly Erasmus laughs at orators who indulge in quibbles, “put on display their syllogisms,” ruffle their “theological feathers,” and make “oracular pronouncements” that distort Holy Scripture “as if it were a lump of wax” (pp. 95, 104-05). These features can all be seen, I would say, in the argument Canterbury develops. As a follow-up to Henry's narrowing of the war question to a matter of Salic law, the archbishop evades large issues of justice by plunging instead into a morass of legal quibble and obscure logic. Then, when Henry interrupts to ask for some ground in conscience, the archbishop seizes on a biblical text, “Let the inheritance descend to the daughter,” and from this he triumphantly concludes, “Stand for your own, unwind your bloody flag!” Henry's “own,” however, as Goddard has pointed out, is nothing but a tombstone claim, now being revived eighty years after the fact. Moreover, let me comment on the archbishop's textual scholarship. Any reader who takes the precaution of looking into biblical law regarding female inheritance will make the interesting discovery that Canterbury has cited only half of what Moses said on this point. He has quoted the Book of Numbers 27:8 but has ignored Numbers 36:3, where in regard to the same case, Moses gave the ruling that a daughter who marries outside her tribe loses all right to her father's lands.9 Do we wonder why the clarifying addition is not mentioned by the archbishop? Plainly, it would demolish his whole argument, since Henry's French great-grandmother married outside her tribe when she married the Englishman, King Edward. Half texts, of course, were notorious in sham scholarship. The Dr. Faustus of Marlowe's play exploits a half text, as does the wife of Bath in Chaucer's comedy. And Erasmus often lets his Stultitia use snippets of Scripture to concoct a foolish argument (for example, pp. 117-21). All this is part of the sottie tradition.

But let us turn next to folly as practiced by kings. What does Erasmus satirically say of kingly folly? Here is a sample:

They will not listen to anyone except those who have learned the knack of saying such agreeable things as will not disturb their minds with any dutiful anxiety. They think they have fulfilled the whole duty of a prince if they constantly ride to the hunt, [and] if every day brings with it some newly contrived method of reducing their citizens' wealth and diverting it into their coffers—always, of course, finding suitable pretexts so that downright injustice may at least have some appearance of justice.

(p. 108)

Can we not parallel this with Henry's foreign hunt and its pretexts? Shakespeare shows us a Henry who does not listen to anything in the archbishop's speech except what is agreeable to his own exploit already predetermined. Having traded behind the scenes for the archbishop's favor, Henry uses the public hearing only for some appearance of justice. Take care, he admonishes, “how you awake our sleeping sword.” What he wishes to avoid is not the war but any personal responsibility for it. Indeed, throughout the play, Henry has a kind of genius for dodging responsibility by transferring it to others—for instance, when he says that the dauphin will be the cause of all the widows the war will make, or when he tells the citizens of Harfleur that they will be blamable for whatever massacre Henry's soldiers may perpetrate, or when at Agincourt he evades a question from Williams by twisting it so as to reduce a king's responsibility to that of a merchant. Such talk would not have satisfied Erasmus. His Praise of Folly warns that a king is “responsible for the integrity of all officials” and for watching carefully against deception, keeping in mind “the judgment of that king [that is, God] who before long will call him to account.” If a king deviates from what a scepter properly signifies—namely, justice and an uncorrupted heart—should he not fear, asks Erasmus, lest “some clever wit” make a laughing stock of his deficiencies (pp. 107-08)? I find that remark interesting because it reminds me of how Falstaff made laughable the kingship of Henry IV by wittily depicting him with a dagger in place of a scepter. We can only surmise what Falstaff might have said of Henry V's order at Agincourt to kill all the prisoners. I can imagine Falstaff saying, “Tut, tut! Food for daggers!” That would have been a suitably Erasmian jest at such bloody business.

But since Falstaff has long ago been banished by the “new” Henry, Shakespeare provides as evaluators of the massacre of prisoners the king's now favored companions, a beef-witted Gower and a pseudo-learned Fluellen. Their praising of the king's heroism is comic, although unwittingly so on their part. It illustrates the kind of folly Erasmus attributes to the camp of falsely Christian war leaders who reduce all laws and religion to chaos. Such leaders, he says, never lack “learned flatterers who call this patent madness by the names of zeal, piety, and fortitude,” having devised a way to allow someone to thrust cold steel into a brother's guts without any awareness of offense against Christ's precept of charity (p. 114). The irony of that observation, I think, helps us see Shakespeare's irony when he depicts Gower praising Henry as “gallant” and shows us Fluellen devising a way not merely to allow Henry's deed but also to flatter it with a “learned” comparison to the “magnanimity” of Alexander the Pig.10 Fluellen's lisp of “Pig” for “Big” is unwittingly on target. So also is his notion that Henry's greatness is akin to that of the pagan Alexander. Fluellen is oblivious of any norm such as Christian charity, and in that respect his comic learning is analogous to that of the archbishop in Act I. The two bishops of Act I, and here in Act IV the two yokels English and Welsh, seem to me parallel dramatizations of social types, high and low, who supported Henry with their flattery. Erasmus would have appreciated the irony of Shakespeare's drama.

In The Christian Prince Erasmus devotes a chapter to warning against flattery, and elsewhere in this treatise he twice says that pagan princes such as Alexander are no proper model for Christian kingship. “What could be more senseless,” he asks, “than for a man who has received the sacraments of the church to set up as an example for himself Alexander, Julius Caesar, or Xerxes?” (p. 203). And again, there is that admonition: “You have allied yourself with Christ—and yet will you slide back into the ways of Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great?” (p. 153). A prince with Christ in his heart, Erasmus goes on to say, will rather bear with losing something of his empire than avenge an injury at great loss to the state (p. 154). A Christian prince should put aside “feigned excuses” and should try wholeheartedly for means to avoid war (pp. 249, 256). Erasmus urges the prince to question first his own right; and then, even if this is established without a doubt, he should nevertheless ask himself, “Shall I be charged with such an outpouring of human blood; with causing so many widows; with filling so many homes with lamentation and mourning; with robbing so many old men of their sons? … Must I account for all these things before Christ?” (pp. 253-54).

Shakespeare's Henry, if we apply these norms of Erasmus', is clearly a backslider from Christian duty. At Harfleur he urges his men to behave “like so many Alexanders”; and instead of asking himself the questions Erasmus mentions, he licenses a “conscience wide as hell.” To the town's women and children he threatens a massacre like that of “Herod's bloody-hunting slaughtermen.” Shakespeare thus associates Henry with the archetypal tyrant of Bible story. And at Agincourt we see Henry neglecting to heed an Erasmus-like admonition by the plain soldier Williams. The king, says Williams, will have “a heavy reckoning to make when all those legs and arms and heads chopped off in battle shall join at the latter day.” Disregarding this admonition, the disguised Henry ends his nighttime visit by giving jolly assurance as follows: “It is no English treason to cut French crowns, and tomorrow the king himself will be a clipper.” Here “clipping”—in the triple sense of cutting off heads, purses, and coins—serves as a kind of counterfeit creed by which Henry cheers up his troops.

Ironically, Henry's afterthought is to envy the repose enjoyed by wretches of “vacant mind.” But in whom have we seen a vacant mind? Not in Williams, surely, but rather in Henry's version of watchfulness, which has vacated all Christian sense of responsibility. His prayer before battle does likewise. After asking God to steel his soldiers' hearts and take from them a sense of reckoning, he asks pardon for his father's fault of crown-snatching but takes no look into his own similar purpose. In effect, Henry thus parodies the Bible's meaning of “watch and pray.” He has substituted what he earlier referred to as “idol ceremony,” whose only reward, he admitted, was “titles blown from adulation.” Such a concept of kingship flies in the face of the norms of Erasmus.

Erasmus in The Christian Prince makes the point that what distinguishes “a real king from the actor” is a king's duty to be “like a father” to the state (p. 152) and like a physician who studies to heal it (p. 205). Moreover, he says, a king should be like a farmer who loves the land over which he rules, and therefore he should consider no work more magnificent than a beautifying of his country with good habits, just laws, and magistrates of integrity (pp. 205, 248). He should strive to preclude, says Erasmus, any need for the science of war, since in military service there is a “busy sort of time-wasting,” destructive of values (p. 226). A prince's aim should be the welfare of his people. And this means, further, that he should marry someone from his own kingdom. Marriage to a foreigner for the sake of political alliance, Erasmus warns, can harbor future trouble. “It sometimes happens,” he remarks, “that after long violent wars, after countless disasters, a marriage is finally arranged and the matter settled, but only after both parties are worn out from misfortunes” (p. 242).

In Shakespeare's play Henry's marriage to Katherine comes when the armies of France and England are both exhausted and does not ensure future peace. The epilogue tells us that what followed was misfortune for England. In the negotiations for the marriage we see the emphasis Henry puts on obtaining it, but we see also that he has failed to obtain the crown of France and must disguise this fact with a paper title. In such a situation the two kings are adroit “actors,” but neither is the kind of “real king” Erasmus defined in terms of father, physician, and good farmer. Their warfare has dis-beautified the world's best garden, Burgundy tells us, by turning it into a tangle of weeds. And when he describes this disaster as a symbol of the unnatural savagery to which “ourselves and children” have been reduced, can we suppose that the pronoun “our” means the French only? In Henry's camp, more conspicuously than among the French, we have seen the “swearing and stern looks and meditating on nothing but blood” that Burgundy lists as evidence of moral decline. Erasmus would call this the result of a neglect of other sciences for the sake of frivolous war, a wasteful business. And Shakespeare has shown it to be the result of Henry's taking his father's advice to “waste the memory of former days” by busying giddy minds in foreign quarrels. But what a cost there is in such a policy! By setting English youth afire to “sell the pasture to buy the horse,” Henry has proved himself a poor farmer and no lover of England. He has dazzled eyes by his playacting, but he has healed nothing. Erasmus perceived the folly of that kind of kingship, as does Shakespeare.

The chorus of Shakespeare's play, however, lacks a sense of irony. It represents simpleminded English opinion—or, may we say, it echoes the view preached by Stultitia in Praise of Folly when she declares war to be the fountainhead of all praiseworthy deeds (p. 35). Human opinion, Stultitia goes on to say, is the basis of happiness, since “the human mind is so constituted that it is far more taken with appearances than with reality” (p. 71). Therefore, we enjoy life, she explains, as a sort of play in which various people wear the costumes for their assigned parts; and this whole play would be spoiled if some petulant wiseman were to strip away the makeup to examine the wretched man underneath. Would we not rightly banish, she asks, anyone who interfered with the disguises and poetry of illusion that are necessary to performing the play of life? The only true prudence, she concludes, is to adapt to prevailing circumstances, “do as the Romans do,” and run with the herd (pp. 43-44).

This Roman sense of values, which Erasmus has jestingly set forth, seems to me to be the operative faith of Shakespeare's chorus. Metaphors of history as a playhouse (and no accompanying sense of history as a time for pilgrimage) define the outlook of the chorus. Henry in the role of Mars, using his kingdom for a stage on which to create a “swelling scene,” is the story the chorus invites us to aid with our imaginations. A London swarming to fetch in its Caesar, as in “antique Rome,” sums up the narrator's vision of welfare achieved. He laments only that Shakespeare's stage is too limited to display the full story. To overcome this obstacle, he confesses at Agincourt his fear that the battle's name will be much disgraced by our seeing four or five ragged foils disposed in brawl ridiculous, unless we as audience bring to mind “true things by what their mockeries be.” We must see beyond the visible scene!

But are we not here being nudged by Shakespeare to ask what the “true things” are? The chorus thinks they are the public legend of Agincourt, more glorious than Shakespeare's crude players can convey. Shakespeare, surely, views the matter differently. His underside meaning is that the ragged foils are a true imitation of the moral raggedness of Agincourt, whose participants were engaged indeed in a ridiculous brawl. Yet, as we sit and see the disgraceful business, can we not bring to mind “true things”—namely, the Christian norms that Agincourt disgraced and merely counterfeited? This double-sided art of statement is in the tradition of Chaucer and Erasmus. Shakespeare has simply allowed his play's naive narrator, the chorus, to say some things truer than the speaker knows. The truth about Henry's conquest is that it was more Roman than Christian, and more a popular imagination of benefit than a genuine achieving of benefit.

That Shakespeare's play invites an ironic view of Henry was perceived by William Butler Yeats in 1903 but has been elaborated chiefly since Goddard's seminal essay of 1951. Progressively this view has helped establish the critical objectivity of Shakespeare as an artist able to portray both the popular basis of Henry's fame and the tawdry virtues that made it possible in an age concerned more with Roman spectacle than with Christian responsibility. Ralph Berry discovered in the play's rhetoric thirty-eight instances where a speaker's therefore or its semantic equivalent is used to cover a “dubious or fallacious argument.”11 That kind of evidence, of course, coheres with the Erasmian sense of humor I have outlined. It coheres also with the English “giddy minds” to which Shakespeare's Henry IV referred, and with the kind of prince Shakespeare lets Falstaff preview comically as a “shallow” fellow, intent on “new silk and old sack” (2H4, II.iv.235 and I.ii.196). Shakespeare was apparently well aware that the Christianity of Henry was as hollow as the pseudo piety at which Erasmus aimed his praise of folly. To writers such as Erasmus, therefore, the dramatist probably turned for insights into the comedy of pagan values masquerading as Christian. The result was a play shaped to stimulate reappraisal of Henry through its canny combination of heroic myth and shady dealings.12


  1. In citing from the Praise of Folly, my page references (given in parentheses) are to Clarence H. Miller's translation (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1979); and my page references to The Education of a Christian Prince are to Lester K. Born's translation (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1936), the one used by J. H. Walter.

  2. Such a view is characteristic of a faithless and shallow learning, as Shakespeare makes clear in All's Well That Ends Well, II.i.115 ff and II.iii.1-5. In Henry's case, however, there is the further irony that the archbishop is correct in ascribing Henry's change of manners to natural causes rather than miracle; for, in fact, Henry has experienced no inward conversion or new faith, no miracle of the Holy Spirit such as John's gospel (chap. 3) stipulates for a genuine Christian conversion. J. H. Walter, floundering on this point, is forced to argue (p. xxi) that miracle is not “doctrinally admissable,” thus ignoring biblical doctrine. When Walter then tries to associate the “consideration” that caused Henry's change with a meaning given this word in Saint Bernard's writings, the argument is empty, since Bernard had in mind a spiritual consideration, something quite different from Henry's politic planning to attract more eyes. Realistically, the Frenchmen in the play attribute to Henry a “discretion” like that of the Roman Brutus (II.iv.37), in other words, a worldly reasoning of pagan calculation.

  3. Recall here Sidney's well-known phrase regarding the weak foundation of roofs of gold; see his An Apology for Poetry, in G. Gregory Smith, ed., Elizabethan Critical Essays, I (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press), 177.

  4. Goddard, The Meaning of Shakespeare (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1951), p. 224.

  5. Baldwin, William Shakspere's Small Latine and Lesse Greeke, II (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1944), 472-78. Baldwin seems not to see the significance of the changes he reports. For instance, regarding the bees at the gate, he remarks that they become “Shakespeare's ‘executors pale,’ not acting on their own initiative as in Virgil, but in good English tradition carrying out the decree of a sad-eyed justice, who had thus to be inserted.” How good is this alteration? Baldwin also ignores the fact that one of the classes Willichius lists as proper to a republic, the sacerdotes, is absent from the archbishop's fable. Might we surmise that perhaps, ironically, the “sad-eyed Justice” represents the reduced function the archbishop takes to be his?

  6. Andrew Gurr, “Henry V and the Bees Commonwealth,” Shakespeare Survey, 30 (1977), 61-72; the quotations are from Gurr, pp. 61 and 64.

  7. The Statesman's Book of John of Salisbury, trans. John Dickinson (New York: Knopf, 1927), pp. 245-48.

  8. Regarding Shakespeare's irony when dramatizing the Roman fable of Menenius, see my discussion in Shakespearean Tragedy: Its Art and Its Christian Premises (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1969), pp. 341-50.

  9. Goddard, p. 221. Holinshed had recorded in his chronicle that Edward III relinquished his claim to France in the treaty of Bretigny (1360). C. H. Hobday, in “Imagery and Irony in Henry V,Shakespeare Survey, 21 (1968), 107-13, remarks, “To assume that Shakespeare regarded Henry's claim to the French throne as justified is to assume he was incapable of reasoning” (p. 111).

  10. I comment on this comparison, along with other comic aspects of the play, in “Henry V as Heroic Comedy,” in Richard Hosley, ed., Essays on Shakespeare and Elizabethan Drama (Columbia: Univ. of Missouri Press, 1962), pp. 163-82. See also Goddard, pp. 248-51, and Robert P. Merrix, “The Alexandrian Allusion in Shakespeare's Henry V,English Literary Renaissance, 2 (1972), 321-33.

    Like Erasmus, Shakespeare had inherited the Christian estimate of Alexander given by Saint Augustine in The City of God, IV.iv., which likens “kingdoms without justice” to piracies. After commenting that “in thefts the hands of underlings are directed by the commander,” Augustine tells us of the excellent answer a pirate gave to the Macedonian Alexander who asked him how he dared molest the seas. The pirate replied, “How darest thou molest the whole world? But because I do it with a little ship only, I am called a thief: thou, doing it with a great navy, art called an emperor.” On the other hand, Augustine's example of a good ruler is the Christian emperor Theodosius, who rescued the child Valentinian from a usurping tyrant and succored the church with wholesome laws (City of God, V.xxvi). Augustine's norms in chap. xxiv for ruling well include “reign justly”; “be slack to revenge, quick to forgive”; “use correction for the public good”; “do all things not for glory but for charity.” These norms were probably those by which Shakespeare evaluated the morals of the kings he dramatized.

  11. Berry, The Shakespearean Metaphor (London: Macmillan, 1978), pp. 48-60.

  12. I think misleading the contention of Norman Rabkin in his Shakespeare and the Problem of Meaning (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1981), pp. 33-62, that the play, like a gestaltist's trick drawing of a rabbit or a duck, “leaves us at a loss” by oscillating between two “alternative” and “irreconcilable” portraits of Henry. “The terrible fact about Henry,” Rabkin thinks, “is that Shakespeare seems equally tempted by both its rival gestalts” because he is undergoing a “crisis of understanding and belief,” a spiritual struggle that he would spend the rest of his career working through (pp. 61-62). This biographical hypothesis seems to me unwarranted, and I would say that artistically the copresence of popular illusion and disgraceful facts about Henry is evidence not of “irreconcilable” portraits but of correlative aspects of his delusory success. That is, unless Henry had had in his own day many auditors willing to revere a Mars-like hero of “famine, sword, and fire,” his hunting expedition would have had no supporters and his massacre-acquired victory no public acclaim; and likewise, an Elizabethan appetite for such things, a readiness by many auditors to overlook or approve Henry's tactics, is correlative with this hero's “theatre” success. The symbiotic relationship between blind appetite in the public and pretenses by wretched heroes who thereby win veneration is one of the points Erasmus makes in his satire. Augustine, I may add, had made this same point in his City of God (II.xx), where his criticism of Roman culture was that a love of wealth and riot as constituting human happiness led people to honor as gods whoever procured this kind of happiness, even though a reasonable creature would be offended if he surveyed the “impurities” and “waste” of the kings who achieved this happiness. It is likely that Shakespeare was familiar with The City of God; and if so, he must have been reminded of Rome's cultural flaw when he found in Holinshed and Hall a similar phenomenon—a lauding of Henry in the summary evaluations of these chroniclers, even though the episodes reported in their chronicle material contained unsavory details at which a reasonable reader might balk if not predisposed to approve Henry. Shakespeare thereupon decided, I suggest, to challenge a return to ethical reason through a strategy of both inflating the adulation of Henry and amplifying his evasive makeshifts, thus squeezing the reader's mind between the portrait's two layers of illusion and shoddy reality. This had been the technique of Erasmus for exposing worldly folly.

R. Chris Hassel, Jr. (essay date 1986)

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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 patience and humility he bore his infirmities, in fact gloried in them, and was therefore richly rewarded. “Unlike Paul, Richard cynically repudiates providence so that his outward deformity, instead of being an occasion for regeneration, becomes emblematic of inner distortion.” As Harcourt suggests, “Man may accept grace or he may reject it; and therein, for Paul, lies his freedom or his misery. … Richard, freely avoiding grace, shapes his own destiny and others'.”1 Queen Elizabeth understands her vicious adversary in just such theological terms: “True: when avoyded grace makes Destiny” (l. 2998).2

Curious about other possible uses of these Pauline oaths, and about the one by St. John as well, I searched through Renaissance theological works for other Pauline commonplaces that might be applicable. One concerns Paul's confrontational temperament, his skills as a debater. John Calvin in his commentaries on Corinthians, Galatians, and Ephesians stresses the “earnestness and vehemence of Paul's confrontation of ‘false doctrines’ and ‘false apostles,’ the ‘disputing’” that is so characteristic of these epistles. In similar terms, Martin Luther calls I Corinthians 15 “a whole long chapter in strong and solid proof of [one] article of faith and in refutation of their injurious prattle.” The “Arguments” summarizing the contents of each of these Pauline epistles in the Geneva Bible make a similar point. In Galatians, Paul “earnestly reasoneth against … false Apostles”; in I Corinthians he skillfully sets “before their eyes the spiritual vertue, & heavenlie wisdome of the Gospel” and “correcteth divers abuses in their Church.” A modern commentator also describes Paul as “a powerful dialectician … with the native temper of a debater.”3 We need only recall Richard's scenes with Lady Anne and Queen Elizabeth to acknowledge this possible if perverse connection to St. Paul. In the first encounter, Richard is as brilliant in debate as his predecessor, overwhelming both Anne's fury and her arguments with his own clever responses. Two of his oaths by St. Paul preface the debate. With Elizabeth, however, the result is reversed, spelling a diminishing wit and fortune that will culminate in despair and defeat at Bosworth Field. St. Paul's name is not invoked before this second encounter; neither are his dialectical skills.

A related irony may concern Richard's use of four of his five Pauline allusions to stifle debate or dissent. He threatens the Halberds: “Villaines set downe the Coarse, or by S. Paul, / Ile make a Coarse of him that disobeyes.” Further: “Advance thy Halbert higher then my brest, / Or by S. Paul Ile strike thee to my Foote, / And spurne upon thee Begger for thy boldnesse” (ll. 211-12, 216-18). These first two oaths will brook no parley, and receive none. In the third case, Richard is again opposing himself to dissent in his Pauline oath: “By holy Paul, they love his Grace but lightly, / That fill his eares with such dissentious Rumors.” Here, not a blow but an implied charge of treason is his threat against the queen and her allies. As she does in IV.iv, Elizabeth stands up to Richard here, defending herself against his “vile suspects” (ll. 511-12, 554) of slander and political intrigue. Finally, when Richard wants to cut off all dissent in the council chamber, he orders Hastings' head cut off with another Pauline oath: “Off with his Head; Now by Saint Paul I sweare, / I will not dine, untill I see the same” (ll. 2047-48). Herod-like, this ranting tyrant wants the head of the one man dumb or brave enough to question his evil. Of course, this Hastings is no John the Baptist. Still, Richard “will not dine” until he sees his head. Interestingly, when Richard first speaks to Hastings, before the Tower, he swears not by St. Paul but by St. John. Could he have meant the Baptist? At that same moment Richard has been protesting, prophet-like, against the king his brother's physical excesses: “O he hath kept an evill Diet long, / And over-much consum'd his Royall Person: / 'Tis very greevous to be thought upon” (ll. 147-49). Just before, he has been trying to get Brakenbury the Lieutenant to speak “naught” of Mistress Shore. Is this poor woman about to play her unwilling Salome to Hastings' unwitting Herod? Is Richard both Herod and John the Baptist in this strange interlude? The parts fit askew, but interestingly. I wouldn't put the scenario past Richard.

Though the Folio oath by St. John has often been emended to St. Paul, there are several good reasons to let it stand. The oath may refer to St. John the Baptist, but it may also refer to St. John the Evangelist, popularly thought in the Renaissance to have been the author of both the fourth Gospel and the Book of Revelation, or the Apocalypse of St. John.4 Several close parallels between Richard III and the tone, structure, language, and vision of Revelation may make this the most pertinent of Richard's pious oaths.

Perhaps the most impressive connections to Revelation are the parallels between its “Argument” and that of the play. The Geneva Bible describes the contents of Revelation as

a summe of … prophecies … adding also suche things as shulde be expedient, aswel to forewarne us of the dangers to come, as to admonish us to beware some, and encourage us against others. Herein therefore is lively set forthe … the providence of God for his elect, and of their glorie and consolation in the day of vengeance: how that the hypocrites which sting like scorpions the members of Christ, shalbe destroyed. … The livelie description of Antichrist is set forthe, whose time and power notwithstanding is limited, and albeit that he is permitted to rage against the elect, yet his power stretcheth no farther then to the hurt of their bodies: and at length he shal be destroyed by the wrath of God, when as the elect shal give praise to God for the victorie; nevertheles for a ceason God wil permit this Antichrist, and strompet under colour of faire speache and pleasant doctrine to deceive the worlde. … Satan that a long time was untied, is now cast with his ministers into the pit of fyre to be tormented for ever, where as contrariwise the faithful … shal enjoye perpetual glorie.5

Soften the theological edge a bit, and this could be the argument of Richard III, so often does it parallel the play in action, structure, tone, and meaning.

Margaret, of course, is our most extraordinary prophet of last things in the play, foretelling as she does most of the death, desolation, ruin, and decay that will occur before the promised end. When such diverse characters as Hastings, Rivers, Grey, Vaughan, and Buckingham all die, formally affirming the efficacy of her curses and the accuracy of her prophecies, the motifs of prophecy and eschatology are further strengthened. Their own prophecies and curses add still more potency to the common motifs of Revelation and Richard III. Of course, in Revelation, the prophetic visions pertain to the end of the world, eschatology, or last things. The seven seals unfold the plagues and portents that will accompany the second coming of Christ to reward and punish the quick and the dead. In Richard III, the scope is limited to the last days of the Wars of the Roses. Richard is only devilish, not the beast himself; Richmond is Christlike, not Christ. But these actors, like their actions and the tones of some of their apocalyptic speeches, are not unlike their counterparts in Revelation.

Buckingham, whose death comes second only to Richard's in the long, formal sequence of such prophesied judgments, directly links the dramatic motif of prophecy with apocalypse, eschatology, and doomsday:

This is All-soules day (Fellow) is it not?
It is.
Why then Al-soules day, is my bodies doomsday


This, this All-soules day to my fearfull Soule,
Is the determin'd respit of my wrongs:
That high All-seer, which I dallied with,
Hath turn'd my fained Prayer on my head,
And given in earnest, what I begg'd in jest.
Thus doth he force the swords of wicked men
To turne their owne points in their Masters bosomes.
Thus Margarets curse falles heavy on my necke:
When he (quoth she) shall split thy heart with sorrow,
Remember Margaret was a Prophetesse:
Come leade me Officers to the blocke of shame,
Wrong hath but wrong, and blame the due of blame.

(ll. 3382-84, 3390-3401)

This All Souls' Day to which he twice alludes is November 2, “a liturgical day of the Roman rite, commemorating all the faithful departed.” Its celebration is also rich in images of last things, last judgment, reward, and punishment at doomsday. One of the prescribed readings from the Catholic missal is the famous Pauline passage from I Corinthians 15; it occurs at “the last trumpet,” and reads: “O death, where is thy sting?” The other is appropriately from John 5:25, 29, which reads: “The houre shal come, and now is, when the dead shal heare the voyce of the Sone of God. … And they shal come forthe, that have done good, unto the ressurection of life: but they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of condemnacion [judgment].”6 Buckingham knows that his body is doomed to die this All Souls' day. With all of the crimes on his head, and in light of his own testimony to God's providence in the punishment of “wicked men,” he is certainly worried about his immortal soul in the judgment to come. Unlike Richard, however, this liar and conspirator in murder does not die in despair, but in contrition. He humbly acknowledges, “Wrong hath but wrong, and blame the due of blame.” There is hope yet for his spotted soul.

The “resurrection of condemnacion,” judgment hereafter, is vividly described in Revelation 20:12, 13, 15:

And I sawe the dead, bothe great & smal stand before God: and the bokes were opened, & another boke was opened, which is the boke of life, and the dead were judged of those things, which were written in the bokes, according to their workes. And the sea gave up her dead, which were in her, and death and hell delivered up the dead, which were in them: & they were judged everie man according to their workes. And whosoever was not founde written in the boke of life, was cast into the lake of fyre.

Hastings' works are none too good. Worse, they may have been “determined,” just as this judgment has been prophesied. If so, Buckingham is a reprobate who will as surely as Richard be “cast into the lake of fyre” at the fearful “seconde death.” Like All Souls' day, eschatology is much in Hastings' mind as he nears his first death.

Clarence and Richard both dream of last things, death, and judgment, as their own deaths approach. Clarence's dream of death actually comes across in a prophetic, visionary style reminiscent of Revelation:

O Lord, me thought what paine it was to drowne,
What dreadfull noise of water in mine eares,
What sights of ugly death within mine eyes.
Me thoughts, I saw a thousand fearfull wrackes:
A thousand men that Fishes gnaw'd upon:
Wedges of Gold, great Anchors, heapes of Pearle,
Inestimable Stones, unvalewed Jewels,
All scattred in the bottome of the Sea,
Some lay in dead-mens Sculles, and in the holes
Where eyes did once inhabit, there were crept
(As 'twere in scorne of eyes) reflecting Gemmes,
That woo'd the slimy bottome of the deepe,
And mock'd the dead bones that lay scattred by.

(ll. 857-69)

This is one of the most impressive pieces of visionary poetry in Shakespeare, or anywhere, for that matter. Clarence's dream of judgment is even more vivid, even more frightening:

O then, began the Tempest to my Soule.
I past (me thought) the Melancholly Flood,
With that sowre Ferry-man which Poets write of,
Unto the Kingdome of perpetuall Night.
The first that there did greet my Stranger-soule,
Was my great Father-in-Law, renowned Warwicke,
Who spake alowd: What scourge for Perjurie,
Can this darke Monarchy affoord false Clarence?
And so he vanish'd. Then came wand'ring by,
A Shadow like an Angell, with bright hayre
Dabbel'd in blood, and he shriek'd out alowd
Clarence is come, false, fleeting, perjur'd Clarence,
That stabb'd me in the field by Tewkesbury:
Seize on him Furies, take him unto Torment.
With that (me thought) a Legion of foule Fiends
Inviron'd me, and howled in mine eares
Such hiddeous cries, that with the very Noise,
I (trembling) wak'd, and for a season after,
Could not beleeve, but that I was in Hell,
Such terrible Impression made my Dreame.

(ll. 880-99)

With Brakenbury, we are afraid to hear Clarence tell this terrible vision of last things. “Apocalyptic” is the best term for the eschatological style and content of his vision. Again and again, Renaissance theologians link apocalypse and eschatology. In a sermon on Revelation, George Gifford called it “First … a prophecie which openeth the state of things to come … even to the great day of the generall judgement.” To Hugh Broughton, eschatology was the “Summe of the Argument” of Revelation: “Johns Apocalyps telleth, that Christ shewed the state to come, to the ende of the world.” John Napier repeatedly discussed “the latter day” or last things, “the day of judgment and general resurrection” in his treatise on Revelation. Augustine Marlorat concluded of Revelation: “Finally it sheweth (and that most plenteously) what shall be the ende at length both of the chosen, and the reprobates.”7 Clarence's dreams of dead bones, reprobation, and judgment fit comfortably within this apocalyptic, eschatological context.

But the surest test here is aesthetic: the passage also shares the style and feeling of apocalyptic literature. Listen to similar passages from Revelation8:

And I heard a great voyce out of the Temple, saying to the seven Angels, Go your wayes, and powre out the seven viales of the wrath of God upon the earth. And the first went, and powred out his vial upon the earth: and there fell a noysome, and a grievous sore upon the men, which had the marke of the beast, & upon them which worshipped his image. And the second Angel powred out his vial upon the sea, and it became as the blood of a dead man: and everie living thing dyed in the sea. And the thirde Angel powred out his vial upon the rivers & fountaines of waters, and they became blood. … And the fourth Angel powred out his vial on the sunne, and it was given unto him to torment men with heat of fyre. … And the fift Angel powred out his vial upon the throne of the beast, & his kingdome waxed darke, & they gnewe their tongues for sorowe. … And there were voyces, and thundrings, and lightnings, & there was a great earthquake, suche as was not since men were upon the earth.

(Rev. 16:1-18)

In substance, however, the best visionary passages of Revelation usually describe the new Jerusalem, not hell. These have more of the abundant imagery of Clarence's first dream:

And the buylding of the wall of it was of Jasper: and the citie was pure golde like unto cleare glasse. And the fundacions of the wall of the citie were garnished with all manner of precious stones: the first fundacion was Jasper: the second of Saphire: the third of a Chalcedonie: the fourth of an Emeraude: … the twelveth an Amethist. And the twelve gates were twelve pearles, and everie gate is of one pearle, and the strete of the citie is pure gold, as shining glasse.

(Rev. 21:18-21)

In Clarence's vision, torment predominates over blessedness. Both speeches possess brilliant apocalyptic imagery.

Richard's tormenting dream is relentlessly judgmental, each witness concluding his little vision with “dispaire and dye.” By force of will, Richard, unlike Clarence, resists these “afflictions” of a “coward Conscience,” particularly as they concern judgment hereafter. His brief slip into contrition and confession, “Have mercy Jesu,” is immediately countered by denial: “Soft, I did but dreame” (ll. 3640-41). There is no judgment hereafter. But even here, in Richard's mind and in his kingdom, the judgment is “Guilty, Guilty.” There will be “to morrowes vengeance on the head of Richard” even if he can reject for a while the later tomorrows and tomorrows. Judgment hereafter sticks deep in Richard's mind. As he addresses his troops, the possibility of judgment slips out again: “March on, joyne bravely, let us too't pell mell, / If not to heaven, then hand in hand to Hell” (ll. 3668, 3782-83). Like the fallen in Revelation before the final harvest of God, Richard begins to “Feare God, … for the houre of his judgement is come”; he begins to hear the third Angel,

saying with a loude voyce, If any man worship the beast and his image, and receive his marke in his forhead, or on his hand, The same shal drinke of the wine of the wrath of God, … and he shalbe tormented in fyre and brimstone before the holie Angels, & before the Lambe. And the smoke of their torment shal ascende evermore: & they shal have no rest day nor night, which worshippe the beast and his image, and whosoever receiveth the print of his name.”

(Rev. 14:9-11)

Richard, of all men, is marked his own forever. Richard's apocalyptic dream marks the beginning of his discovery of this eternity of torment.

In Revelation, Satan and his worldly allies are defeated in a final battle and cast into hell:

And I sawe the beast, and the Kings of the earth, and their warriers gathered together to make battel against him, that sate on the horse & against his souldiers. But the beast was taken, … and them that worshiped his image. These bothe were alive cast into a lake of fyre, burning with brimstone. And the remnant were slayne with the sworde of him that sitteth upon the horse.

(Rev. 19:19-21)

“A Horse, a Horse, my Kingdome for a Horse” (l. 3834). In Richard III we see the unhorsed Richard, God's enemy, slain by God's champion Richmond. His hellish hereafter has been widely predicted throughout the play. We have no reason to expect him to jump the life to come.

Like Revelation itself, Brother Edward has a double vision of last things. At the beginning of his end (II.i), his vision is all redemption: “I, every day expect an Embassage / From my Redeemer, to redeeme me hence. / And more to peace my soule shall part to heaven, / Since I have made my Friends at peace on earth.” By the end, he is less sure: “O God! I feare thy justice will take hold / On me, and you; and mine, and yours for this” (ll. 1126-29, 1259-60). Revelation 21:8 warns that “the feareful and unbeleving, and the abominable and murderers, & whoremongers, and sorcerers, & idolaters, & all liars shall have their parte in the lake, which burneth with fyre and brimstone, which is the seconde death.” The Geneva gloss includes among these sinners “Thei which feare man more then God,” and “Thei which mocke & jest at religion.” How few of these sins have Richard and his brothers Clarence and Edward avoided. How accurate their mutual prophetic visions of last things. Like his brother Clarence, Edward may be weighted down with sins, but he is also contrite: Richard never is. Their family portrait makes an interesting apocalyptic tableau in the play.

To the many accurate prophecies and the vivid prophetic style in Richard III are added additional characteristics from the “Argument” of Revelation in the Geneva Bible: forewarnings of the dangers to come, and admonitions to avoid them. We need look no further than Hastings' fine valedictory for such an admonition:

O momentarie grace of mortall men,
Which we more hunt for, then the grace of God!
Who builds his hope in ayre of your good Lookes,
Lives like a drunken Sayler on a Mast,
Readie with every Nod to tumble downe,
Into the fatall Bowels of the Deepe.

(ll. 2069-74)

The endless lamentations of the women, Clarence's and Buckingham's dying words, all of the ghosts speaking to Richard, and Richard's own despairing response to his dream are equally impressive admonitions “to beware” (Geneva “Argument”). The play is as full of them as it is of apocalyptic prophecy.

There is also presented in the apparently preordained victory of Richmond “the providence of God for his elect, and of their glorie and consolation in the day of vengeance” (Geneva “Argument”). Richmond certainly assumes his election, though with appropriate humility, throughout his portrayal in Richard III. His “couragious Friends” are urged to march “cheerely on” precisely because they march “in Gods name” (ll. 3419, 3427). Before the last battle, he prays with the faith and the humility of certain election:

O thou, whose Captaine I account my selfe,
Looke on my Forces with a gracious eye:
Put in their hands thy bruising Irons of wrath,
That they may crush downe with a heavy fall,
Th' usurping Helmets of our Adversaries:
Make us thy ministers of Chasticement,
That we may praise thee in thy victory:
To thee I do commend my watchfull soule,
Ere I let fall the windowes of mine eyes:
Sleeping, and waking, oh defend me still.

(ll. 3551-60)

“That we may praise thee in thy victory” is a double promise of piety and humility that Richmond grandly keeps. The ghosts testify to his election, and to Richard's reprobation: “Be cheerefull Richmond”; “vertuous and holy be thou Conquerer”; “live and flourish”; “Sleepe, Richmond, / Sleep in Peace, and wake in Joy, / Good Angels guard thee from the Boares annoy”; finally: “God, and good Angels fight on Richmonds side” (ll. 3566ff.). The victorious Richmond proves full of grace in accepting the victory, gracious to his “Victorious Friends,” and grateful to God: “God, and your Armes / Be prais'd, Victorious Friends; / The day is ours, the bloudy Dogge is dead” (ll. 3845-47). Later in the same speech we hear the conjunction of God's blessing of the elect and his vengeance on the reprobate that we associate with the Argument of Revelation:

Smile Heaven upon this faire Conjunction,
That long have frown'd upon their Enmity:
.....Now Civill wounds are stopp'd, Peace lives agen;
That she may long live heere, God say, Amen.

(ll. 3866-67, 3886-87)

What could be clearer, then, than Richmond's election “lively set forthe,” and his “glorie and consolation in the day of vengeance” (Geneva “Argument”). Richmond is portrayed as chosen by God to deliver England from the devilish tyrant Richard. Like the Messiah in Revelation, he counts among his allies not only God but “good Angels,” invoked by the ghosts of Buckingham, Clarence, and the two princes. “The Prayers of holy Saints and wronged soules” (l. 3707) are also among his impressive supernatural forces. In Revelation, first four angels, then seven participate in “the destruction of the wicked and comfort of the godlie.” So do “the Saintes of God overcome them all, and sing divine songs unto God by whose power they get the victorie.”9

Most impressive is Richmond's direct allusion to Revelation while he prays as God's minister of wrath, “Looke on my Forces with a gracious eye, / Put in their hands thy bruising Irons of wrath.” Of God's Messiah, his champion “Faithful & True” in Revelation 19:11, it is said that “he shal rule them with a rodde of yron: for he it is that treadeth the wine presse of the fiercenes and wrath of almightie God.” This allusion increases our sense of both the apocalyptic and the providential dimensions of Richmond's potency in Richard III. “And a crowne was given unto him, and he went forthe conquering that he might overcome” (Rev. 6:2). The conquering Messiah rides forth in Revelation on a “white horse, and he that sate upon him, was called, Faithful & true, & he judgeth and fighteth righteously” (Rev. 19:11). The conquering heroes of Revelation and Richard III bear interesting similarities, as do the forces they command.10

So do their antagonists. In Revelation as in Richard III, this is a day of vengeance as well as a day of victory. According to the Geneva “Argument,” on this last day “the hypocrites which sting like scorpions the members of Christ, shalbe destroyed.” Richard, in all his devilish splendor, is an impressive antichrist to Richmond's avenging Messiah. First, Richard, as a good antichrist, is given ironic connections to this Messiah. The murderers reply to Clarence's naive assumption of Richard's good offices: “Why so he doth, when he delivers you / From this earths thraldome to the joyes of heaven” (ll. 1080-81). God deliver us from such deliverers. Richard is also called “devil” more than once in the play. He proudly numbers among his allies the devil himself as well as his own “dissembling lookes” (l. 433). Further, Richard is associated through various animal symbols with his supernatural ally. Richard is overtly compared to what Lancelot Andrewes calls “the subtle serpent” with such epithets as “serpent,” “viper,” and “cockatrice.” His mother's epithet, “Thou Toad, Thou Toade” (l. 2918), parallels Milton's Satan, “Squat like a Toad, close at the eare of Eve.”11 Richard himself invokes “the spleene of fiery Dragons” (l. 3822) as he concludes his battle oration. Marbeck stated this traditional connection to Satan: “we maie fitly understand by the Dragon, Satan himselfe the father of lies.” Less precisely Satanic, but equally loathsome, malignant, or destructive, are the boar, the wolf, and the dog. As Andrewes said in another sermon, such animals are enemies to “our lives good,” if not explicitly Satanic.12 John Downame even called Satan a wild boar: “So also this wilde Boare would have broken downe the hedge which defended Job by tempting him to blaspheme God.” Downame added this touch: “He is called a murderer and a man-slayer, as though this were his profession and occupation.”13 That is Downame's early seventeenth-century description of Satan, not Richard; the connection is stunning. If Richard is not the beast of Revelation, he is certainly one of his dragonish associates.

Unlike Richmond's dream of comfort and victory, Richard's “tormenting Dreame / Affrights [him] with a Hell of ougly Devills” (l. 696). In the deep of his prophetic dream, brother Clarence sees “dead bones,” “Angells,” “Furies,” and a “Legion of foule Fiends.” Such angelology and demonology is yet another characteristic of Revelation and of apocalyptic literature in general. Most Renaissance commentaries on Revelation discuss not only “the promised Messias” and the “most ugly monster, the divell,” but the hosts of angels and devils at their command. Napier talked of “Gods Saints and holie servantes” combating “the Devill and all damned spirites” in the last days. Broughton described “Angel trumpeters [who] sound howe haile and fire is mixt with blood,” and depicts “Michaels Angels” against the “wicked spirites” of the devil. John Donne preached an entire sermon on the angelology and demonology of Revelation. The sermon was preached on All Saints Day, with Revelation 7:2, 3 as its text.14 Richard, Clarence, Richmond, the ghosts, and many of their companions in Richard III assume that they live in a similar universe of angels and devils.

In the last battle, Richard, like the antichrist described in the Geneva “Argument” of Revelation, “shalbe destroyed.” His power seems overwhelming. “Notwithstanding, [it] is limited … and at length he shal be destroyed by the wrath of God.” Just as surely as Richmond's victory seems preordained, and is so interpreted by God's minister, so Richard in his brief reign is like the beast “permitted … to rage … [and] under colour of faire speache and pleasant doctrine to deceive the worlde” (Geneva “Argument”). Anne, Hastings, Buckingham, Clarence, Edward, the princes, Henry VI, his Edward, Margaret, Elizabeth, his own mother, and unnamed others all suffer his hypocrisy and his sting. “At length he shal be destroyed by the wrath of God.”

As Richmond's election thunders through Act V, so does Richard's reprobation. The two are dancing very different steps on the same balance. Richard's foot is increasingly heavy: “I have not that Alacrity of Spirit / … that I was wont to have.” Richmond's is light, “jocond” in fact, “In the remembrance of so faire a dreame.” “True Hope is swift, and flyes with Swallowes wings.” Richard's back is bent with “dispaire and dye.” Richmond rises to “Successe, and Happy Victory.” And then, of course, come victory and defeat. “God, and your Armes / Be prais'd, Victorious Friends; / The day is ours, the bloudy Dogge is dead.” Richard is unhorsed and uncrowned. Richmond is made king, graced with the “long usurped Royalties” plucked “From the dead Temples of this bloudy Wretch.”15 In the Apocalypse, the antichrist that “a long time was untyed, is now cast with his ministers into the pit of fyre to be tormented for ever, where as contrariwise the faithful … shal enjoye perpetual glorie” (Geneva “Argument”).

In the world of the play, the judgment is almost as definitive:

Abate the edge of Traitors, Gracious Lord,
That would reduce these bloudy dayes againe,
And make poore England weepe in Streames of Blood;
Let them not live to taste this Lands increase,
That would with Treason, wound this faire Lands peace.

(ll. 3881-85)

So much for Godless traitors. For the elect:

O now, let Richmond and Elizabeth,
The true Succeeders of each Royall House,
By Gods faire ordinance, conjoyne together:
And let thy Heires (God if thy will be so)
Enrich the time to come, with Smooth-fac'd Peace,
With smiling Plenty, and faire Prosperous dayes.

(ll. 3875-80)

Revelation concludes its last days with similar separation of the elect and the reprobate, and similar distribution of rewards and punishments.

He that is unjust, let him be unjust stil: & he which is filthie, let him be filthie stil: & he yt is righteous, let him be righteous stil: & he yt is holie, let him be holie still. And beholde, I come shortly, & my rewarde is with me, to give everie man according as his worke shalbe.

(Rev. 22:11-12)

Holy forever, righteous forever; filthy forever, unjust forever. Such is the truth that lies behind Richard's despair and Richmond's joy, at least within the artifice of Richard III.

Such persistent parallels between the arguments of Richard III and Revelation are not meant to suggest influence so much as generic similarity. Richard and Richmond are neither antichrist nor Christ. Shakespeare's play is mostly about judgment here, Revelation about judgment hereafter. In the play the conflict is political and the characters human; in the Apocalypse the action and the actors are cosmological. But in Shakespeare's contrived but lively dramatization of fulfilled prophecies, moral admonitions, “the Providence of God for his elect,” the threatening but limited time of Richard the dragon, and the final awesome torment and grace of punishment and reward, we have a striking portrayal in this world of the core events of the Apocalypse. Add to those similar “arguments” the apocalyptic visions of Clarence, Richard, and Edward, and Buckingham's direct connection of his death and judgment with All Souls' and doomsday, and the analogy becomes even more striking. In its characters' preoccupation with last words and last things, there is much of apocalypse and eschatology in this history play.

Richard spoke more profoundly than he knew when he upbraided the messengers in Act IV: “Out on ye Owles, nothing but Songs of Death?” (l. 3311). He is surrounded by intimations of apocalypse and eschatology. The characters around him are preoccupied with last words and last things. Elizabeth's overwhelming victory, Richmond's threatening attractiveness, a nagging system of lesser defeats, and the inscrutable hand of providence join these apocalyptic motifs in hymning Richard's ultimate doom. Richard's ironic oaths by St. Paul and St. John join their swelling chorus. His despair and death will provide the final descant.


  1. John Dover Wilson, ed., Richard III (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1954), p. xx; Carnall, “Shakespeare's Richard III and St. Paul,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 14 (1963), 188; I find Carnall's suggestion implausible, in my book Faith and Folly in Shakespeare's Romantic Comedies (Athens: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1980), pp. 9-13, I discuss the high esteem of St. Paul among most Renaissance Christians. Harcourt, “‘Odde Old Ends, Stolne …’: King Richard and St. Paul,” Shakespeare Studies, 7 (1974), 88-89; Fox, “Richard III's Pauline Oaths: Shakespeare's Response to Thomas More,” Moreana, 7 (1978), 20-21.

  2. William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Richard the Third, in Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies (London: Isaac Jaggard & Ed. Blount, 1623). Throughout, quotations from Richard III will refer to this edition. The complex relationship of the quarto and the folio texts invites such citation. Kristian Smidt's parallel text edition of The Tragedy of King Richard the Third (New York: Humanities Press, 1969) is an accurate and useful edition of both texts. I follow Smidt's Through Line numbering.

  3. Calvin, Commentary on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, John Pringle, tr. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1948), I, 38-39; Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul to the Galatians and Ephesians, William Pringle, tr. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1957), pp. 15-19; Luther, Works, Hilton C. Oswald, ed. (St. Louis: Concordia Press, 1973), XXVI, 13; XXVIII, 60. The Geneva Bible, Lloyd E. Berry, ed. (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1969); subsequent Biblical quotations will refer to this edition and be cited in the text. See F. Schroeder, “Paul, Apostle, St.,” New Catholic Encyclopedia (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967), XI, 8.

  4. See, for example, William Fulke, A Defence … against … Gregory Martin, C. H. Hartshorne, ed. (Cambridge: Parker Society, 1843), I, 34; Thomas Brightman, The revelation of S. John …, 3rd ed. (Leyden: John Class, 1616), p. 4; and John Marbeck, A Book of Notes and Commonplaces (London: Thomas East, 1581), p. 555.

  5. Subsequent references to this “Argument” to Revelation in the Geneva Bible will be cited in the text as Geneva “Argument.”

  6. In commemoratione omnium fidelium defunctorum.” This quotation and the following citations are from Missale Romanum, Jussu editum (Venetiis, 1717), p. lviii; see also The Cathedral Daily Missal, Rudolph G. Bandas, ed. (St. Paul: E. M. Lohmann, 1961), p. 1878; and A. Cornides, “All Souls' Day,” New Catholic Encyclopedia, I, 319. The biblical quotations come from the Geneva Bible.

  7. George Gifford, Sermons upon … Revelation (London: Thomas Man & Toby Cooke, 1596), sig. A6r; Hugh Broughton, A revelation of the holy Apocalyps (Amsterdam [?], 1610), p. 13; John Napier, A plaine discoverie of … Revelation (Edinburgh: R. Walde-grave, 1594), p. 144; Augustin Marlorat, A Catholike exposition upon … Revelation, Arthur Golding, tr. (London: H. Binneman, 1574), p. 2. See also G. E. Ladd, “Apocalyptic as Eschatology,” in International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1979), I, 153-56; and M. Rist, “Apocolypticism,” in Interpreters' Dictionary of the Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1962), I, 157-61.

  8. See also Rev. 14:9-11.

  9. Geneva Bible, marginal note, Rev. 15.

  10. Christ as Messiah, deliverer of the faithful from the hands of the enemy, is a prominent feature of Revelation and its commentaries. Among many Renaissance comments: John Donne in a sermon on Rev. 7 called “this Angel [of Revelation] … our Saviour Christ himselfe.” The Sermons, George R. Potter and Evelyn M. Simpson, eds. (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1953-62), X, 47. See also Gifford, sig. A7v; Napier, pp. 162-64, 230; and Richard Bernard, A key … for … revelation (London: Felix Kyngston, 1617), pp. 188 ff.

  11. Lancelot Andrewes, Ninety-Six Sermons (1843; rept. New York: AMS, 1967), V, 452; John Milton, Paradise Lost, in The Works, Frank Allen Patterson, ed. (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1931), vol. II, l. 800.

  12. Marbeck, p. 315; Andrewes, II, 9; Gifford in a sermon analyzed swine and dogs as particularly degenerate animals. The swine neglect the truth; the dogs tear the truthful. Richard seems compatible. Milton compared Satan to a wolf in Paradise Lost, IV, 183. William Woods, A History of the Devil (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1974), pp. 121-22; and J. B. Russell, The Devil (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1977), pp. 113, 116, mention these and other animals traditionally associated with evil in the Christian tradition.

  13. John Downame, The Christian Warfare Against the Devil, World, and Flesh, 4th ed. (London: William Stansby, 1634), pp. 88-89. Several other details may be worth a note, though I have not been able to find Renaissance sources. Maximilian Rudwin, The Devil in Legend and Literature (Chicago: Open Court, 1931), p. 48, says: “The Devil is often represented with a hump. This deformity was caused, according to … Victor Hugo, … by the fact that, in escaping out of the sack in which the Devil carried them on his back to hell, the human souls left behind ‘their foul sins and heinous crimes, a hideous heap, which, by the force of attraction natural to the Fiend, incrusted itself between his shoulders like a monstrous wen, and remained for ever fixed.’” In a similar vein, G. Wilson Knight, The Sovereign Flower (London: Methuen, 1958), p. 211, attributes to Richard and St. Paul a mutual lameness. Rudwin concurs (p. 49).

  14. Gifford, sig. A7v; Napier, pp. 242-43; Broughton, pp. 13, 152-58; Donne, vol. 10, sermon 1; see also vol. 8, sermon 1; and Rist, I, 157-61.

  15. Lines 3513-14, 3697-98, 3428, 3565-3623, passim, 3845-51.

Paul A. Cantor (essay date 1987)

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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 contrast, critics who are sympathetic to Shylock often discuss the play as if it were a tragedy, concentrating on Shylock's role and dealing only with the serious themes. I want to argue that there are ways of treating The Merchant of Venice as a comedy and still viewing Shakespeare as sympathetic to Shylock. Indeed it is only by looking at Shylock in the context of the whole play—and that means in relation to the other characters and to its comic structure—that one can appreciate the complexity of Shakespeare's portrayal.

But The Merchant of Venice is not an ordinary comedy, and the tendency to discuss it as if it were a tragedy does have some basis in its peculiar nature. If Portia did not intervene in the Antonio-Shylock conflict, it would have some kind of tragic outcome. More than most comedies, The Merchant of Venice flirts with tragedy. Shakespeare appears to be trying a dramatic experiment: to see how far he can push a play toward tragedy and still bring about a comic ending. Many critics would say that he let the experiment go too far, allowing the character of Shylock to take over the play to the point where the comic ending becomes unsatisfactory. For the play to be a comedy, Shylock has to be the villain, in comic terms the blocking agent. In the conventional comic pattern, he is the old man who stands in the way of the young lovers and threatens to prevent their happiness. Because he interferes with the potential harmony of the community, he has to be eliminated by the end of the play. But if we come to sympathize with Shylock, it will interfere with our feeling of comic resolution. Above all, if we feel that Shylock stands for a genuine principle, we will have at least something of a tragic impression at the end of the play. We will sense that the community has re-established itself only at the cost of excluding a legitimate point of view and thus narrowing its horizons.

Shylock is not the only potentially tragic figure in the play. He is after all not even the title character. Shylock is the Jew of Venice; Antonio is the merchant of Venice. The popular confusion as to who the title character is reveals how over the years Shylock has come to steal the show, leaving Antonio in his shadow, neglected by audiences and critics alike. But only by taking into account Antonio's role can one fully understand Shylock's; for despite the surface conflict between the two characters, they have a hidden affinity. Antonio also does not fit comfortably into the comic world of the play. In the grip of his melancholy and world-weariness, Antonio, like Shylock, is basically a killjoy. In particular, he refuses to participate in the comedy of romance, and represents in his own way almost as much of a threat to the happiness of the young lovers as does Shylock. Antonio stands up for the value of male friendship, for the idea that friendship is a higher form of concord than romantic love. Thus for the comic ending to be possible and the lovers to be happily married, Antonio has to be defeated just as Shylock is. Act IV is devoted to the defeat of Shylock, Act V to the defeat of Antonio. Indeed, if Shylock were the only opposition to the comic resolution, the structure of The Merchant of Venice would be defective, since the main character would drop out with a whole act to go. Only if one sees the importance of Antonio in the play does the structure of The Merchant of Venice make sense. Before Portia can be happy in her marriage, she has to prove that Bassanio loves her more than he does Antonio. Thus Antonio ends up being excluded from the happy ending almost as much as Shylock is. But if that is the case, then the comic resolution of The Merchant of Venice cannot simply reflect, as many critics have claimed, the triumph of Christianity over Judaism, for Antonio is as much the representative Christian in the play as Shylock is the representative Jew.

Investigation of The Merchant of Venice ought to begin from this observation: the comic resolution is possible only at the expense of both Shylock and Antonio, the two characters who take life seriously in the play, which above all means the two characters who take religion seriously. It may at first seem odd to claim that Antonio is the representative Christian in the play. There are of course many characters in the play who espouse Christianity, but, as I will show, they act like pagans, concerned primarily with the gratification of their senses and using their Christian principles to attain that end. What makes Antonio and Shylock similar is that they are both men of religious principles, but that of course is also what causes them to come into conflict, since their principles differ. For the conflict to be resolved, characters like Portia must intervene, characters who are more flexible about their principles and are in fact willing to bend whatever principles they have for the sake of happiness. Hence, as important as the opposition between Antonio and Shylock may be, in some ways it is less basic to The Merchant of Venice than the opposition between both Antonio and Shylock, who get involved in a potentially tragic conflict, and characters like Portia and Bassanio, who find a way of resolving it comically. By analyzing both the differences and the similarities between Shylock and Antonio, I hope to shed new light on The Merchant of Venice. The best way of understanding the play may not be to seek to resolve the ambiguities which seem to pervade Shakespeare's characterization of Shylock, but rather to uncover the ambiguities which surround his portrayal of Antonio and indeed of all Venice. The complexity of Shakespeare's portrayal of Shylock is rooted in a deeper complexity in The Merchant of Venice, what one might call its ambiguity of genre, the way the play oscillates between tragedy and comedy.


The most thoroughgoing attempt I have seen to characterize Shylock and Antonio as products of their religious principles is Allan Bloom's essay, “Christian and Jew: The Merchant of Venice.” Bloom describes Shylock this way:

Shylock holds that respect for obedience to the law is the condition for leading a decent life. … Righteousness is hence the criterion for goodness; if a man obeys the law to its letter throughout his life, he will prosper. … Justice is lawfulness; Shylock is a son of Moses. Along with this goes a certain positive temper; Shylock lives very much in this world. Money is a solid bastion of comfortable existence, not for the sake of pleasure or refinement, but for that of family and home. … Decent sobriety is the rule of life.

Bloom contrasts Antonio in these terms:

Antonio … bases his whole life on generosity and love for his fellow man. For him, the law, in its intransigence and its indifference to persons, is an inadequate guide for life. … Equity and charity are more important than righteousness. … Calm calculation is beyond him. He makes promises he cannot keep, and his hopes are based on ships that are yet to come in. The restraint and coldness of the Jew are not his; his sympathies go out to all men, and he cares much for their affection.1

Bloom thus shows how Shakespeare's portrayal of Shylock and Antonio reflects the traditional opposition of Judaism and Christianity in terms of justice vs. mercy or obedience to the letter of the law vs. charity.

Out of these contrasting religious attitudes, the conflict between Shylock and Antonio over the issue of usury grows. Antonio's Christianity gives him an otherworldly perspective on life. For him material things have no real value; the only true value is spiritual. For Antonio a man's wealth is ultimately worthless to him. The only purpose it can serve is to allow him to do good deeds by lending a helping hand to his friends. For Antonio, charging interest on loans serves no purpose. By contrast, as Shakespeare characterizes Shylock's Judaism, it gives him a thisworldly orientation, in which whatever a man achieves, he must achieve on earth. Wealth becomes for Shylock one of life's few solid values, and amassing it becomes his way of demonstrating his virtue and talent. He finds a biblical precedent for his way of life in the Old Testament figure of Jacob and thus views his business as having a religious sanction: “thrift is blessing, if men steal it not” (I.iii.9).2 Shylock sees no reason to part with his money, unless he receives some consideration in return, namely an interest payment. Antonio and Shylock are never going to agree on the issue of usury, because it has become bound up with the fundamental differences in their ways of life. We are inclined to say that usury is a narrowly economic issue which should be left to economists to decide. What we find surprising and alien is that Antonio and Shylock regard usury as a religious issue. But for them religion is a comprehensive force, governing how they behave in all aspects of life. For them there are no narrowly economic issues: ultimately every issue is religious. In particular, the Bible has something to say about every ethical issue, and as strange as it seems to us today, their dispute over usury quickly turns into a dispute over how to read the Bible (I.iii.71-101).3

The clearest way of seeing the problem Antonio and Shylock face in living together in the same city is to realize that in effect they do not speak the same language. Shylock says of Antonio:

He hates our sacred nation, and he rails
Even there where merchants most do congregate
On me, my bargains, and my well-won thrift,
Which he calls interest.


What Shylock calls sound business practice, Antonio calls usury. Similarly, what Antonio calls generosity, Shylock calls wastefulness.

How then does Venice succeed in making men live together in peace within the city? Shakespeare presents Venice as a remarkable community: a great commercial republic, which brings together men from all over the world for the purposes of trade. The commercial interests of Venice dictate a cosmopolitan nature for the city, but that creates a problem. Men with different beliefs and values can easily come into conflict, as we have seen in the case of Antonio and Shylock. Venice brings men together for the sake of commerce and attempts to maintain the peace between them on the basis of commerce.4 The city tries to get men to reduce their spiritual concerns, which are potentially divisive. Men differ—often bitterly and violently—as to what the Bible says. But they can agree as to what an account book says: the figures are there, totalled up in black and white for all to see. Thus Venice tries to get men more interested in their material concerns, because it is easier for them to agree as to what is to their mutual economic benefit. The harmony of Venice rests on what is today called the cash nexus.

In the traditional view, the harmony of a community rests on its members having a common nature. They have to share certain common concerns. Above all, they have to share the same beliefs about the fundamental things in life. The community is originally a community of believers, and hence community is based on friendship. Portia's comments in passing on the nature of friendship have interesting implications for our view of Venice:

                                                                                in companions
That do converse and waste the time together,
Whose souls do bear an egall yoke of love,
There must be needs a like proportion
Of lineaments, of manners, and of spirit.


Antonio and Shylock do not have “a like proportion / Of lineaments, of manners, and of spirit” and hence their community cannot be based on friendship. Rather Venice uses economic ties to bind together its citizens. The key principle is this: you do not have to like a man in order to lend money to him; in fact when it comes to securing repayment, it may help if you do not like him. Antonio understands what it means to enter into a purely business relationship with Shylock:

If thou wilt lend this money, lend it not
As to thy friends, for when did friendship take
A breed for barren metal of his friend?
But lend it rather to thine enemy,
Who if he break, thou mayest with better face
Exact the penalty.


As bitter as this passage may be, it reveals what is attractive about economic ties to a city like Venice: they offer a way of binding together enemies as well as friends. As opposed to traditional communal ties, the cash nexus promises to be more stable and secure, and also to embrace a wider range of humanity.

Shylock gives the clearest statement of the principle of the Venetian community:

I will buy with you, sell with you, talk with you, walk with you, and so following; but I will not eat with you, drink with you, nor pray with you.


Shylock reveals that there is no true communion in Venice: men may do business with each other, but they do not necessarily share the deepest side of their souls. That is why the law becomes so important in Venice. With no inner spiritual principle of allegiance, men in Venice have to be united by the external, objective principle of the law. Antonio understands the connection between the cosmopolitanism of Venice and its need for a strict rule of law:

The Duke cannot deny the course of law;
For the commodity that strangers have
With us in Venice, if it be denied,
Will much impeach the justice of the state,
Since that the trade and profit of the city
Consisteth of all nations.


The Venetians are not united in their beliefs about the highest things. Rather they are united on the lowest principle, the principle of the body, what all men share as human beings. Men disagree as to what conduces to their spiritual welfare, but it seems more likely that they will agree as to what conduces to their bodily welfare.5 One can point to the body; one cannot point to the soul.

The result is that the tendency of Venice is to redirect its citizens from spiritual to material concerns in order to bring about social harmony. That is why most of the Christians in the play do not appear to take their Christianity very seriously. The typical Venetians we see, men like Bassanio or Gratiano, are chiefly concerned with marrying well. Since the Venetians are wrapped up in securing a good place in society, religion becomes a social amenity in their eyes. A well-bred man has to put on a religious front, but that is all. When Bassanio warns his companion to be on his best behavior, Gratiano reveals his attitude toward religion:

If I do not put on a sober habit,
Talk with respect, and swear but now and then,
Wear prayer-books in my pocket, look demurely,
Nay more, while grace is saying hood mine eyes
Thus with my hat, and sigh and say amen,
Use all the observance of civility,
Like one well studied in a sad ostent
To please his grandam, never trust me more.


This is a telling passage: for Gratiano, religion has become reduced to a matter of civility, something one pays lip service to in order to placate one's grandmother.

One must in fact look very carefully at the Venetians in The Merchant of Venice to see how deep their religious impulses run. To read many of the critics, one would think that Shylock is confronted with a community composed of Church Fathers, representing the Christian faith at its purest and most exalted level. But beneath the surface pieties commerce has taken over the lives of Shakespeare's Venetians. This is evident in their language: they constantly speak of things in commercial terms. Consider Bassanio's declaration of friendship:

                                                                      To you, Antonio,
I owe the most in money and in love,
And from your love I have a warranty
To unburthen all my plots and purposes
How to get clear of all the debts I owe.


For Bassanio, money characteristically comes before love, and he mixes indiscriminately terms of business and terms of friendship. In the opening scene, when the various Venetian merchants see Antonio unhappy, they automatically assume that only business worries could upset a man this much. Salerio makes the most revealing comment about Antonio's distress:

                                                            Should I go to church
And see the holy edifice of stone,
And not bethink me straight of dangerous rocks,
Which touching but my gentle vessel's side
Would scatter all her spices on the stream,
Enrobe the roaring waters with my silks.


Even when he is in church, this Christian merchant is thinking about his merchandise, concerned more about the fate of his goods than the fate of his soul. One could not choose a better emblem for the mentality of Shakespeare's Venice.

This tendency of Venice is parodied in the behavior of the clown, Launcelot Gobbo. He finds himself torn between his interest as a Christian in having Jessica convert to the true faith and his interest as a consumer:

We were Christians enow before, e'en as many as could well live one by another. This making of Christians will raise the price of hogs. If we grow all to be pork-eaters, we shall not shortly have a rasher on the coals for money.


In worrying that “in converting Jews to Christians, you raise the price of pork” (III.v.35-36), Launcelot provides a comic equivalent of Venice's tendency to let economic considerations override the religious.


The typical Venetians may seem superficial by comparison with Antonio and Shylock. But the fact that they are concerned with material pleasures does not mean that they are to be condemned. The typical values of Venice are in fact the typical values of comedy. As critics such as Northrop Frye and C. L. Barber have shown, Shakespearean comedy celebrates vitality and natural energy.6 The festive spirit and carnival atmosphere in the comedies reflect this fact. The comedies tend to dwell on the most natural and universal of human concerns: getting married, establishing a family, and living well. There is something life-enhancing about the prevailing spirit in Venice. One can see it in Bassanio's opening line: “Good signiors both, when shall we laugh?” (I.i.66). Both Shylock and Antonio stand in the way of Venice's enjoyment.7 As shown by his opening lines, Antonio is just too somber:

In sooth, I know not why I am so sad;
It wearies me, you say it wearies you.


As the letter Antonio sends to Bassanio shows (III.ii), he has a way of interrupting other people's moments of happiness and ruining their enjoyment.

With his otherworldly temperament, Antonio is not himself interested in the pleasures of this world:

I hold the world but as the world, Gratiano,
A stage, where every man must play a part,
And mine a sad one.


Gratiano answers Antonio very much in the spirit of comedy—“Let me play the fool” (I.i.79)—giving an eloquent defense of the goal of enjoying life and dismissing Antonio's melancholy as mere posing. But Antonio's melancholy is not a mere pose. Claiming to be weary of the world, Antonio is willing to prove it by sacrificing himself for his friend Bassanio. He has in fact a kind of martyr complex:

I am a tainted wether of the flock,
Meetest for death; the weakest kind of fruit
Drops earliest to the ground, and so let me.
You cannot better be employ'd, Bassanio,
Than to live still and write mine epitaph.


Here Antonio is most clearly modelling himself on Christ. His sentiments may be admirable in themselves, but they still threaten to disrupt the comic world. Portia knows that she has to save Antonio: if he were to die as a martyr to his friendship for Bassanio, it would poison her marriage forever.

Shylock equally contradicts the comic spirit of the play. At first sight he paradoxically seems to resemble the other Venetians more closely than Antonio does: like them he is concerned with obtaining wealth, not giving it away. But Shylock differs from the other Venetians in not wanting to use his wealth for the sake of pleasure. Making money has become part of Shylock's sober way of life. When he is threatened with the loss of his wealth, he refers to it as “the prop / That doth sustain my house” (IV.i.375-376). Wealth is what gives security and stability to Shylock's life: he sees it as the foundation of his family line. Hence Shylock is unwilling to squander his money on frivolous pursuits and is actively hostile to any form of merriment:

What, are there masques? Hear you me, Jessica:
Lock up my doors; and when you hear the drum
And the vile squeaking of the wry-neck'd fife,
Clamber not you up to the casements then,
Nor thrust your head into the public street
To gaze on Christian fools with varnish'd faces;
But stop my house's ears, I mean my casements;
Let not the sound of shallow fopp'ry enter
My sober house.


In short, Shylock rejects the whole world of music, dancing, and comic festivity. Both Shylock and Antonio understand dimensions of life that elude the average Venetian. But at the same time, they are both missing an integral element of life: the ability to enjoy it.

Indeed Shylock's concern with money threatens to turn into an obsession, as he tends to forget that money has only instrumental value. One can see this danger in what appears to be his most ridiculous moment: when he equates the loss of his daughter with the loss of his money:

“My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter!
Fled with a Christian! O my Christian ducats!”


This is the most satiric moment in the portrayal of Shylock, but critics often forget that we never actually see Shylock speak these words. This is in fact Solanio's report of what Shylock says and as such it is a caricature. For Shylock's own words on this theme, we must look later in the play:

A diamond gone, cost me two thousand ducats in Frankford! The curse never fell upon our nation till now, I never felt it till now. Two thousand ducats in that, and other precious, precious jewels. I would my daughter were dead at my feet and the jewels in her ear! Would she were hears'd at my foot, and the ducats in her coffin! No news of them? Why, so—and I know not what's spent in the search.


There is still something laughable in Shylock's miserly concern with the cost of the search, but the way he himself links his daughter with his ducats has a bitterness about it that silences laughter. We can see here how closely Shylock associates his financial fortunes with the fortunes of his family. His dream is to be able to continue his line by passing his wealth on to his Jewish daughter and hence his nightmare is to see her throw it away as a Christian. By the end of the scene, Shylock rises to a note of genuine pathos:

Out upon her! Thou torturest me, Tubal. It was my turkis. I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor. I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys.


Once we see that wealth has a deeper value for Shylock, he no longer appears as ridiculous as he did in Solanio's portrait.8 In Solanio's version, Shylock seemed to reduce Jessica to the level of his ducats; in Shylock's own words we see that in fact the reason why his money is so important to him is that it is bound up with his feelings about his family.

This is a good example of the complexity of Shakespeare's portrait of Shylock. In the words of Solanio, Shakespeare first gives us a purely external, unsympathetic view of Shylock, in which he appears merely grotesque and ridiculous. But then Shakespeare in effect repeats the scene, allowing us to hear Shylock's own words and to see inside his soul. Once we get a feel for the intensity of Shylock's emotions, it is difficult to treat him as merely laughable. There is something warped and one-sided about Shylock. But he has managed to make a virtue of his limitations. He has in fact taken a limited form of virtue—thrift and industry—and pushed it to an extreme, pushed it to the point where it becomes problematic and brings him into conflict with society. Antonio displays a similar one-sidedness. He tries to make friendship into the whole of life, and his martyr's mentality prevents him from participating in the joys of Venetian society. Ultimately what makes Antonio and Shylock similar is their inability to take pleasure in the moment. They are both masters of what is today called delayed gratification. Both are always laying up treasure, Antonio in heaven, Shylock in his counting house. They thus both contradict the holiday spirit of Venice, perfectly expressed by Jessica when she describes Bassanio:

He finds the joys of heaven here on earth,
And if on earth he do not merit it,
In reason he should never come to heaven!


In their desire to have their heaven here on earth, the Venetians speak for the world of comedy, precisely the world which both Antonio and Shylock reject.


Left to themselves, Antonio and Shylock could only destroy each other. Though they appear to have agreed to deal with each other for business purposes, their economic bond is only an illusion. In the end, neither allows his behavior to be governed by strictly economic motives. Shylock wants to use his economic relationship with Antonio to gain revenge, while Antonio uses the bond to express his love for Bassanio. If Shylock and Antonio behaved like pure economic men, they would be able to resolve their differences peacefully, especially once Shylock is offered his money back. But Shylock and Antonio turn out to be too much caught up in their principles to accept any monetary solution to their conflict. Hence the intervention of Portia becomes necessary to save the day. She does not feel bound by rules, as shown by the way she outwits her dead father's will, giving hints to Bassanio so that the one suitor she herself desires will win her hand.9 In general, fathers do not fare well in the world of The Merchant of Venice.10 Jessica flees her father, rejects his religion, and even robs him. Launcelot Gobbo makes fun of his father, leading him around by the nose. This is all part of the comic pattern of the play. Fathers represent the power of convention and have to be defeated for the spirit of comedy to prevail. Having outwitted her own father, Portia has to go on to defeat the main father in the play: Shylock.

In the powerful courtroom scene, Portia begins by appealing to Shylock's mercy. She gives a beautiful speech, and the sentiments she expresses are no doubt admirable. But in taking this speech at face value, critics have made far too much of it. Portia knows that the appeal to mercy is not going to affect Shylock. This speech is only her opening gambit, and as such it is a very rhetorical performance. It is precisely what it sounds like—a set speech. Indeed we have to check carefully to see how closely Portia abides by these sentiments later in the scene.11 Earlier in the play she herself warned us to check her speeches against her deeds:

If to do were as easy as to know what were good to do, chapels had been churches, and poor men's cottages princes' palaces. It is a good divine that follows his own instructions; I can easier teach twenty what were good to be done than to be one of the twenty to follow mine own teaching.


Here as elsewhere in the play, Shakespeare alerts us to the possibility that Portia may not always live up to the pieties she espouses. The fact is that Portia has a purpose to accomplish in the courtroom scene and she will do anything to bring about the result she desires. But she knows that she must not reveal her partiality. That is the lesson she learned from the test of the three caskets: she had to give the appearance of impartiality even while manipulating events to the outcome she wanted.12

In the courtroom scene, Bassanio wants to be open about the manipulation:

Wrest once the law to your authority:
To do a great right, do a little wrong,
And curb the cruel devil of his will.


But Portia vehemently rejects this approach on legal grounds:

It must not be, there is no power in Venice
Can alter a decree established.
'Twill be recorded for a precedent,
And many an error by the same example
Will rush into the state. It cannot be.


But this appearance of impartiality is all part of Portia's strategy for getting Shylock on her side. Since she seems to be defending his cause, he begins to trust her. Portia thus lulls Shylock into a false sense of security. Only then does she spring her trap on him: he can take Antonio's flesh but not his blood. Portia has gotten Shylock to insist that whatever is not explicitly stated in the bond is not legally valid (IV.i.257-262) and hence his failure to include title to Antonio's blood in the agreement now bars him from spilling even one drop of it (IV.i.306-312). Portia traps Shylock in his own legalism: he is reduced to asking weakly: “Is that the law?” (IV.i.314).

Thus Portia is able to defeat Shylock by exploiting what was regarded in the Renaissance as the Jewish tendency to read the law literally, rather than figuratively as Christians were supposed to do. Having checked his attack on Antonio, Portia now moves swiftly against Shylock. Suddenly he is the one on trial, charged under a law prohibiting an alien from practicing against the life of a Venetian citizen. The court is prepared to sentence him to death and take away all his wealth. The Duke and Antonio combine to show Shylock mercy, sparing his life and not confiscating all his wealth. But Antonio takes it upon himself to determine who shall inherit Shylock's wealth and moreover he insists that Shylock convert to Christianity. Several critics have argued that in Elizabethan eyes forcing Shylock to convert would have been viewed as a true act of mercy, since it shows concern for the salvation of his soul. But Shakespeare does not have Antonio say a single word about the salvation of Shylock's soul, and certainly Shylock does not overflow with gratitude in recognition of the Christians' concern for his spiritual welfare.

Indeed Shakespeare is unusually restrained in showing Shylock's reaction to the way he has been treated. Shakespeare seems to have gone out of his way to leave it open how to interpret the outcome of this scene. Shylock's laconic response—“I am content” (IV.i.394)—is profoundly ambiguous. An actor or a director can interpret this line in a variety of ways, as anyone who has seen a number of productions of The Merchant of Venice can confirm. Said with resignation, the line can suggest that Shylock is genuinely capitulating to the Christians. But said with defiance—with clenched teeth as it were—the line can suggest that Shylock is unrepentant and unbowed. The fact is that Shakespeare never shows a converted Shylock at the end of The Merchant of Venice. It would have been possible for Shakespeare to stage such a conversion, or at least to have it reported as he does with Duke Frederick at the end of As You Like It. The notion of conversion or change of heart is basic to the movement of comedy and adds greatly to the feeling of comic resolution. But Shakespeare evidently drew the line at showing a converted Shylock. He presents Shylock as a principled man, and to renounce his Judaism would be to betray whatever integrity he has. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, Demetrius can give up Hermia and still be Demetrius. But Shylock cannot give up Judaism and still be Shylock. All along, the dispute between Shylock and Antonio has had greater depth than the romantic squabbles typical of Shakespearean comedy. They have been arguing not over who is the prettiest girl in Venice but over what are the fundamental values in life.

That is why Shylock makes a tragic impression in his final scene. We sense that Venice is forcibly imposing conformity, responding to a challenge to its beliefs by simply trying to eliminate the challenger. Venice ultimately finds it cannot include Shylock as Shylock in the community. The courtroom scene is powerfully dramatic precisely because Shakespeare's sympathies are evenly divided. The first half of the scene is weighted against Shylock; as long as he appears to be the cruel one, threatening Antonio's life, we want to see Shylock defeated. But once Portia turns the tables on Shylock, our sympathies are reversed. We feel that Shylock has been caught by a legal trick and now the supposedly merciful Christians can hardly wait to break his spirit. It is easy to imagine how Shakespeare could have written the scene to slant it completely against Shylock. The Christians could have been presented as more genuinely merciful to him and less eager to see him crushed.13 But Shakespeare did not want a one-sided view of Shylock. As we have seen throughout the play, just when Shylock is beginning to look inhuman or ridiculous to us, Shakespeare throws in a touch to humanize or dignify him in our eyes. By the same token, just when we are warming up to Shylock, Shakespeare has him do or say something that chills our sympathy for him. Shylock's final moment in the play arouses mixed feelings in us no matter how we choose to interpret his last words. If he is really giving in, then he is doing so only as a broken man, as is suggested by his claim: “I am not well” (IV.i.396). If this is the case, then we have watched a once proud and forceful man humbled and crushed. If the actor playing Shylock manages to convey defiance with his final words, then we have to admire Shylock's integrity, the fact that he does not crack under pressure from Venice.

When all is said and done, Shylock is at his most impressive in his final scene, and it is impossible to dismiss him as the mere butt of a joke. Though he is obviously no King Lear, he has many elements of a tragic figure. Above all, he is ultimately destroyed by his own virtues. His highest claim on our admiration is his devotion to the law. More than any other character in the play, he takes justice seriously and it is important to bear in mind that in pursuing Antonio he genuinely believes that the law is on his side. Shylock is willing to stand or fall with the law.14 Thus it is his law-abidingness which brings about the reversal in his fortunes. He accepts Portia as his judge, and hence accepts her judgment in the case. When the law appears to turn against him, he does not try to evade the consequences with oversubtle interpretations of the statutes. He tries to maintain his dignity in the scene. In particular we never see Shylock begging for mercy or grovelling before the court.

Moreover, the Venetians cannot claim to have clean hands in the scene. Shylock is able to turn most of their arguments against them. For all their talk of mercy, they are, as Shylock points out, slaveholders (IV.i.90-93). And whatever Shylock is, they have made him that way. If he acts inhumanely, the reason is that the Venetians have not treated him as a human being, or as Shylock succinctly puts it: “since I am a dog, beware my fangs.” (III.iii.7.). Though it would be going too far to call Shylock a tragic hero, our response to him involves the kind of complexity we feel in responding to the great tragic figures in Shakespeare (which explains why he has provoked almost as much critical debate as they have). We can admire certain qualities in Shylock without thinking that he would be a particularly pleasant person to have around. Shylock does not fit into the Venetian community, but perhaps that shows that something is lacking in Venice. As always, Shakespeare's viewpoint cannot simply be identified with that of any of his characters. Too often critics have been concerned with the question of whether Shakespeare was for or against Shylock. That is not the point: a dramatist does not have to give a verdict the way a judge does. The Merchant of Venice is a great drama, and not a cheap melodrama, precisely because Shakespeare can see what is good and bad in both Shylock and his antagonists.


By the same token, to defend Shylock does not require us to attack Portia. Because Shakespeare is a good dramatist, we can appreciate why they both act the way they do. Portia does what she has to do in the courtroom scene to save the situation. But we should recognize that she goes about her task very cleverly, indeed shrewdly. There is no use getting sentimental about her as so many critics have done. Throughout the play we see that she is not averse to manipulating people to get what she wants. In Act V, Portia completes her triumph by defeating Antonio, who in light of his relationship with Bassanio may be regarded as the final father-figure in the play. The comedy of the rings shows Antonio that he has gotten everyone in trouble by insisting that a man should be more loyal to his best friend than to his wife. In effect, Antonio has to remarry Bassanio and Portia, giving his consent to a union that will take his friend away from him.15 Hence Antonio ends up almost as isolated as Shylock, literally the odd man out in the final scene. As the three couples march off, presumably to bed, Antonio is left standing on stage alone.16

It is possible to assimilate The Merchant of Venice to the standard pattern of comedy. The play deals with the elimination of whatever stands in the way of the satisfaction of the desires of the young lovers. By the end of the play, the characters are free to love and procreate. This was not so at the beginning, when Venetian society seemed threatened with sterility. As we have seen, there are two blocking agents in the play: Antonio and Shylock. Antonio's melancholy threatens to spoil the festive spirit of comedy. Moreover, he represents an extreme ideal of male friendship, which would keep the society of men together in necessarily sterile relationships. Shylock is equally opposed to the festive spirit, repelled by the thought of anybody enjoying himself. And he wants to breed money, not human beings. The chilling and killing hand of the law is perhaps best represented by the will of Portia's dead father. At the beginning of the play, it seems as if she will never get married. All the various forms of law and custom which inhibit the lovers have to be thrust aside in the course of the play in order to liberate the natural energies of the community.

But The Merchant of Venice does not make the same impression as most straightforward comedies. The reason is that in Shylock and Antonio Shakespeare experimented with using characters who have more depth than we normally expect in a comedy. Usually the blocking agents in a comedy are made to look purely ridiculous. They have no real principle to champion against the young lovers, but seem to oppose them merely for the sake of opposition. Moreover, the blocking agents are usually allowed to participate in the fun at the end of the play. Frequently they are brought to repent and reform in order to join the crowd. The conversion of Scrooge at the end of Dickens' A Christmas Carol is typical of this sort of movement. The stony old man suddenly turns out to have a melting heart. But this is not what happens with Antonio and Shylock. They give in but never clearly admit that they were wrong. Neither has a moment of recognition and neither, in Northrop Frye's terms, discovers a new social identity for himself.17 In particular, Antonio remains a bachelor. Above all, neither Shylock nor Antonio undergoes a change of heart at the end of the play. Hence they do not fit into the happy ending, Shylock not at all and Antonio only barely. They both remain isolated from the final harmony, thereby indicating that it is somehow limited. Their opposition to the youthful passionate characters is not simply based in crotchetiness or cantankerousness. They are not just mean-spirited old men who do not want anyone else to have fun. Their opposition to the comic world is a principled opposition, rooted as we have seen in religious principles, and that makes us take them seriously.

In the tragic world to which they seem at first confined, Antonio and Shylock are bitterly opposed to each other. But from a higher perspective they are united against the whole comic world of the play. Antonio and Shylock have different principles, but at least they are both principled men. Only in the context of a comedy does their integrity look like inflexibility or stubbornness. They are opposed by characters like Portia, Bassanio, and Gratiano, who are not obsessed with principles, and will in fact adapt their principles whenever they stand in the way of success in life. What would come across as pliancy and lack of integrity in a tragedy appears as healthy flexibility and adaptability in a comedy.

Critics have understandably been concerned with the opposition between Christianity and Judaism in The Merchant of Venice and hence with the conflict between Antonio and Shylock. But as we have seen, a more fundamental opposition is at work in the play, which can be formulated in a variety of ways: Antonio and Shylock vs. the rest of the characters, the spirit of tragedy vs. the spirit of comedy, the world of religious principles vs. the world of nature and vitality. The attempt to read The Merchant of Venice as if it were some kind of sectarian debate, pitting one religion against another, has led to seemingly endless controversy. As I have tried to show, a more fruitful approach may be to raise the discussion to a higher level and view the play as a more comprehensive reflection on the problematic place of religion in general in social life, an enquiry in which aspects of both Christianity and Judaism are called into question.


  1. Allan Bloom, Shakespeare's Politics (New York: Basic Books, 1964) 18-19. Throughout this essay, I am heavily indebted to Bloom's discussion of The Merchant of Venice.

  2. The edition of Shakespeare I have used is G. Blakemore Evans, ed., The Riverside Shakespeare (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).

  3. For a discussion of theological views on the subject of usury in relation to The Merchant of Venice, see W. H. Auden, “Brothers & Others,” The Dyer's Hand and Other Essays (New York: Vintage Books, 1968) 233-237.

  4. See Bloom 15-16.

  5. Bloom (23) demonstrates the focus on the body in Venice by analyzing Shylock's “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech (III.i.59-71): “if one looks at the list of similar characteristics on which Shylock bases his claim to equality with his Christian tormentors, one sees that it includes only things which belong to the body.” See also 33, note 17: “Shylock characteristically mentions laughter as a result of tickling. He and Antonio would not laugh at the same jokes.”

  6. See Northrop Frye, A Natural Perspective (New York: Columbia University Press, 1965) and C. L. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1959).

  7. See Auden 233.

  8. See Bloom 22.

  9. See Bloom 26: Portia “lets Bassanio know how to choose by the song. … It depreciates the senses, and its meaning is clear. Moreover, the first rhyme is ‘bred’ with ‘head,’ which also rhyme with ‘lead.’” For confirmation of this point, see Leslie A. Fiedler, The Stranger in Shakespeare (New York: Stein and Day, 1972) 113-115, and Barbara Tovey, “The Golden Casket: An Interpretation of The Merchant of Venice,” in John Alvis and Thomas G. West, eds., Shakespeare as Political Thinker (Durham, North Carolina: Carolina Academic Press, 1981) 215-216.

  10. See Fiedler 86.

  11. See Fiedler 131.

  12. See Bloom 26-27.

  13. See René Girard, “‘To Entrap the Wisest’: A Reading of The Merchant of Venice,” in Edward Said, ed., Literature and Society (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979) 107-108, 111-112. Approaching The Merchant of Venice from a very different perspective from mine, namely his theory of mimetic desire and the monstrous double, Girard arrives at similar conclusions about the apparent differences and hidden similarities between Shylock and the other Venetians.

  14. See Bloom 13, 24, and Girard 112.

  15. See Bloom 29, Fiedler 135, and Tovey 230.

  16. See Fiedler 87-88 and Auden 233-234.

  17. See Frye 78.

G. M. Pinciss (essay date 1990)

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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 opposing spiritual states. On the one hand, unqualified despair, doubting God's power to grant remission for one's sins and demonstrating a lack of faith, results in eternal damnation. But on the other hand, qualified despair can be positive, marking the very start of one's spiritual recovery.2 According to Susan Snyder, both Luther and Calvin found “a kind of self-despair as prerequisite to salvation,” and, no doubt with their encouragement, Protestant sermons stressed the need for fallen humanity, aware of its unworthiness, to be reborn through the experience of positive despair to a complete dependence on God: in the words of William Tyndale, “For except thou have borne the cross of adversity and temptation, and hast felt thyself brought unto the very brim of desperation, yea, and unto hell-gates …, it shall not be possible for thee to think that God is righteous and just.”3 Despair, as Robert Burton explained in The Anatomy of Melancholy, could affect even “God's best children.”4 As a result, the spiritual struggle of working through a deeply troubled conscience to arrive at a renewed faith in God is a process much discussed in the devotional literature of Shakespeare's time.5 According to such ministers as Robert Cleaver, rector of Drayton, Oxfordshire, in 1598, “hearts must bee crushed and broken,” for “till the heart bee broken for sinne, there can be no plaine confession of sinne, and therefore no repentance.”6 With similar imagery the anonymous author of The Sicke-mans Comfort (1590) describes how the truly penitent can acquire faith in the power of God's merciful forgiveness of sin:

once made conscience-stricken by the enormity of his sins, “pearced to the heart with sorowe, we must then laye to his wounde some asswaging medicine, & do as the Masons do when they hewe their stone: first they give great blowes with their hammer … & then they poolish it over so … that the strokes are no more seen: so must we do, after we have handled the sick patient roughly & thrust him downe to hel by the rigorous threats of the lawes: we must comfort him, and fetch him againe by the sweete amiable promises of the Gospel, to the end that the sowplenes of this oyle may asswage the nipping sharpnes of the law.”

(p. 61)7

The same spiritual condition is also discussed by the influential William Perkins, fellow of Christ's College and popularizer of Calvin's doctrines, when he encourages his congregation to experience the state of “holy desperation” felt by the truly penitent before they throw themselves on the mercy of God. Perkins warns his audience, moreover, that even among the Elect lapses of faith or “spiritual desertions” are common: “This sorte of desertions, though it bee but for a time, yet no part of a Christian man's life is free from them; and very often taking deepe place in the heart of man, they are of long continuance.”8 Naturally, there is great danger that the despairing soul might so doubt God's mercy that he believes his sins cannot be forgiven. Failure to believe in God's forgiveness and in the sacrifice of Christ constitutes a loss of Christian faith, and, as a consequence, such a despairing soul is bound for hell eternally.

Since despair was an important concern for Renaissance Englishmen, the manifestations of this spiritual state were frequently demonstrated in contemporary literature. For instance, Spenser's Redcrosse Knight is saved from Despair's persuasive argument in favor of self-destruction only by Una's reminder of the forgiveness and salvation promised in the New Testament (Faerie Queene I.ix.53).9 In the theater the negative power of despair is dramatized in Marlowe's Doctor Faustus. In the words of its hero: “My heart is hardened, I cannot repent,” and, in consequence, he realizes: “damned art thou, Faustus, damned; despair and die!” For other characters, however, despair can revive hope by taking away everything but what is ultimately the only essential—trust in God alone. Unlike Faustus, those predestined to be saved will progress out of despair to arrive at true repentance, forgiveness, and the remission of sins. This process is shown by Edgar's treatment of his father in King Lear. Gloucester must be brought to understand the need to trust in divine providence—“thy life's a miracle”—and to believe that heaven alone determines the timing and conditions of our arrival and departure, our “coming hither” as well as our “going hence.”10

Recognizing the widely held Renaissance belief in the benefits of despair we can better understand the behavior and intentions of the curious ruler of Vienna in Measure for Measure, one who “would have dark deeds darkly answered.”11 We should keep in mind that this discussion of Protestant theological notions is especially appropriate here, for, as Louise Schleiner points out, in no other play of Shakespeare's do we find that the “central characters evoke specific biblical passages and theological concepts to explain their crucial deeds; in no other are the allusions so prominent; in no other do they define so distinct and consistent a pattern. … This is Shakespeare's most theological play.”12


If not the central figure, Duke Vincentio is surely the moving force of the action in Measure for Measure. Although the deceptions and deceits by which he operates have aroused considerable criticism and complaint, most of his motives are generally regarded as straightforward.13 On some occasions at least, his behavior is unambiguous and laudable. By feigning absence from his city, he can test the character of his deputy, Angelo; by using the bed-trick and replacing Isabella with Mariana, Angelo's former fiancée, the Duke can order Angelo to marry her; and by substituting Ragozine, a notorious pirate who died of a “cruel fever,” for Claudio, Isabella's brother, the Duke can save the young man's life.

But Duke Vincentio's actions and intervention are not so easily understood in every instance. In fact, a number of times his words and actions strike one as irrational or perverse. In particular, he seems nearly obsessed with teaching men to confront their death.14 It is a lesson he repeats almost compulsively. He lectures Claudio on the need to “be absolute for death”—even eavesdropping to learn if his sermon has been effective—and he does not leave until Claudio is, in the Duke's words, “resolved to die” (III.ii.242). The Duke also intends to deal with the drunken prisoner Barnardine to “persuade this rude wretch willingly to die” (IV.iii.80). And, before the Duke is through with him, Angelo, too, says he is very ready to end his life: “I crave death more willingly than mercy; / 'Tis my deserving, and I do entreat it” (V.i.474-75).

The Duke's eccentricities are evident not only in these examples of his meddling but also in his treatment of Isabella. His explanation for his treatment of her appears cruel, if not almost incomprehensible. Although one may not approve, one can understand that he keeps from her the truth of her brother's fate in order to test her capacity to forgive Angelo: will she join Mariana and plead for the deputy's life even when Isabella believes him responsible for her brother's death? But Duke Vincentio's expressed motive for deceiving her, verbalized in soliloquy, is, in the judgment of Philip Edwards, an “appalling justification.”15 According to what the Duke tells us, he “will keep her ignorant of her good, / To make her heavenly comforts of despair, / When it is least expected” (IV.iii.108-10). For Edwards, “God works in mysterious ways, but this beats all—willingly to cause despair in order to show the beauty of divine consolation.” Other students of this play also express irritation with the Duke's behavior. Harriett Hawkins finds his action “so patronizing as to be more infuriating, in intent, than satisfying when dramatically realized.”16 And Richard A. Levin thinks that when the Duke claims he will make “heavenly comforts of despair,” his “rationale seems strained, his cruelty sadistic.”17 The reaction of these critics to the Duke's words is quite understandable, for if his language is divorced from its theological meaning, then the comic intrigues that will result in a happy ending—“the beauty of divine consolation”—cannot be reconciled with the notion of providential intervention into human affairs that is also being implied here—“willingly to cause despair.” To quote Edwards once more, “The distance between the contrivances necessary for the fulfilment of the comedy and the workings of God which they are meant to suggest is impossibly great.”18 In effect, the concept of the fortunate fall does not usually include the notion that a masochistic Providence takes as much delight to chastise humanity as to save it.

Yet by appreciating that out of a qualified despair can come positive spiritual growth, we may be better able to explain the Duke's course of action. And we should recall that at this point in the play the Duke, now dressed as a friar, may well be providing some religious instruction by what he does. His insistence on the “comforts of despair” expresses what he has in mind since, as we have seen, Christian theology teaches that through despair we can acquire the faith to believe that we will be saved not through our goodness but God's.


Regarded in this context, the Duke-as-friar tests the spiritual health of each of the principal characters in the play, acting the part of religious teacher. First in his interview with Juliet, Claudio's pregnant fiancée, he evaluates her spiritual state and approves of her resolution, combining repentance and acceptance. The state of her conscience and her penance reflect her concern for her spiritual condition rather than for her self-image or her reputation in the world: “I do repent me as it is an evil, / And take the shame with joy” (II.iii.35-36).

Next he turns to Claudio in an effort to make him understand that peace can be achieved only through the same combination of repentance and acceptance. Claudio thinks he has learned the friar's lesson: “To sue to live, I find I seek to die, / And seeking death, find life. Let it come on” (III.i:42-43). But his willingness to “let it come on” is difficult to sustain. When Isabella tells him that Angelo has offered to exchange Claudio's life for her chastity, Claudio remembers that “death is a fearful thing,” and he pleads with his sister to save him by yielding to the deputy.19 Once more the Duke must urge Claudio to become reconciled to his plight: “Do not satisfy your resolution with hopes that are fallible.” And once more Claudio will seek for pardon and resignation: “I am so out of love with life, that I will sue to be rid of it.” Through the Duke's efforts, Isabella's brother “most willingly humbles himself to the determination of justice” and has “discredited” the “many deceiving promises of life” (III.ii.237-40). Having been brought to this positive state of despair, Claudio is ready for the rebirth that will be enacted in the final scene of the play.

With the prisoner Barnardine, “a man that apprehends death no more dreadfully but as a drunken sleep,” who is both “insensible of mortality, and desperately mortal” (IV.ii.140-43), the ruler of Vienna has a more difficult time. His offers of comfort and prayer are rejected out of hand, and with comic determination Barnardine swears he “will not die today for any man's persuasion.” To spare him from damnation, Barnardine's jailors grant the Duke-as-friar more time so that he can “persuade this rude wretch willingly to die” (IV.iii.80). Although we watch Duke Vincentio effectively lead some souls onto the path of salvation, we are never witnesses of his success in this instance. After all, not everyone will despair, not everyone will find comfort, and not everyone, ultimately, will be saved; in truth, Barnardine seems rather one of those “unfit to live or die.” The final resolution for the Duke in the closing moments of the play is to offer Barnardine pardon for his crimes on earth, extending to him the utmost mercy and leaving him to make his own peace with heaven.

Unlike his failure with Barnadine, the Duke causes Angelo to experience a series of emotional states that ultimately affect his spiritual well-being. Although a man of conscience and moral awareness, Angelo has yielded to the temptations of lust and power. Forced to confront the painful truths of his actions, he suffers from both shame and guilt. These emotions lead him to a new sense of self and enable him to have his turn at the positive aspects of despair. His feelings of sorrow, regret, self-hatred, and repentance leave him in his own self-estimation deserving of death:

I am sorry that such sorrow I procure,
And so deep sticks it in my penitent heart
That I crave death more willingly than mercy:
'Tis my deserving, and I do entreat it.


This acknowledgement of his guilt and worthlessness is preparatory to his reformation, a necessary preliminary to understanding that salvation can be attained only through acceptance and faith.

Publicly admitting his guilt and still believing himself responsible for Claudio's death, Angelo has now arrived at the point where his character can be reformed:

No longer session hold upon my shame,
But let my trial be mine own confession.
Immediate sentence, then, and sequent death
Is all the grace I beg.


In this spiritual state he can only turn to God with absolute dependence on His mercy; like Claudio, he must learn that salvation arrives through despair. As the Duke says, “your evil quits you well.”

In the same final scene, the Duke determines that Lucio, the slanderer and wastrel, is to be put to death after he has been married to “one whom he begot with child,” a judgment that recalls Claudio's original plight as well as the Duke's sentence on Angelo before the intercession of Mariana and Isabella. Ultimately, Lucio's life, like Angelo's, will be spared by the pleas of a woman who loves him, Kate Keepdown; and by confronting his own death, Lucio, too, will be granted the opportunity to be reborn to a new and reformed life.


The positive aspects of despair are fostered by Duke Vincentio not only in the men but also in Isabella, whose development is carefully monitored by him. The men in the play must be brought to confront their own end, but in her case Isabella must confront the deaths of others. Believing her brother executed at Angelo's order, she must respond to the Duke's sentence of “An Angelo for Claudio, death for death” (V.i.407). The severity of this command perfectly reflects the severity of her attitudes in the early scenes—her desire for even greater strictness among the nuns of her convent, her prudishness about sexuality, her intolerance for human frailty. The Isabella of the first half of the play might well be expected to approve of the justice of “death for death”; in Mary Lascelles's words, “There is a singular rigidity in her bearing.”20

Yet by the end of the play Isabella supports Mariana's plea for mercy and argues that Angelo should be forgiven. Like her brother and the deputy, Isabella has reached a new understanding of life, and like them she has grown under the tutelage of the Duke. For one “in probation of a sisterhood,” she has had to deal directly with some of the more seamy aspects of human relations, exactly those furthest removed from her fastidious and priggish nature. …

Then, for reasons that the Duke never makes clear and even against her own instincts—“To speak so indirectly I am loth” (—Isabella must publicly admit to committing “what I abhor to name,” “a vice that most I do abhor”:

                                                                                                    the vile conclusion
I now begin with grief and shame to utter.
He would not, but by gift of my chaste body
To his concupiscible intemperate lust,
Release my brother; and after much debatement
My sisterly remorse confutes mine honour,
And I did yield to him.


The shame and embarrassment of her situation are compounded, for the Duke, sitting in judgment, rejects her accusation and orders her to prison.

As in his treatment of Claudio and Angelo, Duke Vincentio's intention in all of this is constant: he has told Isabella that her experience is “a physic / That's bitter to sweet end.” He has repeatedly encouraged her: “Show your wisdom, daughter, / In your close patience” and, rather than give way to anger, “give your cause to heaven.” His instruction and her experience have clearly taken root, for Isabella, as she is arrested, expresses the kind of trust in Providence that the Duke nurses out of the far side of despair:

                                                  O you blessed ministers above,
Keep me in patience, and with ripen'd time
Unfold the evil which is here wrapped up
In countenance!


As Darryl Gless explains, “the Duke's manipulations of Isabella result in a loss of all hope in worldly aid and a consequent real and utter dependence on divine ordinance.”21

This complete trust in heaven to resolve matters that are beyond the power of men to understand or control is the positive outcome of despair: to use Duke Vincentio's own words, “Do not satisfy your resolution with hopes that are fallible” (III.i.167-68). Instead, one must rely on faith alone, a faith that is both tested and strengthened through despair. In the words of Richard Hooker: “Too much honey doth turn to gall; and too much joy even spiritually would make us wantons. Happier a great deal is that man's case, whose soul by inward desolation is humbled, than he whose heart is through abundance of spiritual delight lifted up and exalted above measure.”22

Shakespeare dramatizes how the chief characters in this play, following different paths, all arrive at a point where they despair of their own powers. Stripped of all earthly assurance, they must learn to trust in heaven to achieve positive spiritual growth, to become in Hooker's words “happier a great deal.” Only out of despair can they receive those “heavenly comforts” that come when “least expected.” Through the good offices of the Duke, the action of Measure for Measure traces this spiritual progress.


  1. All references to Measure for Measure are to the Arden edition, ed. J. W. Lever (London: Methuen, 1965).

  2. In the section on Faith (#31) in the Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin wrote that only after the penitent “have divested themselves of all arrogance through recognition of their own poverty, have wholly cast themselves down, and have plainly become worthless to themselves, then at last they may begin to taste the sweetness of mercy which the Lord holds out to them” (trans. and annotated by Ford Lewis Battles, Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1986), pp. 63-64. For a discussion of the progression from despair to a state of “assurance of salvation,” see M. M. Knappen, Tudor Puritanism (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1970), pp. 393ff. As Rowland Wymer explains, “The sorrow for sin which could bring a person to despair was also a necessary first step to achieving a state of grace.” Suicide and Despair in the Jacobean Drama (New York: Harvester Press, 1986), p. 6. For an allied discussion see Martha Tuck Rozett, The Doctrine of Election and the Emergence of Elizabethan Tragedy (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1984). Susan Snyder has pointed out: “The whole Protestant emphasis on man's complete unworthiness and helplessness tended to reinforce the paradox of despair, to make it at once more necessary and more terrible. Luther in particular, proceeding from his own past agonizings over the inadequacies of confession and penance and the awful justice of God, his sudden seizures and black despondencies, placed despair of self at the very core of Christian experience.” “The Left Hand of God: Despair in Medieval and Renaissance Tradition,” Studies in the Renaissance 12 (1965):18-59, 23-24.

  3. Snyder, p. 28. William Tyndale, “Prologue Upon the Epistle of St. Paul to the Romans,” Doctrinal Treatises as quoted in Wymer, p. 6.

  4. According to Article 16 of the Thirty-nine Articles, which defined the doctrines of faith of the Church of England: “After we have received the Holy Ghost, we may depart from grace given, and fall into sin, and by the grace of God we may arise again and amend our lives. And therefore they are to be condemned which say, they can no more sin as long as they live here, or deny place of forgiveness to such as truly repent.” The Book of Common Prayer (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1928).

  5. For a discussion of these works and their popularity, see Louis B. Wright, Middle-Class Culture in Elizabethan England (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1935), ch. 8, and Beach Langston's account of books of devotion for the comfort of the dying (pp. 112-18) in “Essex and the Art of Dying,” HLQ 13 (1950):109-29.

  6. Robert Cleaver, Four Godlie and Fruitful Sermons: two preached at Draiton in Oxfordshire (1611).

  7. As quoted by Langston, pp. 115-16.

  8. William Perkins, Works 1:455-69 (1616-1618); A treatise tending unto a declaration whether a man bee in the estate of damnation, or in the estate of grace (London, 1591), pp. 6-7.

  9. For further discussion, see James Nohrnberg, The Analogy of The Faerie Queene (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1976), pp. 152-55, and Kathleen Williams, Spenser's World of Glass (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1966), p. 27.

  10. One can suggest a number of reasons why Shakespeare frequently presents characters who struggle with their despair: it was a concern of widespread interest for his audience; it often affected men in an extremely emotional and therefore highly dramatic manner; and since it is a subject of Corinthians, one of his favorite New Testament books, it may have attracted him personally.

  11. A problematic work whose central character is a ruling duke disguised as a friar naturally raises questions about the nature of political power as well as religion. As a consequence this play is especially appealing to new historicists, for example Stephen Greenblatt, Shakespearean Negotiations (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1988), and Leonard Tennenhouse, Power on Display: The Politics of Shakespeare's Genres (New York: Methuen, 1986). Greenblatt's discussion, for example, analyzes how both the church and the state benefitted from keeping the public “in a condition of what we may call salutary anxiety. … For the ruling elite believed that a measure of insecurity and fear was a necessary, healthy element in the shaping of proper loyalties, and Elizabethan and Jacobean institutions deliberately evoked this insecurity. Hence the church's constant insistence upon the fear and trembling … that every Christian should experience; hence too the public and increasingly spectacular character of the punishments inflicted by the state” (pp. 135-36). Ultimately, in Greenblatt's view, “the duke's strategy has not changed the structure of feeling or behavior in Vienna in the slightest degree,” and the play dramatizes Shakespeare's “ironic reflections on salutary anxiety” (pp. 141-42). Other critical approaches continue to find this play especially congenial: the psychoanalytic in Meredith Skura's The Literary Use of Psychoanalysis (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1981) and the literary and symbolic in Paul Hammond's “The Argument of Measure for Measure,ELR 16 (1986):496-519, and in Alexander Leggatt's “Substitution in Measure for Measure,SQ 39 (1988):342-59.

  12. Louise Schleiner, “Providential Improvisation in Measure for Measure,PMLA 97, 2 (March 1982):227.

  13. For a discussion of the Duke's character and a summary of critical judgments about him, see Cynthia Lewis, “‘Dark Deeds Darkly Answered’: Duke Vincentio and Judgment in Measure for Measure,SQ 34 (1983):271-89.

  14. For a discussion of the various attitudes toward death expressed in the play, see Phoebe S. Spinrad, “Measure for Measure and the Art of Not Dying,” TSLL 26 (1984):74-93.

  15. Philip Edwards, Shakespeare and the Confines of Art (London: Methuen, 1968), p. 118.

  16. Harriett Hawkins, Measure for Measure, Twayne's New Critical Introductions (Boston: Twayne, 1987), pp. 104-105.

  17. Richard A. Levin, “Duke Vincentio and Angelo: Would ‘A Feather Turn the Scale’?” SEL 22 (Spring 1982):257-70, 268.

  18. Philip Edwards, pp. 118-19.

  19. In his article “More Light on Measure for Measure,MLQ 23 (1962):309-22, Warren D. Smith finds, interestingly enough, that fourteen critics approve and thirteen disapprove of Isabella's conduct with her brother in this scene.

  20. Mary Lascelles, Shakespeare's “Measure for Measure” (London: Athlone Press, 1953), p. 88.

  21. Darryl J. Gless, Measure for Measure, the Law, and the Convent (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1979), p. 190.

  22. Richard Hooker, Sermon on the Certainty and Perpetuity of Faith in the Elect, included with Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (New York: Dutton, 1907), 1:6.

Ronald G. Shafer (essay date 1990)

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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 faith alone “frustrates” evil along with man's “cultivation of his own goodness” (72). Because Hamlet has not learned to believe in divine Providence, he is frustrated in his attempt to kill Claudius; he must recognize “the inability of man to execute the judgment of God” (77). Hamlet, at last attaining this moral insight, realizes “that heaven has preserved him,” faces death heroically, and submits to the will of God (80). Because he has completely yielded to his Sovereign Lord, he is finally able to destroy Claudius, “as a lawful act of public duty, that of a minister of God” (81). Hamlet at the end of the play is a “passive instrument in the hands of divine providence” (81). Thus, the play does not record man's defeat, but his “victory and salvation” (82) over the “mole of nature” which for Ribner is “original sin which beclouds man's reason” (83); “Without this struggle there can be no knowledge and no salvation” (88). For Ribner, however, the conflict is between original sin and submission to God's will and agency; I would characterize the conflict as being between two competing philosophies, Christianity and humanism.

To Shakespeare's contemporaries, the philosophy of humanism extolled human values and individual perception as truth. Man was deified because the philosophy enthroned his thinking over the law of God; in effect, it dethroned God as Sovereign of the universe. Such a philosophy seems to be the prevailing vision of Hamlet, and while humanistic thinking in the play is not confined to Hamlet himself, he does seem to embody its tenets. For instance, he believes that he is born to set right the Danish court—no talk here of “the Most High who ruleth in the kingdom of men and giveth it to whomsoever He will” (Daniel 4: 25); he rejects the notion that death is the vanquished foe which ushers in the new eternal state; he rejects God's moral law against suicide; he wishes to erase all commandments from his brain except the ghost's command to seek revenge. Hamlet would appear, in short, to be a first-order humanist, since for him personal thinking is the touchstone of truth and morality. A providentially-ordered world, in which God's will ought to prevail over man's temporal and capricious will, is a dimly recollected illusion.

Yet this view of Hamlet's humanism, which seems to yield in many ways a convincing and, to the modern mind, a satisfactory reading of the play is simplistic at best. An examination of biblical analogues in the play leads to an opposite view. Hamlet is at one point the humanist incarnate in the play, but is that philosophy characteristic of him? I will argue that Hamlet's humanism is a temporary flirtation which he resorts to during the trauma at the Danish court, that it disguises his strong affinity for orthodox and Christian values, that his dark night of the soul is caused by the influence of humanism and the rejection of his Christianity, and that he finally rejects this humanistic stance at the end of his life when he again reverts to traditional, Christian values.

This progression is worked out against a biblical backdrop which, always present though generally muted, offers a profound commentary upon the action of the play. Before charting this progression, however, we would do well to sample the play's rich biblical texture. Ophelia, for example, tells Polonius that Hamlet had buttressed his claims of love for her “With almost all the holy vows of heaven” (I. iii. 115), indicating a Hamlet steeped in traditional religious dogma: that is some young prince whose protestations of love are set in a religious framework! She tells Laertes not to show her “the steep and thorny way to heaven” (I. iii. 48)—certainly a biblical paraphrase of Christ's reference to the narrow way (Matthew 7: 14)—if he will not follow it himself. After the “To be” speech she invokes heaven twice to help Hamlet (III. ii. 135, 142), and during her madness her religious references intensify. As with most of Shakespeare's characters during fits of madness, the true terrain of her mind is then disclosed. Ophelia is no exception. In one song she laments that a maid fell from innocence, and in a later song (“And will 'a not come again”) she sings, “God 'a' mercy on his soul,” adding at the end of the song, “And of all Christians' souls, I pray God” (IV. v. 200-01). Ophelia's speech, in short, is laced with traditional, recognizable religious references.

Hamlet's use of biblical cognates is just as insistent. Upon seeing the ghost, he cries, “Angels and ministers of grace defend us!” (I. iv. 39). Past theological training serves him well and reminds him that the ghost may not be a ghost at all but a corporealized spirit being, possibly demonic. When he hears Rosencrantz say that the world has grown honest, he retorts, “then is doomsday near” (II. ii. 238). It takes no biblical scholar to refer to a religious event as commonplace as doomsday, but that he employs this eschatological term does offer a glimpse into his soul and an insight into his penchant for couching experience in religious terminology. It does, on the other hand, take a person with some in-depth familiarity with the Bible to call Polonius a Jephthah (II. ii. 411), an obscure biblical allusion found in the Book of Judges (Chapters 11 and 12). He counsels the players not to “out-herod Herod” (III. ii. 14), and he tells Ophelia that “virtue cannot so inoculate our old stock” (III. i. 118-19), a fairly obvious biblical throwback to the Pauline dialectic of the old and new man, which appears throughout the Pauline epistles. After the “To be” speech he entreats Ophelia to remember his sins in her prayers: “… in thy orisons / Be all my sins rememb'red” (III. i. 90-91). Would a person who really believed that man was the quintessence of dust in a godless world, where nothing was right or wrong except one's perception of it, have bothered?

Such biblical echoes are numerous in Hamlet's speeches, but they increase after the staging of Gonzago. During the speech Hamlet utters when Claudius is at prayer, he makes no fewer than four references to heaven. As he struggles to kill Claudius, his affinity for the moral law keeps appearing in the form of biblical phraseology. An interesting psychological truth is present here: Hamlet, drawing nearer to the destruction of Claudius, deliberately forsakes years of religious training and the moral law that had been the very basis of his life. As his conscious mind denounces that standard, his unconscious mind resorts to it all the more vehemently and feeds the conscious mind with biblical language. The two standards war in his mind. Such a classic irony: as he nears the fulfillment of his death plan, his spiritual nature asserts itself. Hamlet, oblivious to this war, registers only a profound depression because he has grieved the higher law of love.

Moments later in Gertrude's bedroom, he refers in quick succession to the cross (III. iv. 15), religion (l. 48), heaven (ll. 49, 60), judgment (l. 71), the devil (ll. 77, 169), virtue (l. 167), angel (l. 169), and grace (l. 151)—all stock in trade words from orthodox Christianity. He reminds us of a clergyman, armed with text, when he says to Gertrude, “Confess yourself to heaven, / Repent what's past, avoid what is to come” (III. iv. 156-57)—not a great deal different from John the Baptist or St. Paul preaching to wicked mankind. The anomaly is that this God-denying, Bible-rejecting, Claudius-destroying prince would admonish Gertrude with exclusively biblical precepts. Why is he so insistent that she align her life with such precepts when he is so far astray from them himself and when he denies their existence? Is he that hypocritical, or is the cry for her to repent actually a cry directed, albeit unknowingly, at his own soul? Is he holding up the mirror to Gertrude, or is the spirit part of Hamlet, his new man nature, holding up the mirror to the carnal part, his old man nature? I contend the latter as much as the former, which causes a radical change in Hamlet's behavior at the end of the play.

The biblical language continues into Act IV. When Hamlet talks with Claudius, he tells the king that Polonius is in heaven and that “man and wife is one flesh” (IV. iii. 56), an overt use of precise biblical wording. He refers to man's thinking as a “capability and god-like reason” (IV. iv. 38) which is not to go unused. Although his thinking is not “god-like” during his bout with humanism, he nevertheless realizes that man's reasoning is supposed to be sovereign, and he is enough of a renaissance biblical scholar to know that Satan kindles the carnal, unregenerated nature in man, just as God kindles the spiritually regenerated nature. In several different instances he inveighs against man's longing for greed and fame, the things of this temporal world, as when he says that Fortinbras' men will fight in Poland for an “eggshell” which is merely “tomb enough and continent / To hide the slain” (IV. iv. 64-65). The spirit part of him realizes that Alexander and Caesar are ashes used to stop a beer barrel (V. i. 207-14). These sound like the reflections of one preaching against the allurements of the carnal life which oppose the walk in the spirit. Though his conscious mind is tempted by the ghost to destroy, Hamlet cannot totally walk away from years of such spiritual indoctrination: in his mind he knows that the spiritual walk cannot be achieved in the energy of the flesh, but his actions are, for a time, inconsistent with that realization.

Of all Hamlet's speeches that resonate with a biblical tone, his instruction to Polonius on caring for the players is most remarkable:

God's bodkin, man, much better! Use every man after his desert, and who shall scape whipping? Use them after your own honor and dignity. The less they deserve, the more merit is in your bounty.

(II. ii. 529-32).

Here he instructs Polonius not to requite men in accord with what is due them, but in accord with his own personal sense of honor—that is, give more than they deserve, do unto them as you would have them do unto you, the Golden Rule again. Man is to be rewarded not for what he deserves or for what his performance merits but in a way that patterns God's love and grace.

The play is thus steeped in this religious thought and language, and that language extends to all characters, not just Ophelia and Hamlet. Polonius says anyone can “sugar o'er / The devil” (III. i. 48-9); the player queen speaks at length of fidelity in marriage (III. ii. 176-83); Claudius knows his offence is rank and smells to heaven (III. iii. 36); Gertrude knows she has violated Holy Writ by marrying her husband's brother: “Thou turn'st mine eyes into my very soul, / And there I see such black and grained spots / As will not leave their tinct” (III. iv. 90-93); when the grave diggers refer to Christian burial, the one in disbelief says to the other: “What, art a heathen? How dost thou understand the Scripture?” (V. i. 35-36).

Because Hamlet's soul, like the world of Denmark, is steeped in scriptural theology, the pertinent issue is what happens to Hamlet when he forsakes this teaching, when he abandons what Ophelia calls his “sovereign reason” (III. i. 160; my emphasis). The essence of Hamlet's thinking is its sovereign nature, a mind predicated on divine truth which provides him with an anchored base to withstand the raging vicissitudes of life, including the Danish court. When he disavows that theological standard, he is unmoored, indecisive, and disenchanted with life. Despite its attractiveness on the surface, a life grounded in his own standards overwhelms him, for it causes all action and thought to become arbitrary. A multiplicity of choices crushes him. Why act with determination when the next minute might reverse this decision? Harmony and equilibrium give way to a paralysis of the will. It is easier to drift than to decide, easier to revert to the carnal nature's ancestral voice of revenge than to assert the spirit nature's voice of love. The tides of mankind are toward the former, not the latter.

Having sampled the biblical analogues in the play, we are now able to note how the play carefully maps out Hamlet's transformation from a providentially governed standard to a humanistic one. Early in Act I, Marcellus comments that “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” (I. iv. 89). Horatio immediately responds by standing on the belief he—and Hamlet too—has always known, “Heaven will direct it” (I. iv. 90), thereby invoking the old sovereign standard: anything amiss in the kingdom of men will be rectified by an ever-present God. Not so with Hamlet: seeing the ghost, he responds, “whiles memory still holds a seat / In this distracted globe,” he will “wipe away all trivial fond records, / All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past / That youth and observation copied there” (I. v. 97-102). Hamlet will eradicate all previous learning which, in a moment, he reduces to trivial and foolish records, even though they have steadied him through all the perilous shoals of his life to this point. In a telling line he says that “thy commandment all alone shall live / Within the book and volume of my brain, / Unmix'd with baser matter” (I. v. 103-05). He will permit the ghost's new commandment to hate and kill supersede God's commandment to love and forgive. And, hypocritically, he enjoins heaven's blessings upon this abandonment of heaven's plan: “Yes, by heaven” (I. v. 105). This manifestation of his self-idolatry again reveals the struggle in Hamlet's heart: as he disavows the old morality he continues to use its lexicon, as evidenced in the word “commandment.” Ages of spiritual osmosis cannot be shed in a moment of even herculean self-resolve. In this same speech he says he wishes to erase all recollections from “the table of my memory,” an interesting use of the table metaphor that recalls the Pauline letter to the Corinthians, when St. Paul says that the Spirit of the living God is written “not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart” (II Cor. 3: 3). This is another illustration of the paradoxical Hamlet: he denounces the biblical ethic with biblical language. But equally important to our purpose here is to note the dramatic polarization of Horatio and Hamlet's responses: for Horatio, Heaven will direct anything amiss in the affairs of men, whereas Hamlet, by changing the commandment of the heart, will set it right himself without the assistance of Jehovah God.

The foregoing constitutes the first stage in his shift away from a sovereignly governed world. He fails to realize that God is in control, fashions his own vision of rectifying the state, and forsakes the command to love. His excessive lamentation over his father's death, which indicates an obdurate heart and failure to accept Heaven's will, reveals a deepening of the humanistic hold on his thinking. As is typical in Shakespeare's mature dramas, the person in the play one would least suspect, Claudius, articulates a profound truth when he speaks of Hamlet's “unmanly grief” and “a will most incorrect to Heaven” (I. ii. 94-95). Again, Hamlet is too enamored of his own heartbeat. His will that his father live predominates over God's will that he not live. That appears to be a subtle shift, but in point of fact it bespeaks a psychic change of the first magnitude: he has just crossed the great spiritual divide. Proof of that is his own admission, once he perceives reality solely from the viewpoint of a humanist standard, that the world is weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable. The longer this illusion exists, the greater the psychic damage it creates in Hamlet and those he poisons with it. Once he forsakes the notion of a world in which man has an ordered place, in which all works together for good, in which no problem is given man above what he is able to bear, in which no dilemma comes to man except that which God allows to filter through His own permissive will with the expressed intent of strengthening spirituality—once Hamlet forsakes that comforting ideology, he has no alternative but despair, and thus he contemplates his own death. Prior to his decision that self instead of God sat on the throne of his life, harmony existed. He was, as Ophelia tells us, “th' expectancy and rose of the fair state, / The glass of fashion and the mold of form, / Th' observ'd of all observers” (III. i. 155-57), living in a world where man, noble in reason, lived in a “goodly frame” (II. ii. 299, 305). Now his typically resilient optimism has been so effaced by humanism that he predicts future as well as present gloom: “it is not nor it cannot come to good” (I. ii. 158).

If the underpinnings of the play center on the dissolution of a religious morality in the heart of Hamlet, it comes as no surprise that Shakespeare spends some bit of time developing its opposite, the new creed of humanism. One of its obvious ideologues is Polonius who, in his parting words to Laertes (I. iii. 58-81), offers precepts that on the surface appear to be wholesome, even theological, but when perceived in the context of this thesis are age-old standbys of humanistic thought. Polonius instructs Laertes to be aware of his dress since appearance indicates the nature of the man inside. Is there any play when Shakespeare did not systematically attack that premise? He tells Laertes to avoid quarrels but when ensnared in one to manage it so as to win, another insight into his inverse of the Golden Rule. The quintessential humanist text of the play occurs at the end of this speech, “This above all: to thine own self be true.” In this speech, supposedly the clarion call to truth, lay the tragic root of Hamlet's demise, for his being true to self has actually caused him to be false to many; and once he begins the process of internalizing all reality and measuring it against the yardstick of self, he unwittingly loses himself in the labyrinthine jungle of self, an exemplar of the nation of Israel during the reign of the judges: “Every man did that which was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17: 6). Free from carrying the yoke of religious precept and bearing the bondage of servile responsibility to it, he learns in retrospect a profound paradox: that yoke had been real freedom, not enslavement, and the seeming freedom of living life by personal morality is incarceration.

Besides leading to perverse judgment, Polonius' advice occasions the play's supreme irony: the shallow thinking which Hamlet most acidly mocks is that of Polonius, yet it is Polonius' dictum, be true to self, that Hamlet, of all the characters in the play, follows most religiously. This irony has its equal: the self-centered action Hamlet rejects the most is Claudius' killing of Hamlet's father, yet in severing himself from the old Christian standard, which exists only in those who patiently wait on a sovereign God, Hamlet condemns himself to follow this same pattern of murder. Hating Polonius' babble, he nevertheless adheres to its command and becomes a babbler himself; hating Claudius' action of being a murderer, he nevertheless attempts to follow suit and becomes a murderer too. Polonius is the spokesman for the new creed of humanism, Claudius is a convert to it, and Hamlet, ironically, is the disciple who follows the lead of his mentors. Is this the utopia of freedom which he felt his severance from a Christian standard would create?

Certainly we would appear to be at the heart of one of the play's many philosophic messages. To live one's life at the center of God's will is to know certainty amid oceans of doubt—as Hamlet always did—while to step out of that will in a brazen assertion of self-will is to be pummeled by the billowing waves. Prior to his rejection of God's will, which occurs when he seeks his personal revenge (I. v. 32), Hamlet was the jewel of the nation, the paragon of sovereign reason. After his fall he becomes the curse of the nation with a reason “like sweet bells jangled” (III. i. 161). If the self is to be the new arbiter of morality and the old moral code is no longer operative, then man is left to rely on his reason alone, to devise his own system of right and wrong. If it is not God's standard, it has to be man's; there are only two options. When Hamlet says this, “for there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so” (II. ii. 249-50), he is not speaking in iambic pentameter—the line, that is, is not blocked off in poetry. In fact, all of Hamlet's speeches after his “O cursed spite, That ever I was born to set it right” (I. v. 189-90) appear in prose and not poetry, even though all other characters in these intervening scenes speak in poetry. How telling that Hamlet the poet speaks in prose, and how ironic that the linguistic alteration is the aftermath of his arrogant humanistic declaration. Is this accidental or the product of conscious artistry? I maintain that the loss of poetic eloquence mirrors Hamlet's psychic disarray. The life has gone out of the line, just as the soul has gone out of the man.

This change in language may be irrelevant to us, but we must note the Elizabethan attitude toward language. David Bevington is helpful on this point:

A key to understanding Shakespeare's language is to appreciate the attitude toward speech accepted by him and his contemporaries. Speech was traditionally and piously regarded as God's final and consummate gift to man. Speech was thus to Elizabethans a source of enormous power for good or ill. Truth, if truly uttered, was bound to prevail. To have heard truth and to have rejected it was an unnatural thing, a sign that Satan had entered the obdurate heart and had caused it to reject God's truth. Christians were bound to preach the Word, and to destroy that heretic who persisted in rejecting it. Hence the struggle to excel in eloquent utterance.

(Eastman 79)

Hamlet's continuing humanism causes him to regard events as the product of chance, “outrageous fortune” in his phrase; divine orchestration is not even considered. Death, the arch enemy, is from his point of view just as purposeless, “the undiscover'd country from whose bourn / No traveler returns (III. i. 80-81). This is Hamlet the humanist: wanting to die, rejecting God's will, quarreling with friends, seeing the world as cursed and chance-controlled, losing his poetic brilliance, perceiving himself as the harmony-restoring prince, delaying and mad.

He does not condemn himself to languish forever in this unhappy key. When his Christian values gain the ascendancy, he is able once again to gain control of his life. But the process is slow; it commences in the bedroom scene with Gertrude. He tells his mother that Heaven is, regarding her marriage to Claudius, “thought-sick at the act” (III. iv. 52) and that her sexual honeying is inappropriate. He is the moralist here who, as a result of being brought face to face with Gertrude's frailty, returns to his ante-humanist self. He is as Christian and moral in her presence as he had earlier been humanistic. The moral touchstone he uses to measure her spiritual ineptitudes condemns his own. Castigating her for the splinter in her eye forces him to an awareness of the log in his own. Gertrude knows Hamlet is turning her eyes into her soul, but she could never guess the extent to which he is turning his own eyes inward as well. The double standard finally reveals itself during this exchange. Granted, Gertrude's physical appetite may have clouded her judgment, but hers was no greater sin than Hamlet's contemplated murder of Claudius and his actual murders of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Perhaps there was room for Gertrude to assume a greater virtue, but her behavior was no worse than Hamlet's treatment of Ophelia during the staging of the play or, for that matter, than his treatment of his own mother.

The confrontation with Gertrude only partly explains his reversion to Christianity. The second appearance of the ghost is so shocking to Hamlet that it instinctively forces him back to his true self. Upon seeing the ghost, he blurts out a characteristic line: “Save me, and hover o'er me with your wings, / You heavenly guards!” (III. iv. 107-08). The line offers an insight into the true nature of Hamlet's soul: when confronted with real horror, he cries out to the angels to protect him, a ludicrous act, he indicated earlier, since angels are not a reality in a chance-controlled life. The appearance of the ghost strips Hamlet of his proud posturing of might and valor, rids him of his pompous talk of setting aright the realm, and discovers a scared young man whose reflexive response reveals an affinity for the God-ordered world, complete with ministering angels, which he, in an earlier egotistical moment, had forsworn.

Thus the dormant moral virtues in Hamlet's soul are awakened. The humanistic bent quickly demythologized, he fires at Gertrude a few volleys of biblical precepts. He says she ought “for love of grace” (III. iv. 151) to confess herself to heaven, to assume a virtue if she does not really possess it, and to refrain from illicit sexual union, when not much earlier he had spoken of fortune and absence of right or wrong, except as these exist in the mind. Hamlet, who previously indicated that morality exists internally in the human mind, not externally in the revealed and inspired Word of God, suddenly declares himself a spokesman for orthodox Christian values.

Hamlet's confrontation in the bedroom with his mother and the ghost enables him to see through the illusions that self-based wisdom has spawned. They are the watershed events that help him pulverize his own “puffed and libertine” humanistic illusions. Once their power is mitigated, he becomes a vessel capable of use by God, once again able to reactivate Christian values. In that humbled state, during which he is emptied of self, he is led to a revelation concerning the death of Polonius: “I do repent; but heaven hath pleas'd it so / To punish me with this, and this with me, / That I must be their scourge and minister” (III. iv. 180-82). Hamlet concludes that Heaven, not Hamlet, has orchestrated these events both to chastize the heady prince for his willful disobedience and to make him, in Bevington's gloss, the “agent of heavenly retribution.” It was, in short, Hamlet's intent to rid the kingdom of evil and set it straight in his way and in his time frame. That exalted humanistic intent has enabled him to accomplish little: instead of getting rid of Claudius, he merely delays and delays some more, experiences fractured relationships with Ophelia, Laertes, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern, and directly or indirectly causes the deaths of Ophelia, Gertrude, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern. But later, it “pleases” Heaven to use him as the “scourge” to purge the realm.

At the very moment Hamlet is disavowing belief in and boasting of his severance from God, God was holding Hamlet in His hand and tooling him to become the instrument to accomplish His will. Evil must be eradicated from the realm, and Hamlet will indeed be the agent to accomplish it, but only when he does it according to God's will and time frame, not his own. In perhaps the play's key line for supporting this thesis, Hamlet says, “There's a divinity that shapes our ends, / Rough-hew them how we will” (V. ii. 10-11). What a chasm between that statement and his earlier statement that he would shape events in the Danish kingdom toward order. This reference to a divinity-controlling universe is not the only evidence of Hamlet's radical return to Christianity. In regard to the presence of his dead father's seal on his person, which enabled him to prepare a new commission, Hamlet says, “even in that was heaven ordinant” (V. ii. 48). That is, God took care of even this minuscule detail, a point of view that totally contradicts his assessment of God during his humanistic phase, when he averred that one could only hope to dodge the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

This reassertion of a governing divinity also causes Hamlet to think anew regarding the death of Claudius. Earlier it was “my revenge,” Hamlet's personal desire to destroy taking precedence over and acting independently of God's will. Now he says it is “perfect conscience” (V. ii. 67) to repay him, thereby signalling a radical shift in motive. Retaliation will not be the typical act of selfish revenge flowing out of a mind drunk with hate. If he is to destroy Claudius now, it will be the inevitable, God-sanctioned justice that flows out of a conscience made perfect by Hamlet's denial of his egotistical humanism and by his waiting on God.

Other actions at the end of the play further document this change in Hamlet. Whereas in his earlier self-assertive stage he jumped into the grave to fight Laertes—“But I am very sorry, good Horatio, / That to Laertes I forgot myself” (V. ii. 75-76)—now he is governed not by personal passion but by a Christ-like meekness. The desire for revenge is replaced here by the desire to forgive. He admits events had whipped him earlier into a “tow'ring passion” (V. ii. 80), but now before the duel he nobly confesses to Laertes, “Give me your pardon, sir. I have done you wrong” (V. ii. 224). This spirit of love for others makes him decidedly Christ-like, as does his reference to his heavy heart—“But thou wouldst not think how ill all's here about my heart” (V. ii. 210-11). A difficult line, it cannot be explicated with any certainty, but it is interesting to note the similarity to the statement made by Christ who, right before facing His cross and self-destruction, also referred to His heavy heart: “My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death” (Matt. 26: 38). Both Christ and Hamlet die sacrificially, both purge evil from the social order by that death, both do not deserve death, both allude to a heavy heart, both are profoundly misunderstood, both seek personal will first—Christ had first requested His cup pass from Him before surrendering to God's will, just as Hamlet seeks his way first as well—and both attain a higher spirituality because of the adversity: certainly, Hamlet attains a higher spirituality because of his suffering, just as Christ was made perfect through suffering, as the writer of Hebrews explains: “For it became him [God] … to make the captain of their salvation [Jesus Christ] perfect through sufferings” (2: 10).

This array of religious references surrounding Hamlet clearly delineates his transformation. Immediately after he refers to his heavy heart, he says, “we defy augury” (V. ii. 217). Only belief in a shaping divinity will do for the regenerated Hamlet. Immediately thereafter, he says, “There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow” (V. ii. 217-18). Hamlet, even in his humanistic heyday, betrayed his soul's real first-love through language steeped in biblical antecedents, but by Act V it is not just vague biblical resonances but direct echoes of the language of Christ. The thought of God noting the fall of the sparrow hearkens back to Christ's statement in Matthew 10: 29, but the line is interesting for a second reason: it comes in the context of Hamlet and Horatio's discussion of Hamlet's duel with Laertes which Horatio says Hamlet will lose. Hamlet disagrees but concedes that even if he does, there is a “special providence in the fall of a sparrow,” thereby equating himself with a sparrow. That he calls himself a sparrow, a bird not held in high esteem by Elizabethans, suggests his emergent humility at the end of the play; he has come a long way from the proud prince who would singlehandedly set right the court and defy God in the process.

Building on the thought that a loving sovereign God cares for the destiny of a sparrow, Hamlet utters a line that more fully than any other in the play documents his about-face from his earlier humanism. In the “To be” speech he laments that death is the powerful foe that overshadows all human life and ultimately makes cowards of us all in our earthly enterprises. Now he says,

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.

(V. ii. 218-20)

This is God's Hamlet. No childish whimpering about the injustice of God's having fixed His canon against self-slaughter, no perverse fear about the undiscovered country. Rather, we see a stoic acceptance that flows out of a heart prepared to face death. Rejecting death indicates an obdurate heart stubbornly pitched against God's will; accepting death reveals a heart mature in its spiritual walk, a heart that knows that the deceptive baubles of this world are gilded illusions that distract one from his quest for spiritual enlightenment: “The readiness is all” (V. ii. 22). The message of the play is that only the spiritually mature can see this while the rest of us have trouble acquiescing to the arch enemy at any time. For Hamlet the days of mental anguish are past; he is the compliant servant about to do the bidding of his Lord.

Characteristically, Shakespeare offers a figurative encapsulation of Hamlet's winning over humanistic darkness and progressing into the kingdom of light. Claudius promises Hamlet a pearl if he makes the first hit. That seems a fairly innocuous detail in the larger flow and sweep of Hamlet, but sensitized to the biblical backdrop we look again at the metamorphosis in Hamlet: he knows God sees sparrows fall and governs nations; he begs his mother to repent; he forgives Laertes and begs Laertes to forgive him; he confesses genuine love for Ophelia (V. i. 268); he inquires about Gertrude's well-being during the duel (V. ii. 311); he calls Laertes his “brother” (V. ii. 241), just as Christ had said those who do the will of the Father are his brothers (Mark 3: 35). At the end of the play, in short, he is living in the kingdom of God. Now we consider the pearl again. Hamlet will give all for that pearl, because attaining the pearl, which cannot be won if he does not duel, means certain death, owing to Claudius' chicanery. This closely parallels Christ's story of the pearl of great price: “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls: who, when he found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it” (Matt. 13: 45-46). The merchant gave all he had to obtain the pearl, just as Hamlet must give all, including his life. Hamlet wins the pearl because only he dies to self, dies to humanism, and sacrifices all. Hamlet's right view of God gives him a right view of fellow man: he loves man so much he will lay down his life for him. Only the unblemished sheep, the most perfect specimen, is used for sacrifice; only that man who makes it to the lofty summit of self-annihilation is consecrated enough to be used of God for this high calling. Hamlet has moved the whole way from total self-indulgence to total self-obliteration.

Proud Hamlet with all that intelligence and creative power at his beck, is powerless in his God-denying days to eradicate the vicious evil that rots the kingdom. Broken Hamlet, who has been sifted by untold adversity, much of which he causes himself, is the pliable clay that can be molded as the master potter wills. The same sun that hardens the clay melts the wax. In this reading of the play one of the central messages centers on the uselessness of the impetuous, those who rush precipitously into blind action, in contrast to those who wait on the great I Am, for this waiting activates Him in the affairs of men; and once activated it matters little how many backup plans Claudius devises—poisoned cup, poisoned dagger—God will see that good wins over evil. Claudius was a formidable opponent for Hamlet, but against a Hamlet backed by God he is a whirling speck of nothingness: “if thou shalt indeed … do all that I speak, then I [God] will be an enemy unto thine enemies, and an adversary unto thine adversaries” (Exodus 23: 22).

Just as the pearl in the cup has a rich metaphorical application, so does the cup itself. Gertrude drinks from the cup, and immediately after Hamlet says, “I dare not drink yet, madam; by and by” (V. ii. 296). A seemingly vacuous line, it too assumes monumental significance when given a biblical exegesis. Christ also made reference to drinking from the cup on two separate occasions—when He asked James and John, who wanted to sit on either side of Christ in Heaven, if they were “able to drink of the cup that I shall drink of” (Matthew 20: 22), and when He prayed to God in Gethsemane to “let this cup pass from me” (Matthew 26: 39). He wished not to drink from the cup but later did, a reference to His crucifixion. Hamlet also says he will drink from the cup but only when he too is ready, that is, after he has been killed sacrificially to cleanse the realm of evil. In his dying speech he says to Horatio, “Give me the cup” (V. ii. 345), another parallel to Christ.

Does Fortinbras' command that Hamlet be given a soldier's burial square with this reading? In a humanistic reading of the play, Hamlet's military burial proved he had become his war-like father; the warrior/soldier in him had triumphed over the artist/creator. But in the context of this interpretation we are obligated to ask which soldier it is—the Danish soldier of war or the Pauline soldier of the cross with the breastplate of righteousness and his loins girt about with truth? The heavy use of biblical analogues lends credence to the latter. Fortinbras says, “Bear Hamlet, like a soldier, to the stage” (V. ii. 398), much like St. Paul had told Timothy to “endure hardness, like a good soldier of the cross” (II Timothy 2: 3).

Earlier, mad Ophelia had said, “Lord, we know what we are, but know not what we may be” (IV. v. 43-44). This provides a statement of the theme of the play: Hamlet suffers self-delusion, thinking he knows himself well. By the end, his odyssey from self-indulgence to enlightenment teaches him to define himself and his life, not in terms of immediate circumstances that surround him, however overwhelming those might be, not in terms of where he has been or is currently, but in terms of what the special Providence Who shapes our ends can work out in his life and lead him toward in the future. His journey from Christianity to humanism and return is complete by the end of the play. No wonder his last words are, “The rest is silence” (V. ii. 360). He makes it back to Christianity; once one attains that degree of Christlikeness there is nothing to be said, not even in the face of death.

Works Cited

Eastman, Arthur M. A Short History of Shakespearean Criticism. Lanham, NY: University Press, 1985.

Ribner, Irving. Patterns in Shakespearean Tragedy. London: Methuen, 1960.

Shakespeare, William. The Complete Works of Shakespeare. Ed. David Bevington. Glenview, IL: Scott Foresman, 1980.

Maurice Hunt (essay date 1993)

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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 represented in Twelfth Night less doctrinaire than critics have claimed. In particular, Shakespeare satirizes certain self-serving Puritan notions of Providence in order to highlight a more authoritative Providence that works generally rather than specifically through the natural causation of Time and Fortune. While this idea of Providence appears in the prose romances underlying the plots of Shakespeare's comedies, it also conforms to Hooker's description of a somewhat vague, generalized Christian Providence that operates remotely through this world's natural agents, such as time and tempest. After satirizing traits of Puritanism, Brownism, and Catholicism in Twelfth Night, Shakespeare approximates an Anglican perspective on Providence, but only in an ambiguous manner.

While amounting to a kind of fantasy land, the Illyria of Twelfth Night appears to be under God's jurisdiction, as the theological overtones of the play's title implies. Characters as different as Viola and Sir Andrew swear by or mention the Christian God. When Olivia vainly lifts her veil to show Cesario her face, Viola exclaims that it is “Excellently done, if God did all” (I.v.239).3 When, at Sir Toby's urging, Sir Andrew pens a challenge to Cesario, he concludes by writing “Fare thee well, and God have mercy upon one of our souls” (III.iv.167-68). Confronted by the duellist whom Sir Toby has built up into a formidable adversary, Viola murmurs an aside, “Pray God defend me” (III.iv.307). Characters' references to the devil, heaven, and hell complement their allusions to God. For example, in his “catechism” of Olivia, Feste says of her dead brother, “I think his soul is in hell, madonna” (I.v.66); she replies, “I know his soul is in heaven, fool” (I.v.67). Perhaps surprisingly, the character who most often mentions God is not Viola but Feste. Concerning Maria's punning contest with him, Feste concludes, “Well, God give them wisdom that have it; and those that are fools, let them use their talents” (I.v.14-15). And when Malvolio judges that “Infirmity, that decays the wise, doth ever make the better fool,” Feste quips, “God send you, sir, a speedy infirmity, for the better increasing your folly” (I.v.76-77). Feste's catechism of Olivia and his repeated reference to her as “Madonna” deepen the Christian overtones of his character. And yet as the mockery of this catechism and his role as the false curate Sir Topas suggest, the association of Feste and Christianity does not appear a serious one.4 Characters such as Viola frequently depict Feste's wit as barren and dry. This barrenness qualifies the spiritual advice that, disguised as the bogus prelate, he gives Malvolio, who is confined to a dark room.

After Maria hurriedly tells him to put on a gown and beard and make believe he is Sir Topas, Feste jokes, “Well, I'll put it on, and I will dissemble myself in't, and I would I were the first that ever dissembled in such a gown” (IV.ii.4-6). By means of these remarks, Shakespeare calls attention to the falsity of Feste's Christian persona. The errors in his Christian doctrine compound this falsity. Supposedly testing Malvolio's sanity by asking him what he thinks of Pythagoras's opinion concerning wild fowl, Feste receives the correct reply—“That the soul of our grandam might haply inhabit a bird” (IV.ii.53-54). When he asks his dupe what he thinks of Pythagoras's opinion, Malvolio implicitly endorses Christian doctrine, which does not include that of reincarnation: “I think nobly of the soul, and no way approve his opinion” (IV.ii.56-57). Feste, however, affirms the non-Christian principle of reincarnation when he replies, “Fare thee well: Remain thou still in darkness. Thou shalt hold th' opinion of Pythagoras ere I will allow of thy wits, and fear to kill a woodcock lest thou dispossesss the soul of thy grandam. Fare thee well” (IV.ii.58-62). By speaking of the wild fowl as a woodcock, the Elizabethan aviary type of silliness, Feste indirectly calls Malvolio fool by heredity. Nevertheless, Feste's doctrine separates him from the Christian role he plays. In fact, his allusion to the transmigration of souls acts as a foil to the preferred epiphanies of the play. Rather than the sudden manifestations of a redemptive, hidden identity, such as those seen in Sebastian, Olivia, and Viola in the last scenes of the play, Feste's notion of reincarnation leads auditors away from the play's focus upon the epiphany of spiritual incarnation.

Regarded from the perspective of the topsy-turvy customs of Twelfth Night—a time when asses ceremoniously progressed down cathedral aisles and when “naturals,” or village idiots, impersonated the parish priest5—Feste's assumed and mistaken Christianity plays its part in a dramatic design with a relatively solemn religious conclusion: the celebration of the epiphanic occasion when divinity within mankind first became apparent.6 Nevertheless, specific challenges to Christianity as a whole within Twelfth Night question the conclusion that Feste's playing Sir Topas finds its place neatly within an orthodox Christian ritual. For example, at one point Sir Andrew asserts that he has “no more wit than a Christian or an ordinary man has” (I.iii.82-83). Equally qualifying of standard Christian orthodoxy read into the play are the characters' many allusions to different ruling deities and non-Christian schemes. Even characters who mention God speak of other providences, a fact which clouds readings that claim that the play categorically celebrated the Epiphany in secular forms.

“Thou has spoke for us, madonna,” Feste at one point tells Olivia, “as if thy eldest son should be a fool: whose skull Jove cram with brains” (I.v.113-15). Feste refers to the classical deity again in his response to Viola's gift of a coin: “Now Jove, in his next commodity of hair, send thee a beard” (III.i.45-46). Moreover, Viola, upon landing on the Illyrian seacoast, tells the Captain that she believes her brother “is in Elysium” (I.ii.4). Granted that the word “heaven” would not have juxtaposed itself as melodiously with the mention of Illyria in the preceding verse, Shakespeare makes his heroine's classical term for the afterlife more understandable by giving her initially a belief in Chance rather than Providence. “Perchance he is not drown'd,” she states; “What think you, sailors?” (I.ii.5). The subsequent dialogue stresses the absence of faith in Providence. “It is perchance that you yourself were sav'd,” the Captain remarks. “O my poor brother! and so perchance may he be.” Viola replies. “True, madam,” the Captain continues, “and to comfort you with chance,”

Assure yourself, after our ship did split,
And you and those poor number sav'd with you
Hung on our driving boat, I saw your brother,
Most provident in peril, bind himself
(Courage and hope both teaching him the practice)
To a strong mast that liv'd upon the sea;
Where, like Arion on the dolphin's back,
I saw him hold acquaintance with the waves
So long as I could see.


Interestingly, Chance rules earthly affairs in the Captain's account; in his opinion, it is mankind, not God, who acts providentially in times of peril. “Provident in peril,” self-reliant Sebastian bound himself to a mast. If anything, the metaphysics implicit in the Captain's speech is existential. Rather than comforting Viola with Chance, the Captain has comforted her with a portrait of a hopeful, brave brother who enacts his own providence in a world of accident.

The Captain's portrait of shipwreck vaguely resembles Sir Philip Sidney's speaking picture in the Arcadia of Pyrocles and Musidorus afloat amid the wreckage of their ship. The nonspecific resemblance reminds the playgoer that the conventions of Elizabethan romance undergird Twelfth Night. John F. Danby has described Sidneyan romance (and the English Renaissance literature derived from it) as composed of a series of concentric rings, the innermost dominated by characters' mistaken belief in Chance and Fate and the outermost ruled by Nature and Christian Providence, which directs heroes to a prosperous end despite their erroneous trust in Fortune or Fate. In the literal unfolding of Sidneyan romance and its derivatives, the hero and heroine usually pass from the belief in Chance or Fate to the conviction of Providence, a guiding design which is Christian in its overtones if not always in its name.7 Granted Shakespeare's portrayal of Viola's endorsement of Chance, the playgoer might expect the later staging of her recognition of Providence as the Art of God that directs apparently lethal events such as shipwrecks to unexpectedly joyous conclusions.

That acknowledgement, however, does not occur in Twelfth Night. Or if it does, its staging is so ambiguous as to be unrecognizable. When she is not trusting her own quick wits, Viola relies upon Time and Fortune for her salvation. Once resolved to serve Orsino as Cesario, a musical eunuch, Viola exclaims, “What else may hap, to time I will commit” (I.ii.60). Her trusting Time in this case elaborates her previous wish that she “might not be deliver'd to the world” until she has made her “own occasion mellow” (I.ii.42-43)—where “mellow” connotes a benign ripeness created by Time. In Ilyria, Viola turns not to God or Providence but to Time as the agent of a ripening process, a process which will present her with opportune moments that might be seized and wrought into her happiness. In this respect, she is the female counterpart of the young man of the sonnets who read Shakespeare's carpe diem advice. When opportune moments do not materialize as quickly as Viola may have supposed, she never loses her faith in Time: “O time, thou must untangle this, not I” (II.ii.38), she laments concerning the barren love triangle formed by Orsino's, Olivia's, and her own unrequited affections. And when she first realizes that Olivia may have fallen in love with Cesario, she remarks, “Fortune forbid my outside have not charm'd her” (II.ii.17). These references in Viola's speech may convince playgoers that Shakespeare was either careless or unconcerned with dramatizing a single ruling deity in Twelfth Night, a deity comparable to the Jupiter of Cymbeline or the Apollo of The Winter's Tale.

Nevertheless, Shakespeare's sustained satire of a Puritan notion of Providence suggests that Twelfth Night, in its broader strokes, apparently conforms to a single metaphysical design, that of Elizabethan Anglicanism. An anti-Puritan bias surfaces in one of Sir Andrew's casual comments. Hearing Sir Toby maintain that only “some laudable attempt, either of valour or policy” on Sir Andrew's part can regain Olivia's supposed affection for the knight, Sir Andrew replies, “An 't be any way, it must be with valour, for policy I hate: I had as lief be a Brownist as a politician” (III.ii.29-31). In the words of G. L. Kittredge, a Brownist was a “follower of Robert Browne, an extreme Puritan, founder of the Congregational form of church government (59).8 Through Sir Toby's remark, Shakespeare associates Puritanism with the practice of an Italianate vice, policy.9 In The Picture of a Puritane (1605), a dialogue between a Protestant and a Puritan (to the extreme disadvantage of the latter character), Oliver Ormerod has the Protestant tell the Puritan, “For it is not unknown to any that hath had any dealing with you in wordly affairs, how crafty and subtle you are in all your dealing.”10 Malvolio, the puritanical character in the play, prides himself upon both his knowledge and practice of policy. “Marry sir, sometimes he is a kind of Puritan” (II.iii.140), Maria asserts. “The devil a Puritan that he is, or anything constantly, but a time-pleaser, an affection'd ass that cons state without book, and utters it by great swarths” (II.iii.146-49). Like Viola, Malvolio, in Maria's remark, trusts in time; pleasing time, however, is not the same thing as mellowing time or seizing the opportune moment. Shakespeare reverses the Elizabethan stock identification of policy as a “bad” Catholic (Italian/Spanish) practice by having Maria, whose name has Catholic overtones (especially strong in the context of the play's allusions to the Annunciation and Madonna), justly practice upon the Puritan Malvolio, “out-policying” and punishing the politician who delights in secret codes and love-games. Part of Maria's gulling of Malvolio invloves satirizing the narrow, self-serving idea of Providence as the economic reward of the religious elect.

In the case of Malvolio, this narrow idea is associated with the god Jove. Analysis of Twelfth Night discovers that passive or deluded characters regularly swear by Jove or Fate. For example, in act I, passive, withdrawn Olivia calls upon Fate to bestow Cesario upon her: “Fate, show thy force; ourselves we do not owe. / What is decreed must be: and be this so” (I.v.314-15). Sharply contrasting with Viola, who seizes the moment to disguise herself so that she may be protected by Orsino, inactive Olivia imagines Fate seizing Cesario and herself to forge a love bond. Likewise, Sebastian's depression over the loss of his sister and his worldly goods expresses itself in a belief in Fate. “My stars shine darkly over me,” he tells Antonio; “the malignancy of my fate might perhaps distemper yours” (II.i.3-5). Rather than Fate, Malvolio credits Jove with ruling his life, giving him Olivia as a wife. Herschel Baker has noted that English Puritans “insisted that providence be acknowledged as the surest sign of God's sovereignty.”11 The delusion springing from Malvolio's self-love includes a non-Christian deity intent on materially rewarding the egotistical “Puritan.” Significantly, it is Maria who plants this idea of providence in his imagination. The first verses of the forged “coded” letter that Malvolio reads aloud name the father of the gods:12

Jove knows I love;
But who?
Lips, do not move,
No man must know.


In the letter itself, Malvolio reads, “Thy fates open their hands, let thy blood and spirit embrace them” (II.v.146-47). And at the end, he reads, “Go to, thou art made, if thou desir'st to be so. If not, let me see thee a steward still, the fellow of servants, and not worth to touch Fortune's fingers” (II.v.154-57). Maria signs the letter “The Fortunate Unhappy” (II.v.159). By implying that Fortune has given Malvolio the opportunity to woo Olivia, Maria has appealed to Malvolio's irreligious belief that Chance rules mortal affairs. Even before he sees the dropped letter, musing upon Olivia, he murmurs to himself, “'Tis but fortune, all is fortune” (II.v.23). And yet the letter's reference to Jove changes metaphysically irresolute Malvolio's idea of the deity ruling all human things. Deluded into believing that Olivia loves him, Malvolio thanks his stars, his horoscope, for his happiness, quickly qualifying his belief in astrological determinism by adding the name of the god appearing in the letter: “Jove and my stars be praised” (II.v.173-74). And when he continues to read and discovers that presumably Olivia would have him continually smile in her presence, he concludes, “Jove, I thank thee. I will smile” (II.v.178).

That Shakespeare intends these non-Christian references to manifest a certain irresoluteness, even error in religious belief, is indicated by a remark of Maria's in act III. Referring to Malvolio's yellow stockings, cross-gartering, and silly smiling, she tells her fellow plotters, “If you desire the spleen, and will laugh yourself into stitches, follow me. Yond gull Malvolio is turned heathen, a very renegado; for there is no Christian that means to be saved by believing rightly can ever believe such impossible passages of grossness. He's in yellow stockings” (III.ii.65-70). Kittredge notes that by the turn of the seventeenth century cross-gartering was a fashion associated only with old men and Puritans, while Queen Elizabeth disliked the color yellow because it appeared in the flag of Spain (48). Maria implies that her forged letter, which has been called an epistle, amounts to a religious tract testing the Christian faith of its reader. Crediting Jove and his stars rather than God or Providence for the gift of Olivia, Malvolio fails the test. Regarded from an Anglican viewpoint, Malvolio is a heathen, a renegade to the true English church. His stockings suggest allegiances to both the Puritan and Catholic faiths, a doctrinal impossibility in keeping with the mad atmosphere of Illyria.

Shakespeare focuses the crassness latent in some Puritans' notion of Providence by having Malvolio thank Jove for making him materially rich. Regarding Olivia's sending of Sir Toby to him as a veiled fulfillment of part of the letter, Malvolio assumes that he and Olivia have engaged in a secret duet of policy: “O ho! do you come near me now? No worse man than Sir Toby to look to me! This concurs directly with the letter” (III.iv.64-66). Malvolio's deity delights in the practice of policy and rewards subjects who do likewise for their own materialistic ends. “I have limed her,” Malvolio gloats, “but it is Jove's doing, and Jove make me thankful” (III.iv.74-75). “Well, Jove, not I, is the doer of this, and he is to be thanked” (III.iv.83-84). It will be recalled that Malvolio's selfish attraction to Olivia is not so much to her person as to her riches. His fantasies of married life with her revolve not around her beauteous person but around “Count Malvolio” (II.v.35), sitting in a “branched velvet gown,” “having come from a day-bed, where [he has] left Olivia sleeping,” later playing with “some rich jewel” while he lords it over Sir Toby and the lighter folk (II.v.47-81). Malvolio's thanking Jove for the expected fulfillment of a materially enriching destiny highlights the unchristian idea of a self-centered providence, one associated in Twelfth Night with Elizabethan Puritans rising through commerce and time-pleasing and thanking the supreme deity for their riches.

In The Redemption of Time (1606), the Banbury Puritan William Whatley argues that men should “buy out the Time, to traffique with it, as men do with wares … Good hours and opportunities and merchandize of the highest rate and price: and whosoever will have his soul thrive, must not suffer any of these bargains of Time to pass him, but must buy up, and buy out all the minutes thereof.”13 Concerning this passage, G. F. Waller has concluded that “the accommodation of Puritanism to the merchant's appreciation of the commercial value of time is plain” (24). For a Puritan like Whatley, God's Providence presents moments that the elect recognize and personally seize for their material gain. Foolishly Malvolio has made the discovered “epistle” signify what he selfishly wills it to mean; Shakespeare implicity satirizes the Puritan practice of interpreting scripture by no other light than that afforded by the solitary reader's crass needs and desires.

Olivia's belief that Satan possesses Malvolio after he has conformed his behavior to his willful reading of the epistle further defines Shakespeare's attitude toward the notion of Providence represented by the gull. When Sir Toby, Fabian, and Maria torment Malvolio by assuming that he is mad, they urge him to defy the devil through the power of prayer. “My prayers, minx?” (III.iv.122), Malvolio surlily responds to Maria. “No, I warrant you, he will not hear of godliness” (III.iv.123), she concludes, focusing the general irreligion apparent in Malvolio throughout the episode of his gulling. Olivia's single reference to Christian deity—“God comfort thee!” (III.iv.32)—addresses Malvolio's supposed madness; by altering Olivia's faith in this one instance, Shakespeare throws into relief the ungodly opinions that have prompted Malvolio to act as though he were possessed by the Devil. The playwright continues to stress the sacrilegious attitudes fueling Malvolio's “madness” when Feste in act V, referring to Malvolio's letter to Olivia, asserts, “[B]ut as a madman's epistles are no gospels, so it skills not much when they are delivered” (V.i.285-87). By couching his explanation of the tardiness of delivery in this religious language, Feste (and Shakespeare through him) reminds playgoers of the sacrilegious epistle catalyzing Malvolio's ungodly beliefs and behavior, which are based in an unpleasant egotism at odds with the charitable messages of the true gospel.

Nevertheless, Malvolio's only explicit reference to Christian deity appears in his “mad” epistle. His letter to Olivia begins “By the Lord, madam” (V.i.301). By this salutation, Shakespeare may be suggesting that Malvolio's suffering has amounted to a kind of purgatory, refining his faith into a less self-serving and more orthodox form of worship. Such a refinement of faith would complement that which occurs within Olivia in the later scenes of Twelfth Night. In keeping with the play's celebration of the Epiphany (the Festival of Light), Olivia characterizes her imminent marriage to Sebastian in the following terms: “Then lead the way, good father,” she tells the priest who will unite them; “and heavens so shine / That they may fairly note this act of mine!” (IV.iii.34-35). Not Fate, not the stars (those divine forces invoked by Olivia earlier)—but a true priest gives her Sebastian in wedlock, a marriage celebrated under a “consecrated roof” (IV.iii.25) in an orthodox religious fashion (V.i.148-61).

And what of Viola? Do the events of the play refine her faith into a conviction more recognizably Christian than her early references to Elysium, Fortune, and Time suggest? When Antonio first mistakes her for Sebastian, calling her by her brother's name, Viola, once she is alone on the stage, ecstatically exclaims,

He nam'd Sebastian. I my brother know
Yet living in my glass; even such and so
In favour was my brother, and he went
Still in this fashion, colour, ornament,
For him I imitate. O if it prove,
Tempests are kind, and salt-waves fresh in love!


Tempests and the sea remain the most specifically defined agents of Providence in Viola's world view. She never moves beyond the outer ring of Nature of God, who, in the scheme of Sidneyan romance, orders Nature by his divine Art.

In this respect, Shakespeare's characterization has an Anglican, specifically a Hookerian cast. “Nature therefore is nothing else but God's instrument” Hooker argued in Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity.14 What is Providence to God, working His will through natural agents and processes, goes by different names among men:

Only thus much is discerned, that the natural generation and process of all things receiveth order of proceeding from the settled stability of divine understanding. This appointeth unto them their kinds of working; the disposition whereof in the purity of God's own knowledge and will is rightly termed by the name of Providence. The same being referred unto the things themselves here disposed by it, was wont by the ancient to be called natural Destiny.15

Like Shakespeare in Twelfth Night, Hooker sees no contradiction between Providence and Destiny, simply because God works generally (that is, remotely) through natural agents such as sea tempests rather than by miracle or direct relevation to form designs that people at different times in different cultures name variously. “The manner of this divine efficiency, being far above us,” Hooker states, “we are no more able to conceive by our own reason, than creatures unreasonable by their sense are able to apprehend after what manner we dispose and order the course of our affairs” (159). Thus Viola, unable to grasp directly the pattern of Providence, reasons that its agents, tempests and salt waves, are fresh in love. Still, the joyous design is God's: “Those things which nature is said to do, are by divine art perform'd, using nature as an instrument; nor is there any such art or knowledge divine in nature herself working, but in the Guide of nature's work” (159). Performed most likely on Twelfth Night (January 6th) and definitely on Candlemas (February 2, 1602),16Twelfth Night, after all, celebrates in delightful secular form key events in God's design such as the Epiphany and the Purification of the Virgin Mary.

Along with salt waves and tempests, the Anglican God as defined by Hooker realizes His Providence through the agency of time, which Viola chiefly trusts to work her happiness. Unlike Malvolio's conception of Jove's providence, Viola's idea of providence has no place for the reward of narrow, self-serving motives. Tempests and sea storms reward the needs and wishes of suffering mortals when characters are self-sacrificing in the pursuit of others' happiness. Such an assumption may or may not have matched Shakespeare's idea of Anglican Providence. Viola's idea of providence is less knowable, more truly mysterious than Hooker's admittedly removed God. It looks ahead to the enigmatic agents guiding the characters on Prospero's island—and perhaps Prospero himself.


  1. See both Renaissance Drama and the English Church Year (Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1979) 77-89, 94-101; and Faith and Folly in Shakespeare's Romantic Comedies (Athens: U of Georgia P, 1980) 149-75, esp. 149-53, 162, 166-67.

  2. Maurice Hunt, “Twelfth Night and the Annunciation,” Papers on Language and Literature 25 (1989): 264-71.

  3. All quotations of Twelfth Night are taken from the Arden edition, ed. J. M. Lothian and T. W. Craik (London: Methuen, 1975).

  4. For the contrary view—that Feste's foolishness as curate exemplifies an Erasmian or Pauline wisdom—see R. Chris Hassel, Jr., Faith and Folly 149, 150, 153, 164-165, 169-75.

  5. The topsy-turvy customs are described by C. L. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy (1959; Cleveland: World, 1963) 25; and by Marion B. Smith, Dualities in Shakespeare (Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1966) 114.

  6. The epiphanic motif in Twelfth Night has been elucidated by, among others, John Hollander, “Twelfth Night and the Morality of Indulgence,” Sewanee Review 67 (1959): 234; Barbara K. Lewalski, “Thematic Patterns in Twelfth Night,Shakespeare Studies 1 (1965): 177-78; Smith 110-22; Richard Henze, “Twelfth Night: Free Disposition on the Sea of Love,” Sewanee Rivew 83 (1965): 267-68; Hassel, Renaissance Drama 77-86; and Cynthia Lewis, “Viola, Antonio, and Epiphany in Twelfth Night,Essays in Literature 13 (1986): 187-99.

  7. See Poets on Fortune's Hill: Studies in Sidney, Shakespeare, Beaumont, and Fletcher (1952: Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1966) 74-107.

  8. Twelfth Night, ed. George Lyman Kittredge and rev. by Irving Ribner, The Kittredge Shakespeares (Waltham, MA; Ginn, 1966) 59. For negative contemporary portrayals of Brownism, including the belief that two notorious 1607 murderers (Wilson and Petterton) were Brownists, consult G. B. Harrison, A Second Jacobean Journal, Being a Record of Those Things Most Talked of During the Years 1607 to 1610 (Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1958) 23, 112.

  9. For the Puritanical case of Brownism, see G. B. Harrison, A Jacobean Journal, Being a Record of Those Things Most Talked of During the Years 1603-1606 (London: George Routledge & Sons, 1946) 176. In Basilikon Doron (1603), King James equates Brownists with Puritans: “Of this special sect I principally mean, when I speak of Puritans; divers of them, as Browne, Penrie, and others, having at sundry times come in Scotland, to sow their people amongst us …” (Lawrence Sasek, ed., Images of English Puritans: A Collection of Contemporary Sources [Baton Rouge: Louisiana UP, 1989] 219).

  10. Quoted in Sasek 248.

  11. The Wars of Truth (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1952) 15.

  12. Harold Bayley, in A New Light on the Renaissance (1909; New York: Benjamin Blom, 1967), has demonstrated that secret paper codes were a practice of certain Medieval and Renaissance dissenting sects.

  13. Quoted by G. F. Waller, The Strong Necessity of Time: The Philosophy of Time in Shakespeare and Elizabethan Literature (The Hague: Mouton, 1976) 24.

  14. Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (London: Dent, 1907) 160.

  15. Hooker 159-60. For a description of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Protestant ideas of Providence, see Wilbur Sanders, The Dramatist and the Received Idea: Studies in the Plays of Marlowe and Shakespeare (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1968) 110-20.

  16. A performance of Twelfth Night on Candlemas, February 2, 1602, is noted in the diary of the lawyer and playgoer John Manningham.

Julia Reinhard Lupton (essay date 1997)

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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 inflexion to theological anti-Judaism—is already a “culturalist” racism. … in many respects the whole of current differentialist racism may be considered, from the formal point of view, as a generalized anti-Semitism. This consideration is particularly important for the interpretation of contemporary Arabaphobia, especially in France, since it carries with it an image of Islam as a “conception of the world” which is incompatible with Europeanness.1

Mapping contemporary neo-racism onto the deep structures of anti-Semitism, Balibar derives the anti-Islamic strain in contemporary politics from the long tradition of anti-Jewish thought in Western historiography. Following Balibar's diagnosis, I argue here that Shakespeare's Othello provides a canonical articulation of this protoracism insofar as the play fashions the Muslim in the image of the Jew according to the protocols of Pauline exegesis; in Balibar's terms, Othello stages a “culturalist” rather than biologistic ordering of intergroup relations, a religiously grounded discourse barely visible from the vantage point of the modern racial theories that have since displaced it, yet intermittently readable in the strange light of the neoracism that has emerged in recent years.

A fundamental religious ambiguity vexes the racialization of Othello throughout the play; although his professed Christianity authorizes Othello's place in Venice, the play never decisively determines whether he has converted from a pagan religion or from Islam. I argue that the black Centile of a universal church undergirds Othello's opening narrative of international romance, but that this divine comedy of pagan conversion is continually shadowed by the more troubling possibility of Othello's entrance into Christianity via its disturbing neighbor, Islam. This secondary scenario, which subsumes Islam within what Balibar calls “a generalized anti-Semitism,” situates the Moor in both greater proximity with and greater resistance to Christian Revelation than the pagan, who is conceived as a blank slate more open to a transformative Christian reinscription. These categories and their peculiar constellation in the play are inherited from Saint Paul's division of humanity into Greek, Jew, and barbarian, national differences that are sublated in the ideal of the universal church. Yet this is an always-future universality, which is projected by the continued dialectic between the open embrace of the Christian message on the one hand and the residual ethnic exclusivism represented by the Jews on the other, a tension that provides a foundational mapping of the Western ethno-political field. In the typological schemes of the Renaissance, Islam represents a double scandal, the catastrophic bastardization of both Christian universalism—through the seductive danger of the Islamic world mission—and Jewish particularism, represented by Muslim allegiance to ritual laws and to an Abrahamic monotheism without Christ.

Disclosing the play's reliance on the Pauline division of the nations necessarily reorients the current color-based approach to the play, in which the scandal of “monstrous” miscegenation inherited from the nineteenth-century racial Imaginary has come to govern Othello's economy of differences.2 Indeed, if we insist on grafting the typically modern question of Othello's color onto the problem of Othello's religion, the results might not fall where we expect them. Looking from Venice west and far to the south, toward pagan Africa and the New World, Othello would appear darker skinned, barbarian, and perhaps more capable of a full conversion because of his religious innocence. Looking east, toward Arabia and Turkey, and to the northern parts of Africa, Othello would become a Muslim-turned-Christian, probably lighter skinned than his Gentile version, inheritor of a monotheistic civilization already marked by frequent contacts with Christian Europe and hence more likely to go renegade. Whereas for the modern reader or viewer a black Othello is more subversive, “other,” or dangerous, in the Renaissance scene a paler Othello more closely resembling the Turks whom he fights might actually challenge more deeply the integrity of the Christian paradigms set up in the play as the measure of humanity. Critics have rightly decried the nineteenth-century movement to “whiten” or “orientalize” Othello.3 It is certainly not my intention to return to such a project but rather to insist that this move in the nineteenth century took place within an already racialized discourse, whereas in Othello religious difference is more powerfully felt than racial difference, which was only then beginning to surface in its virulent modern form. Rather than deciding what color Othello “really” is, I argue that the play initially draws moral and physiological “blackness” away from the diabolical and bestial imagery manipulated by Iago into the more positive circuit of the Gentile barbarian, a recuperation that in turn is undercut by the potential attraction between the “Moor” and the “Mohammedan.” Shakespeare does not use Christianity to rise above color-based racism so much as his play renders visible the blindspot of ethnos that mortgages the inclusive vision of Christian humanism, a blindspot marked above all by the unerasable yet nongenetic scar of circumcision in Shakespeare's Venetian plays.


Othello, one of Shakespeare's middle tragedies, has often been read as a rewriting of The Merchant of Venice: both are set in the mercantile city-state of Venice, both employ clearly marked “others,” and both use the theme of conspicuous exogamy to heighten the conventional comedic situation of young lovers blocked by an old father. Merchant exhibits a comedic structure sharply typological in its countering of Jewish justice and Christian mercy, a set of scriptural coordinates more carefully submerged yet all the more powerfully at work in Othello as well. Iago's cry to Brabantio, “Look to your house, your daughter, and your bags,” clearly recalls Shylock's wail, “‘My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter,’” and Brabantio, like Shylock, is promised “the bloody book of the law” in recompense for the loss of his daughter.4 Yet Brabantio of course is no Jew, but one of the “brothers of the state,” a citizen and senator in this Christian maritime republic (Othello 1.2.98). The figure of Brabantio instantiates the type not so much of the Jew per se as of the Jewish Christian addressed by Saint Paul in his epistles to the Romans and the Galatians.

Paul opens the Epistle to the Romans by insisting on the inclusiveness of his message:

I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish; so I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome. For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to every one who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.5

In the first line, Paul expresses his obligation “to Greeks and to barbarians,” taking up the Hellenistic division of the world between civilized Greek-speakers and inarticulate non-Greeks. Paul then extends his message to the Christian community in Rome, implicitly linked here to the Greeks as the modern inheritors of classical culture.6 The next verse moves from the Hellenistic opposition between Greeks and barbarians to the Hebraic division of peoples between Jews and Gentiles; Paul's judicious phrasing, “to the Jew first and also to the Greek,” recognizes the historical priority of the Jews in the reception of Revelation, yet insists as well on the necessary dissemination of that message to the second, larger group of Greeks. The Hellenistic and Hebraic theories of the nations condensed in Paul's address to the Romans likely responds to the unhappy split of his audience between Gentile and Jewish converts to Christianity, the first group having no natural relation to the Hebrew Scriptures so central to Pauline hermeneutics, and the second circle still deeply invested in the laws of the Torah.7 Finally, these lines, like the epistle in general, acknowledge and reconcile the claims of both groups in the new church by presenting faith as the common sign of righteousness for all Christians.

The legacy of Romans to the Western discourse of the nations is caught between Paul's urge to discount the legal observances of contemporary Jews on the one hand and to grant historical significance to the Jews as a people on the other, impulses that equally stem from Paul's sense of the Jews as an ethnos, a tribe or nation bound by a common language, law, and genealogy. Unlike Galatians, Romans does not forbid the observance of Jewish laws such as circumcision, but makes them adiaphora, matters of doctrinal indifference; put otherwise, such practices are (merely) cultural—belonging to the domain of communal custom, which, though not harmful and sometimes even positively good, nonetheless have no significance in the drama of salvation. In Daniel Boyarin's judgment, although Paul's project “is not anti-Semitic (or even anti-Judaic) in intent, it nevertheless has the effect of depriving continued Jewish existence of any reality or significance in the Christian economies of history.”8 The triumph of the Gentile mission, by no means a given in Paul's historical moment, would eventually lead to the forthrightly anti-Jewish interpretation of Paul in the Church Fathers and Reformation theologians.9 Yet European modernity also owes to Paul the knitting of the Hebrew Bible, reconceived as the Old Testament, into the scriptural canon and exegetical consciousness of Gentile Christianity. As Hans Hübner has argued, Paul remained invested in “the theological relevance [of] the history of Israel”;10 Paul's typological revaluation of the Torah, like his relativization of Jewish law, also springs from his cultural reading of Judaism, which, as the archetypal ethnos, coheres as a historical entity capable of modeling forth a comparable integrity for other nations and for the church in Christian historiography.11

The Epistles divide the Jew between three basic types: those Jews who, like Paul, converted to Christianity; those Jews who remained Jewish, not accepting Jesus as the Messiah; and the ancient Israelites of the Hebrew Bible whose lives and words typologically predict the events of the new era. Whereas the Shylock of Shakespeare's earlier Venice is a figure of obdurate intransigence to Christian conversion in the typological tradition of Esau and Laban, Brabantio takes the rather different part of the Jewish Christians in Paul's epistle. Brabantio excludes Othello from the “nation of our wealthy, curlèd darlings” (Othello 1.2.69), implicitly equating “nation” with natio or birth; similarly, when Brabantio refers so confidently to his “brothers of the state,” we are left with the religious question, “Who is my brother?”12 Brabantio, like the Jewish Christians of Paul's Epistle to the Romans, would presumably restrict the circle of brothers to native Venetians, to those tied to him by blood and custom. Yet Brabantio, as a type of the Judaized Christian rather than a Jew proper, is not a villain; unlike Shylock or Barabas, Brabantio appears clannish but not evil, myopically wed to external appearances, “to all things of sense” (1.2.65), but not without the Abrahamic virtue of hospitality that helped lead to the present crisis.

Othello, by extension, takes the roles of Gentile and barbarian in Paul's divisions of the human kingdom. Othello's entry into the play as a convert to Christianity initially stations him in the tradition of the three kings at the Epiphany, often represented as the European, African, and Asian recipients of Christianity's world message in Renaissance iconography. Bearing exotic offerings of frankincense and myrrh to the manger of the Christ child, the African king Balthazar brings the gifts of his culture in the sense of giving them up, ceding a measure of cultural identity in the act of conversion.13 The three kings were typologically keyed to the three sons of Noah, taken as the forefathers of the world's white, black, and yellow peoples; in such a scheme, Othello-as-Balthazar becomes the epochal negation of Ham, father of the black nations. In patristic and rabbinic traditions, Ham brought the curse of blackness onto his descendants by sleeping with his wife on the ark; Shakespeare, however, is careful to show Othello and Desdemona arriving from the “high-wrought flood” (Othello 2.1.2) and “enchafèd flood” (2.1.17) on separate ships, redeeming rather than repeating Ham's transgression.14 In these early scenes, the black Othello functions as the living symbol of Christian universalism, a social and spiritual vision that stands as the test of Brabantio's “Judaizing” constructions of national brotherhood. Whereas in Merchant, Jessica's elopement with Lorenzo from the house of Shylock stages the historic shift from Judaism to Christianity, in Othello the marriage of a barbarian groom to a Christian bride figures forth the extension of the Christian message from European Gentiles to all the nations of the world. From this typological perspective, the marriage of white and black, of Greek and barbarian, far from representing a monstrosity or scandal, assumes almost cosmic significance, its harmonies resonating with the exultant coloratura of the Song of Songs.

This epochal scene of Gentile conversion, I argue, initially controls the play of black-white imagery in the drama. Iago uses bestial and demonic images of blackness in order to deform and prejudice Brabantio's—and by extension the audience's—reception of the elopement. Iago in turn has his own strange links to the world of Merchant: his famous negation of the Jewish God's unspeakable name, “I am not what I am” (Othello 1.1.67), flags him as the Devil of the play and roots him in a parodically Old Testament ethos of historical ressentiment, seasoned by the damaged pride and nurtured spite of all the Cains, Ishmaels, and Esaus passed over in the Bible for younger favored sons. It is Iago, for example, who warns Brabantio about “your house, your daughter, and your bags,” as if the character of Iago were responsible for raising the spirit of The Merchant of Venice into Othello. Even Iago's infamous image of bestial cross-coupling, “an old black ram / Is tupping your white ewe” (1.1.90-91), echoes Merchant's most egregious pun, that between “ewes” and “Iewes,”15 irradiating the play's most cited example of color-based racism with an animus of a different color. Iago's presentation of blackness as the sign of a savage, unredeemable nature is soon marked by the play as historically bankrupted through the epochal weight granted to Othello as a latter-day Balthazar (the name chosen by Portia in Merchant's trial scene), a Christian soldier who traces “his life and being / From men of royal siege” (Othello 1.2.21-22), an exegetical genealogy that derives his noble personage from the three kings of a global Epiphany.16

It would be easy enough, however, to love this vision of Christian humanism not wisely but too well. In Shakespeare's Venetian plays, Christian-humanist discourse always operates as a universalism minus the circumcised, a set that excludes not the unconverted pagans of the New World but rather the Jews and the Muslims, strict monotheisms existing not far away but close at hand. Judaism and Islam stem from the same Abrahamic lineage as Christianity; the three groups are, in the Muslim phrase, “people of the book,” religions organized around revealed Scriptures that share many of the same prophets and patriarchs. Othello's role as defender of the faith against the Mohammedan Turks is faulted by the possibility that he has converted to Christianity from Islam, an entry into a covenant that would trace a different arc from that of the Gentile barbarian, locating the pre-Christian Othello not ante legem—before or outside the revealed law that singled out the Jews from the nations of the world—but sub lege, under a stringent monotheism untempered by Christ's love.17 John Pory's appendix to his 1600 translation of Leo Africanus's History and Description of Africa lists four religions on the dark continent, “Gentiles, Iewes, Mahumetans, and Christians,”18 a catalog that clearly distinguishes “Mahumetans” from “Gentiles.” The Policy of the Turkish Empire, an anonymous tract from 1597, differentiates between Muslim monotheism and Gentile polytheism: “Touching the Godhead, [Muslims] acknowledge both with the Iews and Christians that there is one onely God: Wherein they differ from the Gentiles, who had their multiplicitie of Gods.”19 Such passages separate Islam out from paganism and correlate it with Judaism based on the two religions' scriptural, legal, and monotheistic bases.

In Christian typology, the Muslim was bound to the Jew through the figure of Ishmael. For Saint Paul, Ishmael is the type of the carnal Israel or modern Jew:

For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave and one by a free woman. But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, the son of the free woman through promise. Now this is an allegory: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children.

(Gal. 4.22-25)

With the rise of Islam, the figure of Ishmael as a negative type of the Jew was transferred onto Mohammed, a translation already authorized by the Islamic appropriation of Ishmael for its own prophetic genealogy. Christian typologists also used Esau, Pharaoh, and Herod to couple the Jew and the Muslim as carnal children of Abraham facing each other across the world-historic break effected by the Incarnation.20 Islam, the youngest of the three Abrahamic religions, represented to Renaissance Christianity a kind of Judaism after the fact, a redoubling of Jewish intransigence in the face of Christian revelation. As such, Islam executed a second, even crueler affront to Christianity's historical vision of epochal succession, since modern Judaism (from the Christian perspective) is merely a residual carryover from an earlier moment, but Islam from its very inception carried out its proselytizing mission in full knowledge of Christian teachings. The rapid expansion of Islam, however, presented the inverse of Judaism's dispersed, sequestered, and inward-looking communities. The third Revelation announced by Islam rejected the particularism associated with Judaism in favor of the universalism pioneered by Christianity; like the rulers of European Christendom, the Arab and then Turkish empires used the theme of spiritual equality among the nations to support their religious and political projects.21

Brabantio's warning against “bondslaves and pagans” (Othello 1.2.101) acknowledges the two possible avenues of Othello's entry into Christianity. More than simply synonyms, the pointedly paired words represent distinct locations in the play's conceptual geography of the nations: the bondslave names the condition of Hagar, her offspring, and his Ishmaelite progeny, while the pagan identifies the state of the Gentile barbarian, potential recipient of the expanded Pauline mission. Whereas the first acts of the play establish Othello as Christian soldier and devoted husband, the middle movement of the tragedy instigates a crisis in both the marital and the religious covenants that bind Othello to Venice. If the remainder of the play charts Othello's increasing distance from the role of the African king established in act one, we must pay attention to the effects that these competing scripts for the entry into covenant have on Othello's tragic exit from it. As the play progresses, is Othello, as critics have frequently suggested, paganized—made exotic, savage, and barbaric—or is he also Islamicized and Judaized, brought back into contact with a law that should have been dissolved by the rite of baptism? In the play, paganization describes Othello's decline into gullibility, madness, and cruelty, a process emblematized by the infamous handkerchief, its subtile fabric woven out of the iconography of the Gentile gods. Even as Othello descends into pagan fury, however, he also begins to “turn Turk” (2.3.164), a phrase that names Islamicization as a tragic trajectory that runs alongside the path of barbarization, paralleling, elaborating, and deviating from it. This second path reverts not to anarchy ante legem but to a tyranny sub lege, a transformation embodied by Othello's increasing identification with a jealous justice that must be executed at any cost, a law driven by the fierce monogamy of an immoderate monotheism.

This process climaxes in Othello's anguished retort to Desdemona's denials:

Thou dost stone my heart,
And makes me call what I intend to do
A murder, which I thought a sacrifice.


Othello's “sacrifice” simultaneously identifies him with the old law, ruled by the Lord “whose name is Jealous” (Exod. 34.14), and indicates the law's epochal supercession by Desdemona's obedient love, insofar as her death resonates with (though by no means simply instantiates) that of Christ. Whereas studies of race in the play tend to emphasize the movement of paganization, feminist critics have noted Othello's increasing association with justice, usually understood as the masculinist tenets of Judeo-Christian patriarchy.22 My point is somewhat different: Othello's justice, like that of Shylock, serves to separate the Semitic strands out of the Judeo-Christian synthesis even while grotesquely reinforcing the authority of the husband; although Othello's increasing alliance with the law is indeed patriarchal, I would insist on the Abrahamic (Judeo-Islamic) connotations of the word patriarch.23


Othello's final autobiography stages his double placement in the narratives of paganization and Islamicization:

                    Then must you speak
Of one that loved not wisely but too well;
Of one not easily jealous but, being wrought,
Perplexed in the extreme; of one whose hand,
Like the base Indian [Iudean],(24) threw a pearl away
Richer than all his tribe; of one whose subdued eyes,
Albeit unusèd to the melting mood,
Drops tears as fast as the Arabian trees
Their medicinable gum. Set you down this:
And say besides that in Aleppo once,
Where a malignant and a turbaned Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduced the state,
I took by th'throat the circumcisèd dog
And smote him, thus.


In the exotic parable of the base Indian, the rejected pearl condenses the murder of Desdemona with Othello's departure from Christianity. The first simile is swiftly followed by the reference to tears that drop “as fast as the Arabian trees / Their medicinable gum,” an elaborate circumlocution for myrrh. As nativity gift (Matt. 2.11), myrrh manifests the economy of conversion, in which the Gentile kings bring the precious distillations of their countries in exchange for a place in the Christian order. In the wake of Desdemona's murder, the myrrh also functions as a figure of Othello's regret and repentance for having reneged on that contract, becoming the medium of a “melting mood” that dissolves the universalist iconography of Epiphany into the scene of conversion's reversion back into the strange substances that distinguish the nations. As the symbol of the Epiphany and its dissolution, the myrrh tree situates Othello in a pagan scene, darkening his skin in its allusive shade.

Yet, as critics have pointed out, the Folio text's substitution of “Iudean” for “Indian” installs Othello's tragedy within another set of mytho-historical coordinates. Since Lewis Theobald's eighteenth-century edition, editors and critics have occasionally favored the Folio reading, referring it to Judas's betrayal of Christ and to the Herod-Mariam story of jealous murder, taken from Josephus's Jewish War and Antiquities of the Jews as the material for several neo-Senecan dramas.25 Like Brabantio's restricted use of “nation,” the “tribe” of the “base Iudean” implies a circumscribed and circumcised worldview in which the Christian pearl finds no proper place, a rejection that stems not from the ignorance of the Indian but from the knowledge of good and evil brought about by the law.26 Moreover, if we read “base Iudean” in terms of the Herod and Mariam story, a now familiar typological scenario takes shape within the confines of the simile. Herod, an Idumean descended from Esau, is a type of the latter-day Muslim as well as the inveterate Jew, and his maligned but faithful wife Mariam, a sacrificial victim in the Christological pattern shared with Desdemona, represents the righteous remnant who makes possible the historic transition into the new era.27

Rather than selecting “Iudean” over “Indian,” I follow Edward Snow in insisting instead that “each variant suggests a different side of Othello.”28 “Indian” describes the more broadly drawn, more theatrically powerful movement of the drama as the tragic breakdown of Gentile conversion, yet the almost effortless substitution of “Indian” by “Iudean” follows the path of Islamicization that falls out of the play's dominant turn toward barbarism, articulating both paganism and Islam as the starting points of two separate itineraries into and out of Christianity. Othello's recollection of the Turk in Aleppo flows out of this auxiliary reading. As critics have often argued, Othello's reenactment of his earlier heroics both identifies him with the Turk and kills off that identification in the act of suicide, reasserting Othello's allegiance to the Christian ethics whose standard he has borne. Yet these readings too often identify the Turk simply as a “barbaric enemy,” “the Infidel,” or one of a “proliferating series of exoticized others.”29 To the contrary, it is my project to distinguish the Judean from the Indian, the Jew and the Muslim from the Gentile pagan.

As Lynda Boose, one of the few critics to move beyond the pagan reading, has pointed out, circumcision rather than skin color is the trait that Othello “invokes as the final, inclusive sign of his radical Otherness.”30 Iago had already evoked an epochal reading of circumcision when he advised Cassio to elect Desdemona as his petitioner:

                                                                      And then for her
To win the Moor—were't to renounce his baptism,
All seals and symbols of redeemèd sin—
His soul is so enfettered to her love
That she may make, unmake, do what she list.

(Othello 2.3.336-40)

The phrase “seals and symbols of redeemèd sin” links baptism to Saint Paul's reading of circumcision as “a sign or seal” of faith (Rom. 4.11).31 In Judaism, circumcision has a performative or constitutive function; it is a “seal” in the sense of an official imprimatur that validates and authenticates the contract between man and God.32Brit milah, “the covenant of circumcision,” operates as a kind of signature, since it ratifies a contract and confers a Hebrew name; written on the body of the infant, this name at once identifies the child's absolute uniqueness and situates him in a network of genealogical relations.

For Paul, however, circumcision becomes an outward mark designed to reflect an internal condition of faith, a “sign” in the sense of an external indication. In Paul's words, “he is not a real Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. He is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart, spiritual and not literal” (Rom. 2.28-29). In the new era, circumcision is relegated to the status of a fallen sign (a mark that may or may not manifest a corresponding inner condition) and a merely legal seal (a bodily signature that establishes a purely formal covenant unmediated by spirit). In the dialectic of Christian history, circumcision gives way to baptism, a sacrament that leaves no bodily trace of its operation, its transparent and reflective waters dissolving the blood and erasing the scar of circumcision's violently inscriptive cut.

In the judgment of James Shapiro, “More than anything else in the sixteenth century … Paul's ideas about circumcision saturated what Shakespeare's contemporaries thought, wrote, and heard about circumcision.”33 I would add that it was above all the rite of circumcision in its Pauline articulation that emblematized the affiliation between the Jew and the Muslim in Christian typological thought. The author of the Policy of the Turkish Empire lays out the status of the law in the three religions:

For as the Iews had a particular lawe given unto them and published by God himselfe in mount Sinai … So have the Turkes (in imitation of the same) certaine lawes and precepts or Commandements laide downe in their Alcoran … Which argueth that their confidence and hope of salvation consisteth chiefely in the pietie and merite of their vertuous life, and good deedes: And that they doe not much differ in that point from the opinion of some Christians, who do attribute their salvation unto their merites.34

The passage sets up Islamic law as a belated version of the Torah and an alienating mirror of the Catholic Church. The author goes on to single out circumcision as a law that had once been “a most holy and sacred sacrament,” but “is nowe converted … to a most idle and vaine ceremony” among Jews and Muslims.35 The tract, though strongly polemical, actually makes some progress in depicting basic Islamic tenets and practices, differing on many points from the fantastic accounts disseminated from medieval sources. If the typological perspective threatens to make Islam disappear into Judaism, reductively appropriating the one religion to the more familiar paradigms of the other, I would also insist that the special historical consciousness born of typology—the interest in coherent epochs or “cultures” fundamental to Western philosophies of history—also helps account for the tract's relative success in depicting a foreign worldview. In the Policy of the Turkish Empire, the assimilative-reductionist and the descriptive-historiographical poles of typological consciousness exist in something of a balance; the same might be said for the mimetic successes of The Merchant of Venice and their further elaboration in Othello.

Christopher Marlowe's Jew of Malta, on the other hand, with its more naked debts to medieval drama, lies toward the allegorical side of the typological continuum; in Marlowe's play, the cut of circumcision equates Jew and Muslim with an exemplary if reductive clarity that Shakespeare transmits in more sublimated forms. The Jew Barabas chooses as his slave, partner-in-crime, and successor the Muslim Ithamore by acknowledging their affiliation: “Make account of me / As of thy fellow; we are villains both: / Both circumcisèd, we hate Christians both.”37 The fellowship between the Jew and the Muslim has been signed and sealed in advance by the shared mark of circumcision, a permanent bodily sign that establishes membership in a group but, unlike racial traits such as skin color, is produced through the deliberate execution of ritual law. The name Ithamore is itself borrowed from the Old Testament, where “Ithamar” appears as the youngest son of Aaron (Exod. 6.23); by intensifying “-mar” into “-more,” Marlowe has effectively Islamicized this type of the Jewish priest, semantically flagging the link between Judaic and Muslim law according to the habits of Christian typology.38

In appointing himself both confessor and executioner of Desdemona, Othello struggles to assume a priestly as well as a judicial function, becoming an “Ithamore,” a Moorish son of Aaron, but in a higher, more interiorized, mimetic register than that elaborated in Marlowe's farcical morality play. In his suicide speech, Othello's drawn sword at once points outward to circumcision as the trait identifying the object of his scorn, and reflexively returns it onto Othello's own body as the very means of death, a final stroke that cuts off his life by turning the Turk into and onto himself. In one arc of its meaning, this cut redeems the Moor in death, restoring him to the history of Venice as one who has “done the state some service” and who, like Mary Magdalene, has “loved not wisely but too well.” From this perspective, circumcision functions as the emblem of Christian typology par excellence, the vehicle of world-historical cancellation that allows for the reconversion of the Moor to Christianity. Othello's suicide, that is, functions as a martyrological baptism in blood, an act that completes and terminates the era of the law; through his suicide, Othello has become literally “circumcised in the heart,” not unlike Antonio in Shakespeare's earlier Venetian play. At the same time, the cut that (re)circumcises Othello does not disappear into its typological sublations. Instead it reinstates the Hebraic function of the signature, the written letters of a legally ratifying and subjectively identifying mark that dislodges Othello from the Christian historical order by locating him in a different covenant. In this sense, the suicide effects a circumcision according to the Judeo-Islamic rather than the Pauline-internal paradigm, constituting a self-validating signature that separates out Islam as a historico-theological position distinct from paganism, a regime defined by the singular imprint of circumcision as the persistent “seal and symbol” of the law. With this ritual gesture, Othello signs his final autobiography, exacerbating and inflaming as much as redeeming that ancient scar in the Pauline discourse of nations. This momentary positing of Islam as its own dispensation both exceeds the typological vision (which would reduce Islam to its own categories of faith and nationhood) and is itself anticipated by the historiographical impulse of Christianity as a narrative of epochal relations.

Paul's ethno-political theology can accommodate the vast differences between the Greek and the barbarian, but not the very little difference between the circumcised and the uncircumcised. In Othello—Shakespeare's second letter to the Venetians—Christian universalism, circling around the black body of the Gentile convert, has the capacity to envision if not realize a world of racial equality. It is worth asserting here that Christianity, like Islam, is a world religion, not a race, and does not belong to any civilization as either its special heritage or its colonial weapon, to whatever degree it has been used as such. What Shakespeare's Pauline Christianity—and this is a paradox besetting all revealed religions—has more difficulty imagining is a world of religious equality among the people of the book, an equality in which circumcision, maintained as an external mark of covenant not erased through spiritualization, could be accounted for rather than discounted by Christianity's historical scheme. In Othello, the romance of Gentile conversion supports the dream of a universal brotherhood that allows Shakespeare to set up and see through the black-white opposition. Yet this Christian-humanist discourse always operates as a universalism minus the circumcised; the Jew and the Muslim are subtracted from the nations of the world ingathered by Christianity, singled out and cut off by the ritual stroke through which they continue to distinguish themselves. Odd as it may seem to contemporary readers caught up in the horizon of modern racism, it is Othello's religious rather than racial traits that prove more intractable in the Christian vision staged by Shakespeare's play, an obduracy that points in turn to the vicissitudes of Renaissance protoracism in the shapes of neoracism that have emerged at the end of our bloody century.


  1. Etienne Balibar, “Is There a Neo-Racism?” in Etienne Balibar and Emmanuel Wallerstein, Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities, trans. Chris Turner (London, 1991), 23-24.

  2. The groundwork for this orientation was laid by the historical criticism of Eldred Jones, Othello's Countrymen: The African in English Renaissance Drama (London, 1965), and G. K. Hunter, “Othello and Colour Prejudice,” in Dramatic Identities and Cultural Tradition: Studies in Shakespeare and His Contemporaries (Liverpool, Eng., 1978), as well as the political and psychoanalytic myth criticism of Leslie A. Fiedler, The Stranger in Shakespeare (New York, 1972). In the recent wave of essays, the black-white opposition has been most fruitfully explored by Arthur Little, “‘An essence that's not seen’: The Primal Scene of Racism in Othello,Shakespeare Quarterly 44, no. 3 (Fall 1993): 304-24, and Jonathan Crewe, “Out of the Matrix: Shakespeare's Race-Writing,” Yale Journal of Criticism 8, no. 2 (1995): 13-29. Karen Newman, “‘And wash the Ethiop white’: Femininity and the Monstrous in Othello,” in Shakespeare Reproduced: The Text in History and Ideology, ed. Jean E. Howard and Marion F. O'Connor (New York, 1987); Patricia Parker, “Fantasies of ‘Race’ and ‘Gender’: Africa, Othello, and Bringing to Light,” in Margo Hendricks and Patricia Parker, Women, “Race,” and Writing in the Early Modern Period (London, 1994); and Michael Neill, “Unproper Beds: Race, Adultery, and the Hideous in Othello,Shakespeare Quarterly 40, no. 4 (Winter 1989), have focused on monstrosity and miscegenation. Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning from More to Shakespeare (Chicago, 1980); Parker; Newman; and Emily Bartels, “Making More of the Moor: Aaron, Othello, and Renaissance Refashionings of Race,” Shakespeare Quarterly 41, no. 4 (Winter 1990), have excavated travel narratives as sources and models of Othello's protocolonial practice, a dimension emphasized from a postcolonial angle in Ania Loomba, “The Color of Patriarchy: Critical Difference, Cultural Difference, and Renaissance Drama,” in Hendricks and Parker, Women, “Race,” and Writing; and Ania Loomba, Gender, Race, Renaissance Drama (Manchester, Eng., 1989). Bartels assumes that Othello was a Muslim, but does not develop the tensions between race and religion, a dynamic on which Lynda Boose, “‘The Getting of a Lawful Race’: Racial Discourse in Early Modern England and the Unrepresentable Black Woman,” in Hendricks and Parker, Women, “Race,” and Writing, has reflected suggestively.

  3. See Neill, “Unproper Beds,” 385.

  4. Othello, ed. David Bevington (New York, 1980), 1.1.82; The Merchant of Venice, ed. John Russell Brown (London, 1955), 2.7.15; Othello 1.3.69-71. (All subsequent citations of these plays are from these editions.)

  5. Rom. 1.14-16, in Wayne Meeks, ed., The Writings of St. Paul (New York, 1972). (All subsequent citations of Paul are from this edition; emphasis added.)

  6. As Wayne Meeks comments, Paul “looks to Rome … as the center of the known world, and his visit there becomes a symbol for the universality of his mission ‘among all the Gentiles’ (Rom. 1.5)”; Meeks, Writings of St. Paul, 66.

  7. According to modern scholars of Paul, the Jewish community in Rome, including those who had converted to Christianity, had been exiled by Claudius around 49 c.e. and returned to the city with the accession of Nero in 54, a return that may have led to tensions between Gentile and Jewish Christians in the Roman church at the time of Paul's letter; Meeks, Writings of St. Paul, 67. Hans Hübner summarizes and rejects this argument, taking what seems to be a minority position, namely that Paul's more tolerant attitude toward Jewish law in Romans (as compared to Galatians) reflects a change of heart rather than of rhetorical situation; Hans Hübner, Law in Paul's Thought, ed. John Riches, trans. James C. G. Greig (1978, reprint: Edinburgh, 1984), 5.

  8. Daniel Boyarin, A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity (Berkeley, 1994), 32.

  9. The twentieth century has seen a more balanced look at Paul's Jewish sources as well as a salutary extrication of Paul from the anti-Jewish exegetical traditions founded on his epistles by figures such as Martin Luther. On Paul and Judaism, see W. D. Davies, Paul and Rabbinic Judaism: Some Rabbinic Elements in Pauline Theology (1955, reprint: New York, 1967), and E. P. Sanders, Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People (Philadelphia, 1983); for examples of revisionist Christian readings of Paul in the wake of the Holocaust, see Alan Davies, ed., Antisemitism and the Foundations of Christianity (New York, 1979). For a brief history of Pauline scholarship in light of the Jewish question, see Boyarin, Radical Jew, 39-56.

  10. Hübner, Law, 56.

  11. Erich Auerbach, in his still definitive essay on typological interpretation, writes that this exegetical principle insured that the Old Testament became part of European civilization; Erich Auerbach, “Figura,” in Scenes from the Drama of European Literature (1959, reprint: Minneapolis, Minn., 1984), 52. See also Karl Löwith on the importance of the Biblical idea of the nation for Western historiography; Karl Löwith, Meaning in History (Chicago, 1949), 195-96.

  12. The distinction between “brother” and “stranger” established in Deuteronomy is of course crucial to the intergroup economy of The Merchant of Venice; whereas the Jew distinguishes “brother” and “stranger,” not lending money to the one but permitting it to the other, the Christian is supposed to take all men as his brother; Marc Shell, Money, Language, and Thought (Baltimore, 1982), 51. Brabantio presumably concurs with Roderigo's assessment that the Moor is “an extravagant and wheeling stranger” (Othello 1.1.139)—not included in the Venetian brotherhood.

  13. Peter Erikson, “Representations of Blacks and Blackness in the Renaissance,” Criticism 34, no. 4 (Fall 1993): 499-527. Shakespeare uses epiphany imagery in his description of Morocco's love of Portia: “‘Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire.’ / Why, that's the lady, all the world desires her. / From the four corners of the earth they come / To kiss this shrine, this mortal breathing saint” (Merchant 2.7.37-40). With the exception of Erikson, recent critics of Othello ignore this strand of racial iconography. Loomba, Gender, 42; Anthony Barthelemy, Black Face, Maligned Race: The Representation of Blacks in English Drama from Shakespeare to Southerne (Baton Rouge, La., 1987), 3-4; and Little, “Primal Scene,” 308, emphasize the equation of blackness with evil and devilishness in the Christian tradition but do not note the countertheme of Gentile conversion.

  14. Hunter cites Bede's commentary on St. Matthew: “Mystice autem tres Magi tres partes mundi significant, Asiam, Africam, Europam, sive humanum genus, quod a tribus filiis Noe seminarium sumpsit”; Hunter, “Othello and Colour Prejudice,” 50. For the patristic tradition on Ham, see Augustine City of God, ed. David Knowles, trans. Henry Bettenson (Harmondsworth, Eng., 1972), 16.11; for the rabbinic tradition, see Genesis Rabbah, in Midrash Rabbah, trans. H. Freedman (London, 1983), 1:36-37. For another Renaissance figure of the African king as a symbol of the universality of the Christian message, see Thomas Middleton's 1613 masque, The Triumph of Truth, in which the conversion to Christianity of a “king of the Moors” epitomizes the “triumph of truth” announced in the masque's title. His visit to England is a modern epiphany narrative: “Nor could our desires rest till we were led / Unto this place, where those good spirits were bred”; Thomas Middleton, The Triumph of Truth, in The Works of Thomas Middleton, ed. A. H. Bullen (New York, 1964), 7:248. Samuel Chew comments on the masque in The Crescent and the Rose: Islam and England During the Renaissance (1937, reprint: New York, 1965), 463-65. The Ham story has received much play in recent criticism of Othello as a primal scene of Renaissance racism in Newman, “Femininity and the Monstrous,” 146-47; Barthelemy, Black Face, 3; and Little, “Primal Scene,” 308. I have not seen mention, however, of the way that Shakespeare stages the “flood” near Cyprus as the typological antidote to the Old Testament story, effectively replacing Ham with Balthazar.

  15. Shell, Money, 49.

  16. The foundations of this humanist reading of race in Othello were laid by Eldred Jones, who argued that the first scenes of the play introduce us to Othello through the jaundiced eyes of Iago in order to correct his contaminating language with the figure cut by Othello himself, and by G. K. Hunter, who demonstrated that the universalist dream of a world Christianity is what makes possible act one's judicious weighing of Iago's conventional stereotypes against Othello's natural dignity: Jones, Othello's Countrymen, 87-93; Hunter, “Othello and Colour Prejudice,” 49.

  17. The period ante legem dates from Adam to Moses, sub lege from Moses to Christ, and sub gratia from Christ onward; Howard Hibbard, Michelangelo, 2d ed. (New York, 1974), 99-125.

  18. John Pory, “A summarie discourse of the manifold Religions professed in Africa,” appended to Leo Africanus, The History & Description of Africa (1600), trans. John Pory, ed. Robert Brown (London, 1896), 3:1001-50.

  19. The Policy of the Turkish Empire (London, 1597), 15.

  20. On Arab genealogy in Christian exegesis, see Norman Daniels, Islam and the West: The Making of an Image (Edinburgh, 1960), 128. On the reading of Pharaoh and Herod as Muslims, see Chew, Crescent, 390, 395.

  21. Bernard Lewis, Race and Color in Islam (New York, 1970), 1-28.

  22. See Lynda Boose, “Othello's Handkerchief: ‘The Recognizance and Pledge of Love,’” English Literary Renaissance 5, no. 3 (Autumn 1975): 372-73.

  23. For Othello's identification with an angry or untempered justice, see also Othello 2.3.69-72 and 5.1.1-3. In an unpublished lecture, Joseph Chaney has productively linked Othello's jealousy to that of the “Judeo-Christian God”; Joseph Chaney, “Othello's Jealousy and the Triangle of Desire” (lecture delivered at Indiana University, South Bend, Ind., March 1994). Monogamy and monotheism are firmly linked in the Jewish tradition, for example in the keying of the commandment against idolatry to the parallel commandment against adultery in the adjoining tablet; Avroham Chaim Feuer, Aseres Hadibros/The Ten Commandments: A New Translation with Commentary Anthologized from Talmudic, Midrashic, and Rabbinic Sources (New York, 1981), 33. Boose notes the Deuteronomic sources for the “sacrifice” of an adulterous woman, but does not single out the specifically Old Testament provenance of the law (Deuteronomy being an especially charged text in the typological economy of Merchant); Boose, “Othello's Handkerchief,” 372.

  24. As editor David Bevington notes, the Quarto gives “Indian” (selected in most modern editions), but the Folio gives “Iudean,” chosen by some editors and critics; Othello, 126 n.

  25. Critics who prefer “base Iudean” include Richard S. Veit, “‘Like the Base Judean’: A Defense of an Oft-Rejected Reading in Othello,English Literary Renaissance 10, no. 3 (Autumn 1980), and Gordon Braden, who reads Othello in the context of Herod-Mariam dramas; Gordon Braden, Renaissance Tragedy and the Senecan Tradition: Anger's Privilege (New Haven, Conn., 1985), 153-71. Edward Snow provides a powerful defense of retaining both readings; Edward Snow, “Sexual Anxiety and the Male Order of Things in Othello,Shakespeare Quarterly 26 (1975): 412; citing Veit, he points out that “the word ‘tribe’ is never used in connection with Indians in Shakespeare. It primarily connotes ‘clan’ for him, often in connection with the ‘tribes of the world’” (412). Fiedler, Stranger, 195-56, makes a strong case for “Iudean,” but then chooses “Indian” instead. Josephus's accounts of the Herod-Mariam romance are excerpted in Elizabeth Cary's The Tragedy of Mariam: The Fair Queen of Jewry, ed. Barry Weller and Margaret W. Ferguson (Berkeley, 1994).

  26. See St. Paul: “If it had not been for the law, I should not have known sin”; Rom. 7.7.

  27. Dympna Callaghan provides a related reading of the Herod-Mariam story in her inter-pretation of Cary's Tragedie of Mariam; Callaghan, however, emphasizes not the typological split between the intransigent modern Jew and the successful Jewish convert (the Esau-Jacob pair), but rather the “racialization” or blackening of Herod and the concomitant whitening of Mariam. Crudely put, in Callaghan's reading, racial difference precedes and governs religious difference; Dympna Callaghan, “Re-reading Elizabeth Cary's The Tragedie of Mariam, Faire Queene of Jewry,” in Hendricks and Parker, Women, “Race,” and Writing. In my reading, religious difference precedes and governs racial difference.

  28. Snow, “Sexual Anxiety,” 412.

  29. Braden, Renaissance Tragedy, 169; Loomba, Gender, Race, Renaissance Drama, 48; Parker, “Fantasies of ‘Race’ and ‘Gender,’” 98.

  30. Boose, “Racial Discourse,” 40.

  31. In Rom. 4, Paul notes that the declaration of Abraham's faith in Genesis 15.6 (“And he believed the Lord; and he reckoned it to him as righteousness”) precedes by several chapters God's institution of the rite of circumcision (Gen. 17.11). From this, Paul argues that Abraham “received circumcision as a sign or seal of the righteousness which he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised” (Rom. 4.11).

  32. In a related argument, Boyarin, Radical Jew, 37, cites midrashim that depict circumcision as a writing of God's name on the body.

  33. James Shapiro, Shakespeare and the Jews (New York, 1996), 117.

  34. Policy of the Turkish Empire, 15.

  35. Ibid., 23. In Islam, circumcision is a custom rather than a law, though I have not seen this point acknowledged in the Elizabethan literature on Islam, which generally assimilates the Moslem practice to the more familiar Jewish one.

  36. Chew, Crescent, 443-44.

  37. Christopher Marlowe, The Jew of Malta, in Russell A. Fraser and Norman C. Rabkin, eds., Drama of the English Renaissance, vol. 1, The Tudor Period (New York, 1976), 225-27 (emphasis added).

  38. Editors Fraser and Rabkin note the borrowing; ibid., 276 n. In Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare would clarify Marlowe's allusive conflation of the two identities by simply naming his Moor “Aaron,” substituting the familiar father for the obscure son.

Darryl Tippins (essay date 1997)

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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.

—Michael Holquist

And yet this nothing / is the seed of all—heaven's clear / eye, where all the world's wonders appear.

—Wendell Berry

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 that the play is ultimately meaningful and supportive of great Christian, or at least traditional, ethical themes—love, mercy, forgiveness, renunciation, and so forth. Stanley Wells summarizes:

Uncompromisingly the play acknowledges the power of evil, the inevitability of death, the fragility of the human body, while also asserting the spiritual values that can give meaning to life.

On the other hand stand the skeptical Shakespeareans who are now ascendant. William R. Elton argues forcefully that this tragedy is certainly not an optimistic Christian drama, but a pagan story of “all-dissolving chaos” (338). Nicholas Brooke concurs: Lear's “final retreat to madness” makes it “impossible to retain any concept of an ordered universe” (“The Ending” 85). In fact, he argues, the last act “shatters the foundations of faith itself” (qtd. in Wells 248). Recent materialist critics like Jonathan Dollimore argue forcefully that the play undermines all notions of transcendent value, including the very construct called “humanity”; those who find a meaningful end in Lear are guilty of “essentialist mystification” (202). “All moral structures,” claims Nicholas Brooke, “whether of natural order or Christian redemption, are invalidated by the naked fact of experience” (Shakespeare 59-60). Harold Bloom concurs: “Shakespeare's darkest tragedies, Lear and Macbeth, do not yield to Christianization” (51). A. L. French finds the Bradleyan salvationist interpretation “distasteful in itself as well as absurdly inappropriate to the spirit of Shakespeare's play” (144). Absurdist, nihilist, and materialist readings constitute the Lear orthodoxy of the late twentieth century, it seems.

One wonders: is it possible to negotiate between these agonistic positions? The answer is, yes, one can. Each camp seems to have gotten in touch with one powerful dimension of the play, championing it to the exclusion of other dimensions. The nihilists gravitate towards Kent's profoundly negative point of view, “All is cheerless, dark, and deadly,” while the idealists defer to Edgar's “The gods are just,” and while the so-called Redemptivists soften or disallow the play's dark tones. Pechter maintains: “What Tate and the Redemptivists … attempt to do is to protect us from the play, render us invulnerable—whether through plot changes or through the imposition of systems of meaning—to the extraordinary power of King Lear to make us suffer” (182).

Pechter criticizes those who, like Bradley, argue that the play contains something affirmative about life. These Redemptivists often make Edgar the authorial mouthpiece; and, like Edgar, they attempt “to control experience by reorganizing it into ‘patterns’ of significance” (182). Both readings slip into precisely the kind of absolutism that the play itself resists, but a more sophisticated alternative would be one neither naively optimistic nor absolutely pessimistic, and would instead welcome the play's abundance of positive and negative elements.

For what if Lear is neither naively optimistic nor lacking a system of meaning? What if this play has a “pattern” of significance, but this significance proves to be darkly meaningful? What if the work operates in a mysterious, paradoxical realm where conflicting realities co-exist? I maintain that the play is dialectical, with ever-shifting points of view. Jay L. Halio marks out this more inclusive position:

King Lear thus offers powerful, imaginative rendering of conflicting and sometimes complementary attitudes and beliefs. If none dominates the action, our final impression of the play must remain what A. C. Bradley called a “mystery we cannot fathom.”


In contrast some Redemptivists and some nihilists generally suppress those elements in the play that do not fit their monological thesis of salvation or chaos. A. C. Bradley long ago acknowledged this slipping into reductionism when he accused Swinburne of emphasizing “only certain aspects of the play and certain elements in the total impression” (278). Norman Rabkin has eloquently warned against the same problem in approaching The Merchant of Venice. Surely Bradley is right in arguing that the total impression is bigger than either the elements of darkness or of light. We must reach for a reading that, paradoxically, can allow for salvation and for chaos.

One way to preserve the paradoxical mystery of King Lear while making some sense of the debate about the play's alleged paganism, or nihilism, or absurdity on the one hand—or its Christian-humanist-idealist vision on the other—is to acknowledge a major mythic pattern that lies within the play, a trope that is at once pagan, Hebraic, Christian, and even, in a particular sense, “nihilistic.” I refer to “kenosis,” a concept which allows one to see how the play can at once be religious, yet also pessimistic, and even nihilistic. A “kenotic” reading of the play uniquely avoids the implicit optimism of orthodox idealist readings while refusing an absurdist interpretation as well. In other words, kenosis makes possible a complex, dialectical view of the play which resists reduction. If a kenotic vision lies back of this grand work, then the contending critics are partly right, partly wrong.

Despite significant differences among the ancient Hebrews and Greeks (and later the Hellenized Christians who composed the Greek New Testament), they shared a vision of human experience as profoundly kenotic. Kenosis is based on the Greek verb kevow, which means “to make empty; to deprive of content or possession; to be desolate; to nullify, destroy; to come to nothing” (Kittel and Friedrich 3: 661).

Of course, the breaking or the “emptying” of an earthly king or a godlike hero has long been a familiar literary pattern. Classical male heroes and protagonists (like Oedipus, Kreon, and Jesus Christ) undergo a trial in which they lose their royal status, are emptied and humiliated, reduced to “nothing,” and as a result gain something (wisdom, honor, glory, understanding, and so forth). After being broken, maddened, blinded, stripped, thwarted, and emptied, the hero often finds his true voice, his vision, his vocation, his redemption, even though it may require his death.

The kenosis myth is very rich, complicated, and ancient. One authority on the subject, Ralph P. Martin, traces the idea of the kenotic descent of the divine hero to ancient Hellenistic legends (76-80). It appears in several Athenian dramas like Antigone, Ajax, and the Suppliant Maidens; yet the kenotic trope, while centuries old, has in recent years been largely forgotten in literary circles. It is crucial to much literature steeped in the Christian tradition, and as we shall see with Alan Bennett's recent play and screenplay The Madness of King George, the theme enjoys continuing significance in contemporary drama.

In this essay I wish to show how a recent kenotic drama can assist us in reading King Lear with fresh eyes. By comparing Shakespeare's and Bennett's uses of kenotic ideas, not only do we discern the continuing vitality of kenosis as a literary theme, but we also discover how the kenotic trope gives these works special shape and value. The Bennett play serves as a kind of commentary on Shakespeare's work, exposing latent kenotic motifs in the Renaissance play that have been masked by time and forgetting.

Additionally, through Bennett's remarkable appropriation of Shakespeare's plot, we discover a potent reply to critics who insist on Lear's absurdism or nihilism. Bennett's fictional players function as an audience for King Lear. King George, in particular, “listens in” on the Shakespearean plot and then appropriates it in illuminating ways—just as Hamlet hears and appropriates the First Player's tragic speech in interesting and significant ways (Hamlet II.ii). Ultimately, The Madness of King George is a creative (re)interpretation of King Lear. Through the intertextual “dialogue” of these two plays we are not only presented a picture of the dynamics of theatrical experience, but we are provided telling cues for reading King Lear for ourselves. A play, we recall, not only contains dialogue; it is a dialogue—with a living audience—and all dialogue presupposes meaning. “At the heart of any dialogue is the conviction that what is exchanged has meaning” (Holquist 38). Alan Bennett, through his mad protagonist, teaches us once again how to dialogue with Shakespeare's great tragedy in a meaningful way.

When the ancient world was Christianized, kenosis entered with full force into Western thought and literature; indeed, Jesus Christ came to be seen as the supreme kenotic hero. St. Paul in his Philippian epistle described Jesus Christ as having experienced the truest form of kenosis (Philippians 2:5-11). Kenotic descent was a theme that apparently enamored St. Augustine; it appears as a recurring metaphor in the Confessions. Stories of saints and heroes who are stripped and humiliated, in imitation of Christ, became standard in the Middle Ages. As a number of authorities have shown, interest in kenotic themes flourished in the Reformation, generating extensive discussion of the theme. Kenotic literature abounds in the Renaissance, most notably in John Milton's drama Samson Agonistes, but also in the work of George Herbert and John Donne. The endurance of the kenotic trope in Western literature is truly remarkable, stretching from the ancient Greeks to Harold Bloom.

Either intuitively or through his exposure to Scripture, liturgy, and sacred art, Shakespeare knew the paradigm well. Kenotic language circulates through his plays, allowing the exploration of a number of motifs central to the hero's tragic descent. As the Shakespearean hero encounters his dark experience, he is forced into a radical mortification, self-forgetfulness, and—above all—self-annihilation or “nothingness” (which James L. Calderwood calls “creative uncreation”). For example, Richard II, shortly before his execution, describes himself as one who must undergo the curriculum of suffering and become “nothing”—a central kenotic motif:

But what e'er I be,
Nor I, nor any man but man is,
With nothing shall be pleas'd, till he be eas'd
With being nothing.

(Richard II 5. 5. 38-41)

“Kenotic impulses” such as the one that appears in Richard can be found in most of Shakespeare's tragic heroes, as Fortin argues (80-94). However, an examination of King Lear reveals that it is the most kenotic Shakespearean play of all.

Metaphor is often an efficient and effective mode of entry into a text, argues Madelon Golhke Sprengnether: “It is metaphor that allows us to subread, to read on the margins of discourse, to analyze what is latent or implicit in the structures of consciousness or of a text” (46). Hence, the kenotic trope helps us to “subread,” to read on the margins and discover latent and implicit structures in Shakespeare's text. Kenosis is not a single figure of speech; it actually entails a series of related figures, including concepts of emptying (indeed, pouring out to the point that one is hollow or “nothing”); impoverishment; divestiture; occultation (or concealment, hiddenness); depotentiation (loss of power); torture; descent; and journeys into exile. Of course, many of these figures are prominent in King Lear.

Motifs of emptiness and nothingness abound in the play. Defining “the quality of nothing” is the play's unspoken query (Gloucester, 1. 2. 33). “The word [nothing] reverberates throughout the first half of the play,” observes Halio (114). “Nothing almost sees miracles” (2. 2. 148). The Fool notes and names Lear's kenotic fall: “now thou art an O without a figure. I am better than thou art now; I am a fool, thou art nothing” (1.4. 152). Like an ancient Greek figure, like Christian protagonists before him, Lear is moving towards the very death of the self. “O ruin'd piece of nature! This great world / Shall so wear out to naught” (4. 5. 135).

Postmodernists may detect in such passages a Nietzschean nihilism, but emptiness is not necessarily negative, as the contemplative tradition associated with the via negativa shows. “Nothingness” may become space for the spirit; it may mark the nadir of self, signaling the possibility of new growth. Hence, Kierkegaard writes: “God creates everything out of nothing—and everything which God is to use he first reduces to nothing” (45). Calderwood observes perceptively: “Something frequently comes of nothing in King Lear” (6).

Early in the play, the imperceptive and childish monarch speaks an apparently logical maxim: “Nothing will come of nothing” (1. 1. 85). But of course Lear is wrong on this point, as he is wrong about almost everything. It is the Fool who corrects him through his brilliant question—indeed the most haunting of the play: “Can you make no use of nothing, nuncle?” (1. 4. 115, my emphasis). Derek Peat argues that the play “forces every spectator to choose between the contrary possibilities it holds in unresolved suspension” (qtd. in Wells 248). I would amend Peat's insight to say that the play invites every spectator to consider the mysterious connections between contrarieties—specifically, to find the paradoxical relation of “nothing” to “something.” If Maynard Mack is correct in saying that the Fool is offering “dramatic short-hand … for goings-on in the King's brain” (Mack 245-46), then Lear's dialogue with the Fool reflects the monarch's psychic wrestling over his own baffling kenotic experience. “What does it mean to be emptied, to become nothing, in this horrific fashion?” Lear is more or less asking himself. Lear's encounter with darkness teaches him (and spectators as well) to make use of “nothing.” He is learning the same lesson that Yeats's Crazy Jane attempts to teach the Bishop:

But love has pitched his mansion in
The place of excrement;
For nothing can be sole or whole
That has not been rent.

After he is reduced to the status of a “poor, bare fork'd animal” (and after the Fool disappears), Lear is paradoxically invested with new faculties and powers. After his kenotic humiliations, he thinks more of others, and he consistently demonstrates compassion towards Gloucester, Kent, Tom o'Bedlam, and Cordelia. The holocaust of bodies in the final scene in no way undercuts the fact of Lear's changed behavior or heightened insights.

Throughout the play, O's, circles, and spheres abound (bleeding rings, the wheel of fire, bonds, the globe's “thick rotundity,” Wheel of Fortune, precious stones [i.e. eyeballs], crowns, and so forth). These figures are freighted with double meanings; they may be empty or full. In Medieval and Early Modern terms the circle is perfectly ambiguous, signifying either lack or fullness—absence or presence. As the Fool makes plain, the egg (one of the play's most “fertile” O's) and the crown are polysemous: either one may be full or empty (1.4.120 ff.). The Fool tells us that the monarch's “crown” (meaning, variously, Lear's bald head, the royal coronet, and, by extension, the kingdom or the crown's domain) is not worth the two halves of an eggshell: “Nuncle, give me an egg, and I'll give thee two crowns” (1. 4. 120). The Fool suggests that the crown (i.e., head, coronet, imperial domain) is worthless because the king himself has profligately emptied his head, his office, and his lands. That is to say, Lear is not merely the victim of kenotic emptying; he is the very agent of it. The Fool is emphatic: “thou clovest thy crown i'th'middle and gav'st way both parts” (1. 4. 123-24).

Circles and O's suggest the hollow, the empty, the void; but also the seed of transcendent hope. According to John Donne, man's life, properly considered, is a circle, “an endlesse, and perfect Circle … for immortality, and eternity are a Circle too” (2: 199-200); and the circle is a symbol of perfection, “one of the most convenient Hieroglyphicks of God.” In such an economy, O's and “emptiness” may well be signs of ultimate meaning and purpose. Thus, the very passages that skeptical critics use to “prove” the play's nihilism equally suggest the play's transcendent kenoticism. “Can you make no use of nothing?,” then, is sharply double-edged. Lear first answers the question “no,” but by Act 4 Scene 6 in the arms of his beloved Cordelia, he discovers a “yes.” And if this “yes” becomes “no” once again, with the gratuitous slaughter of Cordelia (“Never, never, never, never, never” [5. 3. 282]), why should this seemingly final “no” have the last word? The oscillating movements of the play invite the spectator to consider the possibility of “no,” and “yes.” In “The Slip” Wendell Berry suggests how kenosis preserves the mysterious, life-affirming paradox of the yes and no: “And yet this nothing is the seed of all.” Something accrues to the audience through the process of watching the tragic, kenotic ordeal. The play, in one sense, does not end on the stage. It lives on and is completed in us.

“Nothing will come of nothing” (“Ex nihilo nihil fit”) Lear tells Cordelia early in the play (1. 1. 85). But this is the claim of a sadly blind and deaf old man. Had Lear been more alert, he might have heard the heartfelt fullness in Cordelia's apparent verbal emptiness. He might have discerned the creative love in the apparent absence of love. Paradox reigns supreme here, for Cordelia is full while her sisters are merely fulsome. In fact, as the play's next four acts reveal, a world of action is born of Cordelia's pregnant silence, just as Lear's own spiritual hollowness is the “mother” of disaster (2. 4. 52). Note even here the implied hollowness: According to Harsnett the disorder called “mother” or “hysterica passio” is caused by “the wind in the bottome of the belly.”

Impoverishment, loss of wealth, and the symbolic loss of spiritual and psychic qualities is another prominent kenotic figure, and it is most often associated with Cordelia. Just as Cordelia loses all but gains the French monarch, so Lear must lose his jewel in order to grow and learn. Fittingly, biblical kenotic language circulates through Cordelia's speeches and in speeches about her. France paraphrases St. Paul's language of kenosis from 2 Corinthians 6:10 and 8:9 in a speech which John Reibetanz calls “rhymed paradoxy” (qtd. in Halio 109):

Fairest Cordelia, that art most rich being poor,
Most forsaken, and most loved despised,
Thee and thy virtues here I seize upon.
Be it lawful I take up what's cast away.
Bid them farewell, Cordelia, though unkind;
Thou losest here a better where to find.

(1. 1. 245-48, 255-56)

Kenosis is also illustrated figuratively through the putting on and the taking off of garments—investiture and divestiture. In Lear as in so much of Shakespeare, the changing (or loss) of one's apparel oft proclaims the man. “Through tattered clothes great vices do appear: Robes and furr'd gowns hide all” (4. 6. 156-57) says Lear. They hide not only the corruption and hollowness of the self, but also humanity's tragic vulnerability. Nakedness marks the beginning of a new identity.

Kenosis is also suggested by depotentiation, the loss of power. Sometimes the depletion of power is suggested by the loss of sexual potency; at other times spiritual depotentiation is dramatized by the loss of authority or physical strength. Lear's loss of power is systematic, inexorable, and extreme—he loses his kingdom, his family, his retainers, his property, his Fool, his wits, his very self. He becomes a “poor, bare, fork'd animal.” Loss of control over one's own body through imprisonment and torture (such as crucifixion) is the ultimate manifestation of depotentiation—what Simone Weil calls malheur. Edgar, upon seeing Lear on the heath, remarks tellingly, “O thou side-piercing sight!” (4. 5. 84). Lear's torture is the equivalent of crucifixion:

He hates him
That would upon the rack of this tough world
Stretch him out longer.

(5. 3. 288-90)

A final prominent kenotic metaphor has been called the “dramatic parabola” (Brunner 561-63). According to this trope, the hero descends, or journeys into exile. In Pauline theology, the Son of God leaves the precincts of heaven to descend to earth. He undergoes stages of descent—first to the level of humanity, then to the level of a slave, and finally to the level of a criminal shamefully executed (Philippians 2:5-11). Since the 5th century of the Common Era, the kenotic journey has often been viewed as an exile from home with a final return. St. Augustine melded the journey of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15) with the Neoplatonic myth of the soul's exile from the realm of the Ideal in telling his own story of fall and redemption (Chadwick xxiv). The Medieval idea of the Wheel of Fortune (another circle, of course) also allowed poets to suggest the same theme, which implicitly offers hope, for if one is going down, one can always wait stoically for the upward turn. Edgar is the voice of this ancient version of kenotic promise:

To be worst,
The low'st and most dejected thing of fortune,
Still stands in esperance, lives not in fear.

(4. 1. 2-4).

Edgar also implies an affirmative answer to the Fool's query. One can make use of “nothing” by facing the blasts of airy nothing (storms of life) and finding cause for laughter:

The worst returns to laughter. Welcome, then,
Thou unsubstantial air that I embrace:
The wretch that thou hast blown unto the worst
Owes nothing to thy blasts.

(4. 1.6-9)

If one accepts kenotic structure in Lear, “insubstantial air” and “nothing” can be read at once negatively and positively.

While the kenotic trope typically implies both descent and ascent, the Lear plot appears to move only downward. Dreams of ascent and return are never fulfilled, though the play's principal characters often imagine happy endings. A special problem of this play is that one can never say when one has actually hit bottom. The abyss of terror is deeper than Lear ever imagined. Part of the particular horror of Lear is the constant arousal of expectations that, at last, Lear has reached bottom or the outer boundaries of spiritual banishment, when he has not. Shakespeare, we know, revised the preexisting Lear plot precisely in order to defeat Lear's—and the audience's—expectations of an early, if not a pleasing, resolution.

Lear's reunion with Cordelia is the finest case in point. It is singularly important, as Susan Snyder and others have pointed out, that this delicate scene of reunion recalls the classic story of the Prodigal Son's reunion with his father (Snyder 361-69; Tippens, “Prodigal Son” 57-77). Shakespeare casts Lear as a kind of returning prodigal, the “child-changed” father/son who has lived among “rogues forlorn.” Cordelia, as gracious, forgiving parent, asks her prodigal father:

And wast thou fain, poor father,
To hovel thee with swine and rogues forlorn
In short and musty straw?

(4. 6. 35-37)

Of course, in kenotic plots, the hero is supposed to enjoy a homecoming, a vindication, even a glorification. In the Philippian hymn text, after humiliation, crucifixion, and death, the writer can say, “Therefore, hath God highly exalted him. …” No doubt any audience attuned to the kenotic pattern hopes for just such a restoration. Indeed, Lear himself expects it:

Thou shalt find
That I'll resume the shape which thou dost think
I have cast off forever.

(1. 4. 263-65).

Lear supposes that such a life as his will yield a glorious return, for upon such sacrifices “[t]he gods themselves throw incense” (5. 3. 21). The pattern is clear, the expectation logical—but utterly mistaken. The wheel has not yet turned full circle. Edgar's question haunts this scene of surreptitious bliss, “Who is ‘t can say, ‘I am the worst?’” (4. 1. 25). Lear's kenotic story prepares us for the upward movement that never arrives—or at least that does not arrive with any clarity. Yet this does not mean that such a movement is not possible; it just means “not yet.” In this respect, the play is anything but optimistic Christian drama. The exile is longer, the fall more profound, the stripping more thorough than anyone imagined. And that is what makes the story tragic.

So, how shall we judge King Lear? Is it Christian, humanist, existentialist, or absurdist? Perhaps we need to trouble the categories a bit. Louis A. Ruprecht, Jr., in his work Tragic Posture and Tragic Vision, argues that ancient Christians and Hellenistic dramatists shared a surprisingly similar view of the world. For example, as interpreters of the Gospel of Mark have recently shown, St. Mark's story is far darker than many have supposed (see, for example, Stephen Moore's, Literary Criticism and the Gospels and Mark and Luke in Poststructuralist Perspectives). Belief in resurrection does not automatically cancel the tragic sense, nor does the absence of death in the final act necessarily signify the comic. Indeed, many Greek tragedies do not end in a series of deaths, yet they are universally seen as tragic, argues Ruprecht. “Teleology,” the concern for endings, has been over-emphasized. If one considers the tone of the Gospel of Mark, for example, (which ends, not incidentally, with the stark sentence, “for they were afraid”) and the Oedipus cycle, we see that both types of literature (gospel and tragedy) share a common view:

“Tragedy shows us pain and brings us pleasure in the process.” Which is to say that suffering teaches, and that really is the tragic in tragedy. You never gain something but that you lose something.

(Ruprecht 97)

Many have tried to determine the meaningfulness of King Lear according to the final mental or spiritual disposition of the protagonist. Does Lear die in hope, in despair, or in delirium? The truth is, the final scene is susceptible to radically different interpretations. Actor, director, and spectator have considerable freedom to construe Lear's end.

But of course we do not have to know what was in the dying Lear's mind to come to grips with the play's meaning. Peter Brooks warns against making too much of any narrative's conclusion. The ending “does not abolish the movement, the slidings, the errors and partial recognitions of the middle. … The end] is not the exclusive truth of the text, which must include the processes along the way …” (711, 713). The final scene of recognition “cannot abolish textuality, does not annul the middle which, in its oscillation between blindness and recognition, between origin and endings, is the truth of the narrative text” (719). Ruprecht states boldly: “Tragedy has no interest in the end” (97). Brooks and Ruprecht make us wary of founding the “final” meaning of King Lear on a single reading of the conclusion, whatever that reading may be. Indeed, the play's final moment, overwhelming as it is, cannot entirely cancel previous scenes of charity, reconciliation, and even hope. The best interpretation of Lear maintains the “counterpoint of ever-shifting response” (Rabkin 30).

Quite apart from the death scene, what we can know is the quality of Lear's suffering. We can see the oscillations between blindness and insight. We can see how the kenotic ordeal alters him. We can watch Lear significantly alter his treatment of Cordelia and friends. We can see that you never gain something but that you lose something. We can see that destruction is necessary for recreation, that “nothing can be sole or whole / That has not been rent” (Yeats). “Life peers through the hollow eyes of death. The dry bones are made fruitful. … rebirth is founded on destruction. Mors vitae initium. The beginning of life is death” (Fraser 131). What is this truth? Is this orthodox faith? Yes, perhaps, but this is no naively optimistic faith. The fact of suffering overwhelms any cheer we might muster. Is it nihilism? Yes, perhaps, but this is not an “empty” nihilism, but a pregnant darkness such as one finds in The Cloud of Unknowing or John of the Cross, who declares that something can come from nothing.

Of course, such a darkly positive reading of the play is not inevitable. The something that comes from nothing is never writ large. It is a seed growing secretly. In Gospel language: “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). It is voiced in the enigmatic sayings of fools, madmen, and prophets. Reality is too thick to be plain; as mad King George explains, there is a mist over the eyes. Hence, a materialist or nihilist reading is always conceivable, for the reading, finally, derives from the fullness or the emptiness of the spectator who bears significant responsibility for completing the play's meaning, much as Shakespeare asserted in earlier plays like Henry V and Midsummer Night's Dream: “Work, work your thoughts, and therein see. …” says the Chorus in Henry V. Without imagination, which in Shakespeare is very close to faith, the spectator misses the possibilities. Despairing readers may hold to their interpretations, but they should acknowledge that their dark readings derive from their milieu as much as from the text. And they might refrain from scorning readings which manage to find a constellation of meaning through connecting the few points of light in Lear's dark firmament. Skeptical interpreters may still counter that “meaningful” readings belong to a defunct Christian past. In a postmodern setting how is a coherent reading possible? Alan Bennett's masterful screenplay suggests one answer.

The Madness of King George illustrates how a later work can cast a backward light on a literary predecessor, casting both in fresh perspectives. King George not only echoes and parallels King Lear in important ways; Bennett's drama also teaches us to see rich possibilities in the precursor text. Both plays center on parent-child conflicts in British monarchical households. Both center on a protagonist who undergoes a trial of fire that changes the protagonist forever. Like Lear, George is an English monarch who “hath ever but slenderly known himself”; and though his children are no matches for Gonerill, Regan, or Edmond, the Prince of Wales actively plots to seize the crown. Like Lear, George is dethroned, humiliated, and exiled.

Yet the connections between King Lear and King George extend far beyond details of plot. The deepest affinities appear when one observes the kenotic tropes of blindness, madness, and stripping. That Alan Bennett casts George as Lear redivivus becomes apparent after George is declared mad and is removed from power. Like Lear, in his madness George speaks a kind of inspired wisdom. He tells his frightened daughter: “Papa's not mad, my darling. No, no. He has just lost himself, that's all” (37). After being deposed, he sounds strikingly like Lear in his imperious declarations. Tortured with savage medical treatments, he shouts: “No! I am the Lord's anointed!” (42).

Like Gloucester and Lear, George's vision (both literal and spiritual) fails him. In a rich elegiac moment echoing Gloucester's “I stumbled when I saw,” George says mournfully:

I am not mad. I can't see. There is a mist. Oh, the Queen, missed, oh, oh, missed her, gone gone gone gone. …


In George's confusion of homophones (“mist—missed”) we are reminded of Lear's deep grief over losing Cordelia and Gloucester's sorrow at mistreating Edgar; and in George's elegiac repetitions of “gone, gone, gone, gone” and “no, no, no, no” (19), we hear echoes of Lear's “kill, kill, kill, kill, kill!” (4. 5. 179), “Howl, howl, howl, howl!” (5. 1. 231), and “Never, never, never, never, never” (5. 2. 282). As the medical tortures proceed apace at Kew, George becomes increasingly an image of Shakespeare's kenotic protagonist. The stage directions make the parallel explicit: “The King, cloaked and bearded now, looks like Lear” (57). Lear haunts the screenplay, serving as echo and commentary, an echoing and commentary that work in two directions.

King George's kenotic emptying is almost as extreme as Lear's. George is described as a “wretched moaning figure” who suffers intolerably at the hands of what he calls his “doctormentors” (44). As in Lear, the kenotic humiliations are revealed through a series of tropes, including the divestiture and investiture of clothing. In a scene recalling Lear on the heath, George runs half naked from the castle; and later he is quite literally stripped by his caretakers. When his sanity appears to return, he is given appropriate garments once again. He also makes the journey of the dramatic parabola—away from Westminster and Windsor—towards austere, cold, and remote locations. He rages through a heath-like expanse, and he descends to a kind of death, an image which is further developed when the Queen warns that her husband's deposition is his “death warrant” (65).

The kenotic trope of pouring out, emptying, and evacuation is suggested symbolically in numerous ways. George attempts to evacuate his tormented mind: “I have to empty my head of words,” he says (38); and the evacuation of George's body (fourteen bowel movements [20]) is a painfully gruesome physical kenosis. One of the most unbearable moments occurs when the King can literally no longer contain himself and is reduced to utter humiliation as his servants look on helplessly. The King wastes away so completely in fact that, in his own thinking, he has become nothing: “Nobody sees me. I am not here” (55). However, as in Lear, nothingness is not the end of the matter, but the beginning, the sign of potential renewal, the reconstruction of the self.

Just as emptiness can be a sign of fullness, so madness proves its opposite. The categories of madness and sanity are slippery and ad hoc in George's universe as in Lear's. In both plays there is a subversive interrogation of assumptions. Power and authority are not contradictory to madness, but rather forms of it. Hence, Dr. Willis's remark: “Do you know, Mr. Greville, the state of monarchy and the state of lunacy share a frontier” (48). In the Regency Crisis of the 1780s, Bennett finds a narrative that portrays the postmodern crisis of identity. Is George mad? How can one tell? In a move reminiscent of Foucault, Bennett suggests that madness, like the self, is a construct. The only relevant questions about George are: Can he perform? Can he seem? Can he act like a monarch? “Monarchy is a performance,” Bennett explains in his introduction to the play, “and part of the King's illness consists in his growing inability to sustain that performance” (Bennett xxix).

At the critical moment when George apparently begins to regain his senses, Chancellor Thurlow discovers the King reading and performing the reunion of Cordelia and Lear from Act 4, Scene 6. George insists that Thurlow join him in the performance; and Thurlow, at George's insistence, takes Cordelia's part. Greville plays the doctor, and the King, of course, plays Lear:

THURLOW: (As Cordelia)
“O you kind gods
Cure this great breach in his abused nature.
Th'untuned and jarring senses, O wind up,
Of this child-changed father.”
That's very good. “Child-changed father” is very good.

The scene continues with the King's elaborate pantomime of Lear waking:

KING: (As Lear)
“You do me wrong to take me out o' th' grave.
Thou are a soul in bliss, but I am bound
Upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears
Do scald like molten lead.”
Oh, it's so true!
“Pray you do not mock me.
I am a very foolish, fond old man.
And, to deal plainly,
I fear I am not in my perfect mind.”


In his outburst “Oh, it's so true!” George's recognition is evident. Immediately, the others notice George's new (or renewed) rationality. Thurlow remarks, “Your Majesty seems more yourself,” to which the King replies:

Do I? Yes, I do. I have always been myself even when I was ill. Only now I seem myself. That's the important thing. I have remembered how to seem. What, what?


In the “What, what?” tag Thurlow, Greville, and the audience find the signal that the King's madness has lifted. He is himself, whatever that “self” may be, yet he is more than his former self. In numerous ways, George has changed. He is less dictatorial, less self-centered, and more understanding of his role and the role of the royal family. Like Lear and Gloucester before him, he comes to see things “feelingly,” remarking “Love, that is the keynote” (75).

Bennett's play appears to end more optimistically than King Lear; yet even here Bennett's play shares an important common element with Shakespeare's tragedy. Like Lear, King George ends in ambiguity. If Bennett's play teaches us anything, it is that one must be wary of appearances. A close scrutiny of the final scene reveals that George's recovery of the throne and health is ambiguous. Like the rest of George's royal life, the glorious reception before St. Paul's is brilliant theatrics, “seeming.” Even as George smiles and waves to the people, we cannot even be sure that he is cured of his malady. A stage direction indicates that George's mental health is at best precarious: “The King makes the faintest shudder; fear shows in his eyes. He cannot tell if he is still ill or not” (80). “Presume not I am the thing I was,” he tells Dr. Willis (80); but of course we are not at all clear what thing George was, or now is. The reality of George is either unimportant or unavailable to us as spectators, just as it is unavailable to George himself. The construct of the self, the seeming, the performance of the King is the only “reality” we have.

Consequently, the play's conclusion is disturbingly unclear and charged with irony. On the steps of St. Paul's Cathedral, the royal family present themselves as exemplars of and to the kingdom. As Handel's music swells, the family puts on the play that everyone expects. And George exhorts his family in terms etched in irony:

We must try to be more a family. There are model farms now, model villages, even model factories. Well, we must be a model family for the nation to look to.


“Who could think they are not happy?” the stage directions darkly inquire. To underscore the irony of the final scene, this caption concludes the play:

The colour of the King's urine suggests he was suffering from porphyria, a physical illness that affects the nervous system. The disease is periodic, unpredictable—and hereditary.


The film suggests that madness and confusion are expected features of the British royal family—and, by extension, madness and confusion are genetic traits of the human family. In fact The Madness of King George questions our ability to rise above our “unpredictable” and “hereditary” condition.

In stressing the many parallels between Bennett's play and Shakespeare's, I have obviously ignored important differences. Each artistic work is a unique creation, arises uniquely from its own milieu; yet I do wish to argue that, in current debates about King Lear's meaning, Bennett's play can be pressed into useful service. In two respects, at least, King George helps us become better readers of King Lear. First, Bennett's play recalls us to the classic trope of kenosis. In this contemporary play of a child-changed father we are called back to the story of a hero who undergoes a radical descent that ultimately proves meaningful. According to Sprengnether's terms, the kenotic metaphor helps us “to read on the margins” and uncover “latent or implicit” motives in Shakespeare's tragedy (46).

In a second way King George assists our reading of Lear by illustrating why Shakespeare's tragedy cannot, finally, be read as an absurdist or nihilistic text. As we watch old George respond to the drama of Lear, we see how theatrical experience belies current nihilistic interpretations. In fact, George responds empathically to Lear in much the way actors and spectators have for over three centuries. Both plays reveal that empathy with another's suffering is “natural” and “normative,” and certainly better than selfish indifference or cruelty. Indeed, Kent is the embodiment of this value. He feels with and for the good characters—Lear and Cordelia, above all. If Kent goes off to die or commit suicide, as some maintain (“I have a journey, sir, shortly to go: / My master calls me, I must not say no,” 5. 3. 295-96), it is not because he is indifferent to humanistic values like love, compassion, and loyalty. Rather, he departs precisely because these are inalienable qualities of his character. In the same way, we follow Lear with interest precisely because he transcends himself, abandoning his narcissism and learning to value others. Lear's discovery of others' needs is “meaningful.” The fact that the objects of his love, the Fool and Cordelia, are torn from him does not diminish our certainty that it is better to love than not to love.

In other ways both plays imply that compassion for suffering is superior to cruelty. In fact, as we see cruelty enacted, we do not move to a position where human actions do not matter (an absurdist position); indeed, these texts ask us to re-double our conviction that benevolence and cruelty are quite different realities. Pity presupposes that humans matter. Suffering in King Lear may appear wanton or inexplicable, but no spectator views it as irrelevant. If readers arrived at a position in which cruelty or evil were just names for things they found personally distasteful, then the play could certainly be called absurdist. But who can read the play in this way?

Lear questions, “Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life / And thou no breath at all?” (5.3. 307-8). Such a question only makes sense in a meaningful universe. In a truly absurdist world, where all values have been rendered subjective or beyond definition, such questions fade into nonsense; but Lear dies believing that a human life ought to count more than a rat's life. He is still in the grip of a fundamental polarity (human/not human). Valuing the human, he knows that it is wrong for the good Cordelia to die; so does King George, and so do the viewers. That is why Thurlow pronounces King Lear “so damned tragic” (73). That is why King Lear ends with so much “meaning.” As long as we care, we defy absurdity.

Thus, Alan Bennett's strange serio-comic play The Madness of King George is a commentary which explains why Shakespeare's tragedy cannot, finally, be read as an absurdist or nihilistic text. As we watch old George respond to the play, we see that he stands for all audiences who find meaning in Shakespeare's tragedy. In that uncanny intertextual moment when George reenacts Lear's encounter with Cordelia, the audience observes one suffering kenotic victim peering into the life of another; and so George III finds himself in Lear and is mysteriously changed in the process. In this creative, hermeneutic moment, Bennett has provided a path—and an answer—for critic and play-goer alike. What Lear does for George III, Lear has done for audiences for centuries. Shakespeare's tragedy shows us the continuing power of the kenotic trope, and it shows us how, in the mad protagonist's hollowing out, we are mysteriously made full.

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David N. Beauregard (essay date 1999)

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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 While one can agree with Frye's emphasis on nature, or “virtue's own feature” (Hamlet 3.2.22-23), as the main object of Shakespearean mimesis, it seems equally clear that Shakespeare never intended to exclude “saving grace” from his dramatic representations. Theology is reflected in the mirror, not excluded from it.

To be sure, Elizabethan censorship had effectively forced religious and political controversy from the stage. As the role of theology in popular drama was marginalized, the theater took a more ethical turn. In 1572 the Queen's Privy Council instructed London officials to allow “such plays, interludes, comedies, and tragedies as may tend to repress vice and extol virtue” (Yachnin 18-24). A decade later, with more philosophical sophistication, both Edmund Spenser and Philip Sidney laid out a similar program for poetry—the “figuring foorth” or representation of “notable images of vertues, vices, or what els [that is, passions]” so that the audience may see and love “the forme of goodnes” (Smith 1: 160, 166, 173). This is in full accord with Shakespeare's dramatic poetic of “hold[ing] the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn [pride] her own image” (Beauregard, Virtue's Own Feature 21-35). Nevertheless, such an ethically focused program, whether for poetry or drama, necessarily carried with it concomitant theological notions of sin, repentance and grace. It would have been virtually impossible for Shakespeare to have remained free of the theological orientation of Elizabethan culture. It is important to realize, moreover, that, as an external regulating force, the official censors were permissive, inconsistent, and often ineffectual, although no doubt their activity had the interior effect of causing writers to exercise some measure of self-censorship (Clare 211-15). Thus, in order to escape censorship and personal penalty, Shakespeare had to avoid explicit theological expression, in the form of doctrinal controversy or declamation, but he could expect some latitude and tolerance in the representation of Catholic matters on the stage. The example of Sir Thomas More (ca. 1592-3), a play in which Shakespeare had a hand, confirms this. Sir Edmund Tilney, Master of the Revels and censor from 1579 to 1610, wrote in the margin of the manuscript “Leave out the insurrection wholy and the Cause ther off and begin with Sir Thomas Moore att the mayors session [a succeeding scene]” (Clare 32). Tilney objects to potentially seditious matter, but not to the sympathetically portrayed figure of Thomas More (Dutton 81).3 In other respects as well, we can discern a certain latitude given to theological expression. The final scene of Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, for example, is suffused with theological implications regarding prayer, grace, and salvation. And Prospero's project in The Tempest (4.1.68-82; 5.1.28-32) is to bring men from sin to “heart's sorrow” and “penitence,” the first step in the sacrament of penance. If theological controversy was steadily marginalized on the Elizabethan stage, the formal purpose and the moral images of drama still carried considerable theological force.

All's Well That Ends Well (ca. 1601-5) is a case in point. I shall argue in this essay that Shakespeare was well versed in theology and that a Roman Catholic—and not a Reformed—theology of grace informs the dialogue and action of All's Well That Ends Well.4 This is not to claim that the play is primarily concerned with the explicit representation of Christian doctrine. Rather it is to claim that several references to theological doctrines appear in the speech of both primary and secondary characters, and that, taken in conjunction with Helena's two roles as miracle-worker and pilgrim, they present us with a play infused with a Catholic theology of grace.

To be more specific, Shakespeare presents us with a theologically charged drama that holds the mirror up to nature, but also to the operations of grace. His central concern is to represent “ambitious love” ingeniously achieving its deserved reward, but implicit in that representation is a Roman Catholic theology of grace. Thus, Helena, in her two roles as miracle-worker and pilgrim, speaks in the theological language of Roman Catholic doctrine and devotional practice. Basic to both halves of the play is the Catholic notion of merit, of reward given for virtuous behavior, which is dramatically rendered by the heroine's being twice rewarded for accomplishing two impossible tasks, first through divine grace and then through human effort. In part one, the low-born Helena, who ambitiously aspires to the love of Bertram, cures the hopelessly ill King through “inspirèd merit” and so is raised in title and rewarded with the hand of Bertram in marriage. In part two, despised by Bertram who flees to Florence and sets impossible conditions for their marriage (to get his ring and produce a child by him), Helena conspires by an ingenious bed-trick to again achieve her reward, the consummation of her marriage to Bertram, who is, as she says in the final scene, “doubly won” (5.3.315). The double victory of the virtuous Helena, then, shows us that, as the King makes clear in his central discourse (2.3.117-44), true nobility lies in virtue, not inherited rank, and that the exercise of virtue merits its reward.

What evidence of Shakespeare's theology is there in All's Well? To begin with, it is strikingly evident that the play contains numerous references to Roman Catholic theological doctrines and devotional practices. Since Shakespeare was brought up by Roman Catholic parents and was probably taught by Roman Catholic schoolmasters (Schoenbaum 65-66), the most likely explanation for these various references is that they are either the residue of his background and education or, because All's Well is a rather late play, the natural expression of a continuing belief. Revisionist historians of the English Reformation have convincingly argued that considerable popular resistance prevented the old religion from being uprooted until the 1580s, precisely the formative period of Shakespeare's youth (Todd 26-28; Duffy 1-8, 565-93). In any case, for whatever reason, there are undeniably a series of Roman Catholic references in All's Well. When Parolles remarks that “virginity murders itself, and should be buried in highways out of all sanctified limit” (1.1.140-42), he refers to the Roman Catholic refusal to allow suicides burial in consecrated ground, a refusal which was still customary but not yet specified in canon law within the Church of England (Noble 84). Later in the play, there are references to pilgrimage (3.4.4-17; 3.5.94-97; 4.3.47-49), to penitential vows (3.4.7; 3.5.95), to penance done in satisfaction for sin (3.4.6-7), to the requirements of auricular confession (4.3.108-11), and arguably to the Blessed Virgin Mary as intercessor (3.4.25-29). These matters were all particularly offensive to the ears of Reformed theologians. Furthermore, in the last act (5.3.57-58), the King remarks that Bertram's love for Helena will strike out numerous of his sins in “the great compt” (i.e., at the Last Judgment, as the great accounting for sin, implying the tallying up of sins over against merits). There is also his description of Helena as swearing by the saints (5.3.109), and there is Parolles' reference to Limbo (5.3. 263). Finally, there is the fact that, in four if not five of her last scenes, Helena appears dressed as a Catholic pilgrim (3.5; 3.7; 4.4; 5.1). On the other side of the question, one might argue that Lavatch's simile “as the nun's lip to the friar's mouth” (2.2.25-26) is an anti-Catholic expression, but this satirical jibe cannot be unequivocally construed as evidence of a Reformed sensibility at work, since it is critical of an abuse of the vow of chastity but not of Roman Catholic religious life in itself.

Apart from these minor references in All's Well, Shakespeare's theology of grace comes into even sharper focus when we direct our attention to four interrelated topics: miracle and merit, pilgrimage and prayer. These four theological topics shape the very substance of the action and characterization. To be sure, Shakespeare took over his story from Boccaccio, but he enhances his source, first making Helena a miracle-worker and then elaborating on her pilgrimage. When the minor references mentioned above are taken in conjunction with the development of Helena's two roles, they point to a Roman Catholic theology of grace informing the speech and action of the play. Moreover, they represent a doctrinal-devotional complex attacked by the Reformers. Fortunately for our purposes, the two-part structure into which the play falls conveniently lends itself to laying out the evidence for these claims. As Helena undertakes the curing of the King, the first part of the play focuses on the topics of miracle and merit, and the second part brings into play the topics of pilgrimage and prayer as she attempts to win back Bertram.

First, then, Shakespeare's treatment of the miraculous. A comparison of the first part of the play with its source points up a significant development that warrants some consideration. In Boccaccio's Decameron (3.9) and in William Painter's translation, The Palace of Pleasure (1566; rpt. Hunter, All's Well), the curing of the king is described some ten times as a “healing,” to be accomplished in eight days with the aid of God. But when in All's Well Helena proposes to cure the King, she promises to do so in much more rapid fashion. Shakespeare shortens the time of the cure from eight days to less than two days (2.1.162-70). In so doing, he clearly emphasizes its miraculous nature

There's something in't [Helena's healing “remedy”]
More than my father's skill, which was the great'st
Of his profession, that his good receipt
Shall for my legacy be sanctified
By th' luckiest stars in heaven …


Helena's power to cure is something beyond mere professional skill, something beyond nature and attributable to the order of grace. Thus, when Helena proposes her cure to the King, Shakespeare has her appeal to the miraculous precedent of Moses' parting of the Red Sea (2.1.140-43), and after the king is cured she directly tells LaFew and Parolles that “Heaven hath through me restored the King to health” (2.3.63-64). Shakespeare develops Boccaccio's cursory references to God's “healing” grace into something considerably more miraculous.

Indeed, in order to increase the sense of the marvelous and the miraculous, Shakespeare subsequently adds the choral-like musing of LaFew as a reaction to Helena's curing of the King. Appropriately, LaFew's reflections are invested with an appreciative sense of philosophical causality and the limits of human knowledge or “scienza”:

They say miracles are past, and we have our philosophical persons, to make modern and familiar, things supernatural and causeless. Hence is it that we make trifles of terrors, ensconcing ourselves into seeming knowledge when we should submit ourselves to an unknown fear.

(2.3.1-6; see also 2.1.179-80)

Here the relevant question is of course: who are “they”? and who are “our philosophical persons”? LaFew's exchange with Parolles has been taken in part as a reference to the Paracelsian attack on the more academic Galenists, whose herbal treatments are clearly not in line with Helena's more chemically-specific method of curing the king (Stensgaard 173-83). But while this closely argued line of interpretation convincingly makes of Helena a Paracelsian medical practitioner, it also improbably reduces Shakespeare to a mere Paracelsian theologian (183-88). Clearly, the LaFew passage extends to the skeptical minds of the day, whether to the natural philosophers or the followers of Montaigne. The “modern philosophical person,” i. e., the natural philosopher or the skeptic, reduces reality, which has its supernatural dimension beyond the senses, to what is “familiar” and “trifling” and “seeming,” that is, to secondary causes apparent to the senses. The naturalistic-skeptical mentality is here under attack for its refusal to transcend the senses and for its unwillingness to face the supernatural dimension of reality, which ought to inspire an “unknown fear” because of its terrifying proportions, proportions particularly evident from miracles. The fullest dramatic rendering of this philosophical deficiency is of course the opening scene of Hamlet where the initially skeptical Horatio confronts the ghost of Hamlet's father:

How now, Horatio? You tremble and look pale.
Is not this [the Ghost] something more than
fantasy? What think you on't?
Before my God, I might not this believe
Without the sensible and true avouch
Of mine own eyes.


Hamlet's later observation underlines the point: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy” (1.5.175-76). Reality for Shakespeare extends well beyond the confines of human sensibility.

We should note here that Reformed theologians generally rejected post-Scriptural miracles, especially as part of the devotional complex generating and sustaining pilgrimages and shrines (Hillerbrand, “Miracles”). They would have particularly objected to the notion of a miracle worked through human agency or the intercession of the saints. Whereas faith in miracles coming directly through God's grace was acceptable to the Reformers, belief in miracles coming through the mediated intercession of saints was not. Thus, Shakespeare's representation of a miracle worked through the mediation of Helena, quite consonant with her later undertaking of a pilgrimage in search of mediatory intercession at the shrine of St. James, suggests a theology that is more than merely Paracelsian and not at all Reformed.

Shakespeare's second development of his source has to do with the doctrine of merit. Given the proper historical context, the doctrinal perspective operative in the play can be easily determined. Broadly speaking, there were current in the sixteenth century two theologies of grace. One was Roman Catholic and can be found in such sources as Aquinas' Summa, the decrees of the Council of Trent, the works of Robert Bellarmine, and so on. The other was the expression of Reformed theology, emanating from the works of Luther and Calvin, in which the Elizabethan settlement was grounded (Wallace 29-78). As the Council of Trent made clear, there were several Roman Catholic doctrines regarding grace and works, but three in particular warrant our attention: one, that in justification God's grace is always primary, since justification is initiated by God and merited by Christ; two, that justification involves a real interior (rather than an imputed and extrinsic) change in the sinner in which he is truly made just and given “new life”; and three, that following justification an increase of grace can be merited by “works” (Molinski 956). Aquinas clearly delineates the nature of merit in relation to justice, taken in the Aristotelian sense as a kind of equality. Where there are equals, merit holds simply and absolutely (de condigno), as reward due in justice for work done. Where there are unequals, merit obtains proportionately (de congruo), as a kind of reward for which God has allotted one a power of operation:

Merit and reward refer to the same, for a reward means something given anyone in return for work or toil, as a price for it. … Now justice is a kind of equality … and hence justice is simply between those that are simply equal; but where there is no absolute equality between them, neither is there absolute justice, but there may be a certain manner of justice

… Now it is clear that between God and man there is the greatest inequality. … Hence there can be no justice of absolute equality between man and God, but only of a certain proportion. … Hence man's merit with God only exists on the presupposition of the Divine ordination, so that man obtains from God, as a reward of his operation, what God gave him the power of operation for, even as natural things by their proper movements and operations obtain that to which they were ordained by God.

(ST 1a2ae, 114.1)

It is important to note that several of the key words in the play—inequality, “fate” and freedom, merit and reward—resonate with this passage.

Hence, in relation to the first principle, the primacy of God's grace in initiating justification, Luther was in fact recovering an older doctrine over against the semi-Pelagianism of theologians like Gabriel Biel, who maintained that human beings through their own efforts could “earn” the initial grace of justification. In relation to the second and third principles, however, Luther departed from the traditional doctrine in making out justification to be purely extrinsic and imputed. The sinner remained a sinner, and there was no interior change. Furthermore, he allowed no place for human merit since all was due to God's grace (Wallace 63; Allison 178-89). With consummate clarity, Richard Hooker, in his “A Learned Discourse of Justification” (1612), summed up the essential distinction and difference between the two positions, employing a distinction between the grace of justification and that of sanctification:

The righteousnes wherewith we shalbe clothed in the world to comme, is both perfecte and inherente: that whereby here we are justefied is perfecte but not inherente, that whereby we are sanctified, inherent but not perfecte. … This grace they [Roman Catholics] will have to be applied by infusion … so the soule mighte be rightuous by inherente grace, which grace they make capable of increase … the augmentacion whereof is merited by good workes, as good workes are made meritorious by it. … But the rightuousnes wherein we muste be found if we wilbe justefied, is not our owne, therefore we cannott be justefied by any inherente qualitie. … Then although in ourselves we be altogether synfull and unrightuous, yett even the man which in him selfe is ympious, full of inequity, full of synne, hym god beholdeth with a gratious eye, putteth awaie his syn by not ymputing it, taketh quite awaie the ponishemente due therunto by pardoninge it, and accepteth him in Jesus Christe as perfectly rightuous as if he had fulfilled all that was comaunded hym in the law.


In other words, there is a future righteousness which will be perfect and inherent, a present righteousness in this world which is perfect but not inherent (i. e., Christ's perfect righteousness is imputed to sinners), and a present sanctification in this world which is imperfect and inherent (i. e., presently man is a sinner imperfectly sanctified; see Gibbs, “Justification” 216). Thus both sides agreed that justification comes through faith in Christ, but they disagreed on the nature of justification (extrinsic vs. intrinsic) and sanctification (imperfect vs. perfect). Moreover, they disagreed on the subject of “good works”: on the Catholic side, merit and satisfaction were possible after justification; on the Protestant side, they were not because they appeared to undermine the merits and satisfaction of Christ in effecting salvation.

With these doctrinal differences in mind, we can return to Shakespeare's second development of his source, his greater emphasis on the theological notion of merit. What in Boccaccio and Painter is simply the heroine's clever exercise of human “policy” becomes in Shakespeare a virtuous action meriting reward. (However, Boccaccio's heroine refers to “recompense” [merito] twice, and in the original Italian the King possibly plays on the word [mariteremo, “we will give in marriage”; marito, “husband”] and refers to the husband Giletta has “deserved” [guadagnato] as a “reward” [guiderdon].) Shakespeare's fuller emphasis required some significant alteration of the action. We have mentioned above the distinction between condign and congruous merit, notions which Shakespeare consciously plays on in Love's Labor's Lost (1.2.13, 25) and which depend on equality and inequality between giver and receiver. This distinction, which conditions some courtly literature (Langer 233), enables us to make sense of Shakespeare's more pronounced emphasis on Helena's social inferiority to Bertram. Boccaccio makes little of his heroine's difference in social rank, other than to make it the basis for Beltramo's initially scornful rejection of Giletta as his wife. By contrast, Shakespeare first makes it the basis of Helena's despair over her “ambitious love” before she even sets out to pursue Bertram (1.1.86-94). Then, in view of this disparity of social station, he gives more prominence to the theme of reward and “desert,” both with the King's discourse on virtue as the true nobility, justifying his raising Helena to be Bertram's equal in rank (2.3.117-44), and with Helena's final remark on Bertram's being “doubly won” (5.3.315).

The theme of merit extends to other aspects of the play as well. Along these lines, the recent claim that there are certain tensions and oppositions in the play—between divine power and human weakness, election and free will, and grace and earned reward (Lewis 151)—deserves extended consideration. All three of these alleged oppositions touch on the doctrine of merit, and in the light of that doctrine we can perceive a unified theology of grace in the play's dialogue and action. With respect to the first of these supposed oppositions, it seems evident at specific points in All's Well that divine power and human weakness are not in oppositional tension—in either Roman Catholic or even Reformed doctrine—but that in a complementary way God's power is mediated through Helena's action. This notion, repeated more than once in the play, would have been acceptable to the Catholic and even perhaps to the Reformed sensibilities in Shakespeare's audience. The complementarity of divine power and human weakness finds its first expression when Helena approaches the King and he refuses her aid:

He that of greatest works is finisher
Oft does them by the weakest minister.
So holy writ in babes hath judgment shown
When judges have been babes; great floods have flown
From simple sources, and great seas have dried
When miracles have by the great'st been denied.


Having made her offer to cure the king, Helena uses another telling phrase—“The great'st grace lending grace” (2.1.162)—in claiming to the King that she can cure him in two days. What this phrase indicates is that her gift for healing is simply the power of God enabling her to act. And the notion of such complementarity is repeated in the King's response that “Methinks in thee some blessed spirit doth speak / His powerful sound within an organ weak” (177-78). It reappears two scenes later when LaFew and Parolles remark on the appearance of the “Very hand of heaven. … In a most weak—And debile minister” (2.3.31-34). What all these phrases suggest is a complementary relation between divine power and human action rather than an oppositional one, since divine power works through weak human beings, “lending” them grace, and not in spite of them.

If it is difficult to find any real opposition between divine power and human weakness in All's Well, so also it is hard to see where election and free will are necessarily at odds. It may seem that Helena at first sounds what from the perspective of Reformed theology appears to be an initially “Pelagian” note of confidence in the power of human action, at odds with the notion of God's grace as accomplishing all without regard to human merit:

Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie
Which we ascribe to heaven. The fated sky
Gives us free scope, only doth backward pull
Our slow designs when we ourselves are dull.


As Richard Stensgaard has suggested (186), this seems to be inconsistent with Helena's later statement that only with the “help of heaven” has the King's cure been effected (2.1.154). But it is inconsistent only if we assume the perspective of Reformed theology and its doctrine of “sola gratia.” Here Helena clearly speaks in a manner quite consistent with Roman Catholic theology, in which the mystery of predestination (“The fated sky”) does not obliterate free will. Heaven after all “gives us free scope,” a phrase clearly expressing divine provision for the exercise of human freedom. The Council of Trent in its sixth session (January 1547) condemned the notion that grace alone is conducive to salvation and that free will is a mere fiction:

Can. 4. If anyone says that man's free will moved and aroused by God, by assenting to God's call and action, in no way cooperates toward disposing and preparing itself to obtain the grace of justification, that it cannot refuse its assent if it wishes, but that, as something inanimate, it does nothing whatever and is merely passive, let him be anathema.

(Schroeder 42-43)

Free will here is something both passive and active—it is “moved” and “aroused,” so that it can “assent,” “cooperate,” “dispose” and “prepare” itself—but it is not something “merely passive.” Of further interest are the similar comments of Aquinas that free will is insufficient unless it is moved and helped by God (ST 1a.83.1) and that “we can admit the existence of fate (fatum)” inasmuch as “all that happens here below is subject to Divine Providence, as being pre-ordained” (ST 1a.116.1).

A comparable passage from “The Thirty-Nine Articles” will illustrate the difference between the Roman Catholic and Reformed views on free will:

The condition of Man after the fall of Adam is such, that he cannot turn and prepare himself, by his own natural strength and good works, to faith, and calling upon God. Wherefore we have no power to do good works pleasant and acceptable to God, without the grace of God by Christ preventing [i.e., going before] us, that we may have a good will, and working with us, when we have that good will.

(Leith, “Of Free Will” 270)

Here the emphasis is on what man cannot do—“turn and prepare himself,” “do good works”—so that he is powerless to perform works pleasing to God. It will not do to see an absolute opposition here, but there is clearly a difference of emphasis. Trent is vindicating free will, the Articles are vindicating grace. Trent has a more active conception of human cooperation, the Articles a more passive one. Helena's phrase “gives us free scope,” suggesting as it does some autonomy in human freedom, seems closer to Trent than to the Articles.

In accord with this conception of the complementary relation between divine power and human weakness, enabling human beings to act freely, is the doctrine of Trent regarding divine grace and human merit. The Council, again in its sixth session (January 1547), dealt with the subject of merit in terms suggestive of the very title of Shakespeare's play:

Do not lose your confidence, which hath a great reward [Heb. 10.35]. Hence, to those who work well unto the end [Matt. 10.22] [Atque ideo bene operantibus “usque in finem”] and trust in God, eternal life is to be offered, both as a grace mercifully promised to the Sons of God through Christ Jesus, and as a reward promised by God Himself, to be faithfully given to their good works and merits. … For since Christ Jesus Himself, as the head into the members and the vine into the branches, continually infuses strength into those justified, which strength always precedes, accompanies and follows their good works, and without which they could not in any manner be pleasing and meritorious before God, we must believe that nothing further is wanting to those justified to prevent them from being considered to have, by those very works which have been done in God, fully satisfied divine law … and to have truly merited eternal life. …

(Schroeder 40-41)

Not surprisingly, Shakespeare seems clearly conscious of the play's title and its connection with salvation, since he plays on the word “well” in relation to “heaven” for a dozen lines in Act 2.4.

As for the doctrine of merit itself, early on in the very first scene there is some suggestion of it in the Countess' description of Helena: “She derives her honesty and achieves her goodness” (1.1.44-45). That is, the inheritance of a good disposition complements virtuous achievement and merit. And later when the King waves Helena's offer of help aside, she herself goes on to use terms that clearly and explicitly unite divine grace and human merit:

Inspirèd merit so by breath is barred.
It is not so with Him that all things knows
As ’tis with us that square our guess by shows;
But most it is presumption in us when
The help of heaven we count the act of men.


The meritorious nature of Helena's miraculous cure is here especially apparent in the phrase she uses to describe her action—“inspirèd merit”—an action inspired by God and meritorious for herself. Far from accomplishing all without reference to free will, grace—“the help of heaven”—enables Helena to meritoriously cure the King and thus receive her reward, much in the manner described by Trent.

To sum up—certain speeches and phraseology in the first part of All's Well create a sense of divine grace that goes well beyond Boccaccio and Painter. The Countess' description of Helena—“she derives her honesty and achieves her goodness”—affirms the value of human effort. More prominently, Helena's remark about “inspirèd merit” is clearly Roman Catholic in its sense of divine grace empowering human meritorious action, and her conception of “the greatest Grace lending grace” suggests a certain autonomy—and therefore human freedom and merit—in human action. All three phrases go beyond the theological commonplace of divine grace working through human agents, implicit in the allusions to the Scriptural figures of Daniel and Moses (2.1.140-43) and such remarks as the King's “Methinks in thee some blessèd spirit doth speak / His powerful sound within an organ weak” (2.1.177-78). Equally important, the play's action precisely and coherently reflects a Roman Catholic theology of grace, with Helena “working” a miracle with the aid of grace and meritoriously being “rewarded” by the King with the hand of Bertram. As a point of comparison, one might cite Spenser's commentary on the Red Cross Knight's victory over the Dragon, described in terms acceptable to Reformed theology:

Ne let the man ascribe it to his skill,
That thorough grace hath gainéd victory.
If any strength we have it is to ill,
But all the good is Gods, both power and eke will.


By contrast with Spenser, Shakespeare seems inclined to acknowledge human weakness in the Reformed manner but in conformity with the Council of Trent to affirm the power of free will and human merit.

In the second half of the play, the Catholic notions of grace and merit carry over, albeit in a minor key, into the themes of pilgrimage and prayer. The action is clearly fashioned in parallel form. Just as Bertram uses deception in going off to war, informing his mother and Helena by letter, so Helena, also informing the Countess by letter, undertakes her pilgrimage as a deceptive ruse that allows her to draw near Florence and Bertram. Both the cowardly braggart Parolles and the fearless but lustful Bertram are duped, the former by the drum incident, the latter by the bed-trick. Again, it seems Shakespeare is primarily interested in Helena's “ambitious love” and the ingenuity with which she achieves her desire. But her costume as a pilgrim and her description of her pilgrimage carry with them the undeniable features of the Roman Catholic theology of grace.

With respect to pilgrimages, it is important to realize the confluence of Catholic doctrine and devotional practice. Through the late Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, when they were reformulated by the Council of Trent, the doctrines of grace were inseparably linked with miracles, saints, shrines, pilgrimages, and vows—and, we might add, with works of satisfaction for sin:

Two dominant perceptions governed the notion concerning [miracles]: first, that miracles were performed by God through the intercession of the saints; second, that the saints' aid was attained through an exchange. Seeking help in hopeless circumstances, the faithful approached the saints at local shrines with prayers and vows of pilgrimages and votive gifts. In return, they received intercession for their devotion.

(Hillerbrand, “Miracles”)

All of these elements are captured in part two of All's Well when Helena supposedly undertakes “with sainted vow” her pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Jacques (compare Calvin on “votive pilgrimages” [Inst. 4.13.7] as “not only empty and fleeting but full of manifest impiety”). Consistent with her previous phraseology of “inspirèd merit,” she is conscious of the meritorious nature of penitential action in the amendment of faults:

I am Saint Jaques' pilgrim, thither gone.
                    Ambitious love hath so in me offended
That barefoot plod I the cold ground upon,
                    With sainted vow my faults to have amended.


And clearly her letter expresses the hope that a pilgrimage will obtain intercession from the saint in order to rescue Bertram from “the bloody course of war.”

A pilgrimage to Spain, the invocation of Saint James, the penitential practice of walking barefoot on the cold ground, a “sainted vow,” the amendment of faults. These notions and practices are not the staples of Reformed doctrine. The Reformers, in fact, considered the intercessory miracles reported at shrines as illusions and frauds, and they attacked the doctrine of intercession as well as the whole complex of doctrines surrounding pilgrimages to the shrines of saints (Hillerbrand, “Miracles”). Moreover, such things were important enough to call forth condemnation in The Thirty-Nine Articles appended to The Book of Common Prayer:

The Romish Doctrine concerning Purgatory, Pardons, Worshipping and Adoration, as well of Images as of Relics, and also Invocation of Saints, is a fond thing, vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.

(No. XXII; Leith 274)

With this article in mind, it is extremely difficult to see Shakespeare's theology as consonant with Reformed doctrine in general and Church of England doctrine in particular.

Furthermore, consistent with this notion of pilgrimage, the conception of prayer in the play is also distinctively Roman Catholic, including as it does some notion of active “works” and satisfaction for sin. Helena undertakes her pilgrimage in order to pray at the shrine of St. Jacques and to do penance. Prayer is conceived of as “working” an effect, as an act of intercession, and as a means to amending faults. Thus, in blessing Bertram, the Countess speaks of what her prayers will “pluck down” (1.1.69), and she later proclaims that she will “pray God's blessing into thy [Helena's] attempt” to cure the King (1.3.253). Such a conception of prayer assigns it an active function of “working” an effect, contrary to the Reformed conception of prayer as a passive and powerless appeal to God for mercy.

This active conception is again in evidence later in the play when, after having received the letter from Helena informing her that she has gone on pilgrimage, the Countess exclaims against Bertram “What angel shall bless this unworthy husband?” She then proceeds to remark that only “her prayers, whom heaven delights to hear / And loves to grant” (either Helena's prayers or more probably the Blessed Virgin Mary's) can “reprieve him [Bertram] from the wrath of greatest justice” (3.4.25-29). The conception of prayer effecting by intercession the “reprieve” of a sinner is distinctly Roman Catholic. Again, the context seems to prevent us reading Helena as the mentioned “angel,” since the Countess' steward has just spoken of the impossibility of pursuing and overtaking Helena, who seems to be intent on her own death (17). In the absence of a human means of preventing her, the Countess turns to a supernatural means for solution. Helena's mediation is no longer possible. Therefore the Countess desperately imagines another source of mediation. The lines seem clearly to refer to a woman greater than Helena, a woman of angelic stature, general intercessory power, and unique favor in the eyes of heaven—that is, Mary, the mediatrix of all graces (Hunter, Comedy of Forgiveness 129-30). Even if we take the Countess' phrase “what angel” as referring to Helena, her words are not in keeping with the Elizabethan “Homily concerning Prayer,” which informs us that

… we must call neither vpon Angel, nor yet vpon Saint, but onely and solely vpon God. … For to say that we should beleeue either in Angel or Saint or in any other liuing creature, were mere horrible blasphemie against God and his holy Word. …

(Certaine Sermons 1:114)

The tradition of Mary as mediatrix, again a notion repulsive to Reformed theologians, was well known in Shakespeare's time. At about the same time (1608) that All's Well was written, John Donne, for example, was writing in very similar terms about Mary as mediatrix:

                                                                                As her deeds were
Our helpes, so are her prayers; nor can she sue
In vaine, who hath such titles unto you.

(“A Litanie” ll.43-45; see Dubinski 18-24; Klawitter 131-33)

Donne was aware, as his letter to Henry Goodyere indicates, that in these lines he was striking a “via media” between Rome and Geneva, conceding to the former praise of the saints and to the latter a “rectified devotion” by avoiding invocation with the “ora pro nobis” refrain (Lewalski 260-61). But Shakespeare's lines contain a more forceful conception of intercession than Donne's: Mary's prayer is envisioned not merely as a suing for grace, but as actually effecting a “reprieve” for Bertram.

Finally, in addition to the notion of prayer as working an effect, the conception of satisfaction for sin is operative in Helena's intention to do penance for the sin of her “ambitious love.” She writes that she intends “to barefoot plod … the cold ground upon, / With sainted vow my faults to have amended” (3.4.4-7), and when she reaches Florence, she is brought to the other “enjoined penitents,” i. e., pilgrims who have vowed to do penance. Such physical penance is of course another form of “works” repudiated by Reformed theologians. The notion is not confined to All's Well; we find it also in The Winter's Tale when Cleomenes exclaims to Leontes:

Sir, you have done enough, and have performed
A saint-like sorrow. No fault could you make
Which you have not redeemed—indeed, paid down
More penitence than done trespass.


In Cleomenes' eyes, “faults” and “trespasses” can be paid for and “redeemed” by the performance of penitential deeds with “saint-like sorrow.” Two of the three parts of the Roman Catholic sacrament of penance—contrition, confession, and satisfaction—are here in evidence: namely, sorrow for sin, and the redemptive power of penitential acts, of satisfaction “paid down” for sin. This is not compatible with what we consistently find in Luther's Babylonian Captivity of the Church, Calvin's Institutes (see 3.4.25), Hooker's Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (5.5.6), and The Thirty-Nine Articles:

The Offering of Christ once made is that perfect redemption, propitiation, and satisfaction, for all the sins of the whole world, both original and actual; and there is none other satisfaction for sin, but that alone.

(No. XXXI; Leith 277)

Since Christ has made satisfaction once for all, there is no need to “pay down” additional human satisfaction for sin. When Reformed theology speaks of “satisfaction,” it means not the performance of penitential actions, like Helena's walking barefoot on the cold ground, but rather something quite different: “that we cease from euill, and doe good, and if wee haue done any man wrong, to endeauour our selues to make him true amends” (“The second part of the Homily of Repentance” Certaine Sermons 2:269). It should be mentioned that in the interests of a “via media,” Hooker makes some allowance for works of satisfaction being contrary to and effectually curing the deeds of sin. But he talks in largely the same manner as the homily, distinguishing between satisfaction made to God, man, and Church, the first having been made by Christ, and the latter two consisting of restitution and amendment of life (6.5.2-9, esp. 6-8; see also Gibbs, “Repentance” 68). In neither source is there any mention of penitential satisfaction being undertaken with a “sainted vow.”

Both parts of All's Well, then, reflect a Roman Catholic theology of grace. In part one, we have the presentation of the King's cure as miraculous, Helena's role as miracle-worker, and her words ascribing her miraculous cure to “inspirèd merit.” In part two, we have her role as pilgrim, along with her sonnet-letter describing her pilgrimage as undertaken by “sainted vow” for the amendment of faults, the Countess' allusion to the intercessory power of the Virgin Mary, the conception of prayer as working an effect, and the notion of penance as satisfaction for sin. All these elements in the play, together with the several other references to Roman Catholic doctrine, provide compelling evidence of the sensibility of a “church papist” at work. Moreover, it seems that Shakespeare shaped the action to represent by analogy the operations of merit de congruo in part one, with the “unequal” Helena being “proportionately” rewarded with a raise in station by the King, and merit de condigno in part two, when having achieved equality of station she fulfills Bertram's terms and so gains a reward due in justice for labor done. In short, a Roman Catholic theology of grace pervades the play at every level.

In any event, the theological dimension of All's Well seriously challenges some conventional views of Shakespeare: that his plays sharply separate the secular order of nature from the order of grace, that he embraced the skepticism of Montaigne and the “new philosophers,” and that he was most probably a conforming member of the Church of England. All these views run contrary to what we find in All's Well—the notions of miracle, pilgrimage, penitential vows, intercessory prayer, and “inspirèd merit,” all emanating from the mindset of a Roman Catholic. Shakespeare again appears here to fit the profile of a discreet “church papist,” more than that of a devout member of the Church of England or a secularized skeptic (Taylor 297-98; Beauregard, “New Light” passim).


  1. There is something intrinsically problematic in Frye's claim that Shakespeare was “capable of treating the temporal and secular order independent of theological systems” (268). As two of Frye's critics have pointed out, this would have been virtually impossible in Elizabethan England, saturated as it was with liturgical ceremony and theological discourse (Hassel ix-xv; Shuger 46). This deep and central flaw stems from Frye's adoption of certain oppositions in Reformed theology between nature and grace, the temporal and spiritual orders. Thus he argued that Shakespeare's universality stood in opposition to Christianity (conceived of as sectarian by Frye), that classical ethics was more universal than an “exclusively” Christian ethics, that the temporal order is sharply separate from the order of grace, and that, consequently, literature was independent of theology. The complementary relation of these oppositions in Roman Catholic theology was never considered—Aquinas, whose ethics “inclusively” unites classical and Christian sources, was excluded because “his works were not in print in sixteenth century England” (11). But Aquinas' works, often cited by English theologians such as Hooker and Perkins, were printed on the continent and were available in such places as St. Paul's churchyard and St. John's College library, as has been demonstrated by recent scholarship (see Beauregard, Virtue's Own Feature 37-40).

    Another major flaw in Frye's study is his reductive conception of a “universal” Shakespeare, universal not in the classical sense of representing the essential forms of “nature,” but universal in the expurgatory sense of being an uncontroversial poet, undetermined by any theological system, and “equally accessible” to Christians and virtuous heathen (272). Shakespeare's inoffensively “secular” art thus transcends the history and religious divisions of his time, but we are assured that he was a conforming member of the Church of England, whose “broad and inclusive” character, however, prevents us from determining his personal faith (3-4). This conception jars with Frye's eccentric catalogue of theological topics, which shows that Shakespeare had an extensive knowledge of Christian doctrine. But the catalogue excludes theologically specific references to Limbo, pilgrimage, penitential vows, merit, satisfaction for sin, and auricular confession—to name those that occur in All's Well—and such crucial theological topics as justification, grace, purgatory, Franciscan religious life, nuns, saints, etc., all of which had been carefully catalogued by Mutschmann and Wentersdorf (213-365). The overall result is to expurgate the scandalously Catholic references from Shakespeare's theology.

  2. See, for example, Shakespeare's toning down of his anti-Catholic sources in King John, and his transformation of his sources in Measure for Measure. Cinthio and Whetstone present us with a virginal heroine who is seduced by a magistrate and then is married to him. Shakespeare decks Isabella out as a novice in the Poor Clares, preserves her virginity, and has her remain silent when she is offered marriage (Beauregard, Virtue's Own Feature 153-55).

  3. Tilney seems to have been mainly concerned with inflammatory language and possible insurrections, not with ideas and the promotion of ideological orthodoxy (Dutton 80). It has even been argued that between 1590 and 1625 the theater had come to be seen as politically powerless and disinterested, so that the authorities “do not seem to have thought it possible for the players seriously to disrupt the political order” (Yachnin 2-3, 23). Here we see part of the solution to the problem of how it was that Roman Catholic roles, whether of Helena as miracle-worker and pilgrim or Isabella as novice, were played before an Elizabethan or Jacobean audience. The problem recurs with Shakespeare's favorable portrayal of Franciscan friars—Friar Laurence in Romeo and Juliet, Friar Francis in Much Ado About Nothing, and Friar Peter in Measure for Measure. Except for Shakespeare and John Ford, English Renaissance dramatists depict Franciscan friars as “duplicitous, immoral, and satanic” (Voss 5). Thus, as far as official censorship is concerned, Tilney did not object to certain theologically sensitive roles being played on the stage, but rather to seditious matter.

    If we consider the makeup of the audience, several other considerations bear on the problem. First of all, Shakespeare's plays were sometimes put on before Catholic audiences. In 1604 Love's Labors Lost was put on at Southampton House, a notorious Catholic center where in 1605 “above two hundredeth pounds worth of popish bookes [were] taken about Southampton house and burned in Poules Churchyard” (Akrigg 255, 181). In 1609-10, King Lear and Pericles were put on by Catholic players, Cholmeley's Men, at recusant houses in Yorkshire (Milward 78). A more important consideration is that in many respects English audiences were still Catholic or well disposed toward Catholicism. In July of 1603, a Spanish diplomatic report on King James' “Councillors of State … and other notables” identified a quarter of them as favorably disposed to Catholicism and in November of 1604, a second report by the Constable of Castile found “grounds for optimism in the favorable reports about King James and Queen Anne, the known Catholic sympathies among many aristocrats and the increasing number of Catholics” (Loomie 1: 1-10; 26-44, esp. 36). This latter report estimates that the religious makeup of England was one-third Catholic and that, of the other two sects, the Protestants were losing numbers and the Puritans increasing. Since those attending plays cannot have shared the Puritan hostility to the stage, it seems reasonable to suppose that Catholic figures on the stage were simply tolerated (as with Tilney), especially if they were marginal characters or presented in a dramatically ambiguous way. The Protestant revolution was far from complete, and, as Patrick Collinson and others have shown, a truly Protestant literary culture, based on the “plain truth” of the Bible, was still in the process of formation (34-37). Dramatic performance was affected, then, by a variety of complex circumstances that preclude our thinking of Shakespeare's plays as always and everywhere under the eye of rigorous Protestant censorship and a predominantly Protestant audience.

  4. From time to time Shakespearean critics have suggested the relevance of the theology of grace to All's Well, but for various reasons have never undertaken a full exploration. In 1950 E. M. W. Tillyard viewed Helena and Bertram broadly as the representatives of “heavenly grace and natural, unredeemed, man respectively” (108), but did not pursue the matter further. Some ten years later, Roland M. Frye made the general claim that “sin is, after all, a universal element of human experience where saving grace is not,” and so he concluded dismissively that “the theology of sin thus appears to have been quite serviceable to Shakespeare, whereas the theology of grace was less so,” declining to include grace in his list of theological topics (115). Shortly thereafter, Robert G. Hunter also saw Helena as “the instrument of God's grace” (114, 128), but made the questionable claim that the orthodoxy of the English Reformation “was very close to the Summa when it came to the forgiveness of sins” (20, 244). More recently, David Palmer has claimed that the play alludes to the Reformed doctrines of man's depravity, “the natural inferiority and weakness of women,” and free will “as conformable with God's will” (97-103). Other critics have examined All's Well from the standpoint of Scriptural sources, and have discerned in it New Testament images, allusions to Old Testament types of baptism, and types of the Old Testament prophets and the Prodigal Son (Sexton 262-3; Haley 104-5; Milward 172-79). Finally, using a New Critical model of drama taken to its now commonplace skeptical extreme, one critic has conceived the play as presenting the Reformed and “Christian humanist” (i. e., Roman Catholic) conceptions of grace “in consistent tension,” claiming that it “first promotes one seeming truth and then substitutes its antithesis” (Lewis 151-56). In short, when it comes to the theology of grace in Shakespeare, some confusion reigns among critics, and the confusion obscures a clearly Catholic feature of Shakespeare's work.

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