Religion and Theology
Critics have adopted a variety of approaches to explore the religious and theological dimensions in Shakespeare's plays. They have identified specific religious themes, explicated biblical allusions, and shed light on numerous theological subtexts. Late twentieth-century commentators almost uniformly decline to speculate about whether Shakespeare held particular sectarian views and, if so, what these might be. Instead they focus on his treatment of religious disputes in early modern England and the controversies that split the Christian church and led to the Reformation. Throughout the period when Shakespeare was writing his plays, religious systems of thought continued to be unstable, and doctrinal issues were vigorously contested. Many critics find evidence of Shakespeare's familiarity with these conflicts—as well as with centuries of Christian discourse—in his histories, comedies, and tragedies.
In her assessment of the Christian aspects in Shakespearean tragedy, Helen Gardner (see Further Reading) emphasizes the dramatist's evident knowledge of the Bible and contemporary theological writings. Gardner maintains that some of the most characteristic features of Shakespearean tragedy—especially those found in King Lear—are closely associated with Christian attitudes toward the mysteries of human existence. René Fortin (1979) also examines King Lear and finds both Christian and secular interpretations of the play to be equally valid. Acknowledging that the play's final scene poses a unique challenge to Christian or redemptive readings of the tragedy, he suggests that the death of Cordelia, far from contradicting Christian doctrine, confirms the Catholic and Protestant notion of God's judgments as unknown and inexplicable. Similarly, Daryl Tippins (1997) proposes that King Lear may be viewed as either nihilistic or transcendent. Cautioning readers to be wary of basing a definitive interpretation of the play as a whole on a reading of its final scene, he claims that the seeming pessimism of this episode does not negate the effect of previous scenes that represent compassion, reconciliation, and Christian optimism.
Alan Sinfield (1980) maintains that optimistic humanism is a critical issue in Hamlet, and argues that the play depicts the disintegration of the notion that human reason by itself can form the basis of moral action. But, he further contends, it also shows that the Calvinist belief in providential justice is an equally inadequate response to the grim realities of this world. Ronald G. Shafer (1990) considers that Hamlet is only temporarily attracted to humanism and that ultimately the prince reaffirms his belief in Christian values and his reliance on the will of God. Both Robert N. Watson (see Further Reading) and Julia Reinhard Lupton (1997) discuss questions of religious differences and theological doctrine in Othello. Watson asserts that the play's rendering of Catholic theology is burlesque, intended to caricature the idea that salvation can be earned and to endorse instead the Protestant tenet that salvation is a gift from God, unrelated to individual merit. Lupton examines Shakespeare's depiction of the Moor as at once a Christian hero and a barbarian forever excluded from the covenant of universal brotherhood.
Some critics detect significant religious motifs in the comedies as well as the tragedies. For example, Paul A. Cantor (1987) asserts that in The Merchant of Venice these issues are more complex than is ordinarily recognized. The play does not merely represent Christianity's triumph over Judaism, he contends, for its near-tragic ending features the downfall of Antonio, the play's representative Christian, as well as Shylock, its representative Jew. Both G. M. Pinciss (1990) and Julia Brett (see Further Reading) assess the religious dimensions of another Shakespearean comedy, Measure for Measure. Pinciss reads the play in terms of the Protestant belief in the positive value of despair: that is, as an integral part of the struggle to progress from recognition of one's sins to a state of true penitence and the achievement of forgiveness and salvation. Brett is particularly concerned with the distinction between Christian allegorizations and Christian interpretations of Measure for Measure. She stresses the importance of appraising the play's religious features in the context of its corresponding concern with political or secular issues, especially with regard to the Duke's dual responsibility as spiritual guide and temporal ruler. Maurice Hunt (1993) and David N. Beauregard (1999) evaluate religious aspects of two other Shakespearean comedies: Twelfth Night and All's Well that Ends Well. Hunt calls attention to Twelfth Night's many references to non-Christian forces shaping human destiny and to its satirical treatment of Puritanism, concluding that the play's support for the Anglican view of providence is ultimately indeterminate. Beauregard maintains that All's Well is steeped in the Roman Catholic theology of grace. He particularly remarks on the play's disparate treatment of Protestant and Catholic attitudes toward merit and free will.
Commentators have also found intimations of a number of different sectarian and doctrinal issues in Shakespeare's histories. For instance, Robert G. Hunter (1978) examines the various means Falstaff uses to keep up his hopes of preferment—both in this world and the next. Hunter also proposes that Hal's rejection of Falstaff may be read as the triumph of the Protestant ethic, for the new king turns his back on Sir John in order to carry out the responsibilities of the monarchy to which, he believes, God has called him. By contrast, Roy Battenhouse (1985) argues that Henry V demonstrates a remarkable talent for transferring onto other people's shoulders responsibilities that are rightly his. Moreover, Battenhouse contends, Henry surrounds himself with flatterers and assumes a spurious piety, thus demonstrating the shallowness of his commitment to Christian norms. In his discussion of anticlericalism in Shakespeare's histories, Jeffrey Knapp (see Further Reading) focuses on the pseudo piety of a series of English bishops—from 1 Henry VI to Henry V—who are principally concerned not with saving souls but with inciting violence. James C. Bryant (1984) maintains that Shakespeare presents the religious quarrels in King John in a political context that diminishes their significance. In his judgment, the play is on the side of Protestantism to the extent that it upholds the notion that an English monarch rules only by the grace of God and therefore need not answer to any other temporal or spiritual authority. Finally, R. Chris Hassel, Jr. (1986) maintains that Richard III presents Richmond as God's chosen agent to liberate England from the heavy hand of Richard's rule. In his analysis of the parallels between this play and the Book of Revelation, Hassel emphasizes the dramatic motifs of prophecy, the Last Judgment, and the destruction of the Antichrist.