Thursday, 19 April 2012

Ten reasons why William Shakespeare was a Christian

Article to celebate Shakespeare's Birthday on 23 April

My search for William Shakespeare’s worldview began after reading Samuel Schoenbaum’s obituary in the Times. Schoenbaum's life’s work researching ‘the man from Stratford’ inspired me to try to better understand Shakespeare's mind and philosophical framework.

Most authors have an invisible 'skeleton' on which they hang their material. It soon became clear to me that “Creation, Fall and Redemption” is the paradigm behind Shakespeare’s work. I had always been half-conscious of this underlay but I tended to ignore it or I treated it as a reflection of his age. Any Elizabethan artist wanting a quiet and secure retirement would have avoided being "an atheist", like Christopher Marlowe, who met a violent end. It was also clear to me that by his late twenties,Shakespeare had noted the appeal of a comfortable retirement:

“The aim of all is but to nurse the life
With honour, wealth and ease in waning age.”
Rape of Lucrece
Astute as he was, it seemed most likely that Shakespeare would have displayed, in public at least, a Christian worldview. So I needed to devise "tests" if I wanted evidence to demonstrate that William Shakespeare was more than a conventional adherent.  I selected his history plays for my initial analysis.

My task was to identify convincing evidence from Shakespearean texts demonstrating:

1.  a strong appetite for going beyond ‘the basics’ of theology
2.  a deep knowledge of the God of the Bible
3.  strong views about sin
4.  a sense of passion and personal persuasion when writing about God
5   a sense of enjoyment in writing about God
6.  strong evidence of systematic Bible reading, over many years
7.  an interpretation of virtue as Christian virtue
8   a special revelation peculiar to him:  his ministry
9.  a high view of truth and love - and opposition to the hypocrisy of
false love e.g. for money
10. a high view of the duties, ties and bonds due to marriage, family,
friends and kin.

The religion of some creative writers, like C S Lewis, is implicit. Jane Austen, appears to to be worldly on the surface. Her spirituality seems to have been expressed in creating narratives which ensure that love trumps money, even in marriage. After her death, her brother, Henry, assured her readers that she was a pious Christian, hence spiritually ‘healthy’ to read.

Shakespeare could easily have been implicit about his religion and still have been a true believer. Instead, he mentions “God” and “Heaven” numerous times. Indeed, one wonders whether his history plays are actually just as much about the kingship of God, as about earthly kingship.

Shakespeare’s view of God is high, wide and deep and there are no flaws in his theological understanding, at least in his History plays. I suspect he had many pages in his commonplace book headed “The Attributes of God”.  He also had the theological mastery to emphasize some of the divine attributes and downplay others.  

In these plays, he emphasizes the sovereignty and kingship of God.  Imaginatively, he may be merging the Creator-God of the Book of Job with the Majestic Judge of the Psalms. Thus, he brings out God’s power, majesty, justice,  protection of innocents, retribution, ordinances, edicts, rule, glory, majesty, role as kingmaker and king-developer. God is the one whom earthly kings should grow to imitate and represent as God’s “captain” on earth (Richard III.v.iii).

Shakespeare’s concept of ‘nobility’ is also spiritual, not just aristocratic. Indeed, in Archbishop Cranmer's speech about the infant Elizabeth in Henry VIII (Act v.v) even "blue blood" becomes dispensable. He predicts that under this child, the best will "claim greatness not by blood”. Merit and Christian virtue will be sufficient during her reign.

As for his persuasion and engagement when writing about religion, consider the power in lines like:

"How God and good men hate foul liars" Richard II.i.i

This is taken from Proverbs 6.16, but Shakespeare further amplifies its impact:

“These six things doth the Lord hate: yea, seven are an abomination unto him: a proud look, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, an heart that deviseth wicked imaginations, feet that be swift in running to mischief, a false witness that speaketh lies, and he that soweth discord among brethren.” (KJV)

Shakespeare very frequently paraphrases Scripture. This was fashionable at the time and motivated the Sidneian Psalms. One senses his sheer pleasure in doing it so well. He did not ration the activity.

In terms of “special revelation”, I believe that Shakespeare’s “special ministry”, in terms of insight, is his focus on the need for humility. The texts express a sense that solid theology protects against the vanity of an inflated ego since God alone raises up those whom He deems worthy, in His own good time. An example is the Prologue of Henry V.v about pious Henry V:

“Being free from vainness and self-glorious pride....".

His lists of virtues in the Histories are religious, usually including humility or meekness. God gives  some the “spirit of persuasion” so that “what thou speakest may move” (Henry IV i.ii). This author seems to view all literary abilities as “gifts” from God.

Is there evidence of this same humility in the man from Stratford? It seems to biographers that his motivation around changed around the time when he reached forty in 1604. Due to his advancing age, he may have thought his life’s work in London was nearing completion. From then on, he focused on building a life in retirement. He might have been half hoping for a Court pension, under Elizabeth 1st, who paid pensions. After her death, he started to use any spare income on buying tenanted farmland around Stratford. This contrasts with John Florio, who also served the Court of James 1st. Florio never received his Court pension and died destitute, consigning the care of his relative to the Pembrokes.

Might his humility explain the mystery of Shakespeare’s unimpressive tomb, adorned with rough verses? Perhaps he did not want to distract future, fellow communicants from their focus on Christ, while kneeling on his grave?

His anonymous tomb in Holy Trinity reminds me of Jean Calvin. Calvin opposed any form of pilgrimage or idolatry so would not permit his name to appear on his grave, with the result that his tomb is now lost. Calvinist Mary Sidney (1562-1621) was given a huge funeral in St Paul’s Cathedral. Then she was buried without any epitaph under the choir steps in Salisbury Cathedral. A plaque, noting her burial place, was only recently installed. In addition, since Shakespeare's father, John, was so against graven images, that, when alderman, he whitewashed the medieval Guildhall wallpaintings, it might have been rather hypocritical for his Protestant-trained son to have been buried in anything but a plain tomb.

Finally, Shakespeare’s plays commend marriage for love. Shakespeare himself did not marry for gain or profit. True to his marriage vows, he remained with his one wife until “death do us part”. He had an exceedingly high view of the ‘sacred’ bonds of family. His own family’s unity is visibly expressed in their almost shared grave in Stratford’s Parish Church.

He left memorial rings to his fellows, churchwardens Henry Condell and John Heminges who produced the First Folio. If they thought him a “damned” or “lying” atheist, would they have undertaken this onerous task? Shakespeare was also asked to be godfather to several children, including one of Ben Jonson’s. Even today, a godparent is an upright, converted believer expected to bring up a child, spiritually, if the child’s parents die.

For these reasons, I cannot understand William Shakespeare’s life and work without assuming a rootedness in Protestant Christianity, with its characteristic emphasis on the radical influence of sin and the need for heightened conscience. 

The fact that others take a more secular view might explain why some anti-Stratfordians hold such ‘modern’ views. One such view is:

The writer of the First Folio wrote about “grief filling the room of an absent child” and stuffing out “his vacant garments”  (King John Act iii.iv). Hence, after losing his only son, he could not have gone on, so soon, to write a string of high-spirited Comedies. Thus the real writer of the Works cannot be the man from Stratford....

Instead, if we accept the evidence of his plays, Shakespeare knew the Bible as well as Bunyan. Indeed, 1 Thessalonians 4.13 forbids excessive grief on the grounds of hope in God.  There is a subtle discussion on moderating grief in Richard III.ii.ii.

”......God is much displeased
That you take with unthankfulness His doing:
In common worldly things, tis call'd ungrateful,
With dull unwillingness to repay a debt
Which with a bounteous Hand was kindly lent;
Much more to be thus opposite with Heaven,
For it requires the royal debt it lent you".
Examining this text, we know that the Bible teaches that God permits life and death, most specifically in the parable of the fall of the sparrow (Matthew 10.29). Thanking God for both good and evil is Scriptural:

“The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord" Job 1.21

The emphasis in Shakespeare’s text is on God “calling in” a debt when someone dies. This idea is Shakespearean. However, it is based on the doctrine that all creatures belong to God. Such “beautiful thoughts” motivate one to read Shakespeare expectantly.

Naturally, I am not suggesting that William Shakespeare was without “spots” or his “thing of darkness” - like the rest of us.  One recalls:

“But no perfection is so absolute
That some impurity doth not pollute."
Rape of Lucrece

But Luther, Calvin and the Protestant Reformation taught believers to fully recognise their need for a Redeemer. So while Shakespeare uncovers the unconfessed sin in others, he faithfully confesses his own.  True believers persevere, growing in maturity and self-control. Shakespeare’s fellows, after he died, spoke of him as “sweet", "gentle", “my beloved” and “so worthy”. Ben Jonson said of his friend that he was "free and open".  Jonson's use of "free" here - which Shakespeare also uses in "Troilus and Cressida" about "debonair courtiers" in peacetime - is Middle English usage.  It means "noble, magnanimous, honourable, of gentle birth". "Open" is also used by Shakespeare, to mean "open to charity, feeling, people and ideas".

I still have much more work to do, for example, on the other plays and Sonnets. As a taster, in the latter, the Poet of the Sonnets admits other feelings of humility and undeservedness. For example, he expresses a sense that God is not heeding his "bootless prayers" (possibly for retirement). Is this due to His Majesty and the Poet's lowliness and sin?

The Poet of the Sonnets also states that God did not please to give him a better way of earning a living than being an actor and playwright.  If someone is stuck with a career which they feel is below their dignity and wearing them out, how many will say "God gave this career".  They rather say "God did not want to give me a proper career...."? So, even though the Poet appears disappointed with his physically tiring life and career, he is still absolutely confident that God gave this career to him - even though it is without status in the eyes of "the world" - which was the Court.  I feel this demonstrates the Poet's unquestioning faith, but it also hints at deep-seated humility.

Until I have undertaken further research, I stick with my opinion that Shakespeare's theology was intended to be sub-textual, while admitting that his underlying passion often breaks the surface, as holy fire. Has there ever been another English writer, with such hatred of evil?

If you wish to quote, republish or link to this article, please email 
All rights reserved.

Alison Bailey Castellina MA (Oxon)
- with acknowledgments to theologian P Castellina B.D.

Select Bibliography
Charles Wordsworth: “On Shakespeare’s Knowledge and Use of the Bible”
Frances A. Yates:  “The Life of an Italian in Shakespeare’s England”

Further Relevant Background
Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, recently talked, on Radio 4, about the Stratford Communion Cup (1571) which Shakespeare probably drank from. 

He describes how the Reformation took place in Stratford, how the playwright never heard a service in Latin and read the Prayer Book in English.  Indeed, Protestantism was supported and imposed by his own father Alderman John Shakespeare who whitewashed over "Judgment" paintings in the Guidhall (but vestiges later appeared). 

The talk is part of the BBC's "Shakespeare Unlocked" series.  The British Museum is also running a large exhibition on Shakespeare's world. 

For the Radio 4 talk, further information, photos and the transcript see:
Shakespeare's Unrestful World: The Stratford Communion Cup (1571) 


  1. Shakespeare often included very inappropriate things in his works, such as word-plays about sex, approval of sin (e.g. suicide), and unnecessary gore. I'm not saying he couldn't have been a Christian, but I don't think we can say it's likely.

    1. Theological knowledge does not make you believe
    2. Knowing about God and knowing God are different. Some people hate the Bible because they know what's in it.
    3. Many people--whether Christian, idolater, or agnostic--are opposed to sin.
    4. Not necessarily the God of the Bible
    5 See #4
    6. Many people have done this and have consequently rejected the Bible
    7. Christian virtue or just religious virtue?
    8 Revelation?
    9. See #3
    10. See #3.

    Here's a hilarious review I wrote on "Romeo & Juliet": There is some good, but many concerning things.

  2. That is the "poetic imagination" necessary to a whole Christian world view

  3. Matthew 5:42 says , "Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. "
    SHAKESPEARE'S Hamlet has father Polonius telling his son Laertes, " Neither a borrower or lender be. " Is that merely a part of the play in context of events, or Shakespeare's own belief as a Christian?