In the Spirit of Shakespeare

By Rich Westley

          William Shakespeare grew up in the middle of more than a century of religious conflict in England and his experience of this constant turmoil over professed sides of Christian belief helped to shape his plays and the religious and spiritual ideas they contain–and those they do not contain as well. Sadly his parents and extended family became embroiled in the back and forth ascendancy to the throne of first a Catholic, and then an Anglican, queen.

It was Henry VIII who abolished Roman Catholicism in England, establishing the Church of England and placing himself at its head. The problem was he had already, as a Catholic, fathered by his Catholic first wife a Catholic daughter, Mary, who ruled England from 1553-1558. Mary reversed her father’s policy and re-established Catholicism as the official religion of the land. She also banned Anglicanism and all other Protestant sects. Unfortunately Mary also harassed and executed dozens of high profile Anglicans–some were even burned at the stake. But when she died, her sister Elizabeth I became Queen of England and re-established her father’s Anglicanism and again banned Catholicism. Elizabeth also got Parliament to pass laws requiring oaths of loyalty to her and the state religion as well as requirements for public attendance at church. All of this was maintained by religious spies–I’m not kidding–who monitored every English man and woman’s religious behavior. I think we can all understand why the North American colonies were so interested in freedom of religion. Under Elizabeth, those suspected of practicing Catholicism in secret were ferreted out and then forced to embrace Anglicanism or else face fines, loss of property, imprisonment or execution. This ended up directly affecting Shakespeare’s family.

Shakespeare’s mother, Mary Arden, had a cousin named Edward Arden, who was exposed as a secret Catholic, accused of plotting against Queen Elizabeth, and then hanged, drawn and quartered in 1583. This was shortly after WIlliam Shakespeare’s first daughter was born–he was nineteen. Edward Arden’s violent end over his religious beliefs reverberated throughout the Arden and Shakespeare branches of the family. Later, in 1592 Shakespeare’s father, John, was accused of being a recusant, that is, a secret Catholic, because he had stopped attending church services in Stratford years earlier. Many scholars believe his son, Will, who was a rising star in the London theaters, protected his father and paid off the authorities as well as any fines that had been levied against John Shakespeare. Without his son shielding him, they argue, a recusant John Shakespeare could have faced loss of property, imprisonment and even death.

Some years later, a document attached to John Shakespeare’s will was found wedged between the rafters and the roof of the house William Shakespeare grew up in. It contained a deathbed profession of faith written by, of all people, the Catholic Archbishop of Milan and it had been translated into English. Recusants in England, who had been forced to commit mortal sins repeatedly by rejecting their faith publicly, were encouraged to make this profession on a regular basis so that they could die good Catholics, that is to say in a state of grace, and go to heaven instead of hell. This was serious business and the stakes, spiritually speaking, couldn’t have been higher. During William Shakespeare’s lifetime numerous documents record the fates of recusants who, despite ghastly tortures and eventual execution, refused to renounce their Roman Catholic faith.

The effect of all this on Shakespeare’s religious and spiritual ideas is hard to gauge. Perhaps Mercutio’s dying line in Romeo and Juliet, “A pox on both your houses!” expresses Shakespeare’s attitude toward the Catholic/Anglican split as much as it is a judgment against the Capulet-Montague feud. Still, Shakespeare mostly kept organized religion out of his plays because he needed to make a living. The Master of the Revels, wielding the Queen’s authority, could refuse to license any play for public performance. Placing any pro-Catholic ideas into a play was a virtual guarantee it would never see the stage, let alone invite suspicion over the playwright’s orthodoxy. Shakespeare wisely chose mostly to steer clear of the whole mess. But there are exceptions and one of them is stunning and leads to the first great spiritual truth Shakespeare embraced. This is Shakespeare’s portrayal of Shylock, the Jewish moneylender, in The Merchant of Venice.

By royal decree, Jews had been expelled from England in 1290, but many remained in the country by converting to Christianity and then went underground in order to practice Judaism. So interestingly there were secret Jews as well as secret Catholics in Shakespeare’s day. Now Christopher Marlowe, Shakespeare’s famous predecessor, wrote a play titled The Jew of Malta, in which the main character, Barabas, embodies two negative Jewish stereotypes: love of money and hatred of Christians. The play unabashedly confirms the anti-Jewish sentiment that prevailed in Elizabethan England and most of Europe at this time. Borrowing from Marlowe, Shakespeare places these same two stereotypes in his depiction of Shylock, but he then goes beyond Marlowe by directly challenging the anti-Jewish bias of his audiences. Unlike Marlowe, Shakespeare provides the reason why Shylock hates Christians. Just after the Christian merchant Antonio asks Shylock to lend him money, Shylock responds to him as follows:

Signior Antonio, many a time and oft

In the Rialto you have berated me

About my moneys and my usances:

Still have I borne it with a patient shrug,

For sufferance is the badge of all our tribe.

You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog,

And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine,

And all for use of that which is mine own.

Well then, it now appears you need my help:

Go to, then; you come to me, and you say

‘Shylock, we would have moneys:’ you say so;

You, that did void your rheum upon my beard

And foot me as you spurn a stranger cur

Over your threshold: moneys is your suit.

What should I say to you? Should I not say

‘Hath a dog money? is it possible

A cur can lend three thousand ducats?’ Or

Shall I bend low and in a bondman’s key,

With bated breath and whispering humbleness, Say this;

‘Fair sir, you spit on me on Wednesday last;

You spurn’d me such a day; another time

You call’d me dog; and for these courtesies

I’ll lend you thus much moneys’?

The Christians, Shakespeare is saying, have not been very Christ-like in their behavior toward Shylock. Later in the play, Shakespeare extends this line of thought by giving Shylock these famous words that you have probably heard before:

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.

Underpinning this Jewish/Christian split, and Shylock’s unfortunate embrace of an eye for an eye, is a far more important point, a spiritual truth that Shakespeare returns to again and again in his plays: everyone shares the same human condition. And I can’t help but think that Shakespeare is also commenting on all sectarian and religious conflict, like the one he and his family had to endure between Anglicans and Catholics.

Another spiritual idea that consistently appears in Shakespeare’s plays affects how we can think about our own spiritual journeys, namely, the difference between appearance vs. reality, an idea that goes well beyond the English classroom. So many of Shakespeare’s characters seem to be one way but turn out to be wholly other than they appear. People wear masks. Iago pretends to be Othello’s loyal friend even as he chillingly leads Othello into believing that his wife Desdemona has been unfaithful to him. But the appearance/reality difference doesn’t only apply to villainous characters hiding their evil natures. In the play The Tempest, the main character Prospero pretends to be angry with the young man Ferdinand, whose father helped banish Prospero to the island he has inhabited for years, along with his daughter, Miranda, who was just a little girl when they first arrived there. At the level of appearances Prospero ‘punishes’ Ferdinand with hard labor because he knows his daughter Miranda will sympathize with the young man’s plight, which, of course, she does. She not only helps him carry logs, thus lightening his punishment, she falls in love with him as well, an outcome that in reality delights Prospero, who we now understand is busy creating a “brave new world” that can only come about with the union in marriage of Miranda and Ferdinand, both of whom are innocent of all political intrigue. I can’t help but think that the Anglicans who had to appear otherwise during Mary’s reign and the recusant Catholics who had to appear to be good Anglicans during Elizabeth’s reign influenced Shakespeare’s presentation of this aspect of the human condition and how it operates. Who you appear to be is never as important as who you are deep down, and people often miss it. This too is a universal spiritual truth, I think.

I want to close by focusing on, for me, the most profound spiritual idea Shakespeare embeds in his plays:  loss for the sake of greater gain. This is a variation on the appearance vs. reality theme that Shakespeare fashions into yet another universal framework. At the beginning of The Tempest,  Prospero, using the art of magic–it’s white magic, by the way–has raised a storm to bring both Ferdinand and his father Alonso among others, to the island. The storm, however, has separated father and son so that Alonso wanders the island in despair, believing his son is dead. Like Ferdinand is later on, he too is ‘punished’ by Prospero, who uses his magic to inform Alonso that Ferdinand’s death is the direct result of Alonso’s participation in the plot, years before, to remove Prospero as the rightful Duke of Milan and set him and Miranda adrift at sea. Alonso fully believes his sins against Prospero has brought about divine retribution in the loss of his only son–do you detect a Christian theme here? He is so low that he no longer wishes to live, let alone rule his own kingdom of Naples. Shakespeare makes it abundantly clear that Alonso’s sins and grief are real.

However, Prospero treats Ferdinand differently. Before he captures Ferdinand and forces him to perform hard labor, Prospero again uses his magic to send a completely different kind of message to Ferdinand about his father:

Full fathom five thy father lies;

Of his bones are coral made;

Those are pearls that were his eyes:

Nothing of him that doth fade,

But doth suffer a sea-change

Into something rich and strange.

Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:


Hark! now I hear them…

The message is two-fold: Ferdinand’s father has drowned but he has also undergone a wondrous transformation, a sea-change. Ferdinand’s grief is not as painful to him because he doesn’t believe his father’s death is the result of any sin he, Ferdinand, has committed–plus he shortly after this meets Miranda, which is pretty good compensation for the loss of a father, I’d say.

          We know where this is going. At the end of the play, Prospero reunites father and son, who is now betrothed to Miranda, so that not only are the initial losses restored but a far greater gain is achieved, all thanks to Prospero. Alonso will live the rest of his life as a virtuous ruler–he will never again plot against anyone. His son is not only alive, he brings with him a daughter-in-law and a pregnant future, pun intended. Ferdinand has Miranda and his father back. Miranda, who only ever knew her father as a companion growing up on the island, now has Ferdinand, all of Naples and a future she calls a “brave new world”.

          The core of most religious beliefs is this sense that death is not the end, but rather a profound transformation. My Shakespeare professor in college told us that The Tempest is Shakespeare’s statement on how God sees the world and our own lives in it. And so, death should not worry us, especially when we understand that, like Prospero, God is fashioning a brave new eternal world. We will certainly undergo a sea-change in death, but Shakespeare reminds us will re-emerge symbolically in the form of coral and pearls, two of the sea’s most beautiful objects. This play tells us that Shakespeare is finally able to let go of any distress or bitterness he may have held due to the religious, sectarian, and political, conflicts of his day. Though no proponent of any religious sect, as far as I can tell, Shakespeare reminds us constantly of the spiritual journey our lives represent and the fact that our life losses will be restored and then some. It is and will be wonderful and will seem almost beyond belief.