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 on 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.
So even before Elizabeth’s successor, James I, outlawed overt theological humor or criticism on stage, artists hoping to engage in religious themes were under considerable restrictions.
These upheavals affected Shakespeare directly. Shakespeare’s family had deep ties to Roman Catholicism, as likely did some of his closest associates. For any one of them to express doubts about the Anglican prayer book, or even to avoid the Anglican parish on Sunday, was to put themselves under suspicion of treason.
There is little in the way of biographical detail to help scholars looking for Shakepeare’s religious beliefs. Instead, they have generally relied on explicit references to familiar religious language or character types – the Catholic priest in “Romeo and Juliet,” for instance – in speculating about Shakespeare’s faith. Some have suggested that clues and codes in his play suggest the playwright was a closeted Catholic. But to me it is more in what he doesn’t say, or where he finds new ways of saying something old, that Shakespeare is theologically at his most interesting.
Shakespeare’s faith and how he expresses it are explored in a 2017 play by poet Rowan Williams, a theologian and former head of the Church of England. In it, Williams imagines a young Shakespeare in search of a new language for things religious, and dissatisfied with the heavily politicized options before him.
In a pivotal scene, “young Will” explains to his Jesuit mentor that, despite the attractiveness of their radical Catholic cause, he cannot join: “The old religion is the only, the only – picture of things that speaks to me, yes, but it’s as if there were still voices all around me wanting to make themselves heard and they don’t all speak one language or tell one tale, and all that – it would haunt me if I tried what you do, and it would make me turn away from the pains and the question, because I’d know that there’d always be more than the old religion could say and it still had to be heard.”
In other words, while Catholicism “speaks” to young Will, he believes there is more that “still had to be heard.”
The voices that Williams’ Shakespeare wants to hear are similar, I believe, to those that Caliban talks of in “The Tempest.” So young Will does not join the Catholic cause; instead, he goes off in search of ways to stay with “the pains and the question.” Williams is suggesting that Shakespeare’s subsequent plays are an attempt to let all these complex and difficult voices “be heard.”
They are his attempt to give voice to religious noise beyond the range of the religious certainty of his age.
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We see this in “King Lear.” Lear spends the entire play cursing the gods for the lack of love and respect his children show him. But when the heaven-cursing rants finally subside, the play gives its audience a beautiful and painful reconciliation scene with his daughter Cordelia. He discovers in his daughter’s forgiveness a kind of higher vantage point, one from which they might both “take upon’s the mystery of things, As if we were God’s spies.”
Like Caliban in “The Tempest,” Lear learns to hear those voices just out of human range.
Similarly, Shakespeare asks his audience to listen and watch differently, as if we too are God’s spies or Earth’s monsters.