"Shakespeare and Religion"
by Aldous Huxley
This essay, the last Huxley wrote (it was
actually dictated on his death bed), was published in Show Magazine
1964 soon after his death.
reprinted in "Huxley and God: Essays" 1992
Shakespeare and Religion
A name that is a household word, and a word that
is on everybody's lips. How simple and straightforward! But then the inquiring
mind starts to ask questions. Who precisely was Shakespeare?
And what are the sorts of phenomena to which we apply the words religion
Others abide our question. Thou art free.
We ask and ask. Thou smilest and art still.
True enough, the poet penned no memoirs; he merely
left us Shakespeare's Complete Works. Whatever else he may have been, the
author was a genius-of-all-trades, a human being who could do practically
anything. Lyrics? The plays are full of lyrics. Sonnets? He left a whole
volume of them. Narrative poems? When London was plague-ridden and the
theaters, as hotbeds of contagion, had been closed, Shakespeare turned
out two admirable specimens, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of
Lucrece. And then consider his achievements as a dramatist. He could
write realistically in the style of a dispassionate and often amused observer
of contemporary life: he could dramatize biographies and historical chronicles;
he could invent fairy stories and visionary fantasies; he could create
(often out of the most unpromising raw material) huge tragic allegories
of good and evil, in which almost superhuman figures live their lives and
die their often sickening deaths. He could mingle sublimity with pathos,
bitterness with joy and peace and love, intellectual subtlety with delirium
and the cryptic utterances of inspired wisdom.
And what about "religion"? The word is used to
designate things as different from one another as Satanism and satori,
as fetish-worship and the enlightenment of a Buddha, as the vast politico-theologic
of financial organizations known as churches and the intensely private
visions of an ecstatic. A Quaker silence is religion, so is Verdi's
Requiem. A sense of the blessed All-Rightness of the Universe is a
religious experience and so is the sick soul's sense of self-loathing,
of despair, of sin, in a world that is the scene of perpetual perishing
and inevitable death.
Our many-faceted Shakespeare commented on religion
in almost all its aspects. Here, for example, is what Shakespeare, the
detached and amused observer of the Human Comedy, has to say about popular
religion-religion as it is apprehended and practiced by the more ignorant
and simple-minded members of his society. The passage I have chosen is
taken from that marvelous scene from Henry V which the Hostess tells
Bardolph of the passing of Sir John Falstaff.
BARDOLPH: Would I were with him,
wheresome'er he is, either in heaven or in hell!
HOSTESS: Nay, sure, he's not in hell: he's in
Arthur's bosom, if ever man went to Arthur's bosom. 'A made a finer end, and went away,
an it had been any christom child; 'a parted ev'n just between twelve and one, ev'n at the turning o' th' tide: for after I saw him fumble
with the sheets and play with flowers, and
smile upon his fingers' ends, I knew there was
but one way; for his nose was as sharp as a
pen, and 'a babbled of green fields. "How
now, Sir John!" quoth I, "what, man! be
o'good cheer." So 'a cried out "God, God,
God!" three or four times. Now I, to comfort him, bid him 'a should not think of God; I
hoped there was no need to trouble himself
with any such thoughts yet.
"There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe
me," Lord Tennyson earnestly affirmed, "than in half the creeds." Samuel
Butler was more interested in Falstaff, Bardolph, the Hostess, and all
the rest of them- they were the products of an Age of Faith. For them,
the Christian Scheme of Salvation was a self-evident truth, and in their
minds the Last Judgment and Hell-fire were unquestionable realities. So
was Abraham's bosom, or was it King Arthur's bosom? After all, what difference
did it make? A bosom is a bosom, and both names began with A. Their appetite
for faith was omnivorous and could swallow anything. All the same, "I,
to comfort him, bid him 'a should not think of God; I hoped there was no
need to trouble himself with such thoughts yet." The doubt in honest faith
is deep indeed.
Honest faith in God, angels and saints implied
a corresponding faith in the Devil, evil spirits and the witches, sorcerers
and magicians who collaborated with them. Shakespeare lived in an age when
preoccupation with the foul Fiend and his human allies was more than ordinarily
intense. Vivid descriptions of witchcraft and rules for its repression
had been set forth, in the last decade of the fifteenth century, by two
learned Dominicans, Father Kramer and Father Sprenger, whose Malleus
Maleficarum or Hammer of Witches, was to remain a standard
textbook for nearly 200 years. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries,
in Protestant and Catholic countries alike, incredible numbers of witches
and sorcerers were arrested, tortured, hanged, or burned alive. Like the
overwhelming majority of his contemporaries (including his sovereign lord,
King James I, who was the author of a learned work on witchcraft), Shakespeare
certainly believed in sorcery and the possibility of collaboration between
human hearts and devils. But this faith was tempered by common sense and
dispassionate observation. Thus Glendower claims that he can call spirits
from "the vasty deep." "Why, so can I," says Hotspur "or so can any man;
But will they come when you do call for them?" The vasty deep is alive
with spirits, and it is possible to establish communications with them-possible,
but, as a matter of observable fact, very difficult. Magic works, but is
notoriously unreliable even in the hands of those who have contracted their
souls away to the Devil.
Most late medieval and early modern writers are
anti-clerical-playfully anti-clerical like Chaucer, who writes of the Friar,
"there is none other incubus but he," or else savagely anti-clerical like
Ulrich von Hutten or the Franco Sacchetti of the Trecento Novelle. Shakespeare,
on the contrary, has no constant bias against the clergy. He knew, of course,
that established churches and the regimes they support are great machines
for consolidating power and acquiring wealth; he knew that gold
This yellow slave
Will knit and break religions; bless th' accurst;
Make the hoar leprosy adored; place thieves,
And give them title, knee, and approbation,
With senators on the bench . . .
The fact was obvious and deplorable, but he preferred
not to harp on it.
Religion is not merely a complex of behavior-patterns
and organizations. It is also a set of beliefs. What were Shakespeare's
beliefs? The question is not an easy one to answer; for in the first place
Shakespeare was a dramatist who made his characters express opinions which
were appropriate to them, but which may not have been those of the poet.
And anyhow did he himself have the same beliefs, without alteration or
change or emphasis, throughout his life?
The poet's basic Christianity is very beautifully
expressed in Measure for Measure, where the genuinely saintly
Isabella reminds Angelo, the self-righteous Pillar of Society, of the divine
scheme of redemption and of the ethical consequences which ought to flow
from its acceptance as an article of faith-ought to flow but, alas, generally
do not flow!
Why, all the souls that were were forfeit once;
And He that might the vantage best have took
Found out the remedy. How would you be,
If He, which is the top of judgement, should
But judge you as you are? O, think on that;
And mercy then will breathe within your lips,
Like man new-made.
These lines, I would say, express very clearly
the essence of Shakespeare's Christianity. But the essence of Christianity
can assume a wide variety of denominational forms. The Reverend Richard
Davies, a clergyman who flourished toward the end of the seventeenth century,
declared categorically that Shakespeare had "died a papist." There is no
corroborative evidence of this, and it seems on the face of it unlikely;
but almost anything is possible, especially on a death-bed. What is certain
is that Shakespeare did not live a papist; for, if he had, he would have
found himself in chronic and serious trouble with the law, and vehemently
suspected of treason.... (The casuists of the Roman curia had let it be
known that the assassination of the heretic Queen Elizabeth would not be
a sin; on the contrary, it would be registered in the murderer's credit
column as a merit.) There is, therefore, every reason to suppose that Shakespeare
lived a member of the Church of England. However, the theology which finds
expression in his plays is by no means consistently Protestant. Purgatory
has no place in the Protestant world-picture, but in Hamlet and in Measure
for Measure the existence of Purgatory is taken for granted.
I am thy father's spirit, says the Ghost
Doom'd for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confin'd to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purg'd away. But that I am forbid
To tell the secrets of my prison-house,
I could a tale unfold, whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul;
freeze thy young blood;
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start
from their spheres....
In Measure for Measure, Claudio
gives utterance to the same fears. Death is terrible not only in its physical
aspects, but also and above all because of the awful menace of Purgatory.
Ay, but to die, and go we know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction, and to rot;
This sensible warm motion to become
A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit
To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside
In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice;
To be imprison'd in the viewless winds,
And blown with restless violence round about
The pendent world; or to be worse than worst
Of those that lawless and incertain thoughts
Imagine howling! 'tis too horrible!
The weariest and most loathed worldly life
That age, ache, penury, and imprisonment
Can lay on nature, is a. paradise
To what we fear of death.
In King Lear, the poet presents us with
another world-picture that is neither Catholic nor Protestant. Purgatory
exists, but not hereafter. Purgatory is here and now.
I am bound
Upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears
Do scald like molten lead..........
Whatever else he may have been, Shakespeare was
not a precursor of Dr. Norman Vincent Peale. Indeed, during the years of
his artistic maturity-the years that witnessed the production of Hamlet,
and Cressida, Macbeth, Measure for Measure, and King Lear, he would
seem to have passed through a spiritual crisis that made any facile kind
of positive thinking or positive feeling impossible. Other great writers
have passed through similar crises-Dickens, for example, and Leo Tolstoy.
Tolstoy's negativism resulted in a religious conversion and a change of
life. Dickens cured himself of despondency by plunging into amateur theatricals.
Shakespeare managed his private life we do not know.
All that we know is that if he did indeed go through
a dark night of cosmic despair, he was poet enough to be able (in Wordsworth's
words) to recollect the emotion in creative tranquility and to use his
experience as the raw material of a succession of tragic dramas that were
followed, during the last years of his professional career, by a series
of romances, in which strange and improbable adventures are acted out in
an atmosphere of acceptance, of forgiveness, of a conviction that, in spite
of all appearances to the contrary, God's in his heaven and all's right
with the world. But on the way to the final serenity of The Tempest,
horrors must be faced, what miseries endured. Keats wrote of Shakespearian
tragedy as being the record of "the fierce dispute between damnation and
impassioned clay." But there is much more in these dramas than the classical
battle between instinct and duty, between personal desires and the tradition-hallowed
ideals of religion. The Shakespearian hero has to fight his ethical battles
in a world that is intrinsically hostile. And this intrinsically hideous
universe is shot through with moral evil-evil on the animal level, on the
human level, on the supernatural level. Thus the "soiled fitchew" is the
bestial caricature of womanhood; for in woman, "but to the girdle do the
gods inherit, beneath is all the fiend's."
And men are capable of greater wickedness even
than women. "Use every man after his desert, and who would 'scape whipping?"
There is, no doubt, some kind of moral order. The good go to Heaven, the
evil to Purgatory and Hell. And even here on earth it can sometimes be
observed that "the gods are just and of our pleasant vices make instruments
to plague us." But divine justice is tempered by divine malignity. "As
flies to wanton boys are we to the gods-they kill us for their sport."
And to the effects of divine m'alignity must be added those of man's wickedness
and stupidity, and the workings of a blind fate completely indifferent
to human ideals and values. Sickness, decrepitude, death lie in wait for
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,
The speaker is Macbeth; but Macbeth as we know
him is Shakespeare's creation, and it was Shakespeare who put the words
of this summing up of the case against human life into Macbeth's mouth.
Between the thought of the dramatist and of the dramatis persona there
must have been if not an identity, at least an affinity.
Unlike Milton or Dante, Shakespeare had no ambition
to be a systematic theologian or philosopher. He was not concerned to "justify
the ways of God to Man" in terms of a set of metaphysical postulates and
a network of logical ideas. He preferred to "hold the mirror up to nature."
It was a many-faceted mirror that changed with the passage of time, and
the nature it changed, reflected, and recorded was a pluralistic mystery.
What he gives us is not a religious system; it is more like an anthology,
a collection of different points of view, an assortment of commentaries
on the human predicament offered by persons of dissimilar temperament and
upbringing. Shakespeare's own religion can be inferred in many cases from
hints dropped by his characters.
Interpreters of Shakespeare have divided his career
into four sections-first, a time of the workshop during which the young
playwright was busily engaged in perfecting his technique. The second,
the time in the world when the mature technician was using his powers to
dramatize history, assorted fiction, and biography. Third, the time in
the depths, which is the period we have just been discussing, when Shakespeare
produced the series of black, unhappy allegories from Hamlet to Measure
for Measure; and finally the time on the heights. This time on the
heights we must now consider.
In our religious context, what is the significance
of these later plays? What are we to make of this description of Shakespeare's
career? There is certainly a change of mood, there can be no doubt of this.
A greater acceptance, a greater openness to the strange anomalies of life.
But exactly what does this correspond to in the general history of religious
experience? Let us take the case of The Tempest, by far the best
known and most popular of these latest plays-what did Shakespeare mean
by The Tempest? We presume that this was the last of his plays,
but we cannot be absolutely sure of this, nor can we be sure of the fact
that he himself had intended it to be the last. This makes it very difficult
to accept the hypothesis that in The Tempest Shakespeare
was giving a kind of symbolic account of his own career. For he is Prospero.
Prospero is the enchanter, the creator of visionary poetry, and in the
end after exercising his enchantment with extraordinary success, he goes
back to his dukedom at Milan, resolved to throw his magic wand and his
book of charms overboard and to live out the remainder of his life on the
ordinary level of human experience. But after all, the return of the successful
actor to his native place where he would live out the remainder of his
life, a solid pillar of society, and the return of a deposed duke to his
sovereignty, where he would have to exercise an almost godlike judgment
over the destinies of his subjects-these things do not have much in common.
If indeed The Tempest was written
as an allegory of Shakespeare's life, it was a far-fetched allegory, one
which leaves us wondering why this great master of the art should have
been unable to find something more suitable. But at the same time we have
to remember that the fact that Prospero was an enchanter is a most disturbing
one in relation to religion. Enchantment, the use of magic, has always
occupied an ambiguous position in religion. Religion calls for opening
up the self, the letting that which is more than the self flow through
the organism and direct its activities. Magic, on the other hand, is an
attempt to establish the complete mastery of the self over everything.
It is a technological device making the self all-powerful and so imitating
God. But in no religion has this kind of hubris or over weening
pride been considered admirable, and although supernormal powers may manifest
themselves spontaneously on the way toward enlightenment, yet all the Masters
of the spiritual life have insisted that they are not important, and that
they must, if the aspirant is to go forward, be abandoned.
Prospero, of course, knows this perfectly well
and, in the very end of the play, does abandon these powers. But for the
greater part of the play we are shown him as a magician-a white magician
it is true, but a white magician capable of considerable malice toward
the unfortunate Caliban. A white magician who is capable of using a great
deal of ingenuity in the preparation of tricks to catch his enemies. He
has had the insight into the ultimate nature of things and knows what must
be done and what must be left undone.
Our revels are now 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 towers, 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.