Was Shakespeare an Atheist?
by Gary Sloan (e-mail: GSloan@liberator.net) [December 1st, 2000]
Robert Ingersoll thought so. In a popular lecture, the nineteenth-century freethinker extolled a great infidel, "the sublimest man of the human race," who deemed all religions "simple phases of human thought, or the lack of thought." In 1783, Joseph Ritson had broached a similar view. In Remarks on the Last Edition of Shakespeare, Ritson said the poet was unshackled by "the reigning superstitions of the time, addicted to no system of bigotry [whether] Popish or Protestant, Paganism or Christianity." More recently, Walter Kaufmann descried a self-sufficient Nietzschean übermensch (superman) "abandoned to a life that ends in death, with nothing after that" (From Shakespeare to Existentialism).
Traditionally, most Shakespeareans have assumed the poet was a Christian. They note that he went to church all his life and his plays have a hefty inventory of Christian paraphernalia, including allusions to church homilies, the catechism, and forty or so books of the Bible. While some suspect him of papist sympathies, most, I think, would accede to the summation of A. L. Rowse: "He was a conforming member of the [Anglican] Church into which he had been baptized, in which he was brought up and married, his children reared and in whose arms he was buried at the last" (Shakespeare the Man).
Anti-theistians (so to say) needn't be daunted by the assessment. The Bard cannot be Christianized by fiat. Yes, he went to church. But it doesn't follow that he believed what he heard. An agile, ranging intelligence like his, conversant with pagan mythology and thought, isn't easily duped; it sifts and weighs every proposition. In Shakespeare's England, one attended the established church or risked a stiff fine--or worse. Truants might be forced to restrict their movement or to abjure the realm. They were liable to the charge of treason, a capital crime in the etymological sense. Heads of the executed were hung on London Bridge.
If Shakespeare harbored impious thoughts, he would be circumspect in the way he expressed them. William Camden, an English historian who died a few years after Shakespeare, observed of his contemporaries: "Wise men do keep their thoughts locked up within the closets of their breasts." Anything written for public consumption was vulnerable to official scrutiny. Breaches of censorship could lead to draconian reprisals: imprisonment, branding, mutilation, death. To escape notice, scofflaws had to be consummate artificers of indirection. Shakespeare had many talents--an "absolute Johannes Factotum," said fellow playwright Robert Greene--but martyrdom wasn't one of them.
The heavy Christian cargo in the plays doesn't attest Shakespeare's orthodoxy. It may simply denote dramatic verisimilitude, the mirror held to nature. Since many plays have Christian settings, Christian characters predominate. We needn't wonder that they sometimes sound like Christians, alluding familiarly to Christian lore: "If men were saved by merit, what hole in hell would be hot enough for him?" (Henry IV, Part I). "Except they meant to bathe in reeking wounds / Or memorize another Golgotha, / I cannot tell" (MacBeth). "There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow" (Hamlet). "They have been grand-jurymen since before Noah was a sailor" (Twelfth Night). "By penitence th' Eternal's wrath's appeased" (Two Gentlemen of Verona). Read through aloud three times a year in church, the Bible gave the playwright a handy trove of stories, figures, images, and phrases familiar to his audience. It eased communication as well as characterization.
“The Bard cannot be Christianized by fiat. Yes, he went to church. But it doesn't follow that he believed what he heard. An agile, ranging intelligence like his, conversant with pagan mythology and thought, isn't easily duped; it sifts and weighs every proposition.”
To Christianize the poet, some dilate the meaning of Christian. Anyone who practices the gentler virtues qualifies. Whenever characters, pagans included, display compassion, forbearance, or forgiveness, their conduct is adduced as evidence of Christian values in their creator. Using similar logic, one might conclude Shakespeare was a Rabelaisian libertine. Many characters display a relish for riotous carouse, raunchy innuendo, and locker-room lewdness. In his preface to Shakespeare's plays, Samuel Johnson complained that "the jests are commonly gross and the pleasantry licentious; neither his gentlemen nor his ladies have much delicacy." In Shakespeare's Bawdy, a reference book by Eric Partridge, the glossary of risqué terms runs to nearly two-hundred pages. One of the anti-Stratfordians, who fancy some nobleman wrote the plays, opined that the commoner Shakespeare did the vulgar passages.
We can never safely assume any character replicates Shakespeare's own values or philosophy. Unless a revelatory personal testament is unearthed, motley surmise must remain the only wear. Objectivity may be as evanescent as Prospero's cloud-capped towers. "We find in Shakespeare," says Gary Taylor, "what we bring to him or what others have left behind; he gives us back our own values" (Reinventing Shakespeare). Having the values of an Atheist, whatever those may be, I find a closet apostate who left a trail of clues to his infidelity. Some, I grant, are best viewed through a magnifying glass. In each case, the examples could be multiplied manyfold.
Though church sermons routinely propounded the efficacy of prayers, in Shakespeare they are often a prelude to disaster. In Lear Kent thanks Gloucester for a good turn: "The gods reward your kindness!" Shortly thereafter, Cornwall plucks out Gloucester's eyes. Having learned Edmund has commissioned Cordelia's death, Albany cries out: "The gods defend her!" Enter Lear, his daughter's dead body in his arms. Hoping his amputated hand will ransom his two sons from execution, Titus Andronicus lifts his remaining hand heavenward in supplication: "If any power pities wretched tears, / To that I call!" Thereupon, a courier enters bearing his sons' decapitated heads. In MacBeth, having warned Lady MacDuff to flee, a messenger blesses her: "Heaven preserve you!" Moments later, she and her babes are in one fell swoop slaughtered. These ominous invocations vivify a comment by Mistress Quickly in The Merry Wives of Windsor: "His worst fault is that he is given to prayer."
Gibes at Christians abound. Lancelot twits Lorenzo for turning his wife Jessica, a Jew, into a pork-eating Christian: "We were Christians enough before, even as many as could well live one by another. This making of Christians will raise the price of hogs" (Merchant of Venice). "Now, as I am a Christian, I shall break that merry sconce of yours" (Comedy of Errors). "Methinks sometimes I have no more wit than a Christian or an ordinary man has" (Twelfth Night).
Three Mr. Malaprops wield lethal tongues. Constable Elbow adjudges Froth, a whoremonger, "void of all profanation in the world that good Christians ought to have" (Measure for Measure). Dogberry insists the villainous Don John be "condemned to everlasting redemption" (Much Ado About Nothing). Consenting to marry a wench he doesn't love, Slender reasons, "If there be no great love in the beginning, yet heaven may decrease it upon better acquaintance" (Merry Wives). A Mr. Synesthesia, Bottom, tomahawks Scripture: "The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man's hand is not able to taste," etc. (Midsummer Night's Dream).
Little escapes the broad swath of the Shakespearean pun, which, the saturnine Johnson alleged, had a "malignant power" over the poet. "Judas," we learn from Love's Labor's Lost, is a compound of "Jude" and "ass." In The Taming of the Shrew Grumio demands silence by "Cock's passion." The mad Ophelia declares, "Young men will do it, if they come to it; By cock, they are to blame." "Cock" can mean god (Christ) or penis.
Shakespeare was a master of the double entendre. Some were transparent to the audience, if not to the characters. "The duke yet lives that Henry will depose" is an oft-cited example (Henry VI, Part 2). Will Henry depose or be deposed? (The latter, it turns out). Unknowingly, Othello names the instigator of a brawl (Iago) even as he seeks his identity: "'Tis monstrous. Iago, who began it?" With stealthy juggling of diction and syntax, the Bard could slip sacrilege past the censor and, no doubt, many others, for whom he was, like Dogberry, too cunning to be understood:
“'Methinks sometimes I have no more wit than a Christian or an ordinary man has' (Twelfth Night).” Timon: Wilt dine with me, Apemantus?Does the poet mock a theophagous Eucharist and a deicidal religion? After a long roll call of dead soldiers, Henry V, praising god for victory, unwittingly arraigns a cosmic butcher: "O God, thy arm was here! / And not to us, but to thy arm alone, / Ascribe we all." Does Hamlet call god a beast and a jig maker: "O God, a beast, that wants discourse of reason, / Would have mourned longer"?
Apemantus: No. I eat not lords (i.e., won't eat your food).Ophelia: You are merry, my lord?Does the innocent Miranda diabolize the divine: "O the heavens! / What foul play had we, that we came from thence?" (Tempest). Does Banquo refer to more than a dark night: "There's husbandry in heaven; / Their candles are all out" (MacBeth)? Is god fake: "O God, counterfeit?" (Much Ado). Is heaven the abode of the dead: "The young gentleman is indeed deceased, or, as you would say in plain terms, gone to heaven" (Merchant)? With his dying breath, does Hamlet repudiate immortality: "The rest is silence"? Does Dogberry demote deity: "Well, God's a good man"? Does the bibulous Stephano rally freethinkers?
Hamlet: Who, I?
Ophelia: Ay, my lord.
Hamlet: O God, your only jig maker.Flout'em and scout'em
And scout'em and flout'em
Thought is free. (Twelfth Night)
Shakespeare's most pious king, Henry VI, is also his most ineffectual. His speech is vapid, hackneyed, and wooden, as if he anesthetized the poet's muse: "Would I were dead, if God's good will were so! / For what is in this world but grief and woe?" "Good fellow, tell us here the circumstance, / That we for thee may glorify the Lord." Henry's impious successor, the villainous Richard III, is vigorous, shrewd, and persuasive, his language piquant and supple: "Grim-visaged War hath smoothed his wrinkled front; / And now, instead of mounting barbed steeds / To fright the souls of fearful adversaries, / He capers nimbly in a lady's chamber / To the lascivious pleasing of a lute."
Johnson carped that Shakespeare was not "always careful to show a disapprobation of the wicked." The poet may have identified with his villains, most of whom, like Richard, are brazenly irreverent. Despite their enormities, the Bard endows them with intelligence, wit, energy, and self-knowledge and lavishes on them his best art. Iago and Edmund, along with Richard the most famous--or infamous, depending on your perspective--are dramatically vibrant and equipped with sardonic wit: "You shall mark / Many a duteous and knee-crooking knave / That, doting on his own obsequious bondage, / Wears out his time, much like his master's ass / For naught but provender, and when he's old, cashiered" (Othello). "Fut, I should have been that I am, had the maidenliest star in the firmament twinkled on my bastardizing." "Now, gods, stand up for bastards" (Lear). Aaron the Moor, the self-avowed Atheist in Titus Andronicus, is bold, resourceful, and lyrical: "Now climbeth Tamora Olympus' top / Safe out of fortune's shot, and sits aloft, / Secure of thunder's crack or lightning flash, / Advanced above pale envy's threatening reach."
Shakespeare's characters are psychologically welded to the sublunary world. With few exceptions, their theism is formulaic, intermittent, and social, a fashion and a toy in blood, not hearted. The heart they keep for terrestrial presences: carnal ambition, revenge, romance, love, hate, pleasure. Their words fly up, but their thoughts remain below. They invoke deities to avouch, to shield, and to execrate: "Away! By Jupiter, / This shall not be revoked" (Lear). "Angels and ministers of grace defend us!" (Hamlet). "By heaven, I'll hate him everlastingly / That bids me be of comfort anymore" (Richard II). Gods are celestial hit men and bellicose avengers: "Cancel his bond of life, dear God! I pray / That I may live and say 'The dog is dead'!" (Richard III). "Heaven guide him to thy husband's cudgel" (Merry Wives). "God for Harry! England and Saint George!" Unknown to Henry, god is a double agent. In the French camp, he uses the alias Dieu de batailles. On both sides, notes Pistol, "God's vassals drop and die" (Henry V). Gods are also indiscriminate sportsmen: "As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; / They kill us for their sport" (Lear).
“'Now, as I am a Christian, I shall break that merry sconce of yours' (Comedy of Errors).”
In war or peace, a robust Shakespearean naturalism keeps bursting the seams of other-worldliness. Quotations are easily assembled for a secularist manifesto: "Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie / Which we ascribe to heaven" (All's Well That Ends Well). "While we are suitors to their [the gods'] throne, decays / The thing we sue for" (Antony and Cleopatra). "Dally not with the gods, but get thee gone" (Tempest). "An admirable evasion of whoremaster man, to lay his goatish disposition on the charge of a star" (Lear). "Hell is empty, / And all the devils are here" (Tempest). "'Tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus" (Othello). The only certainty is that life flies:What is love? 'tis not hereafter;Like Omar Khayyám, Feste takes the cash and chucks the heavenly credit.
Present mirth hath present laughter;
What's to come is still unsure.
In delay there lies no plenty.
Then come kiss me, sweet and twenty;
Youth's a stuff will not endure. (Tempest).
A poignant sense of mutability haunts Shakespeare's sonnets, a sequence of 154 poems, widely held autobiographical. With the moot exception of number 146, they lack the otherworldly assurances and orthodox pieties in Christian poets like Edmund Spenser, John Donne, George Herbert, and John Milton. Rowse describes them as "altogether this-worldly and human, sensual and psychologically subtle" (Shakespeare's Sonnets). George Santayana, an Atheist, called them spiritual, but not Christian (qtd. in Rowse, Sonnets). The poet treats life and death as natural processes. The dead survive only in their offspring or in the memory of posterity. No supernatural agencies intervene, no Christian eschatology, no scheme of salvation. God is a no-show.
"The devil can cite Scripture," I hear theistians mutter. "You are massaging the evidence." Perhaps--but so do they. Speculation is all. How, for instance, would Shakespeare receive Donne's seventeenth-century harangue on Atheists? "Poor intricated soul! Riddling, perplexed, labyrinthical soul! Thou couldst not say that thou believest not in God if there were no God! Thou couldst not believe in God if there were no God! If there were no God, thou couldst not speak, thou couldst not think, not a word, not a thought, no, not against God! Thou couldst not blaspheme the name of God, thou couldst not swear if there were no God!" (Sermon 48, folio of 1640).
Shakespeare would, I suspect, think: "These are but wild and whirling words, paper bullets of a feverish brain."
When he read John Florio's translation of Montaigne's essays, to which he alludes in several plays, what did he make of the Frenchman's reiterated conviction that god transcends all thought: "God is an incomprehensible power, chief beginning, and preserver of all things, all goodness, all perfection, accepting in good part the honor and reverence which mortal men yield him, under what usage, name and manner soever it is."
I like to think the Bard drew the reasonable conclusion: If god is truly incomprehensible, nothing at all can be known about "him," even that he exists.
What was his take on the smorgasbord conceptions of god in antiquity: "a spirit dispersed through all nature" (Pythagoras), "our knowledge and intelligence" (Democritus), the world (Aristotle), law (Zeno), the stars (Theophrastus), time (Apolloniates), reason (Cleanthes), great men (Perseus), and many more? Maybe he mused: "Everything but a jig maker."
When the poet read, "Diagoras and Theodorus flatly denied that there were any gods," did he feel the shock of recognition?
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