It used to be commonplace to say of Shakespeare that his vision of human affairs was so comprehensive as to make it impossible for us to ascribe to him any certain and stable view at all. A corollary to this assertion is that Shakespeare could not possibly have believed anything so definite as a creed; Christianity was a part of the ambience of his time, but his heart was at best only indifferently touched by it. A man so wise and generous as he would not let religious dogmas make life pinched and crabbed and dry.
There is an abundance of evidence to show that Shakespeare was a profoundly Christian playwright—and far more thoroughly concerned with the theology of grace, repentance, and redemption than any of his contemporaries. Here I should like to note one characteristic of his view of the world that seems to spring from his Christian faith—for it certainly does not spring from any recrudescence of paganism in the Renaissance, nor from the worldly laxity that sets in with the fading of western man’s assurance of Christian dogma and morals. For Shakespeare, chastity is as near to an absolute value as it is possible for a virtue to be.
It was not for his predecessors and contemporaries. Consider pagan literature. The Epicurean poet Lucretius, recommending against sexual liaisons that upset the passionlessness essential to wisdom, says that if a man does fall in love, he should pick up a street-strolling trollop to cure himself, hammering out one nail with another, so to speak. Many of Horace’s odes celebrate, in an urbane and half-detached way, the love of the poet for this or that woman, or boy; carpe diem, cries the poet, for time is short.
Renaissance poets were little better. In his poem, “The Triumph of Bacchus and Ariadne,” Lorenzo de’ Medici recommends that young men and women sing and dance and love one another, for “tomorrow has no certainty.” In Orlando Furioso, Ariosto presents us with a raucously funny scene, wherein a young man, dressed up as his twin sister, steals into the bed of a young princess and, in the poet’s words, scales the battlements and plants his standard at one jab. In Hero and Leander, Christopher Marlowe’s Leander ravishes his beloved Hero, only somewhat against her will, in a scene of remarkably mingled humor and violence. ’
Nothing in Shakespeare corresponds to the reveling in sensuality that we find in these poets (much less in such scabrous writers as Pietro Aretino), and that is all the more remarkable given his earthiness and bawdy humor. But the acid test is not so much his exaltation of chaste young women and faithful wives, though that is never subjected to even a shade of irony, as his surprising admiration for male chastity, and the severity with which he treats sins against it.
First, the sins. In King Lear, Gloucester introduces his bastard son Edmund to the courtier Kent, partly excusing himself for the fault, because there was “good sport” at his making, and “the whoreson must be acknowledged.” Yet Edmund himself will sneer at his father for his breach, and it is Edmund who will betray Gloucester to the Duke of Cornwall, who blinds the old man. The faithful and legitimate son Edgar puts it to Edmund thus: “The dark and vicious place where thee he got / Cost him his eyes.”
In Othello, were it not for the affair between the slick-talking Michael Cassio and the whore Bianca (whom he takes advantage of, and laughs at behind her back), Iago would never have been able to persuade the Moor that his wife had been unfaithful to him. The callow young Bertram, in All’s Well that Ends Well, is prevented from debauching a young woman by the energetic pursuit of his lawful wife, from whose love he has been fleeing. In Richard III, the adulterous love of King Edward for Jane Shore gives the villainous Richard a way to pretend alliance with the Duke of Hastings (also, apparently, in bed with Mistress Shore), whom he will later send to his death. In Measure for Measure, the glib and amoral man about town, Lucio, has gotten a prostitute with child; the Duke will forgive his crime of slander only on condition that he marry the woman, a prospect he regards as worse than hanging.
And male chastity? For many writers it is something of a jest, if conceivable at all. So Ariosto smiles with some modest moral judgment and good humor when his supposed hero, Ruggiero, saves the naked Angelica from being eaten by a notably phallic sea-monster, spirits her away on his flying horse, and then forgets about his betrothed and puts in at the nearest island. Or—to glance at the eighteenth century—Henry Fielding will champion the unusual virtue of his Joseph Andrews (“Who ever heard of virtue in a man!” exclaims the widow Lady Booby, who is fairly out of her mind with lust for him), but with a faint intimation, now and then, of absurdity.
Such an intimation is not to be found in Shakespeare. When, in Macbeth, the legitimate heir to the throne of Scotland, Malcolm, tests Macduff’s loyalty, he pretends to all manner of vices, including “voluptuousness”:
Your wives, your daughters,
Your matrons and your maids, could not fill up
The cistern of my lust, and my desire
All continent impediments would o’erbear
That did oppose my will.
Macduff does not laugh at this. He admits it is a “tyranny,” and that it has been the undoing of many a king. But he tries to make the best of a bad situation, noting that in Scotland “we have willing dames enough.” It is, however, not so with Malcolm, as he will finally assert, once he is sure of Macduff’s own virtue. “I am yet / Unknown to woman,” says the young man, in the same breath with which he will claim that he has never been forsworn and never broken faith. “What I am truly,” he says, “Is thine and my poor country’s to command.”
In The Winter’s Tale, we meet a young prince, Florizel, who is courting the daughter of a rich shepherd. They are dressed up in masquerade to celebrate a sheep-shearing feast. The lass, Perdita, worrying that Florizel’s father will find them out, wonders what he would say if he saw Florizel in such garb. Florizel replies that the gods themselves have taken on “the shapes of beasts” to compass their loves, yet there is a crucial and noble difference:
Were never for a piece of beauty rarer,
Nor in a way so chaste, since my desires
Run not before mine honor, nor my lusts
Burn hotter than my faith.
Perhaps the finest affirmation of male chastity, though, is to be found in The Tempest—the finest, because it is expressed in terms that frankly acknowledge the fire of eros, and the longing for the wedding night. Prospero gives his daughter Miranda in marriage to the prince Ferdinand. But he warns the youngsters against untimeliness, a crucial motif in this play inspired by the season of Advent. Unchastity is, in its refusal to wait for the proper time, a sin against nature, one that will spread the marriage bed with weeds, and no fruitful harvest.
If thou dost break her virgin-knot before
All sanctimonious ceremonies may
With full and holy rite be ministered,
No sweet aspersion shall the heavens let fall
To make this contract grow; but barren hate,
Sour-eyed disdain and discord shall bestrew
The union of your bed with weeds so loathly
That you shall hate it both.
Ferdinand’s response is manly, forthright, and chaste:
As I hope
For quiet days, fair issue, and long life,
With such love as ‘tis now, the murkiest den,
The most opportune place, the strong’st suggestion
Our worser genius can, shall never melt
Mine honor into lust, to take away
The edge of that day’s celebration
When I shall think: or Phoebus’ steeds are foundered,
Or Night kept chained below.
“Fairly spoke,” replies Prospero. “Sit then and talk with her; she is thine own.” Shakespeare is not great because he is free from such lowly things as religious belief and the moral law, but because he makes compelling their beauty.
Anthony Esolen is professor of English at Providence College, a senior editor of Touchstone, and the translator of Dante’s Divine Comedy and other works, as well as the author of Ironies of Faith. His webpage can be found here.