SHAKESPEARE’s funeral monument in Holy Trinity, Stratford-upon-Avon, will attract many pilgrims in 2016, the 400th year since his death. Of these, a high proportion will be Christians who regard Shakespeare as among the most profound Christian thinkers of all time.
Yet the monument itself is entirely without Christian reference, reminding us instead how often the Anglican Church has drawn its notions of sublimity from pagan Greece and Rome. Its Latin epitaph hails Shakespeare as a Socrates in genius and a Virgil in art, and ends “Terra tegit, populus maeret, Olympus habet” (The earth covers [him], the people mourn [him], Olympus possesses [him]). This suggests that when Shakespeare’s friends and relations decided which of his qualities to commemorate, piety was not top of the list.
Among Shakespeare’s contemporary admirers, there was a strong reluctance to set Shakespeare in a Christian context. Even in a religious climate in which suggestions of prayer for the dead would have been frowned on, it was common for elegists to commend the deceased to God. Yet in the early 17th-century collected editions of Shakespeare’s work, none of the fulsome poetic tributes refers to the Christian God, and only one to the Day of Judgement: the poet William Basse, with unintentional comedy, asks Chaucer, Spenser, and Beaumont to move up and
For Shakespeare in your threefold, fourfold tomb.
To lodge all four in one bed make a shift
Until doomsday. . .
More common is the assurance that Shakespeare will live on in his works. Leonard Digges, for instance, declares that when
Time dissolves thy Stratford monument
Here we alive shall view thee still
Ben Jonson ends his elegy to Shakespeare by proclaiming “Shine forth, thou star of poets.” His image anticipates present-day notions of celebrity, but derives from the classical notion of stellification, or transformation from an earthly to a celestial body.
John Milton’s well-known tribute to Shakespeare makes use of a similar conceit, alluding to the pyramids’ dual function as sepulchres and astronomical aids:
What need my Shakespeare for his honoured bones
The labour of an age in pilèd stones,
Or that his hallowed relics should be hid
Under a star-ypointing pyramid?
But his deployment of it is more critical than Jonson’s:
Dear son of memory, great heir of fame,
What need’st thou such dull witness of thy name?
Thou in our wonder and astonishment
Hast built thyself a lasting monument. . .
Milton intensely disliked Roman Catholic practices, and it is no surprise that he should distance himself from the idea of Shakespeare’s “relics”. But his lines are prophetic of the Shakespeare cult that arose in the mid-18th century, whose adherents craved material aids to worship.
A mulberry tree reputed to have been planted by Shakespeare in the grounds of New Place, his last home in Stratford, was denuded by tourists to such an extent that the owner, Francis Gastrell, chopped it down — whereupon a local entrepreneur, Thomas Sharp, bought up most of the wood and used it to fashion mementoes. Other tradesmen soon followed in his footsteps, each claiming authenticity for his products; as with relics of the True Cross, no one tree could possibly have yielded enough wood.
A contemporary drinking-song inspired by one such souvenir has almost eucharistic overtones:
Behold this fair goblet, ’twas carved from the tree,
Which, O my sweet Shakespeare, was planted by thee;
As a relic I kiss it, and bow at the shrine,
What comes from thy hand must be ever divine!
There is a striking gap between this rumbustious deployment of Roman Catholic language and Milton’s earlier edginess about the idea of Shakespearean relics; and yet, in an age when anti-Catholicism was routine, it is still a signal that the writer is less than completely serious. No 18th-century commentator admired Shakespeare more than the actor David Garrick, but even he is careful to pre-empt accusations of blasphemy: his ode to Shakespeare — referencing Romeo and Juliet — declares “‘Tis he! ’Tis he! The god of our idolatry!”
LIKE Shakespeare’s original elegists, Garrick opted for a classical idiom when he erected a temple to the writer in the grounds of his house in Twickenham. More ambiguous, and perhaps more genuinely Bardolatrous, is the early 19th-century recess that the architect Sir John Soane erected to Shakespeare at his house-museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, in London. Featuring a cast of Shakespeare’s bust from the Stratford monument, stained glass taken from religious buildings on the Continent during the French Revolution, and cherubim in liberty-caps, this shrine draws on Christian iconography in subversive ways.
Like many other thinkers in the Romantic era, Soane sat lightly to the Church, but venerated great men, and loved Shakespeare for his flights of supernatural imagination: a painting (also in the Recess) — Henry Howard’s The Vision of Shakespeare — depicts Oberon, Titania, and the enchanted island in The Tempest.
THROUGHOUT the 19th century, as intellectual alternatives to Christianity became increasingly mainstream, it was not uncommon for Shakespeare to displace God. Matthew Arnold, a writer notorious for religious doubt, wrote a famous sonnet in which Shakespeare is compared to a hill
Planting his steadfast footsteps in the sea,
Making the heaven of heavens his dwelling-place.
Here he is rewriting lines from William Cowper’s hymn “God moves in a mysterious way”:
He plants his footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.
The effect is to portray Shakespeare as a natural phenomenon: stupendous, but not miraculous, and more credible by far than Christ walking on water. More audaciously still, the poem ends by casting Shakespeare as a Man of Sorrows:
All pains the immortal spirit must endure,
All weakness which impairs, all griefs which bow,
Find their sole speech in that victorious brow.
For many non-believers, Shakespeare is as close to God as one can get; and, in our own time, he has proved an easy writer to recruit to the secularist cause. His sonnets, which argue that mortality can be cheated only by literature, feature prominently on lists of non-religious readings for funerals. The former artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe, Dominic Dromgoole, has remarked: “[In] this age, in which religion has mumbo-jumboed its way back into muscular authority . . . [Shakespeare] offers a desperately needed alternative. For many he is now a non-religious icon, a secular saint.”
The critic Harold Bloom goes even further: “Bardolatry, the worship of Shakespeare, ought to be even more a secular religion than it already is. The plays remain the outward limit of human achievement: aesthetically, cognitively — in certain ways morally, even spiritually.”
READING Shakespeare for the Christian inspiration he can yield is not wrong, however, and not without historical precedent, either. As the critic Kate Rumbold has argued, the habit of anthologising Shakespeare — common from the 18th century onwards — has resulted in a foregrounding of the passages in his work “where elegant language and ethical principles are entwined”.
Such extracts are available to moralists both within and outside the Christian tradition, and their decontextualisation can make them all the more improving. In the trial scene of The Merchant of Venice, Portia behaves with some cruelty to Shylock, and yet her beautiful speech on mercy is one of Shakespeare’s best-known ethical pronouncements. Even within Shakespeare’s own lifetime, it cropped up — somewhat garbled — in a sermon preached by John Andrewes: “The quantity of mercy is not strange, it droppeth as the gentle dew from heaven upon the place beneath.”
WHAT do present-day Christians find spiritually uplifting in Shakespeare’s work? Any list would have to include his thoughtful and creative response to the English Bible, still relatively novel in Tudor England. His sophisticated engagement with how audiences can be made to believe what they see has proved easy to transpose on to religious practice, and prompts many critics to speak of his plays as sacramental experiences.
His final tragicomedies — The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest above all — offer a vision of forgiveness which has obvious analogies to the Christian message. And his gaps are important, too. Although he is not an obvious entry point for those wishing to learn about the literature of the English Reformation — few writers of his era have so oblique an approach to religious controversy — this can make him all the more edifying for 21st-century believers.
All of the main thinkers have aspects that emerge only centuries after their deaths. It is perfectly legitimate to read Shakespeare with Christian eyes, and see him as an aid to faith. But it is a relatively modern response to his work; those who see some disjunction between Shakespeare and conventional Christian piety, or think of him as an object of veneration in himself, have a longer tradition on which to draw.
Dr Alison Shell is Professor of English at University College, London. She is the guest curator of “The Cloud-Capped Towers: Shakespeare in Soane’s Architectural Imagination” at Sir John Soane’s Museum, London, until 8 October 2016 (admission free).