Why Shakespeare For Christian Students?
by Rev. Ralph Allan Smith
Roy Battenhouse begins his historical survey of Christian interpretation
of Shakespeare with these words: "Many ordinary readers have felt
instinctively that Shakespeare and the Bible belong together."
The instinct is correct. It is also an instinct that many non-Christian
Shakespeare scholars will not appreciate, one that they will even do
their best to eradicate. But where does the instinct come from?
Well, first of all, and contrary to the opinion of some scholars, Shakespeare
is profoundly moral. His plays, especially the tragedies, deal with
the deepest moral themes and issues. Serious consideration of any of
his plays forces one to think in ethical terms.
This does not mean that Shakespeare teaches morality in simple black
and white. The literary critic Harold Bloom points to an important truth
when he in error writes:
Shakespeare is to the world's literature what Hamlet is to the imaginary
domain of literary character: a spirit that permeates everywhere,
that cannot be confined. A freedom from doctrine and simplistic morality
is certainly one element in that spirit's ease of transference, though
the freedom made Dr. Johnson nervous and Tolstoy indignant. Shakespeare
has the largeness of nature itself, and through that largeness he
senses nature's indifference. 
That Shakespeare is not a simplistic moralizer is true. His plays are
not mere propaganda for do-gooders. But if we take the notion of "largeness
of nature" and "freedom" in Shakespeare to imply that
there is no doctrine and no moral structure in Shakespeare's universe,
we are missing the mark widely.
Imagine, for example, a version of Othello in which Iago altogether
prevails, the play ending as Iago gloats over the dead bodies of Othello
and Desdemona. Or a version of Hamlet in which the prince, driven to
unholy revenge by the appearance of a demon impersonating his father,
is able not only to destroy his enemies but rule Denmark "happily
ever after." Imagine King Lear's evil daughters being able to love
one another and cooperate successfully to steal the throne and rule
the land. In real life, there may be men -- there have been men -- who
attain their position in the world through the most nefarious Macbeth-like
betrayal, if not murder, who nevertheless are able to keep their "thrones"
without being tortured by guilt. In Shakespeare, however, this not only
does not happen, it cannot happen.
What Bloom incorrectly labels is in fact the moral depth and the complexity
that one finds in Shakespeare. No doubt this makes Shakespeare appear
to some to be unconcerned with matters of morality, since these people
assume that moral ambiguity in history contradicts moral clarity in
religion. Ironically, this same moral complexity is one of the reasons
that one "instinctively" associates Shakespeare and the Bible,
for what other book combines ethical clarity in doctrine with historical
narrative so brutally factual in its "deconstruction" of the
heros? To this very day, approximately three thousand years after David
reigned, the facts of his great faith and sincere love to God and his
gross sins of murder and adultery confront the modern reader of the
Bible with the unpleasant reality of the deep sinfulness of the very
best men. The story also provides a weapon for the enemies of the faith,
who ridicule Christians that regard an adulterous murderer as a wonderful
(Why couldn't the Bible just gloss over this part of David's story?
Why not just "edit" reality a little? Blame the adultery on
wicked Bathsheba's aggressive temptation of lonely David and the murder
on Joab, who got rid of Uriah on his own initiative. That would help
a little wouldn't it? No. Not from a mature Christian perspetive. We
want a God who tells us the truth, even the most depressing truths about
His best servants, so that we may truly know Him and ourselves. Truth
may hurt, but there is no substitute.)
The unflinching recognition of the moral ambiguity of the very best
men is Biblical. It was the Bible that taught Shakespeare not to dress
the good guys in white hats and the bad guys in black hats, with appropriate
manners of speech and facial expressions. It is the anti-Christian world
of the Enlightenment that cannot handle the reality of man's sinfulness
and the need of redemption, that seeks sinless heros to redeem man not
from the profound depths of depravity, but from the quirks of evolutionary
Shakespeare pictures men and women very much as the really are, an
embarrassing mixture of good and evil, folly and wisdom, kindness and
cruelty, while at the same time maintaining a view of God's providential
rule and judgment that does sort things out in the end. We associate
Shakespeare and the Bible, then, because Shakespeare has borrowed the
Biblical view of human life and the moral government of the world.,
even though he expresses it subtly.
A second and not unrelated reason that we instinctively associate Shakespeare
and the Bible comes from the fact that Shakespeare follows the Biblical
view of tragedy. Tragedy that comes to men by chance for no moral reasons,
tragedy that implies no moral government of the world is depressing
at best. It might be an effective tool to promote stoic indifference,
but it rings hollow. Is that all there is?
Not in Shakespeare. For him, tragedy invades life because of morally
significant decisions. Had Hamlet altogether refused the temptation
of the demonic apparition there would have been no tragedy. Or had Hamlet
simply killed his wicked uncle in the chapel while the corrupt king
was unsuccessfully attempting to repent, the prince would have avoided
killing Polonius, Ophelia, Laertes, and his mother, not to mention perhaps
saving himself. Of course, it would no longer be a tragedy if Hamlet
made the right decisions. But that is the whole point. Hamlet, Lear,
Othello, and Macbeth all suffered for their own folly and sins, not
because of some decree written in the stars.
A third reason that we instinctively associate Shakespeare and the
Bible is that Shakespeare's plays end with the judgment of evil and
the triumph of the righteous. Once again, this is not portrayed simplisticly,
but neither is the real world or the Bible. Good men die innocently
and evil men go on to live, if not happily ever after, at least something
like "ever after." Think of the story of Cain and Able. The
good guy is murdered. The bad guy lives on, has a family that lasts
for generations and builds the first city in human history. Here is
a Macbeth who, though no doubt troubled by guilt throughout his life,
nevertheless rules for a long time and dies in peace. We don't reach
the real end of the story for Cain until we read about the Noahic deluge
and the judgment of the Great White Throne (Rev. 20:11-15).
For Shakespeare each tragedy affirms the triumph of the good, though
indeed the serpent inflicts a wound on the heel (cf. Gen. 3:15). Macbeth,
Iago, Richard III, and all the other evil geniuses get their due. Innocent
people also suffer. And we don't always know whether or not the future
will be better. (Will Fortinbras really be good for Denmark?) But the
evil has been judged. If the next man on the scene follows in the way
of evil, we can be sure that he, too, will be unable to escape the awful
consequences of his deeds.
A fourth and final reason -- not because there are not more, but because
I don't want this little essay to be a book -- is the literary power
and beauty of Shakespeare. Again, we associate him with the Bible --
though only in the King James Version, which, whatever faults it may
have by virtue of its age, still remains the only truly literary translation
of the Bible. The King James translation of the Bible is incomparably
the most beautiful piece of literature in the English language. Shakespeare
comes second. The beauty of his writing is found to no small degree
in the fact that he speaks the same "dialect" as the King
When students study Shakespeare, then, they are forced to think about
moral issues as adults who must be able to deal with the fact that basically
good people like Othello may be guilty of the grossest mistakes in judgment
due to defects of character. They confront characters whose psychological
depth and complexity compel the intellectual efforts involved in interpretation.
Shakespeare's stories have twists and turns that surprise and bother
us just like real life. Students reading Shakespeare are guided to maturity
through complex moral reasoning. Next to the Bible, he is perhaps the
most important textbook for Christian young people who are seeking wisdom
to live for the glory of God.
Yes, we instinctively associate Shakespeare with the Bible. Non-Christian
scholars may assert that Shakespeare "did not write as a Christian,"
but Christians will remember that he was buried in a church and that
his last will names Christ as his Savior. What Shakespeare wrote
while contemplating eternity, it seems to me, is a confession not to
be taken lightly. Be that as it may, the worldview which informs and
forms his plays is Christian. It is the realistic and complex moral
worldview of the Bible. If modern, English-speaking Christians -- whose
worldviews now suffer from the influence of TV and movies that are at
best non-Christian and not infrequently outright anti-Christian -- have
a serious interest in learning to think like Christians, Shakespeare
is a nearly indispensable source.
 Roy Battenhouse, Shakespeare's Christian Dimension: An Anthology
of Commentary (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University
Press, 1994), p. 1.
 Harold Bloom, The Western Canon: the Books and School of the
Ages (New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1994), p. 52.
 Battenhouse, p. 1.