Shakespeare as a Christian Writer

Article by   June 2009

The myth of the secular Shakespeare continues to cast a long shadow over most people's perception of Shakespeare's plays.  Until I inherited the Shakespeare course in my department halfway through my career, I assumed that despite certain Christian patterns and occasional biblical allusions in the tragedies, Shakespeare's plays were broadly humanistic in their intellectual allegiance.  Nothing has been a bigger surprise in my scholarly career than my gradually coming to regard Shakespeare as a Christian writer.
 I need to clarify what I am not claiming.  I make no claim to know Shakespeare's state of soul in life and death.  Consequently, I need to ask my readers steadfastly to resist thinking that I am commenting on Shakespeare's personal spiritual standing vis-à-vis the Christian faith.

The external facts regarding Shakespeare's religious life are known.  Shakespeare was baptized and raised in Holy Trinity Church, the Anglican church in Stratford-upon-Avon.  The curriculum and daily routine at the local grammar school were saturated with Christian elements.  Church attendance during Shakespeare's day was compulsory, and the people who attended Shakespeare's plays were quite simply parishioners.  During Shakespeare's years as a playwright and actor in London, he is known to have attended various services in Anglican churches, and for several years he rented a room in the home of a devout Huguenot family on Sliver Street, London.  When Shakespeare retired to Stratford, he became a lay rector (also called lay reader) in the local Anglican church.  He was buried in the front of Holy Trinity Church near the altar at a time when most people were buried in the surrounding churchyard. 

The foregoing data is a tiny part of a larger picture of Shakespeare's cultural milieu.  It is indisputable that Shakespeare lived in a society that was thoroughly Christian in its worldview and daily practices.  Whether this was genuine or nominal makes no difference to my subject, which is the presence of Christianity in Shakespeare's plays.  It is entirely plausible that our knowledge of Shakespeare's cultural context would lead us to be on the lookout for Christian elements in his plays, and at the very least we should not suppress the Christian elements when we see them.

What Counts as Evidence?
While Shakespeare's world thus inclines us to expect certain things, what nonetheless matters is what Shakespeare actually put into his plays.  If we ask what counts as evidence in weighing the Christian allegiance of the plays, the answer is that what counts as evidence of Shakespeare's intellectual and religious viewpoint is the same as with any other author.  I propose that the following is a reliable grid for identifying points at which Shakespeare's plays intersect with the Christian faith:  (1) explicit allusions to the Bible or Christian documents like the Book of Common Prayer or church life; (2) congruence of ideas in a play with Christian doctrines; (3) correspondence of the view of reality embodied in the plays with the biblical view of reality; (4) portrayal of Christian experiences (e.g., forgiveness, repentance, guilt pursuant to sin) in the plays; (5) the presence of Christian archetypes and symbols (such as the saint, the sinner, and the penitent).

Because the Christian references in the major tragedies leap out from the page, I have chosen the less familiar path of exploring a romantic comedy.  I remember asking the secretary in my own department (formerly one of my students) to proofread a handout that I had composed on the congruences between Shakespeare's comedies and the Christian faith.  She blurted out, "I don't see that the comedies have anything to do with the Christian faith."  At an earlier phase of my understanding, I would have shared that sentiment, but the more I have delved into the plays, the more Christian even the comedies have seemed.

Biblical and Christian Allusions
As You Like It will serve as well as any other of the romantic comedies. This is the play in which a dazzling heroine named Rosalind and a dashing hero named Orlando find themselves exiled from court to the Forest of Arden (a bit of local color, evoking the manor farm a few miles from Stratford where Shakespeare's mother Mary Arden was raised).  Half of the play is devoted to evoking the green world, and half of it to complications in romantic love.  It turns out that this never-never land of the fantastic imagination is in some ways a slice of life in the real-life Warwickshire of Shakespeare's day, including references to ordinary church life.

In the opening scene of the play, the innocent younger brother protests his mistreatment by a villainous older brother with the statement, "Shall I keep your hogs and eat husks with them?  What prodigal portion have I spent that I should come to such penury?"  It doesn't take the proverbial rocket scientist to see that the biblical parable of the prodigal son is part of the "active vocabulary" of the characters in the play.

At the beginning of act 2 we are whisked away to the Forest of Arden, where a banished duke utters one of Shakespeare's memorable "set speeches" on the subject of how wonderful life in the green world is.  "Here feel we not the penalty of Adam," the duke says with naïve optimism.  "The penalty of Adam":  this is an obvious allusion to the story of the Fall in Genesis 3 and the doctrine of a cursed world based on it.  Shakespeare's plays are Christian partly because they assume the same kind of that the Bible assumes, in this case the idea of a fallen world.

Meanwhile, back at the evil court, Orlando is forced to flee for his life.  An elderly servant in the family insists on going into exile with Orlando.  When Orlando tries to dissuade him, the servant replies, "He that doth the ravens feed, / Yea, providently caters for the sparrow, / Be comfort to my age."  This alludes to five Bible passages at once (Job 38:41; Matt. 10:29; Luke 12:6, 12:24; Psalm 147:9)!

The Christian references just keep coming as we proceed through the play.  A local shepherd in the Forest of Arden says regarding his churlish master that he "little recks to find the way to heaven."  Jacques, the affected melancholic in the play, says that the topic at hand "is plain as way to parish church."  The clever heroine Rosalind, who in disguise hoodwinks her beloved Orlando into wooing her under her pretense of being an instructor in the ways of courtship, says regarding a love poem that Orlando has composed that is a "tedious homily of love" with which Orlando has wearied his "parishioners."  We are obviously moving in a world of the imagination in which Christian doctrine and Anglican church life are simply taken for granted.

The "World" of the Play
Let me anticipate a skeptical response at this point:  "all that these references establish is that the world of the play is Christian it its frame of reference."  That is correct, but it is this way with any other work of literature.  Fiction writer Flannery O'Conner claimed that "it is from the kind of world the writer creates, from the kind of character and detail he invests it with, that a reader can find [note well] the intellectual meaning of a book." The world that Shakespeare creates in As You Like It is approximately the same as the religiously-saturated world of the farms around Pella, Iowa, on which I was raised.  While a writer can create a Christian world only to mock it, Shakespeare adopts a sympathetic stance to what he portrays in As You Like It.

But we are only halfway through the play at this point.  Rosalind's confidante in exile, Celia, says to Rosalind, "To say ay and no to these particulars is more than to answer in a catechism."  In an aborted marriage ceremony in the countryside, Touchstone says that he has enrolled the services of "Oliver Martext, the vicar of the next village."  "The vicar of the next village:"  that is the kind of "church talk" that one can hear in England to this day.  When the simpleton vicar arrives, Touchstone asks whether the marriage should occur "here under this tree, or shall we go with you to your chapel?"  And when Jacques stumbles onto the scene and calls a halt to the invalid marriage ceremony, he scolds Touchstone with the comment, "Get you to church, and have a good priest that can tell you what marriage is."

When we switch back to the evolving courtship of Rosalind and Orlando, we witness a mock wedding between the engaging central couple of the play.  Celia serves the role of marrying priest, and the language comes straight from the marriage ceremony in the Book of Common Prayer:  "Will you, Orlando, have to wife this Rosalind?"  "I take thee, Rosalind, for my wife."

Forceful and Evocative Language in a Christian Vein
But the best remains.  At the marriage ceremony that climaxes the play-a ceremony where no fewer than four couples get married-the classical god of marriage Hyman descends and utters these solemn words:  "Then is there mirth in heaven / when earthly things made even / Atone together."  There are so many references here that it is hard to know where to begin.

I will start with the controlling motif of the benediction that Hymen pronounces:  "Then is there mirth in heaven."  We would say "joy in heaven."  This is an allusion to Jesus' statement in the parable of the good shepherd (Luke 15:1-7) that when a single sinner repents there is "joy in heaven."  Literary critic Helen Gardner comments on how Hymen "speaks more solemnly than we expect, and his opening words with their New Testament echo are more than conventional."  More than conventional:  scholars who are attuned to the Christian element in Shakespeare's plays correctly observe that there is sometimes a gratuitous element in Shakespeare's Christian allusions, meaning that Shakespeare incorporates Christian references beyond what seem to be strictly required by the context.

Back to the key speech:  Hymen describes the marriage of the couples as an occasion when things are "made even" and "atone together."  The word atone is a theologically loaded term.  Shakespeare could have chosen another word for the meaning, which is "are at one", or "accord," or "agree." And what does it mean that things are "made even?"  Suggested meanings include "set straight," "made equal," and "smoothed out."  On the latter reading, Isaiah 40:3-4 springs to mind:  "The uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places plain."

Let's pause to take stock.  A few allusions and references to a common source probably signal nothing about the intellectual allegiance of an author. After all, authors allude to many sources in which they place no belief.  But when an author gives us a whole network of references of the type I have traced, he expects us to connect the dots and see a coherent picture.  What about the classical allusions in Shakespeare's plays?  I would say two things:  (1) classical mythology was not a live religious system in Shakespeare's day, whereas Christianity was both live and dominant; (2) I would not totally discount the classical allusions as telling us something, namely, that Shakespeare's worldview was classical and humanistic as well as Christian.

Ideational Patterns and Archetypes
Thus far I have traced what we might call objective data-the Christian and biblical allusions that Shakespeare put into the play and that are incontrovertibly present.  But a lot more can be done if we move in a more interpretive direction.  For example, in my Shakespeare course I end the unit of Shakespearean comedy with a lecture on congruences between the Christian faith and literary comedy as a form.  I make no claim that Shakespeare was aware of these congruences, but simply note that Christianity and literary comedy share important affirmations-of the earthly and commonplace, human nature, external nature, a spirit of grace and reconciliation, community, and (never more needed as a corrective than today) romantic love and marriage.

In my earlier grid I included the idea of Christian archetypes and symbols.  We can note this element in As You Like It, too.  The Forest of Arden:  what are the first words that pop into our minds when we hear the word Arden?  "Garden" and "Eden."  The archetypal green world in this play can be traced back to the Garden of Eden, an association reinforced when the fourth word in the play is Adam, evoking associations of Adam as the original, prototypical innocent.  A minute later we reenact the archetype of Cain and Abel as an older brother grabs a younger brother by the throat.  I will note in passing that Shakespeare makes so many references to Genesis 1-3 in his plays that multiple critics make comments to the effect that Shakespeare must have known these chapters by heart.

When Orlando forgives and saves the life of the brother who had tried to murder him, he becomes the model Christian who follows Christ's rules about forgiveness.  When Duke Frederick, who had usurped the throne and forced his brother into exile, enters the green world, he becomes the archetypal convert:  "to the skirts of this wild wood he came, / Where, meeting with an old religious man, / After some question with him, was converted / Both from his enterprise and from the world."

At many points I tell my students that the Christian vision that I experience as I assimilate Shakespeare's plays is partly a comment on how I as a Christian reader/viewer assimilate the material.  This type of reader-response criticism is true of every reader, regardless of the author.  If Shakespeare portrays the duke in generalized terms as a religious convert, that awakens my specifically Christian understanding of the archetype.  At such a moment, for me Shakespeare has become a Christian writer.

Final Word
I hope that what I have written has raised a few eyebrows.  In contemporary culture at large, and in the Christian community as well, there is an unthinking acceptance of the stereotype of Shakespeare as either indifferent to the Christian faith or hostile to it.  It is a great lie.

To speak the truth, my own eyebrows are raised as I end this article.  I began the project thinking that As You Like It would be a small piece of the total pie.  What has happened instead is that a play that would seem an unlikely candidate with which to illustrate Shakespeare's Christian vision has constituted the entire article.  As the doctor says in the sleepwalking scene in Macbeth, "Well, well, well."

Leland Ryken (Ph.D., University of Oregon) is Professor of English at Wheaton College. He has authored or edited several books, including The Word of God in English, The Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, and The Complete Literary Guide to the Bible. He is a frequent speaker at the Evangelical Theological Society and served as literary stylist for The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.

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