Peter Milward – Towards an Understanding of Christianity in Shakespeare: In Memory of Roy Battenhouse


Towards an Understanding of Christianity in Shakespeare: In Memory of Roy Battenhouse

Peter Milward

Published in Connotations Vol. 5.1 (1995/96)


All scholars working in the field of Shakespearean criticism, whether Christian or otherwise, have suffered a grievous loss in the departure of Roy Battenhouse from our midst—though he remains with us as well through his memory as through his many writings, not least his opus magnum on Shakespearean Tragedy.1) It is, therefore, appropriate that two of the "comments" in the latest issue of Connotations (4.3) should arise out of his own distinguished contribution on the above−mentioned subject in a previous issue (3.3). It is, moreover, out of the first of those "comments," that by Cecile Williamson Cary, that this contribution of mine takes its rise—and in particular the fascinating question she raises as to "the appropriate theologians to read for an understanding of Shakespeare" (247).

Whereas Roy Battenhouse opts for "Augustine, Dante, and Aquinas (as opposed to Calvin)" (Cary 247) and Roland Frye for Luther, Calvin and Hooker in his misguided Shakespeare and Christian Doctrine,2) Cary herself proposes "Hooker, and Andrewes, and Spenser, for that matter" as being "more believable sources" (248). Her somewhat feeble explanation for this proposal is that "Christianity was the religion in force when Shakespeare was writing," and that "the official Christianity of Elizabethan England was Anglican—not the Christianity of Calvin, nor that of Augustine, Aquinas and Dante (although Hooker did make use of Augustine, as well as of Calvin)" (249).

[→page 77] Well, if we are looking for "the official Christianity of Elizabethan England," Hooker comes a little late in the day to be accepted as its authorized exponent, considering that his books of Laws were only published in the mid−1590s and they only came to prevail as the theology of Anglicanism in the following century. Virgil Whitaker, in his Shakespeare's Use of Learning,3) makes out a fair case for some influence from Hooker's Laws4) on Shakespeare's later plays; but it is not an altogether convincing one. In any case, the spheres in which the dramatist and the theologian moved, were far apart from each other. As for the theological content of the Laws, Hooker expresses his indebtedness not only to Augustine but also to Calvin (whose theology he respected more than his theory and practice of Church government); and he even admits to the further influence of the mediaeval scholastics, whom he actually names, Aquinas and Scotus—for which he was severely taken to task by the Puritan authors of A Christian Letter (1599).5) Thus we may say that, if only through Hooker, Shakespeare may well have had access to Aquinas.

Still, if Hooker comes a little late, surely we have the Elizabethan Homilies,6) which go back to the early years of the reign, and to which Shakespeare must have been inured from his boyhood, even to the limits of his endurance—to judge from Rosalind's comments on Orlando's "tedious homily of love" (As You Like It 3.2.164−65). And then there are the voluminous writings of John Jewel against the Papist champion Thomas Harding,7) and of John Whitgift (who went on to commission Hooker's Laws) against the Puritan leader Thomas Cartwright.8) As for Anglican "orthodoxy" during all this period, in so far as there was such a thing, apart from the mixed doctrine of the Homilies, it was clearly Calvinist at least at the two universities of Oxford (where the Puritan leader at the later Hampton Court Conference, John Reynolds,9) held sway) and Cambridge (which was even more under the sway of the Puritan William Whitaker).10) This "orthodoxy" was above all formulated, by Whitaker and Whitgift, in the notorious Lambeth Articles of 1595;11) but these remained a dead letter thanks to the Queen's unwillingness to impose such high theological doctrines on the consciences of her subjects.

[→page 78] This all, however, rests on the questionable assumption that Shakespeare himself accepted "the official Christianity of Elizabethan England"—just as the whole argument of Roland Frye in his above−mentioned book is vitiated by his (never proved) assumption that Shakespeare was both familiar with the teaching of Luther, Calvin and Hooker on the liberation of drama and literature from the dominion of theology and amenable to it. True, Luther does have some impact on the mind of the young Hamlet, in so far as he comes from the newly founded (1502) university of Wittenberg12) and is evidently haunted by a conviction of sin; but Calvin's impact hardly extends further than that of escaping what Benedick calls "a predestinate scratched face" (Much Ado 1.1.141−42), not to mention Cassio's drunken comments on souls that "must be saved" and others that "must not be saved" (Othello 2.3.107−08).

On the whole, Luther in Wittenberg and Calvin in Geneva, both within the early half of the sixteenth century, seem all too remote from Shakespeare in London towards the end of that century; and as a practising dramatist, Shakespeare must have been more concerned—as his plays everywhere indicate—with more contemporary, if not ephemeral, matters. So if we will but focus our attention a little more sharply on the London of the early 1590s, when we first hear of Shakespeare's presence there, we immediately come upon two very popular exponents of Christian theology whose writings leave us in little doubt of their impact on the mind and even the sympathies of the dramatist—though they are all too widely disregarded by Shakespeare scholars. On the one hand, there are the Sermons of the preacher hailed by Thomas Nash as the "silver−tongued Smith," who died in 1591 at the height of his career, and whose sermons were published in one volume two years later.13) In them one may find innumerable parallels of imagery, phraseology and thought with the subsequent plays of Shakespeare. On the other hand, there is the even more popular Book of Resolution, emanating from the pen of the Jesuit Robert Persons and hailed with no less enthusiasm by the same Thomas Nash.14) It may have been the work of a Jesuit, who would hardly have been acceptable to the Anglican authorities; but his Papist "poison" had been judiciously removed in a pirated version of his book by Edmund Bunny and in this [→page 79] form it had provided highly "vendable copy" to its printers from 1584 onwards. In it, too, one may find no fewer parallels of imagery, phraseology and thought than in the Sermons of Henry Smith.

In the case of Shakespeare's plays, however, one cannot rest merely with such contemporary influences. Or rather, one has to realise that for him and most of his audience the Bible and St Augustine were hardly less contemporary than Robert Persons or Henry Smith or Richard Hooker. For one thing, so much of what we may call "theology" in Shakespeare comes to him straight from the Bible, as well the Old as the New Testament. (Not a few scholars go astray in requiring overt Christian allusions before they will allow of any Christian "theology" in a play, forgetting that the Book of Job is none the less Christian for being in the Old Testament, and that Hamlet, for instance, is charged with allusion to that book.)15) For another, the secondary influence of St Augustine is incalculable, extending as it did all through the Middle Ages, and received as it was on either side of "the Great Divide" between the Catholics and the Protestants, who both published whole books claiming him as their own.16) So Roy Battenhouse was perfectly justified in insisting on an Augustinian approach to the "theology" in Shakespeare's plays. Insofar as Shakespeare even as a dramatist ventures upon theological territory, as in the soliloquy of Claudius in Hamlet (3.3.36−72), he can hardly help being Augustinian.17)

Finally, there is one more theological "source" I would like to commend to the attention of Cecile Cary; and that is the no less popular (than any of the above−mentioned writings) Imitation of Christ. All I would ask of her at this stage, or of any other interested reader, is a simple glance at the Short Title Catalogue under the entry "Thomas A Kempis," and there she will discover so many editions and so many translations by both Catholic and Protestant translators continuing all through the period when Shakespeare was writing his plays in London.18) To judge from what Whitaker (following the eighteenth−century Richard Farmer) calls "Shakespeare's use of learning,"19) one may well imagine the dramatist haunting the many bookshops in the vicinity of Paul's Churchyard,20) if only in quest for new material for his plays; and at every hand's turn he must have come upon copies of this Christian classic, of which we may find echoes as well in the opening [→page 80] soliloquy of Friar Laurence (in Romeo and Juliet 2.3.1−30) as in the opening speech of the exiled Duke in Arden (in As You Like It 2.1.1−17).

Then, by way of postscript, I would like to add a word of warning: against the use of such loaded terms as "forcing" or "imposing" a Christian reading on Shakespeare's plays, as if such a meaning is no less an "outside" approach than that imposed by Marxists or New Historicists. Shakespeare, after all, knew nothing of Marxism or New Historicism, or Freudianism or Feminism, or any other such fashionable ideologies; but he had deeply imbibed Christianity from childhood onwards, whatever may have been his particular affiliation in his days as a dramatist. It may well be possible for modern scholars to impose their favourite ideologies on Shakespeare's plays, as on almost any other literary work, not excluding the Bible; but when it comes to a Christian meaning in those plays, it is more likely to be what a scholar finds in them—even with regard to such apparent minutiae as Inge Leimberg finds in her other comment on Roy Battenhouse, concerning the Scarus episode in Antony and Cleopatra (Connotations 4.3: 251−65).

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