New user? Register here:
Email Address:
Retype Password:
First Name:
Last Name:
Existing user? Login here:

Shakespeare’s uncertain voyage

Christopher Jackson

He's the most celebrated playwright in the English language, but what were William Shakespeare's spiritual beliefs? In the 400th anniversary of the Bard's death, Christopher Jackson takes a closer look.


These things we know for sure. William Shakespeare was born in 1564 in Stratford- Upon-Avon. Elizabeth I had been on the throne for six years; her regime would be outwardly Protestant. Shakespeare's father - John - was a glover and 'whittawer' (leather-worker) and soon a figure in Stratford society. He became an alderman (in Romeo and Juliet, his observant son would refer to the 'agate stone on the forefinger of an alderman'), and then chief bailiff. But the family fell on hard times.

William attended the local grammar school. He married Anne Hathaway in 1582; she was 26, he was 18. We don't know how William spent the late 1580s. But by 1592, Shakespeare was mentioned by Robert Greene, in bitter terms, as an 'upstart crow' of the London theatre. Against the odds, he had made his mark.

We all know what happened next - it can be summed up by Ben Jonson: 'The applause, delight, the wonder of the stage'1. But by 1614, the applause was over.

Shakespeare died on 23rd April 1616. We do not know how he died - calls to exhume the body always meet the stern rebuke of his ghost in the epitaph he presumably wrote for himself: 'Curst be he who move these bones.'



Any consideration of Shakespeare's religious beliefs runs up against the difficulty of a certain duality. We have the dusty record with its scraps of legal documentation - house purchases, a court case, his will. But then we have the plays.

It is possible, for instance, to state certain cold facts: Shakespeare was never once fined for not attending church, and was outwardly Protestant. Or: William Shakespeare was buried on April 23rd in a church which boasts beautiful medieval misericords2, and was friends with many Catholic recusants. Both are true.

But then it is possible to pick up the plays and find another kind of life rush in - the impressions one finds there are true, but in a different way. For instance, we also know that it was William Shakespeare who gave Isabella the great description of Christianity in Measure for Measure:

All souls were forfeit once
And He that might the vantage best have took
Found out the remedy'3.

That shows a nuance of understanding of the Christian claim far deeper than, for instance, the rote Protestant wording of his will. On the one hand we have the outward form of a life. On the other, inner inspiration.

Very occasionally, we perhaps glimpse the interplay between the two.



Perhaps. Maybe. Possibly. Shakespearean biography is dogged with these words.

But let me also hazard the following. William Shakespeare was, of course, extraordinarily intelligent, but in the way that Leonardo da Vinci was intelligent: he was not easily satisfied. He looked at life from every side: he could chortle like Falstaff and delineate the schemes of Iago. He could prevaricate like Hamlet but be alongside Henry V as he rushed into the breach.

Like Leonardo he was intensely curious; the Renaissance had torn down barriers and Shakespeare delightedly roamed an open intellectual terrain. He was exceptionally interested in poetry, acting, nature, law, politics, the classical world, shipping, food, drink, and travel - to name only a few things. His life took place within a changed space, one that the Catholic Church had vacated.

His life also suggests a certain modesty. He conquered London from without, but did so differently to his great contemporaries Marlowe and Jonson, both of whom made such noise in the world. Shakespeare never showed Marlowe's appetite for louche controversy, or Jonson's tendency towards bombastic self-promotion. On the other hand, he always got along with such types. Contemporaries called him 'sweet', 'gentle' and 'honey-tongued'4: he was skilled at handling egos. He could turn a blind eye to the faults of others, very possibly because poetic introspection had rendered him acutely aware of his own.

He was also trustworthy - his career with the Globe Theatre suggests this - and immensely hard-working. Predominantly, his was a life of poetic discovery: what could words really be made to do?



Yet none of this helps one arbitrate the matter of Shakespeare's faith. He might have been all these things and a Protestant (or secret Catholic). But then he might have been all these things and an atheist. Do the plays tell us more?

But here one runs up against further difficulty: namely, the magisterially non-committal nature of the work itself. As Keats pointed out, Shakespeare is an extreme example of 'negative capability'5 - the ability to hold two contradictory opinions in his mind at the same time. His mind refused the repose of straightforward answers. Yet the mystique of the plays has also been exaggerated. Shakespeare's works are also outpourings of anxiety, attempts to resolve and reconcile doubt, sincere encounters with reality. The biographer labours under a surfeit of information about Shakespeare's feelings, not a dearth.

The very fact of the plays' existence is, in fact, our first clue. The collapse of medieval structures of belief had created a vacuum into which Shakespeare and others rushed. The Reformation brought Shakespeare many things he cared deeply about: Ovid, the Roman world, sexual freedom, and an adventurous understanding of politics. But it also created anxiety about what to think about the fundamentals - about death, and love, and God.

The Elizabethans were face to face with life again. Shakespeare was not just able to ask once more questions which no one had asked since Roman times: he was forced to do so. The plays are permeated with old questions given new urgency: What is man? What is love? Should I fear death?



Samuel Johnson was the first to notice that comedy comes easier to Shakespeare than tragedy: 'His tragedy seems to be skill, his comedy to be instinct'6. The Chandos portrait, if it is authentic, rather contributes to this view: it is a look of confidence, and we can easily imagine the full lips breaking into a smile.

The best plays in the 1590s - Love's Labour's Lost (1594-5), Romeo and Juliet (1595), and Midsummer Night's Dream (1595) - all breathe ease, and delight at being alive. Romeo and Juliet is a play so sweet that tragedy hardly seems to be tragedy at all, but instead a melancholic sweetness: if it were music it would be in a major key.

These early works, fresh as morning dew, are deeply preoccupied with love. One has a strong sense of Shakespeare enjoying himself, and out from under the wing of any church. He is a man of the theatre, a celebrity. The dedications to Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece show him to have consorted with the nobility. Contemporary testimony, the sonnets, and a strong vein of tradition suggest that he wasn't faithful to his wife.



As chaotic as his love-life may have been, it was still anchored in Stratford. Anne bore him a daughter Susanna in 1583 and then twins, Hamnet and Judith in 1585.

Hamnet died in 1596. It is a sign of Shakespeare's copiousness that in the aftermath of this loss, he appears to have written comedies - the knockabout Merry Wives of Windsor (1597) and the sassy Much Ado About Nothing (1598) date, almost incredibly, to the period after the death. This is not to say the death meant nothing to him; I believe it was this which forced him into the minor key. The lines spoken in King John (1596) by Constance are often quoted:

Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form.
[King John, Act 3 Scene 4]

It is a tantalising glimpse, one feels, of Anne Shakespeare. It is often said that the Elizabethans lived close to death, with the implication that they were somehow not susceptible to grief. But what is most striking about these lines is their modern sensibility. Constance in her grief is completely untethered from the church. There is no prescription for the loss of her child. She has been thrust back on herself.



If that's true of this passage in King John, then Hamlet (1599-1601) is a gigantic working through of the same problem but from Shakespeare's own perspective.

How does Hamlet work? In writing it, Shakespeare took important information out. In the story Shakespeare drew from, the murder of Hamlet's father is publicly known and occurs when Hamlet is a child. The prince plays a long waiting game, and is clearly shown to be feigning idiocy. Shakespeare compresses the action to a few days and has the murder communicated to Hamlet through the ghost. Each decision isolates Hamlet, starving both him and the audience of clear explanations. We hear so much from Hamlet partly because he is trying to create space to think through an unclear predicament.

But Hamlet doesn't need the ghost to render him introspective. The famous 'O that this too too solid flesh would melt' soliloquy is spoken before the arrival of the apparition - and it is this which gives the impression that in creating Prince Hamlet, Shakespeare was composing some sort of self-portrait.

Well then, what do we see? Hamlet is like a pressure cooker dialled up on someone who couldn't bear the initial temperature: a fragile mind is faced with a uniquely difficult situation. It is a rudderless man, deeply preoccupied by death. Hamlet is in constant flux, lacking significant definition. Laertes blusters onto the stage at the end of the play exactly as he would have hit the scene in Paris at the start. Hamlet shifts. Hamlet is a radical questioning of human identity - of Shakespeare'e own identity.

And if this is the case, is Prince Hamlet a Christian? Does he believe in God?



Hamlet's predicament is triggered by a ghost granted brief leave from purgatory:

My hour is almost come,
When I to sulph'rous and tormenting flames
Must render up myself.
[Hamlet Act 1, Scene 5]

Accordingly, some have tried to make something of the Catholic paraphernalia of the play. But the main feature of Hamlet is that the Prince doesn't accept this purgatorial vision at face value. If he did, he would act immediately, and revenge his father. If this is Christianity it is Christianity pushed to the outer limit. This suspicion is given a kind of verbal pattern in Ophelia's song after she hears of Polonius' death:

He is gone, he is gone,
And we cast away moan,
God ha' mercy on his soul.-
And of all Christian souls, I pray God.
[Hamlet, Act 4, Scene 5]

And of all Christian souls - there is a flavour of afterthought about that.

Hamlet happens in a world where the universe is being so severely questioned that not just God's nature, but His very existence is manifestly at issue. This pattern is repeated in the great tragedies that follow. King Lear (1605-6) takes place in a pagan world where Lear himself petitions the gods in the plural: 'As flies to wanton boys are we/to the gods: they kill us for their sport'7. Its ending, with bodies strewn on the stage, invites suspicions of ultimate meaninglessness.



In Othello (1603-4), Iago says the following of Othello himself:

And then for her
To win the Moor-were't to renounce his baptism,
All seals and symbols of redeemed sin,
His soul is so enfetter'd to her love,
That she may make, unmake, do what she list,
Even as her appetite shall play the god
With his weak function.
[Othello, Act 2, Scene 3]

Given the malevolence of their speaker, these sentiments must be taken with a pinch of salt. But they remind us that in Iago's eyes, Othello is not a straightforward Christian. Othello, like Shylock in The Merchant of Venice (1596-8), is highly individuated - Shakespeare understands that not all religious experience is Christian experience. He lived in a time of expanding frontiers. Shakespeare heard of distant shipwrecks; he lived among Huguenot exiles and would have known their struggles. These great tragedies are suffused with awe at a world far more complex and uncertain than the medieval structures which his father had grown up in, had prepared him for.

This awe can flare up at any time. It is there in Macduff announcing that he has 'no words' when he hears of the death of his family. It is there also in Lear's bleak: 'No, no, no, no!' at the death of Cordelia. Hamlet doesn't disappear in a blaze of words, but in a mute clash of swords.



But by 1609, there is a marked shift. The move to the Blackfriars theatre, with its superior staging possibilities, contributed to an appetite for pageant and spectacle which repeats in Cymbeline (1610), The Winter's Tale and The Tempest (1610-11). It might be that Shakespeare had seen some of his friend Ben Jonson's pageants, and wished to show that he could do better. But the chief change is the figure of the daughter - Mariana in Pericles (1607-8), Imogen in Cymbeline, Perdita in The Winter's Tale and Miranda in The Tempest. Shakespeare had become a grandfather in 1608 - there is a softening, as if a tension has snapped.

In these plays - which scholars group together under the heading of Romances - redemption is suddenly possible. At the beginning of The Winter's Tale we witness the onset of Leontes' sudden jealousy - for no apparent reason - towards his wife Hermione and his childhood friend Polixenes. Hermione is thrown in prison and dies. Without the outsized nature of the initial jealousy we might not be able to stomach the vast surprise of the ending when 16 years later a statue of Hermione is brought onstage and then comes to life.

Leontes: O, she's warm!
If this be magic, let it be an art
Lawful as eating.
[The Winter's Tale, Act 5, Scene 3]

Even if he had had access to the Blackfriars theatre earlier in his career, it is hard to imagine the Shakespeare of the early 1600s writing that. A fundamental vexation has been removed. Shakespeare has regained his trust in the world. We will never know how he had felt betrayed by life, or what he was forgiving, but this is the pattern on view.



Shakespeare plainly embarked on The Tempest (1610- 11) intending it as his swansong. Like many a busy professional, he found retirement less congenial than he had supposed. After it, he would go on to produce several collaborations with John Fletcher: The History of Cardenio (now lost), Henry VIII (1612-13), and The Two Noble Kinsmen (1613-4).

There are many wonderful things about The Tempest. It was superb to give Caliban the speech 'The isle is full of noises' - a lesser writer would have given it to Miranda. Everybody knows the magnificent reflections that Prospero is given near its end: 'We are such stuff as dreams are made on/ and our little lives are rounded with a sleep'8. But there is also an even better speech at the end of The Two Noble Kinsmen that is unmistakably Shakespeare's. For anyone who wishes happiness on the man who gave the world such pleasure, it is pleasant to hear its cheerful and wise ring:

Oh you heavenly charmers,
What things you make of us! For what we lack
We laugh, for what we have are sorry, still
Are children in some kind. Let us be thankful
For that which is, and with you leave disputes
That are above our question. Let's go off
And bear us like the time.
[The Two Noble Kinsmen, Act 5, Scene 4].

It is as if he has faced down the uncertainties of the Reformation, and found his own peace. They are likely the last words he ever wrote.



If this is reconciliation what has been reconciled? I suspect Shakespeare was little interested in doctrinal matters throughout his life. But I also have a sense of the world acting on a light-hearted man, changing him - forcing his hand. Too questioning to accept the church meekly, Shakespeare nevertheless came up against the harshness of the world, and required refuge. We can be sure he sought it in his art.

And yet art is itself a form of interacting with the world, and the difference with the last plays is the nature of this interaction. The tragedies are a wrestling-match; the romances, a thanksgiving. My suspicion is that Shakespeare became profoundly grateful for life. Did he thank God for it? Given the religious nature of the times, it seems likely.

We don't know what scene greeted him upon his return to Stratford. There is an attractive tradition of Shakespeare the gardener, tending to his mulberry tree. Burgess has him playing music with his daughters.

I prefer to think of him at peace - as he put it in that last speech in Two Noble Kinsmen: 'thankful for that which is'.



1 From B. Jonson, 'To the Memory of My Beloved the Author, Mr. William Shakespeare'.

2 A misericord, sometimes named a mercy seat, is a small wooden shelf on the underside of a folding seat in a church, installed to provide a degree of comfort for a person who has to stand during long periods of prayer.

3 Measure for Measure, Act 2, Scene 2.

4 The phrase honeytongued was used both by Francis Meres in the Palladis Tamia, and by John Weever In certain verses addressed to Shakespeare. Meres also calls Shakespeare 'sweet'. Ben Jonson calls him 'gentle' in his eulogy to Shakespeare which accompanied the First Folio.

5 Keats sketched out this notion in a letter to his brothers George and Thomas Keats on 21st December 1817.

6 From Jonson's Preface to the Plays of William Shakespeare (1765).

7 King Lear, Act 4, Scene 1.

8 The Tempest, Act 4, Scene 1.