Shakespeare frequently uses religious ideas to convey overt and subtle meaning, creating a complexity of possible readings that have richly engaged theater goers and readers for generations. Some readings can be construed to see significant elements that are sympathetic to Catholicism, despite many instances throughout Shakespeare’s wr iting career and personal life that appear solidly Protestant. It’s important to note this because if his writings are reflective of his personal religious views, then it’s highly probable that he was not the only one with this religious intersection of beliefs during his time. It’s worth bearing in mind that while having an artist temperament and creating work that he may have found personally enjoyable, he was a professional in the theater realm and as an astute observer of mankind, the English theater going audience in particular, and definitely would have been putting forth plays palatable to his audience. This would mean that despite the enormous effects of Protestantism in throwing off a long corrupt and overbearing religious institution, tradition and habits are an integral part of the human condition and are not easily swayed (at least on the inside) to the whims of government or popular action in foreign (although not necessarily far off) lands. In this paper, we’ll examine Catholic elements found in Hamlet, the resurrection arc in The Winter’s Tale, and how secular values were highlighted by religious themes in the same context.
Shakespeare espouses views and ideas supporting Catholic ideology with the ghost of Hamlet’s father, having Hamlet put off the murder of Claudius in middle of prayer, and the gravediggers’ discussion of Ophelia’s death. The Hamlet play provides significant instances in the way religious beliefs shapes character motivations and giving the audience a wide field of intersecting and variant viewpoints. While Shakespeare does stick closely to historical accounts, notably with substantial outsourcing from Plutarch for Antony and Cleopatra, it’s interesting that he chooses to allude to purgatory for the King’s soul and use it as the main reason for not following through with the initial murder attempt. It’s a strange choice when even alluding to support of Catholic ideology, and therefore the Catholic Church, might have easily aroused suspicions, and where accusations quickly turned executions took place frequently. One reading of this can be that using the idea of purgatory may have been playing it a little on the nose in terms of weaving Catholic ideology into a play, it was acceptable to the audience since many would have grown up familiar with idea of purgatory due to older family members who lived prior to the change of state sanctioned religion. Shakespeare, knowing the likelihood of the audience’s familiarity with purgatory, and what can be assumed English society at large, briefly but impactfully does this to tug at the viewer/reader’s heartstrings and amplify the experience of suspense in the audience as they continue to observe how the tragedy will ultimately end. Even if the Protestant/Anglican viewers didn’t realize the the allusion to purgatory, the imprint is implicitly made on the psyche when they turn over the concept of there being a passage to heaven and what it would mean for the King’s soul, as opposed to a direct entrance into heaven upon death.
We run into a similar exploration of death with Ophelia. The means of her death gives the clowns, the doctor, and audience a lot to speculate about. Whichever stance is taken within the dichotomy inherent in the division of Christianity in England pertaining to suicide and death is decisive of the what can be gleaned from an interpretation for this play. While suicide is considered abhorrent in both traditions, and the repulsiveness of such a final act during this time period isn’t lost on the viewer regardless of whether they were Catholic, Anglican, or Protestant.
Shakespeare’s use of Hamlet’s father a ghost throughout the play is deliberate in creating multifaceted meanings and an apprehension in the audience. The vacillation between believing the ghost actually being the spirit of Hamlet’s father and believing that the apparition is some other worldly being meant to wrought harm leaves the audience torn between whether Hamlet is wholly mad or if he is in fact facing a harsh epiphany that his father’s death was brought about by franticide. Taking these Catholic ideas from Hamlet and bearing in mind the various characters that appear throughout Shakespeare’s plays, Allison Shell in Shakespeare and Religion on page 82 best surmised how Catholicism is portrayed Shakespeare’s choice genre: “Though all these characterizations betray an intense awareness of the very differing Catholic matter can be read, they are also generic to the kinds of story being dramaticized; it would be hard to carry them beyond their dramatic occasion, or to see them in aggregate as presenting a coherent view of the Catholic church” (Shell, 82). Ideology, no matter how much it’s legally enforced, is fluid, and societies thought of strictly as one things are often more pluralistic in origin than may be realized.
Shakespeare doesn’t shy away from the Christ resurrection. The Winter’s Tale is structured around Hermione’s Christ-like figure, shouldering the charges of adultery and treason, of which she is entirely blameless, and serving a literal death sentence. Her and the play’s arc is finalized in the happy ending that the comedic genre requires by rising from the dead to walk among the living once more. While Shakespeare is not unique in making resurrection analogies, it still is certainly is a bold move given his historical context, and highlights important ideas that taken into conjunction with religious themes, symbols, and imagery he employs, makes for a multi layered, complex addition to the commentary of the human condition. Shakespeare doesn’t hold back when unleashing upsetting and heart wrenching moments in his tragedies, but he shows his optimism for humankind when he depicts Hermione, someone who might be guilty of the small transgression for being overly friendly, is done an injustice when irrationality and runaway emotion take hold of Leontes. Shakespeare champions the return to reason and understanding, and upholds that while humans are capable of great evil, it is possible for the wicked to be redeemed and autonomy returned to the oppressed.
While these ideas are decidedly non-religious, the way they affect the audience when taking care to keep the contextualization of religious themes from Shakespeare's plays makes these ideas bolder. Shakespeare explores ideas with an incredibly progressive lens for his age, subverting traditional norms reinforced by society’s religious molding dictated from higher ups and bringing values back to their basics when promoting the egalitarianism espoused by the Protestant movement. (think being able to choose your own spouse and marry for romantic love independently from and possibly in spite of your family like in Romeo and Juliet).
The variance and proliferation of religious ideas, symbols, imagery, and themes taken together produce a multitude of readings that bring their own unique impacts on individuals and societies that have encountered these plays throughout time. Shakespeare is able to capture many nuanced perspectives and work them in deftly and skillfully, while tapping away at our own preconceived notions of matters of the heart, mind, and spirit. His integration of religion into entertainment has provided many avenues for exploration, and the way in which is paper were to be expanded would be to analyze more closely the balance of Protestant and Catholic influences to gain a better understanding of whatever secret Catholic beliefs Shakespeare was likely to have had.
Shell, Alison. Shakespeare and Religion, Bloomsbury Publishing PLC, 2014. ProQuest Ebook Central, <https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/osu/detail.action?docID=1779024>.