Written by Vladimir Moss



     The title of this article may seem paradoxical. Shakespeare was not, of course, an Orthodox Christian; nor, as far as we know, did he ever meet an Orthodox Christian or read an Orthodox book except for the Bible (which he clearly knew well). So however transcendent his genius, and however vast his influence, we cannot take him as a teacher of Orthodoxy. Nevertheless, it has been recognized by generations of good judges that many great and important truths have been expressed by him with incomparable beauty, depth and power. So insofar as it good to honour truth mixed with beauty wherever it comes from, it will be good to pay our debt of honour to the great Bard – especially on this, the 500th anniversary of his death.

     By the time Shakespeare reached his peak as a writer, England had undergone over sixty years of profound change – the transition, in essence, from the medieval to the modern world-view. But the transition was incomplete; people were confused; and in William Shakespeare there arose the perfect recorder of this critical turning-point in his country’s and Europe’s history. For, as Jonathan Bate writes, “his mind and world were poised between Catholicism and Protestantism, old feudal ways and new bourgeois ambitions, rational thinking and visceral instinct, faith and scepticism.” 

     The transition from Catholicism to Protestantism profoundly influenced his work. For “he lived between the two great cataclysms in English history: the break from the universal Roman Catholic church and the execution of King Charles I.”  The transition caused Shakespeare, like many of his fellow countrymen, to question the basis of their beliefs; and the very literary form of his plays was made possible by it. 

     “For centuries, the staple of English drama had been the cycles of ‘miracle’ plays, dramatizations of biblical stories organized by the gilds of tradesmen in the major towns and cities around the country. They were destroyed by the Protestant Reformation… By the time he began writing plays himself, the old religious drama was dead and buried…

      ”… The old religious drama had offered to audiences a constant reminder that that they were under the watchful eye of God. The new Elizabethan drama concentrated instead on people in relationship with each other and with society.”  It was a momentous change in the culture of Western Europe; and in this change Shakespeare both imitated life and influenced it. 

     Thus in Hamlet (1600), perhaps the most famous literary work in history, Shakespeare found a new technique – the device of the soliloquy – to express the interior conflicts and confusions, not only of his hero, but of the new, secularized humanity that was coming into existence. 

     “With Hamlet,” writes James Shapiro, “a play poised midway between a religious past and a secular future, Shakespeare finally found a dramatically compelling way to internalize contesting forces: the essay-like soliloquy proved to be the perfect vehicle for Hamlet’s efforts to confront issues that, like Brutus’, defied easy resolution. And he further complicated Hamlet’s struggle by placing it in a large world of unresolved post-Reformation social, religious and political conflicts, which is why the play is so often taken as the ultimate expression of its age…

     “… The soliloquies restlessly return to these conflicts, which climax in ‘To be or not to be’: in a world that feels so ‘weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable’, is it better to live or die? And is the fear of what awaits him in the next world enough to offset the urge to commit suicide? Is the Ghost come from Purgatory to warn him or should he see this visitation in a Protestant light (for Protestants didn’t believe in Purgatory), as a devil who will exploit his melancholy and who ‘Abuses me to damn me’ (II, ii, 603). Is revenge a human or a divine prerogative? Is it right to kill Claudius at his prayers, even if this means sending his shriven soul to heaven? When, if ever, is killing a tyrant justified – and does the failure to do so invite damnation?” 


     It was this last, political question that especially exercised Shakespeare, as it did his countrymen at this time, that is, the first decade of the seventeenth century. Of course, he had touched upon the question of the nature of political authority, its rights and limitations in several plays of the previous decade, when he had been able, with his usual skill, to present both sides of the argument in a convincing manner – and without betraying his own convictions too obviously. 

     Henry V and Richard II are especially interesting for Orthodox readers because of their profound exploration of the nature of sacred kingship, its responsibility before God and man. The parallels with the life of Tsar-Martyr Nicholas, who like Richard, was forced to abdicate from his throne, are numerous, as in

Not all the water in the rough rude sea

Can wash the balm from an anointed King.

As for Julius Caesar, it is probably the profoundest study of the morality of revolution and revolutionaries in the English language.

     Hamlet and Troilus and Cressida continue the themes of loyalty and betrayal, both political and personal, that are so central to the whole of Shakespeare’s oeuvre. We may suppose that Shakespeare was fairly conservative, even monarchist in his political views. Thus in Troilus and Cressida we find the famous speech on “degree”, i.e. hierarchy: 

Take but degree away, untune that string,

And, hark, what discord follows! Each thing melts

In mere oppugnancy: the bounded waters

Should lift their bosoms higher than the shores,

And make a sop of all this solid globe;

Strength should be lord of imbecility,

And the rude son should strike his father dead;

Force should be right; or, rather, right and wrong –

Between whose endless jar justice resides –

Should lose their names, and so should justice too.

     Nevertheless, we may suppose that he also felt the tug of revolutionary tendencies and to some extent sympathized with them. Thus there is real passion in Hamlet’s attempt to cast the light of truth on the evil deeds of the false King Claudius in the “play within the play” scene:

Ophelia. The King rises.

Hamlet. What, frighted with false fire!

Queen. How fares my lord?

Polonius. Give o'er the play.

King. Give me some light. Away!

Polonius. Lights, lights, lights!

     But this was dangerous territory in Jacobean England, where the monarchy so jealously guarded its privileges. In any case, even if he sympathized to some extent with the rebels against the monarchists, Shakespeare was perfectly well aware where revolution ended – in hell, where the ghost of his father came from. Thus Hamlet exposes the false king - but at the same time destroys both himself and all those whom he loves.  

     Up to this point, in spite of the political content of his plays, Shakespeare had managed, unlike several of his dramatist colleagues, to escape censorship (carried out in that age by bishops) and stay out of prison. But the Gunpowder Plot of November, 1605, when a Catholic conspiracy to blow up the Houses of Parliament had been foiled by the authorities, raised the political temperature in the country, inducing spy-mania, paranoia and suspicions of treason to an unparalleled degree. Shakespeare had the choice: to play safe and not allude to recent events or the controversies surrounding them, or to follow Hamlet’s own advice to dramatists and “hold the mirror up to nature” and give “the very age and body of the time his form and pressure”. He chose the latter, riskier course, and the result was one of his greatest plays, Macbeth.

     Macbeth was performed at court in front of King James sometime in 1606. James, like his predecessor Elizabeth, believed in “degree”, hierarchy and the order of being, and considered that “equality is the mother of confusion and an enemy of the Unity which is the Mother of Order”.  At the same time he acknowledged that there is an important distinction between an autocrat, who “acknowledges himself ordained for his people”, and a tyrant, who “thinks his people ordained for him, a prey to his passions and inordinate appetites.” Although a king was “a little God to sit on this throne and rule over other men”, he nevertheless had to provide a good example to his subjects. But while not free in relation to God, the king was free in relation to his subjects. Hence the title of James’ book, The True Law of Free Monarchies. 

     As Jonathan Bate writes, Macbeth “is steeped in King James’s preoccupations: the rights of royal succession, the relationship between England and Scotland [James was the son of Mary Queen of Scots, who had been murdered by his predecessor, Queen Elizabeth of England], witchcraft, the sacred powers of the monarch, anxiety about gunpowder, treason and plot. A deeply learned man, the king had published a treatise explaining how monarchs were God’s regents upon the earth  and another arguing for the reality of witchcraft or ‘demonology’. He considered himself something of an adept at distinguishing between true and false accusations of witchcraft. He took a deep interest in such customs as the tradition of the sacred power of the king’s ‘touch’ to cure subjects afflicted with the disease of scrofula (known as ‘the king’s evil’).

     “Religion and politics were joined seamlessly together. The Bible said that rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft: if the monarch was God’s representative upon earth, then to conspire against him was to make a pact with the instrument of darkness – in the Gunpowder trials, Jesuits such as Father Garnet were described as male witches. Treason was regarded as more than a political act: it was, as one modern scholar puts it, ‘a form of possession, an action contrary to and destructive of the very order of nature itself. The forces of the netherworld seek for their own uncreating purposes the killing of the legitimate king in order to restore the realm of tyranny and chaos.’

     “In this world, killing the king is the ultimate crime against nature. ‘O horror, horror, horror’, says Macduff as he returns on stage having stared into the heart of darkness, seen how the gashed stabs on the king’s body look like a breach in nature. ‘Tongue nor heart cannot conceive nor name thee’: the language here alludes to the famous passage in St. Paul about the inexpressible wonders that God has prepared in the kingdom of heaven for those who love Him. Macduff, by contrast, has momentarily entered the kingdom of hell, where a drunken porter keeps the gate. ‘Confusion’ now hath replication of the order of divine creation. But the art here is that of confusion and death: ‘Most sacrilegious murder hath broke ope / The Lord’s anointed temple and stole thence / The life o’ th’ building.’ The understanding of the play requires close attention to be paid to such words as ‘sacrilegious’, in which political violence is bound inextricably to articles of religious faith. ‘Treason has done his worst,’ says Macbeth in one of those moments when his conscience is pricked. His worst, not its: Treason is not a concept but a living thing. The devil’s disciple, he stalks the stage of politics and brings sleepless nights through which the guilty man shakes and sweats with fear and terrible dreams, while the guilty woman descends into insanity…”  

     But while great art can mirror great tensions, it cannot disperse them: from this time English society became increasingly polarized. The unity obtained between Catholics and Protestants, loyalists and revolutionaries, through the cult of the Virgin Queen Elizabeth had been largely a clever theatrical stunt, but it had worked. James I, however, had a more difficult time of it, having to unify not only Catholics and Protestants, but also English and Scots. On the one hand, he had to keep his Catholic-at-heart English subjects, the “recusants”, in line by spying on them, chasing up secret Jesuits and compelling all Englishmen to swear the Oath of Allegiance and receive communion in the Anglican church at least three times a year. On the other hand, as a Scot, he had to persuade his radical Protestant fellow-countrymen north of the border that he had not only a Divine right to rule, but could play a part in the life of the official church and even appoint bishops: as he famously put it, “no king, no bishop”. 

     James’ plan to unite England and Scotland into one country failed; but the superb language of his other beloved project, the King James version of the Bible, translated by a committee of Anglicans and moderate Puritans, has had a profoundly unifying effect on the English-speaking peoples to this day. Nevertheless, there was no unity taking place within the political nation as the seventeenth century progressed: the Stuart kings increasingly gravitated towards the “right”, while their subjects on the whole became more “leftist”. An early sign of the latter’s increasing power was the ban placed by Puritan censors on any reference to God or Christ in the theatre, which meant that the word “God” appears no longer in Shakespeare from Antony and Cleopatra onwards.  Shakespeare took the hint and “retired” a few years later – he was not alive to witness the final closing down of the theatre by the Puritans in 1642. And so the scene was set for the English revolution - “that grand crisis of morals, religion and government”, as Coleridge called it , or “the first major breech in Absolute Monarchy and the spawning of the first major, secular, egalitarian and liberal culture in the modern world”.  


     Great tensions produce great art: 1606, the year after the Gunpowder Plot produced, besides Macbeth, also King Lear and Antony and Cleopatra, a trilogy unequalled in the history of literature with the possible exception of Dostoyevsky’s trilogy of The Idiot, The Devils and The Brothers Karamazov.  

     King Lear is Shakespeare’s Great Friday allegory, and the imagery reflects the theme: Lear is racked on a wheel, wood and crosses and blood abound. But the real victim is Lear’s Christlike daughter Cordelia. The scene of her sacrificial, all-forgiving death, and Lear’s conversion and repentance in and through it is perhaps the most unbearably poignant in English literature.  

     Macbeth is Shakespeare’s allegory of the Descent into hell. Everything is darkness, demons, madness and despair. Macbeth’s final semi-atheistic despair is ferocious in the cold, cruel clarity of its vision, as even the rhythm of the verse slows down to echo the everlastingness of his damnation:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,

To the last syllable of recorded time;

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!

Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,

And then is heard no more. It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing…

     As for Antony and Cleopatra, its imagery is full of light and fire, as befits an allegory of the Resurrection. For this play is much more than a love story. It is also a story about how a fallen woman sheds her corrupt past and rises incorruptible in a kind of literary Resurrection of the body, her illicit lover Antony becoming after is death an honourable husband in her imagination, even a type of Christ the Bridegroom:  

Give me my robe, put on my crown; I have Immortal longings in me…

Husband, I come.

Now to that name my courage prove my title!

I am fire and air; my other elements

I give to baser life. 

     Of course, we cannot know whether Shakespeare consciously considered his three greatest dramas to be an allegory of the central mysteries of the Christian faith. But the greatness of a writer does not reside in his consciousness of the depth of his art. The test is whether he makes us respond deeply – and by that criterion Shakespeare was a supremely Christian writer.


     Shakespeare can be bawdy; but there is always a profound seriousness underlying even the comedies. He makes little spiritual epigrams which clearly point to a man who has thought about life from a definitely religious viewpoint. Thus in his very earliest extant work, Venus and Adonis, we see his Christian morality clearly expressed: 

Love surfeits not: Lust like a glutton dies.

Love is all truth: Lust full of forged lies.

     A deeper meditation on the same theme is found in the incomparable Sonnet 129: 

Let me not to the marriage of true minds

Admit impediments. Love is not love

Which alters when it alteration finds,

 Or bends with the remover to remove.

O, no! it is an ever-fixed mark,

That looks on tempests and is never shaken;

It is the star to every wand’ring bark,

Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.

Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks

Within his bending sickle’s compass come;

Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,

But bears it out even to the edge of doom.

If this be error, and upon me prov’d.

I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.

      The spiritual struggle between good and evil, angels and demons, is well known to Shakespeare. Thus in Sonnet 144, we read:

Two loves I have, of comfort and despair,

Which like two angels do suggest me still;

The better angel is a man right fair,

The worser spirit a woman colour'd ill.

To win me soon to hell, my female evil

Tempteth my better angel from my side,

And would corrupt my saint to be a devil,

Wooing his purity with her foul pride.

And whether that my angel be turn'd fiend,

Suspect I may, yet not directly tell;

But being both from me, both to each friend,

I guess one angel in another's hell.

Yet this shall I ne'er know, but live in doubt,

Till my bad angel fire my good one out.

     Again, in the midst of the great drama of Antony and Cleopatra we are told that our prayers are not always answered because it would not be good for us:

We, ignorant of ourselves,

Beg often our own harms, which the wise powers

Deny us for our good; so find we profit

By losing of our prayers.

     Again, in Richard II we are exhorted to humility as follows:

whate'er I be,

Nor I, nor any man that but man is,

With nothing shall be pleased till he be eas'd

With being nothing.

     And in Hamlet we see a heartfelt desire for passionlessness:

Give me that man

That is not passion's slave, and I will wear him

In my heart's core, ay, in my heart of heart.

     Even the foolish Polonius is allowed a wise aphorism:

To thine own self be true,

And it must follow, as the night the day,

Thou canst not then be false to any man. 

     Shakespeare mocked and undermined the medieval concept of chivalric “honour” and military glory, as in Henry IV, part 1:

By heaven, methinks it were an easy leap

To pluck bright honor from the pale-fac'd moon . . .

     He did the same in Hamlet

Rightly to be great

Is not to stir without great argument,

But greatly to find quarrel in a straw

When honor’s at stake…

Witness this army, of such mass and charge, 

Led by a delicate and tender prince; 

Whose spirit, with divine ambition puff'd, 

Makes mouths at the invisible event; 

Exposing what is mortal, and unsure, 

To all that fortune, death, and danger dare,

Even for an egg-shell. 

     Again, there is no sharper exposure of the hypocrisy of Christian Pharisaism than we find in Measure for Measure, which contains this biting but profoundly theological observation:

But man, proud man,

Dress'd in a little brief authority,

Most ignorant of what he's most assur'd—

His glassy essence—like an angry ape

Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven

As makes the angels weep; who, with our spleens,

Would all themselves laugh mortal.

     Similar in its imagery, but still more powerful, and hardly less theological, is this passage from Macbeth:

Besides, this Duncan 

Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been 

So clear in his great office, that his virtues 

Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued against 

The deep damnation of his taking-off, 

And pity, like a naked new-born babe, 

Striding the blast, or heaven’s cherubin, horsed 

Upon the sightless couriers of the air, 

Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye 

That tears shall drown the wind.

     Again, what profounder exposure of the hypocrisy of Christian anti-semitism can we find than in Shylock’s speech in The Merchant of Venice:

I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die? And if you wrong us shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.

     At the same time, Shylock’s greed and vengefulness is not spared, and mercy, the crown of Christian virtues, is portrayed with consummate grace:

The quality of mercy is not strain'd,

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;

It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:

'Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes

The throned monarch better than his crown;

His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,

The attribute to awe and majesty,

Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;

But mercy is above this sceptred sway;

It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,

It is an attribute to God himself;

And earthly power doth then show likest God's

When mercy seasons justice. 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. 

     However, we cannot leave the theme of Shakespeare and Christianity without considering the last work of his creative life, The Tempest. Like Beethoven who saved his greatest and most religious work to the end of his life, when he could no longer even hear, so Shakespeare left his most religious work to the end, when he was not even allowed to mention God in his plays. For just as The Winter’s Tale is another – but much more explicit – allegory of the Resurrection, so The Tempest is an allegory of the end of the world.

     The main character of the play, who controls the whole action, is Prospero. He is a sorcerer, which is, of course, an evil occupation for a Christian. And yet if we judge by the fruits of his actions, he is more like God Himself than a servant of demons. And when he has finally brought everything to a happy conclusion through a truly divine providence, reuniting lovers, correcting injustice and putting evil spirits in their place, he renounces everything:

I have bedimm'd 

The noontide sun, call'd forth the mutinous winds, 

And 'twixt the green sea and the azured vault 

Set roaring war: to the dread rattling thunder 

Have I given fire and rifted Jove's stout oak 

With his own bolt; the strong-based promontory 

Have I made shake and by the spurs pluck'd up 

The pine and cedar: graves at my command 

Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let 'em forth 

By my so potent art. But this rough magic 

I here abjure, and, when I have required 

Some heavenly music, which even now I do, 

To work mine end upon their senses that 

This airy charm is for, I'll break my staff, 

Bury it certain fathoms in the earth, 

And deeper than did ever plummet sound 

I'll drown my book.

     Like Prospero, Shakespeare now renounces his “so potent art”. For he does not over-estimate the reality or value of his creations. Only God is truly creative; and so in true humility he hands back the gift he received to the true Creator Who gave it him. But he goes further. Not only will his art now come to an end, but the theatre itself and the whole of present-day reality outside the theatre will come to an end. The whole of this solid globe will disappear (Shakespeare’s theatre was called the Globe, but the globe in the sense of the whole world is also meant), and in retrospect will seem like mere stagecraft and stage-props and play-acting in comparison with the incomparably greater and more substantial new creation on the other side of the “sleep” that is death. Indeed, compared to what God has in store for us in the next life, our present temporal life is but an “insubstantial pageant”, a dream:  

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.

     It remains only for Shakespeare, a conscious Christian to the end, to ask forgiveness of his readers and spectators if his “rough magic” has caused anyone any harm:

Now I want 

Spirits to enforce, art to enchant, 

And 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 pardon'd be, 

Let your indulgence set me free.


August 10/23, 2016.



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