The Renaissance is widely thought of as the time when the modern, secular individual was born, with humanist writers like Thomas More and Michel de Montaigne exhibiting a newly critical attitude to religious doctrine. Shakespeare’s work is often understood in this context — his characters exist in a modernising world of business, exploration and exchange. Yet things weren’t quite so clean cut. In Mortal Thoughts, a new book on Shakespeare and religion, York University’s Brian Cummings investigates what he calls “the condition of soliloquy”. And he discovers that Shakespeare’s agonised individuals are in fact deeply rooted in Christian culture.
Even Hamlet’s famous “to be or not to be” soliloquy (now being spoken by Benedict Cumberbatch to sell-out audiences in London) finds a precursor in none other than Saint Augustine, whose language was written through with the very doubt and uncertainty that are often conceived as the bedfellows of secularism. In his 4th century De Libero Arbitrio (On Free Will), Augustine wrote that “It is not because I would rather be unhappy than not be at all that I am unwilling to die, but for fear that after death I may be still more unhappy” — spookily prescient of Hamlet and his “bare bodkin”.
Meanwhile, Hannibal Hamlin’s new study The Bible in Shakespeare shows how central the Bible would have been to Shakespeare’s upbringing and his grammar school education, both in oral and written form. Tracing its echoes, he shows that the word “frailty”, used by Hamlet in the same speech, has specific linguistic connections with the idea of the Biblical “fall of man”. He goes on to demonstrate how the garden imagery in Romeo and Juliet connects closely with the root of the word “paradise”, which comes from the Persian word for “walled garden” — radiating the Eden-inspired balance of bliss and danger experienced by the two star-crossed lovers. In spite of that play’s cynical presentation of the scheming Friar Lawrence, Hamlin shows how Christian themes run through its text like scattered fragments of the true cross.
Throwing his own hat into the ring, veteran Yale scholar David Scott Kastan argues in A Will to Believe that we should be careful about making assumptions, playing down the importance of Christian motifs in plays like Measure for Measure,Hamlet and King John. Even if the plays are full of religious themes, Kastan declares that “The religion of the plays can confidently be said to belong only to the fictional worlds rather than their creator.” Not that Gerard Kilroy in the Times Literary Supplement is convinced: he points out that the complicated, two-hour long Sunday sermons held outside St Paul’s Cathedral in Shakespeare’s day would regularly draw 8,000 listeners. “If we cannot know what Shakespeare believed”, declares Kilroy, “we do not have to fashion a poet who would fit neatly into a Manhattan dinner party.”
Brian Cummings’s Mortal Thoughts: Religion, secularity and identity in Shakespeare and early modern culture, Hannibal Hamlin’s The Bible in Shakespeare and David Scott Kastan’s A Will to Believe are all published by Oxford University Press. They were reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement by Gerard Kilroy on July 24th.