In the first of a series looking focusing on William Shakespeare's 450th birthday, Professor Stanley Wells
CBE, Editor of the Oxford Shakespeare, discusses 'Shakespeare’s Questioning Mind'.
It’s touching to have come from my office in a building next door to Shakespeare’s Birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon, where he spent his youth,
to speak about him in an area of London which he knew well in his maturity.
The Bell Inn, in Carter Lane, close to here, was a regular port of call for the Stratford-upon-Avon carrier, and the only surviving letter
addressed to Shakespeare was written there. In his time the yard of old St Paul’s was full of booksellers’ stalls. There he would have browsed
among publications old and new, including some of his own writings – looking to see if they’d been remaindered, perhaps. And, at a time of
compulsory churchgoing, he almost certainly attended services in the old Cathedral where he might even have heard the very same settings by
John Sheppard of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis that the choir has sung so beautifully for us today.
Shakespeare was brought up in the Anglican tradition – baptised, married and buried with the rites of the Anglican church. His last will and
testament opens – perhaps formulaically –with the firmly Protestant declaration
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.
And his plays show deep knowledge of the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, and the homilies.
Shakespeare is not, of course, an explicitly religious writer in the manner of some of his great contemporaries, such as John Donne, the
libertine poet who nevertheless became Dean of St Paul’s. The closest Shakespeare comes to writing an explicitly religious poem in his own
person is Sonnet 146, the one beginning ‘Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth’, in which he debates the relative claims of the soul and the
body, concluding that the soul should triumph:
Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth,
Rebuke these rebel powers that thee array.
Why dost thou pine within, and suffer dearth,
Painting thy outward walls so costly gay?
Why so large cost, having so short a lease,
Dost thou upon thy fading mansion spend?
Shall worms, inheritors of this excess,
Eat up thy charge? Is this thy body's end?
Then, soul, live thou upon thy servant's loss,
And let that pine to aggravate thy store.
Buy terms divine in selling hours of dross;
Within be fed, without be rich no more.
So shalt thou feed on death, that feeds on men,
And death once dead, there’s no more dying then.
That final couplet is oddly reminiscent of the conclusion of John Donne’s Holy Sonnet No 10:
Why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
The sonnet seems to express certainty in the Resurrection, but Shakespeare’s plays reveal a questioning attitude to the mysteries of human life
rather than one that finds comfort in received religion. John Keats, one of Shakespeare’s best critics, wrote that he was ‘capable of being in
uncertainties, mysteries, doubt, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.’ Some thinkers of his time, such as Christopher Marlowe
and Sir Walter Ralegh, propagated heterodox opinions about the divinity of Christ. We have no reports of Shakespeare’s personal attitude to
such topics but the most serious of his plays show a deeply probing concern with ontological issues, a concern that evinces itself not only
within individual plays but from one play to another, creating the sense, it seems to me, of an ongoing debate within his mind, a constant
battering against the gates of belief.
It is, understandably, in Shakespeare’s tragedies that we see his most profoundly serious attempts to grapple with the mystery of the human
condition, and I think it is particularly revealing to think about the differences in attitudes to religion in two tragedies which I see almost
as facing panels of a diptych, Hamlet and King Lear. They are very different plays, written at different stages of Shakespeare’s development as
a dramatist, but the strong contrast between them in their expression of religious attitudes means, I suggest, that we can see them as
Shakespeare’s deliberate attempt to work out a tragic vision first with and secondly without a religious, and specifically a Christian, frame
To this extent they may be seen as contrasting but complementary portals to Shakespeare’s imagination. Neither play is explicitly concerned
with religious issues in the manner of the miracle plays of the earlier part of the sixteenth century. Indeed the theatrical use of biblical
subject matter was prohibited by statute. Nor are there any narrative links between Hamlet and King Lear. Nevertheless I see an
interrelationship between the two tragedies which enables us to think of them as parallel contributions to thought about man’s place in the
In Hamlet Shakespeare makes extensive use of a Christian frame of reference. The appearance of a ghost who has apparently come from purgatory
at an early stage of the action immediately raises questions about the possibility of life after death. As the tragedy continues we are
constantly reminded that we are in a Christian environment by a long sequence of allusions to Christian themes. Marcellus talks about ‘the
season ... wherein our saviour’s birth is celebrated.’ We learn that Hamlet studies at the strongly Protestant University of Wittenberg. He
invokes ‘the Everlasting’, calls on ‘Angels and ministers of grace’ to defend him, speaks of the ‘host of heaven’, swears by ‘St Patrick’ and,
frequently, of a singular God. He expresses anxiety about whether the ghost may be a devil, and about the afterlife. ‘Christian belief and
ritual underlie more extended episodes too, such as the scene showing the King at prayer, the gravedigger’s as well as the Priest’s discussion
of the propriety of allowing Ophelia, who is suspected of having committed the sin of suicide, a Christian burial, and Horatio’s final
invocation of ‘flights of angels’ to sing Hamlet to his rest.
In King Lear, on the other hand, Shakespeare seems self-consciously to have abjured a Christian frame of reference even though, in the early
play on the same theme which he used as a source, the pre-Christian narrative is heavily Christianized. Whereas characters in Hamlet frequently
swear by or allude to a single, Christian God, characters in King Lear swear by Roman deities, Apollo, Juno, and so on. There is only a single
point at which the word ‘god’ could be thought to refer to a single deity, and that is in a phrase - ‘gods spies’ – where absence of an
apostrophe in the early texts means that it too could be construed as a reference not to the Christian god but to pagan deities. Stripped of
the consolations of received religion the play gains in mystery, in the sense of life as a battle with the elements, a struggle for survival
against wind and rain in a world where humanity has to compete with animal forces both within and outside itself.
To say this is not to deny that King Lear can promulgate Christian values or that it draws at many points on the language and associations of
Christianity, as it manifestly does in the portrayal of, especially, Cordelia, Kent, Edgar, and the Fool. But Shakespeare was clearly anxious
not to place the action within a specific philosophical or religious context, as he so consciously does in Hamlet. The point was well made long
ago when S. L Bethell suggested of King Lear that we may ‘suspect Shakespeare of deliberately intending to present a world without revelation,
in order to determine how far human nature could penetrate its mysteries and achieve religious and moral order apart from the gift of
supernatural grace.’ It has been well observed that in the final scene the spectacle of Lear grieving – and eventually dying - over the body of
his dead daughter Cordelia resembles an inverted pieta. His words ‘Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life and thou no breath at all?’ pose
a fundamental question that all of us have to face.
Uncompromisingly this play acknowledges the power of human evil which reaches a climax in the blinding of Gloucester, the inevitability of
death, the frailty of the human body. But it ends also, however bleakly in an assertion of the power of human love as, in a total reversal of
the situation at the beginning of the play, Lear looks into the eyes of the daughter whom he had vowed never to see again.
Shakespeare’s questioning mind led him into dark places; but perhaps we may see an ultimate expression of hope in the final words of his last
solo-authored play, The Tempest, when Prospero says:
My ending is despair
Unless I be relieved by prayer
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself, and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardoned be,
Let your indulgence set me free.