It is always tantalizing for a Christian interested in literature to speculate about the question of whether Shakespeare was a Christian. The materials for such speculation are, obviously, 1. what little we know about his life (and among that, several incidents—perhaps apocryphal—which give little evidence of piety), and 2. the corpus of his writings. Even though it is commonly assumed that he was at least a nominal member of the Church of England, an adherent of the Via Media of the Elizabethan Settlement, neither of the above sources answers the question with any finality. As for the first, it needs only to be pointed out that there was no Boswell for Shakespeare, and that the gall required for interviewing and the patience to pursue the minutiae of people’s lives are of fairly recent origin. And as for attempting to deduce Shakespeare’s personal response towards the Christian faith from his writings, we are confronted with an almost impossible task. It is commonly observed that Shakespeare is no systematic philosopher or theologian, that his plays are woven from many strands—the Christian among them—and that it is dangerous at any point to equate the speech of this or that character with Shakespeare’s own position. Thus, Hiram Haydn, in his book titled The Counter-Renaissance, after examining thoroughly the various winds of docrine which constituted Shakespeare’s intellectual climate, concludes:
Finally, then, I am admitting the traditional defeat. I can establish Shakespeare’s awareness of the intellectual conflicts of his time, his use of Counter-Renaissance ideas and themes. And I can indicate the consistent elements in his point of view as he expressed it in the major tragedies. Yet, when that is done, it is little enough. The man escapes me, as he escapes every one else. There are all the other plays to contradict me; other scholars’ material findings to suggest other influences than those I have cited, and other directions. Most of all, there is the man’s insistent interest in life as spectacle, rather than argument, and the incredible range of his creative sympathies (Scribner’s, 1950, p. 667).
I should like to discuss one of Shakespeare’s sonnets against the background of the above preface outlining the difficulty of any attempt to ascertain Shakespeare’s religion. This sonnet, number 129, seems to me to reflect in a rather pointed way Shakespeare’s acquaintance with the Christian tradition of life and thought.
REFLECTIONS ON SONNET 129
First, let me give a few introductory comments about the sonnet sequence in which this sonnet appears. Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets in all. Of these, 152 are usually regarded as a sequential unit; the other two fall outside the sequence. The group of 152 sonnets tells of Shakespeare’s relations with especially two persons: a male friend, whose excellence and virtue he never tires of recounting, and Shakespeare’s mistress, a married woman, “the Dark Lady,” who alternately attracts and repels the poet. Sonnet 129 falls within the group which deals with Shakespeare’s illicit liaison, and indicates the tension he experiences when confronted with the moral law on the one hand, and the beauty, grace, and charm of the woman on the other. In the well-known 129 he comments on the nausea, the bitter delusion which inevitably sets in upon moral dereliction. It will be helpful to have the sonnet before us:
The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjur’d, murd’rous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust:
Enjoy’d no sooner but despised straight,
Past reason hunted, and no sooner had,
Past reason hated, as a swallowed bait
On purpose laid to make the taker mad;
Mad in pursuit and in possession so;
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof, and prov’d, a very woe;
Before, a joy propos’d; behind a dream.
All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.
I should like to comment first of all on the interesting use of the words heaven and hell in the last line of the sonnet. Shakespeare has obviously derived these words from historic, medieval Christianity. Nevertheless, he has poured a new meaning into them, and has thus participated in a practice common to Renaissance writers, namely, the secularization of Christian terms. When he uses the word heaven he means, clearly, the anticipated realization of one’s sinful desires; by the word hell he means the remorse he subsequently suffers. Similarly, he employs in other sonnets such words as eternity, love, transgression, angel, bliss, damnation, judgment, hope, faith, grace, penance and hymn in ways foreign to their origin. He even adapts a line from the Lord’s prayer and applies it to his friend: “Even as when first I hallowed thy fair name …” (Sonnet 108). Thus, Shakespeare has contributed to that history of word changes which enables us now to speak blithely about angel food cake, devil’s food squares, and divinity strips.
But despite Shakespeare’s practice of transvaluating terms, the sonnet is permeated with a Christian sensibility. Let us examine it closer, and although we may not solve the problem with which this essay began, we can at least note an important tenet of Christian morality which Shakespeare exhibits for us.
In the first 12 lines Shakespeare makes three assertions about a sinful act—primarily adultery, we must suppose, although other sins are not precluded: 1. The act is essentially one, although it exists in three stages in time: anticipation, realization, and retrospect; 2. Each stage is characterized by irrationality, madness, perversity; 3. Sin is shameful, enervating, and deceptive. Then comes the couplet: “All this the world well knows; yet none knows well / To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.”
SPIRIT OF WESTERN HUMANISM
My contention is that Shakespeare, in the words “All this the world well knows,” is refuting a major premise of humanism—the principle that the good man will not knowingly do wrong, that enlightenment and understanding are so powerful that they must perforce flow into virtuous action, that right conduct and knowledge are two sides of the same coin. This premise was advanced first by Socrates, and continues to the very present. It is an intuition, which, despite numerous qualifications and occasional denials from past and present sources, has persisted as an article of faith with which man seemingly cannot do without, whatever be the metaphysics adduced in its support. One may at least say that no generation has been without those who could subscribe to Pope’s couplet:
Vice is a monster of so frightful mien,
As to be hated needs but to be seen.…
This equation of the identity of knowledge and virtue represents a resilient and, in many ways, noble tradition. Its advocates include the intellectual giants of the West. To be sure, not all thought about ethics has adhered to Plato’s insistence that virtue stems from a knowledge of an ideal world which exerts a divine attraction upon the good man, nor have all idealistic philosophers put matters in the same way that Plato did. Nevertheless, the spirit of this premise has been woven into the very fabric of Western humanism. It underlies the traditional importance placed on education in Western thought (cf. the designation reform school). It was reflected by former Vice-President Nixon in the question he asked when he was being pelted and insulted during his South American tour: “Don’t you people want to hear any facts?” It underlies an observation made by a prisoner in a letter which appeared in a recent issue of the Atlantic (Sept., 1960): “Education and crime are incompatible.” And this assumption has been a key principle in the democratic venture.
THE CHRISTIAN ALTERNATIVE
Christianity has frequently found the equation of knowledge and virtue attractive, for it has experienced much misery from ignorance and from zeal unballasted by learning. It has been compelled to agree with humanism that neither hedonism nor experience are adequate substitutes for knowledge in the attainment of moral wisdom. However, it has taken issue with humanism on a crucial point, namely that enlightenment and knowledge are sufficient to deter one from evil. For one thing, Christian thought, generically speaking, has said that the inner law, man’s conscience, is sufficient to deprive man of the excuse of ignorance. Moreover, Christianity has had to recognize the existence of “presumptuous” sin (Ps. 19:13), sin which is committed in the face of better knowledge. And it has been able to present a staggering amount of evidence from history, past and present, to show that mere knowledge is insufficient to contain the perversity and irrationality of man.
John Calvin’s pronouncements on this subject can be regarded as typical of Christian thought. He discusses the matter at some length in his Institutes, Book II, ii, passim. In these pages he ascribes to man the faculty—imperfect though it is—of discriminating in a general way between good and evil, and he rejects as an extreme position the insistence of those who maintain that all sins arise from deliberate perversity and malice. Nevertheless, he takes issue with Plato for “imputing all sins to ignorance,” and observes further: “… sometimes the turpitude of the crime so oppresses the conscience of the sinner, that, no longer imposing on himself under the false image of virtue, he rushes into evil with the knowledge of his mind and the consent of his will.”
How much of the Christian idea is Shakespeare expressing in his merely negative “none knows well?” It is hard to say. He does not go as far as Roger Ascham, an early contemporary, who in his The Scholemaster first juxtaposes and interrelates the classical and the Christian views on this subject, but then concludes: “Let God’s grace be the bit … Let God’s grace be the bridle.…” But if Shakespeare is less than explicitly Christian, he is at least taking issue with the ethical tenet just discussed, namely, that virtue, though it requires moral heroism and strenuous effort, can be realized through one’s own resources. Shakespeare seems to anticipate Cardinal Newman who points out the limitations of knowledge and even of a liberal education in these words:
Quarry the granite rock with razors, or moor the vessel with a thread of silk; then may you hope with such keen and delicate instruments as human knowledge and human reason to contend against those giants, the passion and the pride of man (Discourse V, “Knowledge Its Own End,” from The Idea of a University, 1852).
Was Shakespeare a Christian? The answer, again, is that it is difficult to say with final certainty. But the sonnet just considered is one of any number of instances where it is obvious that Shakespeare had encountered the full impact of historic Christianity. Sonnet 146, for example, where the soul chides the body for neglecting the interior life, is reminiscent of many medieval poems on this subject.
There are still other data which indicate clearly that Shakespeare was aware of the Christian option of life and thought. For one thing, there is the strong moral concern, the ethical stimulation universally acknowledged in his plays. Moreover, such a speech as Portia’s mercy speech has no antecedent in Shakespeare’s sources and comes gratuitously—strong evidence that Shakespeare’s consciousness was suffused with the Christian habit of thought. Again, references to the Bible and biblical overtones are frequent. And consider, finally, such lines as these, written without obvious dramatic necessity, written also without inhibition or self-consciousness:
… All the souls that were were forfeit once;
And He that might the vantage best have took
Found out the remedy.
(Measure for Measure, II, ii, 73 ff.)
… King Pharamond … Who died within the year of our redemption Four hundred twenty-six; (Henry the Fifth, I, ii, 58 ff.)
Forthwith a power of English shall we levy;
… To chase these pagans in those holy fields
Over whose acres walk’d those blessed feet
Which fourteen hundred years ago were nail’d
For our advantage on the bitter cross.
(Henry IV, Part I, I, i, 22 ff.)
There is a true beauty about these lines. It is difficult, or at least distressing, to suppose that the author of such lines as these should have spurned the resources of God’s better beauty, grace.
Samuel M. Shoemaker is the author of a number of popular books and the gifted Rector of Calvary Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh. He is known for his effective leadership of laymen and his deeply spiritual approach to all vital issues.
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