Robert Miola: Shakespeare’s Religion

Posted by Kendall Harmon

As the critical pendulum has swung to a new appreciation of religion and spirituality in the early-modern world, all sorts of critics have rushed to claim Shakespeare as their own. In his 1994 A Buddhist’s Shakespeare, James Howe tells of his personal journey to Buddhism and to new understanding. As he studied under an Indian teacher named Trungpa, Howe began to see Shakespeare’s plays differently: “Perhaps not coincidentally, they seemed to change in directions that paralleled the changes I could see in myself. Each time I congratulated myself on the achievement of a new level of wisdom, Shakespeare seemed already to have been there.”

In the 2007 Godless Shakespeare, Eric S. Mallin presents a Shakespeare who has “a mind and spirit uncontained by orthodoxy”; elements of Christianity appear in his work, but “Shakespeare activates these features in decidedly irreligious or ironic ways.”

Such eccentric variations aside, the recent reevaluation of Shakespeare’s religion has generated new understanding. Forbidden Catholicism often functions as a potent fund of myth, ritual, and assumption that enables conflict, inflects situations, and charges action and character. The evidence does not amount to a manifesto of the playwright’s personal belief or to a discursive body of dogma advocated either openly or secretly. But it does grow to something of great constancy, howsoever strange and admirable, and it does, to the confounding of some orthodoxies, have real presence.

Read it all.

Filed under: * Culture-WatchPoetry & LiteratureReligion & Culture

Posted April 29, 2008 at 12:01 pm [Printer Friendly] [Print w/ comments]

1. Carolina Anglican wrote:

This is a copy of my response to the article on Shakespeare’s religion that I emailed to First Things. If anyone is interested, you can check out my book “Shakespeare on Spirituality: Life-Changing Wisdom from Shakespeare’s Plays” on Amazon.—

I was disappointed in reading Robert Miola’s article on “Shakespeare’s Religion” to see the truths of Shakespeare’s plays muddled in the debate of whether they are Protestant or Roman Catholic.  The bottom line is that in Shakespeare’s plays intent readers or audiences will find spiritual and religious teachings that could be appropriated into either camp.  True, the concept of purgatory discussed by Mr. Miola is of Roman Catholic origin; however, I think the examples he cites of “penance” in Leontes’ soft words to Camillo in The Winter’s Tale and Macbeth’s quote of regret as examples of Roman Catholic concepts versus Protestant principles overshadow the mere spiritual truths in these citations.  The confessional friendship of Leontes to Camillo is Biblical as well as Roman Catholic. (see James 5.16)  There is no doubt that Shakespeare places a premium on personal responsibility in his plays, but like Scripture does he offers support for predestination and personal responsibility.  For example, in All’s Well that Ends Well, the wise Helena counsels,

“Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie,
Which we ascribe to heaven: the fated sky
Gives us free scope, only doth backward pull
Our slow designs when we ourselves are dull” (Act I, scene i)

On the other hand, Hamlet bemoans his predestined fate,

“The time is out of joint: O cursed spite,
That ever I was born to set it right!” (Act I, scene v)

These are not perfect examples of the conflicting sides of the theological argument of predestination, but they prove that examples can be found for trying to weigh the religious lessons of the plays in favor of Roman Catholicism or Protestantism.  Either way, it is a shame to study spiritual genius of the plays for such a purpose rather than for identifying the truths revealed for pure appreciation and enlightenment.  I’m sure that in Mr. Miola’s case it is such appreciation and reverence for Shakespeare’s plays that led to this argument in the first place.

What I have found is that Shakespeare’s plays illustrate so many of the themes of the Bible.  As in reading the Bible, one can continually read Shakespeare’s plays for edification and revelation of truths.  To read it in hopes of proving his Catholicism or Anglicanism is to miss the point, I think.  There are myriad spiritual and religious lessons that Roman Catholics and Protestants, as well as Buddhists for that matter, can learn from the plays and apply to their lives.


Craig Stephans

Author of Shakespeare on Spirituality: Life-Changing Wisdom from Shakespeare’s Plays

April 29, 3:59 pm | [comment link]
2. Kenneth Semon wrote:

I, too, was a little disappointed in this article, though it seems that Shakespearean literary criticism has become more interested in the question of Shakespeare’s religious preferences in recent years.  As a “sometime” Shakespearean I find all kinds of sermon illustrations in the plays.  I sometimes worry that I am boring people with my references to the plays. When I finished seminary I realized that more of my theology (and anthropology) was formed by those years of Shakespeare teaching and thought than by anything we read in Theology classes.  Ken Semon

April 29, 4:49 pm | [comment link]
3. Ratramnus wrote:

“Shakespeare activates these features in decidedly irreligious or ironic ways.”

May God have mercy on Eric S. Mallin and Christ have mercy on the rest of us.  May Brother Mallin meet his maker with all of his literary features fully activated.

April 29, 10:18 pm | [comment link]
4. Paula wrote:

As a longtime teacher, I liked the article and would recommend it.  It combines historical and literary features in an accessible way.  I think it shows that Shakespeare used religious language in a great variety of ways—as would be expected from a dramatist.  Above all, I thought it showed what an indelible deposit the Catholic Church had left in England—as judged by this great writer—despite the shift to the protestant Church of England.

April 30, 1:41 am | [comment link]
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