Theatre director Sir Trevor Nunn told the Daily Telegraph last week that: "Shakespeare has more wisdom and insight about our lives, about how to live and how not to live, how to forgive and how to understand our fellow creatures, than any religious tract. One hundred times more than the Bible."
He told the newspaper, "Shakespeare is my religion," claiming that the bard's works taught "an understanding of the human condition" not present in the holy books of any other religion.
His comments are curiously reminiscent of Beatle John Lennon's statement in 1966 that they were "more popular than Jesus". Despite the angry reactions that claim provoked at the time, I think there is nonetheless some truth in it. After all, Jesus never set out to be popular. Like Shakespeare, the Beatles offered contemporary entertainment, and undeniably attracted a huge worldwide following.
Jesus, on the other hand, came not to entertain, but "to seek and to save the lost" (Luke 19:10). When his teachings were a bit more than the crowds could stomach, they quickly fell away. John 6:66 records, "From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him." Jesus then asked the chosen twelve if they were going to leave too, and Simon Peter's response was once again insightful. "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life" (v68).
However brilliantly Shakespeare may have understood the human condition – and there's no denying that the themes of greed, ambition and love are skilfully portrayed in Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet and the numerous other Shakespearian plays – the one thing his works don't do is to point the way to eternal life. And while they may reveal an uncanny "understanding of the human condition", I would question whether Shakespeare's works inspire hope for the lost in the same way that the Bible does.
The apostle Paul wrote of scripture: "For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope" (Romans 15:4). The Bible is definitely a book of hope. And although Shakespeare has the ability and insight to graphically describe the human condition, he cannot offer a solution. There is no hope for a humanity drowning in disappointment, disillusionment, despair or sorrow. It reminds me of the prospectus of an overseas hotel that sought to entice English-speaking tourists with the statement, "Our wines leave you nothing to hope for" – a classic example of not saying precisely what was intended!
Thankfully, the Bible not only understands the human condition, but it offers a remedy for it, inspiring hope, and making us "wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus" (2 Timothy 3:15). Of course, misconceptions about the Bible abound, and perhaps Sir Trevor Nunn has one or two, as the purpose of the Bible is certainly not primarily to entertain or even to offer insight on human values and behaviour in the way Shakespeare does. Nor is it intended to be a gold standard of academic literature. A book was published many years ago entitled "The Bible to be read as Literature", betraying in its very title a fundamental misunderstanding of the Bible's purpose and objective. Literary critics down the ages have done their worst in reviewing the Bible, but it is still changing lives today in a way that no other book does. And besides, with the modern translations of the Bible that abound today, it is a lot easier to read than Shakespeare!
For me, American President Woodrow Wilson (who held office from 1913-21) summed it up when he said, "A man has deprived himself of the best there is in the world, who has deprived himself of this: knowledge of the Bible. When you have read the Bible you will know that it is the Word of God because you will have found it the key to your own heart, your own happiness, and your own duty." Would that his modern day successors took the same view.
It's great to have historic works like Shakespeare to be stimulated and entertained, but how much better to have the Word of God that can change lives for eternity.
Tony Ward is a Bible teacher and evangelist who was ordained in Zimbabwe. He ministers mainly in Cardiff and Bristol.