Shakespeare the Christian?

Shakespeare the Christian? July 13, 2017

William Shakespeare was baptized on April 26, 1564. Baptized, but was he a Christian?

The answer partly depends on what we think happens when someone is baptized. Many Christians believe that baptism marks the beginning of life as a Christian. I am one of those Christians. My short answer is, Will Shakespeare was a Christian because he was christened.

Some will think that an evasion. When people ask, Was Shakespeare a Christian, they usually have something more specific in mind. In the anachronistic jargon of modern evangelicalism, they want to know if he had a personal relationship with Jesus. Was he a true disciple? Did he actually believe? Did his faith, whatever it was, come out in his poetry? 

To that question, we have no certain answer. Shakespeare left no personal papers, no spiritual diary, no Confessions, no Journal. Many in his time did write spiritual journals. As far as we know, Shakespeare did not. Without such records, we have no private window into his soul or his head.

What we have are plays and poems, where Shakespeare is typically a ventriloquist, speaking different voices. We can’t conclude that Shakespeare was a nihilist who believed “life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing” just because Macbeth says it. It’s Gloucester’s opinion that “Like flies to wanton boys, so are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport.” We have to do a good bit of sifting before we conclude that Shakespeare agreed. We have better reason to think he believed “all the world’s a stage,” but before we draw too hasty a conclusion we should remember those words come from Jaques in As You Like It. When we hear John of Gaunt wax nationalistic about “This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England, this nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,” we should be suspicious, because the play’s action is likely to ironize such enthusiasms.

We’re not completely at a loss. The plays do reveal some things about their author, and from the plays we can infer conclusions about Shakespeare’s knowledge of Christian faith and, with great caution, his commitment to those beliefs. They may be opaque, but we can see through them. When I look at the plays, what I think I see is a playwright with a poetic imagination molded by the Christian Bible.

Shakespeare’s work is a prime exhibit of what E.M.W. Tillyard called, controversially, the “Elizabethan World Picture.” Tillyard pointed out that the Elizabethan world picture envisioned a hierarchical “chain of being” made up of many analogous chains. There is a hierarchy in the heavens among the planets and stars, in the animal kingdom, in marriage, in political society. The lion is the king of the beasts, the king the lion among men, Jupiter king among the planets. 

Whatever the merits of Tillyard’s thesis in detail, his work illuminates Elizabethan poetry. When Shakespeare compares rulers to suns or mighty beasts, it is not a random metaphor. His imagery fits into a system, a “sacramental” vision, that encompasses all reality.

Living in a dangerous world, Elizabethans placed high value on maintaining order. “Take away ordre,” wrote Thomas Elyot in The Boke Named the Governour, and the only thing that remains is “chaos,” a “confused mixture” where everything is in “perpetuall conflicte.” When one hierarchy is overturned—when mice-men topple the king—society and the natural world are both thrown into chaos. Everything has a “degree,” as Ulysses puts it in a famous speech from Troilus and Cressida, and the world is harmonious so long as everything stays in its assigned place. When degree is “shaked” or taken away, when the string of hierarchy is “untuned,” then “discord” follows. When Macbeth kills King Duncan and steals his throne, nature rebels, one character sees “A falcon, towering in her pride of place . . . by a mousing owl hawk’d at and kil’d” (Macbeth 2.4). Nature is turned upside down at Julius Caesar’s assassination. Disorder in the human realm is replicated in the natural realm.

The Elizabethan World Picture has roots in ancient philosophy, but it draws heavily from the Bible. It’s a theocentric vision of reality. God is at the peak of the great pyramid of being, and the highest beings in each of the chains—king, sun, lion—are the highest beings because they most resembled the King of all, the Lion of Judah who shines brighter than the sun.

It would be possible to pile up dozens of examples of Shakespeare’s deployment of this classical-Biblical world picture, but I will limit myself to one, the garden scene from Richard II. The play dramatizes Henry Bollingbroke’s overthrow of King Richard II. In Act 3, scene 4, Richard is under threat but still on the throne. As the scene opens, the Queen is walking with two of her attendants in the Duke of York’s garden, and they step into the shadows of the trees when they see gardeners coming. She expects them to “talk of state,” since that’s what’s on everyone’s mind. The conversation she overhears seems to be an interlude:

Gardener [to Servant]: 

Go, bind thou up yon dangling apricocks,  

Which, like unruly children, make their sire  

Stoop with oppression of their prodigal weight:  

Give some supportance to the bending twigs.  

Go thou, and like an executioner,  

Cut off the heads of too fast growing sprays,  

That look too lofty in our commonwealth:  

All must be even in our government.  

You thus employ’d, I will go root away  

The noisome weeds, which without profit suck  

The soil’s fertility from wholesome flowers.

The Servant quickly turns to politics: Why should the gardeners “keep law and form and due proportion” when the “sea-walled garden” that is England “is full of weeds, her fairest flowers choked up, / her fruit trees all upturned, her hedges ruin’d.” Why worry about gardening when the whole land is “swarming with caterpillars”?

Of course the Gardener was already talking about politics. Like a good Elizabethan, he thinks that care of the natural world resembles rule in the garden political. Pruning is like removing the heads of “sprays” who grow too lofty. Weeding is like clearing out profitless freeloaders from the land, who suck up the land’s fertility but produce no fruit. A garden is a kind of commonwealth, a gardener a kind of king. And vice versa: A wise king cares for his realm like a gardener for his garden, cutting the ambitious down to size, rooting out parasites, supporting the stooping branches that bear the land’s fruits. In response to the Servant, the Gardener makes his political assessment explicit:

O, what pity is it  

That he [Richard] had not so trimm’d and dress’d his land  

As we this garden! We at time of year  

Do wound the bark, the skin of our fruit-trees,  

Lest, being over-proud in sap and blood,  

With too much riches it confound itself:  

Had he done so to great and growing men,  

They might have lived to bear and he to taste  

Their fruits of duty: superfluous branches  

We lop away, that bearing boughs may live:  

Had he done so, himself had borne the crown,  

Which waste of idle hours hath quite thrown down.

Richard hasn’t cared for his garden, and both he and England are about to be overrun. He tells the servant that the king is about to be “deposed.”

The Queen can’t bear any more, “press’d to death” by what she hears and by her silence. She springs out and rebukes the Gardener, and her speech brings the Edenic themes of the earlier speeches into the foreground:

Thou, old Adam’s likeness, set to dress this garden,  

How dares thy harsh rude tongue sound this unpleasing news?  

What Eve, what serpent, hath suggested thee  

To make a second fall of cursed man?  

Why dost thou say King Richard is deposed?

At the risk of spoiling the music of the poetry, we can extract the imaginative logic underlying the scene: The king is a gardener, and Adam was the first gardener; England is an Edenic garden, with Richard the Adam appointed to tend it; but Richard has failed to protect his garden from a serpentine usurper. He is a fallen Adam, and his failure to maintain degree and social harmony plunges England into a political chaos that, in Shakespeare’s telling, stretches intermittently from Richard’s fall to Henry Tudor’s defeat of Richard III at Bosworth Field nearly a century later. Only then does England once again become what John of Gaunt says it is, “this other Eden, demi-paradise” (2.1).

This is a poetic politics and a political poetics deeply rooted in Scripture. It is, I think, written by an informed Christian poet. In the end, though, the question I started with is a distraction. We don’t need to know what Shakespeare really thought in his heart of hearts to determine that the plays assume and present a Christian vision of reality. We don’t need to know if we’ll meet Will in the new creation to discover that the plays are infused with Scripture. The plays and poems stand on their own, among the great edifices of Christian artistry, whatever Shakespeare’s personal beliefs might have been.

(This essay is taken, with slight modifications, from a piece first published at Breakpoint.)

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