A Will to Believe: Shakespeare and religion
David Scott Kastan
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NO TOPIC in Shakespeare studies has inspired such partisan
debate as Shakespeare's religious beliefs, or lack of them. This
partly stems from readers' desire to have Shakespeare on their
side, whatever that side is - a desire that is facilitated by the
very qualities that make Shakespeare so attractive: his
even-handedness and his skill at getting audiences to participate
actively in the judgemental process.
At various points in his critical reception, Shakespeare has
been claimed as an Anglican, a sceptic, a proselytising atheist, a
Franciscan tertiary, and a Freemason. But it is claims for his
Roman Catholicism which have received most popular attention in
recent years. Extrapolated from the religiously conservative
company that Shakespeare - like most other Elizabethans born in the
1560s - kept in his early life, these have taken on a life of their
own, associating Shakespeare with the glamour of an underground
movement rather than the staid Established Church.
Kastan's short, accessible, and brilliantly readable book asks
why the question of Shakespeare's belief is so important to us, and
surveys the treatment of religion in the plays themselves. Its
author successfully avoids both the recent tendency to read
religion as merely a metaphor for power, and the equally unhelpful
determination to interpret the plays as religious allegories.
Kastan believes that while "religion is central in the plays, . . .
Shakespeare is nota religious playwright." Could Shakespeare, one
wonders, have been quite so objective a writer if the imperatives
of faith had dominated his composition, given the times in which he
King John - not currently one of the more familiar
history plays - demonstrates Shakespeare's quality of detachment
well. John's defiance of the medieval papacy was often seen as
heroic once the English Reformation came, and this is a bias
present in Shakespeare's dramatic sources; Shakespeare's play, on
the other hand, balances John's own failings against those of the
Church, making it challenging for the audience to align its
sympathies. The 18th-century playwright Colley Cibber's rewrite,
Papal Tyranny in the Reign of King John, demonstrates that
the urge to recruit Shakespeare to religious party-politicking is
not peculiar to our time.
Those looking for a definitive pronouncement on Shakespeare's
religious beliefs will be disappointed by A Will to
Believe. What they get instead is something far preferable: an
account of Shakespeare's life and writing which takes its lead from
the works themselves, emphasising their rootedness in the religious
culture of their time and the diversity and religious
cosmopolitanism of Shakespeare's milieu. The book started as a
series of lectures given at Oxford in 2006, and retains a genial
immediacy, spritzing familiar readings of Shakespeare's work and
packed with refreshing incidental insights.
For instance, Kastan suggests that "To be or not to be: that is
the question," should be printed in inverted commas, since Hamlet
is pondering a topic standard in Renaissance philosophical debate.
Commenting on the same passage, and discussing the Christian
prohibition against suicide, he introduces us to a wonderful
typographical error from an early quarto of Hamlet: "Oh
that the Everlasting had not set His canon 'gainst seal-slaughter."
We shall probably never find out whether Shakespeare was Catholic,
Protestant, or freethinking, but at least we can now recruit him to
honorary membership of Greenpeace.
Dr Alison Shell teaches in the English Department of
University College, London. She was formerly Professor of English
at Durham University.