Shakespeare the Humanist
The world’s greatest playwright never wrote directly about his personal beliefs, but his plays display scepticism about religion, and many of his characters have a deeply humanist view of life and man’s place in it, showing a consistent belief that this world is the only one that we can know.
Superstition was rife in the 16th and 17th centuries, and religion was a potent force. If you followed the wrong faith you could be disembowelled. Witches are still burnt at the stake and many people believed in fairies, miracles, and ghosts. But there were a few declared atheists such as Christopher Marlowe, taking advantage of the English reformation and the emancipation from the religious and social structures of the middle ages it represented.
It is acknowledged that Shakespeare took many of his story lines from existing plays and books, some of which had strong religious themes, but he usually omitted the religious element when adapting these works to the hand of his genius.
In considering the influence of religion it is valid to discount the history plays, where Kings and their usurpers dispute their divine right to pillage, rape, and murder from the age of King John to Henry the Eighth, and ‘god’ is a valuable tool in their armoury. Of course there are Friars and priests scattered across the plays, but with the exception of Friar Lawrence in Romeo and Juliet these are cardboard cut-outs with no development of character.
The happy characters not religious
Few of his other characters show evidence of religious belief. Not one happy character shows any interest in religion, and whilst we doubt that Shakespeare himself believed, there is no doubt whatever that he could weave the concept of god and heaven into a beautiful romantic couplet:
And when Love speaks, the voice of all the gods
make heaven drowsy with the harmony.
Berowne in Love’s Labours Lost: 4.iii.
All scholars agree that the evidence points to Shakespeare being careful, responsible, and sober as an individual. Looking at his characters that exhibit these qualities could be taken as a guide to his own thoughts. Polonius, is a measured and responsible adviser to the court (even if sometimes rambling), and is always trying to give the best advice. When he speaks to his son Laertes, who is about to sail away, it could be Shakespeare’s own voice springing from the page as advice he would give his own son. Hamlet 1.iii.
The wind sits in the shoulder of your sail,
My blessing with thee!
And these few precepts in thy memory.
Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar.
The friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel.
Beware of entrance to a quarrel.
Give every man thine ear, but few thy voice:
Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgement.
Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,
But not expressed in fancy; rich, not gaudy:
For the apparel oft proclaims the man.
This above all, – to thine own self be true;
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
“To thine own self be true”, make up your own mind, you do not need gods or ancient books to tell you what is right or wrong.
Shakespeare on grief
The character that must be most closely tied to Shakespeare’s own experience is Constance in King John. His only son, Hamnet, died aged eleven in 1596, when he was writing King John, and he poured all the agony he must have felt at this time into Constance who loses her son Arthur. This is expressed in these heart- rending words: 3 .iv.
Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form.
This surely expresses Shakespeare’s own grief – and in secular terms. Constance (Shakespeare?) has also considered the Christian view of death and has these rather bitter words to say:
And so he’ll die, and, rising so again,
When I shall meet him in the court of heaven,
I shall not know him: therefore never, never
Must I behold my pretty Arthur more.
This passage hardly shows a belief or comfort in any meeting in a next world. Shakespeare’s own voice also seems to speak to us in straight-forward style, when from As you Like It :2 :vii. Jacques gives us the seven ages of man:
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. As, first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad.
Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut.
The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
But at what age, man or boy, would you commend yourself to a god or worry about your place in heaven or hell? If you were religious in the sixteenth century, these thoughts would have been very relevant. They are not present in Shakespeare’s life cycle of man.
Shakespeare mocks astrology
Scepticism about superstition is a constant theme throughout the plays:- Astrology is mocked: King Lear :1 .ii. tells us:
This is the excellent foppery of the world,
that, when we are sick in fortune,
often the surfeit of our own behavior,
we make guilty of our disasters
the sun, the moon, and the stars.
And from All’s Well That Ends Well :1 .i we learn:
Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie,
Which we ascribe to heaven.
And from Henry IV th Part 1, Glendower says: 3 .i.
I can call spirits from the vasty deep.
To which Hotspur replies:
But will they come when you do call for them?
From King Lear Gloucester says: 4 .i.
As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods –
They kill us for their sport.
And in A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream :1.i. Nuns may be thrice blessed but are condemned:
To live a barren sister all your life,
Chanting faint hymns to the cold fruitless moon.
As far as purpose in life is concerned, Macbeth :5 .v. himself has it:
Life’s but a walking shadow ; a poor player,
That struts and frets for his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
And for a view of death we have Claudio in Measure for Measure: 3.i.
Aye, but to die, and go we know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction, and to rot.
And the beautiful and sombre sonnet 71:
No longer mourn for me when I am dead
Then you shall hear the surly sullen bell
Give warning to the world that I am fled
From this vile world, with vilest worms to dwell:
Nay, if you read this line, remember not
The hand that writ it; for I love you so
That I in your sweet thoughts would be forgot.
Few signs of religious observance
It is very difficult to find anywhere in Shakespeare any sign of religious observance. Is it possible that Shakespeare chose to tease us and hide his most fundamental philosophical view in an unexpected place? He knew that fame and glory were fickle masters and would have predicted that the modern cult of celebrity would be a double edged sword. At the end of a ‘rounded life’ he saw a golden age could only be achieved with contentment. Did he give this view not to the great nobles that strut his stage, not to his famous jesters that prod us about our foibles, but to the humble shepherd?
From As You Like It again, Corin the shepherd tells us: (3: ii)
Sir, I am a true labourer : I earn that I eat, get that I wear;
owe no man hate, envy no man’s happiness; glad of other men’s good,
content with my harm; and the greatest of my pride is,
to see my ewes graze and my lambs suck.
This could be Humanist philosophy in a nutshell!
The Tempest is thought to be his last play, written after he had left London and retired to his home in Stratford. It is also considered to be the play where Shakespeare’s own views are expressed most openly, featuring a final epilogue which reads as his own final ‘signing off’ from the stage.
In Ariel’s song (5.1)
Where the bee sucks, there suck I:
In a cowslip’s bell I lie;
There I couch when owls do cry.
On the bat’s back I do fly
After summer merrily.
Merrily, merrily shall I live now
Under the blossom that hangs on the bough.
It is not too great a leap to discern that Shakespeare considered himself an integral part of nature and that ‘where the bee sucks, there suck I’ is his ode to nature and his part in it. Then Prospero (4:1),who many believe is modelled on Shakespeare himself, expresses an extension of this sentiment that also displays an acceptance of ultimate mortality:
Be cheerful, sir.
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
No emotion of faith
It could be dangerous to criticize religion in the age of Elizabeth the 1st, and Shakespeare had to be careful. It is extraordinary that after four hundred years of enlightenment it can still be dangerous in the age of Elizabeth the 2nd.
It is often written that his plays show every human emotion – love, hate, envy, jealousy, etc. But the one emotion that Shakespeare never wrote about was the emotion of faith. Such a strong emotion that it would enable priests to risk death to serve communion, allow men to give up everything to go to some foreign land to convert pagan inhabitants, persuade people to devote their lives to looking after others, or people to blow themselves up in a crowded market. Did Shakespeare ignore the emotion of faith as being unworthy of the rational human?
Whatever, this wonderful profoundly human man with his grasp of our weaknesses and follies; as well as our potential for love and greatness, will inspire us, whatever our beliefs.