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A Will to Believe: Shakespeare and Religion 
by david scott kastan
oxford university press, 155 pages, $40.00

If Zeno were to write Shakespeare criticism, he might sound a little like David Scott Kastan. The George M. Bodman Professor of English at Yale University’s meticulous, short book on religion in Shakespeare insists that you can’t be sure that the Bard was religious, let alone know his confession or faith, despite over a thousand allusions to three or possibly four English translations of the Bible (Great, Bishop’s, Geneva, and Douai-Reims), several allusions to the Book of Common Prayer, the Book of Homilies, and the Sarum Rite, scores of references to Church practices, several representations of clergy, easy familiarity with religious matters of dispute, even detailed understanding of fine theological distinctions.

“Religion is central in the plays, but Shakespeare is not a religious playwright,” Kastan maintains. Religion primarily provides the playwright “with the fundamental language of value and understanding in the plays,” and it “supplies the vocabulary in which characters understand themselves and are presented to us to be understood.” Shakespeare “everywhere” betrays an “awareness of the inescapability of religion in his England,” “attentive to the fundamental, if sometimes fiercely debated terms in which people sought to understand their own lives and their relationships to their families, communities, and God.” It is, however, the “experience of belief that engages Shakespeare rather than the truth of what was believed,” “modes of thinking about religion as it is lived,” not “modes of religious thinking.” Unlike Spencer’s Fairie Queene, which sought “to celebrate the ‘discipline of faith and veritie,’” or Milton’s Paradise Lost, which aimed “‘to justify the ways of God to man,’” Shakespeare’s plays “were not written to give form to a conception of holiness or to promote some polemical position in the fractious world of post-Reformation England.”

Baptized, married, and buried in Church of England records, Shakespeare was, if Kastan “were forced to guess,” what Christopher Haigh, the English Reformation scholar, calls a “parish Anglican.” Kastan understands that label as (in Haigh’s words) a “tolerant, largely habitual Christian, who recognized the communal values of village harmony and worship and objected to the divisiveness of the godly.” Kastan continues, “Probably this marks him as Protestant in name only, but that was true of so many early modern English Christians, even many Catholics.”

What Kastan sees in this “plausible, if slightly anachronist name” is “an inclusive and theologically minimalist Christianity that resisted religious rigor and valued social accord.” Shakespeare seems to Kastan “at once too skeptical and too sympathetic to be zealously committed to any confession.”

Is this what we have, a Shakespeare whose religion doesn’t frighten, expressing not truth, but experience so “tolerant,” “skeptical,” and “sympathetic” that it can declare its name in a Yale English Department or the Oxford Wells Shakespeare Lectures (the occasion of this book)—a contemporary liberal Protestantism locked up in the privacy of the heart, pragmatic Christianity, as the nod to William James in Kastan’s title indicates? If that’s all it is, one wonders why Kastan admits openly and documents carefully that Shakespeare has become for so many in fact a second Bible or indeed the only Sacred Scripture, a modern generator of values and ethical framework, as he puts it, “the voice and guarantor of our best moral and emotional lives.”

I’ll take New Historicism, however, as the least unpleasant form of deconstructionism, if it may be called one, for, like Stephen Greenblatt’s Hamlet in Purgatory, there’s something actually to learn on every page. Kastan elaborates that the known facts of Shakespeare’s biography cannot convict him of either Catholic or Protestant sympathies because the facts can be explained away or explained either way. For example, the Shakespeare’s family recusancy is itself not even proof of religious dissent. His father was fined twice in 1592 for it, but dissenters from worship could be either Puritans or Catholic. In both cases, John Shakespeare was recorded as regularly absent from church for “fear of process for Debtte.” That excuse may have been his father’s convenient explanation, but in fact the record lists four categories of recusants, including the express one of “dangerous and seditious papists,” and John appears in the fifth category for non-recusants, not among those who, in the language of the law, “refuse obstinately to resort to Church.” Similarly, William’s daughter Susanna was fined in 1606 for not doing her Easter duty, but was she merely lax at a bad time to be caught (right after the Catholic Gunpowder Plot) or trying to please her husband-to-be of the following year, a known Protestant? In any case, if his parents had been Catholic once, whose were not at his birth in 1564? If his daughter was, well, he hadn’t been around much to influence her, boarding sometimes with a Huguenot couple.

The longest discussions, Lectures 3 and 4, concern marginal converts in Venice—the Jew Shylock, the Muslim Othello, and the Protestant divinity student from Wittenburg, Hamlet. Kastan acknowledges the intended mercy behind the Christian universalism in the baptisms of the first two Others, even though he claims that neither Shakespeare, Luther, nor Luke (cf. 14:23 “Compel them to come in”) explain how a compelled baptism can work. For Kastan, the Jew is a comic pantaloon figure graced by human portraiture (“Hath not a Jew eyes?”) and Portia’s supersessionist “quality of mercy,” but Shakespeare reproduces the vilifying stereotypes of his age too much to “serve as the prophetic voice of universal fellowship.” Othello is a tragic paradox—both high-minded Christian convert and murderous Turk. Although the graduate-school dropout confronts his Father’s ghost sprung from purgatory, the springboard of the Reformation, this issue is “forgotten” in the play that Kastan says is most frequently mistaken as a religious play; instead, the play “transforms theology into tragedy.” It’s the exception to the rule that “crises of belief in the plays are more likely to be provoked psychologically, functions not of soteriological uncertainty…but of sexual insecurity (see almost every play).” Hamlet neither remembers nor revenges nor cooperates with “special providence” so much as it “cooperates with him.”

The interpretative denials are predictably incessant. The most religious play is not really a religious play. The most cosmopolitan setting is not a consistent setting of Christian universalism because Protestant and Catholic are “inadequate labels to describe the religious experience of many believers in early Modern Europe”; religion is a “means to register the sacred.” The texts are mere performances. The exegetical reticles in this heavily footnoted hermeneutic of skepticism are too flexible to affirm basic Christian categories even though they snag the puns and the gender slipping in pronouns. If you can’t call early modern Europe Christian, is it because you don’t want to?

Kastan holds back from ultimate religious readings in Merchant of Venice and Hamlet, which is right where serious religious interpretations take off. Merchant of Venice might favor a traditional economics of abundant agrarian gift and mercy in Belmont over capitalistic contract in Venice. Hamlet could be a tragedy of the broken sacramental system in which compromised holy unction (“unaneled”), ridiculed auricular confession (“disappointed”), and even the debated Eucharist (“unhouseled” and “poisoned chalice”) leave souls, and not just Hamlet’s father, in a shadowy inefficacious purgatory. King Lear may offer the possibility of supernatural gift-love (Lear reconciled to and forgiven by Cordelia, even Edmund touched by love) as the “wheel of fire” of a deus absconditus. Macbeth catalogs the disintegration of life as a result of sin seen as the violation of natural law. A Winter’s Tale ends in the breathless serenity of semi-Pelagian, superogatory, penitential, “created grace”: Leontes’s fourteen years of prayer and fasting bring his falsely accused wife Hermione back to life out of a sacramental statue seen as an intercessory image. In such readings, the belief of the “Church Anglican” is more knowable and less suspect.

If I should wish to skip out on martyrdom for professional reasons in the purge against Christians some fear coming, Kastan is the guy I’d want to help me beat the rap.

Kenneth Colston has written for The New Criterion, LOGOS, and The New Oxford Review. 

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