Shakespeare in an age of high religiosity: A crowd pleaser who couldn't resist a jab at the Puritans

Title page of the First Folio, by William Shakespeare, with copper engraving of the author by Martin Droeshout. Image courtesy of the Elizabethan Club and the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University.

With the inaugural Shakespeare Week taking place this week, Christian Today asks University College London English professor Dr Alison Shell about the religious themes in Shakespeare's plays and how Shakespeare related to the religious views of his audience.

CT: What did religious people in Shakespeare's time think of the theatre as a whole?

AS: Well, there was something of a link, whether you were Catholic or mainstream Church of England or Puritan, between being religious and disliking the theatre. This was because it was perceived as a distraction from religious things you could be doing instead.

All the time you were spending at the theatre you could be spending reading the Bible or in prayer, or going to sermons and discussing them. A disdain was felt for all kinds of exciting leisure activities, including the theatre.

The theatre could also be seen as quite pernicious in itself. Lots of people feared large gatherings because it could lead to sedition and riot. It has always been much easier to cause such things among large crowds.

There was also a notion before contemporary medicine that large crowds easily spread things like the plague. Lots of people interpreted this as God's judgement on the theatre.

There was also a kind of general moral issue with acting itself. Some thought of acting as a form of lying. People would deeply question an actor's sincerity when they talked about anything, since they were viewed as lying for a living. The Reformation exacerbated that, but that was an idea that spread all the way back to the early church with commentators like St Augustine.

At the same time, you set against that the way that many religious people supported the theatre because of its capacity to promote moral lessons. You could learn from good characters and you could be warned about the consequences of sin, and how to avoid it, from bad characters.

It was a lively debate, with pamphleteers and printers taking all sides, very much the equivalent to today's journalists, or in some cases even bloggers. Playwrights also were involved in that, so there were really lots of views on the issue, when it came to religious commentary and comment.

CT: Of those who were religious, and who regarded the theatre positively, what do you think they made of Shakespeare specifically, compared to his other contemporaries?

AS: Well evidence is scarce on this, it's very difficult to find what the audience thought. For the playwrights we have the plays, and then for the audience we're maybe looking for random comments people put in their diaries, or the way they marked up a play. Those are all hard to come by, so it's difficult to say with certainty.

There were lots of religious debates about the character of Falstaff from Henry IV.  Few people reacted to him positively.

One of the early collected editions of Shakespeare survived in one of the Catholic colleges overseas. The way it is censored gives us some idea about how Catholics viewed it. Measure for Measure was almost cut away, it clearly wasn't thought of as apt for seminarians to read.

The rest though are quite lightly censored, so it's clear that the Catholic Church thought that Shakespeare's work was acceptable even for trainee priests, provided he was trimmed a little.

CT: What do you think Catholics of the time particularly liked about Shakespeare's work?

AS: I think everyone would have seen Shakespeare's works as good stories with good rhetorical set pieces. Both Catholic and Protestants were in the business in educating their people in rhetoric.

Whatever your religious sympathies, there's plenty in Shakespeare's dramas that if you had any literary taste at all, you would respond to regardless of your denomination.

It is famously hard to pin down Shakespeare's religious sympathies, which makes his work a kind of common currency across all denominations. If you liked literary things at all, you enjoyed Shakespeare.

CT: Would you say that the way Shakespeare presents religion and religious characters in his plays is very conventional to the period, or was he more a maverick, out to challenge people's views?

AS: I think Shakespeare was always in the business of pleasing the largest possible number of people for the maximum amount of time. Just because he was a consummate professional, he always wanted a broad constituency.

There were certain people he'd given up on. It's well known that he would make fun of Puritans in his plays, and it's interesting how he criticises the Puritan state of mind, the Puritan character. Not necessarily for religious reasons in themselves, but for being joyless, and inappropriately socially ambitious, things which might be caused by a particular religious position but which don't have a direct relationship to doctrine.

CT: Do you think there are particular plays or characters which express a particularly Catholic or Protestant or perhaps another religious worldview?

AS: There are some that are hotly debated. One of Shakespeare's less well known plays is a good example of this. King John, a history play about a king who defies the papacy.

While in Shakespeare's version that certainly isn't played down, other playwrights from the same time dealing with the same material would often exaggerate and emphasise the anti-Catholic elements of that story much more.

I think Shakespeare is asking us to judge characters as good or bad representatives of what they stand for, rather than making a vague overarching statement like everything about Catholicism is bad or in some way corrupt.

If one compares Shakespeare and other playwrights just before him, for example John Bale who wrote a very anti-Catholic play about King John, or John Webster in a play like the Duchess of Malfi, it's very clear that Webster saw Catholicism as irredeemably corrupt, part of a damned world. You never get anything that overt in Shakespeare.

CT: With regard to how Shakespeare writes Jewish characters, and how the Christian characters in the play relate to them, was Shakespeare simply reflecting widely held views about Jews of the time, or was he saying something different?

AS: Well, the Merchant of Venice is the obvious one to talk about, and he faithfully reflects the anti-Semitism of the period there. Both in Venice where it's set and in England where it was performed.

The logic of the plot in the Merchant of Venice demands that Shylock be a deeply flawed character, as well as a vengeful character, someone who is happy to kill someone if they renege on their bonds.

But we're shown that he's not somehow innately bad because he's Jewish. The play shows how he got there because even in the relatively tolerant society of Venice, he still lives in the ghetto, still subject to mockery and low level persecution.

He points that out to the Christians who want to borrow money from him "you call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog, and all for use of that which is mine own". So he's basically saying "if you want to borrow money from me, be a bit nicer to me". I think anyone who understands that circumstance can see why he would be embittered.

He has this great speech "I'm a Jew, have not a Jew eyes? Have not a Jew hands? Organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?"

The emphasis is on Jews' and Christians' common humanity. Shakespeare really is reaching out to the audience and making them think in a way that it is quite hard to find analogues for at the time.

For instance Christopher Marlow wrote a play called 'The Jew of Malta' which is much more in line with the traditional stereotype of the evil Jew. The Merchant of Venice on the other hand is really saying to the audience that they need to look beyond their stereotypes, which is one of the main reasons we look back now and describe Shakespeare as an incredibly humane writer.

CT: That seems like an example of preaching from within his work.  Can you think of any other instances in his works where Shakespeare is preaching a particular understanding of Christianity or a particular Christian virtue?

AS: Yes, I mean in terms of that speech I just quoted that would have been seen as quite a humanist and secular understanding of common humanity, and may have actually been intended as shaming Christians, although I think it's more a comment on Christian individuals, rather than Christianity itself.

In that respect it's similar to what I said before about how Shakespeare rarely asks us to judge entire religions through people's actions, but rather asks us to consider whether people are good or bad representatives of what they stand for.

In fact that speech could be a very pro-Christianity message, supportive of the religion while criticising the actions of individual Christians for failing to stand up to what their religion tells them to do, and how it calls them to treat people.

In terms of other examples, there are lots of parts of Shakespeare where you can take it out of context and treat it as a kind of moral aphorism. Given the way that people loved aphorisms of the time, that's very likely intentional on Shakespeare's part. Aphorisms were like the sound bites of Shakespeare's time.

In terms of the dramas it gets harder to pin down. If something's being voiced by a character there's all sorts of questions you have to ask about that. Why might the character be saying that now? What is their motivation behind that? Is what they say borne out in their behaviour?

I think that it's easier for that reason to think in terms of Christian behaviour being something that people do, rather than what they say. One example might be the character of Paulina in The Winter's tale.

To give a brief overview of the plot, there's a jealous king, Leontes, who believes his chaste wife Hermione is guilty of adultery. It is thought that she dies of shame, but actually she is concealed and hidden away by her waiting woman, Paulina, for 16 years. When she's brought back it's seen as a kind of miracle.

It has been read, as a lot of Shakespeare's later plays are, as exhibiting the overarching wonder of forgiveness. For that reason it's seen as a very Christian play.

Paulina masterminds the fact that she's hidden and brings back Hermione in this wondrous way. It's been noted that as she shares the name of the Apostle Paul, she is being symbolised as a disseminator of Christian values.

It's not a play that's set in an obviously Christian context, it's actually set in a kind of pagan world, but it certainly deploys the Christian value of forgiveness in a very moving way.

Dr Alison Shell runs the UCL English Department's MA in English author of Arden Shakespeare's critical companion "Shakespeare and Religion".