Thoughts on Shakespeare

I have the privilege of teaching Shakespeare this semester–so naturally my thoughts are tending to the Bard.


I think there is much more of theological relevance in Shakespeare than some people realize. They may miss it because it is never sectarian or in your face. But MacBeth is the most profound exploration of the compounding effects of unrepented sin outside the Bible. Hamlet dies because he chooses revenge over forgiveness or even justice, after missing Claudius’ profound meditation on the power of a repentance of which he is incapable; but he dies in a state of grace as signaled by his response to Laertes’ request “Exchange forgiveness with me, noble Hamlet.” That is why the play can end with flights of angels singing him to his rest. Merchant of Venice is about the triumph of grace over law (though its climax is marred by the forced conversion of Shylock.) Etc., etc., etc. Scarcely a single play can be fully understood without reference to Christian teaching familiar to Shakespeare’s audience, though lost to us.


If you’re an anti-Semite Racist you don’t write the “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech for Shylock; if you’re a romantic about human nature you don’t show him as genuinely evil. Shakespeare’s greatness lies in the fact that he does both. In “The Merchant of Venice,” we see human nature in all its complexity, including the effects of prejudice. We see Shylock’s evil but also his humanity, and thus we are forced to realize that “There but for the grace of God go I.”



I’ve said that Lear and Othello are the darkest of Shakespeare’s great tragedies, and they are. But I am more impressed with my latest reading that even in them something good comes from all the apparent suffering and futility, though it may be harder to see. At the end of Othello, Iago, who struts through the play serenely confident in his ability to manipulate anybody and get away with anything is caught and promised a severe punishment. After all the injustice that happens, justice is finally served. And after all his suffering, and only as a result of it, Lear gains self-knowledge. Both these goods come at a terrible price, but the implication could be drawn that, at any price, they are worth it.



The older and (I hope) wiser I get, the more I tend to draw that inference. And I think that wisdom consists, not simply in drawing it, but in doing so while being sobered at the high price our fallen nature often exacts, and realizing that our task is to keep the price from being so high when we can, for ourselves and others. The only way ultimately to do that is to believe and proclaim the Gospel, the Good News that the Price has already been paid. Whether he went so far himself I do not know, but because he understood life and portrayed its heights and depths so accurately, Shakespeare seen through the lens of Scripture is a Schoolmaster who points me to Christ.


For more writing by Dr. Williams, go to and order his books STARS THROUGH THE CLOUDS: THE COLLECTED POETRY OF DONALD T. WILLIAMS (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2011), INKLINGS OF REALITY: ESSAYS TOWARD A CHRISTIAN PHILOSOPHY OF LETTERS (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2012) and REFLECTIONS FROM PLATO’S CAVE: ESSAYS IN EVANGELICAL PHILOSOPHY (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2012).




About gandalf30598

Theologian, philosopher, poet, and critic; minister of the Gospel who makes his living by teaching medieval and renaissance literature; dual citizen of Narnia and Middle Earth.

Posted on February 11, 2016, in Christianity, Donald Williams, Shakespeare, Theology and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. You have an interesting take on how Shakespeare can be interpreted given a biblically religious backdrop. Despite this however I think it would be valuable to at least consider the cynical perspective of the glass half filled. Reading Shakespeare’s “merchant of Venice” in English class we have been considering both sides of the story, and at a time when there was virtually no Jewish population in England and most of the population were raging anti Semitic it would be valuable to realize that Shakespeare was probably not attempting a humane approach to Shylock; this is a result of our more tolerant society finding sympathy in what was intended to be a sympathetic less character

    • You might be right. But if you compare Shylock to other standard Jewish villains of the period, you find nothing remotely like “Hath not a Jew eyes?” in the others. That has to be significant whether we are looking for more humanity to match our own beliefs or not.

  2. The last remark is interesting to note, that “Shakespeare seen through the lens of Scripture is a Schoolmaster who points me to Christ.” With the heavy connotations of religious discrimination infiltrated in Shakespeare’s plays, especially in The Merchant of Venice, I would not think that Shakespeare is a role model as a religious person or any guider of how a religious person should behave. Although it is true that, for a play to become famous, Shakespeare would have to connect to his audience. In order to do this, he added religious scorn towards Jews and also some light reference to Christian teaching that would have appealed to his audiences. I agree with the point of painting Shylock out to be not one extreme, but both extremes of evil and an object of racist discrimination, which is what truly makes him a character worthy of admiration, and also makes Shakespeare an even greater playwright.

  3. I said nothing about how good a role model for Christians Shakespeare might have been. I’m only talking about the content of his speeches and the arcs of his plots. Nothing you have said here affects that argument at all. In MoV the forced conversion at the end is problematic, but Portia’s speech on the quality of mercy is profound. The latter does not overturn the former; it only makes Shakespeare a man of his age. I think the examples I urged in the original post speak for themselves, and allow Shakespeare’s plays to have the effect I noted for those with the eyes to see. How far he had personally absorbed that message is something we do not know.

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