Was Shakespeare an Atheist? Or More of a Secular Humanist?

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April 23 2014 5:28 PM

Much Ado About Nothingness

Was Shakespeare an atheist? Or more of a secular humanist?

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Photo illustration by Slate. Image courtesy Joe Campbell/Flickr.

Adapted from The Science of Shakespeare: A New Look at the Playwright’s Universe by Dan Falk, out now from Thomas Dunne Books.

Just as “science,” in the sense we use the word today, didn’t quite exist in Shakespeare’s day, atheism, too, was absent in its modern, Dawkins-like form. The word “atheism” begins to crop up in English writing in the 16th century, almost always as a put-down; the term was used as a derogatory label, bestowed on anyone imagined to hold heretical views of one kind or another.

Even so, the seeds of unbelief had been planted. In A Short History of Atheism, Gavin Hyman points to the years from 1540 to 1630 as a period in which “the notion of a worldview that was entirely outside a theistic framework was ... gradually becoming conceivable.” As it happens, Shakespeare’s life falls wholly within this transitional period (he was born 450 years ago); and, just as his works hint at the beginnings of science, so, too, do they hint at the possibility of unbelief.

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Shakespeare was certainly friendly with England’s most famous alleged atheist of the time, the playwright Christopher Marlowe. Just over a dozen lines into Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, the Italian political thinker Niccolò Machiavelli (anglicized to “Machevil”) declares, “I count religion but a childish toy … ” Doctor Faustus, Marlowe’s most important play, was even more dangerous. Faustus declares, “I think hell’s a fable”—and the playwright may well have agreed.

Marlowe wasn’t just an atheist—he was also a government spy; while traveling in France, he monitored the activities of English Catholics living in exile. He was also openly gay in an age when homosexuality was punishable by death—and was daring enough to portray, in Edward II, the doomed love between the young king and his “sweet favorite,” Piers Gaveston. Marlowe, in other words, lived quite far from the respectable mainstream of Elizabethan life.

Accusations of Marlowe’s atheism stem from several sources, beginning with testimony from another famous playwright, Thomas Kyd. When a fragment of a heretical tract was found in Kyd’s living quarters, he said it belonged to Marlowe, with whom he had once shared the rooms. But the most damning testimony delivered to the Privy Council came from a man named Richard Baines (who was, just to make things even more convoluted, also a spy). Baines tallies Marlowe’s heretical views regarding specific passages in the Bible, and adds that the playwright believed “that Moses was but a Jugler.” And then there were the harsh words of Thomas Beard, a Puritan churchman. In a book called The Theatre of God’s Judgement (1597), Beard outlines the array of punishments that await various kinds of sinners—and he wasn’t afraid to name names.

In the case of Shakespeare, we have no direct evidence, as there are no accusatory letters, no diatribes warning of his disbelief—or, indeed, of any sort of threat to the established order. (How very dull his life was, compared with Marlowe’s!) And so we turn, with caution, to his dramatic works. The case for Shakespeare’s lack of belief has been argued most recently by Eric Mallin in his book Godless Shakespeare. Mallin begins by examining a remarkable scene in Measure for Measure, in which the hapless Claudio is in prison, awaiting execution. His sister Isabel, in training to be a nun, pays him a visit. At this point, Claudio has an idea: Maybe if Isabel were to sleep with the duke, Angelo, she could secure his release. She (quite reasonably) refuses. And then, as Mallin notes, we have an extraordinary speech on the nature of death. Claudio says:

... to die, and we go we know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction, and to rot;
This sensible warm motion to become
A kneaded cold; 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 pendant world …
... ’tis too horrible!

For Mallin, the issue is not Claudio’s fear, but its effect on Isabel, whose faith seems truly shaken by what she is hearing. The picture being offered, Mallin writes, is one of “religion as terrified sadism, the product of faith’s deep, frustrated inadequacy to meliorate the darkness, or to cope with the complexities of selves who are touched by desire, the law, loneliness, despair.” What happened to Isabel’s faith? What we see, Mallin says, here and throughout the canon, is that “spiritual convictions crumble under pressure.”

Shakespeare goes even further in Titus Andronicus by presenting the audience with the only self-avowed nonbeliever in the canon, the Moorish villain Aaron. When Aaron is taken prisoner, he tries to bargain with his captor, Lucius. But Lucius asks: What good is a vow from a nonbeliever? Aaron, however, has a snappy comeback: Those who do believe, he says, are often fools and liars; yet we imagine their oaths to be worth something. (Note how quick-witted Shakespeare’s villains are!)

Except, Aaron isn’t just a villain. He is also a master manipulator, as Mallin, who teaches at the University of Texas–Austin, told me in an interview: “Aaron arranges things—he arranges plots, he sets the stage for his deeds, he has props that he uses.” In other words, Aaron is also “one of Shakespeare’s early models for his own work. Aaron is a ‘playwright.’ The parallel to Shakespeare is really quite compelling.”

What led Shakespeare in this direction? One possibility, Mallin speculates, is that he was following Marlowe’s lead—or perhaps trying to one-up his colleague. Consider the plot of Doctor Faustus: The doctor makes a pact with the devil, and God doesn’t seem to care. “What never really appears in the play is God’s intervention; what never appears is God’s goodness,” Mallin says. “This is a very upsetting possibility that Marlowe introduces, and that Shakespeare plays on, particularly in his tragedies.”

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