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.

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.”

And then, of course, there is King Lear. In this most somber of Shakespeare’s plays, the gods are often called upon—by the king and Gloucester and others—but they do not respond. In their absence, justice cannot be guaranteed; indeed, it becomes fragile in the extreme. Lear, in desperation, hopes that events will “show the heavens more just,” but it is a lost cause. The play ends, as William Elton puts it, “with the death of the good at the hands of the evil.” In one of the play’s most famous—and darkest—lines, Gloucester laments, “As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods/ They kill us for their sport.” (A line, incidentally, that closely echoes a passage from Montaigne, who wrote, in Florio’s translation, “The gods perdie doe reckon and racket us men as their tennis-balles.”)

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In King Lear and the Gods, Elton presents a kind of checklist of what makes a “Renaissance skeptic”—denying divine providence, denying the immortality of the soul, placing mankind among the beasts, denying God’s role as creator of the universe, attributing to nature what is properly the work of God—and then shows that Lear, over the course of the play, develops into precisely such a skeptic. It is a gradual process, but it is relentless: “Lear’s disillusionment, once begun, sweeps all before it, toppling the analogical edifices of God and man, divine and human justice.” As Mallin put it in our interview, King Lear is “essentially a godless document”; it describes a world “emptied of divinity.”

The canon offers other hints of a godless Shakespeare: Hamlet’s obsessive contemplation of death and decay, with no mention of an afterlife; Helena’s assertion in All’s Well That Ends Well that “Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie/ Which we ascribe to heaven”; Macbeth’s assertion that life is “a tale, told by an idiot, signifying nothing.” None of this proves that Shakespeare was an atheist—but it at least shows that he could imagine a godless world. And what better place to exercise that imagination than the London stage—the one place where one could dethrone a king, ridicule a nobleman, compare a prince to a beggar, and ignore the divine; the one place where one might be subversive and yet avoid the gallows.

The idea of an “atheist Shakespeare” seems to have taken root in the early years of the 20th century, by coincidence—or perhaps not—the same time when King Lear was first imagined to surpass Hamlet in greatness. As George Santayana has written, the playwright was faced with a stark choice:

For Shakespeare, in the matter of religion, the choice lay between Christianity and nothing. He chose nothing. … The cosmos eludes him; he does not seem to feel the need of framing that idea. He depicts human life in all its richness and variety, but leaves that life without a setting, and consequently without a meaning.

“Nothing,” of course, is one of the great themes in Lear; in the very first scene, we hear it four times. The wicked sisters, Regan and Goneril, shower their father with extravagant declarations of devotion. Lear then asks his third daughter, Cordelia, what she can say to top her sisters’ claims:

CORDELIA
Nothing, my lord.
LEAR
Nothing?
CORDELIA
Nothing.
LEAR
Nothing will come from nothing, speak again.

Shakespeare is just setting the stage; the mayhem and darkness are yet to unfold. Did the playwright “choose nothing”? Eric Mallin doesn’t go quite that far. But he says that King Lear does lack “an image of a benevolent cosmos, of a benevolent deity.” This may be partly due to a lack of belief on the part of its author, Mallin says—but it could also be because the supernatural is not Shakespeare’s first concern. “He is interested in the social, in the worldly, in the sexual, in the linguistic,” Mallin says. “He’s interested in what happens on this planet. What matters is existence; what matters is what we do while we’re here. And that strikes me as pretty modern.”

The philosopher Colin McGinn, author of Shakespeare’s Philosophy, considers the question of labeling Shakespeare an atheist but prefers the term “naturalist.” His moral thinking is “entirely secular,” McGinn writes. “He is simply saying, This is the way things are, like it or not.” “People always use this phrase ‘Things happen for a reason,’ ” McGinn told me. “But they don’t. Sometimes, things happen for no reason at all. I think that’s part of his whole worldview [in King Lear]. There’s a strong vein of pessimism, I think, in Shakespeare. It’s a very bleak view of the meaninglessness of everything.”

The atheist Shakespeare theories may be gaining currency, but they can also be seen as the latest chapter in the never-ending story of Shakespeare’s religious beliefs—a subject of boundless inquiry and speculation. He has been called everything from a closet Catholic to an apologist for the Protestant state religion; the truth, one suspects, is murkier. Amid the religious turmoil that marred the English psyche in the first half of the 16th century, Shakespeare, whatever he believed, was all too aware of the anguish brought on by religious quarreling.

We can’t definitively label Shakespeare an atheist—even if we suspect we are seeing hints of such a worldview. All we can say is that he lived at a pivotal time in English history—a time when long-held beliefs were up for debate, a time of competing ideas and clashing values, a time of doubt and confusion.

Whether or not Shakespeare privately believed that the universe was meaningless, we will never know, although my suspicion is that he did not: Whatever one may discover (or fail to discover) in the depths of space, here on Earth there are places to go, friends to cherish, lovers to woo, and the occasional regicide to avenge. But Shakespeare, writing 400 years ago, was at least painfully aware of the possibility that that is all there is.

Adapted from The Science of Shakespeare: A New Look at the Playwright’s Universe by Dan Falk. Copyright © 2014 by the author and reprinted by permission of Thomas Dunne Books.

Dan Falk is science journalist, author, and broadcaster based in Toronto. He tweets at @danfalk.