The Bard’s Unscripted Beliefs

Reviewing David Scott Kastan’s A Will to Believe: Shakespeare and Religion, Andrew Hadfield points to why the great playwright’s religious beliefs can be hard to pin down:

Shakespeare wrote mainly plays, works of literature that are particularly removed from being the personal testimony of the author. (Poetry is a better hunting ground.) Plays were communal works. Far more were jointly written than has often been realised; there is a great deal of evidence that particular parts were written for specific actors; companies staged distinctive types of plays tailored to their audience’s expectations; and Shakespeare, a shareholder in the Globe, was a company man.

We should expect to be able to read in the plays not religious belief but a discussion of issues relevant to audiences. The plays are saturated in biblical imagery, but this tells us very little beyond the central role of the Bible. … When Richard II compares his sufferings to those of Christ it shows that he is a deluded man with a weak understanding of his own religious identity, not that Shakespeare thought that kings were gods.

His conclusion:

Kastan has surveyed the evidence with scrupulous care and so has earned the right to speculate. He suggests, following Christopher Haigh, that Shakespeare was probably a “Parish Anglican”, a tolerant, largely habitual Christian, who recognised the “communal values of village harmony and worship and objected to the divisiveness of the godly”.

Peter J. Smith calls Kastan’s book “refreshingly agnostic”:

[A]ttempts to identify Shakespeare’s religion are as unnecessary as they are impossible. Indeed, as its title implies, A Will to Believe suggests a consummation devoutly to be wished rather than a realisable possibility. But this is a limitation of which Kastan is cognisant and, paradoxically, it is this indeterminacy that underlines some of his most assured pronouncements: “I don’t know what or even if he believed”; “Shakespeare declines to tell us what to believe, or to tell us what he believed”; “I don’t know what he believed and I am convinced we can’t know.”

Old Hamlet is the personification (if ghosts can personify) of this quandary: “it is always an ambiguous ghost, whose nature is not confirmed nor is it confirmable by any theology the play has to offer”. Kastan’s reading of the Prince’s bereavement is human(e) rather than revelatory, but it is no less significant for that: “Hamlet’s grief is merely grief – not evidence of religious commitments, however doctrinally imagined, but of emotional ones.” Kastan thus judiciously avoids the theological (and biographical) dead end of identifying Shakespeare’s personal faith and reading his plays as dogmatically determined. In the case of Hamlet, for instance, the presence of religious ideas throughout “neither exhausts nor explains the play’s mysteries”.