William Shakespeare was born in 1564 (baptized 26 April and therefore probably born 23 April) in Stratford-on-Avon in Warwickshire, England. Stratford was fortunate in having an endowed grammar school, and since young Shakespeare was the son of the town bailiff, it can safely be assumed that he attended it, and there learned to read and write both English and Latin. When he was 18, he married a Stratford girl, Anne Hathaway, who bore him a son and two daughters. The son died aged eleven, but the two daughters married and survived their father. Shakespeare moved to London and by the time he was 20 was beginning to be known as a successful playwright. He achieved fame and prosperity as a member of London's leading theatrical company. He wrote a book of 154 Sonnets, two long narrative poems, and upwards of three dozen plays. In about 1611, he retired to his native Stratford, died 23 April 1616, and was buried in his parish church.
Some writers have argued that the works attributed to Shakespeare were really written by someone else and published under his name, with his consent. I am going to ignore their arguments here, since they are nothing to our present purpose. We have (1) the actor from Stratford, and (2) the writer. Today we commemorate the writer. If the two are not the same, then in commemorating the writer we have his name and most of the details of his life wrong, but that does not affect our response to his writings.
In what follows, I shall rely heavily on lectures by and conversations with the late Professor Nevill K. Coghill, of Exeter and Merton Colleges, Oxford, and on his published work, especially three articles: (1) "The Basis of Shakespearian Comedy," found in the 1950 volume of Essays And Studies; (2) "Comic Form in 'Measure for Measure'", found in the 1955 volume of the Shakespeare Survey; and (3) "In Retrospect", found in the 1962 volume of the Stratford Papers on Shakespeare. (That's Stratford, Ontario.) Whatever of merit is found in what follows is due to Professor Coghill's work. Anything silly is probably the result of my having misunderstood him.
I hope to show that in his plays Shakespeare had some Christian things to say, and that our understanding of the plays will be significantly impoverished if their Christian component is overlooked. This is not to say that the plays are really sermons with a thin sugar-coating of narrative. One reader has complained that I take a story rich in ambiguities and a multitude of meanings, and reduce it to a thin, bare moral tale. But I don't. I think that a good story typically has a wealth of meaning and will reward more than one approach. If someone wants the pleasure provided by a completely different interpretation, I do not try to discourage him. I say, "Why not have both?"
In what follows, I restrict myself to discussing Shakespeare's comedies. Some readers will ask whether Shakespeare offers a Christian perspective in his other plays. I mention two books that may help to answer this.
Peter J Leithart, Brightest Heaven of Invention: A Christian Guide to Six Shakespeare Plays. (Canon Press, Moscow, Idaho, 1996) 288pp $15.50 pb. Publisher email@example.com, Tel 1-800-488-2034. The plays are Henry V, Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Macbeth, The Taming of the Shrew, and Much Ado About Nothing. The book is intended for a high-school course. The publishing house is Calvinist. I have not seen the book.
Roy W Battenhouse,Shakespearean Tragedy: Its Art and Its Christian Premises. (Indiana UP, 1969) 466pp $15 hc. I have briefly looked through the book in someone else's library. It looks a bit technical, but worth reading, and definitely worth reading if one is going to be teaching English courses that include Shakespeare.
I shall confine myself to discussing three plays, all comedies, written at seven-year intervals, in about 1597, 1604, and 1611 respectively. They are:
Prayer (traditional language)
Almighty God, who by thy Holy Spirit hast given diverse gifts to thy servants: We praise thee for the gift that thou didst give to thy servant William Shakespeare of proclaiming truths through poetry and drama, for our instruction and delight, and for thy glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the same Spirit, one God, now and for ever.Prayer (contemporary language)
Almighty God, who by your Holy Spirit have given varying gifts to your servants: We praise you for the gift that you gave to your servant William Shakespeare of proclaiming truths through poetry and drama, for our instruction and delight, and for your glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.