This is a guest post by Leland Ryken. He is the author of Crossway’s Christian Guides to the Classics series.
The Myth of a Secular Shakespeare
The myth of the secular Shakespeare continues to cast a long shadow over many people’s perception of Shakespeare’s plays. For many years I assumed that, despite certain Christian patterns and occasional biblical allusions, Shakespeare’s plays were broadly humanistic in their intellectual allegiance.
I look back with regret at the missed opportunities represented by the years in which I downplayed the Christian elements that are present in Shakespeare’s plays. For me Shakespeare has become a treasured Christian writer.
I make no claim to know Shakespeare’s state of soul in life and death. When I speak of Shakespeare as a Christian writer, I am looking at the plays that he wrote. Here the primary source of data is the intellectual and moral allegiance of his plays, supplemented by certain aspects of literary form such as biblical allusions and imitation of biblical genres.
The best terminology to use when we identify a Christian element in a literary work is to say that the work intersects with the Christian faith at one or more levels—ideas, moral vision, allusions, or simply the human experiences that are portrayed (such as prayer or church life).
Shakespeare in His Cultural Context
While the ultimate court of appeal for claiming a Christian allegiance in Shakespeare’s plays is the texts themselves, certain cultural considerations should predispose us to find Christian elements. The external facts regarding Shakespeare’s religious life are known. Shakespeare was baptized and raised in Holy Trinity Church, the Anglican church in Stratford-upon-Avon. The curriculum and daily routine at the local grammar school were saturated with Christian elements.
Church attendance during Shakespeare’s day was compulsory, and the people who attended Shakespeare’s plays were parishioners. Even scholars who deny that Shakespeare was a Christian writer acknowledge that there is absolutely no evidence that Shakespeare was fined for non-attendance at church. He is known to have attended several churches in London during his years as a playwright and actor. So we know where Shakespeare was on Sunday mornings—he was in church.
For several years Shakespeare rented a room in the home of a devout Huguenot family on Sliver Street in London. There he would have heard the Bible read daily. When Shakespeare retired to Stratford, he became a lay rector (also called lay reader) in the local Anglican church. On the strength of that, he was buried in the front of Holy Trinity Church near the altar at a time when most people were buried in the surrounding churchyard.
It is indisputable that Shakespeare lived in a society that was thoroughly Christian in its worldview and daily practices. The Bible was not only the best selling book of the day—it was also the most talked about book.
What Counts as Evidence?
If we ask what counts as evidence for claiming the Christian allegiance for Shakespeare’s plays, the answer is the same as with any other author. I propose that the following is a reliable grid for identifying points at which Shakespeare’s plays intersect with the Christian faith:
- explicit allusions to the Bible or Christian documents like the Book of Common Prayer
- congruence of ideas in a play with Christian doctrines
- correspondence of the view of reality embodied in the plays with the biblical view of reality
- portrayal of Christian experiences (e.g., forgiveness, repentance, guilt) in the plays
- the presence of Christian archetypes and symbols (such as the saint, the sinner, and the penitent)
All of this could easily sustain a book. I have space to elaborate on my grid only selectively and briefly.
The Bible in Shakespeare’s Plays
Shakespeare’s writing contains more references to the Bible than the plays of any other Elizabethan playwright—five times the range of Christopher Marlowe. A commonly accepted tally of the total number of biblical references is at least two thousand allusions. Scholars regularly claim that there are so many references to the first chapters of Genesis that Shakespeare must have known them by heart.
What English Bible did Shakespeare use? Before 1598, Shakespeare’s references were primarily to the Bishops’ Bible. However, starting in 1598, when Shakespeare became a renter in a Huguenot household, he used the Geneva Bible, known informally as the Puritan Bible.
The View of Reality in Shakespeare’s Plays
An extremely helpful formula for the Christian strand in Shakespeare’s plays comes from an unlikely source: the author of a visitors’ guide to Christian sites in London writes at one point that Shakespeare’s plays “assume the same kind of reality that the Bible assumes.” That is exactly right.
What are some of these aspects of reality that Shakespeare’s plays assume? God, Satan, heaven, hell, an eternal destiny for every person, good, and evil. Shakespeare regularly introduces these into his plays, and at no point does he suggest skepticism regarding them. With any other writer, we would take that to mean authorial endorsement. We should do the same for Shakespeare.
We can also compile a list of experiences that Shakespeare puts into his plays that have a particular relevance to Christianity. These include evil or sin, guilt, forgiveness, moral choice, love, marriage, and repentance. Not all of these are exclusive to Christianity, but that does not make them any less Christian. Every time Christians encounter these experiences in a Shakespearean play (as in Cordelia’s Christlike love in King Lear), they assimilate them as a Christian element in the play.
The Bottom Line
Some of the data in Shakespeare’s plays indisputably intersects with the Christian faith—biblical allusions, for example, or references to heaven and hell. By way of parallel, if a writer’s works are filled with classical allusions, we do not hesitate to think of the author as having a worldview that is at least partly classical. We should not shrink from making a similar claim for Christian allusions in Shakespeare’s plays.
At the level of ideas, I would simply ask what ideas in Shakespeare’s plays strike us as incongruent with Christianity. The answer is that very few of the ideas that we deduce from Shakespeare’s plays offer any resistance whatever to the ideas of Christianity.
We should call a moratorium on the entrenched bias of the secular academy in regard to Shakespeare’s plays. University scholars simply assume that Shakespeare was as secular as they are. Conversely, Christian readers who sense a kindred spirit at work in Shakespeare’s plays should have the courage of their convictions.
Leland Ryken (PhD, University of Oregon) served as professor of English at Wheaton College for over 43 years. He has authored or edited over three dozen books, is a frequent speaker at the Evangelical Theological Society, and served as literary stylist for the English Standard Version. His Christian Guides to the Classics series includes Homer’s The Odyssey, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Dickens’s Great Expectations, Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, and The Devotional Poetry of Donne, Herbert, and Milton.