The Faith of William Shakespeare
Church Times Bookshop £8.99
SHAKESPEARE’s Christianity is like many of his characteristics (including his identity as William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon): it was completely assumed for years, and arose as a controversy only when he became the single most admired author in the English canon. Since the 19th century, Shakespeare has been presented as a radical Protestant, a crypto-Catholic, a secular humanist, and a committed atheist.
As with Shakespeare’s politics and sexuality, more is at stake in these arguments than a simple historical query. To reshape the image of Shakespeare is to reshape the most potent non-religious cultural icon of English-speaking societies.
Graham Holderness’s new book, The Faith of William Shakespeare, investigates this question, while being aware of the ways it can easily become a cipher for a historian’s own prejudices. He gives a brief history of the Reformation in England, the religious contexts of Shakespeare’s life, and the evidence available, before embarking on a reading of the plays which sees them expressing a definite theological and spiritual outlook.
His approach focuses mostly on verbal echoes, putting speeches from the plays next to passages from the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, and writings by Luther and Calvin. But he is also keen to discern the theological implications of the plots, probing how the denouement of Measure For Measure or the dilemmas of Hamlet reveal a set of assumptions about the spiritual dimension of life.
The book is impressive in its grasp of the verbal and imaginative world of Shakespeare’s audiences, persuasively connecting doctrine with drama.
Through these readings of the dramatic texts, Holderness argues for a Shakespeare who moved away from his father’s Catholicism towards an increasingly Reformed understanding of spirituality. His reading of the plays culminates in a tragedy of Lear in which judgement is terrible and unsearchable, and romances in which grace is transforming but mysterious.
Holderness is also careful to emphasise that this does not situate Shakespeare as either a radical or a reactionary, and that the theological movements that he traces are comfortably within the Church of England of the time. Although he acknowledges the anachronism of the term, it is Shakespeare the Anglican whom Holderness presents in this book.
Given the crisis over the past few decades in the identity and meaning of Anglicanism, it is striking that this book offers us Shakespeare himself as another possible “Anglican identity” from the past.
Dr Jem Bloomfield is Assistant Professor in Medieval and Early Modern Literature at the University of Nottingham.