Was Shakespeare an Atheist?
edited: Wednesday, December 01, 2004
By Gene Gordon
Rated "G" by the Author.
Posted: Monday, September 06, 2004
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Shakespeare was the greatest humanist - a SECULAR humanist - and perhaps an atheist.
Was Shakespeare an atheist? Let’s see if we can answer this by comparing Shakespeare to Confucius, Buddha, and Jesus Christ.
Buddha taught that all of creation is impermanent. Shakespeare certainly agreed. But Buddha believed that whatever is impermanent is in its very essence evil. He urged us to escape the anguish of this world - suffering, disease, old age, birth, death, poverty, war, insanity! Escape from the senses Buddha advised us – both the gratification and the danger of the senses. No permanent bliss is to be found in what is impermanent - only pain.
There is plenty of pain in Shakespeare. What happens to Othello and Desdemona – to Lear and Cordelia – is so painful as to be unbearable. But for Shakespeare there is no Nirvana, no escape from pain in this world to bliss in another world. For Buddha, Nirvana is a final bliss attained after countless cycles of wretched lives come to an end. Nirvana requires a hard-to-believe and impossible-to-prove reincarnation, the theory that a particular soul enters again and again into different bodies – even into the flesh of animals. This idea Shakespeare finds quite preposterous: he actually makes fun of it in "Twelfth Night" and "As You Like It." Nirvana for Buddha is an extinction of desire and individual consciousness - an ultimate happiness somehow outside this world, this life. Realistic Shakespeare offers no such panacea.
Shakespeare has a lot more in common with Confucius. Both Confucius and Shakespeare reside in this world and this world only. Why, Confucius actually forbade his pupils to speak of gods or spirits: his disciples were to concern themselves entirely with relations between people.
And Shakespeare’s people, the magnificent characters he creates are creatures of this world. Shakespeare, like Confucius, was a humanist: human intercourse was the be all and end all of Shakespeare’s life, his thought, and his art.
Shakespeare can also be favorably compared to Jesus. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus proclaimed “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.” Shakespeare too - over and over - taught mercy and forgiveness. In his plays a brother will steal from a brother, harm him - even seek to kill him. Such is the case in "As You Like It," and in "The Tempest." In "The Two Gentlemen of Verona" and "The Winter’s Tale" a man brutally betrays his closest friend. In all these situations the aggrieved one somehow finds it in his heart to forgive. Why, Hermione forgave her husband Leontes when he killed their little son. Hero forgave Claudio when he slandered her to death. Desdemona forgave Othello even as he smothered her to death! In all of the plays there are such examples. Yes, Shakespeare gave thirty-seven ‘Sermons on the Mount.’ Moreover, they were delivered in the most moving, exciting and dramatic prose as well as in the most sublime, the most glorious poetry.
Christ-like, yes, and yet Shakespeare was not in his plays a Christian. Neither a Catholic nor a Protestant, and certainly not a mystic, Shakespeare concerns himself not with gods but with people. The only hell Shakespeare knows is in the human heart - and the only heaven too. He was a realist, a naturalist, and if the truth be told, somewhat of a philosophical nihilist. One student of Shakespeare has concluded that our supreme poet was “abandoned to a life that ends in death, with nothing after that.” And I remind you that Shakespeare’s most philosophical character, Hamlet, does not foresee a life after death. He asks his friend to live and tell his story. Hamlet’s last words are “O, I die, Horatio! The potent poison quite o’ercrows my spirit. The rest is silence.”
No, it seems Shakespeare was not a religious man, just as the greatest American president, a man who loved Shakespeare, was not a religious man. Abraham Lincoln almost went blind reading Shakespeare by candlelight. And in reading Shakespeare he was reading the ‘Bible.’ For Shakespeare’s work is known as the Secular Bible.
How many pioneer families trekked westward across our great continent reading Shakespeare along with the Bible? How many New England whaling captains - putting out to sea on a long voyage - brought Shakespeare with them instead of the Bible?
Well, Shakespeare is in one respect greater than the Bible: In "Bartlett’s Quotations," New and Old Testaments quotes together take up thirty-seven pages. But quotations from Shakespeare require no less than one hundred and twenty-two pages!
There is such a thing as Bardolatry, defined as “the worship of, or excessive devotion to, Shakespeare and his works.” Why is there such a thing as Bardolotry? Why does Herman Melville declare “If ever the Messiah comes again ‘twill be in Shakespeare’s person.” Why does Pushkin tell us that “after God, Shakespeare is the greatest creator of living beings; he created an entire humanity.”
“Created an entire humanity.” That is the key. Harold Bloom entitles his massive work "Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human." If we had to sum up all of Shakespeare and to characterize him in only one word, that word I think would be humanist. To add a second word we would have to say secular humanist.
“He created an entire humanity,” says Alexander Pushkin. Shakespeare’s characters are so real they seem to be our close friends: Juliet, King Lear, Rosalind, Prince Hal, Cleopatra, Falstaff or Hamlet.
Shakespeare was not only the greatest humanist, but the greatest naturalist among poets. Strictly speaking Lucretius the materialist philosopher was the greatest of naturalist poets. And Omar Khayyam did exceed Shakespeare in skepticism about a world beyond or a future life. But in spite of those two important exceptions Shakespeare was the Universal Poet. He best held the mirror up to nature.
Let me close with a startling statement: I believe that Shakespeare can save the world. What? Yes, I believe that our planet - so imperiled that it seems to be hanging by a thread over the abyss – can be saved only insofar as humanity enters into the spirit of Shakespeare. And what is the spirit of Shakespeare?
It is a merry, even a bawdy spirit full of the joy of life. It is a gentle spirit altogether adverse to war. It is a tender, loving, pitying and compassionate spirit.
It is a sane, sensible spirit, brilliant enough to illuminate an entire Age of Reason, yes, the Enlightenment itself. It is a skeptical spirit, repugnant to superstition. Religious fanaticism such as we suffer today would wither in Shakespeare’s analytical light, and war – why, he would laugh war off the battlefield!
How do we vanquish the horrors of war, greed, racism, hatred, terrorism, and imperialism? I believe Shakespeare’s humanism - his secular humanism - offers the best hope.
The love millions have for Shakespeare, our devotion to him is similar to what many feel for the great world religions. I spoke earlier of Harold Bloom. “Bardolatry,” says Bloom, “the worship of Shakespeare, ought to be more a secular religion than it already is. The plays remain the outward limit of human achievement. They abide beyond the end of the mind’s reach; we cannot catch up to them. Shakespeare is a system of northern lights, an aurora borealis visible where most of us will never go. If any author has become a mortal god, it must be Shakespeare. He has become the first universal author, replacing the Bible in the secularized consciousness.”
I conclude with the remarks of Robert G. Ingersoll, the man who rescued me – when I was a boy of thirteen – released my mind from orthodoxy, from religious fundamentalism. “William Shakespeare,” says Ingersoll, “was the greatest genius of our world - the highest mountain, the greatest river, the most perfect gem. There was nothing within the range of human thought, within the horizon of intellectual effort that he did not touch. He knew the brain and heart of man - the theories, customs, superstitions, hopes, fears, hatreds, vices and virtues of the human race. He knew the thrills and ecstasies of love, the savage joys of hatred and revenge. He heard the hiss of envy’s snakes and watched the eagles of ambition soar. There was no hope that did not put its star above his head, no fear he had not felt, no joy that had not shed its sunshine on his face. He experienced the emotions of mankind. He was the intellectual spendthrift of the world. He gave with the generosity, the extravagance, of madness.
“Shakespeare was the greatest of philosophers. Within his marvelous mind were the fruits of all thought past, the seeds of all to be. As a drop of dew contains the image of the earth and sky, so all there is of life was mirrored forth in Shakespeare’s brain. Shakespeare was an intellectual ocean, whose waves touched all the shores of thought - an intellectual ocean towards which all rivers ran, and from which now the isles and continents of thought receive their dew and rain.”
Well, was he an atheist? This greatest genius of all time – can we claim him as one of our own, as an atheist? We do have Susan B. Anthony and Thomas Edison, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Mark Twain, Margaret Sanger and Bertrand Russell, Katherine Hepburn and Charlie Chaplin. Why, we count among our fellow atheists Henry David Thoreau, Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein. Wouldn’t it be terrific if we could say that William Shakespeare, the greatest intellect of all, was an atheist?
I think we can. And Shakespeare would not be the only atheist of the time. His contemporary Christopher Marlowe – another great playwright – was known as an atheist. It is said that many cultured Elizabethans were atheists. But closet atheists! It was extremely dangerous to be an atheist in Shakespeare’s time.
In England of his time if one failed to attend the official church he might be fined or even banished. To be an actual atheist was to commit treason, for it denied the divine right of the king. The head of the atheist would end up stuck on a pole at London Bridge. An atheist had to be very careful what he wrote. And therefore it is a wonder that we find in the 37 plays of Shakespeare – and his 154 sonnets - so much atheism that all the leading scholars conclude, as does Caroline Spurgeon, that “he does not show any sign of hope or belief in a future life.”
What the great Shakespeare did have belief in was this life and hope for a better humanity.