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´╗┐Title: What was the Religion of Shakespeare?
Author: Mangasarian, M. M. (Mangasar Mugurditch), 1859-1943
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "What was the Religion of Shakespeare?" ***

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By M. M. Mangasarian

A Lecture Delivered Before the Independent Religious Society, Orchestra
Hall, Michigan Avenue and Adams St., Chicago, Illinois,

Sunday, at 11 A. M. 1907

Toleration is possible only to men of large information.--SCHILLER.

Who am I?--A mortal seeking knowledge!


It is by observing the frequency and emphasis with which certain views
and expressions occur and reoccur in an author, and the consistency with
which they are given the preference, that we may be able to generalize
as to his philosophy or religion. As Shakespeare's works are neither
a treatise on theology nor a manual of philosophy, our only means of
discovering his attitude toward the problems of life and destiny is by
reading, as it were, between the lines.

A great mind can neither sophisticate nor suppress its earnest
convictions. This does not mean that anyone with earnest convictions
must necessarily be a propagandist. To think and to let think,
represents a state of mind which is entirely consistent, both with
enthusiasm and toleration, if not with proselytism. We believe that
Shakespeare has unmistakably expressed himself on the subject of
religion, as he has on that of patriotism, for instance, but without any
missionary zeal, which fact has led not a few students of his works to
the conclusion that of all the great poets Shakespeare is the only one
without a religion.

Green, in his Short History of England, writes, that "It is difficult to
say whether Shakespeare had any religious faith or no." But this is not
a fair way of stating the problem. If by "religious faith" Green means
the Anglican, the Presbyterian, or the Unitarian faith, then it is true
that we do not know to which of these he nominally belonged, and it does
not much matter. But if he means that we have no means of knowing
whether or not he accepted the Christian or any other supernatural
interpretation of the Universe, the allegation is not true, so far as we
are able to judge. It is difficult to read any one of Shakespeare's
tragedies without perceiving that its author is an anti-supernaturalist.
In Shakespeare this world is all there is, and it is what men have made
it. It is in terms of naturalism, pure and simple, that Shakespeare
states the problem of human existence.

It is no objection to this to say that there are ghosts, witches, and
apparitions on his stage, and that therefore he was a believer in the
supernatural. We must not confound the machinery of the stage with the
stage-master. Even Hamlet, when he exclaims that he sees his dead father
and Horatio asks him "Where?" answers: "In my mind's eye;" which shows
how little the appurtenances of the theatre of those times affected
the atmosphere of the author's mind. This same Hamlet who in popular
_parlance_ has beheld his dead father revisit the glimpses of the moon,
declares in the language of his own sober thought, that the beyond is an
"undiscovered country from whose bourne _no traveler returns._" And if
Macbeth, unlike Hamlet, puts faith in the supernatural, he does so
to his own hurt. But even Macbeth recovers his senses sufficiently to

               And be these juggling fiends no more believed,

               That palter with lies in a double sense;

and again:

               Infected be the air whereon they ride;

               And damned all those that trust them!

If it be objected that Shakespeare's hostility to the supernatural is
confined to what might be called the _bogus_ variety, and not to the
kind that is true, we reply that there is no evidence in the plays that
Shakespeare ever made such a distinction. Without anywhere intimating
that he believed in one kind of the supernatural and not in another (the
kind people believe in is generally their own, and the kind they deny,
that of somebody else), Shakespeare expresses his opinion of those who
accept the supernatural in no uncertain way:--

               Look how the world's poor people are amazed

               At apparitions, signs, and prodigies,

               Whereon with fearful eyes they long have gaz'd

               Infusing them with dreadful prophecies. *

Having just told us that "It is difficult to say whether Shakespeare
had any religious faith or no," Green intimates that Shakespeare was an
agnostic, and probably a disciple of Montaigne. If he was an agnostic,
it is not true that we do not know "whether he had any religious faith
or no." We can be sure that he was without religious faith of any kind,
using the word "religious" in the sense of the supernatural--if he
preferred agnosticism to the creeds. He was an agnostic, it is to
be supposed, because he could not conscientiously profess any of the
"religious faiths" of his day.

But to be an agnostic does not mean to be without a religion; it only
means to be without a revealed religion. This very agnosticism, as the
expression of a courageous, honest and rational protest against revealed
religions, is a religion--more manly, certainly, than the popular
religions, because while the latter are imitative to a large extent, the
former is unconstrained and personal.

Those who say unqualifiedly that Shakespeare had no religion, as
Prof. Santayana of Harvard University, does, must mean by religion a
recognition of the supernatural, which we submit is to make a partisan
use _only_ of the word religion. Wishing to prove the absence of
religion in Shakespeare, Prof. Santayana writes: "If we were asked to
select one monument of human civilization that should survive to some
future age, or be transported to another planet to bear witness to the
inhabitants thereof what we have been upon earth, we should probably
choose the works of Shakespeare. In them we recognize the truest
portrait and best memorial of man." After this magnificent tribute to
the universality of Shakespeare.

     * Venus and Adonis.

Prof. Santayana proceeds to qualify his statement by deploring what
he calls "the absence of religion in Shakespeare." He fears that if
Shakespeare were our sole interpreter, "the archaeologists of that
future age, or the cosmographers of that other part of the heavens,
after conscientious study of our Shakespearian autobiography, would
misconceive our life in one important respect. They would hardly
understand that man had had a religion." This fear is unfounded. It
may surely be learned from Shakespeare that "man had had" many
superstitions, and also that there was in our world the worship of the
Good, the True and the Beautiful. Such a report would not leave the
inhabitants of a strange planet in the dark as to whether or not
"man had had a religion." Let us make this point a little clearer: In
Shakespeare we find both the religion of superstition--addicted to the
belief in ghosts, spirits, miracles, visions, and revelations past
and present--and the religion of sense, namely, the elimination of the
supernatural from human affairs, and the exalting of Goodness, Beauty,
and Truth, with Truth as the greatest of the three, as the highest
possible ideals of man. But, evidently, Prof. Santayana does not believe
that it is possible to leave out the supernatural from religion and
still have a religion. "But for Shakespeare, in the matter of religion,"
writes Santayana, "the choice lay between Christianity and nothing. He
chose nothing." In our opinion Shakespeare chose something which was
more in accord with the concensus of the competent, though opposed to
the prejudices of the populace, namely: the rationalist attitude in
the presence of life and death. And why is not this attitude as much
entitled to be called a philosophy and a religion as the theological?

Would it not be unfair to say, for instance, that Tennyson's _The Coming
Church of Humanity_ is no church at all, because it is not after the
fashion of orthodoxy:

               I dreamed that stone by stone I reared a sacred fane,

               A temple, neither pagod, mosque, nor church,

               But loftier, simpler, always open-doored

               To every breath from heaven; and truth and peace

               And love and justice came and dwelt therein:

--or to contend that Goethe was profane and irreligious because the
verse in which he sums up his philosophy omits all reference to the
essentials of revealed religion?

               In the Entire, the Good, the Beautiful resolve to live--

               Wouldst fashion for thyself a seemly life.

               Then fret not over what is past and gone;

               And spite of all thou may'st have lost behind,

               Yet act as if thy life were just begun.

The religion of not a few of the best minds has been of the above
type; and surely, to a reasonable man the Catholic who denies that the
Protestant is a Christian, or the Trinitarian who excommunicates the
Unitarian is not more sectarian than the philosopher who denies that
Goethe, Tennyson, Voltaire, or Shakespeare, had any religion at all
because they did not have _his_ religion.

The German critic, Gervinius, on the other hand, expresses the opinion
that Shakespeare was silent on religion "because his platform was not a
pulpit." But it was a very narrow view to take of religion, to intimate
that outside the pulpit religion is an intruder. If religion is one's
philosophy of life, it is at home everywhere, but if it is only one's
beliefs concerning dogmas and rites, then the pulpit is its exclusive
sphere. Shakespeare was silent on religion of the kind Gervinius has in
mind, not because "his platform was not a pulpit," but because he had no
such religion to express. A man's religion is his philosophy of life,
in accordance with which he shapes his conduct and interprets human
destiny, and surely Shakespeare was not without such a working-religion.

The position of W. J. Birch, the English parliamentarian who writes from
the Christian standpoint, appears to us more consistent. He believes
that Shakespeare was not at all silent on religion, in the Christian or
supernatural sense of the word, but demonstrably antagonistic to it.
He then produces passage after passage to show Shakespeare's positive
dislike for such fundamental tenets of revealed religion, as the
doctrines of providence, the Fall of Man, the Holy Sacrament, the Word
of God, Salvation, the Church, the Priesthood, etc. Birch denounces
Shakespeare because he was not a Christian; because "not only the
details, but the essentials, also, of Christianity are the themes of
his flippancy." He infers further, from the companions of
Shakespeare--Marlowe, Green, Raleigh, Beaumont and Fletcher; and
from the books he read--Lucretius, Plutarch, Lucian, Montaigne and
Bruno--that he could not have been a Christian, as no follower of Jesus
Christ could take any interest in such profane writers.

Replying to those who quote the Will of Shakespeare to prove his piety,
Birch says that the Will is not in the poet's handwriting; that the
signature, alone, was his, the rest being the customary form of legal
documents drawn by lawyers for such occasions. The real sympathies of
Shakespeare, Mr. Birch thinks, may be inferred from such lines as the

               An idiot holds his bauble for a God, *

and again:

               By that same God, _what God soe'er it be_, *

--which seems to imply, according to this Christian critic of
Shakespeare, that there are as many Gods as there are fancies.

     * Titus Andronicus.

The reason which Mr. Birch assigns for the indifference of Shakespeare's
contemporaries to his works and fame was his non-Christian teachings,
which made him rather an object of distrust and fear than of admiration.
The world of his day was religious, says Mr. Birch, and, therefore, it
was glad enough to forget Shakespeare and remember the men who had left
monuments of piety behind. The opposition of the religious element is
thus given as one of the reasons for the absence of any recognition of
his genius and the oblivion to which he seems to have been condemned
before a less pious or puritanic age discovered with ecstasy the wealth
and glory of his thousand souls. Milton's joyous exclamation echoes the
gratitude of the intellectual world:

               Thou, in our love and astonishment

               Hast found a life-long monument.

But the majority of the apologists of supernaturalism, appreciating the
value of Shakespeare as an ally, have stoutly claimed him as a Christian
believer. Bishop Wordsworth has written a voluminous work to show how
much of the Bible there is in Shakespeare. Mr. George Brandies, with
much justice, calls this pious bishop's book "unreadable." Another
Christian interpreter of Shakespeare offers the following apology for
the poet's seeming indifference to the tenets of orthodox religion:
"Doubts have been entertained as to Shakespeare's religious belief,
because _few_ or _no_ notices of it occur in his works. This ought to
be attributed to a _tender_ and _delicate reserve_ about holy things,
rather than to inattention or neglect."

The above shows how indispensable to the interests of Christian doctrine
Shakespeare's approval of them had come to be regarded by the later
Christians. His was too great and shining a name not to have it listed
on their side, and so was invented "a tender and delicate reserve" on
the part of the poet, to explain his open protests against their creeds,
which they mildly call his failure to take "notice" of them.

Others, again, have written lengthy arguments to prove that the immortal
poet was a devout Catholic, an orthodox Calvanist, a loyal Anglican, and
so forth. The man who in his lifetime was associated with Marlowe
and his school, and who was vehemently denounced by the exponents of
religion in that day--the Puritans--is today hailed by the descendants
of these same Puritans as the honor and glory of their faith. But
this change of heart is a purely sentimental one. It is, as already
intimated, the increasing _eclat_ of Shakespeare's name and fame which
has made him desirable as a coreligionist. Already, even Thomas Paine
is being claimed as a fellow-believer. Mr. Brooke Hereford writes that
if he, the author of the _Age of Reason_, were living now, he would
join the Unitarian Church. It is not, however, by consulting our own
necessities that we find out the religion of another. We may all wish
that Shakespeare believed just as we do, and that he was upon our side
of the question, but could our wish be any evidence in a matter of this

The real attitude of Shakespeare toward revealed religion will be
learned by observing, as we stated above, the frequency and consistency
with which certain expressions appear and reappear in his works. An
author's intimate beliefs may be ascertained by observing the prevailing
mood of his mind, the atmosphere his characters breathe in, and the more
or less permanent moulds into which his thoughts flow.

"That is alone to be called a man's opinion," writes Shaftesbury,
"which is, of any other, the most habitual to him, and occurs upon
most occasions." To the same effect are the words of Sir Bulwer Lytton,
quoted by W. J. Birch in his _Philosophy of Shakespeare_: "In the mind
of man there is always a resemblance to his works. His heroes may not be
like himself, but they are like certain qualities which belong to
him. The sentiments he utters are his at the moment; if you find them
_predominate_ in all his works, they predominate in his mind."

We may illustrate the truth of the above remark by an example from
Moliere, the "Shakespeare of France," as he has often been called. In a
conversation between a beggar and a citizen, the beggar is asked what he
considers the object of life.

          "To pray God for the good people who give me alms,"

                    he answers.

          "Ah, you pass your time in praying to God! In that case you ought to
be very much at your ease," says the philosopher citizen.

          "Alas! sir," replies the beggar, "I often have not what to                     eat."

          "That can not be," protests the citizen, "God would not

          leave those to die of hunger who pray to him morning and

          night. Come, here's a pound; but I give it you for the

                    love of _humanity_."

It is not possible for anyone who believed in orthodox Catholicism to
express with such emphasis and lucidity a sentiment like the above.
Moliere could never have placed the praying mendicant in the light
he does, nor invoked the name of _humanity_ to a man who did all his
begging in the name of the deity, had he been a consistent Catholic.
Equally conclusive are the following Shakespearian lines in one of the
historical plays, on the denominational sympathies of the great poet:
King John instructs the Cardinal to bear this message to the Pope of

          Tell him this tale; and from the mouth of England

          Add this much more,--that no Italian priest

          Shall tithe or toll in our dominions;

          So tell the Pope, all reverence set apart

          To him and his usurped authority.

And when the believing King Philip protests against what he calls
"blasphemy," King John returns in words which leave not a shadow of doubt
as to Shakespeare's positive distrust of Catholicism:--

          Though you and all the Kings of Christendom

          Are led so grossly by this meddling priest,

          Dreading the curse that money may buy out;

          And, by the merit of vile gold, dross, dust,

          Purchase corrupted pardon of a man,

          Who in that sale sells pardon from himself;

          Though you and all the rest, so grossly led,

          This juggling witchcraft with revenue cherish;

          Yet I, alone, alone do me oppose

          Against the Pope, and count its friends my foes.

In the same way Shakespeare's attitude toward the Puritans of his day
is decisively shown in his frequent references to them, of which the
following is a fair specimen: "Though honesty be no Puritan, yet it will
do no hurt."

Even more final than the above is Shakespeare's rejection of the idea
of providence, which is the nerve of supernaturalism. When Miranda, a
young, innocent girl, observes from the shore a ship, with its freight
of human lives, sinking, lashed mercilessly by the blind and unfeeling
elements, she exclaims:--

          Had I been any God of power, I would

          Have sunk the sea within the earth, or e'er

          It should the good ship so have swallowed, and

          The freighting souls within her.

Only a little less decisive is Shakespeare's repudiation of all
"other-help," and his recommendation of self-help, which makes
ninety-nine per cent of the belongings of the popular religions

          Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie

          Which we ascribe to Heaven.

Again Shakespeare writes:--

                    In religion,

          What damned error, but some sober brow

          Will bless it and approve it with a text.

We can imagine how a man who, kept apart from the great theological
interest of the day, could make the above comment; but for a partisan
of any one of the sects, such a characterization of the folly and
wickedness of making a number of Bible texts the occasion for endless
wrangles and bloodshed would have been impossible, for the very cogent
reason that in condemning the practice of resorting to Scripture as
the court of last appeal in all matters of religion, he would have
undermined his own position. Such a passage as the above illustrates
with what scant sympathy the leading mind of that age contemplated the
warfare of rival faiths. And when it is remembered that what heated the
religious sects, the one against the other, were subjects concerning
which no one possessed any knowledge, we will appreciate Hamlet's
amazement that we should make such fools of ourselves:--

          So horridly to shake our disposition

          With thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls.

A further condemnation of the claims, of religious organizations that
they possess a Revelation which answers definitely and finally man's
questions concerning the here and the hereafter, and a recommendation
of the scientific attitude of modesty and openness of mind to fresh
knowledge, is found in the lines, so frequently quoted, but with little
understanding of its import:--

          There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,

          Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Revelation may be closed, the Bibles and creeds may have no further
use for study and investigation, but for a man of the rationality of
Shakespeare, no revelation, no Bible, no creed, approached anywhere near
covering the ever widening realm of truth. The books of the gods are
sealed. Shakespeare believed in the open book.

Shakespeare's belief in the religion of Humanity is also shown by his
sympathy with goodness irrespective of the race, creed, or country
which produces it. He could admire a pagan for his virtues despite the
teaching of the catechism which condemns the non-Christian world to the
tortures of hell. Only a man of the sanity and chastened sympathies
of Shakespeare could speak of a Roman skeptic in the following exalted

          His life was gentle, and the elements

          So mixed in him, that nature might stand up,

          And say to all the world, "This was a man!"

His approval also of the philosopher's behavior in the presence of
death, as distinguished from the believer's dogmatism, is shown in the
parting scene between Cassius and his great friend, Brutus:

          For whether we shall meet again I know not.

          Therefore our everlasting farewell take.

          Forever and forever farewell, Cassius!

          If we do meet again, why, we shall smile;

          If not, why, then this parting was well made.

It has been suggested that the above does not show Shakespeare's own
intellectual attitude toward the beyond, for he is only reporting the
sentiments which such a character as Brutus entertained. In other words,
it is one of Shakespeare's characters, not Shakespeare himself, who is
philosophising. But it is curious that in Plutarch's history, from which
our poet borrowed freely for this play, Brutus acknowledged a future
state, and is positive of his future reward. "I gave up my life for my
country in the Ides of March, for the which I shall live in another more
glorious world," Plutarch reports Brutus to have said. Shakespeare's
changing this dogmatic assurance concerning a future life to the
philosophic attitude of unconcern shows conclusively which way his own
sympathies inclined.

To further clinch the point, that Shakespeare is here speaking his
own thought and not merely inventing thoughts suitable to his pagan
characters, let us quote a stanza from his Sonnets which, it is
admitted, embody the poet's own philosophy. It will be seen that he is
thoroughly imbued with the Lucretian, or the scientific thought, of man
and nature:

          When I consider every thing that grows

               Holds in perfection but a little moment;

          That this huge state presenteth nought but show

               Whereon the stars in secret influence comment.

And what is true of nature is true also of man, notwithstanding his

          When I perceive that men as plants, increase,

               Cheered and checked even by selfsame sky,

          Vaunt in their youthful sap, at height decrease,

               And wear their brave state out of memory.

Yet this transitoriness of man, instead of diminishing, enhances his
value, and makes love, friendship and truth all the more precious. Life
would not have been so great a gift, if it were unending. Love, the
greatest of all blessings, shines upon the dark brow of death "like
a rich jewel in an Ethiop's ear." It is the thought of death, of
separation, which creates attachments and friendships inexpressibly

          Then the conceit of this _inconstant_ stay

          Set you most rich in youth before my sight.

Of course there are also many expressions in Shakespeare which a
Catholic may cite to prove that Shakespeare was a faithful child of the
church, or a Protestant to show that the greatest mind of England was
on his side, but the context of Shakespeare, it must be admitted, is
unreservedly on the side of the non-supernatural and the rationalistic
interpretation of life.

When we come to examine the construction of Shakespeare's plays, we
shall find that it is as decisively along rationalistic lines as the
atmosphere which permeates them. Gods and ghosts fleet across his stage,
but they have no perceptible influence upon the order or drift of events
in Shakespeare's world. The center round which Shakespeare makes the
universe revolve is--man! This represents a radical departure from
theology. The change from the contemplation of God to the study of man
is the Renaissance in a nut-shell.

Shakespeare, as the great Renaissance poet, lifted this world into the
importance which the next world had usurped, and urged men to reclaim
the prerogatives which they had, in fear and servility, deeded away to
their gods.

Study, for instance, Romeo and Juliet, and it will be seen that the
entire story, beginning with the rosy dawn in which love and youth met,
to the noon-day storm which swept the unhappy lovers to their graves,
is conceived, created and presented without the remotest reference to a
divine providence as a factor in human affairs. Everything happens in
a natural way, and from natural causes. Romeo's rashness and Juliet's
impatience leave room for no mysteries as to their fate. There may
be, or there may not be, a God, but to explain this tragedy it is not
necessary either to postulate or to deny his existence. Shakespeare
steers clear of the occult powers that are supposed to preside over
human destiny, and never once does he cross their paths or enter the
circle of their influence. Consider, for example, the conduct of his
Romeo and Juliet in the presence of death. Much is made of the death
bed scene in religious literature. People are supposed to turn their
thoughts heavenward in that hour, and to show anxiety about their
souls. It is then, we are told, that a sense of the world to come takes
irresistible possession of the mind. The last words of the dying are
recalled to show how, upon the brink of the grave, as the earthly sun
is sinking, the heavenly lights begin to appear. But Shakespeare's Romeo
and Juliet confront death without any thought of a future reunion, which
is very remarkable considering their youth and their fondness for
one another. It almost betrays a deliberate effort on the part of
Shakespeare to prevent these ardent lovers, dying ere the budding
rose of love had opened, to even dream of a life beyond where they
may forever live and love. Nothing could be a clearer indication of
Shakespeare's intellectual freedom from both the phraseology and method
of theology. Romeo knows of no other paradise than his Juliet, while
to the latter, where Romeo is, there is heaven. This is frank, honest,
free, but it is not how the Mohammedan, the Christian or the Jewish
religions expect the dying to express themselves. Romeo's address to
death ignores all revealed religions:

               Come, unsavory guide!

          Thou desperate pilot, now at once run on

          The dashing rocks, thy seasick weary bark!

          Here's to my love! * * * Thus with a kiss I die.

Surely this is not the language of the believer. Nor has Romeo any
illusions about death:

               Oh here

          Will I set up my everlasting rest;

          And shake the yoke of inauspicious stars

          From this world-wearied flesh.

And to think that Romeo had a Catholic priest for a friend! But it shows
how clean Shakespeare's mind was from "such fantasies * * * more than
cool reason ever comprehends." *

And when Romeo takes his farewell of Juliet, his thought is equally free
from fancies:

               Eyes, look your last!

          Arms, take your last embrace! and lips, O you,

          The doors of breath, seal with a righteous kiss,

          A dateless bargain to engrossing death.

Nothing could be more un-Catholic and un-Protestant than this parting
of Shakespeare's best lovers. Juliet, who has often knelt before the
priest, dies without one appeal to religion for comfort or support.
She has no faith, now, in the hour of her greatest need, in prayer,
crucifix, Bible or church. "Go, get thee hence," she cries to the
friar when he approaches to minister to her in her crushing sorrow. She
follows Romeo without uttering one word about God, or the future. In the
same spirit, "The rest is silence," murmurs Hamlet as he sinks to the
ground, and we may announce with considerable assurance that the words
are Shakespeare's as much as they are Hamlet's. **

But the naturalism of the poet as opposed to the supernaturalism of the
religion of his day is further brought out by the free and uninterrupted
operation in his plays of the law of action and reaction, of cause and
consequence. It is no angel of heaven, as we read of in Scripture, that
exalts or strikes down the people in Shakespeare's world; but by their
own acts they rise or fall. Intemperance brings Timon of Athens to the
dust; folly ruins Othello; insolence cuts Corialanus' career short;
ambition and superstition strangle Macbeth; hypocrisy subjects Angello
to the contempt of his fellows; hatred and revenge blight the life of
Shylock. Heaven plays no part on Shakespeare's stage. Man reaps as he
sows, and no gods are necessary to enforce cause and effect. If Nature's
laws defy the power of man, do they bend or break when gods command?
Pride, shame, intemperance, greed, hate--these can never lead to
happiness, all the gods to the contrary. Nor can all the powers of
heaven and hell turn self-restraint, moderation, justice, contentment,
courage, love and peace, into demons of hell. Nature is sound; Nature
is all-sufficient, and in Shakespeare Nature occupies the stage so
completely as to leave neither room nor necessity for any other power.

     * Midsummer's Night's Dream.

     ** We are neither recommending nor condemning Shakespeare's
     attitude toward the question of another life, but simply
     endeavoring to represent it.

Nothing is so certain and so effective in Shakespeare as his criticism
of the ways of Providence. When Othello, for instance, awakens to a
sense of his irreparable loss--when the pity of Desdemona's death, like
the incoming tide of the sea, sweeps over him and takes his breath away,
he gasps out these significant words with his eyes searching the abysses
of space over his head: "Methinks there should now be a huge eclipse of
sun and moon, and the affrighted earth should yawn at altercation." He
can not understand how "any God" could look down with unmoistened eyes
upon such a tragedy. What does God do with his powers if he will not
interfere to save men such as Othello from committing ignorantly so
heinous a crime? Again he stammers out, "Are there no stones in heaven
but what serve for the thunder?" Is God only a spectacular being? Is all
he can do to thunder in the clouds and dazzle with his lightning? Where
is the God of help? Is he real? Does he exist?

To make effective this indifference or helplessness of the gods,
Shakespeare contrasts their stolid unconcern with human sympathy.
Emelia, the wife of the man who poisoned Othello's mind, breaks into a
heart-rending lamentation when she learns of the death of her innocent
mistress, which shames the silent and tearless gods:

               I'll kill myself for grief,

she sobs as she sees stretched at her feet the victim of human folly and
crime. How eloquent, and how melting are these words! She does not care
to live if she can not protect innocence and virtue, beauty and goodness
against hate and envy. And this from a woman whose character was not
above reproach! How admirable is the seething passion in her human soul
compared with the dumbness of the almighty gods!

By the mouth of another frail woman Shakespeare passes the same
criticism upon the current conceptions of divine providence. When young
Juliet learns that Romeo has killed her cousin, for which rash act
he has been banished for life, thus blighting her dearest hopes, she

               Can Heaven be so envious?

Later on, when her own parents persecute her and drive her to a
desperate experiment with death, and all for the purpose of wresting a
little happiness out of life, she exclaims:

               Is there no pity sitting in the clouds?

Finally, when all her hopes are turned to ashes, and she realizes the
bitterness of her fate, she sobs:

          "Alack, alack that Heaven should practice such stratagems upon so soft
a subject as myself."

This is a strong criticism of the popular fancy of a "Father in Heaven"
who broods over his children as a hen over her young. Unlike the
preachers of the conventional faiths, Shakespeare sought to divest
people's minds of dreams and fairy stories, that they may learn to cope
with reality. This is the answer to the charge that the critic takes
away people's comfort when he takes away their "religion." On the
contrary, he helps them to replace the shadow with the substance. Men
will do more for themselves and their world if they realize that if they
do not, no other power will. Man becomes a god when the place is vacated
by the idols.

But if there is still any uncertainty about Shakespeare's religious
philosophy, we recommend the careful perusal of the scene in Macbeth
between Macduff, Malcolm and Rosse. The latter has just informed Macduff
that the tyrant has put his entire household to death:

          Macduff.--My children, too?

          Rosse.--Wife, children, servants, all that could be found.

          Macduff.--My wife killed too?

          Rosse.--I have said.

          Macduff.--All my pretty ones? Did you say all? * * *

          All? What, all my pretty chickens, and their dam, at one

          fell swoop?

Then follow these significant words of the bereaved and wronged

               Did Heaven look on,

          And would not take their part?

No wonder the sentiment expressed in the above was considered
blasphemous by early Christian critics of Shakespeare. To a believer
in God's right to do as He pleases, and in man's duty to bow humbly and
uncomplainingly to the hand that smites him, the question which Macduff
asks is both impious and wicked, for he openly upbraids Providence for
its non-interference, if he does not categorically deny its existence.
It is not probable that an honest adherent or even respecter of the
current religious teaching of his day could have penned so bold a
protest against the popular faith. "Where," Shakespeare seems to ask,
"is the Heavenly Father whose tender mercies are over all his children?"
What does God do for man? In what sense would a mother and her children,
foully murdered, have been worse off, if there had been no Providence?
And in what way were they benefited by the existence of a Heavenly

In this same play, the poet has once more described his ideal man, and
there is more of the pagan about him than of the Christian. Living in a
community which regarded faith as the greatest of virtues, without which
no amount of moral excellence could avail anything, Shakespeare draws a
picture of his saint which is the very antithesis of Christian ideals.
Malcolm asks for the respect of his fellows for his character, not for
his religion.

                    Never was forsworn;

          Scarcely have coveted what was mine own;

          At no time broke my faith; would not betray

          The devil to his fellow; and delight

          No less in truth, than life.

The concluding line--_and delight no less in truth than life_--we
have no hesitation in pronouncing as the most beautiful sentiment
in Shakespeare. Malcolm says not a word about his Christian beliefs,
without which "no one can be saved." Once more we call attention to the
fact that there are in Shakespeare, as there are in Voltaire, nearly all
the terms of church and creed, but the underlying philosophy of the poet
is, if we may depend upon the above extracts and examples, unequivocally
rationalistic. Shakespeare was a freethinker, in that he interrogates
the popular faith about God, and the hereafter, and suggests an order
of the universe which is the very negation of the supernatural. His
indifference to the fundamentals of the Christian faith, then, is not
due to the fact that he is not a preacher, as Gervinius suggests, nor
because he preferred "nothing" to Christianity, as Santayana concludes,
or because of his "tender and delicate reserve about holy things," as
Charles Knight, one of the most enthusiastic admirers of Shakespeare
suggests, but to his utter want of intellectual sympathy with the
religious thought of his day, and to the fact that he had worked out a
religion of his own, based on the natural virtues--an ethical religion
of Humanity, with its commandments written, not on parchments, but in
the blood of the race.

There is undoubtedly a religious atmosphere in Shakespeare, but it is
the religion of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful; without dogma and
without miracle, and as comprehensive, as true to nature, and as closely
in harmony with the rationalistic interpretation of the universe as his
own drama. Has not Goethe, in defining his own religion, defined also
that of Shakespeare? "Man is born," writes Goethe, "not to solve the
problem of the universe, but to find out where the problem begins, and
then to restrain himself _within the limits of the comprehensible_."
This is precisely what the great Englishman, whom Goethe so sincerely
admired, did. He "restrained himself within the limits of the
comprehensible," which is a beautiful way of saying that he was
practical and not speculative, scientific in spirit and method, and not
theological. He abstained from the unprofitable pursuit of the gods,
whom the Bible says in one place, "no man can find out by searching,"
and devoted himself to the study of man and his world. This is the
religion of sense. There is everything in Shakespeare about man, and
every bit of it is serious; but there is nothing of any consequence
in Shakespeare about God or gods. It is a matter of regret to the
theologian that the great poet should have permitted the secular
interests of life to engage his exclusive thought, but we rejoice in the
fact that Shakespeare could not be tempted into the dusty and winding
paths of theology which lead nowhere.

As truthfully as the great Voltaire, the glorious Shakespeare, poet,
philosopher, historian, could say of the founders of isms, and the
inventor and maker of gods, "they have troubled the earth, and I have
consoled it."

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