We want to know what Shakespeare believed. It seems to us important to know. He is our most important writer, and we want to know him from the inside.
People regularly tell us that they do know what he believed, though mainly by showing what his father believed, or his contemporaries believed or, more accurately, what they said they believed—by demonstrating, that is, what was possible to believe. One can reconstruct the field of faith. One cannot say very much with confidence about Shakespeare’s own.
There is wonderful scholarship on what might be called religious thinking in Shakespeare’s England. Also on religious practices. Religion was undeniably the single most important aspect of early modern life. One might have said “single most important detachable aspect,” but it wasn’t detachable. It affected everything else. It shaped how everything was defined and understood. The Speaker of the House in 1601 addressed his colleagues: “If a questions should be asked, What is the first and chief thing in a commonwealth to be regarded? I should say, religion. If, What is the second? I should say, religion. If, What the third? I should still say religion.”
One measure of this would be that probably close to fifty percent of all books published in early modern England were overtly religious texts: Bibles, Books of Common Prayer, metrical Psalms, sermons, biblical commentary, biblical finding aids, religious history, religious controversy, handbooks for living and dying well; but this does not include the large range of books on seemingly secular subjects—cooking, husbandry, even grammar—which turn out to recommend forms of Christian conduct. Religion was everywhere. It saturated the culture—evident not least in the various thoughtless expressions, like “God b’ wi’ you” in leave-taking, which tell the story of the deep embeddedness of religion in the language itself.
But religion wasn’t just one thing. There was a Protestant Church of England, but England wasn’t a country only of Protestants—and Protestantism itself wasn’t single. Its very foundational principles exerted centrifugal pressures on the Church that threatened to, in John Taylor’s wonderful word, “Amsterdamnify” England, and to make, as John Donne said, “each man, his own priest.” And there were (a few) Jews, almost none living openly in their faith, and many more Catholics than for a while were acknowledged (and perhaps somewhat fewer than are often imagined by some today and somewhat more than are imagined by others).
In general, they lived in harmony, though not always, of course. Events sometimes made the government viciously sensitive to this lack of uniformity, usually when there was reason to fear an invasion from Spain with the accompanying worry that English Catholics might serve as a fifth column. In 1569 and 1570, in 1586, and again in 1588, in the late 1590s, and again in 1606. But in most times and in most places people lived together peaceably, linked by neighborliness and need, as well as by the recognition that everyone’s grandparents had been Catholics, so the hot rhetoric about the Catholic Antichrist was usually generic–and dampened when it led to thoughts that grandma might be burning in hell.
And it was a government that, however much it was officially Protestant, had on various grounds declined “to make windows into men’s hearts and secret thoughts.” It recognized that religion could be practiced in ways that were visible (and subject to surveillance if necessary), but faith was something private and inaccessible. This is not the imposition of a modern notion of interiority, but recognition of an early modern pragmatism, which recognized faith as a form of subjectivity into which neither Church nor Crown should peer, if indeed either could. Aesop’s story of Momus criticizing Jupiter’s creation of human beings was widely known: the creation of man was imperfect because the god, in Robert Greene’s phrase, had “framed not a window in his breast, through which to perceive his inward thoughts.”
The God of Genesis did no better on this score. “Inward thoughts” are still… well, inward, and the government wisely contented itself with trying only to enforce an outward conformity. So what do we know of Shakespeare’s inward thoughts?
Not very much is my answer, though that doesn’t make many people happy. What is undeniable is that he is extraordinarily sensitive to how much religion mattered in the world in which he lived. That sensitivity is registered in the plays and poems, as religious language, practices, and ideas shape characters and dramatic worlds. How religion mattered to Shakespeare, as a matter of belief and belonging, we don’t know. Nonetheless, “We ask and ask,” as Matthew Arnold said in his poem “Shakespeare,” but we receive no answer: “Thou smilest and art still.”