Was Shakespeare a Christian?

by Peter Wells

It’s dawned on me, looking at recent (and not so recent) commentary on Shakespeare, that a wedge is being driven between the Bard and the culture in which he lived. Although I haven’t actually heard the following syllogism, it seems to be lurking behind much current criticism:

  • Shakespeare wasn’t stupid;
  • Christianity is stupid;
  • therefore Shakespeare can’t have been a Christian.

For example the explicitly Christian Sonnet 146 is variously dismissed as (a) uncharacteristic (b) insincere (c) the words of a ‘persona,’ or character, or (d) actually not Christian at all.

Whereas, personally, I think that a great deal of Shakespeare’s work can be better understood and appreciated, once we realise that it is grounded in the faith and beliefs of most of his fellow citizens, and that he took that faith seriously. We know that he used Biblical quotations and allusions frequently, they being the common language of his generation. But I would like to explore ways in which he might more meaningfully be described as a Christian.

If being baptised, married and buried in Church makes you a Christian, Shakespeare was a Christian. If, on the other hand, having sex with the wrong person disqualifies you, then he wasn’t. Clearly, we’re going to have to ask more sophisticated questions than these. Did he live the life of a Christian, showing everyone he met love, compassion, mercy, justice, and, where appropriate, forgiveness? Well, obviously, we can’t know that (my recent essay on Colston hammers that point to death!). But perhaps we can discern in his religious references, allusions and themes a depth of commitment to Christian doctrine and attitudes that would qualify him for the description. And if so, this might provide a way into to his work that would enable us to explore it profitably, and possibly to re-evaluate our own lives.

In Hamlet, Act 3 Sc. 4. Hamlet decides to confront his mother with her sins. He believes that these are due to an excessive sexual appetite, unnatural in one of her mature years (O shame, where is thy blush!). This led her, he asserts, to have an adulterous affair with Claudius (Aye, that incestuous, that adulterous beast), to connive in Old Hamlet’s murder (kill a king), and to marry Claudius almost immediately (O most wicked speed, to post With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!).

Hamlet, we hear, was a student at Wittenberg University, and seems to have been imbued there with Virtue Ethics Theory. So, the remedy he prescribes for his mother’s incontinence is a virtue ethics cure: ‘Be Better.’
Good night. But go not to mine uncle’s bed.
Assume a virtue, if you have it not.
That monster custom, who all sense doth eat,
Of habits evil, is angel yet in this,
That to the use of actions fair and good
He likewise gives a frock or livery
That aptly is put on.
[i.e. although habits are often bad, there are also good habits.]
 … Refrain tonight,
And that shall lend a kind of easiness
To the next abstinence. The next more easy;
For use almost can change the stamp of nature,
And either curb the devil, or throw him out
With wondrous potency.

Hamlet’s advice is not merely pragmatic; it is theological. ‘Assuming a virtue‘ was the mediaeval Church’s standard teaching about character. The theory was that virtue could be acquired, that we could make ourselves better, and each other better (and that we should). It was a belief that had lasted for centuries. But it was one of the things about the Roman Church that Martin Luther disapproved of. Luther, Professor of Theology at Wittenberg from 1512-1546, regarded ‘assuming a virtue‘ as hypocrisy, because it involved deceit – ‘putting it on‘ – and also because it seemed to imply that humans are capable of self-improvement in their own strength, whereas Luther had a strong doctrine of grace – only God could make you better, or, rather, only God could save you, for Luther’s focus was on salvation.

It is a tribute to the breadth of Shakespeare’s knowledge and reading, and the magnitude of his intellect, that he not only knew about this old debate, but had such a perfect grasp of the issues. It is unthinkable that he placed Hamlet at Wittenberg accidentally. The fictitious prince would have learned of the historic dispute that took place in those very walls in the early 16th century, and Shakespeare’s dramatic use of it demonstrates a profound understanding of a Christian controversy that goes back to Pelagius, and is still alive today.

The argument against Luther was that, by placing the emphasis upon grace, he was undermining respect for morality, and Hamlet’s charge against Gertrude is exactly the same. Her sin is not merely adultery, incest, and murder – it’s much worse than that! Her action
calls virtue hypocrite, makes marriage vows
As false as dicers’ oaths
It is such a deed
As from the body of contraction plucks
The very soul,
and sweet religion makes
A rhapsody of words!  

Hamlet’s point here is that Gertrude is effectively using the Lutheran objection to Virtue Ethics (that it is ‘hypocritical’) in order to excuse her wicked behaviour. Emboldened, possibly, by something she has vaguely gathered about the uselessness of trying to be good, she has abandoned any attempt to do what is right, and given in to her immediate desires. But if this attitude spread, Hamlet contends, nothing would be have any meaning – including marriage, and indeed, any contracts, and religion itself. There is, thus, really, as Marcellus feared, something rotten in the state of Denmark: a moral rot at its heart – within the royal family itself. The play is full of imagery of internal diseases involving rot, cancer, maggots, ulcers, abscesses or boils. Hamlet sees it as his duty, as heir-apparent, to cure the country – to lance the imposthume – by cutting to the root of the corruption, even if it means his death. Nor yet do you consider, says Caiaphas in the Gospel of John, that it is expedient for us, that one man die for the people.

Like Jesus, whose story was rehearsed year by year in Shakespeare’s church, Hamlet wishes that the cup would pass away from him:
The time is out of joint: O cursed spite,
That ever I was born to set it right!
“Nevertheless,” as Jesus says, “not that I will, but that thou wilt, be done.” (Mark 14) and Hamlet similarly accepts his fate:
Heaven hath pleased it so
That I must be their scourge and minister. (3.iv)

Hamlet’s Christian beliefs are the key to another feature of the play that has puzzled commentators. Hamlet tells the audience that he has a
craven scruple of thinking too precisely on the event
(A thought which, quartered, hath but one part wisdom
And ever three parts coward) (4.iv)
He muses that
conscience [thinking] does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought  (3.1)

These statements have confused scholars who have not considered the possibility that Shakespeare might have created a character lacking in self-awareness. For Hamlet, in the course of the play, never procrastinates. He never thinks precisely on the event. When he hears about the Ghost he resolves at once to see it (I’ll cross it, though it blast me). On hearing the mere beginning of the Ghost’s message he declares that he will sweep to his revenge. He quickly seizes the opportunity of the arrival of the players as a means of setting a trap for Claudius (About, my brains). He stabs Polonius behind the ‘arras’ without bothering to find out who he is (How now? A rat? Dead, for a ducat, dead!). He sets up the scheme for the execution of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Ere I could make the prologue to my brains. He is the first to board the pirate ship (In the grapple I boarded them: on the instant they got clear of our ship; so I alone became their prisoner). He leaps into Ophelia’s grave like a madman (This is I, Hamlet, the Dane), and accepts the duel with Laertes in spite of his misgivings (We defy augury). In other words, Hamlet is practising what he preached to his mother. He fears that, as an intellectual, he has allowed his resolution to be sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought – not a good characteristic for a future King. Therefore, he is trying to ‘assume a virtue‘ – the virtue of acting decisively, even spontaneously. And it has worked – to the extent that he could now fairly be described as ‘rash.’

Those who criticise Hamlet for not ‘sweeping to his revenge’ have not understood the mediaeval doctrine of revenge. Revenge in contemporary jurisprudence was not just an action done in anger following a bereavement, or a mere tit-for-tat for the sake of honour. Revenge was a system of justice to be used in the absence of a proper legal system: it had rules. It would not be justice for Hamlet to kill Claudius secretly, even if he was sure of his guilt. It would not even be sufficient for him to do it in public – to cut his throat in the church, as the furious young Laertes suggests he might do to Hamlet, to revenge his father’s death. No, it must be a condign punishment, in public, and with proof. For, apart from anything else, when he has done it, he will be King.

Hamlet has enough evidence for the guilt of Claudius for his own satisfaction. He has the word of his father’s Ghost (The serpent that did sting thy father’s life now wears his crown); the panicky behaviour of his mother and uncle following the Mousetrap play (Lights, lights); Claudius’s prayer of repentance, which he overheard (O my offence is rank … a brother’s murder); his prior suspicion of the relationship between his mother and his uncle (O my prophetic soul – my uncle), and his mother’s admission of her crimes, and therefore Claudius’s crimes (Thou turn’st mine eyes into my very soul, And there I see such black and grainèd spots As will not leave their tinct). But he does not have proof to satisfy a court, which, in those days, means he does not have a witness. So he is at a genuine impasse.

What finally enables Hamlet to cleanse the state, and deliver justice, is the very rashness that he imposed upon himself in a Christian attempt to improve his character. Acting on instinct, rather than rationally, he finds himself in a position to expose Claudius to the court as a treacherous murderer. In the final scene, Hamlet’s execution of Claudius is vindicated by Laertes (Thy mother’s poisoned … The King, the King’s to blame) and his evidence is corroborated by Gertrude (The drink, the drink! I am poisoned.) (5.ii) So that, though Hamlet is not able to be seen as avenging his father’s murder, he is at least able to punish the cowardly and illicit attempt on his own life, and the manslaughter of Laertes and Gertrude, with Horatio living on to tell his story. The rot, for the time being, is removed from the body politic, but, so tightly constructed is the plot, that the purgation could not have been achieved without Hamlet’s death.

This analysis shows, I believe, that Shakespeare had a profound understanding, both poetic and theological, of some fundamental principles of Christianity, and his emotional attachment to these ideas is shown by the epitaph upon Hamlet uttered by Horatio: Goodnight, sweet prince, And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest (5.ii).

Once the possibility has been established that Shakespeare is mining Christian story and doctrine with sympathy and commitment, we may be able to see other plays in a different light. In King Lear, Shakespeare – having retold the Crucifixion with a depressed Danish student as protagonist – retells the story of the Prodigal Son with a daughter (Cordelia) in the place of the Father, and an old man (Lear) in the place of the Son. In case we fail to notice this, Shakespeare has planted verbal reminiscences from the Bible of his time – Lear and his knights were riotous, and Cordelia imagines her father as having hoveled himself with swine (which in the play, he didn’t); when they are reunited she kisses him, clothes him, and causes music to be played.

The Prodigal Son is the parable most often referred to by Shakespeare in his plays, and it was a popular theme of morality plays at the time. Audiences apparently enjoyed the spectacle of the Prodigal cavorting cheerfully around the fleshpots, while other interpretations (equally wrongly) made the Elder Brother the hero. Shakespeare, unsurprisingly, saw exactly the point of the story: that God, whom we should imitate, is, like the Father in the parable, characterised by unconditional love and forgiveness. This quality is embodied in Cordelia, one of his most charismatic characters, who radiates serenity and holy joy whenever she is on the stage, and even when she is referred to in her absence:

France: Fairest Cordelia, that art most rich, being poor;
Most choice forsaken; and most lov’d, despis’d!

Gentleman: … patience and sorrow strove
Who should express her goodliest. You have seen
Sunshine and rain at once: her smiles and tears
Were like a better day  …
In brief,
Sorrow would be a rarity most belov’d,
If all could so become it.
… There she shook
The holy water from her heavenly eyes,
And clamour master’d her: then away she started
To deal with grief alone.

Cordelia: O my dear father! Restoration hang
Thy medicine on my lips; and let this kiss
Repair those violent harms that my two sisters
Have in thy reverence made!

I’m not suggesting that Shakespeare was an evangelist, like his successor, Milton, who sought to ‘justify the ways of God to men,’ or CS Lewis, whose Narnia stories are a Christian allegory. Shakespeare is an independent spirit, capable of questioning the religious preconceptions of his time, as we see in The Merchant of Venice, where he shows the Christians to be hypocrites – preaching mercy but not practising it, or Henry V, where he subtly questions the divine right of kings, and even, possibly, makes his audience wonder whether God really is an Englishman. But this would only be to say that he resembled Jesus himself, who was crucified at least partly for challenging the religious status quo, and the political groups who relied upon it.

No, he seems to have been a man of considerable depth as a poet, dramatist, and philosopher, whose ideas about life both to some extent coincided with, and were partly influenced by, those of the New Testament and the Prayer Book. I offer this as a suggestion that might help all readers, even those who disagree with me, to take a fresh look at the inexhaustible wealth of Shakespeare’s poetry and drama, whether to show that I’m mistaken, or to discover further evidence of his religious allegiance.