Baptismal record of William Shakespeare, via

The parish registers of Stratford-upon-Avon record the baptism, on April 26, 1564, of “Gulielmus filius Johannes Shakspere,” and the burial, on April 25, 1616, of “Will Shakspere, gent.” Despite the Latin, both entries were made by Protestant clergy, and the ceremonies were conducted according to the rites prescribed in the prayer book published in 1559, which remained in use until 1645 when it was banned by Cromwell’s parliament. The registration of Shakespeare’s marriage to Anne Hathaway in 1582 is lost, since that took place not in Stratford—perhaps out of a wish to avoid public comment, the bride being already pregnant—but probably at the nearby village of Temple Grafton, whose records for the period have not survived and whose elderly vicar, John Frith, was an unreformed Catholic priest described in a contemporary report as “unsound in religion.”

At Shakespeare’s funeral, there would have been read the great lesson from 1 Corinthians 15: “For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.” Before long, Shakespeare had “put on immortality” in another sense. There he still lies, his tomb visited by untold numbers, in the Anglican church where he had worshipped. Yet the spirit of John Frith hovered over his reputation; according to Richard Davies, Archdeacon of Lichfield, “He died a papist.” This is a late piece of hearsay (Davies died in 1708), but the rumor has persisted. The question of Shakespeare’s religion, long dormant, was revived by E. A. J. Honigmann’s Shakespeare: The “Lost Years” (1985, second ed. 1998). Honigmann proposed that the gap in our knowledge of Shakespeare’s life between 1585 and 1592 could be filled by accepting that he acted as a tutor in the service of a Catholic landowner in Lancashire, and a fortiori he must have been a Catholic at that point—although Honigmann believed, as his detractors often forget, that Shakespeare later conformed to the established church. A spate of books followed from other scholars, some highly partisan. It is possible that there was a recusant strain in the family; it can be shown that Shakespeare had Catholic acquaintances, and that his plays exhibit close, often sympathetic, knowledge of pre-Reformation religious practices, but his own views cannot be determined one way or another. The introductory preliminary statements of belief in his will are mere copybook formulas. David Scott Kastan, in A Will to Believe, having given a balanced review of the debate as it unfolded in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, is unwilling to credit Shakespeare with more than “an inclusive and theologically minimalist Christianity that resisted religious rigor and valued social accord.”1

The law compelled Shakespeare to be ingenious and allusive, even if he had not been so by nature.

Yet even the most minimal Christianity rests upon biblical and liturgical foundations, and it is remarkable that there have been so few successors to Richmond Noble’s pioneering book, Shakespeare’s Biblical Knowledge and Use of the Book of Common Prayer (1935), the weightiest being Naseeb Shaheen’s Biblical References in Shakespeare’s Plays (1999). The “Book of Common Prayer” in question is not that of 1662 which was in widespread use until the 1970s, but earlier versions. Daniel Swift, in Shakespeare’s Common Prayers, observes that the eight substantial volumes of Geoffrey Bullough’s Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare contain no extracts from the Bible or the prayer book; these were assumed to be somehow in the background without providing specific debts.2 Steven Marx’s Shakespeare and the Bible (2000), which sounds as though it might be helpful, is in fact a wasted opportunity, and Hannibal Hamlin, whose The Bible in Shakespeare constitutes a major scholarly synthesis, is excessively charitable in describing Marx as “less concerned with Shakespeare’s own allusive practice than with fashioning his own creative narratives.”3

As Swift notes, the 1559 Prayer Book was itself “a book in dramatic flux . . . premised upon agreement, but . . . aware of the presence of disagreement.” He uses the invaluable composite edition by Brian Cummings, The Book of Common Prayer: The Texts of 1549, 1559, and 1662 (2011), whose introduction traces the fashioning of the vernacular rite from the medieval Latin Mass and its attendant monastic offices. Diocesan variations were accepted, most famously at Salisbury (the “Sarum Rite”), and the four religious orders all had distinctive devotional practices. Archbishop Cranmer’s successive attempts at an English liturgy were piecemeal, keeping an apprehensive eye on the latest whims of Henry VIII. The first prayer book of Edward VI’s brief reign, issued in 1549 and containing, in Swift’s words, “Catholic language and Protestant theology,” provoked riots which were quelled by government troops. Its more hardline Protestant successor of 1552 was barely in place before Mary’s accession the following year restored the Roman rite. Five years later, Elizabeth’s accession brought further changes. The 1559 book was a slightly modified version of 1552, but it remained such a patchwork of different theological emphases that Swift frankly dubs it “a contradictory mess.” He reasonably protests against the assumption that “the prayer book” is a single, simple text, which has led modern scholars to neglect it, or to quote it without attending to the changes it underwent during its printing history.

The law compelled Shakespeare to be ingenious and allusive, even if he had not been so by nature. The representation of liturgical services onstage was forbidden; indeed, the reformers routinely denounced the Mass as a species of play-acting. Such condemnations looked back to the medieval cycle plays with their medley of scriptural, patristic, legendary, and folkloric traditions, their range of tones and moods welcoming everything from the exalted to the scatological and farcical. It was these plays that Shakespeare experienced as a live theatrical tradition when he saw them at Coventry as a teenager; his use of the Bible and the prayer book is colored by this more eclectic heritage. The plays are equally distorted by those who seek a Protestant or Catholic bias, for there were many varieties of each, and drama thrives on dialectical debate. “Whether the Reformation was motivated from above or below,” Kastan comments, “it was, in either case, incomplete.” Arguably it was complete only with the expulsion of the Catholic James II in 1688 and his replacement, at the invitation of Parliament, by the Dutch Protestants William and Mary.

Daniel Swift contends appealingly for an approach to source study which “preserves playfulness” (“allusion” ultimately derives from Latin ludere, “to play”) and is “messier and more engaged” than traditional searches for exact verbal parallels between printed works. Hamlin, too, subjects the idea of allusion to close scrutiny in a chapter of nearly fifty pages; an author intends to evoke a previous work in readers’ minds, which distinguishes allusion from the practice of adventitious critical collocations known as “intertextuality,” although Hamlin does include reference to works which are not direct Shakespearean sources. The Bible, whose individual books allude polyphonically to each other, must surely be the most interpreted of all texts, yet we are well reminded that there is no such thing as “the” Bible, any more than there is “the prayer book”: one has to ask which Bible. To cite Kastan again: “Shakespeare at times quotes from a Bishops’ translation [1568, revised 1572], remembers psalms as they were translated in the Great Bible [1539], follows the Geneva wording [1560], and on a few occasions seems to be thinking of the Counter-Reformation Rheims version [1582, 1609].” Of these, the Geneva version is the most frequently drawn upon, not only for its text but also for its marginal annotations, which suggests that Shakespeare owned a copy. Some scholars have argued that his use of Geneva indicates Calvinist sympathies, but it was merely the most widely available, and cheapest, text, also used by eminent Anglican divines. The Bishops’ Bible was the version from which the lessons were usually read in church. (The Authorized or King James Version, which again held sway as the lectionary for church services until the perpetration of the New English Bible in the 1970s, is an irrelevance here, since it did not appear until 1611, when Shakespeare’s writing career was virtually over.)

Some scholars have argued that his use of Geneva indicates Calvinist sympathies, but it was merely the most widely available, and cheapest, text, also used by eminent Anglican divines.

Shakespeare’s preferences are clear. He frequently returns to the opening three chapters of Genesis—whose narratives provided material for his work in every genre—to Exodus, Samuel, Job, the Psalms and wisdom literature, and of course to the Gospels, but he also knows his way around the Pauline epistles. His is the familiarity that comes from private reading of the Bible, not merely from hearing the lessons in church. Hamlin adds evidence that he was familiar with the metrical psalms of Sternhold and Hopkins (1562) designed for congregational singing. In his schooldays he would have had to translate biblical passages into Latin, and the biblical quotations included in the Book of Common Prayer create a further degree of cross-fertilization. Sometimes, biblical locations will be significant, as they are in the setting of The Comedy of Errors at Ephesus, whose reputation in the Acts of the Apostles as a center for magicians and tricksters has a clear bearing on the action and themes of the play, or in Pericles where the geography closely follows that of Paul’s missionary journeys.

Elizabeth I’s religious temper was famously enigmatic; candles burned on the altar in her private chapel, to the scandal of many, and she kept her most Puritan Archbishop of Canterbury, Edmund Grindal, under virtual house-arrest, yet she was no friend to Roman Catholics. James I’s Protestantism was more clearly defined, and Macbeth, which flattered his interests, is a focus for both Swift and Hamlin. There was at one time a vogue for somewhat over-simple Christian readings of the play, which still surface occasionally: Kastan cites one which interprets it as a Reformation allegory with Macbeth as Henry VIII! Hamlin’s discussion of Macbeth exemplifies the subtlety of its scriptural allusions—many of which, as he admits, point different ways. To some extent, Macbeth is like Adam, instigated to disobedience and rebellion by his wife; he is also like Judas, to whom Jesus says, “That thou doest, do quickly” (John 13.27, which may underlie “If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well/ It were done quickly”); Lady Macbeth’s washing of her hands recalls Pilate’s; the darkness over the land after Duncan’s murder, the image of Duncan’s body as “the Lord’s anointed temple,” and the summons to the sleepers in the castle to wake “as from your graves” evoke details of the Crucifixion narrative; Lady Macbeth’s odd description of the alarm bell as a “hideous trumpet” glances at the Last Trump and forms part of a pattern of apocalyptic references which Hamlin discerns in the play. The long-recognized references to the Gunpowder Plot trial in the Porter scene and the stress on “equivocation” add to the suggestion of regicide as a religious as well as a political crime. Against the background of the Book of Revelation Macbeth becomes a kind of Antichrist, as Guy Fawkes and his associates were said to be. Yet, while such details (and there are many more) give Macbeth’s wickedness “an almost cosmic dimension,” Hamlin maintains that “the play resists the simple moral binaries” beloved of those who see it as a Christian allegory or morality drama. Duncan is good but weak; Macduff may be a providential instrument in his killing of Macbeth but, as he himself recognizes, is morally responsible for the deaths of his family by his flight to England; Malcolm promises restoration but, as we already know, the royal line descended to King James not from him but from Banquo. Most obviously of all, a schematic Christian reading cannot account for the degree of sympathy for Macbeth which Shakespeare elicits from us. “Despite its setting in a Christian Scotland,” Hamlin concludes, “Macbeth seems hardly more Christian a play than King Lear”—a play with a pre-Christian setting that he reads in the light of the sufferings of Job as Calvin and other commentators interpreted them. (Hamlin shows that Shakespeare read Calvin’s Sermons on Job in translation.)

To point out such affiliations is to enrich our sense of the play’s complexity, in the allusive fashion recommended by Daniel Swift. Swift’s own approach to Macbeth, however, is differently inflected and more narrowly focused. He restricts himself, in his study as a whole, to the prayer book services of matrimony, Communion, and burial of the dead. He prudently warns us that he is not presenting “an Anglican Shakespeare”; rather, one who was of his time, “an age awash with liturgy; he put it on stage.” That last phrase gives us pause, for Shakespeare’s use of liturgy, like his use of the Bible, is nowhere so direct or unmediated. His persistent interest in the idea of sacrificial substitution seems to bear a closer relation to the eucharistic rite than Swift recognizes, but the clues are cunningly dispersed. We can agree that the disruption of Macbeth’s coronation banquet by Banquo’s ghost—one of several such broken rituals in the canon—makes of the feast a sort of anti-Communion, a profaned sacrament fragmenting rather than unifying the corporate body. Swift notes an interesting insistence on the word “business” in the play, which chimes in with the prayer book exhortation to would-be communicants not to make the excuse that they have “worldly business” to attend to, and he mentions the summon of Shakespeare’s daughter Susannah before the ecclesiastical court for not having attended Easter Communion in 1606, the year Macbeth was written.

Shakespeare is a product of the religious culture in which he lived and died, a culture which his plays continue to communicate even to our post-Babel world.

These are tantalizing conjunctions, but how deeply do they affect our understanding of the play? It seems reductive of Swift to call it “a kind of parasite” on the liturgy. He further connects the presence of the ghost, invisible to all except Macbeth, with ambiguities in the communion rite about the presence of Christ in the consecrated bread and wine, and Macbeth’s inability to say “Amen” to the grooms’ prayers with a passage in a sermon by Bishop Jewel of Salisbury which attacks the Latin Mass as a foreign rite which the people did not understand, “so that no man could say Amen to their prayer.” Again, he argues that the “painted devils” of which Lady Macbeth speaks recall church decorations destroyed by iconoclasts; Macduff, a man “not born of woman,” calls up the sentence from the burial service, “Man that is born of woman hath but a short time to live,” a quotation from Job, which thus becomes once again a key text for Shakespeare; the water which will not wash the blood from Macbeth’s or his wife’s hands is contrasted with the water of baptism that will wash the infant in the blood of the Lamb. But how much is being asserted here, and about what? “What is thy name?” Young Siward asks Macbeth, and receives the answer, “My name’s Macbeth.” To hear in this, as Swift does, “an echo of the catechizing priest” in the preparation for the service of confirmation is to ignore dramatic context to an almost heroic extent. In contrast, the allusions to the Passion narrative in Julius Caesar, documented by Hamlin, are never allowed to impair the solidity with which the classical world is recreated.

Shakespeare’s imagining of pre-Reformation England in his history plays is of major interest, but they do not come within Swift’s purview because he cannot relate them to his three chosen prayer book services. Kastan, too, has surprisingly little to say about them except for King John and Henry VIII, the former hostile to papal pretension but not a Protestant whitewash, the latter avoiding open discussion of theological issues but sympathetic to Katherine and Wolsey. The renaming of Sir John Oldcastle, in Henry IV Part 1, as Sir John Falstaff, to avoid causing offense to the descendants of the original Oldcastle, burned as a Lollard in Henry V’s reign and regarded as a proto-martyr by later Protestants, has been widely discussed. Shakespeare does seem to have been making a sectarian point here for once, lampooning the habitual citations of scripture by the godly in Falstaff’s subversive misuse of biblical texts. (Ben Jonson’s caricature Puritans are blatant examples of the same thing.) Hamlin has a rich chapter on Falstaff as “master of biblical allusion,” consciously fashioning scripture to his own ends—so that, for instance, Jesus’s exhortation to his disciples to “Watch and pray” becomes “Watch tonight, pray tomorrow.” The Henry IV plays are variations on the parable of the Prodigal Son, a favorite passage of Falstaff’s, along with the parable of Dives and Lazarus (which is also summoned up, to haunting effect, in Mrs. Quickly’s description of Falstaff’s death in Henry V). “Reformation” has a personal rather than an ecclesiastical or doctrinal application to Hal’s serious intention to change his ways and Falstaff’s tongue-in-cheek flirtations with the idea. Falstaff’s use of the Bible, Hamlin observes, is like Shakespeare’s; teasing, often oblique, shifting in tone from orthodoxy to parody.

The only play by Shakespeare with a biblical allusion in its title, Measure for Measure, has long been found problematic. Hamlin merely glances at it in his survey of Christian readings of the plays. Kastan notes its complete excision from a copy of the Second Folio (1632) now in the Folger Library but formerly in the Jesuit seminary at Valladolid. Several of the plays were expurgated by “Guillermo Sanchez,” alias Fr. William Sankey, an English member of the community. When he came to Measure for Measure, however, he literally cut the whole text—with a razor. Kastan is surely right in thinking that the Duke’s activities in his disguise as a friar gave cause for scandal, and he drily observes that Sankey’s reaction gives little support to those who would like to see Catholic sympathies in the play, but nor is it a Protestant polemic: its stress falls on the need to redress “our compromised commitments, not to the doctrines of any Church but to one another.” Similarly, for Swift, the play works against the ideal of mutual fidelity enshrined in the marriage service (Shakespeare’s own experience, he speculates, colors his habitual dramatic presentation of marriage as “a deeply tense state”). Here, as in Much Ado About Nothing, the narrative drive of the liturgy towards consummation is suspended; and here, as in All’s Well That Ends Well, the consummation is irregularly achieved by the substitution of sexual partners, the so-called “bed trick.” The separation of “sex from love and rite from promise,” the contradiction between liturgical orthodoxy and popular custom, clouds the comedy of these plays.

Where do these books leave our appreciation of Shakespeare and religion, in this anniversary year? The mid-twentieth-century obsession with claiming him for one side or the other in the Reformation disputes has waned, partly because scholars have come to see what a piecemeal and ambiguous process “the Reformation” was. Over-neat separations of the “medieval” from the “early modern,” which enabled him to be seen as an arch-skeptic paving the way for the Enlightenment, have been abandoned by historians and critics alike. He is no longer hailed as a proto-Marxist, as was fashionable in the 1970s and 1980s, since the allure of radical chic has faded. The resulting picture is teasingly untidy, but our awareness of what Shakespeare owed to the founding texts of Anglicanism is enhanced. There are limitations to acknowledge: Kastan finds The Merchant of Venice and Othello very much of their time in their relative lack of sympathy with other faiths. His book in general provides a scrupulous and dispassionate survey of the issues at stake, and rightly emphasizes that religion for Shakespeare and his contemporaries was “the essential medium in which the world was experienced and described” rather than, what it is now assumed to be, merely a “category of understanding.” Swift establishes the importance of prayer book rites and formulas as part of the cultural hinterland of the plays, even if some of his claims for indebtedness are implausible. It is Hamlin who makes the most substantial contribution, showing how Shakespeare’s memory and imagination were steeped in biblical narrative, character-types, and idiom. Wilbur Sanders, in The Dramatist and the Received Idea (1968), relevantly suggested that “if Shakespeare is Christian at all, he is Christian at a much deeper level than that of theological conformity” and that he “releases for us, more vividly than any theologian could have done, the perennial relevance of Elizabethan Christianity.” Shakespeare is a product of the religious culture in which he lived and died, a culture which his plays continue to communicate even to our post-Babel world.

1A Will to Believe, by David Scott Kastan; Oxford University Press, 155 pages, $40.

2Shakespeare’s Common Prayers: The Book of Common Prayer and the Elizabethan Age, by Daniel Swift; Oxford University Press, 289 pages, $27.95.

3The Bible in Shakespeare, by Hannibal Hamlin; Oxford University Press, 378 pages, $99.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 34 Number 8, on page 22
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