A Will to Believe: Shakespeare and Religion, by David Scott Kastan

Peter J. Smith on the question of the Bard’s faith

March 6, 2014

In the course of this refreshingly agnostic volume – spirited if not spiritual – David Scott Kastan postulates that a Roman Catholic Shakespeare would be attractive because dissidence “is for us more appealing, perhaps more useful, than the Shakespeare who for so long has been co-opted to articulate and guarantee the norms of a dominant culture”. A heterodox Shakespeare, in other words, can be orientated alongside more radical readings of his plays, designed to challenge the comfortable complacencies of Church of England orthodoxy. According to this position, Shakespeare ceases to be the apotheosis of assumed cultural capital, becoming rather the site of a series of challenges to religious, social and cultural assumptions that are conservative in nature.

So far, so reasonable, and there is much to be said for an exciting subversion of, rather than a dreary compliance with, the status quo. The thing is that Shakespeare’s nonconformity is only ever partially religious, the proof of which, as Kastan amply illustrates, is that it continues to operate with profound efficacy in a world no longer charged by religious controversy. In comparison with Shakespeare’s time, ours is an assuredly secular culture, one in which arguments over transubstantiation, corporeal resurrection or the existence of Purgatory are as nutty as they are, thankfully, unusual. The shocking rise in Islamophobia has nothing to do with doctrinal difference and everything to do with xenophobia and a Tory enthusiasm for anti-immigration. This is politics, not religion – even our articles of faith (or, if you prefer, prejudices) are now quotidian.

In this way then, Kastan’s hands are tied, since the attempts to identify Shakespeare’s religion are as unnecessary as they are impossible. Indeed, as its title implies, A Will to Believe suggests a consummation devoutly to be wished rather than a realisable possibility. But this is a limitation of which Kastan is cognisant and, paradoxically, it is this indeterminacy that underlines some of his most assured pronouncements: “I don’t know what or even if he believed”; “Shakespeare declines to tell us what to believe, or to tell us what he believed”; “I don’t know what he believed and I am convinced we can’t know.”

Old Hamlet is the personification (if ghosts can personify) of this quandary: “it is always an ambiguous ghost, whose nature is not confirmed nor is it confirmable by any theology the play has to offer”. Kastan’s reading of the Prince’s bereavement is human(e) rather than revelatory, but it is no less significant for that: “Hamlet’s grief is merely grief – not evidence of religious commitments, however doctrinally imagined, but of emotional ones.” Kastan thus judiciously avoids the theological (and biographical) dead end of identifying Shakespeare’s personal faith and reading his plays as dogmatically determined. In the case of Hamlet, for instance, the presence of religious ideas throughout “neither exhausts nor explains the play’s mysteries”.

Kastan writes compellingly of Hamlet, Measure for Measure, King John, Othello and The Merchant of Venice in agnostic terms while insisting on their numinous essence. This is not mere sleight of hand but a recognition of the ubiquity of early modern belief: “what is everywhere evident is Shakespeare’s awareness of the inescapability of religion in his England”. What emerges then is the necessity but also, fortunately, the inevitability of transposing the plays into secular (but no less transcendental) works of art. While such texts now take their place in a spiritually deracinated culture, they nonetheless signify what Kastan, citing Stanley Wells, calls “the mystery of things”. That this mystery remains so evident in a world where the fairies of A Midsummer Night’s Dream no longer exist to us is testament to its stubborn vitality, if not its immortal spirit.

A Will to Believe: Shakespeare and Religion

By David Scott Kastan
Oxford University Press, 176pp, £25.00
ISBN 9780199572892
Published 9 January 2014

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