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    Why Shakespeare For Christian Students?

    by Rev. Ralph Allan Smith (1999)

    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."[1] 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. [2]

    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 Christian.

    (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 inadequacy.

    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 James Bible.

    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.[3] 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.


    [1] Roy Battenhouse, Shakespeare's Christian Dimension: An Anthology of Commentary (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1994), p. 1.

    [2] Harold Bloom, The Western Canon: the Books and School of the Ages (New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1994), p. 52.

    [3] Battenhouse, p. 1.

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