William Shakespeare Religion and Theology - Essay


(Shakespearean Criticism)

Religion and Theology

Critics have adopted a variety of approaches to explore the religious and theological dimensions in Shakespeare's plays. They have identified specific religious themes, explicated biblical allusions, and shed light on numerous theological subtexts. Late twentieth-century commentators almost uniformly decline to speculate about whether Shakespeare held particular sectarian views and, if so, what these might be. Instead they focus on his treatment of religious disputes in early modern England and the controversies that split the Christian church and led to the Reformation. Throughout the period when Shakespeare was writing his plays, religious systems of thought continued to be unstable, and doctrinal issues were vigorously contested. Many critics find evidence of Shakespeare's familiarity with these conflicts—as well as with centuries of Christian discourse—in his histories, comedies, and tragedies.

In her assessment of the Christian aspects in Shakespearean tragedy, Helen Gardner (see Further Reading) emphasizes the dramatist's evident knowledge of the Bible and contemporary theological writings. Gardner maintains that some of the most characteristic features of Shakespearean tragedy—especially those found in King Lear—are closely associated with Christian attitudes toward the mysteries of human existence. René Fortin (1979) also examines King Lear and finds both Christian and secular interpretations of the play to be equally valid. Acknowledging that the play's final scene poses a unique challenge to Christian or redemptive readings of the tragedy, he suggests that the death of Cordelia, far from contradicting Christian doctrine, confirms the Catholic and Protestant notion of God's judgments as unknown and inexplicable. Similarly, Daryl Tippins (1997) proposes that King Lear may be viewed as either nihilistic or transcendent. Cautioning readers to be wary of basing a definitive interpretation of the play as a whole on a reading of its final scene, he claims that the seeming pessimism of this episode does not negate the effect of previous scenes that represent compassion, reconciliation, and Christian optimism.

Alan Sinfield (1980) maintains that optimistic humanism is a critical issue in Hamlet, and argues that the play depicts the disintegration of the notion that human reason by itself can form the basis of moral action. But, he further contends, it also shows that the Calvinist belief in providential justice is an equally inadequate response to the grim realities of this world. Ronald G. Shafer (1990) considers that Hamlet is only temporarily attracted to humanism and that ultimately the prince reaffirms his belief in Christian values and his reliance on the will of God. Both Robert N. Watson (see Further Reading) and Julia Reinhard Lupton (1997) discuss questions of religious differences and theological doctrine in Othello. Watson asserts that the play's rendering of Catholic theology is burlesque, intended to caricature the idea that salvation can be earned and to endorse instead the Protestant tenet that salvation is a gift from God, unrelated to individual merit. Lupton examines Shakespeare's depiction of the Moor as at once a Christian hero and a barbarian forever excluded from the covenant of universal brotherhood.

Some critics detect significant religious motifs in the comedies as well as the tragedies. For example, Paul A. Cantor (1987) asserts that in The Merchant of Venice these issues are more complex than is ordinarily recognized. The play does not merely represent Christianity's triumph over Judaism, he contends, for its near-tragic ending features the downfall of Antonio, the play's representative Christian, as well as Shylock, its representative Jew. Both G. M. Pinciss (1990) and Julia Brett (see Further Reading) assess the religious dimensions of another Shakespearean comedy, Measure for Measure. Pinciss reads the play in terms of the Protestant belief in the positive value of despair: that is, as an integral part of the struggle to progress from recognition of one's sins to a state of true penitence and the achievement of forgiveness and salvation. Brett is particularly concerned with the distinction between Christian allegorizations and Christian interpretations of Measure for Measure. She stresses the importance of appraising the play's religious features in the context of its corresponding concern with political or secular issues, especially with regard to the Duke's dual responsibility as spiritual guide and temporal ruler. Maurice Hunt (1993) and David N. Beauregard (1999) evaluate religious aspects of two other Shakespearean comedies: Twelfth Night and All's Well that Ends Well. Hunt calls attention to Twelfth Night's many references to non-Christian forces shaping human destiny and to its satirical treatment of Puritanism, concluding that the play's support for the Anglican view of providence is ultimately indeterminate. Beauregard maintains that All's Well is steeped in the Roman Catholic theology of grace. He particularly remarks on the play's disparate treatment of Protestant and Catholic attitudes toward merit and free will.

Commentators have also found intimations of a number of different sectarian and doctrinal issues in Shakespeare's histories. For instance, Robert G. Hunter (1978) examines the various means Falstaff uses to keep up his hopes of preferment—both in this world and the next. Hunter also proposes that Hal's rejection of Falstaff may be read as the triumph of the Protestant ethic, for the new king turns his back on Sir John in order to carry out the responsibilities of the monarchy to which, he believes, God has called him. By contrast, Roy Battenhouse (1985) argues that Henry V demonstrates a remarkable talent for transferring onto other people's shoulders responsibilities that are rightly his. Moreover, Battenhouse contends, Henry surrounds himself with flatterers and assumes a spurious piety, thus demonstrating the shallowness of his commitment to Christian norms. In his discussion of anticlericalism in Shakespeare's histories, Jeffrey Knapp (see Further Reading) focuses on the pseudo piety of a series of English bishops—from 1 Henry VI to Henry V—who are principally concerned not with saving souls but with inciting violence. James C. Bryant (1984) maintains that Shakespeare presents the religious quarrels in King John in a political context that diminishes their significance. In his judgment, the play is on the side of Protestantism to the extent that it upholds the notion that an English monarch rules only by the grace of God and therefore need not answer to any other temporal or spiritual authority. Finally, R. Chris Hassel, Jr. (1986) maintains that Richard III presents Richmond as God's chosen agent to liberate England from the heavy hand of Richard's rule. In his analysis of the parallels between this play and the Book of Revelation, Hassel emphasizes the dramatic motifs of prophecy, the Last Judgment, and the destruction of the Antichrist.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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Robert G. Hunter (essay date 1976)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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René E. Fortin (essay date 1979)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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Alan Sinfield (essay date 1980)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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,...

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James C. Bryant (essay date 1984)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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Roy Battenhouse (essay date 1985)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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Paul A. Cantor (essay date 1987)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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,...

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G. M. Pinciss (essay date 1990)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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”...

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Ronald G. Shafer (essay date 1990)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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Maurice Hunt (essay date 1993)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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Julia Reinhard Lupton (essay date 1997)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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Darryl Tippins (essay date 1997)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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 /...

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David N. Beauregard (essay date 1999)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)


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...

(The entire section is 1765 words.)