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The playwright everyone wants a bit of

25 April 2014

Alison Shell enjoys a study of Shakespeare which finds him cool

A Will to Believe: Shakespeare and religion
David Scott Kastan
OUP £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50 (Use code CT366 )

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 was writing?

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.

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