Religon In Shakespeare Essay Research Paper RELIGION

Religon In Shakespeare Essay, Research Paper


The purpose of this web page is that of introducing you, an interested web user into the

religious nature of William Shakespeare’s plays. This page covers three topics

surrounding Shakespeare’s work: the of 16th Century England, Shakespeare’s (school,

parents, & Stratford itself), and a brief introduction into the impact his society and

upbringing had upon his . In no way is this page comprehensive in its coverage of

Shakespeare and religion (honestly, what page could be?). Rather, its purpose is to

acquaint any person, just beginning in their quest for Shakespearean knowledge, to the

religious dimension of his writing. The links in this page provide more information to

you, the user, about certain topics and will further help your understanding of this subject.

And now, away we go to explore this fascinating topic…


In order to understand the religious content in Shakespeare’s work it is helpful to first

understand what the religious environment in England was like around the time

Shakespeare wrote and lived. England, ever since it was ruled by the Romans, had been a

Catholic nation. Before Shakespeare’s lifetime, a strange and drastic change occurred that

completely upended the existing of the English people. During King reign, the English

people were, for the most part, content with Catholicism. Through a series of very

complex political maneuvers, Henry eventually seized power of the English church. The

benefits of this control were enormous for the state. First of all, Henry obtained his

divorce from his first wife. Second, the state received the tithes and taxes from church

property, thus making the break very lucrative for the state. Finally, with the closing of all

of the monasteries, England gained large tracts of land to sell to land owners and tax

heavily. The break with the Church of Rome, on the other hand, was not welcomed by the

people. Through various laws and ordinances the monarchy effectively closed down the

Catholic church in England, but they did not stop the people from being loyal to

Catholicism in their hearts. This idea will be very important in the part about

Shakespeare’s parents later on in this page.

One of the effects of the break from Rome was the welcoming of an English translation

of the Bible. If they were going to have an English form of Christianity, then they wanted

to have a Bible that was theirs also. One of the first English translations of the Bible was

written by . Known as or the Great Bible, this Bible along with the would have been the

two translations used widely during Shakespeare’s lifetime . With the advent of the

before this time, the Bible was becoming more and more commonly a household item.

Certainly access to Scripture was at it highest point in human history to that time. The

accessibility of the Bible had an impacted greatly the work of Shakespeare because he had

such a resource at his disposal. Along with these two translations of Scripture already

available to Shakespeare came a new translation authorized by King James I. Today this

translation is known as the (Milward 86). At this point in time, the climate was right for

Shakespeare to learn a great deal about Christianity directly from Scripture, even if the

church in England was still in upheaval.


To bring this a little closer to home for Shakespeare, an examination of the effect the

English Reformation had on Shakespeare’s town and family is in order. Shakespeare was

born and raised in . Being a small town meant that these religious changes occurred more

slowly and later than they did in London. As with the majority of English towns, Stratford

did not welcome the reformations of their religion imposed by the state (Milward 17). In

time, the town bore these mandated changes out of necessity.

There is some evidence that Shakespeare’s parents were Catholic before the Reformation

and remained so at heart after it. John Shakespeare, William’s father, held a high position

in Stratford. At one point in his life, in order to receive a promotion, John had to take an

oath that was anti-Catholic in nature and affirmed Queen Elizabeth I as the head of the

Church of England (Milward 18-19). Later in his life, when John’s fortunes had slipped

some, his attendance in Protestant meetings stopped (Milward 19). Other evidence of

John’s adherence to Catholicism comes from an archaeological find. A spiritual testament

of John Shakespeare was found after his death. Spiritual testaments were popular among

English Catholics of that time. They were professions of adherence to the Catholic faith

(Milward 21). Shakespeare’s mother, Mary, came from a devout Catholic family that held

positions throughout the Catholic church before its demise in England (Milward 21).

Shakespeare’s family appears, at most, nominally Protestant, merely for the purpose of

remaining a functioning part of Stratford. Once John’s fortunes ran out, he no longer

identified with the church of the state.

Shakespeare’s knowledge of the Bible, as well as his understanding of Catholicism, was

gleaned from both his parents and his schoolmasters. Shakespeare attended for many of

his formative years. Prior to the Reformation, the school was a Catholic oriented school.

Up to this time, the teacher’s there practiced Catholicism. Evidently two out of the three

tutors definitively remained Catholic after the Reformation (Milward 39). Again, state

mandate could not change belief, especially for the deeply religious. At the very least,

Shakespeare grew up with a Catholic understanding of Christianity from his parents and

school. This upbringing blended with the changing religious scene around him and his

own study of Scripture to mold his own worldview. This worldview later appeared

profusely throughout his plays.


This section of the page is meant to be an introduction in the impact of religion upon

Shakespeare’s works. Certainly there is much more to be uncovered than this brief section

can conceivably reveal. Religious topics are copiously encountered throughout all of

Shakespeare’s work. Topics such as prayer, judgment, justice, Satan, Hell, Heaven, faith,

repentance, sin, man’s responsibility, mercy, atonement, redemption, Jesus Christ as

Savior, and providence are found numerous times in his writing . One Shakespeare

scholar believed that Shakespeare’s works were so full of religious topics because he

“studied the Book [the Bible] until its thought and teachings, its story and personalities,

had fairly burned themselves into his memory and became a part of his being”

(Ackermann 27).

All of these religious ideas are rather generic to Christianity whether Catholic or

Protestant. Several themes that are only Catholic also can be incurred throughout his

works. For example, Shakespeare, at times, used the word holy in the sacramental sense

that Catholics used it. Characters in his plays showed devotion to various saints. They

also blessed themselves with the sign of the cross. Shakespeare incorporated references to

Purgatory into some of his plots (Milward 24-27). and are important characters in

several of his plays due to their cunning in their attempts to bring things to an ultimate

good. Shakespeare’s upbringing certainly came into play in his familiarity of these


There are three plays in particular, Measure for Measure, Othello, and The Winter’s Tale,

that give a general overview of the Christian emphasis of his work. Measure for Measure

was a tale that displayed the controversy between grace and law. It asks the question,

“What is true justice?” After abiding under the rule of the law-obsessed Angelo, grace in

the form of the Duke (a Christ figure) swept in and remedied the situation. It was evident

that grace, although not fair according to justice, was best for mankind. It was a story that

moved from the Old Testament law to the New Testament grace.

Othello provided a picture of the fallibility of humanity. When presented with a choice

between good and evil, Othello mistakenly chose evil. Of course, his decision had been

shaped by Iago who quite possibly was the Devil incarnate. After realizing his error,

Othello attempted to rectify the situation by killing himself. This showed that without

divine intervention, sin cannot be atoned for. Good did not exude from Othello’s suicide,

only a sad perpetuation of the evil that had already been evident throughout the story.

Finally, The Winter’s Tale provided not only a culmination to the career of Shakespeare,

but also one of his final portrayals of the nature of Christianity. Throughout his work,

Shakespeare moved from writing comedy to history to tragedy to romance. After things

looked their bleakest in his work (see King Lear), Shakespeare took a slightly more

optimistic view and began writing romances, which also could be known as

tragi-comedies. These stories moved from a very bleak beginning to a positive ending that

was very bittersweet. Just as the death and resurrection of Jesus was a bittersweet tale,

Shakespeare’s romances combined tragedy with a good ending, making the eventual

happiness found better appreciated.

In conclusion, it is observed that, Shakespeare’s plays ranged from light-hearted comedies

to gut-wrenching tragedies. Characters of the highest character as well as the most

immoral, nefarious persons to grace the stage appeared in his works. He told tales of love

and revenge. The scope of Shakespeare’s work seemed to cover almost all aspects of life.

Through all of these tales, the theme that occurred consistently was the spiritual longing

of every individual for love . Shakespeare’s plays move from a hope in political salvation

to a desire for spiritual salvation, just like the Bible does. All of his plays end with some

hope that life will go on and things will get better, just as Christianity hopes for a perfect

world to come. Shakespeare abided in the thought that creation was ultimately good, as

God declared it in Genesis, and he affirmed that idea in his plays.

His works emphasized the common beliefs of both sects of Christianity as well as some

distinctly Catholic ones. This in no way makes Shakespeare a Christian or, more

specifically, a Catholic. At its most fundamental point it does mean that Shakespeare had

a grand knowledge of the Bible and the Christian religion. The bizarre religious

circumstances of Shakespeare’s world played a large role in molding his works into what

they became. Right there and right then was the perfect time for Shakespeare to produce

the wonderful work he created.

Ackermann, Carl. The Bible in Shakespeare. Columbus, OH: The Lutheran Book


Knight, G. Wilson. Shakespeare and Religion. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1967.

Milward, Peter. Shakespeare’s Religious Background. Chicago: Loyola University Press,



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