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The Protestant World of Shakespeare

April 26th, 2019 | 16 min read

By E. J. Hutchinson

By E. J. Hutchinson

It is a monstrous waste of time to try to convince oneself, rocking anxiously back and forth in one’s pajamas, that William Shakespeare was a Roman Catholic—or a Protestant. It is difficult to imagine a more efficient way of destroying literature and the experience of literature than by turning it into a confessional team sport. As W.H. Auden says in The Dyer’s Hand, “The integrity of a writer is more threatened by appeals to his social conscience, his political or religious convictions, than by appeals to his cupidity. It is morally less confusing to be goosed by a traveling salesman than by a bishop.” Angst over the name on the front of a poet’s or a novelist’s confessional jersey betrays an insecurity that is unbecoming. Save the standings in the Sacramental Imagination League, East Division, for Fantasy Religion chat rooms.

Much more productive, it seems to me, is a consideration of the cultural factors that help to make certain artifacts possible–and on that score, a consideration of Protestant contexts does illuminate Shakespeare’s art. Such is the argument of David Daniell, who died in 2016 as probably the world’s foremost authority on another William, William Tyndale, in a brief essay called “Shakespeare and the Protestant Mind,” from the volume Shakespeare and Religions (Cambridge University Press, 2007).

Early in the essay, Daniell says definitively and without qualification that “Shakespeare’s poems and plays provide no evidence about whether he was Protestant or Catholic.”[1] But that is a very different claim from one that would minimize the social force of Protestantism in the second half of the sixteenth century. The latter has been the project of recent revisionisms that Daniell attacks in his opening paragraphs.

These revisionisms have come in two linked theses that might be called “the failure of the English Reformation,” represented for Daniell by Christopher Haigh’s English Reformations, and the “persistence of Catholicism,” especially at the popular level, represented by Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars.[2] Both date to the 1990s.

Or, rather, they don’t. As Daniell notes, “[S]uch revisionism is far from new, being laid down long ago in both historical method and dogma in books of Catholic polemic.”[3] In addition, Daniell says, it requires the sidelining of vast swathes of evidence, particularly “the universities and intellectual life generally, and the true effect of the print culture.” And this intellectual life was largely Protestant—indeed, “Calvinist”—in its cast of mind, while much of the business of the latter, that is, of the print culture, was conducted in the vernacular.

The two are of course connected. For example, one of the most widely read (and heard) texts aside from the English Bible (more on this in a moment) were the Protestant Books of Common Prayer, “in daily use in every parish in England and Wales, including Stratford-upon-Avon, for half a century” by 1600 when Shakespeare was churning out play after play; and “the 39 Articles,…printed in each copy, were out-and-out Protestant, even Calvinist.” Don’t tell the Tractarians, but it’s true. Scholars have sometimes been loath to admit the significance of Calvinism in the Church of England. Nevertheless, Daniell contends:

Most Early Modern historians today, in 2001, tell us that England was a Protestant nation by 1580 (if not quite a nation of Protestants), and that the cutting edge of that Protestantism, among intellectuals and writers, was Calvinism. For centuries it has been unpopular to say so. “Calvinist” has been a dirty word: serious modern writings on Spenser set out to “rescue” him from Calvinism. Yet the Church of England was largely Calvinist in Shakespeare’s lifetime: five of its 39 Articles are explicitly so.

The liturgy, too, of these churches was now in English, as well as their sermons or homilies, and one must not underestimate the significance of a primarily word-based mode of worship in forming the minds and idiom of a people for whom church attendance was compulsory.

When Daniell turns, therefore, to look at what the characteristics of a “Protestant mind” in England would have been in the second half of the sixteenth century, the first thing to note is the new prominence foisted upon the English language as an expressive instrument, given that it now needed to be used for the most important things. The Protestant focus on preaching, for instance, required deep and incisive thought to be devoted to a rhetoric of the mother tongue, particularly in view of the Himalayan-sized differences between the kind of language Latin is, obviously dominant in the religious sphere in the West before the Reformation, and the kind of language English is. The fruit of all this Shakespeare would have experienced at first-hand, and in Daniell’s view these developments contribute as a (not the only) factor in the sudden rise of an impressive body of literature in English that bears the imprint of the church and her texts.

Daniell looks at this rise from a number of different perspectives. The first is what he considers to have been a novel intellectual environment in which minds, now liberated from the crippling fear of heresy-hunters, could pursue their inquiries in freedom. Here his claim seems to me overdrawn and anachronistic. But one could (and should) make the more modest claim that there were at least more options on the table, and exciting intellectual movements such as the European Renaissance were having their effect of emancipating the mind to some extent.

Much stronger is his argument for the importance of the English Bible as a literary force,[4] and for this we have William Tyndale to thank. (According to his Wikipedia page, Daniell is the father of the phrase “No Tyndale, No Shakespeare.”) Before Shakespeare’s day, and continuing into it, the Bible was ubiquitous: “[T]he Great Bible of 1539 was placed, open, in every one of the 9,500 parishes in England and Wales.” During his lifetime alone, “there were printed of the Geneva Bible one hundred and forty-two different editions–editions, not reprintings, in three parallel basic states.”

One should not underestimate the effect that this had on the English consciousness, whatever any individual’s personal beliefs may have been, for it led to what Daniell calls a “biblical” mind. As an example he refers to the use the court of Edward VI made of King Josiah, “who led his nation to religious reform through the discovery of the lost book.” Shakespeare refers to the Bible constantly, and he must have presumed his audience would understand his references. What does this mean? It means that he wrote for an audience that knew the English Bible, that is, a predominantly Protestant audience.[5]

But the effect of the Bible on the English mind was not only conceptual or theological. It was also rhetorical and stylistic. For Daniell, Tyndale’s English Bible inaugurates what he calls the English Plain Style, which has a “register…just a little above common English speech,” expressed with clarity and simplicity and favoring the Saxon over the Latinate; “in English Plain Style someone might fear to die rather than be trepidatory of mortality.”

Tyndale was unique in his use of the Plain Style in 1526, but from him it passed to Thomas Cranmer, as anyone who has spent time with the prayers of beautiful simplicity in the Book of Common Prayer can attest. Consider, if nothing else, the Collects for the First and Second Sundays of Advent in the 1549 Prayer Book:

Almyghtye God, geve us grace, that we may cast awaye the workes of darknes, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the tyme of this mortall lyfe, (in the whiche thy sonne Jesus Christe came to visite us in great humilitie;) that in the last daye when he shal come again in his glorious majestye to judge bothe the quicke and the dead, we may ryse to the lyfe immortal, through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the holy ghoste now and ever. Amen.

Blessed lord, which hast caused all holy Scriptures to bee written for our learnyng; graunte us that we may in suche wise heare them, read, marke, learne, and inwardly digeste them; that by pacience, and coumfort of thy holy woorde, we may embrace, and ever holde fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast geven us in our saviour Jesus Christe.[6]

As far as the Bible is concerned, Tyndale’s words account for 83% of the New Testament in the Authorized Version; the numbers will be at least similar for other Protestant English translations.[7] To give you a sense of the style, here is how Tyndale renders the return of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15:

And he arose and went to his father. And when he was yet a greate waye of his father sawe him and had compassion and ran and fell on his necke and kyssed him. And the sonne sayd unto him: father I have synned agaynst heven and in thy sight and am no moare worthy to be called thy sonne. But his father sayde to his servautes: bringe forth that best garment and put it on him and put a rynge on his honde and showes on his fete. And bringe hidder that fatted caulfe and kyll him and let us eate and be mery: for this my sonne was deed and is alyve agayne he was loste and is now founde. And they began to be merye.

That last phrase appears numerous times in Shakespeare’s works. Two examples: Iris, in the The Tempest, sings, “You sunburnt sicklemen, of August weary,/Come hither from the furrow and be merry”; and Prince Hamlet, in his eponymous play, exclaims to Ophelia, “O God, your only jig-maker! What should a man do but be merry? For look you how cheerfully my mother looks, and my father died within’s two hours.” The need in the Bible for the right word in the right register in the people’s speech sometimes led to neologisms like “scapegoat” and “Passover,” both innovations of Tyndale’s and both hated by Thomas More. From here the liberty passed to poets of Shakespeare’s generation.

The English Plain Style is made to look deceptively easy—so easy that everyone could do it without trying. But they can’t. Such a style must be “cultivated,” as Daniell says of the way in which Cranmer appropriated it. Thus the English Bible came to be used as a model by English rhetoricians and to guide vernacular speech, particularly the speech of artifice.

So much for style. Daniell sees Protestant influence at work in other areas as well, such as the treatment of love and marriage in Shakespeare’s comedies. It is evident, too, he believes, in a theory of dramatic action that differs from the common mimetic one found in Philip Sidney. Relying on the work of Pauline Kiernan and Deborah Shuger, Daniell argues that Shakespeare’s drama is rooted in “a discourse of Protestant subjectivity” in which the characters’ external presentation to the world conceals vast depths, the inner man often invisible to the outer world.[8] It finds expression in a particular notion of “bodily presence,” a “living human body on stage, with its necessarily intensely subjective set of responses.”

That is, the body is the site and frequently the mask of acute internal conflict. Does this sound familiar? For anyone who has read Romans 7 (I suppose it goes without saying that the Apostle Paul was much read by Protestants in the sixteenth century), it surely does. The insight is not unique to Paul, but our way of framing the conflict probably owes more to him than to anyone else. And it is reflected, furthermore, in the irreducible subjectivity of believing the gospel. The agony of coming to faith is often the agony that one has to believe for oneself.

And yet that gospel is at the same time objective and universal, open to all—fishermen, prostitutes, tax collectors, everyone. This is clear in the canonical Gospels, which, according to Naseeb Shaheen,[9] Shakespeare refers to more than any other books of the Bible. Thus in English this univerality too is a legacy of Tyndale, whose words, as the source of much of any Bible Shakespeare would have read or heard, brought it to life. In Shakespeare’s plays, we see it in the sympathetic treatment of characters of all classes and both sexes, as all having an equal propensity for goodness–or wickedness. They all contain multitudes. As sinners, they all stand in need of mercy. As Portia says in The Merchant of Venice:

Therefore, Jew,

Though justice be thy plea, consider this,

That, in the course of justice, none of us

Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;

And that same prayer doth teach us all to render

The deeds of mercy.

All this is profoundly un-Aristotelian. Daniell concludes, “Shakespeare met suffering people, registered in the ordinary language of the people, in the texts of the Gospels in English, ultimately Tyndale’s English. He interiorised their suffering, and put them on his stage. That is a great bequest of Protestantism.”

This is not to say that Protestantism is the only influence on Shakespeare, or (again) that Shakespeare was a Protestant (or anything else). It is instead, to repeat what was said above, to attempt some account of some of what made Shakespeare Shakespeare, and of what he expected his audience to be able to recognize. Without a Bible in English, and without an audience that knew the Bible in English, much in Shakespeare turns to dust. Or, if you like, it is “melted into air, into thin air,” like “an insubstantial pageant faded.”

For these reasons, even if for no others, one can concur with one particular judgment made by John Henry Newman. Much, or rather most, of what he said about Protestantism does not, of course, deserve to be taken with any greater seriousness than the historical account given in the film Anonymous. But he was correct to speak, in The Idea of a University, of the inescapable Protestantism of English letters:

I repeat, then, whatever we be able or unable to effect in the great problem which lies before us, any how we cannot undo the past. English Literature will ever have been Protestant. Swift and Addison, the most native and natural of our writers, Hooker and Milton, the most elaborate, never can become our co-religionists; and, though this is but the enunciation of a truism, it is not on that account an unprofitable enunciation.[10]

A truism, indeed; but truisms have the distinct advantage of being, well, true. One can admit this without the need of trying to claim Shakespeare for one’s team, or, alternatively, of feeling uneasy about enjoying him and admiring him unless he is on one’s team. As I said at the outset, such a worry is a waste of time—time you could spend reading Shakespeare. The Bard belongs to everyone.

E.J. Hutchinson is Associate Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College, where he also directs the Collegiate Scholars Program. He is the editor and translator of Niels Hemmingsen’s On the Law of Nature: A Demonstrative Method.

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  1. In the same collection, Paul Franssen likewise remarks that “with a playwright whose most famous protagonist fulfils the command of a ghost from a Catholic purgatory by most calvinistically resigning to the Divinity that shapes our ends, some uncertainty about his personal beliefs seems inevitable” (“The Bard and Ireland: Shakespeare’s Protestantism as Politics in Disguise”).
  2. My paraphrases of Daniell’s statements.
  3. Ephraim Radner makes a similar criticism of Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation.
  4. And as a religious force as well: “Reading widely in recent Early Modern history is to be struck by something odd. Writers can express themselves puzzled by how the British people became Protestant at all. They find a mystery….They write as though the Bible as a force did not exist at all.”
  5. Again Daniell overstates somewhat when he refers in this section to a supposed belief of English Protestants that that Bible interprets itself “without help from Church traditions”; Protestant exegetes and preachers made constructive use, as a matter of course, of exegetical and dogmatic history, even if they did not feel ultimately bound by a fictional Single Interpretive Tradition and every controverted point.
  6. The omission of “Amen” at the prayer’s end is intentional: it was not added until 1559.
  7. As Daniell points out, the influence of the “heretic” can even be found in the Roman Catholic Rheims New Testament.
  8. It would be worth connecting the influence of Senecan drama, which Shakespeare knew well, on this feature, though it is outside of Daniell’s scope.
  9. Daniell relies on Shaheen for this claim.
  10. Emphasis original.