Monday 4 May 2009

Was Shakespeare an Atheist?

I cannot answer this question conclusively; no-one can, although George Santayana made an attempt! There are problems also in even trying to construct an argument around this hypothesis, because there is nothing in his biography, of what we know of his life, which would lend any substantive support. All deductions, therefore, have to be drawn from his poetic and dramatic work. The danger in this is to assume that the words and sentiments of any given character in the plays are also the words and sentiments of their creator. But consider the words of Prospero at the end of The Tempest;

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd tow'rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

He’s addressing the wider audience; the pageant, the play is coming to an end, yes, but it seems to suggest so much more than that; that the world itself is an illusion, without the promise of anything more substantial beyond. And who could possibly forget Macbeth’s soliloquy on the empty futility of life;

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing

Is this Shakespeare himself? Yes, I think it is, but I’m drawn back to my initial caution. So it is to the Sonnets I turn for confirmation of my view, to work that are widely held to be autobiographical in nature. They are largely about transience and change; about mutability in love. Here is XII:

When I do count the clock that tells the time,
And see the brave day sunk in hideous night;
When I behold the violet past prime,
And sable curls, all silvered o'er with white;
When lofty trees I see barren of leaves,
Which erst from heat did canopy the herd,
And summer's green all girded up in sheaves,
Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard,
Then of thy beauty do I question make,
That thou among the wastes of time must go,
Since sweets and beauties do themselves forsake
And die as fast as they see others grow;
And nothing 'gainst Time's scythe can make defence
Save breed, to brave him when he takes thee hence.

And XIX;

Devouring Time, blunt thou the lion's paws,
And make the earth devour her own sweet brood;
Pluck the keen teeth from the fierce tiger's jaws,
And burn the long-liv'd phoenix, in her blood;
Make glad and sorry seasons as thou fleet'st,
And do whate'er thou wilt, swift-footed Time,
To the wide world and all her fading sweets;
But I forbid thee one most heinous crime:
O! carve not with thy hours my love's fair brow,
Nor draw no lines there with thine antique pen;
Him in thy course untainted do allow
For beauty's pattern to succeeding men.
Yet, do thy worst old Time: despite thy wrong,
My love shall in my verse ever live young.

It all passes, leaving only a memory and the sweetness of the moment. The only promise of eternity is in the poems themselves. There are no Christian reassurances, no promise of eternal life; nothing. Nothing, that is, beyond the words themselves.

Shall I compare thee to a Summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And Summer's lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And oft' is his gold complexion dimm'd;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature's changing course untrimm'd:
But thy eternal Summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wanderest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:

So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.


  1. No, he was not . . . a case I will make, perhaps, another day . . .

    But in any event, the greatest writers in the English language were women, Catholics, or Celts . . . with a few exceptions that prove the rule, such as Dryden

    Shakespeare was not an exception!