Scholars have scoured the works of the great playwright for clues about his faith. A scholar of theology and Shakespeare’s works says it isn’t as simple as that.
William Shakespeare’s role as a religious guide is not an obvious one.
While the work of the bard, whose birthday is celebrated on April 23, has been scoured at various times over the past four centuries for coded messages about Catholicism, Puritanism or Anglicanism, the more common view is that his stunning explorations of humanity leave little space for serious reflection on divinity. Indeed, some Shakespeare scholars have gone further, suggesting that his works display an explicit atheism.
But as a scholar of theology who has published a book exploring Shakespeare’s treatment of faith, I believe the playwright’s best religious impulses are displayed neither through coded affirmations nor straightforward denials. Writing at a time of great religious polarization and upheaval, Shakespeare’s greatest pronouncements about faith are more like curious whispers – and, like whispers, they require deep listening to be heard.
I see an invitation to this deep listening in one of Shakespeare’s most unusual plays, “The Tempest.” “Be not afeared,” the half-man, half-beast Caliban tells his companions as they arrive on the island where the play is set, “the isle is full of noises, sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.”
It is a striking passage, made all the more so coming from a foul-smelling creature accused of attempted rape and repeatedly called “monster.” But in it, Shakespeare seems to be suggesting that there are dimensions of reality that many of us miss – and we might be surprised to find out who among us is paying attention.
Subtleties like this show up differently across Shakespeare’s plays. “Romeo and Juliet” is not in any overt sense a theological play. But as the tragedy comes to a somber denouement, we have the line “See, what a scourge is laid upon your hate, That heaven finds means to kill your joys with love.”
While there is no clear naming of gods or fates, Shakespeare implies that some great power transcends the destructive feud between the Montagues and Capulets, the families of the two lovers. He calls into question the earthly power of the two houses – heaven, he implies, is also at work here.
Shakespeare was, I believe, in constant search of subtle ways to imagine divine intervention within the human realm. This is all the more impressive given the fraught religious times in which he lived.
The late 16th century witnessed religious and political polarization greater, even, than our own. Decades earlier, King Henry VIII had separated the Anglican church from Rome and created a Protestant England. His daughter, Elizabeth, who sat on the throne for the first half of Shakespeare’s writing career, was excommunicated by Pope Pius V for continuing in her father’s footsteps. The queen responded by making the practice of Catholicism a crime in England.