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Was Shakespeare a Christian?

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william shakespeareIn the year 2016 the world celebrated Shakespeare, who died 400 years ago. I wonder how many celebrants, mainly liberals, would be so happy to celebrate him if they knew his thoughts on God?

“A politician... one that would circumvent God.”

This is oh so true!

“However wickedness outstrips men, it has no wings to fly from God.”

How many Christians do wrong and think it is hidden? Nothing can hide from God.

“Tis mad idolatry to make the service greater than the god.”

Yet vast numbers of believers think that the more they do the better God loves them.

“God has given you one face, and you make yourself another.”

Even Christians can be two-faced, covering their true selves.

“Let never day nor night unhallowed pass, but still remember what the Lord hath done.” Do you think this way? Or, do you have something more important to think about??

“Ignorance is the curse of God; knowledge is the wing wherewith we fly to heaven.” Few things anger me more than Christians who do not think and gain knowledge of God’s word.

“O God, O God, how weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable seem to me all the uses of this world!” So many do good works, but so few ask if this is from God or to God.

“God shall be my hope, my stay, my guide and lantern to my feet.”

Is He to YOU?

Was Shakespeare saved? Was he a ‘standard’ citizen influenced by reformation theology and behaviour, but on a superficial level? Or, was he sub-Roman Catholic, expressing godly things amidst the ungodly? I appreciate godly statements even in Roman Catholics. This does not make them God’s men, but they are at least not uttering blasphemies and evils. I say this because what is true of God is true of God, no matter who speaks.

It has been said that literary studies are moving towards the examination of ‘religious’ texts, including those by Shakespeare (Irish Times, March 2014, basing its article on the book by David Kastan, ‘A Will to Believe’, Publ OUP Oxford).

Close examination of the bard’s beliefs have left investigators without a final conclusion. This might be because his main thoughts were in literary ideas rather than in religion. It might be that his religious ideas were sporadic and unformed, but his observation of life inwardly led him to acknowledge God.

“Kastan suggests that Shakespeare, whichever side of the divide he favoured, valued community at least as much as personal belief. He lived in a time when religion was a communal act, something shared by a group of believers with a common purpose and so part of the stuff of everyday life, not a private belief cut off from the world. What is notable about his plays is their easy acceptance of religious difference.”


“Kastan is especially acute on Measure for Measure . The play is set in Catholic Vienna, and its English Protestant audiences would have witnessed friars administering confession, and women planning to take the veil, as integral elements of a plot about guilty behaviour, repression and sin. Clearly nobody had any significant problems with the play, even in times of cautious and often repressive religious censorship, and it was performed at court. But Catholic censors did, and the play was torn out of the second folio that was held at St Alban’s College, the seminary established by the English Jesuit Robert Parsons in 1589.”

It seems, then, that in his play-writer’s way, he exposed some of the errors within the Roman Catholic institution, and was censured for it. This is similar to the way the Charlie Hebdo cartoon of Mohammed was literally attacked in Paris. Kastan asks a question about the Jesuit’s motives: “... if Shakespeare was a secret Catholic, why was a Jesuit who clearly admired Shakespeare unable to see it?”

“We should expect to be able to read in the plays not religious belief but a discussion of issues relevant to audiences. The plays are saturated in biblical imagery, but this tells us very little beyond the central role of the Bible. (As Kastan points out, Archbishop Laud quotes from the Geneva Bible that he had banned, suggesting that we cannot even read anything into which Bible is cited.) When Richard II compares his sufferings to those of Christ it shows that he is a deluded man with a weak understanding of his own religious identity, not that Shakespeare thought that kings were gods.”

Observers say that the works of Shakespeare do not give absolute proof that he was either Protestant or Roman Catholic, though he did lampoon the pope through some of his figures, such as King John.

A document written by William’s father, John, was found in the 18th century in the rafters of his home, and interpreted as evidence that the Shakespeares were Catholic. It was thought to be an original will by John. But, it turned out to be an exact copy of a statement by Cardinal Borromeo, archbishop of Milan, who was greatly antagonistic towards the reformation movement. Was this proof of the family’s Catholicism? Not really, because other parts of the document enjoined Protestantism.

The writing is a will by John, whereas William’s own will was written in overwhelmingly Protestant style, even if it was unpolished. As The Irish Times piece said, “If Shakespeare was raised in the shadow of traditional religion it appears that he ‘died a Protestant’.” Of course, ‘Protestant’ does not necessarily mean ‘saved’... but it is encouraging.

It is possible William was what Christopher Haigh referred to as a ‘Parish Anglican’, that breed of man who was staunchly ‘church’ but not always true Christian. In short, it seems that William Shakespeare is an elusive figure, whose real religious being cannot be accurately deduced (Prof Andrew Hadfield, Sussex University).

I have seen articles that asked if Shakespeare was an atheist, or a Catholic, or a Protestant, or... in other words, Kastan was the closest, acknowledging that the evidences are ambiguous.

Whatever the truth, it seems it is hidden away from us, and modern men will have to be content with Shakespeare as a play writer. Even so, in our modern days of wicked counter-Bible and anti-God, it is refreshing to repeat William’s statement: “God shall be my hope, my stay, my guide and lantern to my feet.” Does this not sound like a genuine believer? Even if he was not, it is good to read such a testimony when all around us is dark, foreboding and wretched!

© April 2016

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Bible Theology Ministries - PO Box 415, Swansea, SA5 8YH
United Kingdom