By researching the life and writings of William Shakespeare, it can be shown that many Christian values and beliefs are displayed through his literary works. In order to understand the religious content in Shakespeare’s work it is helpful to first understand what the religious environment in England was like around Shakespeare’s time.
England, ever since it was ruled by the Romans, had been a Catholic nation. Before Shakespeare’s lifetime, a drastic change occurred that completely upended the existing Catholicism of the English people. During King Henry VIII’s reign, the English people were, for the most part, content with Catholicism. Through a series of very complex political maneuvers, Henry eventually seized power of the English church. The benefits of this control were enormous for the state. First of all, Henry obtained his divorce from his first wife.
Second, the state received the tithes and taxes from church property, thus making the break very profitable for the state. Finally, with the closing of all of the monasteries, England gained large tracts of land to sell to land owners and tax heavily. The break with the Church of Rome, on the other hand, was not welcomed by the people. Through various laws and ordinances the monarchy effectively closed down the Catholic church in England, but this did not stop the people from being loyal to Catholicism in their hearts. One of the effects of the break from Rome was the welcoming of an English translation of the Bible. One of the first English translations of the Bible was written by William Tyndale.
Known as Cranmer’s Bible or the Great Bible, this Bible along with the Geneva Bible would have been the two translations used widely during Shakespeare’s lifetime (Milward 85). With the invention of the printing press before this time, the Bible was becoming a household item. Access to Scripture was at it highest point in history to that time. The accessibility of the Bible greatly impacted the work of Shakespeare because he had such a resource at his disposal. Along with these two translations of Scripture already available to Shakespeare came a new translation authorized by King James I. Today this translation is known as the King James Authorized Version (Milward 86).
At this point in time, the climate was right for Shakespeare to learn a great deal about Christianity directly from Scripture, even if the church in England was still in upheaval. Shakespeare was born and raised in Stratford, England. Being a small town meant that these religious changes occurred more slowly and later than they did in London. As with the majority of English towns, Stratford did not welcome the reformations of their religion imposed by the state (Milward 17). In time, the town bore these mandated changes out of necessity.
There is some evidence that Shakespeare’s parents were Catholic before the Reformation and remained so at heart after it. John Shakespeare, William’s father, held a high position in Stratford. At one point in his life, in order to receive a promotion, John had to take an oath that was anti-Catholic in nature and affirmed Queen Elizabeth I as the head of the Church of England (Milward 18-19). Later in his life, when John’s fortunes had slipped some, his attendance in Protestant meetings stopped (Milward 19). Other evidence of John’s adherence to Catholicism comes from an archaeological find.
A spiritual testament of John Shakespeare was found after his death. Spiritual testaments were popular among English Catholics of that time. They were professions of adherence to the Catholic faith (Milward 21). Shakespeare’s mother, Mary, came from a devout Catholic family that held positions throughout the Catholic church before its demise in England (Milward 21). Shakespeare’s family appears, at most, nominally Protestant, merely for the purpose of remaining a functioning part of Stratford (Milward 22).
Once John’s fortunes ran out, he no longer identified with the church of the state. Religious topics are encountered throughout all of Shakespeare’s work. Topics such as prayer, judgment, justice, Satan, Hell, Heaven, faith, repentance, sin, man’s responsibility, mercy, atonement, redemption, Jesus Christ as Savior, and providence are found numerous times in his writing (Ackermann 82). One Shakespeare scholar believed that Shakespeare’s works were so full of religious topics because he studied the Book the Bible until its thought and teachings, its story and personalities, had fairly burned themselves into his memory and became a part of his being (Ackermann 27).
All of these religious ideas are rather generic to Christianity whether Catholic or Protestant. Several themes that are only Catholic also can be incurred throughout his works. For example, Shakespeare, at times, used the word holy in the sacramental sense that Catholics used it. Characters in his plays showed devotion to various saints. They also blessed themselves with the sign of the cross. Friars and nuns are important characters in several of his plays due to their cunning in their attempts to bring things to an ultimate good (Maura 84).
Three plays in particular, Measure for Measure, Othello, and The Winter’s Tale, give a general overview of the Christian emphasis of his work. Measure for Measure was a tale that displayed the controversy between grace and law. After abiding under the rule of the law-obsessed Angelo, grace in the form of the Duke swept in and remedied the situation. It was evident that grace, although not fair according to justice, was best for mankind. It was a story that moved from the Old Testament law to the New Testament grace (Mutschmann 90).
Othello provided a picture of the fallibility of humanity. When presented with a choice between good and evil, Othello mistakenly chose evil. Of course, his decision had been shaped by Iago, who quite possibly was the Devil embodied. After realizing his error, Othello attempted to rectify the situation by killing himself. This showed that without divine intervention, sin cannot be atoned for.
(Mutschmann 237). Good did not exude from Othello’s suicide, only a sad continuation of the evil that had already been evident throughout the story. Throughout The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare moved from writing comedy to history to tragedy to romance. Shakespeare began to write in a slightly more optimistic view and started writing romances. These stories moved from a very bleak beginning to a positive ending that was very bittersweet (Mutschmann 257).
Just as the death and resurrection of Jesus was a bittersweet tale, Shakespeare’s romances combined tragedy with a good ending, making the eventual happiness found better appreciated. In conclusion, Shakespeare’s plays ranged from light-hearted comedies to gut-wrenching tragedies. Characters of the highest character as well as the most immoral persons to grace the stage appeared in his works. The scope of Shakespeare’s work seemed to cover almost all aspects of life. Through all of these tales, the theme that occurred consistently was the spiritual longing of every individual for love (Knight 69). Shakespeare’s plays move from a hope in political salvation to a desire for spiritual salvation, just like the Bible does.
All of his plays end with some hope that life will go on and things will get better, just as Christianity hopes for a perfect world to come. His works emphasized the common beliefs of both sects of Christianity as well as some distinctly Catholic ones. This in no way makes Shakespeare a Christian or, more specifically, a Catholic. At its most fundamental point it does mean that Shakespeare had knowledge of the Bible and the Christian religion. The bizarre religious circumstances of Shakespeare’s world played a large role in molding his works into what they became.