What kind of God did Shakespeare believe in?
The playwright’s religion is as hard to pin down as the man himself, as this pithy, elegant and eminently sensible overview makes clear
A Will to Believe: Shakespeare and Religion.
David Scott Kastan
Kastan suggests that what probably disturbed the censor, William Sankey, most particularly was the disguise of the duke as a friar, “ministering to the community as if he were one”. Sankey could remove offending elements from other plays, such as the praise of Archbishop Cranmer in Henry VIII , but could not solve a problematic plot. Kastan draws the most sensible conclusion: if Shakespeare was a secret Catholic, why was a Jesuit who clearly admired Shakespeare unable to see it?
So what was Shakespeare’s religion? Kastan provides a review of the evidence that should be the first port of call for anyone interested in the subject. Of course, Shakespeare wrote mainly plays, works of literature that are particularly removed from being the personal testimony of the author. (Poetry is a better hunting ground.) Plays were communal works. Far more were jointly written than has often been realised; there is a great deal of evidence that particular parts were written for specific actors; companies staged distinctive types of plays tailored to their audience’s expectations; and Shakespeare, a shareholder in the Globe, was a company man.
We should expect to be able to read in the plays not religious belief but a discussion of issues relevant to audiences. The plays are saturated in biblical imagery, but this tells us very little beyond the central role of the Bible. (As Kastan points out, Archbishop Laud quotes from the Geneva Bible that he had banned, suggesting that we cannot even read anything into which Bible is cited.) When Richard II compares his sufferings to those of Christ it shows that he is a deluded man with a weak understanding of his own religious identity, not that Shakespeare thought that kings were gods.
And the old cliche is true: Shakespeare was an enigmatic and ambiguous writer. His works provide as little encouragement for those eager to see him as a committed Protestant as they do for those eager to seem him as a committed Catholic. For many 16th- and 17th-century readers King John was not simply the egregious “lackland” of Robin Hood legend but a brave proto-Protestant who stood up to the tyrannical demands of the pope. John Bale’s play, which Kastan generously claims is not as bad as its detractors claim, made this case, but Shakespeare’s does not, representing a weak, selfish and ineffective ruler who is, nevertheless, a victim of a papal conspiracy.
What of the evidence of personal belief, particularly the Borromeo testament found in Shakespeare’s father’s rafters? This document, in which John Shakespeare declares his adherence to the “Catholic, Roman, and Apostolic Church”, and acknowledges the divine role of the Virgin and prays for souls in Purgatory, is a real puzzle. It is not a straightforward forgery, as Victorians, certain of Shakespeare’s identity as a true English patriotic Protestant, believed. The document, now lost but recorded by the great Shakespeare scholar Edmund Malone in 1790, is largely an almost word-perfect reproduction of the spiritual testament drawn up by Cardinal Borromeo, archbishop of Milan and Counter-Reformation crusader.