- Shakespeare’s Religious Allusiveness: Its Play and Tolerance
The central argument of Maurice Hunt's new Shakespeare book is that, rather than argue whether Shakespeare was Catholic or Protestant on the evidence of his plays, it might be better simply to suggest that he was tolerant, willing to entertain positions both Protestant and Catholic. On its face, this is a sensible proposition. Although England was not generally known for religious tolerance, especially toward Catholics and the pope, or between Anglicans and Puritans, there were a few notable exceptions, such as Sir Thomas Browne. According to the traditional view, if anyone had the kind of capacious imagination or negative capability that would result in sympathy with viewpoints different from his own, it was Shakespeare.
Hunt characterizes his own approach as, in a sense, a return from recent postmodernist views of Shakespeare "as a normally intolerant man subject to many, if not most, of the prejudices of his time, including those pertaining to gender, economic and social-class advantage, nationality, and religious belief" to the more "traditional, often Romantic" view of him as "superhumanly" tolerant and broad minded (xi). But Hunt notes that those earlier critics, whether Romantic or modernist, saw Shakespeare as tolerant and "a great artist of human nature because he lacked dogmatic religious convictions" (xii). Yet, Hunt argues, it is evident from his plays that Shakespeare was "interested in religious issues" and knowledgeable about "Protestant and Catholic doctrine" (xii). He admits that it is impossible to know for certain from the plays whether Shakespeare was actually Catholic, Protestant, agnostic, or atheist in his personal convictions, but that "it would be odd if, at every point in his life, he lacked a recognizable religious conviction of some kind" (xii). In other words, even though the modernist view of history has tended to consider all religions as intrinsically intolerant, it is nonetheless possible to be both tolerant and a Christian. What Hunt finds in the plays is a pervasive play of religious ideas of various kinds, a mingling of different theological convictions, sometimes serious, sometimes playful, sometimes Protestant, sometimes Catholic.
Hunt divides the major religious groupings available to Shakespeare into the usual three: Catholic, Anglican, and Puritan. He prefers to avoid the latter two labels, however. Anglicans he generally calls simply Protestants, and Puritans he most often terms "Godly Protestants." Perhaps it would have been better to employ the usual labels, while admitting that no label can be free of the danger of misrepresenting what it describes. Each time this reviewer read the phrase "Godly Protestant"—although doubtless it would have pleased those so described—he could not help but wonder if other Christians were not therefore, by a simple process of logic, ungodly. Perhaps the substitution of one label for another fails to solve the problem as neatly as one might wish.
Hunt considers numerous possible references to or evocations of religion in representative plays: The Two Gentlemen of Verona, the second Henriad, All's Well That Ends [End Page 359] Well, Twelfth Night, and Othello. For the most part, he focuses on theological issues arising from one central dispute—faith versus works. The debate is also seen in terms of merit, desert, imputed grace, providence, and predestination. Hunt recognizes that the issues are complicated and sometimes blurred. Critics who have written about them occasionally confuse the charges hurled by disputants against their enemies with the actual beliefs of the parties. Hunt is more sophisticated, recognizing, for instance, that Catholics did not really believe that works or merit alone could win salvation. But Protestants routinely accused them of such beliefs, and sometimes Hunt loses sight of the distinction. He also blurs the lines between theological doctrines applied to God's relation to man and the same doctrines used analogously in another context. For example, in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, when Sylvia's father rewards Valentine at the end of the play for his "'unrivaled merit'" which "'deserve[s]'" her, one cannot simply conclude that "Shakespeare's Duke thus endorses the...