How did Shakespeare worship? – that is the question. History may tell us that the great playwright was a practicing Protestant like others of his time, but a closer look into his texts will show that perhaps Shakespeare struggled with his own religious ideologies. He was born in a time shortly following the Protestant Reformation and saw firsthand the undying tension between Protestants and English Catholics. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word reformation as “[the] restoration of a particular condition or state of affairs, esp. the re-establishment of peace” (“reformation” n.1.), though ironically, the Reformation caused more trouble than it fixed. Shakespeare’s plays not only reflect the battle between Catholics and Protestants in his lifetime, but also the internal battle he seemed to face between which religion he believed to be the best practice.
Throughout 16th century Europe, much was done to reform the Reform Catholic Church, particularly the Reformation lead by Martin Luther. Protestantism was born, denouncing, among other things, the Pope’s power and the Church’s merit of saints. During this time, many Protestants destroyed Catholic statues of the Virgin Mary due to the belief that idols should not be worshipped. Some stories say that during these raids, the statues of Mary would come to life to protect themselves. Certainly Shakespeare was aware of these tales, for several of his female characters have “come back to life”; such as the shocking moment in The Winter’s Tale when the statue is given the stage direction: Hermione comes down (5.3.3416). Constance Jordan discusses Hermione’s state as a statue, explaining that Leontes was disappointed by her appearance, showing that she may just be an object for contemplation (143). She does not please him aesthetically as a statue, showing that Shakespeare is toying with the idea that idols should not, in fact, be worshipped, for they are not what they seem to be. The statuesque theme is found in other works, as well – Imogen’s statuesque body in bed and Juliet waking from her deathlike state – and this theme does not seem to be a mistake: it is obvious that Shakespeare was drawing from real life societal issues.
So the question remains: what religion was Shakespeare? Having just missed the Reformation, it is safe to assume Shakespeare was taught and observed Protestantism, but was still very familiar with the Catholic practices his parents would have known. Though Shakespeare was born quite some time after Martin Luther nailed the Ninety-Five Theses to a church door, tensions remained between the two religions in his lifetime.
On November 5th, 1605, a group of English Catholics plotted but failed to assassinate King James and blow up the House of Lords. The plot was to end what the group felt was persecution against Catholics following the Protestant Reformation. The energy and drive of the Gunpowder Plot depended on what Mark Nicholls calls an ‘us against the world’ mentality, defensive, reactionary, at odds not only with the Protestant establishment but also with the sustaining powerhouse of English Catholicism (798). The botched plot lead to more distrust of English Catholics, and failed to mend any animosity between them and the Protestants. Instead, following the Gunpowder Plot, Protestant England stood on watch for Catholic uprisings (Nicholls 794). Thus, Protestant remained the dominant religion in Elizabethan England.
With the switch to Protestantism came a small switch in religious language, as well. Church services were now spoken in English in contrast to the Catholic’s Latin Mass. The idea that English services made religion more accessible is just a façade. The translation of the Bible opened the door for much religious misreading; instead of hearing one man’s interpretation each week, the entire congregation could now read the Bible and could decide how to digest each passage. Leaving the Bible open for interpretation resulted in more tension and disagreement among churchgoers.
Misreading is a theme that is prevalent throughout much of Shakespeare’s work, clearly mirroring this newly Protestant (and anti-Catholic) society. The inability to clearly read a situation is almost always the driving force of the Shakespeare’s plots; it’s the humor in comedies, but it’s also what causes his tragedies. It seems that this misreading is an indication that many of his characters lack clarity.
The real driving force of Hamlet is his inability to understand and follow his dead father’s wishes. King Hamlet warns his son about straying from his purpose:
Do not forget. This visitation
Is but to whet thy almost blunted purpose (3.4.2508)
Yet Hamlet does forget what his father had asked. His goal is to seek revenge on Claudius, but Hamlet cannot seem to actually follow this request. In Twelfth Night, for instance, the people of Illyria (the Duke and Olivia especially) misread Viola as being the opposite sex: a man named Cesario. As Sebastian exclaims to Viola at the end of the play: So comes it, lady, you have been mistook (5.1.2460). Essentially, Shakespeare is showing that if one is not careful, it is easy to misunderstand any situation, just like it is very easy to misunderstand religion.
Shakespeare seemed to be no stranger to religion in general, as there are countless Christian symbols in his work. In King Lear, the title character’s psychosis is represented by the mess of weeds worn upon his head to signify his suffering; and it cannot go unnoticed that the crown of weeds Lear bears is a strikingly similar image to the Crown of Thorns Jesus wore leading up to his crucifixion. Lear’s initial test of his daughters’ loyalty at the beginning of the play seems to mirror the Book of Job, in which God tests Job’s faithfulness to him.
Though he probably grew up Protestant, Shakespeare was obviously familiar with many Catholic values, and he critiques these beliefs in his work. In Measure for Measure, the Duke disguises himself as a Friar and hears confession from the people of Vienna. The Duke has no actual right to listen to confession, but he takes advantage of this position and Catholic’s trust by (somewhat ironically) disguising himself as someone who – in theory – is pure and holy. Similarly, Isabella – possibly the holiest and purest character in the story – postpones her commitment to God and becoming a nun at the beginning of the play. It seems that Shakespeare is making a statement about Catholics: perhaps religion does not come first in their lives, and that their actions are rather hypocritical. Catholicism becomes more complicated in Shakespeare’s plays, suggesting that perhaps he struggled with understanding his own religious beliefs.
The Catholic narrative is perhaps the strongest in Hamlet. Throughout the story Hamlet encounters his father’s ghost, suggesting King Hamlet is caught between life and death, in a place Catholic’s believe to be Purgatory. Protestantism rejects the theory of Purgatory, yet it seems to be the answer to King Hamlet’s state of being. Mark Nicholls states:
The individual chapters concentrate on particular Catholic elements in the plays: Shakespeare’s treatment of the sacrament of penance in several dramas […] the discourse of purgatory and of Catholic resistance theory in Hamlet” (1038).
Hamlet contemplates death with a Catholic mentality, as well. He studies Yorick’s skull as he considers mortality, and the imminent end all humans must face. Hamlet is unsure of what will happen once he is dead; his lack of understanding of the afterlife is perhaps stated most accurately in his famous soliloquy:
To be, or not to be – that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them. To die- to sleep-
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to. ‘Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die- to sleep.
To sleep- perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub!
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause (3.1.1749).
Hamlet is truly questioning life after death here, not knowing “what dreams may come” in death. These dreams could be referring to Heaven, Hell, or Purgatory; and his lack of confidence in what happens after death is indication that fate is decided on Earth, and not predestination as many Protestants believe. The back and forth ideas in Shakespeare’s work shows his uncertainty about divinity; having been born after a major shift in English religion, Shakespeare may not have known which path to follow himself.
Constance Jordan. “The Winter’s Tale.” Shakespeare’s Monarchies: Ruler and Subject in the Romances.
Arthur F. Marotti. “Review: Catholic Theology in Shakespeare’s Plays.” Renaissance Quarterly.
Mark Nicholls,”Strategy and Motivation in the Gunpowder Plot.” The Historical Journal.
“reformation, n.1.” OED Online. Oxford University Press.