How would one go about answering the question posed by my title? That depends on what the question means. Obviously, different definitions of the question would require different approaches to an answer.
Right off hand, I can think of at least three possible — though not necessarily mutually exclusive — meanings to the question. First in asking the question, “Was Shakespeare a Christian?” one could be asking, “Was Shakespeare a real Christian?” This could be phrased slightly differently: “Was Shakespeare sincerely Christian?” Or even, “Was Shakespeare born again?”
The problem is, of course, that however we phrase it, we cannot answer this question concerning Shakespeare. If Shakespeare had left us a diary, an abundance of letters, or personal writing that expressed his inner life, we might have been able to offer an opinion on the subject. If his wife, children, or close friends had written about his faith or his Christian life, we would have some sort of documentary evidence as a basis for judgment. But he left almost nothing in the way of personal communication and none of those who knew him have written about his faith. This is not, however, an odd fact. We have very little of this sort of documentation for most late 16th century people in Shakespeare’s station.
So, let us move to a second possible meaning. By the question, “Was Shakespeare a Christian?” one could be asking, “Did Shakespeare profess faith in Christ?” In a society that practiced infant baptism almost universally, what might constitute a “profession” on the part of William Shakespeare? Shakespeare himself was baptized and he had his children baptized in the Anglican church. That counts as something, I believe, but I doubt that it would be persuasive for many 21st century readers. Otherwise, the same lack of documentary evidence we referred to above remains. We have very little — one might say nothing — in the way of documents that directly communicate what Shakespeare personally believed.
There is, however, one document — a document that might be considered most important, since it concerns death. We have a will, written in Shakespeare’s own hand, in which he expresses his faith in Christ and the future resurrection:
“In the name of God, Amen. I, William Shackspeare of Stratford-upon-Avon in the county of Warwick, gent., in perfect health and memory, God be praised, do make and ordain this my last will and testament in manner and form following. That is to say, first, I commend my soul into the hands of God my Creator, hoping and assuredly believing, through the only merits of Jesus Christ my Saviour, to be made partaker of life everlasting, and my body to the earth whereof it is made.”
That may sound promising, but a sceptic could respond that Shakespeare was simply borrowing the conventional language of his day in constructing his will. Our sceptic might claim that the will contains nothing in the way of a true personal confession. What answer is there to this? None, really. Although I see no reason to doubt the genuineness of the faith expressed in the will, the language is “conventional” more than “personal.” It does not count as an undeniably clear profession of faith, especially in Shakespeare’s day when committing one’s soul to God to be saved would have been common. In Shakespeare’s plays, even characters like Iago and Falstaff talk about salvation.
A third possible meaning to our question might be, “Was Shakespeare a cultural Christian?” What do I mean by the expression “cultural Christian”? I use the expression to refer to someone who may or may not have personal faith, but who nevertheless shows that he or she presupposes the basic ideas of the Christian worldview: belief in the existence of the Creator, man’s sinfulness, final judgment, and salvation through Christ by grace, for example. In Shakespeare’s day, the default worldview of an Englishman would have been the Christian worldview — usually, though not necessarily, an Anglican version.
I believe the third approach to our question should be answerable. After all, we do have enough material written by Shakespeare to consider whether the worldview underlying the plays and poems is a Christian worldview. The problem in this case is an embarrassment of riches. There is such an abundance of material, and much of it so complex, that the work of interpretation may introduce more arguments than answers.
Consider, for example, the writings of a man who is perhaps the most famous Shakespearean scholar of our day, Harold Bloom. Bloom holds Shakespeare in such high regard that he considers him to be unrivalled: “He wrote the best poetry and the best prose in English, or perhaps in any Western language.” “No Western writer . . . is equal to Shakespeare as an intellect” (Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, xx, 1). Just as his evaluation of Shakespeare’s greatness is widely shared, so, too, perhaps, is his view of Shakespeare’s worldview: “Shakespeare intentionally evades (or even blurs) Christian categories throughout his work. . . . Did Shakespeare ‘believe in’ the resurrection of the body? We cannot know, but I find nothing in the plays or poems to suggest a consistent supernaturalism in their author, and more perhaps to intimate a pragmatic nihilism” (519). Bloom is persuaded, or at least inclined to believe, that Shakespeare’s plays and poems betray a worldview that is profoundly anti-Christian.
Contrary to Bloom — and perhaps most of modern and postmodern scholarship — I believe that there is an approach to Shakespeare’s plays that suggests he wrote as a Christian. I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of what I see to be his faith and I could even view his plays as a sort of indirect confession. But these are perhaps just my personal prejudices. What can be demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt, I believe, is that Shakespeare’s plays were forged and moulded by distinctly Christian beliefs. In the essays that follow this, I will argue that the worldview foundations for Shakespeare’s plays are exposed in his numerous and profound quotations from and allusions to the Bible and that at least in some cases these Biblical references illumine the very heart of the play.
I will argue that Shakespeare was not a pragmatic nihilist as Harold Bloom suggests, but a “cultural Christian.” This does not imply that he did not sincerely profess Christian faith. I am simply trying to answer the question, “Was Shakespeare a Christian?” in the clearest and most accessible form. To do that, I will introduce three books about Shakespeare and the Bible and then discuss Biblical allusions in Macbeth.
Rev. Ralph Smith is Pastor of Mitaka Evangelical Church, Tokyo, Japan.