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Shakespeare and Religion

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.

Stratford_upon_Avon_church_N_R
Church of the Holy Trinity, Stratford-upon-Avon, England by Oosoom, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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.”

Recent Comments

  1. steve

    The time of Shakespeare was marked by religious intolerance. Shakespeare was either an open Protestant or a hidden Catholic or both – there are aren’t any other choices. The fact that we don’t know anything about this important part of his life is another curiosity that leads to the Authorship Question.

  2. MDHJohnson

    Steve…I am having a bit of trouble following your logic and would request that you help me out. Your argument appears to go as follows:

    Premise # 1. WS could have been a Protestant;
    Premise # 2. WS could have been a hidden Catholic;
    Premise # 3. WS could have been both;
    Premise # 4. England at the time was marked by religious intolerance:
    Premise # 5; We don’t know what religious faith [I am tempreted to add an “if any”] Shakespeare followed;
    Conclusion: Therefore, we must question who wrote the works of Shakespeare.

    I do no follow how you cross the bridge from your premises to your conclusion. Is there a part of the argument that is missing?

  3. Richard M. Waugaman, M.D.

    I’ll try to post this once more.

    We know little of Shakspere’s inward thoughts, true. But if we’re willing to relax our death grip on the traditional authorship theory, we have the inestimable gift of the Geneva Bible that belonged to the man who probably wrote the works of Shake-Speare. As Roger Stritmatter discovered, the more times Shake-Speare echoes a given biblical verse, the more likely it is that Edward de Vere marked it in his Geneva Bible (now at the Folger Library). And de Vere’s manicules in his Whole Book of Psalms have pointed to the discovery that this translation of the psalms was Shake-Speare’s primary literary source when echoing them. (The full text of my dozen or so publications on this topic are available at my Georgetown faculty website.)

  4. Mike Leadbetter

    Roger Stritmatter’s discoveries have been superseded by more recent analysis.

    When looking closely at Naseeb Shaheen’s list of 3500 Shakespeare bible references reveals a different picture to the one Dr Waugaman is attempting to draw.

    None of the Folger marks, or “echoes:, appear against the playwright’s Top 20 bible references. There’s only 1 marked reference in the top 50, and 5 the top 100. Even after adding all of the 120 references that Stritmatter “discovers”, there are still only 14 in the Top 100 references which bear a mark.

    The data seems to support the opposite proposition. The more Shakespeare referred to a bible passage, the less likely it is to be marked.

    Nor are there any guarantees about who made the marks. It is highly likely that at least three annotators were involved.

    Dr Waugaman assumes that his manicules were drawn by the Earl but they could just as easily have been drawn by De Vere’s wife or any of the scores of there owners through whose hands the bible passed before the Folger acquired it in the 1920’s. Marking texts with manicules, whilst already common in Elizabethan libraries, reached its zenith of popularity in the 19c.

    Any conclusions about the authorship drawn on the basis of the marks are therefore highly speculative long-shots.

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