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Shakespeare the Christian I

Ralph Allan Smith


This book is dedicated to my four grandchildren

Rinah Berith
Valor Zurishaddi
Thane Ruach
Prester Malkiel

with prayer that they will be faithful to Christ

Numbers 6:24-26

Table of Contents

Preface viii

Lecture One: Refutation of Objections to a Christian

Shakespeare (I) 1
Method of Study and Outline 9
What Are the Objections? 18

Lecture Two: Refutation of Objections to a Christian

Shakespeare (II) 29
Is There Ethical Cause and Effect? 31
What Makes Tragedy Tragic? 36
Must Tragedy be Final? 40
Why Do We Enjoy Tragedy? 43
Conclusion 50

Lecture Three: Shakespeares Use of the Bible (I) 52

I. Literary Allusion in the Bible 54
II. Literary Allusion in Shakespeare 63

Lecture Four: Shakespeares Use of the Bible (II) 77

Table of Contents

Lecture Five: The Merchant of Venice 102

I. Controversial Issues 104
A. Homosexuality 104
B. Feminism 105
C. Anti-Semitism 106
II. Literary Allusion, Allegory, and Interpretation 110
A. Allegory? 110
B. Usury 113
C. General Structure 116
D. Details 121
E. Interpreting the Allegory 133
III. Conclusion 140

Lecture Six: Macbeth Part 1 141

I. Denying the Allusion to Adam 141
A. Responding to non-Christian Scholars 144
II. Historical Background 148
III. Macbeth and Adam 154
A. General Structure 154
B. Striking Details 156
IV. Other Allusions 162
V. Shakespeare and Milton 164
VI. Conclusion 166

Lecture Seven: Macbeth Part 2 168

I. Macbeth and the Story of Saul 168
A. Adam and Saul 169
B. Saul and Macbeth 175
C. Understanding the Allusion 182

Table of Contents

II. Lady Macbeth 187

III. Conclusion 190

Lecture Eight: Henry V, Part 1 193

I. Henry V in the Context of Shakespeares
History Plays 194
A. Prince Hals Complexity 199
B. Interpreting Prince Hal 201
II. Thinking about War and Peace in
Shakespeares Day 213

Lecture Nine: Henry V, Part 2 220

I. New Interpretation of Henry V and War 221
II. History Writing in Shakespeares Day 223
III. Bible References in Henry V 224
IV. Conclusion 235

Lecture Ten: Romeo and Juliet 237

I. The Key Reference in Romeo and Juliet 240
II. Shakespeare and His Source 245
A. Shakespeares Biblical References 248
B. Character Development 255
III. Conclusion 262

Shakespeare the Christian I: Study Guide 265

Table of Contents

Lecture Outlines 267

Lecture One: Refutation of Objections to a Christian
Shakespeare (I) 267
Lecture Two: Refutation of Objections to a Christian
Shakespeare (II) 268
Lecture Three: Shakespeares Use o f the Bible (I) 269
Lecture Four: Shakespeares Use o f the Bible (II) 270
Lecture Five: The Merchant of Venice 271
Lecture Six: Macbeth (I) 272
Lecture Seven: Macbeth (II) 273
Lecture Eight: Henry V (I) 274
Lecture Nine: Henry V (II) 275
Lecture Ten: Romeo and Juliet 276

Select Bibliography 277

Video Recommendations 281

Shakespeare the Christian I: Tests 285

Course Introduction 286

Lecture One: Refutation of Objections to Christian
Shakespeare (I) 287
Lecture Two: Refutation of Objections to a Christian
Shakespeare (II) 288
Lecture Three: Shakespeares Use o f the Bible (I) 290
Lecture Four: Shakespeares Use o f the Bible (II) 292
Lecture Five: The Merchant of Venice 294
Lecture Six: Macbeth (I) 296
Lecture Seven: Macbeth (II) 298
Table of Contents

Lecture Eight: Henry V (I) 300

Lecture Nine: Henry V (II) 302
Lecture Ten: Romeo and Juliet 304
Essay Questions 306

Shakespeare the Christian I: Answer Key 308

Course Introduction 309

Lecture One: Refutation of Objections to a Christian
Shakespeare (I) 311
Lecture Two: Refutation of Objections to a Christian
Shakespeare 313
Lecture Three: Shakespeares Use of the Bible (I) 317
Lecture Four: Shakespeares Use of the Bible (II) 322
Lecture Five: The Merchant of Venice 326
Lecture Six: Macbeth (I) 331
Lecture Seven: Macbeth (II) 335
Lecture Eight: Henry V (I) 341
Lecture Nine: Henry V (II) 345
Lecture Ten: Romeo and Juliet 349



Shakespeare the Christian I was published as a set of mp3 lec-

tures in 2003 and sold to raise money for the building fund of
the Mitaka Evangelical Church. The audio project was a success
and the funds raised provided significant help. Since the CDs are
still on sale, money raised from them will still be set aside for the
building fund. On behalf of the Mitaka Evangelical Church, I
wish to express my gratitude to all of those contributed through
the purchase of the CD.
Before turning to the second part of the course, Shakespeare
the Christian II, I decided to make the lectures from the first part
of the course available as a book. Profit from the sale of the book
will be shared with those who sell it, friends who have aided the
Mitaka Evangelical Church.
One friend with whom I consulted about the course thought
the whole concept missed the mark of students needs. In his
opinion, a couple of lectures on Shakespeare might be helpful,
but two courses of ten lectures each would simply be too much.
He might be right, but I still hope that both students and parents
will find these lectures helpful. The first four offer a general
introduction to Shakespeare as a Christian author; the next six
discuss four plays, The Merchant of Venice, Macbeth, Henry V, and
Romeo and Juliet. Perhaps putting the lectures into a book form
will make them easier to use for students who are only interested
in part of the material.


The study guide should make it possible for parents to use

this in a home-school setting with their children, or for a Sunday
school, or college study group to use these lectures for a short
course on Christian literature.
I owe a debt of gratitude to many who have helped me to
study Shakespeare, especially Peter Leithart, whose interaction
by email and in conversation has always been fruitful not to
mention his book, Brightest Heaven of Invention, and his countless
insightful blog entries on Shakespeares plays at An-
other source of instruction for me was the classes I taught here
in Japan. Going through plays slowly, comparing various video
and DVD productions together with the students led to insight
and enjoyment.
In this book also, I must express my gratitude to Vic Martens
for his careful proofreading and helpful interaction. Vic saved
me much embarrassment from typos and simple mistakes, and
helped me to clarify certain points. Mistakes that might remain,
of course, are my own.
No figure in English or even world literature compares to
Shakespeare. Next to the Bible, his plays are the most important
literary work in the English language. I offer these lectures with
prayer that God will bless them and use them to encourage stu-
dents in their spiritual and intellectual growth.

Refutation of Objections to a Christian Shakespeare (I)

Lecture One:
Refutation of Objections to a Christian Shakespeare (I)

In the lectures for this course, I have a specific goal to give

you the key that unlocks the plays of William Shakespeare. As
the title of the course indicates, that key is found in the fact that
Shakespeare wrote as a Christian. That sounds simple enough.
But the assertion that Shakespeare wrote as a Christian is contro-
versial and the very expression, Shakespeare wrote as a Christian
requires explanation.
I will address the issue topically in the first four lectures,
but the real proof that Shakespeare was a Christian and the most
powerful demonstration that he wrote as a Christian will be found
when we actually analyze Shakespeares plays. It is the stories, his
many literary allusions to the Bible, and the symbolism of his plays
that clearly point to his Christian faith.
These lectures cover a great deal of material and it is going to
require some work to get the most out of the course. But if the
reader is willing to spend time and make the effort, I believe that
this course will open up a neglected aspect of Shakespeares plays
and give the reader insights into them that he or she will seldom
obtain from a class at a local university.
This may sound like a large claim and some may wonder how
or why I should make it. So before I introduce the course let me
take a few minutes to explain why I think this course is able to
offer what very few others can.

Lecture One

To begin with, I need to say clearly that I am not claiming to

be an expert on the plays of William Shakespeare. I am a Christian
minister who studies Shakespeare for fun. In the process of my
study, I discovered that in our post-Christian era there are certain
aspects of Shakespeares plays that a Christian minister may ap-
preciate more than many experts in literature.
For example, I remember watching a few of the plays from
the BBC production of Shakespeare on Japanese educational tele-
vision about 20 years ago. Richard 3 impressed me more than any
of the others I saw at the time. It was obvious, even from a casual
viewing, that the logic and story were clearly built upon Christian
theological foundations. Some years later when I began to study
Shakespeare more seriously, the Christian character of his other
plays became more evident.
I can assure you if you are not already aware of the fact
that there is a great deal to consider here. But this is exactly
where Shakespearean experts are weak. Does that sound strange?
It really isnt. Steven Marx, an expert on Renaissance literature and
the author of an interesting book, Shakespeare and the Bible, states
that there has been relatively little work done in considering the
Biblical backgrounds of Shakespeares plays.1
Though Shakespeare wrote in an age when the Christian
worldview dominated English culture, Shakespearean scholars
are often not able to relate knowledge of the Bible and Christian
doctrine to the interpretation of his plays. Experts on Shakespeare
usually concentrate on subjects like the history of English drama,
textual variations in the plays, questions about authorship, analysis
of Shakespeares poetry, the relationship between the works of
Shakespeare and other great writers of his time, and so on. Very
few experts have specifically concerned themselves with the Bibli-
cal backgrounds for Shakespeares plays, though there has been a
1 Steven Marx, Shakespeare and the Bible (New York: Oxford University Press,
2000), pp. 2-3.

Refutation of Objections to a Christian Shakespeare (I)

great deal of debate about Shakespeares religion.

The reasons for this neglect are not hard to imagine. Steven
Marx, in the book I just mentioned, speculates that, in addition to
the leftover prejudice of the Romantic era that Shakespeare was
a secular poet, there is, and I quote, an aversion to Bible study
among academics.2 Those who have attended secular universi-
ties can tell you that aversion to Bible study is a polite and mild
way of putting it.
What I frequently encountered at the State University I at-
tended was downright hostility to the Christian faith, especially
by a particular member of the English department. I was not
a practicing Christian at the time, so it didnt really bother me,
but the anti-Christian feelings that my English literature teacher
expressed were so extreme that I remember that and only that
aspect of the course.
But not all college professors are anti-Christian. And there
are other reasons they seldom discuss the Bible in relation to
Shakespeare, the most ironic of which is simple ignorance. It may
seem strange, but as much as scholars study historical backgrounds,
medieval drama, the philosophy of drama and all the rest, learn-
ing the Bible, even for the sake of understanding the thought and
religion of Shakespeares time, is not usually required. Again Marx
is a good example. He says that even though he had rigorous
undergraduate and graduate training in the Great Books of the
West, it was only after earning his PhD and teaching renaissance
literature for several years that he decided to study the Bible be-
cause he became aware of what he called the gap in his education.3
Imagine: it is possible to carefully study the great books of
the West as an undergraduate and graduate, go on to earn a PhD
in renaissance literature, and even become a professor in a good
American university and all the while be ignorant of the Bible. (I
2 Ibid., p. 2.
3 Ibid., p. 3.

Lecture One

am not trying to criticize Dr. Marx, by the way. I appreciate his

honesty.) The point is, if a man like Dr. Marx had such a gap his
otherwise excellent education, I think it is fair to assume that on
this particular subject the relationship of Shakespeares plays to
the Bible most of our college professors are not well informed.
Whatever other reasons there may be for the general neglect
of Shakespeares Christianity, the three reasons I have gleaned from
Marx are important. 1) the remaining influence of the popular
19th century notion that Shakespeare was a secular poet; 2) a gen-
eral aversion to Bible study among academics; and 3) a resulting
ignorance of the Bible and Christianity.
Why is this ignorance of the Bible and Christianity important?
Because in this study of Shakespeare, we are concerned with only
one aspect of the study of Shakespeare literary interpretation.
We are not looking into the dates of the plays, comparison of the
texts, the relationship between the plays and possible connections
to contemporary historical issues (though we may consider this
when it is relevant to our interpretation) and other issues important
to Shakespearean studies.
When the issue is literary interpretation, the prejudice and
ignorance Steven Marx refers to are profoundly significant. The
interpreter, whether he is a professor or a student, not only lacks
an indispensable tool the knowledge of the Bible but is blind
to matters that may be essential in understanding Shakespeare.
To get a better feel for what this means, we need to think about
the distinction between literary interpretation and literary scholar-
ship. Listen to this quotation from Ian Johnston, a professor of
English literature and an expert on Shakespeare. Johnston says:

The key quality required for literary interpretation is the

ability to read intelligently and to communicate ones
responses well. These capabilities are often independent
of any special training (although they do seem to require

Refutation of Objections to a Christian Shakespeare (I)

some practice), and thus excellent literary criticism can

come from almost any quarter. It is certainly not the case
that an instructor with a rigorously specialized education
as a literary scholar will necessarily be a better interpreter
than a student who comes to the text for the first time. In
fact, in some instances, it may be the case that someone
without any formal training in graduate English courses
is a far better interpreter of a particular literary text than
the most qualified scholar (whose scholarship may get in
the way of useful interpretation). In that sense, literary
interpretation, unlike literary scholarship, is a radically
egalitarian activity. What makes one person better at it
than another often has much more to do with sensitivity
to language and practice than with any specialized train-
ing in English scholarship.4

Johnston makes an important distinction. Literary scholarship

is not primarily about literary interpretation. It may even, he says,
interfere with literary interpretation. According to Johnston, this
is the reason that a non-expert may, in some cases, be better at
interpretation than an expert. Since the point is made by an expert,
I think it is worth the emphasis I have given it.
Johnstons point is more general than the point I wish to
make. However, what is important here is that Johnston shows
that when it comes to the interpretation of the plays, expertise in
literature is not the most important issue. His statement that liter-
ary interpretation is radically egalitarian is indeed true. Johnston
opens the way for non-experts to participate in the interpretation
of Shakespeares plays. I am concerned specifically with the fact
that it is difficult for an interpreter of Shakespeare to read his
plays intelligently if he misses a large portion of the literary allu-
4 From the essay, On Scholarship and Literary Interpretation: An Introductory
Note, at

Lecture One

sions in the plays. Sensitivity to language in general is important,

but that must include sensitivity to the language of the Bible, so
abundantly employed by Shakespeare.
There is another related but much deeper issue, one that par-
tially reverses the radical egalitarianism I just endorsed. Though
it is beyond the scope of these lectures to deal with this in depth,
in addition to what Johnston says about literary interpretation,
there is the underlying problem of ones worldview and how it
influences interpretation. Worldview is both inescapable and also
fundamental to all interpretation not only questions of God
and the universe, but even the plays of Shakespeare.
The following quotation from S. L. Bethell, a literary critic
and expert, explains what I mean.

In other words, there are no purely literary judgments,

just as there are no purely economic judgments; we
cannot isolate one aspect of human activity from all
the rest and make a comfortable, self-contained sub-
ject or science of it. We are dealing with a universe,
ABC, and we cannot really know A if we ignore B and
C. Economics is not a pure science; it is involved with
matters of ethics, politics, biology and so forth: liter-
ary criticism is not a pure activity, since literature is a
cultural expression and its boundaries are as wide as life.
We cannot have it both ways: if literature is more than
a pleasant pastime played according to certain rules, if
its breadth is the breadth of human experience, then it
is fraught with all the uncertainties of human experience
and the great controversies about the meaning of life will
all be reflected in our literary criticism.5

5 S. L. Bethell, Literary Criticism and the English Tradition, (London: Dennis Dobson,
Ltd, 1948), pp. 53-54.

Refutation of Objections to a Christian Shakespeare (I)

This is the most profound issue relating to literary interpre-

tation. Consider: just as a person with little life experience may
be a poor interpreter of Shakespeare for the simple reason that
he will lack personal insight into the issues presented in a play, so
also and much more a person with religious or philosophical
views that blind him to Shakespeares understanding of the great
issues of life is bound to fundamentally misunderstand his plays.
The opposite is also true. If it is true that Shakespeare wrote
as a Christian, then, a person who approaches Shakespeares plays
with a Christian view of life and some Christian experience should
have insight into Shakespeare that the non-Christian, including
the non-Christian scholar, may not be able to appreciate.6 If, as I
believe that I can demonstrate, Shakespeare wrote as a Christian,
what some may regard as the bias of my faith is actually a basis,
a place where Shakespeare and I stand on common ground. The
fact that Christians share the same view of the world as Shake-
speare offers though it does not guarantee them an insiders
privileged understanding.
The worldview issue is fundamental and has many dimensions.
Consider this humorous illustration. Among German devotees
of Shakespeare, some refer to him as unser Shakespeare (our
Shakespeare) because the German translation of Shakespeare has
been done so well that it is a literary classic in the German language.
One famous German refers to Shakespeare as Wilhelm. An-

6 I am not suggesting that such insight is automatic. Non-Christians may offer

deeper insight into aspects of a particular play than a Christian, even while missing
the Christian message. To quote from Bethell again, It has more than once been
suggested to me, by reviewers and other well-wishers, that critical canons founded
upon theology must necessarily be wanting in that catholicity with a small c which
should be the aim of every literary critic. I have previously shown that I do not intend
a writer to be judged by his professed dogmatic position, but by what I have called the
quality of his insight, and the only touchstone that we possess for such a judgment
is the quality of our own insight, which will be modified by our Christianity if we
are Christians, our Marxism if we are Marxists, our naturalism if we are naturalistic
humanists. Ibid., p. 53.

Lecture One

other, August Wilhelm von Schlegel (1767-1845), whose translation

is the classic German translation, asserted in a letter to a friend,
Shakespeare was not an Englishman. In the same letter, Schlegel
asks, How did he possibly come among the frosty, stupid souls
of that brutal island?7 I have not read Schlegels comments in
the original context, but they are obviously not meant to be taken
entirely seriously.
It is amusing to imagine what it would mean if we actually tried
to employ this German perspective in the study of Shakespeare.
We would have to come up with hypotheses for how and when
this genius, the German Wilhelm, got to England; how he learned
English; how a German got into English schools and theatres, and
so forth. I suppose making him a second generation immigrant
would solve most of the problems. At least then he might still have
a German soul and therefore, in spite of the debilitating influence
of the polluted soil of England, be able to produce something
great. However that may be, I am sure my point is clear enough.
If we really were to attempt to read Shakespeare as a German,
we would have to construct a whole new narrative of his life to
support our reading.
Modern scholars who wish to read Shakespeare as if he were
not a Christian have a similar prejudice. They assume that he could
not have been a Christian, because in that case his artistic ability
and imagination would have been severely limited, not by that
cold little island, but by the frosty, stupid beliefs of that brutal
religion. Surely, supposes the secular believer whether German
7 Lukas Erne, Eighteenth-Century Swiss Peasant Meets Bard: Ulrich Brkers
A Few Words About William Shakespeares Plays (1780), Theatre Research International
(2000), Cambridge University Press, vol. 25: p. 255. See also the thesis by, Onno van
Wilgenburg, The Plays the Thing: (Anti-) Nazi Shakespeare Appropriation 1933-
1999, online:
UUindex.html. Friends and acquaintances from the frosty island will forgive me.
My ancestors came from Wales, Ireland, and Scotland, as well as Germany and Swit-
zerland, so I have no prejudice against Great Britain. All the same, I have to enjoy
the jab.
Refutation of Objections to a Christian Shakespeare (I)

or not Shakespeare must have been an open minded, secular

poet, or he could not have produced such wonderful literature.
The 19th century German bias against the English is similar enough
to modern academic bias against Christianity that the illustration
works, even if it is a bit exaggerated. It is this sort of visceral
bias against Christian faith that dominates most Shakespearean
scholarship and blinds teachers and students to the significance
of Biblical references in his plays.
The reader will understand now what I mean when I say
I believe that this course offers something that most university
courses will not offer. Seldom, though there are notable excep-
tions, will the professor at the local university teach Shakespeares
plays from a Christian perspective. Most of the courses offered in
English-speaking universities and schools interpret Shakespeares
plays as if the Bible and Christianity were not important. As I trust
the reader will be persuaded through the following study, this is a
fundamental mistake, one that distorts a persons basic perspec-
tive and interpretation. For as we examine the plays in the light
of the Scripture and Christian doctrine, some will be surprised, I
suspect, at how very Christian Shakespeare actually was. I hope to
offer insight into Shakespeares plays that will deepen the readers
enjoyment of them no less than his or her understanding.

Method of Study and Outline

Now that I have offered some justification for the appar-

ently audacious claims I made for the course, I need to take a
few minutes to introduce the content of the course and suggest
a method of study.
First, I would like to give you a general outline of the course.
The course is divided into two sets of ten lectures (only the first ten
have been completed). The first ten lectures include four, which
are introductory study, laying the foundation for the rest of the

Lecture One

course. In these lectures, I will explain why I believe that Shake-

speare wrote as a Christian, what it means to say that he wrote as
a Christian, and give an introduction to his use of the Bible. The
first two lectures include basic answers to scholars who oppose
the notion that Shakespeares plays are distinctly Christian. The
next two lectures, offer a general introduction to Shakespeares
use of the Bible and Christian doctrine in his plays.
Though I hope the arguments of the first four lectures are
persuasive, the picture of Shakespeares faith and his use of the
Bible therein presented should be thought of as a thesis to be tested
as we consider Shakespeares plays. As I attempt to expound the
plays from a distinctively Christian perspective, the thesis will either
stand or fall. I am confident that those who study will see that a
Christian perspective significantly illumines the plays and offers
a deeper understanding of their themes and characters. The ten
plays we will survey include two from English history, Henry V
and Richard III; two comedies, the Merchant of Venice and The
Taming of the Shrew; the four great tragedies, Macbeth, Othello,
Hamlet, and King Lear; and two of Shakespeares most popular
plays, both classified as tragedies, Julius Caesar and Romeo and
Let me repeat the content in the order it will be presented.
In part one of the course, we will discuss only four of the ten
plays. Lecture 5 is the Merchant of Venice. Lectures 6 and 7 cover
Macbeth. Lectures 8 and 9 cover Henry V. Finally Lecture 10 is
Romeo and Juliet.
The second half of the course will begin with two lectures
on Richard III. Lecture 13 will be on Julius Caesar. I plan to fol-
low it with two lectures on Othello and two on Hamlet. Then,
Lecture 18 is to be on the Taming of the Shrew. Finally, the last
two lectures will be on King Lear.
I would also like to recommend a method of study and an
excellent book to read along with this course. The book I recom-

Refutation of Objections to a Christian Shakespeare (I)

mend is titled Brightest Heaven of Invention: A Christian Guide to Six

Shakespeare Plays, by Peter Leithart.8 Dr. Leithart is a Christian
theologian who is also a highly qualified expert in literature. Five
of the ten plays I will introduce are discussed in Dr. Leitharts
volume. My lectures will interact with his discussion. Home-
schoolers, Sunday School teachers and Christian schoolteachers
will find Dr. Leitharts book an indispensable source. However, the
lectures in this course cover different ground from Dr. Leitharts
book, so that even when we are discussing the same plays, there
is relatively little overlap.
Apart from reading Dr. Leitharts book, I would like to sug-
gest a method of study for Shakespeares plays. The method I
recommend is one that could not have been used even twenty
years ago, for video and DVD technology have opened up tre-
mendous opportunities. Why are video and DVD important?
When we study Shakespeares plays, it is important to remember
that these are plays. They are not novels. They were not meant
to be read so much as to be viewed, a point also emphasized by
T.S. Eliot.9 Ideally, that means live performance. However, even
though live performance offers something special that a video
cannot reproduce, many of us will not have the opportunity to
see Shakespeares plays performed live by competent actors (with
sincere apologies to all, I do not consider high-school students to
be competent actors). However, anyone can purchase a decent
video or DVD version. Videos and DVDs allow us to study a
play slowly, to replay difficult sections, adjust the pace to our own
schedules or that of the students, and review the whole play as
8 Peter J. Leithart, Brightest Heaven of Invention: A Christian Guide to Six Shakespeare
Plays (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 1996).
9 Eliot emphasized both reading and viewing. The constant reader of Shake-
speare should be also, to the best of his opportunities, the constant theatre-goer: for
any play of Shakespeare requires to be seen and heard, as well as read, many times; and
seen and heard in as many different productions as possible. S. L. Bethell, Shakespeare
and the Popular Dramatic Tradition (St. Albans: Staples Press Ltd., 1944), p. 8.

Lecture One

many times as we wish.

Of course, there are many ways to effectively use videos to
study Shakespeare. But rather than try to introduce a number of
methods, let me simply tell you what I have done for my courses
here in Japan. First, we purchased multiple video versions of a
particular play so that we could compare interpretations. With
the text in hand, we watched the play scene by scene, comparing
and contrasting the different versions, discussing the text and the
meaning of the play as we watched each scene. Then, after having
gone through the entire play in some detail, we watched the play
from beginning to end in the version that we thought was best.
For a family, this can get expensive since some of the best
versions available for most of Shakespeares plays are those done
by the BBC, which cost about $100 each at the time that we bought
them.10 You may be able to borrow the BBC version from your
local library or persuade your Christian school to purchase some
of the most important plays for the school library. But there are
other videos and DVDs that are sometimes very well done and not
so expensive. Marlon Brando, for example, acts the part of Mark
Antony in a popular version of Julius Caesar that is available for
about $20, and the Brando version is much better than the BBCs.
I should add that going through a play scene by scene and
comparing various versions is a time consuming way to study.
Many readers wont be able to follow that method for all ten plays,
but if the reader will try this method with even one play, it will be
helpful. If the reader does not have time to compare, he or she
may at least view as many of the plays as possible.
I should add that although I want to encourage everyone to
view the plays on video or at a live performance, the reader will
be able to follow these lectures with no trouble so long as he or
she has access to the text of the plays.

10 The price for the BBC set of Shakespeares plays has gone down considerably,
though it varies quite a bit depending on where one purchases it.

Refutation of Objections to a Christian Shakespeare (I)

Here again, I wish to make a special recommendation. Many

readers will already own a book that contains all the works of
Shakespeare in one large volume. Sometimes these collections
include introductory material and footnotes. But they dont offer
much. What I recommend is that for at least one, if not all, of
the ten plays in the following study, the reader purchase a criti-
cal text with footnotes and extensive introductory material. For
example, I have a number of critical editions of Hamlet, one of
which is part of a series called The Arden Shakespeare. The editor
is Harold Jenkins. I have found this detailed (approximately 600
page) study of Hamlet helpful and challenging.11 Similar critical
texts are published by Oxford and Cambridge universities and
many of these can be found in used bookstores for low prices.
I will also provide a simple outline of the lectures, study
questions and other aids to study in the guide that accompanies
this course.
Now, with the lectures, the study guide, Peter Leitharts intro-
duction to Shakespeare, at least one video version of one of the
plays we will study, and critical texts, the reader will be ready to do
some serious and enjoyable study of the most important figure in
the history of English literature, but not only English literature,
of world literature for the plays of William Shakespeare have
had a broader appeal than any other work of literature, with the
exception of the Bible. Africans and Asians view Shakespeares
plays and study them in their universities not merely because of
Shakespeares place in Western history, but because of the intrinsic
interest of the plays themselves. Why do these plays have such a
universal appeal? What is it about Shakespeare that provokes the
fascination of audiences from all over the world, now four hundred
years after he has died and long after the peculiar form of English
in which he wrote has become difficult to follow?

11 Hamlet (Arden Shakespeare: Second Series), edited by Harold Jenkins, (London:

Routledge: The Arden Shakespeare, 1982).

Lecture One

The answer to these questions is found, I believe, in the fact

that Shakespeare wrote as a Christian. Just as the Bible has a
universal appeal because it is the word of the God who created
us in His image, so Shakespeare has had almost as broad an ap-
peal because more than any other figure in world literature he
has written plays which conform to and express the Biblical and
Christian worldview.
Before we turn to the topic of our first lecture, there is one
more issue that we must touch on briefly. My claims for Shake-
speare in this course should not be misunderstood. This is not a
matter of Christian apologetics. It is not as if Christian faith is
influenced one way or another by Shakespeare himself or questions
related to his plays. This course aims to understand the plays as
we have them, not to uncover secrets about the man who wrote
them. It is often pointed out that we really do not know much
about the man and that almost everything said about what kind of
a person he was is speculation. After all, knowing approximately
when he was born, when he died and a string of other details,
some more certain than others, does not really tell us about the
man himself. We have to admit, that in the end, the best we can
do is guess what kind of a man Shakespeare was.
With regard to Shakespeare as a man, two questions are im-
portant. We will touch on each of them briefly. First, there are
those who deny that Shakespeare wrote the plays ascribed to him.
It is said by some that the 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere,
was the real author of the plays attributed to Shakespeare, by others
that the real author was Francis Bacon, and by others Christopher
Marlow. My favorite alternative Shakespeare is Queen Elizabeth.
The question, then, is did William Shakespeare of Stratford write
the plays attributed to Shakespeare?
When William of Stratford the Shakespeare we know is
denied as the author of the plays, the arguments about authorship
take on all the elements of a conspiracy theory. For one reason

Refutation of Objections to a Christian Shakespeare (I)

or another, a considerable group of people are thought to have

agreed to suppress the truth about the author of the plays and to
have cooperated with one another to deceive the public into be-
lieving William Shakespeare was the author of the works ascribed
to him. Like most conspiracies, there is no evidence for this.
No contemporary mentions anything like this in a letter or diary.
There is no positive reason to believe that someone other than
Shakespeare wrote the plays. The best of what is offered as proof
is circumstantial evidence; otherwise, the arguments for a different
author are based on our ignorance of William of Stratford. The
more one considers the details, the less probable all this becomes.
One of the most interesting and persuasive details is the
simple but profound fact that the world of London theater in
Shakespeares day involved only about 200 or so people. Gossip
among people of the theater was no less popular then than now.
Peter Saccio points out that if Shakespeare had not been the real
author of his plays, no one could have or would have kept it a
secret. It would have been too juicy a bit of gossip to spread if
William Shakespeare the actor, was only acting as if he were also
the playwright. But there are many more scholarly arguments for
the view that Shakespeare actually wrote the plays ascribed to him.
Those interested in the detailed arguments on both sides can
find an abundance of material on the internet. In this course, I
assume, on the basis of considerable study of the subject, that
William Shakespeare from Stratford wrote the plays and poems
that are usually regarded as the works of Shakespeare. This is
not to deny that others helped in places, so that the question of
authorship is sometimes a little more complicated than simply
claiming Shakespeare as the author. But my point is that neither
de Vere, nor Bacon, nor others not even Queen Elizabeth
were involved.
Second, there are attacks on Shakespeares personal character,
or the character of the man who wrote the plays. Edward de Vere,

Lecture One

currently the most popular alternative to William of Stratford, was

apparently an unsavory character. Joseph Sobran, who denies that
Shakespeare is the author of the plays, claims that the sonnets show
de Vere to have been a pederast.12 Alan Nelson, a Shakespearean
expert, agrees with Sobran that de Vere was a pederast and adds
to the list other traits: egotist, thug, sodomite, atheist, vulture,
traitor, murderer, rapist, adulterer, libeler, fop, playboy, truant, tax
evader, drunkard, snob, spendthrift, deadbeat, cheat, blackmailer,
malcontent, hypocrite, conspirator, and ingrate. But Nelson denies
that the scoundrel de Vere wrote Shakespeares plays.13
The list of derogatory epithets possibly applied to Shake-
speare himself does not reach the length of de Veres, but it in-
cludes a number of the same descriptions. Some experts consider
William Shakespeare to have been a relatively immoral man. His
plays certainly depict immoral people in colorful language that
modern Christians are not accustomed to. Not a few non-Christian
interpreters take this to mean that Shakespeare was a secular poet
and that his viewpoint was non-moral. This is an argument that
I will respond to more fully in a different connection, but for
now, the question is What if some new evidence surfaces that
proves the writer of Shakespeares plays whoever he was to
have been an immoral person? What would that mean for our
understanding of the plays?
Basically, a discovery of that sort though I regard it as
highly unlikely would not mean much for the interpretation of
Shakespeares plays. In the abstract, there are many possibilities.
Consider the following: 1) He could have been a non-Christian
man who was calculating that his largely Christian audience wanted
plays of a certain sort, so he wrote Christian plays to entertain
12 Joseph Sobran, How Old Was Oxfords Daughter, and When Did William
Lose His Hair? A reply to Alan Nelson,
13 Alan H. Nelson, Monstrous Adversary: The Life of Edward De Vere, 17th Earl of
Oxford (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2003).

Refutation of Objections to a Christian Shakespeare (I)

them for his own profit. 2) He could have been a man like Lot
in the book of Genesis a believer in the true God in fact, but
one who was very much influenced by the evil around him in-
fluenced by evil so much that his plays reflected a non-Christian
worldview and the tendencies of his day almost as much as they
reflected his Christian worldview. 3) He could have been a man
like David, who was sometimes godly and wise and sometimes
extremely sinful and foolish, with the result that different plays
show his spiritual state at different times. 4) He could have been
a man like Solomon, who started out wise and godly, fell from the
faith for some time, and repented in his later years. Needless to
say, these four possibilities do not exhaust the hypothetical options,
the most reasonable of which is a fifth: Shakespeare was a faithful
Anglican Christian. The point is that anyone who is going to be
strictly fair to the lack of historical evidence available has to admit
that we dont really know much about Shakespeares private life.
Nevertheless, we do know that whatever kind of man he was
and however he may have lived his life, he knew the Bible very well.
We know that he quoted from it often and intelligently. More than
that, we know that he used the Bible as the basic structure or guide
for some of his plays. For example, a Bible verse provides the title
of the play Measure for Measure. A Bible doctrine provides
the theme of the play, The Merchant of Venice. Biblical char-
acters provide the typology for the play, Macbeth. And so on.
The approximately 2000 references to the Bible in Shakespeares
plays14 vary in importance, but together they demonstrate a pro-
found understanding of the Bible and a facility to apply the Bible
to contemporary situations that considerably surpasses the ability
of most Christian ministers. Whatever his personal faith was, his
plays are written from a Christian perspective, one that betrays a
14 Do the calculations. In approximately 40 plays, there are about 2000 references
to the Bible. This means on average 50 references per play, 10 references per Act.
No other literary work has comparable impact on Shakespeares plays.

Lecture One

deep understanding of the Christian worldview. That is what is

important for this course and that is why I call him, Shakespeare
the Christian.

What Are the Objections?

This brings us to the topic of the first lecture. I am now

ready to consider why some reject the idea that Shakespeare wrote
as a Christian and deny what I mean when I say that his plays are
To begin with, lets consider the anti-Christian approach
to understanding Shakespeare as expressed by a famous phi-
losophy professor from Princeton Univeristy, Walter Kaufmann.
Kaufmann well stated the view that Shakespeare wrote from a
non-Christian perspective:

We have been told that Shakespeare was a Christian.

Some say he was a Protestant; others, he was a Catholic.
Some say that he extolled the Christian virtues. Faith?
Hardly. Hope? Certainly not. But love, of course. In
the end, the whole suggestion is reducible to the absurd
assumption that a man who celebrates love must have
been a Christian.15

Concerning Shakespeares view of tragedy in particular, Kaufmann


Shakespeare shares the Greek tragedians tragic world

view: even without moral transgressions human beings
sometimes find themselves in situations in which guilt is
unavoidable, and what is wanted at that point is neither
faith nor hope but courage. As Shaw says in Heartbreak

15 Walter Kaufmann, From Shakespeare to Existentialism (Princeton: Princeton

University Press, 1959), p. 4.

Refutation of Objections to a Christian Shakespeare (I)

House: Courage will not save you. But it will show

that your souls are still alive. There is no hope and
no redemption after death. Life is its own reward; and
if death should be the wages of sin, it still need not be

Permit me just one more extended quotation of Kaufmanns view:

Shakespeare, like the Greeks before him and Nietzsche

after him, believed neither in progress nor in original sin;
he believed that most men merited contempt and that
a very few were head and shoulders above the rest of
mankind and that these few, more often that not, meet
with base infection and do not herald progress. The
prerogative of the few is tragedy.

The tragic worldview involves an ethic of character, not,

like the Gospels, an ethic of otherworldly prudence. In
the Sermon on the Mount alone, the word reward
recurs nine times, the idea of reward at least another
nineteen times, and the threat of dire punishments at
least a dozen times, before the Sermon is concluded
with the express assertion that those who do as they are
bidden are wise while those who do not are foolish.
As Gunther Bornkamm, a German Protestant theologian
who dislikes the idea of prudence, is forced to admit in
his learned monograph Der Lohngedanke im Neuen Testa-
ment, The new Testament does not know the idea of
the good deed that has its value in itself.

The tragic hero has no reward. The tragic view knows,

as Christianity does not, genuine self sacrifice.17
16 Ibid.
17 Ibid., pp. 14-15.

Lecture One

In these quotations Kaufmann brings up a number of fun-

damental issues and does it in a manner that reflects the spirit
one often confronts in the American university. It is clear on the
surface that Kaufmann shared that contempt for most men that
he attributed to Shakespeare and that one particular object of his
scorn was the Christian religion. In this Kaufmann was, if not
typical, not at all exceptional as an American University professor.
However, a Christian reading Kaufmann can hardly fail to
be amused by the fact that a man who began one of his books
by accusing Christians of distorting history only a few pages later
discovers that William Shakespeare, born in 1564 in the Protestant
England of Queen Elizabeth, a man who attended church faithfully
every week until he died in 1616 during the reign of King James,
was somehow possessed by the same sort of existential despair
and the same disdain for Christianity as Walter Kaufmann.
The irony is delightful, but the matter is admitedly compli-
cated. After all, Kaufmann can find some things in Shakespeare to
support his view. For example, Shakespeare does have Macbeth say,

Lifes 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,
signifying nothing.

Now Kaufmann interprets this as a great insight into life

and argues that it was Shakespeares own view. If that were true,
Kaufmanns view would have to be regarded as at least one le-
gitimate possibility. But there is something deeper involved here.
When we see how Kaufman interprets Shakespeare, we find
ourselves face to face with the fact that modern readers of Shake-
speare, ourselves included, tend to read him in terms of their own
worldviews. And Shakespeares writings are complicated enough to

Refutation of Objections to a Christian Shakespeare (I)

tolerate, or at least not to clearly disallow, numerous irreconcilable

interpretations. We do have to ask, How can I be sure that I am
not reading my Christianity into Shakespeare just like Kaufmann
and other secular writers have read their own thinking into him
even though it has to be admited that historically the Christian view
has much more going for it, given the times in which Shakespeare
lived? We must take the matter seriously. How can I be sure that
my reading, like Kaufmanns, is not simply the outworking of my
Christian bias?
We need to keep that question in mind, as we consider the
basic objections that Kaufmann and others make to Christian in-
terpretation of Shakespeare. Please note that I wont be trying to
answer all of the assertions Kaufmann has made, like the slander
that Christianity is not a religion of self-sacrifice but a religion of
prudent calculation. I am interested only in the general issues that
he raises, which can be stated in three points.

1. It is claimed that Shakespeares plays do not clearly en-

dorse any ethic, or that they endorse more than one ethic. At
any rate, the ethical viewpoint, we are told, is not Christian.
Perhaps the most extreme statement of the view that Shake-
speares ethic is not Christian belongs to George Bernard
Shaw, who asserted that Shakespeare had no conscience.

2. Shakespeare does not write as a religious man about religious

issues. None of the plays deals specifically or primarily with
matters of faith or piety. None of Shakespeares heroes are
martyrs for Christ. No specifically religious question or issue
is central to any of his plays. Roland Frye, for example, as-
serts that most of the comments on death by Shakespeares
characters could as well be made by Greeks or Romans as by
Christians. He goes on to say, Shakespeare was not writing
plays which can be theologically categorized as pro-Christian

Lecture One

or anti-Christian . . . [H]e was primarily concerned with the

life of man within the secular order, where Christian and non-
Christian ideas frequently overlap and coincide.18

3. Tragedy, in particular, is said to be inconsistent with Chris-

tian faith. This has frequently been argued. For Kaufmann,
as for many others, this is a major issue. Shakespeare, we are
told wrote tragedy, therefore, he was not a Christian. The two
are said to be irreconcilable. The philosopher Karl Jaspers
insisted no genuinely Christian tragedy can exist and A
Christian is bound to misunderstand . . . Shakespeare.19

These three basic objections include numerous detailed issues

often mentioned. The blatant and sometimes offensive vulgarity
of a few of Shakespeares characters, for example, is referred to
by some writers as evidence that he did not write from a Christian
ethical perspective. Others point to the fact that though many
people die or are killed on stage, their last moments are not por-
trayed in a distinctly Christian manner. The utter lack of reflection
about the state of their souls after death seem inconsistent with
Christian piety.
All of these objections, detailed and general, can be answered
by a close inspection of the plays themselves. As we consider the
ten plays we have chosen to study, keep these objections in mind
and it will become clear, I believe, that they arise from a modern
bias. As we consider the plays in some detail, I think that the
reader will be surprised that anyone could honestly hold these
opinions. But, remember, most of these scholars, including the
philosophers, have missed the Biblical backgrounds to the plays.
18 Roland Mushat Frye, Shakespeare and Christian Doctrine (Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 1965), pp. 132-33.
19 Karl Jaspers, Tragedy is Not Enough, Translated from the German by Harold A.
T. Reiche, Harry T. Moore, and Karl W. Deutsch (Boston: Beacon Press, 1953), pp.

Refutation of Objections to a Christian Shakespeare (I)

They have not heard the Biblical echoes or noticed the Biblical
structure of the stories.
To these topics, I will return later. At this point I need to
offer general answers to these basic criticisms of the Christian

1. Shakespeares Ethic

To the assertion that Shakespeares ethic is not distinctly

Christian, our answer is in two parts. First, we need to understand
Shakespeares idea of what it means to write a play. What is his
purpose in writing? Clearly his plays are not intended to be simple
moral lessons in story form, like the stories for children in the
McGuffy readers. We have to admit that it is true that Shakespeare
introduces vulgar characters and that he even makes some of them
charming. Falstaff is the most famous example. Here is an obese
glutton, an old thief who frequents whorehouses and is drunk
more than he is sober, but he is also charming and entertaining.
We find ourselves amused by him, in spite of his repulsive habits.
Why, the question is put, would a Christian playwright invent a
character like this? A large part of the answer is that Shakespeares
purpose was expressed in the words with which Prince Hamlet
instructed the players. A play is supposed to:

. . . hold, as twere, the

mirror up to nature

Shakespeare, in other words, presented the world as he knew

it to be, as it really is. He was not embarrassed about embarrass-
ing facts, because as a Christian, he could be honest about the
world. Shakespeare knew, as we do too, that there is such a thing
as a captivating rascal. No doubt ideologues would prefer it to
be otherwise, but we live in a world in which good men have not

Lecture One

been given exclusive rights to the possession of charm.

If Shakespeare had written as a Christian apologist some-
one defending the Christian faith from attack by unbelievers he
might have felt pressured to present all of the bad guys as unam-
biguously bad, like the old Westerns in which the bad guys wear
black hats and even laugh like the villains they are.
But Shakespeare did not write as an apologist trying to prove
Christianity to deniers or doubters. He was writing for an audi-
ence that presupposed the truth of Christianity. He did not have
to defend Christianity against detractors and it would never have
occurred to him that he was somehow denying Christian ethics
by showing an otherwise worthless man like Falstaff as also being
winsome, in a dangerous way.
I should also add that the Elizabethan audience of the late
16th and early 17th centuries seems to have been especially recep-
tive to this paradoxical character of experience. S. L. Bethell, the
Christian Shakespearian scholar I quoted previously, informs us
that the Elizabethan reaction to Falstaff was very different from
that of the Victorian reaction. Late 19th century Victorians, like
many Christians in our day, had little appreciation for the ironic
realities of life. In Bethells words, Where the Victorian laughs,
he must love . . .20 In other words, for the Victorians, if Falstaff
is amusing, then he must be presented as good or at least be re-
deemed. Otherwise the ethic that condemns him must be rejected.
The Elizabethan audience, however, would applaud Falstaff s
humor and his final condemnation equally. They could laugh at
Falstaff s jokes and also approve of young King Henrys judgment
against him. They were, in other words, comfortable with the
apparent contradictions of real life in a way that the Victorians
were not. I believe that this may reflect a deeper Christian faith.
It certainly indicates that they were less defensive.
20 S. L. Bethell, Shakespeare and the Popular Dramatic Tradition, p. 27.

Refutation of Objections to a Christian Shakespeare (I)

The second point I wish to make, and this is the crux of the
matter, is that we must not miss the fact that the real villains in
Shakespeare, like Richard III, Macbeth, and Iago, for example,
come to disastrous ends that clearly reflect the judgment of God
against their wickedness. In the case of Richard III, judgment
comes in specific answer to prayer! It can hardly be said that
Shakespeare lacks a conscience when, in every play that depicts
true evil, he brings the matter to ethical resolution.
The charge, then, that his plays do not endorse Christian ethics
comes from an overly narrow view of how a Christian playwright
ought to portray his characters and from not taking sufficient note
of the obvious fact that in Shakespeares plays, truly evil men meet
a truly evil end.

2. Plays Not Particularly Religious

We turn, then, to the second point that Shakespeares plays are

not particularly religious or pious. To this we must first inquire,
why would Shakespeares plays have to be specifically religious in
order for him to write as a Christian? Why, in other words, would
he have to directly address religious topics and themes or make
the religious character of his plays obvious? Simply asking these
questions exposes the fact that the objection is based on wrong
expectations. When we consider whether or not Shakespeare wrote
as a Christian, the really important questions are very different.
We need to ask about his presuppositions, about his worldview.
We need to consider questions like:

Is his view of man or human psychology distinctly Christian?

Does he presuppose the Christian view of life and history?
Do his plays employ distinctly Christian symbolism or
depend upon distinctly Christian ideas?

Lecture One

It is not incumbent on a Christian writer to write about

martyrs or to explicitly address matters of doctrine in order to
be truly Christian though it may well be that without the plays
addressing explicit doctrines, it will be difficult to discern what
kind of Christian Shakespeare was. He has written so much and
there is enough ambiguity that there is some debate about whether
he was Catholic or Protestant, whether he was Anglican or not.
From my perspective, these debates are secondary, though I have
done some reading on the subject and I personally assume that
he was probably a good Anglican. As I pointed out earlier, we
know so little about the man himself that no one can be dogmatic,
but there is enough evidence, I believe, to support the Anglican
interpretation. However that may be, one of the few things about
his personal life that we know for certain is what he wrote in his
will in March of 1616:

I commend my soul into the hands of God my Creator,

hoping and assuredly believing through the only merits
of Jesus Christ my Savior to be made partaker of life ev-
erlasting, and my body to the earth whereof it is made.21

Here we have very specific reference to religion and piety.

Ordinarily, there is no reason to doubt the sincerity of the language
in a mans will. I see no reason to doubt Shakespeares. Which
means that we ought to assume that he was a sincere Christian,
unless we have sufficient reason to believe otherwise.
Still, some will ask, Is this piety reflected in his writings? The
answer is yes, as will become evident when we do a detailed study
of the history plays, Henry V, in which God gives Henry the vic-
tory at Agincourt and receives praise in the language of Psalm
115, and Richard III, in which the whole movement of history is
guided in answer to imprecatory prayers. Even though Shakespeare
21 Online:

Refutation of Objections to a Christian Shakespeare (I)

is writing plays about English history, these plays are profoundly

religious. His view of history is decidedly not secular.
We will also see as we discuss these and the other plays that
there is a great deal more that is specifically religious than many
realize, because they miss the Biblical allusions in the plays. There
are many examples of Shakespeares piety and religion that would
have communicated to a 16th century audience, familiar with the
Bible, that may be overlooked by the modern secular scholar.
To conclude, it is absurdly superficial to assert that Shake-
speare is not a Christian playwright because he does not address
religious questions or write in a religious manner. Critics of the
Christian view propose criteria that fit their goals, while missing
the most important evidence that Shakespeare wrote as a Christian
the religious assumptions of Shakespeares plays.
The 20th century poet W. H. Auden asserted:

Shakespeare, like everybody else, inherits Christian psy-

chology. You can argue for hours as to what Shakespeare
believed, but his understanding of psychology is based
on Christian assumptions . . .

Shakespeares tragedies and comedies both turn on the

idea of original sin and mans inveterate tendency to
foster illusions, one of the worst of which is the illusion
of being free of illusion, the illusion of detachment.22

The point Auden makes is one I hope to show in more de-

tail later, namely that Shakespeares plays presuppose a Christian
worldview. That includes a Christian view of man, a Christian
view of history, and a Christian view of sin, death, and judgment.
The basic truths of the Christian faith, then, are presup-
22 W. H. Auden, Lectures on Shakespeare (Princeton: Princeton University Press,
2000), p. xiii.

Lecture One

posed in Shakespeares plays, but the particular issues that divide

Protestant and Catholic, Anglican and Puritan, do not come up, at
least not in any obvious way. And why should they? Remember
that Shakespeare is living only shortly after the Roman Catholic
Queen Mary put Protestants to death, that in his own lifetime
Queen Elizabeth had persecuted Catholics, and that the religious
situation in England was not altogether stable. Shakespeare wrote
for an England that was very sensitive about religious issues and
at a time when there was strict censorship, especially in matters
of religion. Considering the times in which he lived, it is not at all
surprising that he didnt openly address the kinds of theological
issues that divided the English or write about martyrs and saints.
In this first lecture, I introduced three general objections made
to the Christian interpretation of Shakespeare. 1) that his ethic is
not Christian; 2) that his plays do not directly deal with religion;
3) that Christianity and tragedy are incompatible. I discussed
the first two objections and offered answers that I hope readers
will find persuasive. The third objection concerning tragedy is a
larger question and one that will take more time. I address it in
the next lecture.

Refutation of Objections to a Christian Shakespeare (II)

Lecture Two:
Refutation of Objections to a Christian Shakespeare (II)

In this lecture, I consider the third of the three objections to

a Christian approach to Shakespeare that were noted in Lecture
One. The first objection was that Shakespeares plays do not pres-
ent a Christian ethic. The second was that Shakespeares plays are
not specifically religious. I offered brief answers to both of these
objections in the previous lecture. Now it is time to consider the
third, and perhaps the most important objection, that Christianity
and tragedy are incompatible.
I say that this may be the most important objection because
there is so much discussion of tragedy, going all the way back to
Plato and Aristotle. As a dramatic form, tragedy has its own special
attraction and its own special riddles. The greatest riddle may be
the very fact that we are attracted to tragedy. Why should we get
pleasure from watching other peoples lives fall apart? What is
it about tragedy that is entertaining? This fundamental question
about tragedy has to be answered.
But before we try to answer any questions, we have to ask what
exactly tragedy is. We have to ask the question, because much of
the debate about tragedy concerns the problem of definition. In
the previous lecture, I quoted the philosopher Karl Jaspers, who
stated, no genuinely Christian tragedy can exist. Jaspers is able
to make such a dogmatic declaration because he has a definition of
tragedy, which, in the nature of the case, rules out the possibility

Lecture Two

of a Christian tragedy. Of course, if he wants to define the word

tragedy in that way, he may. But there is nothing particularly
profound about defining Christianity out of the picture. When
he goes on to claim that his definition gives us true insight into
Shakespeares tragedies, I have to object. It is not difficult to show
that Shakespeares tragedies are clearly and distinctly Christian.
Others define tragedy in terms of ancient Greek notions. Fate
or the gods play an important, if not decisive, role. Good men, we
are told, even apart from anything they may have done wrong, are
subject to forces that sometimes make a mockery of human life.
The story of Oedipus illustrates this ancient Greek perspective
well and is often presented as the typical ancient Greek tragedy.
Where does this leave us? It seems clear that there are dif-
ferent definitions of tragedy that reflect different worldviews. To
understand these differences, we must consider the questions that
divide the various approaches to tragedy. It is vital to understand
how worldview and tragedy intersect so that we can accurately
answer the question: What kind of tragedy did Shakespeare write?
What, then, are the questions that divide these various views
of tragedy? The following four questions will bring most of the
issues to light.

1) Does tragedy require or exclude the notion of ethical

cause and effect?
2) What is it that makes tragedy tragic?
3) Must the tragedy be final? Or, may there be hints of
a brighter future or resolution of some sort at the end
of a tragedy?
4) Why do we enjoy tragedy?

So many philosophers have discussed these basic questions

concerning tragedy that I cannot hope to provide anything like a
historical survey, though I will mention the views of a few philoso-

Refutation of Objections to a Christian Shakespeare (II)

phers. The following discussion will be brief and topical. What

I intend to show is that ones answers to the four questions above
are simply applications of his or her worldview. The definition
of tragedy, then, is determined by larger questions of worldview.
Keeping these questions in mind will allow us to consider how
Shakespeare presented tragedy and whether his view was Christian
or not.

Is There Ethical Cause and Effect?

Let us begin with the first question; does tragedy exclude the
notion of ethical cause and effect? The question itself may sound
odd to some. But it arises from the fact that there are critics who
insist that if a play contains clear ethical cause and effect, it is no
longer a tragedy, even though it may have been intended as one.
A story with ethical cause and effect is merely a story of a person
reaping what he sowed. A mere moralistic tale is not only not very
interesting; it can never reach the profound heights of tragedy.
True tragedy, some maintain, must be like the ancient story
of Oedipus. Though the hero of the story is not without faults,
we cannot say that tragedy befell him because of some moral
failure on his part.
A brief review of the ancient tale may be helpful. In the story
of Oedipus, the king and queen of Thebes, Laius and Jacosta, are
shocked by the word of an oracle that their new born son will
grow up to kill his father and marry his mother. They attempt to
prevent this horror by killing the son, but the servant to whom
they committed the job cannot carry it through. Though he has
been ordered to leave the child on a mountain to die, the servant
gives him to a shepherd. It just so happens that this shepherd
belongs to the house of the childless king of Corinth, Polybus.
As it turns out, then, Oedipus does grow up as a Greek prince,
but in the city of Corinth rather than Thebes.

Lecture Two

When he has grown to young manhood, he hears that Polybus

is not his real father. He does not believe it, but he is troubled
enough to visit the oracle at Delphi to find out the truth about
himself. He does not learn the truth about Polybus, but he hears
the same story that his parents were told when he was born
that he would murder his father and marry his mother. Like his
real parents, he tries to prevent this awful outcome. Assuming
that Polybus is his father, Oedipus leaves Corinth and goes on a
journey. Approaching the city of Thebes, he is encountered by
an old man who provokes Oedipus into a fight. He kills the old
man, without knowing it is his father, and goes on toward the city
of Thebes. Along the way he meets the Sphinx, a monster with
a womans head and the body of a lion. The monster stands out-
side the city and asks everyone who travels in or out a riddle. If
the traveler cannot solve it, the Sphinx eats him. Oedipus solves
the riddle and kills the Sphinx. This makes him a hero in the city
of Thebes and he is rewarded with a bride, the queen of Thebes,
who had recently become a widow.
Because Oedipus, however unknowingly, has killed his father
and married his mother, the city is plagued with judgments. Ev-
eryone knows something must be wrong, but no one knows why
Thebes is suffering. In seeking the cause of Thebes miseries,
Oedipus discovers the truth about himself. It is more than his
mother can bear. She commits suicide. Oedipus puts his eyes
out with her brooches and has himself exiled to become a beggar.
No doubt, a moralistic reader could charge Oedipus with one
fault or another. But most readers will regard him as a man who
only sought to do his duty. When he heard that he might be the
perpetrator of a horrible crime, he immediately left all the luxury
and glory that belonged to the prince of Corinth and went on a
journey. The awful deeds that brought the curse of the gods upon
himself and others were accidents, contrary to his intention not
to kill his father or marry his mother.

Refutation of Objections to a Christian Shakespeare (II)

The moral of the story seems to be that the world we live in

is such a place that a basically good man, seeking to do nothing
but his duty, may actually meet with the most outrageous tragedy.
Of course, in ancient Greece, the story said something about the
gods and mans knowledge of the gods and their ways. The gods
seem to play with Oedipus and bring the most awful calamity
upon him for no special reason. Is this the way the world really
is? Do we face suffering and pain just because capricious gods
or fate order it to be so?
Obviously, from a Christian perspective the answer to these
questions is, no. But for some people, the world really is the kind
of place depicted in the ancient Greek story of Oedipus. And if
that is ones view of the world, his definition of tragedy will cor-
respond. For the believer in fate or the gods, tragedy shows what
the world is actually like a place in which moral good or evil
are irrelevant. In this view, luck is what men need to be happy, but
it is dispensed at random, whether by the gods, by fate, or by the
stars. Tragedy, then, is a story about a relatively good person who
was standing in the wrong line when luck was being passed out.
The philosopher Schopenhauer represents many who hold
this view of tragedy. According to him,

For in tragedy we are confronted with the terrible side

of life, the misery of mankind, the dominion of accident
and error, the fall of the just man, the triumph of the
wicked: thus the condition of the world that is downright
repugnant to our will is brought before our eyes. At this
sight, we feel called upon to turn our will away from life,
not to want it and love it anymore.1

What lends to everything tragic, in whatever form it may

1 Walter Kaufmann, Tragedy and Philosophy (Princeton: Princeton University Press,
1968), p. 292

Lecture Two

appear, its peculiar impetus to elevation, is the dawning

realization that the world, that life cannot grant any true
satisfaction, and hence they do not deserve our attach-
ment: in this consists the tragic spirit: hence it leads to

Note that for Schopenhauer, tragedy is necessarily a story for

which ethics cannot supply a key. The lesson that he draws from
tragedy that we should give up our attachment to life and the
world depends upon the notion that tragedy shows us that life
in this world does not make ethical sense.
If this were an essay on religion or philosophy, I might point
out that Schopenhauer was very much influenced by Buddhism,
and that his view of tragedy in particular is Buddhist. I also might
ask whether this view of the world and tragedy are satisfying.
However one answers that question, the question occupying this
essay is: Does this view fit the plays of William Shakespeare?
The answer is clear. It does not. For in Shakespearean trag-
edy, without exception, the tragic hero is clearly guilty of some sin
or folly.3 In no play of Shakespeare are characters overwhelmed
by absurd fate that leads the audience to conclude they should
relinquish attachment to this life. Though his characters suffer
greatly and their lot provokes deep thoughts about suffering in
our world, nothing in Shakespeares plays calls forth the despair

2 Ibid.
3 A. C. Bradley wrote: We see a number of human beings placed in certain
circumstances; and we see, arising from the co-operation of their characters in these
circumstances, certain actions. These actions beget others, and these others beget
others again, until this series of interconnected deeds leads by an apparently inevitable
sequence to a catastrophe. The effect of such a series on imagination is to make us
regard the sufferings which accompany it, and the catastrophe in which it ends, not
only or chiefly as something which happens to the persons concerned, but equally
as something which is caused by them. This at least may be said of the principal
persons, and, among them,of the hero, who always contributes in some measure to
the disaster in which he perishes. Shakespearean Tragedy, p. 12.

Refutation of Objections to a Christian Shakespeare (II)

with life that Schopenhauer expresses.4

Consider just the four great tragedies.5 Macbeth gave in to a
sinful lust and brought destruction upon himself and many oth-
ers, including innocent women and children. Lear lost his temper
and in a fit of anger spoke rash words that brought ruin to his
kingdom. Othello took in the false testimony of his false friend,
and was so filled with jealousy that he murdered his beloved wife.
Hamlet discovered his uncles evil deeds and determined to take
the worst sort of revenge, seeking his uncles damnation. In ev-
ery case, tragedy could have been prevented by different moral
choices. If only the hero had been upright, he would not have
met the tragedy that befell him.
None of these plays teaches us to hate life and this world. Nor
is the Christian view shallow, optimistic, Protestant-rationalistic
as Schopenhauer charged.6 Both Protestants and Catholics believe
in a world in which moral failure carries its own curse. In that
sense, the Christian view of tragedy may be called rational, for
there is an explanation. There is what may be called moral cause
and effect. But that does not make the Christian view shallow a
mere moralistic statement that evil deeds will be punished nor
does it erase the tragic dimension.
The view espoused by Schopenhauer seems to undermine
one of the most important aspects of tragedy a point which
goes back to Aristotle and one on which we can agree with him
that is, our sympathy with the hero. There must be some sense in
which we feel affinity with the hero. We have to be able to relate
4 Hence, in the first place, a Shakespearean tragedy is never, like some miscalled
tragedies, depressing. No one ever closes the book with the feeling that man is a poor
mean creature. He may be wretched and he may be awful, but he is not small. His lot
may be heartrending and mysterious, but it is not contemptible. The most confirmed
of cynics ceases to be a cynic while he reads these plays. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy,
pp. 22-23.
5 The four great tragedies came to be defined as such by A. C. Bradley.
6 Kauffmann, Tragedy and Philosophy, p.291.

Lecture Two

to him. How can Schopenhauers kind of tragedy take us there?

In Schopenhauers view, a tragedy is a play in which good
people suffer for no reason. Now, we do know from our own life
experience that suffering may come for no apparent reason. But that
is precisely the sort of suffering which it is most difficult for us to
understand or relate to. When it seems that the sky has fallen on
someone out of nowhere with no explanation, we are stunned and
perplexed. It is not sympathy that we feel but confusion. What
we more commonly experience, and what we can easily relate to, is
suffering that comes from a foolish or rash decision, or suffering
that comes from giving in to a sinful impulse. We can sympathize
with Shakespeares tragic heroes because they live and move in the
world of moral causes a Christian world in which ones actions
are moral and therefore have consequences.

What Makes Tragedy Tragic?

What we have said in answer to the first question is part of

the answer to the second. From a Christian perspective, the heros
ethical choice is essential to tragedy. But it is not sufficient. A
story of a person who makes a rash or foolish decision, or who
gives in to temptation, or who follows his own lust would not in
itself constitute a tragedy.
The moral decision is necessary for the tragedy to be truly tragic
because the character who makes the tragic decision or who does
the tragic deed could have decided or done otherwise. In contrast
with the story of Oedipus, Shakespearean tragedy depends on its
lack of determination by fate. Things could have been different.
Thus, one aspect of tragedy is the pain we feel when we see King
Lear not only lose his temper and make a rash judgment, but then
become even more incensed when Kent offers him good counsel.
Lear had a second chance and he destroyed that also. We agonize as
see how Lears foolish decisions change the lives of the characters

Refutation of Objections to a Christian Shakespeare (II)

in the play it could have been so very different.

Another aspect of tragedy concerns the heros character.
Normally, the person who makes the tragic decision cannot be a
moral monster. If the hero were utterly evil, we would not feel
sympathy with him nor would we agonize over the consequences.
They could hardly have been different, and we are satisfied to see
him get what is coming.
But there is more. What makes a moral decision or action
tragic is that the consequences turn out to be so much larger than
one might have expected. In the kind of simple moralism that
Schopenhauer despised and accused Christians of holding to, there
is a rationalistic distribution of poetic justice. But the notion of
poetic justice does not fit Shakespeares tragedies. Hamlet, for
example, makes a fateful and morally perverse decision to seek
the darkest revenge imaginable. He seeks not merely the death
of Claudius, but also his eternal damnation. As a result, not only
does Hamlet himself die along with his murderous uncle, which
might have been a conclusion that we would call poetic justice,
but in addition, Hamlets young love, Ophelia, her father Polo-
nius, and her brother Laertes also die, as well as Hamlets mother.
Two others, Hamlets false friends, are killed also, making a total
of eight dead. These people do not all deserve to die by any com-
mon measure of justice. Their deaths are not so much caused by
their own faults, as by Hamlets. In Shakespeares tragedies, the
repercussions of a sinful or foolish deed rock the world of the
players beyond what could be expected. Here, in this important
aspect of tragedy, Shakespearean tragedy may seem to approach
Schopenhauers view. In each of his tragedies, the actions of a
great man can cause harm that spreads wide. Innocent men and
women may suffer for the deeds and decisions of others, especially
those in authority.
This does not mean, however, what Schopenhauer suggests. It
points, rather, to the fact that we are all connected, linked to other

Lecture Two

men and women. We cannot and do not live our lives in a shell.
In the Bible, too, ethical cause and effect reverberates much more
broadly than mere poetic justice because people are members of
social groups. Thus the book of Joshua, for example, tells how
the sin of one man, Achan, brought defeat in battle and the deaths
of many Israelites.
Shakespeares tragedies, in other words, conform to the view
of life presented in the Bible. Just as in a tragedy the calamity
with which the play ends far surpasses the level of the heros fault,
so also in Biblical stories, beginning with the story of the fall of
Adam, we often read of heroes that bring suffering to others. This
means that we cannot simply reduce tragedy to the moral lesson
that we reap what we sow. If we sow a peach seed, we may get a
peach tree, but we do not expect to return a few days later to find
a whole orchard. When the evil consequences of a rash or sinful
action seem to vastly outweigh the cause, we face tragedy.
This is the reason that the hero of a tragedy must be a man
in high position. For a great mans faults, even if they are strictly
personal and not obviously significant in themselves, still may have
huge consequences. By contrast, we can imagine an average man
with relatively large faults who would not be a legitimate subject
for a tragedy if he simply reaped what he sowed, without bring-
ing trouble on many other people. Leaders are in a position to
make mistakes that have consequences that are nothing less than
A related consideration is that the consequences are irrevers-
ible. In other words, tragedy ends in death. When the problems
caused by ones sin and folly can be solved and the situation re-
versed, it is no longer tragedy. Shakespeares tragedies, therefore,
end with the death of the hero and usually not a few others with
him. In Othello, where the fault is personal and the damage to
others is relatively less in comparison with the other great trag-
edies, five people die: the hero, his faithful wife, Desdemona, his

Refutation of Objections to a Christian Shakespeare (II)

enemy, Iago, Iagos wife, Emilia, and the bumbling Rodrigo. Five
lives are lost because of Othellos foolish and groundless jealousy.
There is another aspect of tragedy that may seem to contradict
what we have pointed out so far, though the contradiction is only
apparent. Tragedy always includes mystery. Moral explanation of a
sort and to a degree is possible, but in a tragedy, things happen that
are not explicable. Explanation, in other words, can never be total.
If we remind ourselves of Biblical stories, we see this dimension
rather clearly as clearly as we see the slander in Schopenhauers
assertion that Christians are bound by superficial notions of poetic
justice. Think, for example, of the story of Cain and Abel. Here
is a tragedy. But does Cain suffer for the murder of his younger
brother? Yes, but it is slight compared to what we might expect.
Moreover, he becomes the first city builder and apparently lives a
long prosperous life. Where is the justice for Abel?
The anguish faced by the prophet Habakkuk is similar. He
was deeply troubled by what he saw God doing. It certainly did
not fit his or anyone elses sense of poetic justice. He saw that
the Babylonians were far worse, morally and religiously, than the
kingdom of Judah. He also knew that God was going to use
the evil to judge the relatively less evil. It troubled him deeply,
wherefore lookest thou upon them that deal treacherously, and
holdest thy tongue when the wicked devoureth the man that is
more righteous than he? (Hab. 1:13)
The Bible is not a book of poetic justice. Often things hap-
pen that offend our sense of what is fair. We are not given no
explanation, but neither are we given the kind of full and satisfying
elucidation we might wish. According to the Biblical worldview,
we must face the fact that history is shrouded in mysteries that
will only find solutions in the final judgment, at the end of time
when all things are brought to light. Until then, nothing is so
fully explained that it really satisfies our sense of poetic justice.
Shakespeare has been influenced by this worldview so that in his

Lecture Two

plays, there are reflections of it. Mystery remains and leaves its
frustrating mark on all of our explanations.
We have both the ethical logic of Christianity and the mys-
terious working of a God whose ways are not our ways. In all of
Shakespeares tragedies, providence interferes in wonderful ways
to complicate matters, to frustrate the plans of sinful men, and,
ultimately, to show us, as Hamlet said, Theres a divinity that
shapes our ends, Rough-hew them how we will.
We can summarize, then, and say that the following are what
makes tragedy to be tragedy in Shakespeare: 1) there is ethical
causality. 2) Things could have been different. 3) The hero begins
at least as a basically decent man. 4) The consequences of the
tragic choice overturn the scales of poetic justice. 5) The tragedy is
irreversible because it ends in death. 6) There is that which cannot
be explained. Tragedy confronts us with the mystery of life and
reminds us that God has a plan that transcends our understanding.

Must Tragedy be Final?

However, the philosopher Karl Jaspers will not accept this

kind of explanation. And that leads to our third question: Must
the tragedy be final? May there be hints of a brighter future, or a
resolution of some sort at the end of a tragedy? From the Chris-
tian perspective, the answer to these questions is straightforward.
Tragedy cannot be final in so far as its consequences are limited
to this life. Hints of a brighter future and resolution at the end of
a tragedy do not undermine tragedy as tragedy. On the contrary,
they should be seen as essential.
Again, we are confronted with a difference in worldviews
and definitions. Jaspers insisted that Christians do not understand
tragedy because for genuine tragedy, in Jaspers words, there is no
way out whatsoever.7 Now, as far as this life is concerned death
7 Tragedy is Not Enough.

Refutation of Objections to a Christian Shakespeare (II)

is irreversible, but for Christians there is another world to come.

However, for Jaspers tragedy is undermined and rendered void
by the idea of future world in which the awful consequences of
this world can be reversed, a world in which the problems caused
by the tragedies of this life may be solved. Thus, Jaspers regards
Christianity and tragedy as mutually exclusive.
In itself, this view is shallow and dogmatic, but what is impor-
tant here is that it obviously does not apply to Shakespeare, in spite
of Jaspers assertions to the contrary. Let us consider this. First,
Jaspers and others who deny that Christians can truly understand
tragedy know very well that while Christians do not believe that
physical death is the final end, they do believe that death can be
eternal. The idea of an everlasting hell means that tragedy may
be real beyond our ability to imagine.
We need to keep the idea of hell in mind when we see that
Shakespeares great tragedies end at least with judgment of evil
and even with hope. This is true in each of the four major
tragedies. Macbeth is killed and a new king is crowned. King
Lear dies but Edgar and Albany live to rebuild the land. Hamlet
seeks revenge and dies with the king, his uncle, but Fortinbras,
the prince who forsook revenge, inherits the land. Othello com-
mits suicide after murdering his faithful wife, but Cassio did not
die, which means that Iago does not gain a complete victory. Of
course, Iago himself faces the severest earthly judgment. Already
it is clear that Jaspers view does not work, for in every case, there
is resolution and an element of hope at the end.
Furthermore, and even more significant, in none of these
examples would the audience assume that the judgment of death
was either final or most important nor do the characters in
the play. For Othello, for example, death is not the end, it is the
beginning of an eternity in which, as he says, he will be roasted in
sulfur and washed in liquid fire. Hell and only hell is tragedy with
no way out. If we take that into account, we may fairly say that

Lecture Two

it is not the Christian but the modern anti-Christian who denies

tragedy because they deny that human action is fraught with the
weight of eternal consequences.
From the Christian perspective, it is utterly ridiculous to as-
sert that the life of the world to come reduces the importance of
decisions and actions in this world. After all, the choice for eternal
life or death is a choice that we can make only in this life. There
is also a degree of eternal blessing or curse that is based upon
what we have done in this life. Compared to the non-Christian
views of men like Jaspers, the Bible treats our life in this world as
profoundly significant precisely because the consequences do not
end at death, but extend into eternity.
Contrary to Jaspers, the future life and the comfort it offers
to those who suffer do not by any means imply that the sufferings
of this life are somehow less real. Jesus suffering on the cross is
sometimes referred to in this context, as if the knowledge of His
resurrection should have mitigated the suffering. But in the Bible,
the cross is never treated as a light thing or as insignificant simply
because Jesus was raised from the dead three days later. On the
other hand, Jesus suffering is not a tragedy for Him or from His
perspective because it was brought on by His righteousness, not
through folly or sin. And He gave Himself willingly. Thus, Jesus
told the daughters of Jerusalem to weep for themselves and their
children. His death was a tragedy for them, for they killed their
own Messiah and lost the promised blessing of the kingdom. But
it was not a tragedy for Jesus nor for us.
In the Bible, sufferings that Christians endure in this life are
treated as most real and meaningful, because they are part of Gods
eternal plan and because they are related to eternity. One of the most
tender expressions of this is the Biblical promise in the book of
Revelation: They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more;
neither shall the sun light on them, nor any heat. For the Lamb
which is in the midst of the throne shall feed them, and shall lead

Refutation of Objections to a Christian Shakespeare (II)

them unto living fountains of waters: and God shall wipe away all
tears from their eyes. (Rev. 7:16-17). If the Bible teaches that
God Himself takes our suffering seriously, how can one conclude
that a Christians future hope means there can be no true tragedy?
Returning to Shakespeare, Desdemona, Othellos faithful
wife, was murdered and went to heaven, as her servant Emilia
said. But does anyone watching the play feel that the fact that she
is going to be with Christ somehow makes her death less tragic?
She was murdered by a man that she loved and to whom she was
perfectly devoted. She died at the hand of her beloved with the
word whore ringing in her ears. Is this tragedy? Yes. And the
fact that she will shortly be in heaven does not reduce the agony
she suffers. Desdemonas death is a tragedy because none but
God can wipe away her tears.

Why Do We Enjoy Tragedy?

This brings us to our fourth question. Why do we enjoy

tragedy? Why should anyone take pleasure in watching human
suffering portrayed front of him? What is our delight in observing
the acting out of exquisite anguish by players on a stage?
The Scottish philosopher David Hume offered an interest-
ing answer. First, Hume denied that pain and pleasure are true
opposites. It is an interesting point. Tickling, for example, is
pleasant, but pushed too far, it becomes painful. In the same way,
Hume suggests, sorrow in a small enough dose is actually plea-
surable rather than painful. When we view a tragedy, we are not
experiencing the suffering of the hero, we are just viewing it. The
real events are far enough away and they evoke so little pain that
our watching a tragedy on stage provokes only slight anguish, just
enough to be pleasurable.
People who are too close to the events would not be able to
enjoy them on a stage. If, for example, we had been part of the

Lecture Two

history in which the original tragedy occurred, we would not have

enjoyed it while it was happening, and we would probably not be
able to enjoy seeing it in a play either. It would be too close for
comfort. However, when we view a play about something that
happened a long time ago, far away from us, we can enjoy the slight
sorrow it brings. Besides, we know that it is a mere imitation of
tragic events and imitation itself has a certain kind of attraction,
especially if it is well done. Add to this that the actors make fine
speeches that appeal to our aesthetic sense. The beautiful oratory,
even of a suffering man, can move us profoundly.
What Hume has to say is true as far as it goes, but it does
not go far enough. It does not really pinpoint tragedy per se. We
watch dramatic reenactments of war; we see action movies, sus-
pense thrillers, and so on. Most of us would prefer never to be in
the kind of circumstances that these movies depict. War, murder,
and extreme suspense are never enjoyable in real life, at least not
for most people. Humes principle applies to all of these. But
that means that it explains tragedy only in so far as tragedy is just
another one of those things that is better seen than suffered.
We need to add that not everyone likes tragedy. This is espe-
cially evident in our day when people can choose between so many
types of plays and movies. People have much more to choose
from in the way of entertainment than they did in Shakespeares
day. We do not have to watch tragedy and allow ourselves to be
confronted with the kinds of deep questions it poses. Other op-
tions like thrillers or action movies provide the pleasure of limited
tension without being serious or spiritually demanding. With these
movies, we do not have to be confronted with lifes painful ques-
tions. We are not haunted by the hard reality of irreversible moral
choices. Even when it is just on stage or in a movie, tragedy has
a depth that is difficult for many to bear. I think that we have to
say that many people can enjoy mystery, suspense, or almost any

Refutation of Objections to a Christian Shakespeare (II)

other genre (except possibly horror) more easily than they can
tragedy, and there are, no doubt, some people who would avoid
tragedy altogether.
Humes answer, then, is too general, at best. Insofar as it
seems to apply equally well to genres other than tragedy, it fails to
answer the question of why we enjoy tragedy. Perhaps we need
to consider again, what tragedy is, and in particular what Shake-
spearean tragedy is, in order to understand why we enjoy it.
Here a Christian perspective sheds the light we need to see the
issue clearly, for Christians have special insight into tragedy. The
Bible begins with the quintessential tragic story, that of Adam and
Eve. Though the Bible tells it succinctly and it may be difficult
to turn it directly into a Shakespearean play, the story of Adam
and Eve is the paradigm upon which Shakespearean tragedy as a
whole is based. Like the plays from the Middle Ages before him,
Shakespeares tragedies imitate the Biblical story of the fall of a
great man.8
The most obvious example of Shakespeare retelling the story
of Adam and Eve is, of course, the tragedy of Macbeth. Witches,
the instruments of the devil, tempt a husband and wife to sin in
order to become king and queen, to become like gods. As we shall
see later, Shakespeare quite self-consciously uses details from the
Biblical story to make sure that we notice the obvious parallel.
This means that tragedy offers us meditation on real life, because
it depicts a world that has fallen into sin the world we know
by experience.
It is possible, therefore, for us to sympathize. We can identify
with the events and characters in Shakespearean tragedy because
we, too, know tragedy. Our tragedy is usually on a small scale, but
that does not make it less real to us. No doubt, our tragedies do
not dramatically compare with Macbeth, nevertheless the same

8 See:

Lecture Two

principles apply. For example, either in our own personal experi-

ence or in that of our friends, we are familiar with the story of
confronting consequences that seem to outweigh the fault so far
that it is overwhelming.
To speak concretely, it is a fault in a man to drive his car be-
yond the speed limit. And for the most part, we can all agree that
it should be punished, at least some of the time. But that relatively
small fault has often brought about staggering consequences. Who
has not known of it? A little extra speed going around a corner
may bring about the death of a young man. The fault is so small
but the result too great. It seems incongruous, but it is the sort of
tragedy we know too well.9 In addition to the personal loss of a
friend, we feel devastated when we imagine the lost potential and
think about the fact that just a little more care would have saved
his life. Things could have been so different.
You see, then, what I mean when I say that because tragedy
is so real to us in our own experience, we can identify deeply with
what is going on in the play. This is what it means to say we sym-
pathize with the characters in the play.
What, then, is the conclusion? It may seem odd, but for
Christians tragedy is edifying. Of course, for most non-Christians
edification is the very last word that they would associate with trag-
edy, but that only illustrates again that ones worldview and ones
view of tragedy are intertwined.
Remember Solomon. He was not talking of the theater when
he wrote, The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning;
but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth (Ecc. 7:4), but
the principle applies. The house of mourning is a place where
we meditate on life, where we are forced to face the fact that we,
too, will die. We ask ourselves hard questions about who we are
and why we are living. This is what tragedy does for us and some
9 Timothy Scott Dennewitz: born, May 7, 1949 in Columbus, Franklin Co.,
Ohio; died, May 27, 1966 in Chillicothe, Ohio.

Refutation of Objections to a Christian Shakespeare (II)

people are wise enough to appreciate the challenge that tragedy

presents. But tragedy is not a universally appealing genre.
Tragedy edifies also by warning us to flee from sin and er-
ror and to seek wisdom. All of Shakespeares tragedies result
from the folly or sin of the hero. When the audience sees these
men fail and considers the horrific consequences of their failure,
people are warned to take their sins seriously. All are encouraged
to be patient, to be humble. A wise and mature man appreciates
a warning. When it comes through a play that is also aesthetically
appealing, the warning is even enjoyable. It is edifying in a manner
not unlike a sermon.10
Tragedy also edifies by reminding us that we are not alone in
our suffering. Paul told the Corinthians that the temptations that
they faced were common to men. A similar point may be made
about tragedy. When we see that others suffer, our own suffer-
ings are mitigated. Tragedy reminds us of the human condition,
of the fact that Adams fall is repeated again and again in history,
and that all men suffer. We are reminded to weep with those who
weep. More fundamentally, we are also reminded that God takes
our suffering seriously and that we can cast ourselves upon Him,
for He cares for us.
I trust that you can see that tragedy, rather than being a genre
that Christians cannot appreciate or understand, is a genre that
Christians should be able to appreciate more than non-Christians.
Nothing about tragedy is necessarily contrary to Christian faith.
And Shakespearean tragedy in particular should be seen as an
expression of Christian faith. For Shakespeares tragedies are
stories of the fall of man. They are all based upon the truth that
we live in a world of moral causality, a world in which each one
of us has committed sins, and our sins and foolishness have had
10 In fact, Shakespeare and his contemporaries regarded plays as something like
sermons. See: Jeffrey Knapp, Shakespeares Tribe: Church, Nation, and Theatre in Renais-
sance England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002).

Lecture Two

consequences. We have all failed in some respects. We have all

experienced tragedy of one sort or another. But this is also a mys-
terious world, a world that transcends our understanding because
it moves according to the plan of God.
Humes explanation is too shallow, though it is not entirely
irrelevant. Where he errs is in seeing tragedy in terms of pleasure
and pain, rather than in terms of edification. Schopenhauer and
Jaspers, too, err in a similar way. Though Schopenhauer might
see the lesson he draws from tragedy as edification of a certain
sort despairing of life in this world and concluding that there
is nothing here that really means anything it is clearly not the
edification Shakespeare intended. Christians would not consider
Schopenhauers message edifying.
Jaspers insists that tragedy must be final because in his world-
view, life is ultimately absurd. For him, nothing points to that fact
more clearly than tragedy but only a certain kind of tragedy,
plays without hope of redemption. In spite of what Jaspers him-
self thinks, Shakespeares tragedies end in resolution and, thus,
offer hope; the tragedies express Shakespeares faith that good
triumphs over evil. The ironic conclusion is that though Jaspers
holds a high view of Shakespeares tragedies, the actual plays fun-
damentally contradict his dogma of tragedy.
Now all of this means that Christianity offers what we might
call a theology of tragedy. To begin with, the fall of Adam into
sin is the first and greatest tragedy of human history. It is the
greatest tragedy in the sense that every other tragedy in human
history is grounded in Adams sin. Because of his sin, we are all
born into the world sinners. Because of his sin, the whole creation,
as Paul says in Romans 8:20, has been subjected to vanity. What
does that mean? Well, among other things, that so-called natural
catastrophes like floods and earthquakes are not really natural.
They express the perversion of the created order that resulted
from mans rebellion against God.

Refutation of Objections to a Christian Shakespeare (II)

Man-made catastrophes express this even more clearly. The

oppressive tyrant, either in a home or at the head of the kingdom,
brings suffering to those under his rule. War ravages the earth
and all in its way. Revolutions promise freedom, but usually offer
more of the same misery. We see men in bondage everywhere.
If Adam had not sinned, none of this would be.
Those who conclude that suffering and misery is the whole
story may no doubt be tempted to follow Schopenhauers views.
The tragedies of real history, either natural or man-made, would
be understood to signify that human life is meaningless and teach
us to give up our attachment to this world.
But according to the Bible, suffering and misery are not
the whole story. There is redemption. From the very beginning
when Adam sinned, God gave him the promise of salvation to
come when He spoke the curse against the serpent: I will put
enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and
her seed: he shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.
Note that the seed of the woman who will save the world must
also suffer. Though I dont believe that Christs suffering can be
called tragedy for the reasons that I specified before, the fact that
salvation can only come through suffering is part of the theology
of tragedy. In a fallen world, in a world of suffering, there are no
simple solutions. The problems of sin cannot be solved by comic
means. It takes death to remove death.
We conclude our discussion of Christianity and tragedy, then,
not merely by denying the assertion that Christianity is incompat-
ible with tragedy, but by affirming that only Christianity offers a
worldview in which tragedy makes sense and tragedy as a literary
genre is edifying.
At the same time, and this may sound like a contradiction,
we must admit that the Christian worldview is not ultimately tragic.
If one seeks tragedy that is truly final, then Christianity does not
provide it. In Christian faith, the victory of Christ in His cross and

Lecture Two

resurrection is the truly final act. Because of Jesus victory over

sin and death, the Christian faith is essentially comic. We believe
in a happy ending that never ends. As we have shown, however, in
response to critics, Christian faith clearly includes tragedy, though
it is not a finally tragic worldview.


Only one more point about Shakespeares tragedies needs to

be added: they are not merely philosophy or theology acted out
in story form. Hegel put it well when he contrasted Shakespeare
to the plays of the French and the Italians, who imitated the an-
cient Greeks.

The first distinction that strikes us immediately is that

between abstract and therefore formal characterizations
on the one hand, and individuals who confront us as
concrete and living human beings, on the other.11

Hegel went on to explain that the French and the Italians

imitated the ancient Greeks and wrote drama that amounted to
mere personifications of certain passions for love, honor, fame,
domination, tyranny, etc. But Shakespeare, he says, depicts full
individuals. And he does it so well that, according to Hegel,
he excels all others and is almost beyond reach. Shakespeares
characters express themselves in a manner that is individual, real,
directly alive, supremely manifold, and yet, when it seems neces-
sary, of such sublimity and striking power of expression, of such
fervor and inventiveness in images and metaphors produced on
the spur of the moment, of such rhetoric, bred not in schools but
by true feeling and the consistency of character . . . that one will
not easily find another modern dramatist who could be placed
11 Kaufmann, Tragedy and Philosophy, p. 281.

Refutation of Objections to a Christian Shakespeare (II)

beside him.12
The point that Hegel makes is important. Shakespeares
plays seem to confront us with real people, characters that come
across as having real personalities. What this means is clear. If
we felt that the characters were unreal or simply the embodiment
of some idea, we could not get involved with them or the story.
They would come across as mere symbols of something else and
the dramatic power of their words would be lost.
The genius of Shakespeare is that his plays do communicate
ideas and contain symbolism and allusions to other stories, but they
also function dramatically at the level of a story with characters
so real that we see them and their stories as unique.
Let me suggest that perhaps the full individuality of Shake-
speares characters comes from his borrowing so much from the
Bible rather than merely imitating the ancient Greeks, which brings
us to the topic of our next lecture Shakespeare and his use of
the Bible.

12 Ibid.

Lecture Three

Lecture Three:
Shakespeares Use of the Bible (I)

In the first two lectures, we took time to briefly consider some

of the objections to a Christian interpretation of Shakespeare. But
we need to add that most of those who make these objections,
including scholars, are unfamiliar with the most profound evidence
for taking a Christian approach to Shakespeare. What evidence is
that? I am referring to the evidence found in Shakespeares use
of the Bible the subject of our next two lectures.
Shakespeares use of the Bible is a broad topic with many
ramifications, so I will certainly not be able to offer a comprehen-
sive survey. My aim is much simpler. In the next two lectures, I
plan to show that Shakespeares plays are filled with references to
the Bible and that these references are profoundly important for
understanding and interpreting his plays.
This introduction will be topical and is intended to provide
the kind of general understanding that will help us later to interpret
individual plays. In particular, I will be discussing Shakespeares
use of literary allusion and introducing seven general categories
of references to the Bible in Shakespeares plays. However, before
we survey the various categories of Biblical references in Shake-
speare, we will devote a significant portion of our lecture to study
the Bibles own use of literary allusion.
Shakespeares Use of the Bible (I)

What I intend to show is that Shakespeare quotes from or

alludes to the Bible far more frequently and with deeper signifi-
cance than is commonly known. But the quotations are not only
abundant. Shakespeares use of the Bible suggests that he was
familiar with details of Biblical stories in a manner that comes only
from repeated reading especially since he lived before the days
of concordances and computerized searches. More importantly,
Shakespeares use of the Bible exhibits real theological under-
standing, for his allusions are often based upon or suggestive of
well-thought-out interpretations of important passages of Scrip-
ture. As I will demonstrate in the lectures on Macbeth, Scripture is
so important to understanding the play that a modern university
course that neglects the Biblical allusions misses the very soul of
his drama.
In spite of the neglect of the subject by most Shakespearean
scholars, it is easy to demonstrate that Shakespeare read the Bible
frequently and knew Biblical stories well, for there is recently
published scholarly literature devoted to this topic. One work in
particular stands out: Naseeb Shaheens book, Biblical References
in Shakespeares Plays.1 Published in 1999, this massive, almost-
900-page book is actually a combination of Shaheens three earlier
books on Shakespeares Biblical references and is the standard
authority on the subject today. Shaheens first volume in the series
was published in 1987, so major scholarly work on Shakespeares
Biblical references has been in print for a good time now and we
should be able to expect university courses in the future to begin
to deal with this material more seriously.
At least since the publication of Shaheens work, no one can
doubt that Shakespeare refers to the Bible frequently. But, as I
said, I believe it is equally indubitable that Shakespeare read the
Bible intelligently. I also believe that in his plays, he imitated Bib-
1 Naseeb Shaheen, Biblical References in Shakespeares Plays (Newark: University of
Delaware Press, 1999).

Lecture Three

lical patterns of allusion, for the cultural world in which he grew

up was rich with Biblical allusion. Indeed the Bible had such a
profound impact on Western literature before Shakespeare that
he probably would have employed Biblical methods of literary
allusion even if he had never heard of the Bible.2

I. Literary Allusion in the Bible

Before we consider how Shakespeare used the Bible, we need

to take some time to consider just how literary allusion works. In
particular, we need to consider literary allusion in the Bible since
the Bible as a work of literature provides the background for the
literature of the Christian Middle Ages as well as Shakespeare.
Shakespeare was educated in a culture and grew up in a world
saturated with Biblical themes, symbolism, characters, and stories.
We must, therefore, begin with the Bible.
Robert Alter, a Jewish scholar who has written about the lit-
erary character of the Bible, explains the importance of allusion
in literature.

Nothing confirms the literary character of biblical

narrative and biblical poetry more strikingly than their
constant, resourceful, and necessary recourse to allusion.
Now, it is obvious that, because the members of any
culture carry around in their heads bits and pieces of
all sorts of texts, allusion also occurs quite abundantly
in nonliterary discourse, both written and spoken. A
newspaper article, say, about the collapse of an African
government may invoke T.S. Eliots not with a bang
but a whimper, or a phrase from Lincolns Gettysburg
2 See, for example, David Norton, A History of the Bible as Literature, volumes 1
& 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993) and Northrop Frye, The Great
Code: The Bible and Literature (Orlando, FL: Harcourt, Inc., 1982).

Shakespeares Use of the Bible (I)

Address, or a line from Hamlet, or a prescription from

Roberts Rules of Order. On the whole, such allusions
to familiar texts in ordinary speech, journalism, and most
expository writing work as rhetorical embellishments;
there is rarely a sense that they are dictated by the ne-
cessity of the form of expression in which they occur.

The case is quite different with literature. A person in-

evitably composes a story or poem and it makes no
difference whether the composition is written or oral
out of the awareness of a preexisting body of textual
objects, stories or poems, in which the composition at
hand will constitute a new member. Thus, every writer
not only emulates certain models but is compelled to de-
fine a relationship competitive, admiring, revisionist,
elaborative to at least certain elements of antecedent
literary tradition. Allusion, then, is not an embellishment
but a fundamental necessity of literary expression: the
writer, scarcely able to ignore the texts that have antici-
pated him and in some sense given him the very idea of
writing, appropriates fragments of them, qualifies or
transforms them, uses them to give his own work both
a genealogy and a resonant background. 3

Let me repeat some of the main points that Alter makes. First,
Alter provides an important distinction between literary allusion
and what we might call casual allusion. In our everyday speech,
in newspaper articles, or even in advertisements, we make use of
allusion for the sake of embellishment. This sort of allusion is a
matter of style; it adds panache, but is not vital to the content. In
true literary allusion, however, the author or speaker is interacting
3 Robert Alter, The World of Biblical Literature (New York: Basic Books, 1992),
pp. 107-08.

Lecture Three

with previous texts. Literary allusion is based upon a particular

understanding or interpretation of the previous text and it creates
a complex relationship between the two texts.
Second, Alter describes the kinds of relationships that may
be created as competitive, admiring, revisionist, elaborative.
To restate these categories in simpler terms, the later text may be
either in basic agreement with the previous text in which case
the relationship may be admiring or elaborative or the later text
may disagree with the content of the previous text in which
case Alter calls the relationship competitive. His category re-
visionist might be used to refer to a text that basically disagrees
or that basically agrees with a previous text.
Third, the Bible makes abundant use of literary allusion and
does so by way of literary necessity. Biblical stories all point back
to and interact with previously written Biblical literature, ultimately
elaborating the meaning of creation, the fall, and redemption.
What I will show in these lectures is that Shakespeare essen-
tially approaches the Bible and its teaching as one who uses literary
allusion in the manner that Alter calls admiring and elaborative.
In other words, he is interacting with the Bible as one who agrees
with its perspective on life and the world. However, negative al-
lusions also occur in his plays, because evil or morally perverse
characters may allude to the Bible in the way that Alter calls com-
petitive and revisionist, twisting the meaning of Scripture for their
own purposes.
Before we return to Shakespeare, however, we need to think
about literary allusion itself and get a more concrete feel of what
Alter is talking about. The best way to do that is to take an example
from the Bible, since most of those who read this lecture will be
familiar with the Bible, while at the same time perhaps unfamiliar
with literary devices in the Bible. What I hope to show in my
lectures is that Shakespeare was not unfamiliar with the Bibles
use of allusion. If that is correct, to understand Shakespeare, we

Shakespeares Use of the Bible (I)

need to take a relatively deep look at how the Bible uses allusion.
A straightforward example of literary allusion that is both
clear and complex is provided by the Biblical story of Ruth. We
must note, by the way, that we can understand the story of Ruth
even if we miss all the literary allusion in the book, for the story
stands by itself as a true narrative of the events it records. But if
we miss the literary allusion, our understanding will be shallow at
best. Any exposition of the book of Ruth we might offer would
be flawed deformed by huge gaps where the allusion made by
the author is actually necessary for a deep appreciation of the text.
To show what I mean, consider how literary allusion functions
in just the first five verses of the book.

Now it came about in the days when the judges gov-
erned, that there was a famine in the land. And a certain
man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the land
of Moab with his wife and his two sons.
And the name of the man was Elimelech, and the name
of his wife, Naomi; and the names of his two sons were
Mahlon and Chilion, Ephrathites of Bethlehem in Judah.
Now they entered the land of Moab and remained there.
Then Elimelech, Naomis husband, died; and she was
left with her two sons.
And they took for themselves Moabite women as wives;
the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the
other Ruth. And they lived there about ten years.
Then both Mahlon and Chilion also died; and the
woman was bereft of her two children and her husband.

This short passage is full of literary allusion, repeatedly point-

ing back to previously written Scripture, which we must understand
in order to be able to follow the meaning of the story in Ruth. On
the surface, we simply have an indication of the time and place

Lecture Three

that Elimelech lived, the reason that he moved to Moab, the fact
that his sons married there, and the fact that he and his sons died
there. A great deal has happened in just five verses! But the sur-
face details are linked to other Biblical stories, which the author
assumes we know. There is much more than first meets the eye
and though I cannot give a full exposition, we will consider these
verses in some detail.
The book of Ruth begins with the words, Now it came
about in the days when the judges governed. We know from
the book of Judges that the days when the judges governed were
troubled times. The book of Judges itself ends with the ominous
statement, In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone
did what was right in his own eyes. When the book of Judges
says no king in Israel, I believe the point is that Israel did not
acknowledge God as her king. Thus, the allusion to the days of
the judges at the very beginning of Ruth is telling us that this
story happened at a time when the people of Israel were not tak-
ing Gods kingship seriously. They did what they pleased and did
not take Gods commandments to heart. We will not be able to
fully appreciate this until we consider the whole passage and the
meaning of the name Elimelech, but the first words of the book
are telling us much more than just when the events took place.
We are being prepared for a story that is similar to the stories in
the book of Judges.
And we are not disappointed. For the next words are there
was a famine in the land. If we are familiar with the book of
Judges and the times in which the Judges ruled, we will remember
that it was a time of repeated disobedience and judgment. The
background for these stories, of course, is the Mosaic Law. Mo-
ses had given Israel the commandments that they were supposed
to obey when they entered the land. If the people of Israel kept
the commandments, they would continue to enjoy Gods favor
and their blessings would increase. But, Moses warned, if they

Shakespeares Use of the Bible (I)

disobeyed God and forsook His covenant, judgment would come.

The book of Judges tells us that not long after Joshua died, the
children of Israel repeatedly fell into idolatry, which meant that
they also repeatedly faced covenantal judgment. They were de-
feated by their enemies and enslaved. The curse of the covenant
came upon them, but not in order to destroy them. Each story
of judgment ended with the people of Israel repenting and God
sending a judge to deliver them. God disciplined them so that they
would repent and turn back unto Him, which they did.
In this context, then, the reference to the famine in the land
is momentous. It is another example of covenantal judgment.
But we need to remember more than just the stories of the book
of Judges in order to understand the meaning of the famine. We
must also be familiar with the Law of Moses in particular with
the curses of the covenant recorded in passages like Leviticus 26 or
Deuteronomy 28. Leviticus 26:26 specifically refers to breaking
the staff of bread. And Deuteronomy 28:17 says, Cursed shall
be your basket and your kneading bowl. The land of Palestine
was the land of milk and honey, the land of abundance. For there
to be a famine in the land meant that the covenantal curse of God
was upon his people. In other words, the people had broken the
covenant and God was dealing with them. Readers who are un-
familiar with the covenant and the significance of famine in the
land of promise miss all of this. If we read intelligently, we know
that the book of Ruth is not just explaining why Elimelech decided
to move. Transferring his residence to Moab was not a morally
neutral decision in a morally neutral atmosphere in spite of
what some of our commentaries tell us.
With this in mind, we are prepared to appreciate the irony of
the next words, a certain man from Bethlehem in Judah. The
Hebrew word Bethlehem means house of bread! Beth house.
Lehem bread. The name Bethlehem implies an abundance of
food. The famine occurs in the very place where we would nor-

Lecture Three

mally expect more than enough bread. The story of this certain
man, then, begins with profound irony.
The fact that he is from Judah, the tribe that was to lead
Israel, is also significant, especially in the light of his own name,
Elimelech, which means My God (Eli) is king (meleck)! This adds
to the irony because his name contradicts his actions. As we shall
see, Elimelech from Judah is a man who does not take seriously
the kingship of God. Like the book of Judges says, he ignores
the true King and does what is right in his own eyes.
What was Elimelechs response to the famine? He went on a
sojourn. Those who know the Bible well immediately recognize
that this is not the first story of a famine leading to a sojourn.
These words in the Book of Ruth establish a literary connection
with another Biblical story, which adds depth to the irony already
introduced. The story that is being alluded to is the story of
Abraham in Genesis 12:10. Abraham left the Promised Land
when there was a famine. Later Genesis 26:1 tells us of the story
of another famine in the land in the days of Isaac. Again, there
is a famine in the land in the days of Jacob who sends his sons
to Egypt to buy grain. All of these stories provide background
for the story in Ruth. However, the point is not as some com-
mentators tell us that there are frequent famines in the land.
In the days of Abraham the land of Canaan which was then
the land belonging to the Canaanites was already beginning to
experience Gods covenantal judgment, but the sins of Amorites
were not yet full. God was not ready to bring final judgment and
give the land to Israel.
In the case of Abraham, then, it was perfectly legitimate for
him to leave the Promised Land and sojourn in Egypt because
the Promised Land had not yet been given to Abraham and his
descendants. It still belonged to the Canaanites and God was
dealing with them.

Shakespeares Use of the Bible (I)

However, when we come to the time of the Judges, it is

after the conquest under Joshua. Israel has been given the land.
At this point in history, there could be no legitimate reason for a
member of the tribe of Judah to leave the land God had given to
his family. When Elimelech left the land of Israel for Moab, he
was despising the gift of God.
He was also despising Gods covenant promises. He should
have known that if the people of God obeyed His law, they would
be blessed. He should have reasoned that if Gods people are ex-
periencing the covenant curse, it must be that God is disciplining
them. They should repent of their sins and turn back unto God,
for it is no accident when their basket is cursed.4 The literary allu-
sion in Ruth, then, points to parallel but utterly contrasting stories
of sojourns during famine.
The irony deepens even further. For Elimelech sojourned in
Moab, of all places. Again, we will not correctly understand what
is going on unless we remember the previously written Scripture,
to which the book of Ruth is alluding in particular the story
of the Exodus and the conquest.
The Moabites, although descendents of Lot and related to
Abraham and therefore not under the curse that was upon the
inhabitants of Canaan, nevertheless sought to prevent Israel from
entering the Promised Land. The king of Moab, Balak, hired
the false prophet Balaam to curse Israel. This nation that should
have been a friend made itself an enemy. Therefore, in the laws
of Deuteronomy, Moses wrote in chapter 23:3-4 No Ammonite
4 From the book of Job, we know that the covenant is more complex than this,
and the principle cannot be applied simplistically to individuals. But for the nation as
a whole the basic paradigm is Obey and be blessed; disobey and be cursed, and in
the early days of Israels history, this is applied in a relatively straightforward manner,
as the books of Numbers, Joshua, and Judges show. As Israels history progresses
the application of the covenant becomes more complex. When Achan sinned in
the book of Joshua, he was judged immediately, but Manasseh committed far more
extreme sin for almost 50 years before judgment came.

Lecture Three

or Moabite shall enter the assembly of the LORD; none of their

descendants, even to the tenth generation, shall ever enter the as-
sembly of the LORD, because they did not meet you with food
and water on the way when you came out of Egypt, and because
they hired against you Balaam the son of Beor from Pethor of
Mesopotamia, to curse you. By contrast, Edomites and Egyptians
are allowed to join the covenant people in the third generation.
When Elimelech decided to sojourn in Moab, then, he was
not merely choosing a conveniently located neighboring country,
though geographically that was also true. He made a decision to
go to a land that had self-consciously acted as an enemy to Gods
people when they were marching to the promised land. Even after
Israel possessed the land, the Moabites were a constant source
of trouble. In the history recorded in the book of Judges, when
the very fat King Eglon ruled Moab, Israel was enslaved to him.
Therefore, when we read the word Moab in Ruth 1, we are sup-
posed to remember these Scriptures and consider the actions of
Elimelech in the light of the history of Israel and Moab. With
all of this in mind, then, we are not surprised, when we read that
Elimelech and his sons died in Moab. They were cursed by God for
despising His covenant love and choosing to live with His enemies.
Of course, the greatest irony and most important allusion in
the book of Ruth comes later. It is found in Ruth herself. For
she is portrayed in this book as a female Abraham, who left all to
follow the Lord. A Moabite woman was the source of redemption
for the family of Naomi. She even became an ancestress of the
Messiah. God found this wonderful woman in the most unlikely
place, and through the most unlikely means, He led her to Israel
to marry Boaz. As in the story of Abraham, we are reminded that
Gods ways are not ours.
Now all of this about the book of Ruth is just to illustrate
how literary allusion functions in the Bible and to provide a con-
crete example of what Alter means when he says that allusion is

Shakespeares Use of the Bible (I)

not mere embellishment. It is necessary for the story and if we

miss the allusion, we miss much of the story itself.
This simple example from the Bible provides background for
understanding literary allusion in Shakespeare. For Shakespeare
alludes to the Bible in the same way the book of Ruth alludes to
previously written Scriptures. What I hope to show in later lectures,
when I explain specific plays, is that understanding Shakespeares
allusions to the Bible is absolutely essential to a correct interpreta-
tion in some cases and to a deeper appreciation in all cases.

II. Literary Allusion in Shakespeare

One of the most straightforward and obvious cases of allu-

sion in Shakespeare provides us with an excellent example. You
will remember that I have already pointed out that Shakespeares
Macbeth retells the story of the fall of Adam and Eve and that this
is the key to the first part of the play. If we miss this allusion,
as even some famous scholars have, we will interpret the play in
terms of some other paradigm.
Sigmund Freud is one who missed the point of the allusion.5
He claims, as we might expect, that the key to understanding the
whole story is the fact that Macbeth and his wife were childless.
Now it is actually true that their childlessness is very important
to understanding the latter part of the play, but for both the first
part of the play, where Macbeth murders the king, and for the
latter part of the play, where he attempts to eliminate his rivals,
the Biblical background supplies the key. But Freud either missed
the allusions or regarded his own psychological interpretation as
more profound.
Another one who missed the point is the literary critic Harold
Bloom, who has a great appreciation for Shakespeare and even
5 An essay by Freud on Macbeth is online:

Lecture Three

places him at the very center of the Western literary canon.6 Of

Macbeth, Bloom wrote that it was one of Shakespeares darkest
plays and that it hardly yields to Christianization. Even though
Bloom himself notes the allusion to King Herod in the later part
of the play when Shakespeare shows Macbeth as a child killer, he
completely misses the fact that the whole structure of the play
and the story itself is grounded in Biblical allusion. Yes, the play
is dark. But what Bloom calls Christianization is not an attempt
to erase that darkness. On the contrary, because Bloom lacks the
Christian perspective, he has no proper idea how dark the play
really is.
We will return to that subject later in our lectures on Macbeth.
For now, the point is to understand the way that literary allusion
functions in the Bible, which we have illustrated from the book
of Ruth, because we see similar allusions in Shakespeare.
With the general point in mind, we are ready to consider how
Shakespeare refers to the Bible. References are numerous and
various. Not all of them belong to what we have called literary
allusion. We need to note first the various ways that Shakespeare
uses the Bible in order to draw a large map of his use of literary
references. Perhaps it is best to begin with a general classification
of Shakespeares references to the Bible. I suggest the following
seven rough-and-somewhat-overlapping categories.

1. Shakespeare not infrequently borrows words or

phrases from the Bible.
2. Sometimes Shakespeare is clearly quoting a verse from
the Bible.7

6 Harold Bloom, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (New York: Riverhead
Books, 1998), pp. 516 ff.
7 The difference between this and the first category is that borrowing may be
less clear than quoting and quoting is usually more than just a word or a short phrase.
But the distinction between the two categories is not always sharp.

Shakespeares Use of the Bible (I)

3. Shakespeare alludes to Biblical teaching.8

4. Shakespeare alludes to Biblical stories.
5. Shakespeare borrows Biblical symbolism.
6. Shakespeare sometimes uses a Biblical story as a
paradigm. That is, he uses a Biblical story to structure
and define some other story.
7. Finally, Shakespeare employs typology in a manner
similar to the Bible.

Let me explain in more detail what I mean by each of these

categories and offer some examples. First, there is borrowing. As
a general category, borrowing is probably the least significant. I
am limiting this category to the more or less casual use of Biblical
words or phrases. Defining the category in these terms means that
there are two types of borrowing, two subcategories to the general
category. First, there are no doubt cases in which Shakespeare
uses Biblical words or phrases simply because they are familiar to
him and are part of the atmosphere of his day. In other words,
there are probably examples of Shakespeare using language that
is Biblical in which he was relatively or entirely unconsciously
borrowing. Unconscious borrowing is not even embellishment.
In such a case, Shakespeare used a word or phrase without any
intention to refer to the Bible. I think that there may be examples
of this, but I doubt if there are many for the simple reason that
we presume that Shakespeare is very much aware of words and we
know he was familiar with the Bible. We should probably assume
that in most cases where he borrowed Biblical words or phrases,
he realized what he was doing. But we should also allow for the
possibility of exceptions and, so, we have this first subcategory.
The second subcategory of borrowing is similar to what
Robert Alter referred to when he spoke of nonliterary allusion.
8 When I say teaching here, I am not necessarily speaking narrowly of what
we would call doctrines.

Lecture Three

Shakespeare may borrow a Biblical word or phrase just because it

is powerful language that his audience is familiar with, or because
it is a particularly appropriate phrase. At any rate, the point is that
when we speak of borrowing, there is no particular intention to
refer to the story in which the language was originally used or to
some Biblical teaching. When Shakespeare does what I call bor-
rowing, he is not trying to establish a literary link between his play
and the Bible.
An example of this kind of reference is the phrase flesh and
blood, found in both The Taming of the Shrew and Julius Caesar. It is
apparently a phrase that comes into the English language from its
use in the Bible. Shakespeare would almost certainly have known
he was using a phrase from the Bible, since the passage in 1 Cor-
inthians is so famous. So, we have to ask: Why does Shakespeare
use this phrase? What is his purpose?
It does not appear that Shakespeare borrowed this phrase for
theological reasons, such as a reference to the creation of man
or to Pauls words in 1 Corinthians 15, nor does he seem to be
alluding to a particular story. It is also doubtful that Shakespeare
is trying to make a point about human anatomy. The quotation
in Julius Caesar may be said to point to mans frailty. Caesar refers
to himself as constant as the Northern star, contrasting himself
with most men who are flesh and blood, and apprehensive.
Someone might wish to argue that this is an example of Shake-
speare alluding to Pauls statement that flesh and blood shall
not inherit the kingdom. Mortal man cannot enter the kingdom
of God; only those who have a resurrection body can enter the
eternal kingdom. Is Shakespeare suggesting that Caesar regarded
himself as immortal? It would be ironic if Caesar were seen to
imply something of that sort just before he is assassinated, but this
would probably be reading too much into the phrase. Weakness
and common humanity seem to be the point, and Caesar regards
himself as being above the common mass of men. The irony, of

Shakespeares Use of the Bible (I)

course, remains, for some of those he regarded as mere flesh and

blood would very soon stab his flesh and drain his blood.
If one wished to argue that the reference in Julius Caesar re-
ally is intended to make us recall 1 Corinthians 15 or some other
passage, then the reference would have to be placed in a different
category. For even if we are speaking about the use of a single
word or a short phrase, there may be a clear intent to allude to a
passage of Scripture and thereby establish a link between the two
texts. In such a case, knowledge of the Bible and its meaning
would be requisite for understanding Shakespeare. In the case of
the borrowed phrase, flesh and blood, however, I assume that
there is probably no intended link with a particular Biblical passage
or idea. It is simply a powerful expression, concrete language that
serves the purpose. Therefore, I place this in the first category,
borrowing, and the second subcategory, non-literary allusion.
Our second category is quotation. When we speak of quo-
tation, there is no question about whether or not Shakespeare
intends us to understand that he is quoting Scripture, even if the
quotation is not exact. The link with Scripture, in other words, is
intentional. However, even when Shakespeare clearly intends for
us to recognize the Biblical passage he is quoting, he quotes for
diverse literary reasons and what he expects us to notice varies ac-
cording to the purpose of the quotation. This means that we have
to create some subcategories for quotation also. I suggest three:
1) stylistic quotation; 2) ironic quotation; 3) literary quotation.
By stylistic quotation, I mean quotations or near quotations
that are not really intended to be what we might call profound.
This kind of quotation is more than mere embellishment, but it
does not establish an important connection between the Biblical
story or doctrine and Shakespeares play.
An example of this kind of quotation is found in Macbeth,
when Malcolm, the son of the murdered King Duncan, is talking

Lecture Three

to Macduff, the nobleman who eventually kills Macbeth. In this

part of the play, Malcolm has already fled to England, where he is
waiting for a chance to return to Scotland and claim the throne that
is rightly his own. When Macduff visits him, Malcolm suspects
that Macduff has been sent to lure him into a trap. In the latter
part of their conversation, Malcolm slightly changes a Scriptural
expression that appears in a number of places, God above deal
between me and thee. I do not think that anyone suggests a
specific literary reference here. The point is not to draw a parallel
between Malcolm and a particular story in the Bible. That does
not mean, however, that the language is merely cosmetic. It does
suggest that Malcolm is sincere, for he is using common Biblical
language for taking an oath. The Biblical language gives Malcolms
words weight, but beyond that, it has little literary significance.
Another example of this sort of quotation is in Othello. In
the last act, as Othello stands over his beloved Desdemona, whom
he believes has betrayed him, he says to her, Peace, be still. The
words are an exact quotation of Mark 4:39, where Jesus hushed the
wind and sea. But there is nothing in Shakespeares use of these
words from the Bible to suggest any kind of literary connection
between the two stories unless, perhaps, it would be ironic,
which is our next subcategory.
Ironic quotations of Scripture are quotations that are in jest,
quotations that suggest the opposite meaning of the Biblical pas-
sage, or quotations that are used in a context so foreign to the
meaning of the Biblical passage that we cannot help but note the
disharmony. For example, in Hamlet, the prince, as he prepares
to leave for England, has the following dialogue with his uncle,
whom he is now certain has murdered his father.

HAMLET: For England!

Shakespeares Use of the Bible (I)

KING CLAUDIUS: So is it, if thou knewst our

HAMLET: I see a cherub that sees them. But, come;
for England! Farewell, dear mother.
KING CLAUDIUS: Thy loving father, Hamlet.
HAMLET: My mother: father and mother is man and
wife; man and wife is one flesh; and so, my mother.
Come, for England!

Here Hamlets quotation is ironic. There is no theological

meditation on the meaning of marriage, nor is there any sort of
literary connection established between this dialogue and the pas-
sage in Genesis 2. Hamlet is still feigning madness and he speaks
absurdly while also complaining of his mothers marriage.
Another example of the same sort of quotation appears later
in Hamlet in the conversation of the two gravediggers. Here the
reference to Scripture is simply an aspect of the clowns clowning.

First Gravedigger: There is no ancient

gentleman but gardeners, ditchers, and grave-makers:
they hold up Adams profession.
Second Gravedigger: Was he a gentleman?
First Gravedigger: He was the first that ever
bore arms.
Second Gravedigger: Why, he had none.
First Gravedigger: What, art a heathen? How
dost thou understand the Scripture? The Scripture
says Adam digged: could he dig without arms?

Now the Bible does not exactly say that Adam digged
though it does say that he was put in the Garden to till it and
we have to assume that at some point, he did actually dig. But

Lecture Three

Shakespeare was not concerned with conveying facts about Adam.

The conversation between the gravediggers is patently ridiculous.
The misuse of language, with two different meanings for the
word arms and the abuse of Scripture is humor, though it also
functions to expose the gravediggers as utterly untrustworthy
sources of information. When we study Hamlet, we shall see this
a significant point in the context. But the quotation of Scripture
is not for the purpose of creating literary connections.
Generally speaking, when comic characters quote Scripture,
the quotation is ironic. But villains, like Richard III, also quote
Scripture ironically. Richard uses Scripture to deceive and quotes
it in mockery of the gullible people who are foolish enough to
trust him. With so many comic characters and villains in the
plays, there are many examples of this second type of quotation
in Shakespeare. They provide background and in some cases deep
irony, but if we missed an ironic quotation, most of the time we
would not be missing a great deal. As a form of Scriptural refer-
ence, it is not usually very important for understanding the play.
A more important sort of quotation is the third subcategory,
literary quotation. What I mean by this is quotation with the clear
intention of establishing a literary connection between the story
in Shakespeare and a Biblical story or Biblical teaching.
Again, we turn to Macbeth for a clear example. When he is
contemplating the murder of Duncan, Shakespeare has Macbeth
say to himself, twere well it were done quickly, only slightly
changing the words of Jesus to Judas, that thou doest, do quickly.
(Jn. 13:27). Macbeth, having been tempted by witches, is about to
betray a king who is highly praised for his Christian virtue. The
parallel with Judas is unmistakable. Other examples of this sort
could be shown, but on the whole, they are fewer than one might
think. For Shakespeare more often paraphrases the Bible than he
quotes it directly.

Shakespeares Use of the Bible (I)

This brings us to our third basic category, allusions to Bibli-

cal teaching. The third and fourth basic categories allusion to
Biblical teaching and allusion to Biblical stories overlap with the
previous subcategory, literary quotation. Let me try to make this
category clear. In our third category, when I speak of an allusion
to a Biblical teaching, I mean that Shakespeare is pointing to a
specific Biblical passage or teaching. But we are not talking here
about stories. The Biblical reference, therefore, may sometimes
be much more general. It may be simply providing background.
Or it may be more theologically profound. However, the estab-
lished link means that the Shakespeare is somehow commenting
on, interacting with, or asking us to remember the Scriptures. The
Bible illumines the play. And perhaps also vice versa!
Because references of this sort may be general or vague, they
are not always recognized. The most comprehensive collection
of Shakespeares references to the Bible that I referred to earlier
by Naseeb Shaheen lists over a thousand references. But Shaheen
also misses quite a few places that seem to me to be unmistakable
allusions to the Bible or a Biblical teaching.9
One example is found in The Merchant of Venice, which we
will discuss in a later lecture. In this play, the two main female
characters are having a conversation early in the play and one of
them, Nerissa, who is Portias maid, says for aught I see, they are
as sick that surfeit with too much as they that starve with nothing.
It is no mean happiness therefore, to be seated in the mean: super-
fluity comes sooner by white hairs, but competency lives longer.
The language is a little difficult, but it can be paraphrased simply
as, People who eat too much get as sick as people who have too
little. To have just enough is real happiness. Rich people get white
hairs early, but people who have just enough live longer. Once
9 Shaheen establishes very strict criteria for a literary reference. Allusions that
do not meet his criteria are left out of his reckoning. Biblical References in Shakespeares
Plays, pp. 67 ff. My own rough estimate is about 2000 references to the Bible in all.

Lecture Three

we understand the language, the allusion to Proverbs 30:7-9 will

be obvious to most people well acquainted with the Bible.

Two things have I required of thee;

deny me them not before I die:
Remove far from me vanity and lies:
give me neither poverty nor riches;
feed me with food convenient for me:
Lest I be full, and deny thee, and say,
Who is the LORD?
or lest I be poor, and steal,
and take the name of my God in vain.

Nerissa, echoing the book of Proverbs, says that both riches

and poverty contained special temptations that the common man
is not confronted with. But Shaheen misses this and a number
of similar allusions.
In the same play, only a few lines later, Portia says, In truth,
I know it is a sin to be a mocker. There are many passages, in
the book of Proverbs especially, that teach this truth. Here is an
example of a reference pointing to a Biblical teaching. It is im-
portant in the play because it provides background and depth to
Portias statement and also adds to the characterization of Portia
as a wise woman.
Of course, one of the basic presuppositions of The Merchant
of Venice is that usury, loaning money on interest, is sinful. This
was the doctrine of the church throughout the Middle Ages, and
in Elizabethan England, it continued to be held. Antonio, one of
the main Christian characters, alludes to the teaching of the Mo-
saic Law when he urges Shylock, the evil Jewish moneylender, to
loan to him as to an enemy, not a friend. Deuteronomy 23:19-20
stated: Thou shalt not lend upon interest to thy brother; inter-
est of money, interest of victuals, interest of anything that is lent

Shakespeares Use of the Bible (I)

upon interest: unto a foreigner thou mayest lend upon interest;

but unto thy brother thou shalt not lend upon interest, that the
LORD thy God may bless thee in all that thou puttest thy hand
unto, in the land whither thou goest in to possess it.
For Christians in Europe, loaning money on interest was
considered immoral, but as a matter of fact, it was an economic
necessity. Thus, they allowed Jews to make loans on interest. The
Talmud spoke against usury and the general tenor of Jewish teach-
ing opposed it, but loaning money on interest was one of the few
well-paying jobs that were permitted to Jews in the Middle Ages.
Moreover, so long as they were lending to Gentiles, it could be
considered a legitimate form of business. Shakespeare understood
the Bible well enough to make an allusion to Deuteronomy 23
and the fact that to an enemy or a stranger, it was permitted
to lend on interest. Shakespeares use of this Scripture provides
essential theological background for following the story in The
Merchant of Venice.
We can make an even broader connection between the story
of The Merchant of Venice and Biblical teaching, for the whole play
is like a parable about the superiority of the new covenant that
has replaced the old. The villain of the play, Shylock, is a Jewish
moneylender who insists on the letter of the law. His opponent,
the Christian gentleman, Antonio, is known for his kindness in
lending money without interest. As it turns out in the play, Shy-
lock by means of insisting on the letter of the law discovers that
the letter kills. Antonio, the man who lived by grace, is the victor
against Shylock not by distorting the law but by interpreting it most
strictly. We recall the book of Romans in which grace overcomes
law by fulfilling the law in the death of Christ. The Merchant of
Venice illustrates this truth.
The fourth of our categories for Biblical references is allusions
to Biblical stories. As in the case with Biblical quotations, allusions
to Biblical stories serve various literary purposes. I doubt if they

Lecture Three

are ever merely stylistic, but not every reference is profound. An

allusion to a story may be ironic or the kind of deeper allusion
that requires us to think about the Biblical story and compare it
with Shakespeares. Allusions to stories of whatever sort hold
special interest, for in them we have a master story-teller making
allusions to the greatest story ever told.
Stories have a special attraction for another reason. When
we looked at the first verses of the book of Ruth to see how
literary allusion works in the Bible, we noted how the story of
the book of Ruth is linked to other stories in the Bible. As the
Biblical story progresses, allusions become more elaborate because
the growing cannon provides an ever more complicated body of
material to which allusion can be made. Already in the book of
Ruth, the notion of a man going on a journey because of a famine
echoes more than one story in the book of Genesis, the laws of
Deuteronomy, the history of the early conquest and the times of
the Judges. When we get to later books in the Bible, allusions are
even richer and more intricate.
As the heir to this Biblical tradition, Shakespeare also knew
how to refer to more than one story with a single allusion, mean-
ing that allusions can be highly intricate and difficult to interpret.
He can combine allusions to the Bible, with allusions to texts
from ancient Greece or Rome, and texts from the Middle Ages
in a single set of references to create a network of allusions that
is broad ranging, full, and complicated. Of course, he can do
this with a quotation or a teaching as well as a story, but stories
provide the richest literary source of complexity and diversity. To
take just one example: we are familiar with the story of Romeo
and Juliet from Shakespeare, but he himself borrowed the story
from others. There was a long poem by Arthur Brooke entitled,
The Tragical History of Romeo and Juliet, which Shakespeare
relied upon heavily. But he also borrowed from Chaucer and the
play includes various allusions to the Bible.
The Merchant of Venice does not appear to be so directly bor-
rowed as some of the other stories, but Shakespeare is obviously
Shakespeares Use of the Bible (I)

interacting with Marlowes The Jew of Malta while at the same time,
he relies upon contemporary ideas of the city of Venice and a
stereotyped picture of Jewish moneylenders. All of this, however,
is woven into a parable about salvation by grace rather than law.
In our lectures, we are not going to attempt to delve into these
complex allusions to non-Christian or medieval literature. If we
can deal adequately, in an introductory way, with Biblical allusions,
we will be doing well. As one reads critical texts for each play, he
will see that Shakespeare does allude to a wide variety of literature
and that some of his allusions are bewilderingly intricate.
Although an allusion to a story can be subtle, some of Shake-
speares allusions to Biblical stories are quite explicit. For example,
in The Merchant of Venice, during a conversation between Antonio
and Shylock, Shylock reminds Antonio of the story of Jacob serv-
ing Laban and attempts to use it to justify his practice of lending
on interest. When we have this sort of explicit citation of the
story, there is no question about the Biblical reference.
Usually the allusion is less explicit and sometimes it may be
disputed. Naseeb Shaheen denies that the relationship between
Macbeth and his wife alludes to the Biblical story of Ahab and
Jezebel in 1 Kings 21 because, he says, Shakespeare is following the
history of Scotland written by Holingshed. Holingshed recounts
the history of Macbeth and also a story about one Donwald whose
wife urged him to kill King Duff. Shakespeare puts these two
stories together in his play about Macbeth. Shaheen, therefore,
concludes that there is no allusion to the Biblical story. I disagree.
I see multiple allusions in the story of Macbeth. The fact that
Shakespeare is using the historical record of Holingshed does
not in any way imply that he cannot also be alluding to a Biblical
story. Shaheen is missing the most important point. When we
see Shakespeare changing the history of Scotland and combining
two historical narratives to form a single story that is very close to
the Biblical story, I think we have good evidence that the Biblical
story provided a paradigm.

Lecture Three

We have to remember that the people for whom the plays

were originally written knew the Bible and its stories very well. It
would be odd to imagine them watching Macbeth and not noticing
that the story alludes to various Biblical stories, including the story
of Adam and Eve, Pharaoh and Israel, Ahab and Jezebel, and King
Herod. And a Biblically well-educated viewer would have seen
these Biblical stories as themselves interrelated.
When Adam and Eve sinned, their own relationship broke
down quickly. The two that seemed so united as they began to
commit sin experienced animosity and seclusion as soon as they
completed their act of rebellion. So, too, Macbeth began as a
tempted and wavering Adam, but after he sinned, his relationship
with his wife deteriorated. Soon he is transformed into a classi-
cal Biblical tyrant. Pharaoh, Ahab, and Herod provide complex
Biblical background for the increasingly evil king of Scotland. Are
there also imbedded in this story statements of political doctrine?
Is Shakespeare subtly communicating a political philosophy of his
own in the various plays? Questions of this sort are especially
relevant when we consider historical plays and it is not entirely
improbable that Shakespeare makes political statements of a sort,
but we will save speculation on these subjects for later.
We have come to the end of this lecture so let me summarize
what we have done here. First, we discussed the Bibles use of lit-
erary allusion, important for our study because Shakespeare seems
to have consciously imitated it. We offered an example of allusion
in the Bible in the first verses of the book of Ruth and saw how
very important allusion is for the interpretation of a passage of
Scripture. Then we offered seven categories of Biblical references
in Shakespeares plays. We have discussed the first four categories:
1) borrowing, 2) quotation, 3) allusion to Biblical teaching, and 4)
allusion to Biblical stories. In our next lecture, we will discuss the
remaining three categories: 5) borrowing Biblical symbolism, 6)
using a Biblical story as a paradigm, and 7) typology.

Shakespeares Use of the Bible (II)

Lecture Four:
Shakespeares Use of the Bible (II)

In this lecture we will consider the remaining three of our

seven categories of Biblical references in Shakespeares plays,
beginning with the fifth category: borrowing Biblical symbolism.
The use of symbolic language in Shakespeare is another highly
complex subject. Certainly, I am not suggesting all symbolic
language in Shakespeare is an allusion to the Bible, even when
it seems similar, for Shakespeare has an extremely rich symbolic
heritage from which to draw. But he does use Biblical language and
sometimes the allusion is clear. Richard the III is a good example.
Richard is repeatedly called a devil, and he acts like one. He
quotes the Bible to deceive, lies and murders promiscuously, and
betrays his friends and brothers. His satanic character is clear
from the beginning of the play. Thus, it is especially interesting
to consider some of his other labels besides devil. One word in
particular is used by every major female in the play: toad. The
word toad itself is not in the Bible, but the book of Revelation
does speak of three foul spirits like frogs. Keeping in mind
how often Richard is called a devil or something similar, it seems
clear enough that Shakespeares expression foul toad alludes to
the foul spirits like frogs in Revelation (16:13). It may also be
reminiscent of the plague of frogs on Egypt. In that light, toad
is another word that reveals Richard as a satanic monster. In the
context of the book of Revelation, it specifically connects him

Lecture Four

with the dragon who opposes Christ and His people. Names like
hedgehog, dog, rooting hog, and the boar, also point to Richard
as unclean and devilish.
In addition, the fact that Richard is physically disfigured
according to the play at least is used symbolically to point to
his character. His bent body functions as a symbol for his twisted
soul. So Lady Anne calls him, thou foul lump of deformity.
Others, too, connect the fact of his physical misshapenness with
his spiritual perversity.
Symbolism is not limited to the use of single words or figures
of speech but functions also at the broadest level. Consider the
distinction between Shakespearean comedy and tragedy. These
two sorts of plays are formed on Biblical models and are an ex-
pression of Biblical symbolism in a general way. What do I mean?
Well, although this way of putting things is overly simplistic, it is
not incorrect to say that a comedy is a play that ends in a marriage
and a tragedy is a play that ends in death. Note: the point is not
that a comedy has a happy ending and a tragedy has a sad end-
ing. Comedy versus tragedy is not funny versus sad, or even life
versus death; it is wedding versus death. Of course, it is generally
true that tragedies are dark and that comedies are light, with funny
dialogue and odd happenings. But it is the ending that is decisive.
And Shakespearean comedy, though it could be said to be a play
with a happy ending, is characteristically a play with a wedding
for an ending.
Why? Because Shakespeare is borrowing from the Bible or
at least from the Biblical worldview. His comedies and tragedies
end where the Bible ends in the final division of humanity into
two groups: those that enjoy what the book of Revelation calls
the marriage feast of the Lamb, and those who face the sec-
ond death. Biblical history ends with the division of the world
between marriage and death.

Shakespeares Use of the Bible (II)

We can see broad symbolic references in shorter portions of

a play as well. In Macbeth, as King Duncan and Banquo approach
Macbeths castle they converse about how beautiful the castle is in
language that suggests the image of a Garden, making the castle
an Eden, before Macbeths fall. After Macbeth murders Duncan,
the imagery of the castle is supplied by the doorman, who speaks
of hell. In the symbolic language of the play, Shakespeare sug-
gests the transformation of the world from paradise to prison,
from the Garden of Eden to the lake of fire. Rather than having
Macbeth cast out of Gods presence as in the Biblical story, in
Shakespeare the symbolic language suggests a transformation of
Macbeths residence.
What is even more interesting in the case of Macbeth is that it
provides an example of my sixth category: the use of a Biblical
story as a paradigm to define and structure another story. Macbeth
is more than just an allusion to the story of Adam and Eve. In
the first part of Macbeth, from the beginning of the play until the
murder of Duncan in the second scene of the second act, Shake-
speare has used the Biblical story as a paradigm, and structured
his own story on the basis of the Biblical story. In other words,
it is a retelling of the same story that appears in the Bible. I will
show this in detail when we look at Macbeth, but the general outline
of the story demonstrates the point. First, Shakespeares story,
like the Biblical story of Adam and Eve, begins with the serpent
in the Garden the three weird sisters. Soon the temptation is
presented. Adam and Eve consider the temptation. Adam
hesitates; Eve persuades. Finally the two of them sin, and im-
mediately face unexpected consequences. Macbeth and his lady
never imagined that taking the throne by murder would kill their
own hearts and their relationship even before the kings blood
had time to dry.
This use of the story of the fall raises an interesting question.
Did Shakespeare himself realize that within the Bible, one story

Lecture Four

alludes to another, as in the example from the book of Ruth that

I gave earlier? Did Shakespeare notice that the Bible has many
examples of parallel stories? Did he imitate the Bibles way of
telling the same essential story in a different setting with different
What I am referring to can be most simply seen in the book
of Genesis. Twice we are told the story of Abraham going on
a journey and having Sarah taken away from him. Both times
Abraham says that Sarah is his sister. Both times the foreign king
is rebuked by God. Both times Abraham is enriched through the
encounter. The two stories are so similar, though the places and
people involved vary, that modern commentaries have often as-
sumed it is the same story in two different versions. But there is
a third occurrence of the same story. Isaac also goes on a journey
because of a famine in the land. He too claims that his wife is his
sister. He too is protected by God.
Attentive reader that Shakespeare obviously was, it is hard to
imagine that he would have missed the parallels here. He almost
certainly noticed that these three stories have the same basic struc-
ture as the story of Jacob and the story of the Exodus.
At a more general level, he must have seen that the same
essential things tend to repeat themselves in history. There have
been many husbands and wives who faced a temptation similar
enough to the original temptation for the stories to be structured
in a similar fashion. The parallel structure places the two stories
side by side so that each is a commentary on the other. In Macbeth,
we see the story of Adam and Eve through the story of Macbeth
and his wife and the story of Macbeth through the story of Adam
and Eve. Shakespeares Macbeth provides a profound example of
what Robert Alter called elaborating on a previous text.
Shakespeare wrote like this because he was part of a theologi-
cal tradition that assumed that the things that happened in Biblical
times were not only historically true, but also were paradigms for

Shakespeares Use of the Bible (II)

the outworking of history as Gods plan. As one Shakespearean

scholar explained:

The roots of Shakespeares dramatic form are primarily

in the domestic English drama, running back through
the chronicle-histories of the Morality plays and the
Mysteries based on the universal grandeur of biblical
history. This is the drama Shakespeare saw as a boy, in
all probability. At any rate, it was the popular drama.1

In this perspective, the history of Israel in the Old Testament

is not just a story of things that happened long ago. It offers
wisdom and insight for the history of the whole world. In Shake-
speares day, of course, they thought first of England, but there
is no reason to limit the view to England. I think that it is fair
to say that from the perspective of Christians in the Elizabethan
era, including Shakespeare himself, every individual, every family,
and every nation can find its story in the Bible, in some form or,
rather, in various forms.
This introduces us to the seventh category, typology. Much of
what I have said about the sixth category could be called typology,
for typology is built upon deep structural similarities between two
or more stories, things, events, or persons. My fourth category
allusions to Biblical stories and my fifth category bor-
rowing Biblical symbolism both overlap with typology, too. I
have chosen to make distinctions here for the sake of showing
the variety in Shakespeares use of the Bible, but the categories
are not entirely separate.
To appreciate the distinction between typology and these
other uses of Scripture we must consider Biblical typology before

1 Tom F. Driver, Shakespeares Sense of History, in Shakespeares Christian Di-

mension: An Anthology of Commentary, edited by Roy Battenhouse, (Bloomington, IN:
Indiana University Press, 1994), p. 36

Lecture Four

we can turn to Shakespeares use of Biblical typology. What is

Biblical typology? This is another thorny issue and the definition
of typology is controversial even among evangelicals. For that
reason, we will concentrate on general characteristics that most
people acknowledge. And given the difficulties of definition, I
will try to answer the question, What is Biblical typology? with an
example to show how Biblical typology works.
For that purpose, I have chosen the Biblical story of Joseph
one of the clearest and most widely acknowledged examples of
typology. Let us consider it briefly. In the Genesis story, Joseph
was beloved of his father, the most favored among all his brothers.
When the brothers were tending sheep at a distant location and
his father sent him to them with a message, his jealous brothers
jumped at the opportunity to kill him. Cooler heads prevailed and
they merely faked his death and sold him into slavery in Egypt.
But so far as Jacob knew, Joseph was dead.
Meanwhile, in Egypt, Joseph continued to live righteously
and again his righteousness brought suffering, to the point of be-
ing cast into prison. There in the lowest dungeon of death, God
had mercy on him and Joseph was elevated to the seat at the right
hand of Pharaoh. Not long after this, when a famine hit the land
of Canaan, Josephs brothers came to Egypt for help. Though
they did not recognize him at first, the despised and hated brother
became their savior.
Even in an abbreviated summary form, the story of Joseph
so obviously parallels the story of Jesus that the most casual reader
can hardly miss the similarities. From the earliest times in Christian
history, the story of Joseph has been considered typological: true
history with symbolical meaning.
The underlying assumption in typological interpretation is that
God guides history according to His covenant. This also means
that there are patterns in history. Thus in the Bible, there is not a
simple historical line from creation to the end of the world. Nor

Shakespeares Use of the Bible (II)

is there mere circular repetition of the same things over and over.
History is a spiral. There is real progress as history moves upward
toward its goal, but there are regular and recurring patterns. We
referred to one of these patterns the Exodus motif when
we spoke of the book of Ruth.
Typology takes this one step further. Typology sees all these
patterns as pointing to Christ and fulfilled in Him. The book of
Hebrews tells us that the tabernacle, the Aaronic priesthood, and
the sacrifices are all types of Christ. In other places, we learn that
Moses, Joshua, and David are types of Christ. The Exodus and
other important events are also described as having typological
meaning pointing forward to the salvation accomplished by Jesus.
More broadly, since Christ is the ultimate prophet, priest, and king,
these offices have a typological significance as well.
In Bible itself, then, typology is essential to the way Bible
writers view history and also to the way later Scripture interprets
earlier Scriptures. This feature of the Bibles self-interpretation
was a fundamental part of the medieval view of the world and the
churchs approach to the Bible. Minimalist literalism was not the
trend of the day. Assuming Shakespeare read the Bible like men
of his day means that we also have to assume that his references
to the Bible have the same sort of pregnant typological meaning
that he found in the Scriptures, especially since his plays contain
numerous and clear hints in that direction.
Another aspect of Biblical typology important for under-
standing Shakespeare is that the person whose life points forward
to Christ must, in the nature of the case, be a man who is not
really a worthy model. That may sound strange at first, but the
point is simple: who can really be worthy to prefigure Jesus?
The type can never be more than a very partial and imperfect
revelation of the anti-type. David, for example, was one of the
main types of Christ, in spite of his having committed murder
and adultery. Another person commonly recognized as a type of

Lecture Four

Christ in Shakespeares day was Samson, certainly not a model of

Christian virtue. Solomon, too, was a type of the Messiah, even
though he was guilty of gross failure, unworthy of his office and
calling. We see, then, that men whose lives were destined to be
symbolic types of the Messiah Himself often sinned and dishon-
ored God and their Savior, but that did not annul the typological
significance of their lives.
We have to keep in mind that in the Bible a man may be a
type of Christ in one sense while at the same time be very much
contrary to Christ in other respects. Since this was part of the
common sense of Shakespeares day, he, too, uses men as types
of Christ whom we would regard as not worthy to fill the role.
But in doing so, he is not dishonoring God; he is simply following
the Biblical pattern.
Another point about Biblical typology is important for our
reading of Shakespeare. I said that typology points to Christ as the
center of history. I need to add that it also frequently points to the
church, His bride. The Song of Solomon, for example, has been
understood as a poem about Christs love for the Church. Such
an understanding does not erase the historical character Solomon
from the book. Rather it sees him and the real history of his life
as having a larger significance, just as we saw in the case of Joseph.
Including the Church in the picture means that marriage and
weddings are especially important in Biblical typology because, as
we pointed out previously, the book of Revelation concludes the
history of the world with the marriage feast of the Lamb. The New
Jerusalem is called the bride of Christ. The world ends, therefore,
with God and His people becoming one in the bliss of everlasting
love and joy. As Paul teaches (Eph. 5:22 ff.) this is the ultimate
symbolic meaning of every marriage. Typological interpretation
recognizes this link and draws upon it when interpreting books
like the Song of Solomon or Ruth, which focus on marital love.
This recognition of typology comes out especially in Shakespeares

Shakespeares Use of the Bible (II)

comedies, which usually end in marriages pointing clearly to

the symbolism of Christ and His relationship with the Church.
Another aspect of Biblical typology especially important for
understanding Shakespeare is that types are often multifarious. In
other words, in Biblical typology, the same person or event can
point in different symbolic directions at the same time, and more
than one person even in the same story can be a Christ figure.
David, for example, is a Christ figure as the anointed one of Israel,
but in his sin, he is another Adam. And the priests and prophets
who work with him are Christ figures just as David the king is,
even if the typology is less pronounced in their cases.
An example of multiple symbols for Christ and one that
had to be well-known in Shakespeares day comes from Israels
wilderness wandering. Moses was said to be a symbol for Christ,
so was the manna in the wilderness and the rock from which the
children of Israel received water. Aaron the high priest was a
symbol of Christ but so was all the furniture of the tabernacle
where he ministered and the sacrifices he offered. In the wilder-
ness, then, we are surrounded by multiple symbols for Christ.
Some may wonder if Shakespeare recognized this kind of mul-
tiple symbolism. I have no doubt. The New Testament points
explicitly to much of what I have cited and it has been commonly
acknowledged throughout church history. Typology would have
been part of the teaching of Scripture Shakespeare encountered
at church or in sermons that he read. Taking all of this into ac-
count, we should read Shakespeares plays on the assumption that
typology and typological thinking characterized both his reading
of the Bible and his writing of plays.
Now, with the Biblical background in mind, certain compli-
cations have to be introduced to this picture of typology. One
comes from the fact that typology and allegory were not carefully
distinguished in the Middle Ages and the early modern period.
What is the difference between typology and allegory? Roughly

Lecture Four

stated, the difference is that allegory lacks the Biblical foundation

for the associations it discovers and thus tends to run to subjective
extremes. A good example of this comes from the story of the
feeding of the five thousand recorded in John chapter 6. Jesus
miraculously multiplied two small fish and five barley loaves. One
ancient commentator suggested the following symbolic meaning:
the two fish point to the Old and New Testaments and the five
barley loaves to the five books of Moses. Thus, Jesus is feeding
the people with the word of God. There is nothing wrong with
the general idea per se, for Jesus was teaching the Jews Biblical truth.
But there is nothing in the immediate story or in the larger Biblical
narrative to suggest that particular interpretation of the loaves and
fish. Few today would be impressed with it. But in Shakespeares
day, this kind of interpretation would not necessarily have been
frowned upon. If we read his plays with the assumption that as-
sociations could be constructed in rather loose and free terms, we
will better understand some of Shakespeares allusions to Scripture.
Another complication arises from ambiguity. This is, in part,
inherent to typology. A type is a mere shadow of the reality it
portrays. Even in Biblical interpretation, therefore, we confront
ambiguities and difficulties of interpretation. However, a char-
acter in Shakespeare may be far more ambiguous, sometimes a
virtual riddle. Henry V stands out here. He can be and has been
interpreted both as a Machiavellian knave and as an ideal king like
David. Which is it? Sometimes, it may not be easy to tell. We
might point out, though, that even this sort of ambiguity could
be imitation of the Bible. After all, both David and Solomon,
the ideal kings of their day, were in some respects great failures.
The ambiguity of the heroes of the Bible is an obvious enough
feature of its stories. I think we should assume that Shakespeare
noticed it, and in making his own heroes, found room for sufficient
obscurity to make them seem truly human.
I think now we are ready to consider how typology works

Shakespeares Use of the Bible (II)

in Shakespeares plays. I have chosen one of the most obvious

examples Shakespeares Measure for Measure. Since it is not one
of the plays we will be discussing in our course, it might be good
to comment on it at some length so that we can see how recogniz-
ing typology helps us interpret a play.
First, let me review the story of the play very simply. The
Duke of Vienna has decided to leave the city for a short while and
to give his authority to a judge famous for his uprightness, Angelo.
The city has become lax in the enforcement of law and the Duke
decides that someone other than himself should be the one to crack
down. When the Duke leaves, Angelo acts as the Duke expects.
He determines to enforce a neglected law that says that all who
commit fornication must die. It happens that a young nobleman
in the city, Claudio, has a fiance who is pregnant. He intended
to marry her sooner but was not able to present the dowry so he
had to wait. This young man, then, is clearly guilty of fornication
and the judge Angelo has him arrested. Given his prominence,
Claudio will stand out as an example for the whole city.
Claudio has a beautiful and intelligent sister, Isabella, who has
devoted her life to the service of the Church. Although she is
not yet fully received as a nun she is a novice she has begun
her training and is respected among the sisters. Claudio sends a
message to her, asking her to help him out of his trouble by ap-
pealing to the judge. She accommodates her brother. But when
she does, the upright and strict Angelo immediately falls in love
with her. He has never been tempted by a harlot. But in meeting
this pure woman, whose virtues exceed his own, he feels tempted
for the first time in his life. Angelos fall into sin is as deep as it is
quick. He demands that Isabella give him her body in exchange
for her brothers life. Isabella refuses to compromise with sin in
this fashion, and so it seems her brother must die.
Meanwhile the Duke has not really left the city. He has dis-
guised himself as a friar and kept up on the affairs of the city day

Lecture Four

by day. As a friar, he visits Claudio and urges him to prepare for

death, while at the same time, without Claudios knowledge, he
also works out a plan to save Claudio. After overhearing Isabella
communicate to her brother the wickedness of Angelo, the Duke
persuades Isabella to promise to meet Angelo as he requested.
However, the Duke has planned a bed-switch, similar to the
Biblical story of Jacob, Rachel, and Leah, when Leah was substi-
tuted for Rachel. So, when the time comes, instead of Isabella,
Angelos former fiance, Marianna, will go in her place.
Marianas relationship with Angelo had been terminated when
her brother died at sea together with the dowry that was to seal the
marriage contract. Angelo, heartless as he is legally strict, broke
the engagement and left her bereft of both brother and husband.
The Dukes plan is to get Angelo and Mariana to be husband and
wife without Angelo knowing what he has done. In this way,
Claudio would be saved. After which, of course, Angelos real
deed would be made known to him and he would be married to
Mariana. However, things do not quite work according to plan.
Angelo does meet his former fiance Mariana, assuming that she
is Isabella, but after satisfying his own desire, he does not keep
his part of the bargain. He is determined to go ahead and put
Claudio to death.
The Duke, who is waiting at the prison for word of Claudios
pardon, is shocked to learn that Angelo commanded his beheading.
But the Duke was able to find another prisoner who resembles
Claudio, and who, conveniently, has just died of a fever. His head
is cut off and sent to Angelo so that in his own mind, Angelo is
now guilty of both forced fornication and murder.
Now that Angelos sin is ripe and the situation demands that
the Duke appear, he suddenly announces his return to the city
and has Angelo make preparation. When he arrives, he greets the
people in the town square and expresses his appreciation for An-
gelos work in his absence. Then, Isabella appears before the Duke

Shakespeares Use of the Bible (II)

to accuse Angelo. Marianna also offers her testimony against him.

However, the Duke pretends to side with Angelo and commits
the case to him to judge. The Duke then leaves and reappears in
his disguise as the friar. After some questioning from Angelo, the
friar shows that he is really the Duke. It becomes clear to all that
the mysterious friar friend of Marianna and Isabella was actually
the Duke himself and that he has fully found out Angelos sins.
Angelo is thus publicly convicted of fornication, the crime for
which he supposedly put Claudio to death. The Duke sentences
Angelo to marry Marianna. Then, after the two are quickly married
on the spot, Angelo is condemned to death for breaking his oath
to Isabella and killing her brother. Angelo himself freely admits
that he is worthy of death and that he desires nothing else, but
both Marianna and Isabella plead for him. At that point, Claudio
is brought out and all discover that in fact Angelo did not put
him to death. Angelo is forgiven and is free to begin a new life as
a repentant sinner. The Duke proposes to Isabella, and Claudio
goes off with his fiance to marry her. What looked like it might
become a tragedy ends with three marriages.
This is the main story. However, the plot is complicated by
the fact that the Dukes initial reason for leaving the city was politi-
cal. The laws of the city had not been strictly enforced for some
time and looseness prevailed. By placing the city in the hand of
Angelo, the Duke hoped to reform the law and clean up the city.
This is the background for a subplot of prostitutes and criminals
who appear in various roles in the play. It is not important for my
purposes to go into the details here, but those unfamiliar with the
play need to know that this is also part of the story.
Here we end a very rough and abbreviated telling of the story,
with many characters left out, including some of the important
ones. But I think the essential outline is here and we have enough
basic knowledge of the play to consider different interpretations.
To show the importance of understanding Shakespeares use

Lecture Four

of typology, we will compare three interpretations of the play. One

is a secular interpretation by the literary scholar Harold Bloom,
who offers a non-Christian and distinctly 20th century view of
the play. The second is a Christian interpretation by the poet W.
H. Auden. Though Auden is obviously sensitive to the text and
reads it as a Christian, he does not include the typological dimen-
sion. The third interpretation, which I regard as both literarily
and historically richer, sees the typology of the play and interprets
Shakespeares meaning in terms of it. For this third interpretation,
I will be relying on various authors.
Harold Blooms interpretation will shock those who read
Shakespeare without Freudian lenses. Bloom is correct, of course,
when he claims that Shakespeare understood human psychology
and portrayed his characters with amazing depth. However, his
approach to Shakespeares plays is tainted with the Freudian ob-
session with sex.
Bloom declares Measure for Measure, one of his favorite plays,
to be rancid. According to Bloom, in this play all of Shakespeares
residual idealism is purged, as Shakespeare simultaneously invokes
and evades Christian belief and morals. Bloom even says, I
scarcely see how the play, in regard to its Christian allusiveness,
can be regarded as other than blasphemous.2 For Bloom Measure
for Measure is the masterpiece of nihilism.3 In this play, every
stated or implied vision of morality, civil or religious, is either hypo-
critical or irrelevant.4 It is a comic rebellion against authority.5
In Blooms evaluation, No other work by Shakespeare is so
fundamentally alienated from the Western synthesis of Christian
morality and Classical ethics, and yet the estrangement from nature
itself seems even sharper to me.6 Appropriately, the character
2 Harold Bloom, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, p. 359.
3 Ibid., p. 363.
4 Ibid.
5 Ibid.
6 Ibid., p. 364.

Shakespeares Use of the Bible (II)

in the play that offends Bloom the most is the Duke, Vincentio.
For Bloom, Vincentio does not employ secret means to achieve
good results but rather is addicted to disguises, sadistic teasings,
and designs hopelessly duplicitous.7 Bloom can even say, In
Vincentios Vienna, as in Freuds, reality comes down to sex and
death, though Vincentios city is even closer to the formula: sex
equals incest equals death. That equation is the only idea of order
in Measure for Measure . . .8
How can Bloom come up with an interpretation like this?
What justification does he find for his approach? To begin with,
since sexual temptation and sin is very much at the heart of the
play, Bloom finds abundant opportunity to read the play from a
Freudian perspective. In addition to the surface discussion of
sex and temptation, Bloom, like Freud, finds sex in all sorts of
places the unenlightened reader would never think to discover it,
so that he can call the play a pre-Freudian joke against Freud.9
In addition to the Freudian penchant for strange and wonderful
interpretations, Bloom regards as absurd and immoral the idea
of a prince who hides his identity to test his judge and city in his
apparent absence. Isabellas chastity offends Bloom also since she
would rather see her brother die than offer her body to Angelo to
save him. Thus, Vincentio is a sadistic deceiver and Isabella is a
hypocritical, selfish prude. If these two main characters, Vincentio
and Isabella, cannot be understood as good people, the whole play
must be mocking or criticizing them and what they do.
What can we say about this? First, this approach requires us
to see the many references to the Bible in the play as ironic and
the title, a reference to Matthew 7:2, as blasphemy unlikely to
say the least, especially in the light of the various contemporary
sources behind the play. Shakespeare, in other words, did not
7 Ibid., p. 370.
8 Ibid., p. 374.
9 Ibid., p. 371

Lecture Four

invent the story. He is using standard material. Here is Shaheens


There were many other analogues and versions of the

story, since stories of the unjust governor and of the
woman who had to surrender her chastity in order to
save the life of someone she loved were common not
only in English, but also in Latin, French, and Italian.
There were also many folklore tales about the Disguised
Ruler who circulates among his subjects to learn what
is going on in his realm. The bed trick or substitu-
tion in the dark was another well-known device; that
tradition goes all the way back to the account of Leah
and Rachel in Genesis 29. There were, in fact, so many
analogues and legends from which Shakespeare could
have borrowed that it is difficult to determine all of the
influences on his play.10

Thus, in order for us to swallow Blooms interpretation, we

must not only believe his view of Shakespeare as a blaspheming
nihilist that reads the Geneva Bible carefully and quotes from
it both frequently and intelligently not the kind of thing we
would expect a blaspheming nihilist to do but we also have to
believe that medieval traditions in English, Latin, French and Ital-
ian abounded with other pre-Freudian Freuds telling ironic stories
about disguised rulers and unjust judges who seduced women.
Blooms approach is so absurd, it may seem a waste of good
time to even mention him. It is not. Harold Blooms book on
Shakespeare won the Publishers Weekly best book of the year award
and was praised by writers in the New York Times, the Wall Street
Journal, the Boston Globe, and other newspapers and magazines.
Bloom represents standard non-Christian thinking. He is an influ-
10 Shaheen, Shakespeares Biblical References, p. 245.

Shakespeares Use of the Bible (II)

ential writer and a good example of what students are confronted

with in the contemporary American University.
Bloom is important also because he represents the kind of
hypocrisy that characterizes much of academia. Shakespeare is
not a historical person for Bloom and others like him. As much
as Bloom admires Shakespeares works, he has reduced him to a
tool. Shakespeares writings function only to foist Blooms rank
nihilism on students and readers. He reads Measure for Measure in
the way that only a dirty old man can read and then abuses his
eloquence by pushing on us his anti-historical pre-Freudianism
and anti-Christian blasphemy. Rather than honestly admit that
Shakespeare thought and wrote differently from Bloom, Bloom
has to transform Shakespeare into a man like himself in order to
praise him as a genius. This kind of hypocrisy is pathetic at best,
but it is not uncommon. That being said, since Bloom is one of
the most respected American experts on Shakespeare and a writer
that students are likely to encounter, we will interact with Bloom
often in this course.
Another writer whose name will often appear is W. H. Auden.
Auden is generally considered one of the best poets of the 20th
century. In his younger years, he was a leftist and a Freudian. He
hid his homosexuality for years, though it comes out in some of
his poetry. In the mid 1940s, he openly returned to the Anglican
faith of his parents, and took his Christianity seriously enough
to rewrite earlier works. Auden taught Shakespeare in Britain
and America for years, and his 1946 lectures on Shakespeare, as
recorded by students, were published in 2000. Audens lectures
have been especially respected because of his wide-ranging intel-
lect, Christian faith, and poetic genius.
How did he view Measure for Measure? His approach differs
radically from Blooms even though he, too, reads Shakespeare
psychologically. The first line of his lecture is: Measure for
Measure is about three things: the nature of justice, the nature of

Lecture Four

authority, and the nature of forgiveness. He ties the three themes

together when he writes: The play presents the problem of the
earthly city and the vanity of the secular hope for creative politics,
the hope that justice precedes love and that law can make people
good the hope, in other words, that you can start with the law
and make people love it because it is right.11
The first part of his lecture is devoted to the exposition of
law and government, which is then applied to the play. The lec-
ture includes psychological judgments like this: Angelo wants
to be celibate as a matter of pride because he doesnt want to be
weak like Lucio. A terrible revenge is taken on him. He values
chastity aesthetically, he envies Isabella as a stronger character,
and he wishes to go to bed with her to appropriate her chastity
as something he can absorb. Also, When you want to be good
for the sake of strength, you can get much worse.12
He analyzes authority as aesthetic, ethical, and religious and
then uses this as a framework for relating the various kinds of au-
thority involved in the relationships of the characters of the play.
What is striking to me is that his approach is distinctly Christian in
its understanding of sin, guilt, and forgiveness, but utterly lacking
in typological appreciation. I am not suggesting he would have
denied such a dimension in the play. But if he recognized it, he
apparently did not regard it as important enough to expound.
There are countless books and lectures that treat the Christian
implications of Measure for Measure and some of these delve into
the typology of the play. But Steven Marxs little book, Shake-
speare and the Bible is more comprehensive than most. His insight
is worth quoting.

Biblical references pervade this play, which more than

any other of Shakespeares is constructed like a medi-
11 W. H. Auden, Lectures on Shakespeare, p. 185.
12 Ibid., p. 192.

Shakespeares Use of the Bible (II)

eval allegory. Characters are named for abstractions.

Vincentio, who is addressed only by his title of Duke,
means conqueror. His stand-in, Ludowick, signifies
famous warrior. Angelo is deputy or messenger of
God. Escalus suggests the scales of justice. Isabella
means consecrated to God or beautiful soul. Mari-
ana refers to the bitterness of suffering as well as the
intercessory mother of God. Lucio recalls Lucifer, the
fallen angel of light and mocking father of lies.13

Lucio, the Satan in the play, is not so much evil or destructive

as he is the supreme hypocrite and liar. In parts of the play, he is
kind and helpful, but he apparently also betrayed his friends and
is quite coldhearted in dealing with those he has harmed. His at-
tempts to slander Friar Ludowick the Duke in disguise are
defeated when the Duke reveals himself and merciful justice is
given to all.
The story itself, Marx observes, is rather like an extended
parable that alludes to a number of Biblical parables. In Mat-
thew 18:22-35, there is the Biblical parable of the unjust servant
who refuses to forgive the debt of another servant after his own
much larger debt has been forgiven by his lord. The parables of
the talents and of the vineyard in Matthew 25:14-30 and 21:33-43
both include a master who departs from his people to test them
and returns to judge. Of course, Jesus himself is the supreme
example of a disguised ruler, who governs justly but mysteriously,
who punishes severely but also forgives.
The plot of Measure for Measure has several strands but at one
level is roughly like the story of man. Angelo is originally upright
and good. He sins when he is confronted with a woman who, like
the fruit of the Garden, is pleasant to look upon, but who belongs
to God, not him. His attempt to steal Gods treasure is his fall. It
13 Marx, Shakespeare and the Bible, p. 79.

Lecture Four

is followed by the attempted murder of Claudio and the hypocrisy

of pretended innocence at his trial.
The story of the fall of Angelo is mirrored in part by the story
of Claudio, though his story is more in the background. Claudio
was engaged to a young woman he intended to marry. Though
his sin is not so grievous as Angelos, he, too, has stolen what was
not his he has prematurely assumed the rights of a husband
with his fiance.
Both of these men must be brought to repentance if there
is to be salvation. Like the prodigal son, who did not think of
returning in repentance to his father until he was perishing with
hunger (Luke 15:17), each of them must be brought to the place
of death in order to realize their own sinfulness and repent. This
is one of the major themes of the play and the whole point of
the Dukes labors. If the Duke seems preoccupied with death,
it is not, as Bloom suggests, some sort of sadistic play. On the
contrary, bringing men to the place of death, where they recognize
that they are worthy only of punishment, is the necessary first step
in the healing process of grace.
In the Bible, the story of Job often attacked by non-Chris-
tians as portraying God in a cruel and inhuman fashion is the
most outstanding example of God educating a man by means of
testing him. In fact, almost every extended story of an individual
includes an account of education by testing. In some cases, like
that of David, the testing is continuous and the experience of
psychological death through near physical death experiences is
repeated over and over. In other cases, like that of Saul, the edu-
cation ends in failure and a rejection of repentance. The point is
that while Shakespeare may be alluding to the story of the prodigal
son, the Bible provides numerous stories that portray the truth of
John 12:24-25: Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a grain of
wheat fall into the earth and die, it abideth by itself alone; but if
it die, it beareth much fruit. He that loveth his life loseth it; and

Shakespeares Use of the Bible (II)

he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal.
When we see the Duke as a Christ figure who disguises his rule
in order to reform the city by leading men to repentance, the play
makes sense in ways that it does not if it is merely read politically,
psychologically, or ethically. As a merely political play, it could not
really deal with all three of the issues that Auden points to. Politics
can deal with authority and justice, but it cannot directly address
forgiveness. And the idea of a Duke working behind the scenes
like this to bring about forgiveness and reconciliation is not at all
political. While Auden is correct to see in this play a commentary
on the true nature of society, the point of the play cannot be that
politicians should disguise themselves and try to do the kinds of
things the Duke does.
The Duke as a type of Christ takes the play out of the realm
of the city of man and brings God into the picture, but without
the complications of a directly theological statement. God is in
the play, of course, in that He is understood as giving providential
direction to all things. But the Duke functions as a Christ-figure,
virtually omniscient and all wise. His plans work to the good
and benefit of all, and lead the citizens of Vienna, as well as the
audience, to the realization that justice and authority cannot stand
without love and reconciliation.
Thus, the political message of the play is contained in a
parable. Gods mysterious ways with men are symbolized by the
Dukes mysterious working with his citizens. And the relation-
ship between law, repentance, and love is portrayed though a story
of the fall and redemption. Of course, in a Shakespearean play,
typology is not necessarily historically true, as it is in the Bible,
but by giving the play a real place name, Vienna, and by building
plots and subplots that have a historical flavor, Shakespeare cre-
ates typology that functions in a manner similar to typology in the
Bible, even though the story is fiction.
In his plays on English history, Shakespeare is able to use

Lecture Four

typology in a manner that is even closer to the Bibles, though

in order to communicate his typological message, he sometimes
changes history. At any rate, the extended example of Measure for
Measure has provided a concrete example of what it means that
Shakespeare writes typologically and how it benefits the interpreter
to recognize that typology.
We have come to the end of our discussion of the seven
categories of Biblical reference in Shakespeare. Let me review
the list one more time.

1. Shakespeare borrows words or phrases from the Bible.

2. Shakespeare quotes verses from the Bible.
3. Shakespeare alludes to Biblical teaching.
4. Shakespeare alludes to Biblical stories.
5. Shakespeare borrows Biblical symbolism.
6. Shakespeare uses Biblical stories as paradigms.
7. Shakespeare employs typology in a manner similar to
the Bible.

As I have explained, these categories overlap considerably

and each of them can be divided further because Shakespeare
uses quotations and allusions for a variety of purposes. Generally
speaking, references to the Bible may be ironic or serious. When
they are serious, they may be merely a matter of providing general
background, or they may be more profound. What needs to be
emphasized is how very important these Biblical references are
for understanding Shakespeare.
Let me reiterate what I pointed out earlier about the frequency
of Biblical references in Shakespeares plays. Naseeb Shaheen
counts well over a thousand references in Shakespeares 37 plays,
but Shaheens criteria for a Biblical reference are rather strict and
there are many references that he passes by or denies. I have not
taken the time to go through all the plays and compile my own

Shakespeares Use of the Bible (II)

list, but I would guess that we might find at least double the total
suggested by Shaheen.
I think it is reasonable to guess about 2000 references in the
37 plays. Depending on the exact number, we have an average of
about 40 or 50 references to the Bible in each of Shakespeares
plays, though, of course, some plays have more and others fewer
references. On average, there would be about 8-10 references per
act since plays have five acts. Not all of the references are equally
important, not all of them are profound. But the sheer frequency
of Shakespeares references to the Bible tells us something about
how important the Bible is for understanding his plays.
It is also important to note that Shakespeare quotes from
various English versions. Since the English versions available to
Shakespeare often overlap, especially when an allusion is just to a
phrase, we are often not able to know which version Shakespeare
may have in mind. But in those cases when we can clearly discern
which version Shakespeare is alluding to, unquestionably the ver-
sion most frequently referred to was the one associated with John
Calvin: the Geneva Bible. Though he does not limit himself to
this version and in some places he even seems to be borrowing
language from two different versions at the same time, quotation
from the Geneva Bible is quite significant. All of this is simply
to emphasize that the sheer quantity of Biblical references from
many books of the Bible indicates that Shakespeare was an avid
reader of Holy Scripture.
Closely related to his use of the Bible are his references to the
prayer book and the Anglican Liturgy. Shaheen tells us By the
time Shakespeares dramatic career began around 1589, the Angli-
can service had been in effect for some thirty years. Shakespeares
plays give abundant evidence that he was thoroughly acquainted
with that service.14 Since church attendance was mandatory in
his day, we know that Shakespeare attended church each Sunday,
14 Shaheen, Shakespeares Biblical References, p. 51.

Lecture Four

which this must have contributed to his knowledge of the Bible

as well as to the many references from the Anglican liturgy.
All of the material that I have discussed in this and the previ-
ous lectures aims to persuade you of the importance of the Bible
for understanding Shakespeare. In the lectures to come, I am going
to show in more detail how this helps us to interpret Shakespeare,
but before I do, I need to add two qualifications to my emphasis
on the importance of the Bible. First, though the point is obvious,
I need to state that Biblical references are not equally distributed
throughout the plays. For some plays, therefore, understanding
the Bible and what Shakespeare is doing with the Bible is more
important than it is for others.
My second qualification introduces significant complexity.
Like most educated people in his day, Shakespeare was well ac-
quainted with the Classics of the ancient world. He may not have
been terribly good at Latin or Greek, but he refers to all sorts of
ancient pagan sources, as well as to the literature of the Middle
Ages, and to literature of his own time. These other literary ref-
erences are not irrelevant. In emphasizing the importance of the
Bible as I have, I am not trying to suggest that Shakespeare relied
exclusively on the Bible, nor am I trying to say that he always
correctly interpreted the Scriptures he alluded to. He draws on a
very broad heritage of literature and much of it is not Christian.
Given the complexity of his Biblical references and the fact that
these are interwoven with all sorts of other literary and historical
references, we can be sure that we will not always be sure what
Shakespeare intended.
Though I have said that Shakespeares use of the Bible is
the key to understanding Shakespeare, to state the matter more
carefully, I should say that there is no one key that opens all the
doors in Shakespeares palace. The literature and mythology of
ancient Greece and Rome, the Christian drama of the Middle Ages,
the history of England, the contemporary situation, the literature

Shakespeares Use of the Bible (II)

of the Renaissance and Elizabethan England all of these and

more provide keys to understanding Shakespeare. But most of
these sources and references are available in standard commen-
taries and introductions to Shakespeare. Published versions of
Shakespeares plays that include critical notes explain references
to literature, introduce the historical background of the play, and
offer insights into the meaning of the play in Shakespeares day.
However, Shakespeares reliance upon the Bible is usually
neglected. The Christian aspects of his plays are largely ignored
in university courses. Shakespeares Christian faith is even denied
by some of the most highly respected Shakespearean scholars. In
contrast, I contend that without understanding the Christian back-
ground of his plays, we miss not merely some of the interesting
details, but many of the most important and largest matters that
form the substance of his drama. In this course, then, I concen-
trate on Biblical references because they tend to be neglected and
because I believe that they are, among the references to literature
in Shakespeares plays, generally the most significant.
We have come now to the end of our fourth lecture. Begin-
ning with the next lecture on The Merchant of Venice, we will begin
to apply the general principles we have learned to specific plays.

Lecture Five

Lecture Five:
The Merchant of Venice

With this lecture, we begin our study of Shakespeares plays,

the first of which is The Merchant of Venice. This lecture will have
to be longer than usual in order to include important material,
though, of course, there will more left unsaid than said.
There is a reason that I chose this play as the first in our series
of studies, for The Merchant of Venice rightly claims a special place
in a course that offers a Christian interpretation of Shakespeare.
Students may be surprised to hear that this comedy not only con-
tains more references to the Bible than any other single play, but
that these references are often complicated, and their interpreta-
tion is debated. The Merchant of Venice, therefore, is just the play
to begin with. We want to consider it in some depth so that we
can get a deeper appreciation for Shakespeares use of the Bible.
There are other reasons for giving this play priority. The Mer-
chant of Venice happens to be one of the most popular as well as one
of the most controversial of Shakespeares plays. Next to Hamlet,
it is the most frequently staged play. Unlike Hamlet, however, it
has been a cause of offense for some in our day. Why? Well, first,
one of its main characters, the villain of the play, is a Jew, whose
Jewishness is characterized in unflattering terms. Therefore, to
some viewers, the play appears to be anti-Semitic. This has been
the main stumbling block for modern appreciation of the play.
We will consider this problem in some detail.

The Merchant of Venice

Also, there are two controversies surrounding the interpreta-

tion of the play that are a reflection of our contemporary situa-
tion more than anything in the text. First, the friendship between
Antonio and his younger relative, Bassanio, has been turned into
a homosexual relationship with Bassanios newly married wife,
Portia, becoming jealous. Second, there was a time when Portia
was considered an example of a liberated woman since she
speaks so straightforwardly, acts as a judge, and even seems to
be threatening to commit adultery since her husband has had the
temerity to give away her ring. In our day, there are other feminist
interpretations of Portia herself and the whole play.
Finally, there is an entirely different sort of controversy that
is much more difficult and complicated, but also much more
important. What I am referring to is actually a whole group of
controversial issues related to Shakespeares use of Biblical allu-
sion. The question of whether or not the play should be regarded
as an allegory, or almost an allegory, is included here. For there
are not a few scholars who insist that Shakespeares Biblical allu-
sions in the play are merely window dressing. For these men, the
large number of Biblical allusions is not connected to any overall
theme. They deny that the play teaches or expounds Biblical truth
through a story.
However, even among scholars who assume a large role for
allusion in the play, there is a great deal of difference in the way
they interpret that allusion. Some modern interpreters who accept
the thesis that Shakespeare is retelling the Biblical story of Jews and
Christians, pick up at least partial aspects of one or more of the
previous controversies, and interpret many of the Biblical allusions
as ironic. To put it bluntly, at least in some cases, we have another
example of scholars who discover that Shakespeare expresses a
view of life that is remarkably similar to their own, in spite of the
fact that the beliefs of 16th century England were so profoundly
different from those of the post-enlightenment world. No doubt

Lecture Five

these scholars believe this is required by the fact of Shakespeares

superior genius, but historically minded people are entitled to retain
their doubts about the existence of the modernist Shakespeare.

I. Controversial Issues

A. Homosexuality

What shall we say to all of this? Well, we can say without

hesitation that Shakespeares play has nothing to do with homo-
sexuality. That such an interpretation exists tells us more about
those who propose it than it does about Shakespeare. Perverse men
read their perversions into everything and twist, as Peter tells us,
even the Scriptures to their own destruction. Antonio is an older
relative of Bassanio who has taken him under his wing. He loves
Bassanio in the way a father loves his son. In the original Italian
story that Shakespeare borrowed, the character corresponding
to Antonio is the grandfather of the character corresponding to
Bassanio. Bassanio has been orphaned and his kind grandfather
takes him in and provides for him. Shakespeare has simply incor-
porated in his play the relationship from the original story, though
without explaining it. That is what is interesting, that Shakespeare
tells us so little about Bassanio and Antonio. Neither one of them
seems to have family. There is no mention of brothers, sisters,
children, or wife for Antonio, or how or when Bassanios mother
and father have died.
Is this information gap intended to suggest that the relation-
ship between Antonio and Bassanio is homosexual? Hardly. What
it really does is draw attention to the symbolic dimension of the
play. By not filling in the details of their relationship in this world,
Shakespeare leads us to ask what their relationship means, what
sort of symbolism is being suggested. We will return to this later
when we discuss the symbolism of the play. For now, suffice it
The Merchant of Venice

to say that a homosexual reading of this relationship constitutes

literary rape. As a method of literary interpretation, this is con-
sistent, no doubt, with the homosexual ideology, but it is also a
gross distortion of the meaning of the play.

B. Feminism

Just as there is nothing in the relationship between Antonio

and Bassanio to suggest anything other than pure family love, so
also there is nothing in Shakespeares Portia to suggest a feminist
interpretation of the play. Once again, imposing modern (or
postmodern) views onto the play falsifies the real message. What
if we read the play as if Shakespeare were showing us that only a
woman, Portia the main female character could save male
society from the stupidity of racial prejudice, narrow interpreta-
tions of law, and economic stress? Would not that give us a legiti-
mate feminist reading? Not really. Even though it is true that her
intervention into the trial saves Antonio, it would require a radical
rewriting of the play to make Portias part so central to the whole
story. Besides, what the play already shows about the important
place of women in Shakespearean times would only be exagger-
ated. That does no favor for feminism, for feminism tells us how
oppressed woman have been all through the centuries.
In Shakespeares play, on the other hand, all of the men in
Portias life, especially her father and future husband, but even
the unsuccessful suitors, are considerate and respectful. Portia
is so cherished by her father that he makes provision so that his
daughter will not be deceived by evil or selfish men. The man who
marries Portia must be like the man described in the words of the
lead casket: Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath.
This demands self-sacrificial love, the Biblical and Christian ideal,
and one that exalts women.
When Antonio and Bassanio discover that Portia was the

Lecture Five

judge that delivered them, does anyone object that it is not ap-
propriate for a woman to do such a thing? No. Are they offended
that she has deceived them? Not at all. Everyone is delighted at
what she has done. The play suggests a society in which women
are treated with honor and respect, for their intelligence no less
than their beauty and virtue. This is not the picture of the evil,
Christian, patriarchal past that feminists paint. No one would
dispute the fact that Elizabethan England did not realize Christian
ideals, but the fact remains that the play shows an ideal of love and
honor for the woman as both daughter and wife, which exalts her
position in society. This has always been the Christian view. The
embarrassing truth that it is often not practiced is a testimony to
mans sinfulness, not an indictment of the ideal itself.

C. Anti-Semitism

The matter of anti-Semitism is more sensitive. In the light

of the history of the 20th century holocaust in particular and the
continuing problems of Jews in the Middle East, this point requires
more attention. First, Christians are and ought to be opposed to
anti-Semitism. In our day, all Christians worthy of the name agree
on this. But it was not always so. Martin Luther, whose writings
initiated the protestant Reformation less than one hundred years
before Shakespeare began to write, came to hold extremely anti-
Jewish opinions. In his pamphlet, Of the Jews and Their Lies
published in 1543, Luther wrote:

First, their synagogues . . . should be set on fire, and

whatever does not burn up should be covered or spread
over with dirt so that no one may ever be able to see a
cinder or stone of it. . . . Secondly, their homes should
likewise be broken down and destroyed. For they per-
petrate the same things that they do in their synagogue.1
1 Online at:
documents/luther-jews. htm
The Merchant of Venice

Luthers views on the Jewish people represent a tragic error on

the part of an otherwise great man. As awful as these and other
remarks by Luther are, however, we must remember that he was
not advocating the extermination of the Jews, but of a religion that
he understood to be radically perverse. He sought their conversion
to Christianity though he sought it through the illegitimate use
of force. This, however, is not anti-Semitism. We may disagree
with Luthers notions of evangelizing Jews, but we have to note
that he was not motivated by a racial hatred.2
Christians must admit that in the days of Luther and Shake-
speare, not to mention other times, Jews were not treated fairly
or properly. But that does not mean Christians are obligated to
agree with modern Jewish scholars who consider this play offensive
because it supposedly degrades Jewish people. A fair reading of
Shakespeare will not support such a view of the play.
To begin with, the word anti-Semitism must be carefully
defined. Its promiscuous use provokes no little misunderstand-
ing. For example, though it may come as a surprise to some
Christians, there are Jews for whom the New Testament itself
is an anti-Semitic document.3 If that were true, then insofar as
Shakespeare followed the New Testament, he would have to be
anti-Semitic also. But is this really anti-Semitism? Were the Gospel
writers anti-Semitic because they show that the Jews in Jesus day,
especially the Jewish leaders, hated Jesus and plotted for his death?
Was Paul anti-Semitic because he spoke of Gods wrath on the
Jews because of the crucifixion of Christ or because he sought
the conversion of all Jews? If we answered these questions in the
2 Contrast this, for example, with some of the popular Muslim preachers who
regularly denounce Jews as swine and commend Hitler for trying to exterminate the
race from the world.
3 See, for example, J. D. G. Dunn. The Question of Anti-Semitism in the New
Testament Writings of the Period, in Jews and Christians: the Parting of the Ways, A.D.
70 to 135, ed. by James D. G. Dunn (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992). See also, Lillian
C. Freudmann, Antisemitism in the New Testament (Washington, D.C.: University Press
of America, 1993).
Lecture Five

affirmative, we would have to say that Christianity, by definition,

is anti-Semitic. In fact, there are some who say so.
However, this sort of definition will not stand up to testing.
In the nature of the case, Christians, as well as Jews and Muslims,
believe that there is only one true religion. When Christians say that
Judaism is a false religion, how are they being anti-Semitic? It is the
same judgment that Christians make toward every religion other
than Christianity. In that sense, Christians are also anti-Muslim,
anti-Hindu, and anti-Buddhist in the same way. But if Christian-
ity is anti-everything-but-Christianity, then it is not distinctly or
particularly anti-Semitic. Judaism per se is not a special issue.
And what of Judaism? Orthodox Jews believe their religion
is the true religion and their god is the true god. That would make
them anti-Muslim, anti-Hindu, and anti-Buddhist no less than
the Christian. What is even more difficult is putting Jeremiah or
Ezekiel into the picture. No one denounced Jewish hypocrisy
more than these Old Testament prophets unless we wish to
opt for another Old Testament prophet. For those who use the
word anti-Semitism loosely, the Old Testament must be judged
no less anti-Semitic than the New.
There is another aspect to this. When Christians say that they
regard all other religions as being false, they do not regard them-
selves as being against the adherents of these religions. Christianity
is opposed to Hinduism, but it is not against the Hindu people.
When Christians seek the conversion of Buddhists or Muslims
to Christianity, it is not because they hate these people. From the
Christian perspective to seek someones conversion to Christ is
the most profound and important way of being for that person.
Furthermore, the concept of anti-Semitism should not be
used to describe the Christian judgment that Judaism as a religion
departed from the Bible for those who may not know, that
that is the Christian judgment. It is not that Christians believe
that Jews have the Old Testament and Christians have the New.

The Merchant of Venice

Rather, Christianity says that because Judaism rejected Jesus, the

promised Messiah and the center of Old Testament truth, Judaism
not only lost the New Testament but also the true meaning of the
Old. Of course, Jews disagree with this Christian understanding
of the meaning of Jesus and therefore, also, of the meaning of the
Old Testament. This long-standing religious debate is important
and Shakespeares play explores some of the differences between
Christian and Jewish interpretation of the Old Testament. But
the important point to note here is that this is a religious debate.
It has nothing to do with race which is what anti-Semitism
is supposedly about.
When we actually consider Shakespeares story, we realize
that Shylock is the only Jew with the characteristics of a Pharisee.
He is the villain of the play because the play is an allegory about
Pharisees and Christ, Jews and Christians, the old covenant and the
new covenant. But we note also that as Pharisaical is he is, he is
not nearly as awful a person as Richard III or many other villains
in Shakespeares plays. Moreover, the other two Jews in the play,
Tubal and Jessica, are not obnoxious people. The play praises
Jessicas beauty and virtue. There is nothing but joy expressed
over the fact that Lorenzo is able to marry her. Finally, the play
includes unflattering descriptions of French, English, and Spanish
people, among others. Jews, in other words, are not singled out.
Is this anti-Semitism? I think not. For, in real anti-Semitism
of the sort that was represented by the Nazis, there is a racial hatred
of the Jewish people that makes marrying a Jew an offense. To
marry a Jew, even if the Jew converts, would mean the propagation
of those who are considered to be the evil race. For true anti-
Semitism, the only conceivable goal is the physical extermination
of a racial entity.
Shakespeare is not against Jews as a race of people. Like the
writers of the New Testament, all of whom with the exception of
Luke, were racially Jewish, Shakespeare hopes for the conversion

Lecture Five

of Israel to Christianity. This play portrays that hope through

the marriage of Jessica to a Christian and through the forced
conversion of Shylock. Although modern Jews no doubt find it
disturbing to view a play in which Judaism is portrayed as false
and a failure, they have no right to condemn it as anti-Semitic. It
contains nothing that degrades the Jews racially. Rather it expresses
the Christian hope that the people who now call themselves Jews
will someday become Christians.

II. Literary Allusion, Allegory, and Interpretation

There is another controversy concerning this play one that

is little known, but that is more important for this course than
previous issues. There are debates among Shakespearean scholars
about whether or not this play should be regarded as a sort of
Christian allegory and about how to interpret the Biblical allusions
in the play. These debates are important because they touch on
our approach to the whole corpus of Shakespeares plays. I am
going to simply divide these debates into two: first, the question
of whether or not the play as a whole is a sort of allegory; second,
questions about interpretation.

A. Allegory?

First, then, can this play be regarded as a story that retells the
story of the Christian Gospel? Remember, this play, has more
references to Scripture than any other single Shakespearean play
and, as we shall see, it is a story that seems obviously related to
the Biblical story of redemption. If this play uses Bible references
merely as embellishments rather than as a means of serious reflec-
tion upon Biblical truth, we might be led to doubt that Shakespeare
ever treats the Bible seriously. From this perspective, then, I think
we may regard The Merchant of Venice as a test case.

The Merchant of Venice

To restate the question, then: Is this play a story designed to

portray the Biblical Gospel? On the one hand, there are scholars
who deny that there is any deep Biblical analogy in the play. Naseeb
Shaheen serves as a good representative of this group, since he
wrote the book Biblical References in Shakespeares Plays and is presum-
ably not philosophically prejudiced against the possibility of such
an interpretation. In his notes on The Merchant of Venice, he wrote:

On account of the many biblical references in the play,

some critics have tried to interpret the play as an allegory
stressing the superiority of the New Covenant over the
Old, or that the play has some other theological mes-
sage. However, these arguments are often contrived
and, no matter how adroitly argued, are not convincing.
Elizabethans did not go to the theater to be indoctri-
nated with theology or to learn about the nature of
the Christian life.4

On Shaheens view, Shakespeares biblical references may

serve various purposes in The Merchant of Venice, but the play as a
whole could not be an illustration of the meaning of the Gospel
or a commentary on the relationships between Jew and Christian,
old covenant and new.
However, there is another view. Steven Marx asserts that
The Merchant of Venice explores the relationship between Jews and
Christians in the course of a dramatized reflection on the Hebrew
and Christian Bibles and on the process of biblical allusion by
which their influence is expressed in this and other Shakespeare
As Marx points out, when we consider the sources for the
play, we realize what a complex composition it is. In Marxs words,
Plots and characters from Italian prose fiction are blended with
4 Biblical References in Shakespeares Plays, p.155.
5 Shakespeare and the Bible, p. 103.
Lecture Five

frequent allusions and parallels to the Bible perhaps mediated by

the tradition of English liturgical mystery drama.6 As he goes on
to explain, The conflict between the villainous Jew and virtuous
Christians at the centre of the story appears in the secular sources,
where the Jew fills the role of comic butt, but in none of those
are the biblical parallels of this conflict elaborated. By expanding
them, Shakespeare theologizes the comedy and renders theology
as entertainment.7
No doubt Shaheen is correct when he says that Elizabethans
did not go to the theater to be indoctrinated, but what if, as Marx
asserts, they sought a kind of entertainment that could be enjoyed
both at a superficial and non-theological level by those not inclined
to think much about what they watched, and on a deeper level by
those who could appreciate it? If people enjoy their Christianity,
why is it unlikely that they would tell the Christian story in their
own stories? After all, any intelligent reader of the Bible can see
how the Gospel story is told over and over again in the various
stories of God saving His people in the days of patriarchs, the
Judges, and during the history of the monarchy. What if people
enjoyed seeing plays in which the stories communicated on more
than one level, plays that could be interpreted on more than one
level and had greater depth than modern entertainment?
I believe that Marx is correct and that Shaheen has missed
the deeper meaning of the play. But before I can take time to try
to demonstrate this, we need to consider a related issue, the ques-
tion of usury. The word itself is unfamiliar to many and the way
that Elizabethan Christians thought about usury is utterly foreign
to most people today.

6 Shakespeare and the Bible, p. 103-4.

7 Shakespeare and the Bible, p. 104.

The Merchant of Venice

B. Usury

To understand The Merchant of Venice, we must understand

usury. The whole story depends upon the Elizabethan notion,
characteristic of both Protestants and Catholics, that usury
which meant all lending on interest is sinful. In the centuries
that followed the Reformation, that opinion gradually changed, but
in Shakespeares day, usury was still regarded as evil. In the play, it
allows Shakespeare to create a bad-guy, the Jewish moneylender
who lends money for interest, who is opposed to the good-guy,
a Christian who lends money freely to his friends in need. At its
heart, and at the simplest level, the play is a moral story about the
evil of lending money on interest.
Usury, the term for lending money on interest, was regarded as
a violation of the Tenth Commandment Thou shalt not covet.
It also was thought to show a lack of human sympathy that comes
from loving money and possessions more than people. Usury
meant covetousness to the people of Shakespeares day because
they saw nothing productive in money merely exchanging hands.
All the lender does is put money into another mans hands for a
short time, and then at a later time, more money is put back in his
hands. However, the moneylender has not contributed anything
to society in the way of production. Therefore, he deserves no
This was the official position of the Roman Catholic Church
in the Middle Ages and of Protestants at the time of the Refor-
mation. It was based on Aristotles view, which condemned the
notion that money could increase simply by being passed back and
forth. For doing labor and producing something, a man might be
legitimately rewarded. But Aristotle and the church of the Middle
Ages, following Thomas Aquinas, could not imagine any reason for
someone like Shylock to be able to earn money merely by putting a
certain sum in another mans hands for a certain number of days.

Lecture Five

In their opinion, the man who borrowed the money and worked
for gain is the only one who deserved reward.
Since the late 19th century, which saw the introduction of
a new understanding of interest by Austrian economists, it has
become common sense to regard loaning money as a service,
one that businesses often need. Obviously, those who provide
the service should be rewarded. However, in Shakespeares day,
common sense dictated otherwise. Money does not give birth to
money the way sheep give birth to sheep, nor does it grow, like
a seed into a tree. Therefore, they reasoned, money should not
merely multiply because it has been loaned.
In addition, and more basically, there is a Biblical command
not to lend money on interest. This is where both Jews and
Christians learned that usury is wrong. And it is not just wrong;
usury is considered a very serious sin. In the book of Ezekiel, for
example, it is written: If he has exacted usury or taken increase
Shall he then live? He shall not live! If he has done any of
these abominations, he shall surely die; his blood shall be upon
him. (Eze. 18:13) Whatever it means to exact usury, it is a sin
that brings Gods wrath to the point that He pronounces death
on the usurer. This is the reason that it was taken so seriously by
the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages and by the churches of
the Reformation. There is no reason that I can think of that we
in our day should assume that God is happy with usury.
But what is usury? The problem is one of definition. What
is the sin that God forbids in Ezekiel? That is a difficult question.
Over time, churches changed their views on what constituted usury,
deciding that usury was interest on a charity loan, a loan to a poor
person who was in need of help. Some Christians also believe that
usury includes the notion of excessive interest though that is
hard to define. If we understand it correctly, usury is a serious sin
because it is taking advantage of a poor man and oppressing him.
At some point, the Church also decided that charging inter-

The Merchant of Venice

est on business loans was different. Such a charge should not be

regarded as usury. Interest can be legitimately charged to those
who are borrowing for the purpose of gain rather than out of
desperation and poverty. The reason interest is legitimate is that
money in hand today has a different value from the promise of
money tomorrow. Interest involves calculating the change in the
value of money over time. We would all rather have $1000 today
than the promise of $1000 in the near future. The promise of
much more would be alluring, but it is also dangerous and inher-
ently unstable. In the case of a business loan, this risk is calculated.
The issue is fundamentally different from the Biblical idea of
loans to those in need. Thus, most Christians in our day interpret
the meaning of Biblical commands about usury differently from
people in Shakespeares day.
However, understanding this historical background is essential
to appreciating the story. Christians in Shakespeares day regarded
all interest charged on any loan as usury, and usury was seen as
a serious sin. A person who expected his money to increase just
because he loaned it to someone else for a specific time would
have been considered covetous. Jews were allowed to loan on
interest because they were not Christians, and the law of Moses
specifically allowed Jews to loan to foreigners. But Christians still
considered the practice as basically immoral, and the Jews who
engaged in loaning money were regarded at best as being morally
insensitive, but more usually as being corrupt.
This is important background for the play because choosing
a story in which the villain is a usurer allows Shakespeare to ac-
complish multiple purposes. First, he can set a Jewish villain in
contrast to the Christian hero. Second, he can mold a story that
focuses on the notion of debt, a notion that the Bible associates
with sin, as in the Lords Prayer, which says Forgive us our debts
as we forgive our debtors. Third, it allows Shakespeare to picture
a situation in which one man must die for the debt of another,

Lecture Five

an obvious parallel to the death of Christ. This is filled out even

more clearly when the one who seeks to put the substitute debtor
to death is a Jew. Finally, it aids Shakespeare in suggesting numer-
ous parallels between Shylock and the Pharisees.
But I am getting ahead of myself. We need to backtrack and
ask, why did Shakespeare write a story about a money lending Jew?
Part of the answer is that Shakespeare has borrowed a popular
story and modified it for his play. How did he change it? What is
he doing that is different from his sources? That question leads
us, I believe, to see the symbolic dimensions of the play.

C. General Structure

Keeping in mind what we have said about usury, let us return

to the question about whether or not this play is designed as a whole
to tell the Christian story in an allegorical or parabolic form. In
other words, do we have here something similar to Biblical typol-
ogy? What do I mean? We discussed this in an earlier lecture,
but lets just take a moment to remind ourselves how typology
works. You remember that I referred in a previous lecture to the
Biblical story of Joseph. The events in the story have always been
regarded as historically factual, but from ancient times, Christian
interpreters also saw another meaning in the story of Joseph,
because the events in his life parallel so many things in the story
of Jesus. The life of Joseph was seen as a story that revealed the
Messiah. Joseph was betrayed and, in a sense, killed by his broth-
ers. He was bought out of prison on the third day; he rose from
his grave to sit beside the king, and having attained exalted status,
he saved his brothers. Clearly, the story of Jesus can be seen in
the life of Joseph.
From the times of the Church Fathers, Joseph has been
regarded as a type of the Messiah. Types prefigure the Messiah
and show what kind of Savior He will be. The life of Joseph was
The Merchant of Venice

prophetic of the Messiah, though most of what was foreshadowed

could not be clearly seen except in retrospect. As we pointed out
in the last lecture, Shakespeare would have been familiar with
this idea of typology, for it was a common understanding of the
Bible in his day. When we suggest that he has written a sort of
allegory on the Gospel, we are saying that he has done something
that is similar to the typology that he saw in Scripture, in which
the stories of Joseph, Moses, and David, just to name a few, had
a deeper meaning that pointed beyond themselves to the Messiah.
In other words, Shakespeare appears to be imitating the Biblical
way of telling stories.
Let me attempt to demonstrate this from the play. First,
consider the general structure of The Merchant of Venice. We have
two stories that are interwoven. The story of the moral conflict
between the evil Jewish moneylender, Shylock, and the Christian
businessman, Antonio, is linked to a second story, the love story
of Bassanio and Portia. The connection is established through
the loan that Bassanio needs in order to court Portia. Antonio is
very willing to help Bassanio and wants to see him succeed in his
courtship so, even though he is short of money at the time, he
borrows from the Jew, Shylock, to provide for Bassanios need.
That is the large connection, but the stories are linked in
more subtle ways, too. The play begins with Antonio expressing
his discomfort. Something is bothering him, but he cannot tell
exactly what. He says, I hold the world but as the world, Gra-
tiano; A stage where every man must play a part, And mine a sad
one. Antonios friends offer him comfort and encouragement.
When Bassanio arrives, we see how much Antonio cares for him.
Then, in the next scene of the play, we go to a different
location, Belmont, where we are introduced to Portia, who, like
Antonio, is also sad. In her case, the reason is clear. She must
marry the man who is able to pass a sort of test that her father
designed in his will. There are three caskets, or boxes, one of which

Lecture Five

contains Portias picture. The man who wishes to marry her must
choose the correct casket. But she is worried about who that might
be. She would rather have her own choice and she expresses her
fears. Her maid, Nerissa, offers her comfort and encouragement.
In particular, the maid reminds her of the man she might want
to marry, Bassanio. Thus, from the beginning the two stories are
linked by the similarities between Antonio and Portia. The two
are linked by love and fear. Both are seen to be troubled, both are
seen to care a great deal for Bassanio and both receive comfort
and encouragement from their friends.
The two stories not only have a common beginning, they have
a common end. They both culminate and find their resolution in
trials. In the case of the story of Shylock and Antonio, the trial
is before the court, with the Duke presiding and a judge offering
legal advice. In the case of the love story, Bassanio is tested by a
trial devised by Portias father. That the test is real is emphasized
by the fact that others have failed. Then, at end of the play, Bas-
sanio is actually tested a second time with regard to the ring Portia
had given him. In the last scene, the use of legal terminology,
the many references to Antonios trial before the Duke, and the
swearing of similar oaths must be all be intended to link the final
scene at Belmont with the trial in Venice.
Thus, a simple consideration of surface structures indicates
that the two stories have parallel beginnings and parallel conclu-
sions. But the most important link between the two stories is the
central issue, the truth communicated by each of the stories. The
story of Antonio and Shylock comes to a climactic moment when
Antonio willingly offers his life for Bassanio. This self-sacrificial
love is the heart of the play. Antonio considers Bassanio more
important than himself illustrating the meaning of Pauls com-
mand in Philippians 2:3-5 and offers his life for his friend.
The self-sacrifice of Antonio is obviously central. However,
we must not miss the fact that Bassanio learned from Antonio

The Merchant of Venice

about self-sacrificial love. That is part of the reason he had the

wisdom needed to pass the test of the caskets. Bassanio chose
the casket which demanded total self-sacrifice, as the casket said:
Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath. That is
what Antonio had already done in borrowing money for Bassa-
nio. Bassanio imitated Antonios love when he chose to sacrifice
himself for Portia. Then, at what we might call the second trial of
Bassanio, in the last scene of the play, self-sacrifice is prominent
again, especially in Bassanios oath to Portia, but even more in
Antonio once again putting his life at risk for his friend, taking a
second oath. This, of course, links the conversation in Belmont
to the court case and brings the play to a conclusion in vows of
humble and self-sacrificial love.
These connections are relatively clear. We have seen that
Shakespeare combined two traditional stories that had no profound
Biblical message, and modified them so that the interwoven story
exemplified the central ethical truth of the New Testament, the ob-
ligation to self-sacrificial love in imitation of Christ. In the words
of Jesus, This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as
I have loved you. Greater love hath no man than this, that a man
lay down his life for his friends. (John 15:12-13)
To this, now, we must add one more observation about the
general teaching of the play. It is significant that the four major
characters in the play receive life through a sort of death. Antonio
and Shylock both have a literal death sentence against them and
both of them receive new life. In Shylocks case, this includes the
new life of a Christian. In Antonios case, new life in the sense
that he is able to continue to live and enjoy his friendships with
Bassanio and others, but also new life in that he later receives news
that his ships were safe and that, though delayed, his business ven-
tures were successful. For Antonio and Shylock, salvation from
the sentence of death was quite literal.
For the other two, it is figurative, but still real. Portia submits

Lecture Five

to the deathlike experience of denying her will in favor of her

fathers will. She submits herself to her fathers wishes in a spirit
of humble self-denial that is parallel to Antonios self-denying
submission to death. Bassanio, too, dies. We might even say that
he dies more than the others. He must die, in a sense, first when
he asks Antonio for money, for the play shows that he is concerned
about the danger that he puts Antonio into. Then when he sub-
mits to the test in Belmont, he dies in the sense that he must risk
all, including the money that he has borrowed from Antonio, on
his choice of a casket. Even the motto of the casket itself is a
demand for self-death. Bassanio dies again, and more clearly this
time, at the trial of Antonio, when he expresses his willingness to
die in Antonios place. Finally, there is a sort of self-death when
he must admit to Portia that he has lost her ring. For Bassanio,
the whole story is a series of self-denying episodes that lead to
blessing and life.
One of the Scripture verses alluded to near the beginning
of the play points to this theme: Most assuredly, I say to you,
unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains
alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain. He who loves his life
will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for
eternal life. (Jn. 12:24-25).
By way of summary, then, we see two stories intertwined into
one, both of which teach that the essence of love is self-sacrifice
and that we can only truly live through the death-like experience of
self-denial. In other words, only those who live a life of the kind
of love that Jesus commanded really know what it means to live.
The general structure of the play, the connection between
the two parts, and the main truths being expressed are obvious
enough. It should also be evident that these truths are not only
core distinctives of the Christian faith, but specifically truths that
find their ultimate expression in the saving death of Jesus Christ
on the cross. We have to ask ourselves and modern interpreters of

The Merchant of Venice

Shakespeare, Is it really possible for anyone in a Christian culture

to either write or to view a play about loving self-sacrifice without
that person consciously thinking of the sacrifice of Christ, espe-
cially when the play includes allusions to Jesus death?
As I pointed out previously, Shaheen finds it contrived to
argue that the general structure of the play and the truths it cel-
ebrates point to a distinctly Christian message. I do not. Let us
consider some of the details of the play to see if they confirm or
conflict with our view of the general structure and central truths.

D. Details

To begin with something simple, one of the most striking

details of the play is the overwhelming repetition of the word
Jew. It occurs almost 70 times. The word Christian occurs
only 26 times, but many of these are especially significant. The
first occurrence of the word, Christian, for example, is when
Shylock pronounces his hatred for Antonio: I hate him for he
is a Christian. A number of other occurrences are in contexts
that speak of Jews becoming Christians.
Certainly, this surface detail alone suggests that one of the
main themes of the play is the relationship between Christian and
Jew, Christianity and Judaism. To explore this idea further, we
have to give special attention to the villain of the play, Shylock.
As we explained above, in Shakespeares day, the very fact
that Shylock is a moneylender condemns him as a covetous per-
son. His business involves a kind of spiritual pollution taking
advantage of others weakness and making profit from peoples
need. However, Shakespeare makes Shylock an especially covetous
villain by having Shylock quote Scripture to justify his usury. It is
significant that Shylock refers to the story of Jacob, for Jacob has
long been misunderstood to be a shady character.
Such was the common interpretation of Jacob in the church
Lecture Five

for many centuries and I think that we should assume that Shake-
speare shared this mistaken view. Jacobs name is related to a
Hebrew verb that seems to literally mean, follow at the heel,
but it is used in a more figurative sense with meanings like as-
sail insidiously, circumvent, overreach. Jacob took advantage
of his brothers weakness to steal the birthright, he deceived his
father into giving him a blessing, and then, through some sort of
manipulation, he managed to get the majority of the sheep from
the herd of his father-in-law, Laban. In Shakespeares day, he was
widely regarded as a covetous, deceptive, unpleasant person. Our
picture of Shylock comes in part from the association with Jacob
the father of the Jewish people.
It is relevant also to note that Antonio opposes Shylocks
interpretation, or implied interpretation, of the story of Jacobs
obtaining Labans sheep, offering a Christian view of the passage
and adding in an aside to Bassanio that the devil can quote Scripture
for his own purposes. This whole encounter adds deceptiveness
to Shylocks covetousness and shows him as a man who twists the
Scriptures, a sin Jesus repeatedly charges against the Pharisees.
In addition to this, Shylock comes across as lacking humanity,
or, in the words of the apostle Paul, as being without natural af-
fection. The relationship with his daughter, Jessica, is the means
whereby this trait is communicated. In one of her first lines, she
complains, our house is hell. Of her father she says, Though
I am daughter to his blood, I am not to his manners. When
Shylock discovers that his daughter has left him and eloped with
a Christian, he is dismayed, but not in the way one might expect.
One of the minor characters, Salanio, describes Shylocks reaction
to the news that his daughter has run away.

I never heard a passion so confused,

The Merchant of Venice

So strange, outrageous, and so variable,

As the dog Jew did utter in the streets:
My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter!
Fled with a Christian! O my Christian ducats!
Justice! the law! my ducats, and my daughter!
A sealed bag, two sealed bags of ducats,
Of double ducats, stolen from me by my daughter!
And jewels, two stones, two rich and precious stones,
Stolen by my daughter! Justice! find the girl;
She hath the stones upon her, and the ducats.

We are given the strong impression that the loss of the ducats
stung more deeply than the loss of his daughter. Shylock himself,
speaking in language that appears outrageously exaggerated, says,

Why, there, there, there, there! A diamond gone, cost

me two thousand ducats in Frankfort! The curse never
fell upon our nation till now; I never felt it till now: two
thousand ducats in that; and other precious, precious
jewels. I would my daughter were dead at my foot, and
the jewels in her ear! Would she were hearsed at my foot,
and the ducats in her coffin! No news of them? Why, so:
and I know not whats spent in the search: why, thou loss
upon loss! The thief gone with so much, and so much
to find the thief; and no satisfaction, no revenge: nor
no in luck stirring but what lights on my shoulders; no
sighs but of my breathing; no tears but of my shedding.

Imagine a Jew who can say that the loss of a small part of
his personal fortune is the beginning of the curse on the nation
of Israel, or a father who could wish his daughter dead at his feet,
so long as the jewels were in her ear! Shylock clearly loves his

Lecture Five

money more than his family. And, we should remember that in

Luke 16:14, the Pharisees are also characterized as money lovers.
Clearly, we have a covetous unfeeling villain for our story, but
the fact that he is a Jew and that so much attention is called to his
Jewishness indicates that there is something more. Shakespeare
is using Shylock as a representative for the Jews and their law, in
other words, as a representative of the Pharisees party.
Let me expand on that a little. Shylock and his money-lending
on the one hand are contrasted with Antonio and his money-lend-
ing on the other. Shylock proclaims the law and loans money on
interest. Antonio preaches the Gospel and loans without interest.
The conflict between the two symbolizes the conflict between the
Pharisees and Christ, the law and the Gospel.
So, Shylock is not only associated with Jacob, condemned as
covetous and deceptive, and portrayed as inhumane for his lack of
family love, he is also associated with the Pharisees and through
that association, he his linked with the law and the old covenant.
In addition to what I have already pointed out, a number of other
details make this clear.
To begin with, the Jew Shylock speaks out boldly against
Christ when he refers to him as the Nazarite who cast the devil
into swine. The language is shocking and Shakespeares audience
would no doubt have regarded it as bordering on blasphemy.
Secondly, like the Pharisees, he constantly repeats, the law,
justice, while at that very time, he is actually plotting the murder
of Antonio. We are reminded of story of Jesus healing a man
whose hand was withered. Mark chapter 2 tells us that it was a
Sabbath day and the scribes and Pharisees were watching Jesus
closely to see if he would heal the man. When he did, they were
offended and, Mark tells us in 2:6, Then the Pharisees went out
and immediately plotted with the Herodians against Him, how they
might destroy Him. The experts on the law considered healing on
the Sabbath evil, but plotting murder on the Sabbath was no sin!

The Merchant of Venice

Similarly, in the court, Shylock is told that if he shows no

mercy, he cannot hope to receive mercy, to which he responds,
What judgment shall I dread, doing no wrong? At the very time
that he is using the law to aid him in committing murder, he has
the audacity to claim that he does no wrong. In Shylocks words,
I stand here for law. We see here the hypocrisy for which Jesus
repeatedly condemned the Pharisees.
The Duke refers to Shylock in language that is eminently ap-
propriate for the New Testament Pharisees.

A stony adversary, an inhuman wretch

uncapable of pity, void and empty
From any dram of mercy.

Antonio, too, made reference to the hardness of Shylocks Jewish


You may as well do anything most hard,

As seek to soften that than which whats harder?
His Jewish heart: therefore, I do beseech you,
Make no more offers, use no farther means,
But with all brief and plain conveniency
Let me have judgment and the Jew his will.

It is remarkable, too, that Shylock swears by the Sabbath

that he will have his bond, for the Sabbath symbolized the Jewish
religion as such. In addition, the peculiar Pharisaic interpretation
of the Sabbath was the constant source of trouble between Christ
and the Pharisees.
In addition, Shylock is associated with the Pharisees by his
refusal to even eat with the Gentiles. When invited to dinner,
Shylock responds,

Lecture Five

Yes, to smell pork; to eat of the habitation which

your prophet the Nazarite conjured the devil into.
I will buy with you, sell with you, talk with you,
walk with you, and so following, but I will not eat
with you, drink with you, nor pray with you.

This is particularly significant in considering Shylock as pictur-

ing the Old Covenant, because the question of what foods could
be eaten and whether or not a Jew could eat with a Gentile is one
of the main issues the early church had to deal with in making the
transition from the law of Moses to the New Covenant. In the
book of Acts, Peter is commanded by God to eat various kinds
of foods that had been prohibited in the law. In the book of Ga-
latians, we read about Peter separating himself from the Gentiles
to eat with Jews, an embarrassing mistake that won Pauls public
rebuke of Peter for compromising the faith. Whether or not to
eat with Gentiles, then, was an important part of the Pharisees
religion as it was of Shylocks.
These and other details show us that in Shylock, Shakespeare
combined what was probably the common Christian understand-
ing of Jacob as a deceiving and covetous man, combined with the
New Testament picture of the Pharisees, hypocritical men who
were dominated by their passionate hatred of Christ, who lived
by a narrow and unforgiving creed.
We need to add in particular that the story of the Jews hatred
of Christ is retold through the story of the Jew Shylocks passion
to kill Christian Antonio. And Why does Shylock burn with so
deep a desire to kill Antonio? Is it because Antonio has publicly
berated him? No doubt that is part of it, but that is not what is
emphasized. Shylock says,

I hate him for he is a Christian,

The Merchant of Venice

But more for that in low simplicity

He lends out money gratis and brings down
The rate of usance here with us in Venice.
If I can catch him once upon the hip,
I will feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him.

As I pointed out previously, this is the first use of the word

Christian in the play, which is very suggestive. Shylock hates
Antonio because he is ruining Shylocks business with his Christian
kindness, a motive similar to the Pharisees hatred of Christ for
envy. It is Antonios good works that win Shylocks hatred, just
as Jesus good works provoked the Pharisees jealousy.
Another parallel to the Pharisees passionate hatred is seen
when Shylock learns that Antonios ships have wrecked. Although
Shylock is the man who calls for law and justice, he rejoices at
Antonios trials, even thanking God for his enemys misfortune in
direct contradiction to Solomons instruction in Proverbs 24:17.
Shylock elatedly cries out, I am very glad of it: Ill plague him;
Ill torture him: I am glad of it.
After the time for Antonio to repay the loan is past and Shy-
lock has demanded his bond, Shylock meets Antonio in the street
with the jailer. His greeting is memorable:

Gaoler, look to him: tell not me of mercy;

This is the fool that lent out money gratis:
Gaoler, look to him.

Shylocks perverse hostility toward Antonio comes to even

fuller expression during the trial, which means that in the trial
scene the associations between Antonio and Christ, and Shylock
and the Pharisees are made abundantly clear. The whole of Act
IV, Scene I is intended to evoke the viewers memory of the trial
and crucifixion of Christ.
Lecture Five

When the trial begins, the Duke asks Shylock to show mercy.
He adamantly refuses. When he is asked his reasons for denying
mercy, he rejects the question, responding:

So can I give no reason, nor I will not,

More than a lodged hate and a certain loathing
I bear Antonio, that I follow thus
A losing suit against him. Are you answerd?

Bassanio offers Shylock double the money that Antonio bor-

rowed, but Shylock turns it down with stunning words, If every
ducat in six thousand ducats were in six parts and every part a
ducat, I would not draw them; I would have my bond. making
it clear that even more than money, this man loves revenge. As
covetous as we have seen Shylock to be, he would rather commit
the legal murder of Antonio than have double the money or
even far more.
It is at this point that Duke in shock exclaims, How shalt
thou hope for mercy, rendering none? And Shylock responds in
Pharisaic fashion, What judgment shall I dread, doing no wrong?
As the Duke proceeds with the trial, he invites into the room
a young doctor of the law. It is Portia in disguise, to whom the
Duke supposing her to be an expert in law commits the
conduct of the trial. The young doctor of law begins by calling
on Shylock to show mercy. Like the Pharisee that he is, he asks
why he must be merciful, and so Portia addresses Shylock on the
virtue of showing mercy.

The quality of mercy is not straind,

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:

The Merchant of Venice

Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes

The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest Gods
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much
To mitigate the justice of thy plea;
Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
Must needs give sentence gainst the merchant there.

To this eloquent plea, Shylock responds in words that are once

again reminiscent of the Jews in the Gospels,

My deeds upon my head! I crave the law,

The penalty and forfeit of my bond.

After Bassanio has renewed his offer for far more money than
what was owed, the young doctor addresses Shylock,

PORTIA: Shylock, theres thrice thy money offerd thee.

SHYLOCK: An oath, an oath, I have an oath in heaven:
Shall I lay perjury upon my soul? No, not for Venice.

Shylock is hypocritically responding again as if law, justice, and

Lecture Five

righteousness were his real concern. We are reminded here of the

passages in the Gospels where Jesus rebukes the Pharisees for using
religion as a pretext for their own purposes and glory. Although
in the case of the Pharisees, the false oath was not necessarily a
means of making illicit gain, the combination of a hypocritical
oath with a matter of money is enough to elicit the association
between Shylock and the Pharisees. We are also reminded of the
Jews pretense to justice in giving Christ a trial, in accusing him of
blasphemy and rebellion against Caesar, and of their scrupulous
observance of the Sabbath, while they are committing the murder
of their Messiah.
Shylock himself explicitly alludes to the trial of Christ when
he says, in a passing statement during the trial of Antonio, that he
would rather have his daughter married to any one of the heirs of
Barabbas than to a Christian.
When Portia finally admits that Shylock has the right to take
a pound of Antonios flesh, she asks Shylock to be charitable and
have a surgeon ready to stop the wounds so that Antonio does not
bleed to death. Shylock demands whether such a thing is provided
for in the bond to the very end demanding the letter of the law
in opposition to even the most minimal charity and mercy. The
evil of his demand is even more exaggerated by Portias final plea
for mercy. Even if Shylock hated Antonio and wished to kill him,
one would think that at the last moment when it was time to insert
the knife, he might be willing to relinquish. Instead, Shylock is so
overjoyed at the thought of obtaining his revenge against Antonio
that he feels no guilt, no hesitation. He seems to be unaware of
his own perversity.
The contrast with the spirit of Antonio could not be more
complete. When he determines to suffer quietly the rage of his
insane enemy, Antonios submissive speech reminds us of the

The Merchant of Venice

I do oppose my patience to his fury,

and am armd to suffer,
with a quietness of spirit,
The very tyranny and rage of his.

When Bassanio offers to die in his place, Antonio responds

by comparing himself to a ram ready for slaughter, alluding to the
famous prediction of the Messiahs death in Isaiah 53 though
there is a contrast also, since Antonio compares himself to a weak
and sickly ram. When it comes time for Antonio to die, he is still
courageous and generous in heart, encouraging Bassanio not to
feel guilty about the way things have turned out, professing his
love and friendship to the end.
All of these allusions to the Gospel accounts of Christ and the
Pharisees constitute unambiguous associations. Antonio is linked
with Christ and Shylock to the Pharisees of Jesus day. All of this
patently confirms what we saw when we considered the general
structure of the play. We conclude that the story of Antonio and
Shylock should be regarded as a retelling of the Gospel. The
play is a like a parable which aims to edify as well as to entertain.
People watching the play are reminded of the practical everyday
meaning of the Gospel doctrines they celebrate each Sunday in
their worship.
The conclusion of the trial in particular illustrates one of the
central truths of the Reformation, the fact that law cannot save,
that by the law we only stand condemned. When the young doc-
tor pronounces the sentence against Antonio, and Shylock is just
ready to insert the knife, we see how the law is defeated by the law.
Since the bond only made provision for flesh and not for blood,
the young Judge commands that no blood may be drawn in the
process of taking the flesh. Strict application of the law defeats
the man who depends upon the law.
Now Shylock is ready to take the money instead of his bond,
Lecture Five

but it is too late, he has already refused the money in open court.
There is no turning back. In Portias words:

For, as thou urgest justice, be assured

Thou shalt have justice, more than thou desirest.

The Jew gets pure unmitigated justice, which is what he asked

for. He claimed that he had not offended, but as Portia says, the
process of the trial has made it clear that all he really sought was
the life of Antonio. The law not only made it impossible for him
to extract the cruel penalty that he had in mind, it also demanded
of him his property and life. Jewish legalism has failed to obtain
its purpose, but it has failed not by mercy contradicting or flout-
ing the law. There is no antinomianism here. The law is upheld
wholly. Shylocks hypocritical attempt to use the law to commit
murder is overcome by means of the strict application of the law.
In addition to what I have shown above, I need to add, finally,
that people in Shakespeares day could only have seen the trial and
the whole debate going on here as a sort of allegory. It is not at all
realistic enough to be taken seriously as a picture of a true court
and trial. The legal reasoning and the means by which Shylock is
defeated in court would not have been impressive to lawyers of
Shakespeares day any more than they are to lawyers in ours. More
than that, Shylocks case would have been thrown out of any court
in Europe without a moments hesitation. The Duke would not
have needed the help of an especially wise counselor to deal with
this sort of case. If the court scene were intended to be realistic,
it would have been an utter failure. This is not to mention the
absurdity of a supposedly realistic scene in which Bassanio is not
able to recognize his own newly wed wife.
When we note the Biblical parallels and consider the conflict
between the Jew and the Christian as typology, the meaning of the
play becomes clear. And the absurdities that would arise in a real-

The Merchant of Venice

life situation are tolerable because they are part of an allegory and
serve a literary purpose. The play is setting before us the contrast
between Jewish legalism and Christian mercy. When the Jew is
condemned by the very law that he trusted in a New Testament,
Gospel theme the Duke and Antonio offer him mercy, though
only moments before Shylock spurned to show even the slightest
mercy to others. The result of Antonios mercy is that Shylock
must consent to become a Christian and, in effect, recognize his
daughters conversion and marriage.
Once again, we see a central truth of the Gospel in the New
Testament, for Paul prayed for the conversion of Israel and made
the question of Israels unbelief one of the main themes in the
book of Romans, the book in which he expounds the basic truths
of the Gospel. The conversion of Shylock is not anti-Semitic; it
is an expression of the New Testament hope that all Israel shall
be saved through faith in Christ.

E. Interpreting the Allegory

I trust that it is clear enough now that the play as a whole and
in the details is designed as an allusion to the Bible, specifically to
some of the main themes of the book of Romans and the story
of the crucifixion of Christ. But some interpreters of Shakespeare
have complicated matters further. They agree in seeing Biblical
allusion as structuring the entire story, but they deny that Shake-
speare is simply telling us the story of the Gospel. They see his
story as offering a more complex message, one that includes irony
and that suggests themes that contradict the theme of the Christian
Church inheriting the Scriptures and promises God gave to Israel.
In other words, certain details of the play are seen as under-
mining a Christian message. One often-quoted example is the
hostility that Antonio expresses toward Shylock when Shylock
complains of the mistreatment he has received.
Lecture Five

Shylock says,

You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog,

And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine,
And all for use of that which is mine own.

Antonio responds,

I am as like to call thee so again,

To spit on thee again, to spurn thee too.

Is this really a Christian response? Is Shakespeare suggesting

something here about Antonio that contradicts the picture of him
as a representative of what is good in Christianity?
Also cited is the fact that in the end, the Christians make
money from the verdict of the trial. Not only does Antonio escape
the debt he owes to Shylock, he is allowed to use half of Shylocks
wealth. Is the Christian ideal being expressed in a play in which
the Jew is robbed and the Christians get away with the money? Is
it perhaps the case that Shakespeare includes these sorts of ele-
ments to suggest that the Christians have not been fair to the Jews?
Steven Marx sees the final act as something other than a
Christian celebration.

The marriage of Christian and converted Jew is stained

by cynicism, the holy retreat claimed by Portia turns
out to be a falsification of the truth of her spying on
the husband to whom she had given full trust only to
discover his betrayal of their pledge, the opening mel-
ancholy of Antonio is never relieved, and the music of
the spheres so eloquently evoked by Lorenzo is unavail-
able to those who remain in a naughty world, whether
Belmont or Venice.8
8 Marx, Shakespeare and the Bible, p. 123.

The Merchant of Venice

More important than these apparent complications is the one

suggested by Rene Girard one of the most profound literary
interpreters of the 20th century and a thinker whose perspective
is distinctly Christian. In a book published in 1986, he expressed
the view that Shylocks speech threatening revenge is decisive. He
believed it gives us the key to the play.
When asked what good Antonios flesh would be, Shylock

To bait fish withal: if it will feed nothing else,

it will feed my revenge. He hath disgraced me, and
hindered me half a million; laughed at my losses,
mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains,
cooled my friends, heated mine
enemies; and whats his reason? I am a Jew. Hath
not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs,
dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with
the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject
to the same diseases, healed by the same means,
warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer,
as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?
if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison
us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not
revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will
resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian,
what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian
wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by
Christian example? Why, revenge. The villany you
teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I
will better the instruction.

Lecture Five

Girard commented:

Between Shylocks behavior and his words, the relation-

ship is never ambiguous . . . . In the passage on revenge,
he alone speaks a truth that the Christians hypocritically
deny. The truth of the play is revenge and retribution.
The Christians manage to hide that truth even from
themselves. They do not live by the law of charity, but
this law is enough of a presence in their language to drive
the law of revenge underground, to make this revenge
almost invisible. . . . The Christians will easily destroy
Shylock but they will go on living in a world that is sad
without knowing why, a world in which the difference
between revenge and charity has been abolished.9

On Girards reading, the Christian message of the play is

hollow at best. Rather than offering a story about the Gospel
and its relevance for everyday life in our world, the play criticizes
the Christianity of modern Europeans. It is not that they have
inherited the Old Testament and the Gospel of the New. Rather,
European Christians have destroyed the Gospel of love by their
lust for revenge. On this reading, Antonio and Shylock differ only
in the means by which they pursue their ends and in their self-
consciousness about what they are doing. Shylock comes off as
the superior man, even though he is defeated by the hypocritical
To make this reading of the play work, one must exaggerate
the importance of one speech, while neglecting or distorting the
numerous details I pointed out above, not to mention the main
theme of self-sacrificial love. If Shakespeare had intended some-
thing like Girards message, the clearly drawn analogy between
9 Rene Girard, To Entrap the Wisest, in Shakespeares The Merchant of Venice, ed.
Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House, 1986), p. 96, quoted in Marx, Shakespeare
and the Bible, p. 113.
The Merchant of Venice

Antonio and Christ would be virtually blasphemous. All of the

obvious depiction of self-sacrificial love would be a sham. The
entire play would be an ironic exposure of hypocritical Christianity.
Apart from the fact that it would hardly make good entertainment,
it is doubtful that Shakespeare would preach that kind of message
through carefully drawn characters. Irony is usually depicted by
villains or clowns.
However, Girard is right to draw attention to Shylocks speech.
Revenge is a major theme in this play and in other plays as well.
And Shakespeare certainly does address the problem of Christians
taking revenge in Shylocks speech. It is also correct to see that
speech as virtually a sermon to the Christian audience, one that
might hit hard in the hearts of many.
The problem is how this speech is to work in the play. Is it
intended to suggest that Antonio cannot tell the difference between
revenge and charity? Are we to think that Antonio is seeking
vengeance when he calls for Shylocks conversion? That is hardly
the case. Remember, Shylock had only been an inch away from
gleefully taking Antonios life. If revenge were what Antonio
sought, he would have responded in kind. Also, when Antonio
renounced his portion of Shylocks goods, he still assumed that
his ships were lost at sea and that he was a financially broken man.
The charge that Antonio or others took advantage of the situation
to enrich themselves is simply not true. Nor is there a problem
in the earlier scene at least not for people in Shakespeares day
in which Antonio answered Shylock so roughly and promised
to continue to revile him in public. The point is not that Antonio
is cruel or unkind, but that he does not tolerate evil. Like Christ
who rebuked the Pharisees in public, Antonio does not shrink
from denouncing Shylock for his usury.
It is not in Antonio or in anything that he does that we find
Shakespeare hinting that there is something wrong in the world
of European Christianity. Such an interpretation would not only

Lecture Five

undermine the positive message of the play, it would turn the

whole play into a mockery of the Gospel, betraying a cynicism so
deep that it could only come from one who opposed the Christian
faith. Nothing in Shakespeares plays suggests that he would write
such an anti-Christian play.
What, then, about Shylocks speech? Shakespeare does seem
to be preaching, but if we look to Antonio for the key to his
message, we miss it. Shakespeare has a different character for
the purpose, Gratiano. Gratiano is a friend to both Antonio and
Bassanio. He marries Portias maid and so shares the blessing
of marriage with Bassanio, and at the trial of Antonio, he stands
with Bassanio on the Christian side. However, apart from the
fact that he gives away his wifes ring in gratitude to the person
he believes to be the judges young clerk, he never goes through
anything like a death experience, like the more central characters.
His attitude at the trial is in stark contrast with that of Antonio.
He overflows with unrestrained glee when he sees that Shylock
has been defeated. He speaks with sarcasm and mocks Shylocks
losses. When Shylock is told to beg for mercy, Gratiano responds:

Beg that thou mayst have leave to hang thyself:

And yet, thy wealth being forfeit to the state,
Thou hast not left the value of a cord;
Therefore thou must be hangd at the states charge.

Portia later encourages Antonio to offer mercy to Shylock:

What mercy can you render him, Antonio?

Gratiano immediately offers his advice:

A halter gratis; nothing else, for Gods sake.

Moreover, even after Antonio has shown mercy to Shylock,

The Merchant of Venice

and called for his conversion, Gratiano adds his own comment
on the situation:

In christening shalt thou have two god-fathers:

Had I been judge, thou shouldst have had ten more,
To bring thee to the gallows, not the font.

Gratiano fills the role that Girard assigns to Antonio, but

rather than undermining the play, it adds to the message. The
main character Antonio shows us Christian virtue and Christlike-
ness, giving the playgoers an example to imitate. Gratiano is the
picture of what too many Christians were actually like. Shylock
did speak the truth when he said that Christians typically seek
revenge. Through the lips of the villain, Shakespeare preaches at
the audience and reminds them of another teaching from the book
of Romans. In Romans 2, Paul accused the Jews of hypocrisy,
concluding that, the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles
because of you.
In Shakespeare, this is reversed. The name of the Christian
God is blasphemed among the Jews because Christians have not
lived up to the Gospel. Shylocks stinging words about imitating
the evil that Christians taught him find their confirmation in the
malice of Gratiano. For he desires the death of Shylock, no less
than Shylock did of Antonio. Shakespeare gives us both a godly
Christian ideal and the all-too-common embarrassing reality of
Christian failure. The contrast with Antonio and Gratiano would
utterly fail of its moral purpose if Antonio were to be regarded as
merely seeking a more subtle form of revenge. What Shakespeare
has really done is call on his audience to imitate a man who sought
the conversion and blessing of his enemy. He has set before us
the ideal of self-sacrificial love. We see that the law cannot save,
but mercy and kindness can. The trick about the rings does not
offend Antonio or Bassanio, rather it reconfirms the wedding

Lecture Five

bond and allows Shakespeare to end the play with a renewal of the
wedding vows and the promise of a deeper fidelity for the future.
We should not allow our modern sensitivities to rob us of the
pleasure of this allegorical comedy. The play ends happily with
the salvation of Antonio, the forgiveness and conversion of the
villain and renewed vows of love for the newly wed couples. All
is grounded in self-denying love. The fact that this love brings
prosperity in this world is a necessary end in a play that pictures
the truth of the Gospel, for God promises infinite riches in Christ
for those who believe.

III. Conclusion

Shakespeare has written a play that shows us the daily rel-

evance of the Christian ideals of self-sacrifice, a play that preaches
to us about the evil of revenge, whether it is pursued by the
Jewish Shylock or the Christian Gratiano, and a play that exalts
the Christian ideal of marital love. There are many details that
we have not discussed which further illustrate these points, but
I hope that we have introduced the play sufficiently so that you
have a good idea what Shakespeare is doing here and also so that
you have a better idea what it means when I say that Shakespeare
wrote as a Christian.

Macbeth (I)

Lecture Six:
Macbeth Part 1

Of the four great tragedies Macbeth, Othello, King Lear, and

Hamlet Macbeth is the most plainly Christian. I do not mean that
the others are less Christian. I mean that Macbeths story comes
straight from the Bible in a manner that is so plainly evident that
no Christian should miss the allusion. Compared to Macbeth, the
other great tragedies are much more complicated.
As I pointed out in a previous lecture, Shakespeare retells the
story of Adam through the story of Macbeth. His contemporary
audience would not have missed the allusion that many literary
critics and college professors in our day energetically deny. This
denial needs to be understood, so before we turn to our own study
of Shakespeares play, we will briefly acquaint ourselves with the
kind of interpretations commonly presented to college students.

I. Denying the Allusion to Adam

Ian Johnston is an English professor whose lectures are

available on the internet. Though he offers valuable insights in
his lecture on Macbeth, he argues that a Christian interpretation of
Macbeth probably does not work, even though there are what he
calls some strong suggestions of a Christian morality at work.
Why is the Christian interpretation rejected? Because, he points
out, the overt Christian belief system is not insisted upon, in-

Lecture Six

stitutionalized Christianity is not present in the play, and, in his

opinion, there is a sense of evil as an objective existence apart
from divine purpose. In addition, Johnston sees no reference to
future divine judgment.
According to Johnston, the message of Macbeth is much more
general than a specifically Christian message, though the play does
offer insights on the nature of good and evil. He says,

I tend to see this play as insisting that the human com-

munity exists in a small arena of light surrounded by
darkness and fog. In this darkness and fog, the witches
endlessly circle the arena of light, waiting for someone
like Macbeth to respond to his imaginative desires and
perhaps natural curiosity about what lies beyond the
circle. There will always be such people, often among
the best and the brightest in the human community. So
overcoming one particular person is no final triumph of
anything. It is a reminder of just how fragile the basic
moral assumptions we make about ourselves can be. In
that sense, Macbeth, like all great tragedies, is potentially
a very emotionally disturbing play. It does not reassure
us that the forces of good will always prevail, rather that
the powers of darkness are always present, for all our
pious hopes and beliefs.1

In his lecture Johnston refers to another non-Christian in-

terpretation, that of Terry Eagleton. Eagletons extreme view is
worth quoting because it represents the kind of thinking students
in our universities are exposed to, the kind of teaching for which
parents pay tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars. Eagleton
informs us that Macbeth depicts the struggle of women on the
fringe of society against the world of male dominated civilization.

Macbeth (I)

The women win the victory by manipulation. Here are Eagletons

own words:

To any unprejudiced reader which would seem to

exclude Shakespeare himself, his contemporary audi-
ences and almost all literary critics it is surely clear
that positive value in Macbeth lies with the three witches.
The witches are the heroines of the piece, however little
the play itself recognizes the fact, and however much the
critics may have set out to defame them.2

Johnston suggests that Eagletons view is not entirely serious.

But Eagleton is, in Johnstons words, an eminent literary critic,
and like many literary critics in our day, he uses Shakespeare as a
tool to propagate ideas that may seem obvious to any unpreju-
diced reader of our day, but, as Eagleton himself said, would not
have occurred either to Shakespeare or his audience. Eagletons
view serves as a remarkable example of the utter disrespect a
literary critic may have either for the original author or for the
modern student.
Harold Bloom provides a more serious and influential non-
Christian study of Macbeth. As we might expect, Bloom is confident
that Macbeth is anything but a Christian play. In his best-selling
Shakespeare, the Invention of the Human, he writes:

Macbeth allows no relevance to Christian revelation.

Macbeth is the deceitful man of blood abhorred by
the Psalms and elsewhere in the Bible, but he scarcely
can be assimilated to biblically villainy. There is nothing
specifically anti-Christian in his crimes; they would of-
fend virtually every vision of the sacred and the moral
that human chronicle has known. That may be why Akira
2 Quoted in Ibid.

Lecture Six

Kurosawas Throne of Blood is so uncannily the most suc-

cessful film version of Macbeth, though it departs very
far from the specifics of Shakespeares play. Macbeths
tragedy, like Hamlets, Lears, and Othellos, is so univer-
sal that a strictly Christian context is inadequate to it.3
(Invention, p. 519)

Setting aside Eagleton, with Johnston and Bloom, I think we

have a good sample of the kind of reasons serious non-Christian
scholars deny a Christian meaning to Macbeth. Before I offer a
short answer for each reason, let me summarize the reasons in a
list. According to Johnston and Bloom Shakespeares Macbeth is
not a Christian play for at least the following six reasons:

1. The overt Christian belief system is not insisted

2. Institutionalized Christianity is not present in the play.
3. There is a sense of evil as an objective existence apart
from divine purpose.
4. There is no reference to future divine judgment.
5. There is nothing specifically anti-Christian in Mac-
beths crimes since they would offend any system of
6. The play is universal the implication being that the
Christian view would restrict it.

A. Responding to non-Christian Scholars

No doubt this is not an exhaustive list of reasons for rejecting

the Christian approach, but offering an answer to these reasons
should guide us in thinking about literary interpretation of Shake-
speare in general, as well as give us insight into Macbeth.
3 Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, p. 519.

Macbeth (I)

In response to the first reason for denying a Christian inter-

pretation, we must admit that it is certainly true that the overt
Christian belief system is not insisted upon, but the point is hardly
relevant. The same thing is true of the stories in the Bible itself.
Stories do not communicate overt belief systems by insisting upon
them. As Johnston must know well, that is not the way stories
work. Stories communicate belief systems by their structure, by
the development of a persons character, and through symbolism
and literary allusion. Expecting Macbeth or any of Shakespeares
plays to overtly insist upon the Christian belief system misses the
whole point of doing a play to begin with.
Besides, it would have been rather superfluous for Shakespeare
to be insisting on the Christian belief system. When the whole
society agrees on the truth of the Christian system as Elizabethan
England did, one does not write plays for the purpose of telling
the audience what it is that Christians believe. The play is a medi-
tation on what Christians know and take for granted. When the
audience takes the same belief system for granted, the playwright
can too. What Shakespeare actually does in his story is allude to
other stories, especially the story of Adam and Eve and the story
of Saul. This lecture will establish that the literary connections
are so many and so rich that no one who is well acquainted with
the Bible should miss Shakespeares message.
As for the second reason, it is interesting to note, as Johnston
does, that institutional Christianity is not specifically referred to in
the play. Orson Wells version of Macbeth actually introduces the
symbols of institutional Christianity to suggest the Church was
present and active in the background of the play. But Shakespeare
leaves out all references to the church and to Christian worship.
Why? I am not sure, of course, but in doing what is essentially a
psychological study of sin, Shakespeare borrows mainly from two
Biblical stories, one of which has no reference to institutions,
because in Adams day, there were none, and the other of which

Lecture Six

only seldom refers institutions of religion. It may be in part

precisely because Shakespeare is modeling his story after the Bible
that he leaves these matters out.
The third point, that there is a sense of evil as objective apart
from divine existence is an entirely subjective judgment and one
that ignores the prayers of Macduff and Malcolm, which lead to the
final victory of good over evil. In the Elizabethan and Christian
worldviews, evil is an objective reality only because it is personal.
Evil is not an abstract thing, nor can it be defined in impersonal
language. Evil is rebellion against the one and only true God.
Macbeth gains his crown through the murder of a man regarded
as a saint. Those who finally bring him down invoke the name
of God and seek His help to judge a wicked tyrant. Nothing in
the play separates evil from the persons who perpetrate it. Evil is
depicted in precisely Christian terms as personal rebellion against
a good God and His servants.
The fourth point on the list is the most surprising. I really do
not know how or why Johnston can say there is no reference to
divine judgment, for Macbeth is supremely a play about divine judg-
ment. To people in a day that still believed in eternal punishment,
eleven references to hell in a play about an unrepentant murderer
certainly constitute a reference to divine judgment. Add to these
the use of words like damnation and judgment, and the very special
language used by Lennox when he is speaking to Macbeth as they
await MacDuff s return from going to wake up the king.

The night has been unruly: where we lay,

Our chimneys were blown down; and, as they say,
Lamentings heard i the air; strange screams of death,
And prophesying with accents terrible
Of dire combustion and confused events
New hatchd to the woeful time: the obscure bird
Clamourd the livelong night: some say, the earth
Was feverous and did shake.

Macbeth (I)

The Shakespearean scholar Harry Morris explained, Eight

separate events are reported by Lennox; seven of them are among
the fifteen signs that medieval tradition proclaimed were to forerun
judgment day.4 These details and more show that Macbeth is
very much a play about divine judgment. So, to conclude with the
frenzied words of the sleepwalking Lady Macbeth, hell is murky.
The fifth argument against a Christian interpretation was
that Macbeths crimes are not specifically anti-Christian since they
would offend any system of morality. In fact, that is not quite true,
but this is not the place to go into a long discussion of morality
in non-Christian religions. Even if we admit the point, it hardly
means the play is not Christian. Murder does indeed transgress the
boundaries of almost all ethical systems. But Shakespeare is writ-
ing in a Christian age to a Christian audience about a murder that
is similar to Cains murder of Abel and Adams sin in the Garden.
Macbeths crimes are placed in the context of rich Biblical allu-
sion, defining him as moral monster in distinctly Christian terms.
With regard to the final objection, we agree with Bloom that
Macbeth is a universal play. But that is certainly not an argument
that Macbeth is therefore not a Christian play. To the contrary,
Christians insist that the Bible is the only truly universal book.
Christianity declares a universal interpretation of the world, be-
ginning with the creation of all things by the absolute God and
ending with the final judgment of all men at the end of universal
history. It is because Macbeth is based on Christian truth that it has
such universal appeal. Indeed, it is Shakespeares most Christian
plays that have the broadest and most enduring value.
All the arguments suggested against the Christian interpre-
tation of Macbeth depend for their strength upon a systematic
disregard for Biblical allusion. Once we see how Shakespeare
structures his play around Biblical stories and alludes both to the
Bible and to the Christian literature and drama of the middle ages,
4 Shakespeares Christian Dimension, p. 493.

Lecture Six

the profoundly Christian character of the play is beyond reason-

able doubt.

II. Historical Background

Before we turn to the text of the play itself to study Shake-

speares use of the Bible, there is one more topic we must address
the historical background for the play. This is important since
for some, including Naseeb Shaheen, the historical character of
the play is seen as another basis for rejecting the Biblical structure
of the play. According to Shaheen, Shakespeare is simply telling a
story that was found in Scottish history, including the temptation
by the witches. However, this is only partially true. A detailed
study of the historical background shows us that Shakespeare is
not merely relying on his sources. He is modifying them. He has
actually changed the history of Scotland to force it into a Biblical
mold. Let us take some time to see how Shakespeare does this.
Shakespeares primary source for Scottish history was Raphael
Holinsheds Chronicles of England Scotland, and Ireland published in
1577 and again in 1587.5 However, though it is true that this history
provided the background for Shakespeares play, it is important to
note that Holinsheds history tells a very different story of Dun-
can and Macbeth than Shakespeare. To begin with, Holinsheds
Duncan is not the virtuous Christ-like figure of Shakespeares play.
He is not an evil king, but he is too loose in the administration
of justice, because of which crime flourishes and evildoers go
unpunished in his realm, with the consequence that his subjects
are dissatisfied with his rule.
In the real history, the rebellion that ensues was provoked by
this fault of the king. Holinshed also records that Macbeth and
5 Shaheen, Biblical References in Shakespeares Plays, p. 621. Shaheen not only lists
Biblical references in the plays, he discusses other sources as well. The two versions
differ somewhat. They are both online and can be compared. http://www.cems.
Macbeth (I)

Banquo had previously helped the king and that they meet the
three weird sisters who prophesy to them about their future. These
details in Shakespeare do indeed come from Holinsheds history.
However, in Holinshed, the two captains together with other
Scottish leaders overthrow Duncan and make Macbeth king. In
the Scottish history, there is no murder of Duncan by Macbeth
and his evil wife. It is the Scottish lords in concert who eliminate
Duncan. Even more importantly, after Macbeth is made king, he
reigns peacefully. Consider Holinsheds account of Macbeths
first years on the throne.

The residue of misdooers that were left, were punished

and tamed in such sort, that many years after all theft
and reiffings were little heard of, the people enjoying
the blissefull benefit of good peace and tranquillitie.
Mackbeth showing himself thus a most diligent punisher
of all injuries and wrongs attempted by any disordered
persons within his realm, was accounted the sure defense
and buckler of innocent people; and hereto he also ap-
plied his whole endeavor, to cause young men to exercise
themselves in virtuous manners, and men of the church
to attend their divine service according to their vocations.

He caused to be slaine sundrie thanes, as of Cathnes,

Sutherland, Stranauerne, and Ros, because through them
and their seditious attempts, much trouble daily rose in
the realm. He appeased the troublesome state of Gal-
loway, and slue one Makgill a tyrant, who had many years
before passed nothing of the regall authority or power.
To be brief, such were the worthie doings and princelie
acts of this Mackbeth in the administration of the realm,
that if he had attained thereunto by rightfull means, and
continued in uprightness of justice as he began, till the

Lecture Six

end of his reign, he might well have been numbered

amongst the most noble princes that anywhere had
reigned. He made many wholesome laws and statutes
for the public weale of his subjects.6

According to Holinshed, then, it was only after years of

successful and happy rule that Macbeth turned to tyranny and
oppression. The stories of his consultation with the witches and
the promise that he would not be killed by any born of woman
were part of Holinsheds story, but most of the other details in
Shakespeares story were not. In particular, one of the dominat-
ing aspects of Shakespeares play is historically unfounded the
relationship between Macbeth and his lady.
That part of Shakespeares story was actually lifted from a
different part of Holinsheds Chronicle, from another part of Scot-
tish history the story of Donwald and his wife murdering King
Duffe. Roughly speaking the murder of King Duffe is similar to
Macbeths murder of King Duncan. King Duffe seems to be closer
in character to Shakespeares Duncan also. However, Donwald,
unlike Macbeth, was not a murderer without a motive. He had
helped King Duffe put down a rebellion in the land, which some
of his own relatives had joined. When he begged the king for
their lives in reward for the service he rendered, the king refused.
From that point on, Donwald and his wife were bent on revenge,
for the king had killed members of their family in spite of the fact
that they had rescued him.
This is obviously very different from the story of Macbeth,
but combined with the history of Macbeth, the two stories supply
Shakespeare with the materials to create something quite different.
Donwald and his wife slew Duffe in a manner roughly similar to
what we see in Shakespeares Macbeth. The historical Macbeth did
slay Banquo and he was a tyrant in his later years. Holinsheds

Macbeth (I)

history contains the prophesies of the witches, too. But from

these various and partly unrelated threads of Holinsheds history,
Shakespeare weaves a new garment, one that turns Macbeth into
a villain of Biblical proportions, making him a tragic hero.
We have talked about tragedy and heroes in our introduction;
let us consider briefly how Shakespeare makes Macbeth into a
tragic hero. Recall Aristotles dictums on the necessary qualities of
a tragic hero. The most important one for the story of Macbeth
is that the hero must be someone with whom we can sympathize
and identify. The power of tragedy to influence us is found in
our ability to identify with the hero so that we can see him as, in
important respects, a man just like us. His tragedy thereby becomes
relevant to us. We can be edified by his story because it is similar
enough to our life stories that we can relate to it.
On this point, the true historical Macbeth would not work.
The historical Macbeth was too much of a rough soldier from the
beginning and his fall into tyranny lacks the clarity necessary for
good dramatic representation.
To write a play about Macbeth and make it a tragedy centered
on him, Shakespeare had to transform Macbeth into a different
sort of character. He had to invent a new personality for him. He
does this by making Macbeth a good and loyal servant of King
Duncan, a brave warrior and a man so upright that his wife wor-
ries that his moral scruples will get in the way of their ambition.
If nothing else in the early scenes of the play persuades us of his
goodness, his wifes testimony about Macbeth will. Contemplating
the deed that must be done, she says to herself.

Yet do I fear thy nature;

It is too full o the milk of human kindness
To catch the nearest way: thou wouldst be great;
Art not without ambition, but without
The illness should attend it: what thou wouldst highly,

Lecture Six

That wouldst thou holily; wouldst not play false,

And yet wouldst wrongly win:

Macbeth is presented from the second scene of Act I as an

utterly fearless soldier, one who fights for his king with reckless
abandon. His valor in combat is presented in the harsh language
of medieval war, but Macbeth is not a cruel man. He is full of the
milk of human kindness. Macbeth is presented as ambitious but
not evil, a man who wants to rise, but to do so by means honest
and holy. At the beginning of the play, then, Macbeth is a man
we can respect.
But this good man, when faced with temptation, wavers.
Even here, his goodness is still apparent by the fact that he himself
is shocked by the thoughts that enter his mind. He argues with
himself and attempts to persuade himself of the evil of the plans
that have occurred to him. He even decides to drop all plans to
take the throne by force. However, by the time he has made that
decision, it is already too late, for his wife has made her decision,
too. She has prayed to be possessed by demon spirits so that she
can successfully lead Macbeth to deny his nobler self and give in
to the base temptation that lures him toward murder.
Here then, instead of the Macbeth of Holinsheds history,
Shakespeare invents a character that we can respect and sympathize
with. We can identify with a man who has all the potential to be a
worthy king in his own right. We may not be brave, noble, or kind,
but we would like to be and we naturally honor those who are. We
can feel sympathy for a character that has those qualities. When
he faces temptation and trouble, we can enter into his tragedy.
To see a man wavering in temptation does not necessarily destroy
our respect for that man. We too have been tempted. At some
point or another, we have also given in to temptation and failed.
Macbeth, therefore, is a man like us, though greater.
The way that Macbeth responds to the temptation is especially

Macbeth (I)

important. If he had simply wavered a little and then given in, we

might not respect him, but Macbeths struggle with temptation is
profound. Through his soliloquies, we are allowed to enter into
to the inner sanctuary of Macbeths soul and see the pain and
anguish he faces even as he contemplates the deed. We rejoice
when he first rejects the temptation. Later when he takes it up,
with apparent enthusiasm, we find ourselves disappointed.
As the story unfolds and we see the pain of the temptation
and the horror of the sin, we enter into the innermost working
of Macbeths mind. We realize that he is being tortured by this
temptation and his anguish of soul calls for our sympathy and pity.
None of this is part of the historical Macbeth. It is the bril-
liant invention of Shakespeares psychological and poetic genius.
Though Harold Bloom denies that the story of Macbeth is grounded
in the Bible, he offers an insight into Macbeth that can only be
properly appreciated when the play is seen as a Christian story.

The universal reaction to Macbeth is that we identify

with him, or at least with his imagination. Richard III,
Iago, and Edmund are hero-villains; to call Macbeth one
of that company seems all wrong. They delight in their
wickedness; Macbeth suffers intensely from knowing that
he does evil, and that he must go on doing ever worse.
Shakespeare rather dreadfully sees to it that we are Mac-
beth; our identity with him is involuntary but inescapable.
All of us possess, to one degree or another, a proleptic
imagination; in Macbeth, it is absolute. He scarcely is
conscious of an ambition, desire, or wish before he
sees himself on the other side or shore, already having
performed the crime that equivocally fulfills ambition.
Macbeth terrifies us partly because that aspect of our
own imagination is so frightening: it seems to make us
murderers, thieves, usurpers, and rapists.7
7 Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, p.517.

Lecture Six

What Bloom sees in Macbeth is terrifyingly true. It is true be-

cause Macbeth is another Adam and Adam is the father of us all.
No matter how noble, how dedicated, how sincere; no matter how
good we seem to be either to ourselves or our family and friends,
we are all the children of Adam. And Shakespeares England knew
that the story of Adam was the story of everyman in a way that
our day has forgotten. I believe it is only because Macbeth is like
Adam that he is as universal as Bloom sees him to be.
And it is only by rewriting the history of Scotland so that
Macbeth can become a man like Adam that Shakespeare is able to
write his universally appealing play. The historical background for
the play, therefore, does not prove that Shakespeare is not using
the Bible. It demonstrates just the opposite. Shakespeare had to
change the history of Scotland so that he could make the story
of Macbeth like the Biblical story of the fall.

III. Macbeth and Adam

Having said that, it is time now to demonstrate that Shake-

speare did indeed have the story of Adam in mind as the global
allusion for Macbeth. We have mentioned before the basic struc-
ture of the Shakespeares play. Let me begin my discussion of
Macbeth and Adam by reminding you of the general flow of the
story of the murder of Duncan, for it is only this part of the play
we are concerned with when we speak of the parallel with Adam.

A. General Structure

The play begins with satanic witches planning to tempt a man

and his wife to sin by taking the throne through murder. After
they commit the sin, they immediately hide themselves, and their
relationship begins to deteriorate rapidly. On the surface, this

Macbeth (I)

story is too obviously like the story in Genesis for us to miss the
similarities. Becoming a king is close to becoming like God. The
temptation of a husband and wife by Satan or his ministers so
evidently allude the story of Adam and Eve it is remarkable that
anyone should doubt the literary connection.
The relationship between Macbeth and his wife points to the
story of Adam and Eve in the way that Lady Macbeth gives in
first to the temptation and then encourages Macbeth to join her.
Though a more careful reading of the Biblical story in the light of
Pauls teaching in the New Testament clearly places the blame for
the fall on Adams shoulders, the common reading of the Genesis
story in Shakespeares day would have been something closer to
the temptation of the man by the woman as we see in Macbeth.
I will return to this point later.
Another aspect of the general structure of Shakespeares
play is the portrayal of Macbeth as, at the outset, a righteous and
good man. This is necessary, as we pointed out, so that the play
can develop into a tragedy, but it is also a reflection of the Biblical
story. Adam was created upright. He fell into sin through temp-
tation and his personality changed in an instant. In Macbeth, the
process of temptation is prolonged and we peer into the heart of
a man who first struggles to resist sin, but then gives in. When
Macbeth sins, he is transformed immediately, just as Adam was.
Considered in detail, the parallels are striking.
To evaluate the significance of these features of the story of
Macbeth, we have to remember that Shakespeare has rewritten
Scottish history to create his stage play. We also have to remember
that religious plays depicting the fall of man into sin were part of
the culture of the day. Keeping these two facts in mind, the general
structural features of the story alone are more than sufficient to
remind playgoers of the story of Adam and Eve.

Lecture Six

B. Striking Details

Along with the general structure of the story, six striking

details in Shakespeares play confirm the literary allusion to Adam.
Considered in the context of the larger structure, these details
enforce the reference to Adam and Eve.
First, the weird sisters in Scene 3 meet Macbeth and Banquo
and greet them with the words that tempt Macbeth to lust for the
throne: All hail Macbeth, that shalt be King hereafter. When
Macbeth learns that the sisters prophecy that he shall become
the thane of Cawdor is fulfilled, Banquo immediately responds,
what can the devil speak true? But for Macbeth the sinful urge
has already begun to swell. He says to Banquo,

Do you not hope your children shall be kings,

When those that gave the thane of Cawdor to me
Promised no less to them?

Banquo, however, warns him, Oftentimes, to win us to our

harm, The instruments of darkness tell us truths, win us with hon-
est trifles, to betrays in deepest consequence. This is a prophecy
of how the play will unfold, but it is also an obvious allusion to
Satans temptation of Adam and Eve, exactly describing the first
encounter of man and demon, even referring to the sisters as the
devil. In Macbeth, as in the Bible, Satans promise turned out to be
true in its own way, but false in a much deeper and more important
way. Adam and Eve did have their eyes opened to know good and
evil, but instead of their opened eyes exalting them to a sort of
godhood, their humanity was diminished, degraded, and defiled.
The story of Macbeth retells exactly this sort of Satanic betrayal.
Second, when Macbeth announces to his wife that he has
abandoned the plan to kill the king, his wife challenges him, calling
him a coward. To which Macbeth responds Prithee peace: I dare

Macbeth (I)

do all that may become a man. Who dares do more is none. Lady
Macbeth responds that it was when Macbeth dared to do more
that he was a man. The vital question in this emotional clash of
wills is the issue of what it means to be a man. Is a true man the
one who does his duty, or is a true man the one who dares all for
the sake of his ambition? This is almost identical to the question
of Genesis 3. Shall Adam rebel against God, as Satan suggests,
to attain the highest realization of his manhood in becoming a
sort of god, or shall he submit to Gods will and wait for higher
blessing to be bestowed in Gods way and time? When the ques-
tion of duty and ambition is tied to the question of what it really
means to be a man, we can hardly escape the allusion to the Bibli-
cal story of Adam.
The third detail involves a more specific literary connec-
tion: the transformation of Macbeths castle. This topic is little
remarked upon in spite of its meaning in the play. To see what
is happening, we need to contrast two views of Macbeths castle.
The first view is that of Banquo and Duncan as they approach
the castle in Scene 6 of Act I. There, they both comment on the
castle in language that speaks of its idyllic beauty.

DUNCAN: This castle hath a pleasant seat; the air

Nimbly and sweetly recommends itself
Unto our gentle senses.

BANQUO: This guest of summer,

The temple-haunting martlet, does approve,
By his loved mansionry, that the heavens breath
Smells wooingly here: no jutty, frieze,
Buttress, nor coign of vantage, but this bird
Hath made his pendent bed and procreant cradle:
Where they most breed and haunt, I have observed,
The air is delicate.

Lecture Six

Delicate air, heavens breath, the pendent bed and procreant

cradle of the temple-haunting martlet in this language Mac-
beths castle is compared to a temple-garden, reminding us of the
Garden of Eden in the book of Genesis and the combination of
Garden and temple language in the depiction of the heavenly city
in the book of Revelation. One commentator on Macbeth remarks
that the key words in this exchange are love and procreation. The
theme of love continues when Lady Macbeth greets the king at
the gate as the kings humble servant. The castle itself is a virtual
temple and Lady Macbeth is a fair and noble hostess.
To some, it may seem that we are reading too much into these
words, but Naseeb Shaheen confirms this reading (though perhaps
he would not agree what I am suggesting about the meaning).
Shaheen points out that in the words I just quoted Shakespeare is
alluding to Psalm 84 verses 1 and 3.

How lovely is Your tabernacle,

O LORD of hosts!
Even the sparrow has found a home,
And the swallow a nest for herself,
Where she may lay her young
Even Your altars, O LORD of hosts,
My King and my God. (Psa. 84:1, 3)

Shakespeare has substituted the martlet for the sparrow, but

the allusion to Psalm 84 is clear. We see then that at this point
in the play, Macbeths castle is like the temple of God, a place of
rest and peace.
The description of the castle as recommending itself to the
gentle senses is so brief that we might miss the details, but it is
significant not only because of the irony that both Duncan and
Banquo would meet their deaths in this pleasant place, but more
importantly because of a different vision of the castle that ap-

Macbeth (I)

pears later. Immediately after Macbeth has murdered the good

king, MacDuff comes knocking at the castle gate. In Act 2 Scene
3, the porter who has been awakened by the knocking arises to
open the gate. He is apparently still a little drunk from the revelry
of the night before.

Heres a knocking indeed! If a

man were porter of hell-gate, he should have
old turning the key.

Then, when he ought to say something like, Who is there in the

name of Macbeth, the Lord of this castle, he says instead:

Whos there, i the name of


The half-drunk porter, totally unaware of the slaughter of

the king, nevertheless rightly describes his castle as hell and his
lord as Beelzebub. Rather than have his Adam and Eve cast out
of the temple garden that was the Macbeths castle, Shakespeare
has the castle itself undergo a miraculous metamorphosis from
paradise to prison, from heaven to hell. The pleasant air of the
martlets abode now reeks with the stench of blood and death.
To add emphasis here, the porters speaking of hell seems to
be alluding to a Miracle play from the middle ages, The Harrowing
of Hell. Hell in this play, well-known to Elizabethan audiences,
is pictured as a castle whose door is guarded by a porter. Christ
comes to the door and knocks with a loud knocking. Though
Shakespeare does not incorporate the story directly in his play, he
does have a castle called hell with a porter and someone knocking
loudly at the door. Someone familiar with The Harrowing of Hell
could hardly help but recall the miracle play, especially since the
man knocking at the door is Macbeths judge.

Lecture Six

Fourth, the depiction of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth just

after their fall into sin recalls one of the most important dramatic
details of the Biblical story of the fall. Immediately after stealing
the forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve heard the sound of God in
the Garden and fled for fear.
In the same way, Macbeth and his Lady hear sounds that strike
them with terror. Shakespeares text calls repeated attention to this
important detail. When Act 2 Scene 2 opens, Macbeth is still in
the room with Duncan, and Lady Macbeth is on the stage, at first
boasting of her boldness. But she hears a sound and is startled.
It was an owl, the fatal bellman. Soon we hear Macbeth shout
from within the room, Whos there? What, ho?
When he leaves Duncans room and comes to the hall where
his wife waits for him, Macbeths first words are, I have done the
deed. Didst thou not hear a noise?
A little later in the conversation, Macbeth says:

Methought I heard a voice cry Sleep no more!

Macbeth does murder sleep, the innocent sleep,
Sleep that knits up the ravelld sleeve of care,
The death of each days life, sore labours bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great natures second course,
Chief nourisher in lifes feast,--

Shortly after this, the sound of knocking is heard at the gate and
Macbeth says:

Whence is that knocking?

How ist with me, when every noise appals me?

Confession of his fear at the noise of the knocking is followed

by his recognition of the monstrous horror he has committed.

Macbeth (I)

What hands are here? ha! they pluck out mine eyes.
Will all great Neptunes ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas in incarnadine,
Making the green one red.

When Lady Macbeth returns from Duncans room and hears

the knocking, she urges Macbeth to flee with her. She hears the
knocking again and urges him to change his clothes. I have not
noted every reference to sounds or noise in this scene, but I have
pointed out enough to show how emphatic the theme is. Both
Macbeth and his wife jump at every sound because like Adam and
Eve they fear judgment.
The fifth detail of the account that points to the fall of man
in the Garden of Eden follows without delay. Like Adam and
Eve, Macbeth and his wife rush to hide themselves and put on
clothes that disguise their guilt. The fact that the man knocking
at the door is MacDuff, the one who will finally bring judgment
on Macbeth for his crimes, completes the picture. As in Genesis,
the judge is knocking at the door and Macbeth and his wife flee
the scene to hide themselves by changing clothes.
The sixth detail is evident in the ensuing picture of the rela-
tionship of Macbeth and his lady. Their love fails immediately on
the accomplishment of the murder. In the Biblical story, Adam
turns on Eve and blames her for his sin, no longer treating her
with the tenderness displayed when she was first given to him
as a wife. In Macbeth, Shakespeare depicts the alienation of the
husband and wife from the time of the murder. In the end, Lady
Macbeth drifts into insanity and commits suicide.
We have, then, a story about a husband and wife, tempted by
the devil to steal a throne. The woman gives in to the temptation
first and shares her sin with her husband. When they have com-
mitted the awful deed, they are both startled by noises and rush to

Lecture Six

hide and change their clothes. Meanwhile the castle, in which they
lived, depicted originally as a garden temple, has changed into the
devils dungeon. By doing what a man should not do, Macbeth in
seeking to become more than a mere man has unmanned himself.
He and his wife, who seemed so much in love and so united in the
contemplation of their sin, psychologically split from one another
the very instant the foul deed is done.
There is so much here that replicates the story of Adam and
Eve and it is presented with such psychological and analytical
depth, I cannot imagine anything but an ingrained prejudice that
could so blind a critic that he could miss the allusion. If we recall
what Steven Marx said about the lack of Biblical knowledge in
modern academia, I suppose we should also consider the possibil-
ity that some professors and critics are so ignorant of the Biblical
story they do not recognize the references. However that may be,
it should be clear to the unprejudiced reader that Shakespeare uses
the Biblical story of Adam and Eve as a paradigm to structure his
story of the murder of Duncan.

IV. Other Allusions

This does not mean however, that there are no other allusions
in this part of the play. Quite the contrary. In addition to the
role that the story of the fall plays as a paradigmatic story, giving
structure to the first part of Macbeth, other allusions tie the story
of Macbeth to the Bible and thus further intensify the Biblical
character of the story.
One of them occurs in Macbeths soliloquy in Act 1 scene 7,
when Macbeth begins with these words:

If it were done when tis done, then twere well

It were done quickly

Macbeth (I)

Shakespeare alludes here to John 13:27 where Jesus speaks

to Judas Iscariot, that thou doest, do quickly. Later in this same
soliloquy, Macbeth speaks of the nature of the crime being exag-
gerated since he is a relative. Though Macbeths words contain no
direct or specific allusion to the story of Cain, Cain is the arche-
typical murderer in the Bible and especially the brother-murderer.
Thus, Macbeths murder of Duncan is linked with both
Cain and Judas. And like the crimes of Cain and Judas, the evil
of Macbeths murder of Duncan will be published abroad by the
very angels. In Macbeths words:

Besides, this Duncan

Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been
So clear in his great office, that his virtues
Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against
The deep damnation of his taking-off;
And pity, like a naked new-born babe,
Striding the blast, or heavens cherubim, horsed
Upon the sightless couriers of the air,
Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye,
That tears shall drown the wind.

The cosmic horror that Macbeth here imagines derives from

the assumption of the times that kings are anointed by God
certainly a Biblical idea and therefore their rule is sacred. To
unrighteously rebel against the kings authority is a crime against
God Himself. To murder a godly king for nothing other than
rank ambition is to overturn the rule of God in the land and
bring upon oneself the heaviest curse known another aspect
of this soliloquy.
One scholar associates Macbeths words here with Dantes
picture of the ninth circle of hell, the deepest and most awful
place reserved for the very worst sort of men, including those
who betray kinsman, guests, and lords.
Lecture Six

Shakespeare has Macbeth tell us that he knows what he is

doing, and that it cannot but be rewarded with Gods most vio-
lent wrath. Yet, he chooses to do it. He sees that he is betraying
a good master, rebelling against a godly king, and murdering his
brother. But Macbeth is willing to follow Cain and Judas to the
deepest pit of hell simply for the sake of a crown.
Though the allusion to the passage in the Gospels does not
come until much later in the play, Macbeth already sees that he has
given his eternal jewel to the common enemy of man, reminding
us of Jesus words: What shall it profit a man, though he should
win the whole world, if he lose his soul? (Mark 8:36)
Another Biblical story is almost certainly in the background
of this part of the play. Even when there are no specific allusions,
anyone who reads the Bible regularly will make certain associa-
tions. Shakespeares audience knew the Bible well and I think
that when they saw a story about an evil king and queen, which
is what Macbeth and his wife become, they would naturally make
the association with Ahab and Jezebel. Here was a Biblical king
spurred on by a wicked queen. Ahabs stole Naboths vineyard by
producing false witnesses against him and murdering him, though
all was done according to law. It is very different, of course, from
Macbeths offense, but the story of Ahab and Jezebel is the story
of husband and wife conspiring to murder the innocent and later
violently perishing for their sin. Certainly, it resonates in the

V. Shakespeare and Milton

In closing this part of the discussion of Macbeth, I would like

to point out how very much Shakespeare differs from John Milton,
who wrote about 70 years after him. I am assuming, of course,
that Shakespeare is alluding to Adam and Eve in Macbeth and even
giving us something of a meditation on original sin through a

Macbeth (I)

play in which Macbeth and his wife recapitulate the fall of man.
Miltons poem is more directly Biblical.
In Paradise Lost, Milton pictures Adam and Eve working
separately in the Garden at Eves insistence. This gives the ser-
pent opportunity to deceive her while she is alone. After eating
the forbidden fruit, she tells her husband what she has done and
Adam, filled with love for his wife, decides to eat the fruit so that
he will not be separated from his beloved. In Miltons version, then,
Adams sin may be said to be an idolatrous love for his beautiful
wife, but there is something noble about Adam sacrificing himself
for love. In effect, Eve gets the blame for the fall of man into sin.
In Shakespeares play, Macbeth and his wife share the blame
for the crime in a way that makes both culpable. It is true that in
Shakespeares play, Lady Macbeth goads her husband to murder
when he is reluctant, but we never come away feeling it is her fault
he fell into sin. Macbeth responded to the witches temptation
before his Lady knew anything of it. Her words would not have
impelled him to such a deed if there were no lust and ambition
in his heart to begin with. As the play progresses, we discover,
perhaps to our surprise, that Macbeth is much more aggressively
evil than his wife and in spite of her bold words before and im-
mediately after the murder, she continues to suffer guilt long after
Macbeth has ceased to feel anything.
The result is that though Shakespeare is only alluding to a
Biblical story rather than poetically retelling it like Milton, he is
actually much closer to the original story. For Paul tells us that the
woman was deceived, but Adam was not. In the Biblical perspec-
tive, the fault lies solely with Adam. There is nothing noble in what
he did. Nor did the woman sin first with Adam only imitating
later. When we understand Genesis 3 in the light of what Paul
said, the best interpretation is something like this: Adam and Eve
stood together before the tree of life when the serpent addressed
Eve from his lurch in the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

Lecture Six

Adam instantly understood the implications of the serpents words,

but Eve did not. Rather than protecting and helping Eve, Adam
decided to use her as a test case, so to speak. He would let her eat
of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and see
what happened. If all were well with Eve, then he would try. If
this is the correct interpretation of the passage, the fall occurred
when Adam decided to use Eve as a test case. Adam realized what
the serpent was doing and betrayed his wife. His eating the fruit
of the tree merely confirmed that decision. By contrast, Eves
eating was partially innocent in the sense that she was deceived.
Shakespeare is closer to this Biblical picture of the fall than
Milton is, since Macbeth initiates the temptation of his wife by
sending her the letter about the three sisters prophecy. Later
when he seems to be intent on abandoning the plan, Macbeth
declares to his wife he will go no further. But when she argues
with him about it, rather than stand up to his wife and resist, he
allows himself to be persuaded by her. Though her language is
emotionally charged and her attack on his manhood powerful, we
have to say that in the end, her words were persuasive because she
spoke to his true desire. In effect, she provided him the strong
reasons that he lacked, but was searching for.

VI. Conclusion

What we have seen in this first lecture on Macbeth is that

Shakespeare is dramatically portraying a story of the fall of man
into sin. Through the story of Adam and Eve we understand what
is happening in the story of Macbeth, while at the same time, the
story of Macbeth offers a sort of commentary on the fall of man,
a meditation on original sin.
Meditation on original sin provides insight into all sin, for we
all face temptation. We all stumble, as James said, in many things.
We all repeat Adams fall in the Garden, though for most of us

Macbeth (I)

neither our sins nor their consequences come close to Macbeths.

Shakespeare warns us of the darkness in our hearts. He
exposes the hypocrisy of every man who falls into temptation by
removing all real excuses for Macbeth. He terrifies us by showing
how Macbeths soul was tormented with the most exquisite agony.
And even more by showing us how a man with a conscience can
destroy that inner voice. Macbeth is a horror story because it depicts
sin and its most awful consequences to us so vividly that we can
see our own sins as clearly as Macbeth saw his blood stained hands.
We, too, are afraid to think on what we have done, but Macbeth
forces us to do so. The play confronts us with the fact of Gods
wrath and judgment for those who, like Macbeth, do not repent.
In so doing, it calls us not to trade our souls for the whole world.
It reminds us that the devils promises are a lie.

Lecture Seven

Lecture Seven:
Macbeth Part 2

In our last lecture, we concentrated on the first part of Mac-

beth, up to the murder of Duncan. We demonstrated that Shake-
speares allusion to the story of Adams fall was both detailed and
profound. We also saw that Shakespeare changed the history of
Scotland in order to create the links that made his allusion work.
Shakespeares allusion to the story of the fall was confirmed
by many details, including the striking image of the judge knock-
ing at the door while Macbeth and his wife are frightened by the
sound. Of course, they run, hide, and cover themselves to escape
judgment. From this point on, we will proceed on the assumption
of these Biblical structures and allusions. We must now ask, how
does the rest of the play connect with the first part of the play?
Does Shakespeare allude to any other Biblical stories after Act 3,
Scene 1 after the story of Duncans murder is completed?

I. Macbeth and the Story of Saul

I suggest that Shakespeare borrows from another famous

Biblical story, the story of Saul. The most obvious link is that King
Saul, like Macbeth, was told that he could not pass the throne on
to the next generation, filling Saul with jealousy. What makes the
allusion to Saul relevant to our understanding of Shakespeares
Macbeth is that in the Biblical story of King Saul, we have one of

Macbeth (II)

the most profound psychological portrayals of a man falling deeper

and deeper into sin, until finally he gives himself to the devil.
We will consider the connection between Saul and Macbeth
through the following three questions. First: What is the rela-
tionship between the stories of Adam and Saul that might have
led Shakespeare to put these two stories together? Second: Did
Shakespeare really use the story of Saul to construct the second
part of the story of Macbeth? Third: How does this help us
understand Macbeth?

A. Adam and Saul

We will begin with the first question: What is the relation-

ship between the stories of Adam and Saul that might have led
Shakespeare to put these two stories together? To understand the
literary connections between Adam and Saul, it is necessary for us
to be able to read the Bible from the perspective of what might
be called a Biblical theology of literature. I have already spoken
about this in previous lectures, but it may be good to review very
briefly some of the basics.
Literary art depends heavily on allusion. As we explained
before, literary allusion is not simple embellishment of a text; it
is a reference to an earlier text that provides a framework or back-
ground for understanding the later text. If a story alludes to an
earlier story, it means that unless we read the two stories together,
we cannot really understand the latter story very deeply. In the case
of literary allusion within the Bible, each story illumines the other.
Thus, we cannot really follow the story of the Biblical book
of Ruth, unless we know the story of Abraham, the story of the
Exodus, and the stories of the era of the Judges. The first verses
of Ruth allude to these prior stories as a basis for understanding
the book of Ruth, but also providing a sort of commentary on
the earlier stories. Reading all the stories together places the story

Lecture Seven

of Elimelech and his family into a rich theological and historical

context that is necessary for a proper interpretation of Ruth.
Robert Alter, the literary scholar we quoted earlier, offered
this basic observation.

In the Bible . . . the matrix for allusion is often a sense

of absolute historical continuity and recurrence, or an
assumption that earlier events and figures are timeless
ideological models by which all that follows can be

This is an important observation, but I want to quibble a bit

about the wording. The expression timeless ideological models
may create misunderstanding. The Bible does not have a static
view of history, as if all apparent change in history were simply
moving around in circles, repeating the forms of timeless ideo-
logical models. On the contrary, history in the Bible is progres-
sive. However, it does not develop in a simple linear way, as if
there were no repeated themes. Rather than linear progress in a
straight line, the Bible presents history as a spiral. History should
be seen as gradually moving upward toward a goal, progressing
according to a plan that involves the repetition of basic themes and
paradigms. The word commonly used in Biblical interpretation to
refer to these themes or paradigms is typology. As we have seen,
Joseph was type of Christ because the life of Joseph anticipated
the life and work of Christ in many important respects. Joseph
and many other typological persons, places and events show that
God has planned history so that there are underlying links between
men and events. Literary interpretation of the Bible attempts to
discover the connections between men and events that are presup-
posed in the Biblical story.

1 The World of Biblical Literature, p. 117.

Macbeth (II)

The most basic and important literary and theological link in

the entire Bible is the link between Adam and Christ. Paul speaks
of it in Romans 5 and in 1 Corinthians 15 two of the most
theologically pregnant passages in the New Testament. Adam and
Jesus are each the representative head of a race of men. The first
Adam led mankind into sin. The last Adam, Jesus, saves those in
Him from sin and destruction.
Jesus is the beginning of a new humanity, the progenitor
of a new race of man. But he is not the only one in the Bible
who fills that kind of role. Noah is the most obvious example of
another man who is a new Adam. In Genesis 9:1-7, God gave
him essentially the same promise and same commission that He
had originally given to Adam. And all of us alive today are his
descendants, just as we are Adams.
Noah is not the only new Adam. Every representative
leader is an Adam of a sort. This is especially true of men who
are the beginning of a covenantal era. Noah, Abraham, Moses,
and David are new Adams in a special way. Other leaders are also
new Adams, including King Saul. All secondary leaders resemble
the covenant era leaders like Moses and David, but Sauls story
is complicated by sin and failure. In that sense, he is very much
like the first Adam. To appreciate Sauls position in the history
of the covenant people, we need to recollect the situation at the
beginning of the book of 1 Samuel.
Throughout the period of the Judges, Israel had sinned by
compromise with idolatry. She repeatedly found herself enslaved
to the nations around her. When the book of Samuel begins, the
failure of Israel has reached a climax, as can be seen in the sinful-
ness of Elis sons. In 1 Samuel 2:12, the Bible states directly that
they were worthless men who did not know the Lord. However,
they are the priests of God in Shiloh and the representative lead-
ers of the covenant people. Their perversion of the worship of
Israel was the sin that brought covenant judgment on the land.

Lecture Seven

When the Ark of the Covenant, which represented the presence

of God in the tabernacle, was taken into battle, the Israelites were
defeated and the Ark was taken into captivity. From this point on,
the tabernacle was never really reestablished. Not until Solomon
built the temple was there a complete restoration of the central
sanctuary in Israel. The time from the loss of the Ark to the build-
ing of Solomons temple is a period of transition, during which
the Mosaic covenant era gradually fades away until with David and
Solomon a new kingly era begins.
Part of the beginning of the new era was the peoples request
for a king recorded in 1 Samuel 8. When the people rejected the
leadership of Samuels sons and asked for a king like other nations,
God said that they had not rejected Samuel, but God Himself.
However, God gave them a king in spite of the perversity of
their request. He gave them a king that represented their spiritual
condition. That is not to say that God gave Israel a poor king.
He gave them a good king, but one who was spiritually unstable,
just like the nation.
When we first meet Saul, he is a good man, earnestly serving
his father. Though tall and handsome with the appearance of
a leader, he is not proud or ambitious. 1 Samuel 10 tells us the
story of how Samuel found him and anointed him king over the
people, after which Saul was changed into a new man and filled
with the Holy Spirit. He even prophesied with the prophets of
Israel. This was a glorious and spiritual start for Saul, analogous
to the initial blessing of man in the Garden and the blessing that
was abundantly bestowed upon Israel when she came into the
land of Canaan. Temptation and sin did not come until after Saul
became king and even enjoyed Gods blessing upon his kingship.
After his public installment, his first test as king, recorded in
1 Samuel 11, was when he had to confront Nahash, an Ammonite
king who had attacked Jabesh-gilead. Sauls victory in this battle
confirmed his kingship and proved that he was indeed the Lords

Macbeth (II)

anointed and filled with the Spirit of God. It is no accident that

the evil king was named Nahash, the Hebrew word for serpent
used in Genesis 3. Saul defeated his Nahash and showed the spirit
of a true king when he forgave the men who spoke against him
before the battle.
At this point in the story, Saul is an ideal king: physically im-
pressive, spiritually gracious, and militarily powerful. It appeared
that Israel had a king better than the kings of the nations. Then
Saul faced a test of faith. We read in 1 Samuel 13 that he was told
to wait for Samuel to offer sacrifice before his next battle with the
Philistines, who had assembled an army of 30,000 chariots, 6000
horsemen and foot-soldiers beyond number to meet Israels army
of 3000. When the time appointed for the sacrifice appeared to
have passed and Samuel did now show up, Saul, fearing to lose the
support of his soldiers, made the offering himself. Of course, at
that very moment, Samuel appeared and rebuked Saul for trans-
gressing the boundaries of his God-given authority. This was the
first of three falls. The next two are recorded in the following
two chapters.
In 1 Samuel 14, we read of Sauls second fall, beginning with
his foolish command to the army not to eat until sundown. He
placed a curse on anyone who ate, but his son Jonathan, who had
already gone to fight, had not heard it. Jonathan ate honey and
encouraged others to do so, too. When they told Jonathan of the
curse, he knew immediately that his father had made a bad decision.
Later Saul found out that someone had broken his command, but
instead of realizing that he was foolish, he sought out the guilty
party. When he discovered it was Jonathan, he intended to put
him to death, but the people saved Jonathans life. Sauls attempt
to condemn the righteous rather than repent of his own folly was
the fall in this case.
Sauls third fall, recorded in 1 Samuel 15, was his failure to
obey Gods command to utterly destroy the Amalekites. Rather

Lecture Seven

than devoting all the spoils of war to God, as he was commanded,

Saul spared the pagan king and took the spoils of war for a feast. It
was on this occasion that Samuel spoke the famous words obedi-
ence is better than sacrifice. For the second time, Samuel declared
that the Lord would take the kingdom away from Saul and give
it to another more worthy (1 Samuel 13:13-14; 15:26-28). From
this point on, Sauls life was all downhill. He never repented of
his sins. Instead, he became progressively evil as he determined
to resist Gods judgment against him.
We will return to Sauls post-fall life later. For now, the
point is that Saul sinned and fell in a manner that can be seen as
a repetition of the fall of Adam. What may seem like a forced
interpretation to Bible readers in our day, even after considering
some of the details of Sauls life, would not be regarded as forced
by a well-educated man in Shakespeares day. They read the Bible
typologically, as we explained before. Whether or not Shakespeare
and men in his day noted the specific analogies between Saul and
Adam that I have just explained, they would have considered Saul
analogous to Adam for the simple reason that he was a prominent
leader of men who fell into sin and brought ruin on his kingdom.
From the typological perspective, all leaders are like Adam in the
sense that they are representative heads. When we consider lead-
ers ethically, some are like the old Adam, others are like the Mes-
siah. Many leaders, like David, are like Adam in some respects
and Christ in others.
Assuming Shakespeare read the Bible with the presupposition
that there are typological relationships among men, we should
expect that he noticed those relationships more readily than we
might. The fact that he is writing dramas that portray the fall
of great men suggests that it was a subject to which he devoted
considerable thought, and a theme he would notice in the Bible.
As we will see when we study Henry V, Shakespeare thought of
English history as basically similar to the history of Israel. We

Macbeth (II)

should assume, therefore, that he read the story of Saul with some
sensitivity. What makes this especially important is that Sauls
story not only recapitulates the story of Adam, it also portrays
the psychology of sin in some depth, which is what Shakespeare
is doing in Macbeth.
I hope that I have shown enough of a relationship between
the stories of Adam and Saul that you can see how Shakespeare
might have associated them. The question is, of course, did he?

B. Saul and Macbeth

That is our second question: Did Shakespeare really use the

story of Saul in constructing his story of Macbeth? To answer
this question, we have to take account both of the general story
line and of specific Biblical allusions. Before we begin, let me ask
another question: Why should Shakespeare borrow from another
Biblical story in addition to the story of Adams fall?
The answer is that in the Biblical story of Adam, there is
nothing that corresponds to the story of Macbeth after he gains
the throne. Adams naming of Eve indicates his trust in God and
implies repentance for his sin. The story of Adam is not a story
of progressive sin and misery, but of new life received from a
gracious God. If Shakespeare is going to write a drama about a
man who steals the throne and then progressively becomes more
wicked, he will have to find Biblical background in a different story.
The story of Saul, of course, perfectly fits what Shakespeare is
doing. In Saul, the story of the fall of an Adam progresses from
unrepentance to greater sinfulness and finally to insanity and dam-
nation. This is a story that can provide a paradigm for Macbeth.
Let us consider, then, the general story of Saul and Macbeth.
We have already seen that the story of Saul from the time that
Samuel found him in 1 Samuel 9 to the time of his third fall in 1
Samuel 15 is a classic story of the fall of a great man. In 1 Samuel

Lecture Seven

16, the story of David begins and from there to the end of 1
Samuel, we shift back and forth between Saul and David, though
the central concern of the text is David. However, though the
focus is on David, the psychological and moral deterioration of
Saul, seen through both his actions and his words, constitutes a
major theme. We see the subtle changes that occur in Sauls per-
sonality over time. His relationship to God as seen through his
relationships with the people around him, especially Samuel and
David, is the key to the development in his character. Saul does
not unburden his heart, telling us exactly what he is thinking, but
his deeds speak loudly and clearly.
Thus, in the last half of the book of 1 Samuel, there is a story
of a king who has been told by a prophet that his throne will not
endure. The king refuses to submit to that judgment. Rather than
receive Gods judgment as just and accept David as the next king,
Saul tries to prevent David from taking the throne. At first, he
plans for David to die at the hands of the Philistines and sends him
to bring one hundred Philistine foreskins as a bride price. When
David succeeds, Sauls fear grows, especially when he sees that his
daughter actually loves David. In the end, Saul realizes that God
was with David but that only intensifies his fear and enmity:
When Saul saw and knew that the LORD was with David, and
that Michal, Sauls daughter, loved him, then Saul was even more
afraid of David. Thus Saul was Davids enemy continually (1
Sam 18:28-29). From a Biblical perspective, this is an astonishing
statement. Saul sees and knows that the LORD is with David.
Instead of being humbled or fearing God, realizing that God is
for his enemy only makes Saul more determined to kill David.
After the failed attempt to get David killed by the Philistines,
Saul orders his confidants to kill David. However, Jonathan inter-
venes and persuades his father not to hate David. Saul even swears
an oath that David shall not be put to death. Once again, David
seems to enjoy favor at court. But when war with the Philistines

Macbeth (II)

gives occasion for Davids superiority to be publicly manifested

again, Sauls jealousy and fear revive. An evil spirit from the Lord
oppresses him and he tries to kill David himself. When that fails,
Saul sends men to Davids house to kill him. However, Sauls
daughter saves David. Again, David escapes and again Sauls ha-
tred deepens. His dissatisfaction and frustration plunge him into
madness. He has fits of rage.
Without going into any more detail, suffice it to say that Saul
plots Davids death with his advisors and chases David all over the
land of Israel with his army, hoping to thwart Gods plan. Saul
descends so deeply into perverse rebellion against God that he
employs Doeg the Edomite to slay the priests of the city of Nob.
Sauls insanity is seen not only in his fits of rage and murder, but
also in the strange and sudden change in his attitude toward David
on two occasions when David spares his life. He seems to regain
his sanity for just a moment and he acknowledges David as the
true heir to the throne. But that state of mind does not last long.
Very soon, Saul is again leading an army to kill David.
What we have here is a story of a man who fell like Adam,
refused to repent, and then progressively deteriorated. His rebel-
lion against God gradually became more self-conscious. At the
same time, his behavior became more irrational. In the end, Saul
became another Pharaoh insofar as he persecuted Gods servants
and murdered the innocent. When he fell away from God, Saul
joined the ranks of the tyrannical kings who served Satan.
If we consider his whole life, the story of Saul can be divided
into three parts. First is the story of Saul up to his enthronement,
when he is a promising young man. Second is the story of his
fall beginning shortly after he is crowned. Third is the story of
his increasing rebellion and depravity, beginning after his third fall
and Gods decisive rejection of him as king.
In a very general way, this is the story of Macbeth. He, too,
started out as a good man and a faithful servant of his king. This

Lecture Seven

part of the story is very brief in Macbeth, but it is essential to a

proper understanding of the play. Then, in the second part of the
story, which is given more attention, Macbeth was tempted to sin
and fell. He did not repent. Instead, as we see in the third part of
the story beginning after his fall, which is the largest part of the
play, he declined into progressively more self-conscious sin and
rebellion. Macbeth became a tyrant who murdered the innocent
in his vain quest to keep the throne for himself. Like Saul, his life
ended when he is killed in battle.
Of course, Saul and Macbeth differ in many respects. This is
also part of Biblical typology. Typology is not made up of cookie
cutter replicas, but of basic similarities that link two otherwise very
different stories. The general link between Macbeth and Saul is
established by the fact that both of them are kings who sinned
like Adam. Also, both of them refused to repent and exhibited a
similar post-fall progressive development of rebellion against God
and the same sort of psychological deterioration.
These are some of the general considerations that lead one
to think of Saul, but there are more specific Biblical allusions that
confirm that Shakespeare has Saul in mind. I believe Macbeth
contains two very clear allusions to the story of Saul, as well as
another that is less obvious.
The first allusion comes when MacDuff has just discovered
the murder of King Duncan. He cries out that most sacrilegious
murder hath broke ope the Lords anointed temple and stole thence
the life oth building. Referring to a king as the Lords anointed
may appear to be an example of borrowing Biblical language in a
more or less casual fashion, without trying to establish a connec-
tion between the two stories. And it is true that that MacDuff s
expression does not tie together the two characters who are called
the Lords anointed Duncan and Saul for Macbeth is the
character like Saul. However, the link to the story of Saul is rela-
tively clear all the same.

Macbeth (II)

Those who read their Bible carefully will know that reference
to the king of Israel as the Lords anointed occurs first and most
frequently in the story of Saul. The expression naturally calls
this king to mind as well as his relationship with David, on whose
lips references to Saul as anointed by God occur 9 times in our
modern Bibles (1 Sam. 24:6,10; 26:9,11,16,23; 2 Sam. 1:14,16,21).
In the Geneva Bible that Shakespeare most frequently used, the
expression occurs 9 times altogether, 7 times with reference to
Saul and twice with reference to David.
Shakespeares allusion to the story of Saul with this expres-
sion provides a double irony. First, Macbeth, in contrast to David,
had no legitimate reason to fear or hate his king. If David had
killed Saul when he had the chance to assault him in the cave in
the mountains of Engedi, no one would have blamed him, for he
would have killed an unjust king who was seeking his life without
cause. But David, rather than kill Saul when his men tempted him
to do so, protected Sauls life from the others and then risked his
own life when he confronted Saul. Macbeth and David, therefore,
are brought into contrast. Each of them was in a situation in which
the king was given into his hand. Each of them was tempted by
others to kill the king. Each of them stood to win the throne by
the death of the king. However, David resisted the temptation.
Macbeth, having no provocation but his own lust, gave in to the
temptation and killed the Lords anointed. The link established
with the story of Saul serves to emphasize the evil of Macbeths sin.
The second irony is that in Macbeth, the one who killed the
Lords anointed becomes like Saul. Just at the place where the plot
of Macbeth shifts from being a story of Adams fall into a story
of the spiritual havoc wrought by sin, the allusion to the story of
David and Saul introduces us to the story of Saul with this double
irony and sets us up for what is to follow the story of a jealous
king who tries to murder his God-appointed successor.
There is another saying by Macbeth that is not by any means

Lecture Seven

an obvious allusion to the story of Saul, but which seems to me

to be quite likely pointing to the Bible. I am referring to the place
in Act 3 where Macbeth and his lady are alone after his wild fits
have driven his guests away for the night. Macbeth says, blood
will have blood. Then he goes on to describe natural catastrophes
that call for revenge for murder. The allusion here to the story
of Cain and the blood of Abel crying out from the ground for
vengeance against him (Gen. 4:10) is relatively obvious. I think
most Elizabethans would notice this allusion without trouble.
But the story of Saul includes a similar though less familiar
example of a natural catastrophe calling for vengeance. The in-
cident occurred long after Saul was actually dead during the reign
of David. We read of it in 2 Samuel 21:1, Then there was a
famine in the days of David three years, year after year; and David
inquired of the LORD. And the LORD answered, It is for Saul,
and for his bloody house, because he slew the Gibeonites. This
story is not as well-known as the story of Cain, but it is one of the
most explicit Biblical examples of blood for blood and perhaps
the only case of murder by a specific individual, other than Cains,
associated with some sort of natural disaster.
No doubt, it requires considerable subtlety to notice this al-
lusion, if it is one, but Shakespeares allusions to the Bible include
many verses not commonly referred to. He obviously knew the
Bible very well and often alluded to relatively obscure passages.
To suggest an allusion to Saul here does not seem to me to be
pressing things too far especially since this is associated with
Macbeths first public example of insane rage, one of the themes
that ties his story with Sauls.
Further confirmation is added by two narrative links to the
story of Saul that follow almost immediately after the reference
to blood. One is Macbeths determination to pursue his ambition
without restraint: for mine own good, all causes shall give way.
Like King Saul, Macbeth passed the point where the fear of God

Macbeth (II)

or man restrained him from doing evil. In Sauls case, the most
profound manifestation of his rebellious evil was the murder of
the priests and Gibeonites. For Macbeth, it was the murder of
MacDuff s wife and children, which followed soon after his words
about blood. The second link is Macbeths determination to visit
the weird sisters. This is associated with the story of Saul and
his visit to the witch of Endor because Macbeth here takes the
initiative to find them out and consult with them.
All of the narrative associations in the last part of Act 3 scene
4 point clearly enough to Saul that Macbeth speaking of blood
requiring blood should probably also be understood as an allusion
to the story of Saul.
The clearest allusion to the Biblical story of Saul occurs in
Act 4, Scene 1 where the witches remark on how amazed Macbeth
appears and decide to cheer Macbeth up with entertainment and
perhaps a meal. Naseeb Shaheen notes the allusion to 1 Samuel
28:21-25 where the witch of Endor seeing how distressed Saul is
offers him food to strengthen him. This allusion stands out not
only because it passes Shaheens strict criteria for Biblical allusion
but also because it establishes the larger narrative link between Saul
and Macbeth. The passage in which Shakespeare alludes to Saul
and the witch of Endor includes prolonged reference to Macbeths
jealousy of Banquo, making the thematic link between the two
stories clear. Sauls jealousy of David and his fear of disloyalty
among the people of Israel is linked with Macbeths jealousy of
Banquo and his fear of the Scottish lords.
Since this indisputable literary link seems to remove any
lingering doubts one might have about the larger narrative link, it
seems to me we are entitled to consider other less clear allusions
and speculate more fully on the connection.
There is, however, one problem. The lines in Shakespeares
text in which the allusion to the witch of Endor occur may be an
interpolation. Since this is not universally agreed upon and I am

Lecture Seven

not competent to make a judgment of my own on the subject, I

can only mention the problem in passing. For my own part, since
the larger story fits this allusion well and the passage seems to fit
Shakespeares intent, even if the lines are an interpolation, they are
an intelligent one so that it hardly detracts from my larger point.
Also, remember it is not certain that the lines are an interpolation.
We have, then, two very clear allusions to the story of Saul,
one to Saul and the witch of Endor, and another in the expres-
sion the Lords anointed. The third allusion blood will have
blood is not as clear, but definitely possible. When these spe-
cific allusions are considered in the light of the flow of the story,
I think we have sufficient reason to assume that Shakespeare is
using Saul as his paradigm for Macbeth.

C. Understanding the Allusion

Assuming, therefore, the association between the two stories,

let us take a few minutes to consider how the parallel themes work
out. The overriding theme of the last part of Macbeth is Macbeths
jealousy of Banquo. The witches told Banquo that his sons would
be kings and that he would actually be happier than Macbeth. Once
Macbeth had the throne, he realized that it was vain to possess it
for a few short years only to lose it to Banquos heirs at his death.
His lust for the throne grew and he sought to ensure it for the
future as well. He seems to be thinking of his heirs, but ironically,
he has no children. Perhaps we should assume that Lady Macbeth
was not so old that there was no hope of a child.
Macbeths worry about MacDuff is related. MacDuff did
not come to his banquet a breach of respect that Macbeth
could not forgive since his throne was not so certainly established.
Before he had taken the throne, Macbeth realized that his own act
of violently stealing the crown carried with it the special danger
of his own example being imitated. He had, in effect, invited

Macbeth (II)

others to do to him what he had done to Duncan. Therefore, he

saw any apparent show of disloyalty or dissatisfaction as a threat
to his reign. This, of course, is part of the Biblical psychology of
sin. The sinner is tormented inwardly by his own sins, not only
as he remembers them, but also because he begins to view other
people in the light of what he has done. He suspects others of
being like himself and begins to fear them.
Fear as a theme is emphasized by the frequent repetition of
the word fear and related terms. For example, the word fear in
various forms, including afeard, and afraid, occurs 53 times
in the play. An interesting example occurs not long after Duncan
is murdered, as Macbeth begins to fret for his newly won throne.
In Act 3 Scene 1 while they are still planning the banquet for the
evening, Macbeth muses.

To be thus is nothing,
But to be safely thus.
Our fears in Banquo stick deep,
and in his royalty of nature reigns
that which would be feared.

In addition to his fear of Banquos natural qualities, he is disturbed

that he has taken the throne from Duncan just to give it to Ban-
quos heirs.

They haild him father to a line of kings:

Upon my head they placed a fruitless crown,
And put a barren sceptre in my gripe,
Thence to be wrenchd with an unlineal hand,
No son of mine succeeding. If t be so,
For Banquos issue have I filed my mind;
For them the gracious Duncan have I murderd;
Put rancours in the vessel of my peace

Lecture Seven

Only for them; and mine eternal jewel

Given to the common enemy of man,
To make them kings, the seed of Banquo kings!
Rather than so, come fate into the list.
And champion me to the utterance!

Of course, this is intolerable. Macbeth must therefore arrange

for the death of Banquo and Fleance. Only then can Macbeth
enjoy the banquet celebrating his enthronement, which no sooner
begins than the murderers return to report their partial success.
When Macbeth hears that Banquo has been killed but Fleance
escaped, his response shows his mental instability.

Then comes my fit again: I had else been perfect,

Whole as the marble, founded as the rock,
As broad and general as the casing air:
But now I am cabind, cribbd, confined, bound in
To saucy doubts and fears. But Banquos safe?

Shortly after this, he discovers that Banquo is not safe after

all. He is more dangerous than ever, now that he is dead. Mac-
beth is horrified at the sight of Banquos ghost at the feast and
raves before the crowd of assembled nobility, ruining the festivity.
When he has calmed down some at the end of Act 3, Scene 4, he
speaks to his wife. Three things are of note: First, he asked her
if she noticed that MacDuff refused to attend their celebration.
Second, he expressed his determination to visit the weird sisters.
I am bent to know by the worst means, the worst. Third, this
is immediately followed by his determined refusal to repent and
turn back.

For mine own good,

All causes shall give way: I am in blood
Steppd in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go oer:

Macbeth (II)

His fear of MacDuff is confirmed by the weird sisters who

warn him to beware MacDuff, bringing the three parts of this
speech together. The witches warning confirms that MacDuff
stands in Macbeths way and must therefore be bloodily dealt with
which Macbeth does without a moments hesitation, sending
his men to kill any of MacDuff s family and servants who are at
his castle.
One of the ironies of Macbeth is that his visit to the witches,
unlike Sauls, gave him a temporary relief from his fear, though it
actually plunged him into greater peril. For Macbeth is deceived
into thinking that he is in no danger, even though he is warned
about MacDuff. He pursues his bloody policy therefore with a
hardhearted confidence. At the same time, the witches did con-
firm that Banquos heirs would inherit the throne. This aspect of
their words increased the mental torture Macbeth had to endure.
Another theme in the play that suggests the story of Saul
is the witches pronouncement that fair is foul and foul is fair.
The witches seem to be cursing the whole of Scotland. In fact,
they can be said to express a principle that applies everywhere in
all time when wicked men rule. The reversal of fair and foul typi-
fies the Satanic disruption of Gods purpose for human authority
in the world.
This theme not only covers the murder of Duncan when
everything that seems fair is actually foul: Macbeth and his lady,
their beautiful castle, the devotion of Macbeth to his lord, and so
on. The reversal of fair and foul covers the later part of Macbeth
also in the opposite manner, when that which is officially foul is
actually fair. Duncans two sons are thought to have committed
the murder. MacDuff is on the list of rebels against the throne.
Thus, the play points to the larger political truth that with
the rule of the wicked, good and evil are reversed. The king, who
should be fair, is foul and all of his enemies, the officially foul, are in
truth, fair. This parallels the relationship between Saul and David.

Lecture Seven

Saul is officially fair, but in fact foul. David is an outlaw, forced

to flee Sauls army and judgment. Like Malcolm and MacDuff,
David has to hide among foreigners to be safe from the raging king.
The one who is fair is foul in the sight of Israel and her official
court. David is even part of the Philistine army which eventually
kills Saul, though David has to leave the army before the battle.
The reversal between what is publicly and officially fair and
that which is essentially and truly foul can be seen as a description
of the story of Saul and David and serves as another link between
Shakespeares play and the Bible. Shakespeare is teaching us a
basic truth that appears repeatedly in Scripture. Whenever there
is tyranny and oppression, what is officially fair is foul and what
is hated by the foul tyrant is the fair and good. We see it in the
story of Pharaohs oppression of Israel, in the story of Ahab and
Jezebel, and especially in the story of Herod and his attempted
murder of the Messiah.
Fair is foul describes the Biblical Satan, who began as
Lucifer, an angel of light. Paul says that he continues to appear
as an angel of light to deceive the immature and unwise. The
Pharisees as Jesus described them were like whitewashed tombs
which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of
dead mens bones and all uncleanness (Mat. 23:27). Judas Iscariot
was a faithful disciple of Jesus and was trusted to take care of the
purse. Outwardly, he was the one managing the work of charity,
helping the poor. Inwardly, he was the thief and betrayer of Jesus.
Foul is fair describes many of the prophets and most espe-
cially the Messiah. Prophets like Jeremiah were often considered
criminals or outcasts in their own day. More than any of them,
however, the Lord Jesus was foul in the way the world sees things.
A mere carpenter from Nazareth, with none of the glories of this
world to attract men to him, condemned as a criminal and crucified
by the Romans. To the Jewish leaders, none was fouler than the
Sabbath breaking Jesus. And he died a death befitting his crimes.

Macbeth (II)

The apostles after Him suffered as He did, many of them being

arrested and even put to death as criminals for their faith in Him.
The world hated Jesus and He told us that the world would hate
His followers, too. Until the world is converted to Christ, fair and
foul will be more often reversed than right.
To be able to judge right and wrong accurately requires
wisdom, for outward appearances often deceive us in a world in
which outwardly noble women like lady Macbeth pray secretly to
the demons for the spiritual powers of evil, and outwardly honor-
able men like Macbeth exude the fragrance of the flower when
they are actually the serpent under it.
The witches chant is an excellent example of Shakespeare
summarizing a Biblical theme in unforgettable language. Who
can forget the lines, Fair is foul and foul is fair? Like Hamlets,
To be or not to be, the vocabulary is simple, the language quite
direct, and the impact profound. These are words to meditate
on. In a way, the whole play provides us with a commentary on
the witches words.

II. Lady Macbeth

We should also reflect on Lady Macbeth and her part in the

story. There is no one in the story of Saul that corresponds to
Lady Macbeth. Other Biblical stories provide background for
her, especially the story of Ahab and Jezebel. Like Jezebel, Lady
Macbeth urged her husband to sin and planned the murder that
would give him what he sought. Similarly, Herodias pushed Herod
to the murder of John the Baptist when he was reluctant. Both
of these women illumine the character of Lady Macbeth in the
first part of the play.
However, neither Jezebel nor Herodias is recorded as having
qualms of conscience when their wicked deeds were done. Lady
Macbeth, who urged her husband not to think on what they had

Lecture Seven

done, lest it drive them mad, is the one who cannot escape the
guilt of their sin. Before the murder of Duncan, it was Macbeth
who appeared unstable. While he was struggling with guilt and
contemplating the evil of the crime, she was praying to the demons
to become possessed. When he was reluctant, she rebuked him
in the sharpest language. Immediately after the murder, it is he
who is racked with guilt, while Lady Macbeth like Pontius Pilate
ridding himself of the responsibility for the murder of Christ
confidently asserts that a little water will clear them of the deed.
Ironically, the two characters switch at the very point when
Macbeths guilt has reached its climax. After the vision of Banquo
at his feast, Macbeth never feels overwhelming guilt again. At least,
he never expresses any feeling of guilt. Lady Macbeth, however,
falls apart. She cannot, after all, wash her hands clean from Dun-
cans blood. She actually feels what Macbeth feared when he said
that not even all the water in the ocean could make him clean.
Shakespeares Lady Macbeth is not at all based upon the real
historical character. Rather, she is in part based upon the wife
of Donwald, the Scottish lord who killed King Duff. She is re-
ported to have encouraged her husband to kill the king and take
the throne. Also, there is a literary reference to a classical source,
Senecas Medea.2 She also prayed for the demons to unsex her,
to take away her soft feminine nature, though in her case it was to
enable her to murder her own children.
But neither Medea nor Lady Donwald is definitive of the
whole character or experience of Lady Macbeth, any more than
the Biblical characters of Jezebel or Herodias. We might say that
Lady Macbeth is what Eve would have become if she had not
repented of her sin, but there is something else in Macbeths wife.
Dependent as she is on her husband, Lady Macbeth is more like
another aspect of Macbeths personality than a second character.

2 Macbeth (Oxford: Oxford University Press), p. 77.

Macbeth (II)

She so completely understood his ambition and so deeply sympa-

thized with it, that it became hers even more than it was his. She
pushed him to realize what she knew and felt was really in him,
but which might not come to full expression without her help.
She extinguished from her breasts the milk of human kindness
the kind of human sympathy that might have prevented him
from attaining what he desired.
In the same way, when they had both committed the deed,
Lady Macbeth felt and realized in her own experience her husbands
guilt. At first, he expressed it. It appeared also in his vision of Ban-
quo, but somehow Macbeth himself learned to suppress his guilt.
His conscience became hardened. But his wife was different. Her
deep sympathy with his innermost workings means that she fully
feels the guilt, the insane rage, and the fears he cannot overcome.
At the same time, Macbeths hardness of heart also isolates him
from the only one who truly knows him. The joys of the throne
that Lady Macbeth looked forward to have lost all meaning, since
she has lost the man for whom she risked everything.
All of this is to say that her guilt, fear, and insanity are the
image of his. Just as she felt his ambition more intensely than he
himself, so also she is more wholly undone by the psychological
burden of the murder of Duncan than he. Though she is not
directly a part of the other murders, she obviously knows about
them and cannot face the constant shedding of blood. She reveals
another aspect of the psychology of guilt and the anguish of an
unrepentant and unforgiven sinner. Her pain is another side of the
tortured conscience of Macbeth, the man with whom she became
one. Her character, therefore, supports Macbeths and fills out
Shakespeares exposition of how sin rots the soul.

Lecture Seven

III. Conclusion

This study of Macbeth is near a reluctant conclusion, for there

is so much more to consider. Let me summarize what we have
done and then offer a comparison of Shakespeares Christian play,
Macbeth, with a modern pagan adaptation of his play. In these
lectures, I have presented the case for a global and comprehensive
allusion to the Biblical story of the fall. I have tried to show that
Shakespeare alludes both to the story of Adam and Eve sinning in
the Garden and to the Biblical story of Saul. We can be relatively
certain that Shakespeare, reading the Bible as an intelligent 16th
century man, would have seen the story of Saul as a repetition of
the fall, and his story of Macbeth as another permutation on the
same basic theme.
Reading Shakespeare in this fashion may strike some people
as forcing him into a Christian mold, but that is because of mod-
ern and postmodern preconceptions. In fact, it is simply reading
him in the Christian context of Elizabethan England. Our own
day has become so secular and biased against a Christian reading
that we have lost contact with the real Shakespeare. To explain
Macbeth to students without referring to the story of Adam and
Eve which is the way most teachers in our day teach Macbeth
misses Shakespeares meaning. A truly literary allusion, which
is what Shakespeare is doing, creates a necessary link between
the two pieces of literature, in this case Macbeth and the story of
the fall of man. Without the connection to the Bible, Macbeth is
reduced to a merely psychological tragedy.
What I mean can be seen if we contrast Akira Kurosawas
movie Throne of Blood with Shakespeares Macbeth. Kurosawas
movie takes Macbeth and transforms it into the story of a samurai
lord in Japans middle ages. It is set in a time roughly contemporary
to that of Macbeth. In spirit, it is profoundly different. Anyone
interested in Macbeth should view Kurosawas movie.
Macbeth (II)

It is a complete success, in my opinion, as an adaptation of

Macbeth into the Japanese context. A Japanese viewer who knew
nothing of Macbeth could watch the movie and not feel that he was
watching a foreign story forced into a Japanese mold. Kurosawa
recreates Macbeth as a true samurai. In so doing, he makes the
story so Japanese that the original context can be forgotten. It is
no longer essential to the message.
What makes Throne of Blood a success as a movie, however, is
what also makes it so much less than Shakespeares play. I have
repeatedly emphasized Robert Alters point that allusion is one
of the most important features distinguishing literary art from a
mere story. Shakespeares play haunts us not simply because of his
powers of psychological analysis. The allusion to Adam and Eve
and the rich Biblical background make Shakespeares play great.
Macbeth is Adam. Initially he was a good man, perhaps
better than many of us. However, when he was tempted, he fell
into sin and he allowed that sin to ruin his soul. A good man was
transformed into a monster. Evil worked in Macbeth like an ad-
diction. The throne he won through iniquity had to be maintained
through more of the same. Blood calls for blood. The murderer
has to defend himself by committing more murder.
If this were merely the story of a man who lived a long time
ago in Scotland, it might serve as a morality play, a story to warn
us not to be sinfully ambitious. But that is all. That is as far as
Kurosawas movie can go. The movie begins and ends with a
Buddhist-sounding chant warning about pride and ambition.
Kurosawas movie is a parabolic admonition about the danger of
arrogance. And since we all tend to be proud, that is important.
But Shakespeares play, by alluding to the story of Adam and
Eve, does much more than offer us a lesson in morality. When
we see the shocking depravity into which a good man may fall,
we are seeing a story about who we are, or at least, who we could
become. Adam is our father. We are like him because we have

Lecture Seven

inherited his nature. We may not sin in so spectacular a manner

as Macbeth, but we know by bitter experience the dehumanizing
effects of sin and the power of sin to fundamentally ruin a man.
We have, in our own smaller ways, imitated Adam, too. By allud-
ing to the Biblical account of the fall, Macbeth addresses the root
of sin that abides in all, and, so, is far more than a mere morality
play. Macbeth offers us a vision into the human soul. It is a nar-
rative exposition of the reality and power of the sin that is in all
the children of Adam.

Henry V (I)

Lecture Eight:
Henry V, Part 1

Henry V is one of Shakespeares most popular plays about one

of one of Englands most popular kings. Kenneth Branaughs film
version of Henry V shows that this play has not lost its appeal in
our day and that it works as an independent story in its own right.
But it was not originally an independent story. It was part
of a series of plays that began with Richard II, who reigned from
1377 to 1399, and ended with the story of Richard III, who reigned
from 1483-1485. The series of plays includes the stories of Kings
Richard II from the house of Plantagenet, Henry IV, Henry V, and
Henry VI from the House of Lancaster, and Edward IV, Edward
V, and Richard III from the House of York. Richard IIIs life
and his play end when he is defeated at the battle of Bosworth by
Henry VII, the first of the Tudor kings and the grandfather of
Shakespeares Queen, Elizabeth.
Thus to appreciate Shakespeares Henry V, we have to read
it in the light of the longer historical series of plays of which it is
one. However, we also need to study Henry V in the light of two
other important perspectives. First, to the degree it is possible to
enter the mindset of a different time and place, we need to try to
understand something of the thinking of people in Shakespeares
day. In particular, how would people in Shakespeares day have
viewed Henry V? What would they have thought about Henrys
war? Second, for understanding Shakespeares history plays I
Lecture Eight

think even more important than the history of the time is the
contemporary perspective on writing history, for Shakespeares
history plays are taken from what were the popular, standard ac-
counts of English history in his day.
After taking time to consider Henry V from each of these
three perspectives the series of history plays in which it plays
a role, the thinking of people in Shakespeares time about war and
peace, and history writing in Shakespeares England we will be
ready to look into the text of Henry V.

I. Henry V in the Context of Shakespeares History


Let us begin, then, by trying to get a picture of the historical

series in which Henry V is a central and important play. Shake-
speares plays on English history begin with King John (who reigned
from 1199 to 1216, just one year after he signed the Magna Carta.
Then, Shakespeare skips Henry III and the first three Edwards.
He takes up the history of England again with Richard II (1367-
1400). From Richards time onward, Shakespeares plays cover the
history of the English monarchs all the way down to the defeat
of Richard III in 1485. Henry IVs reign is covered in two plays,
named imaginatively Henry IV parts 1 and 2. Henry was born in
1367. The two plays cover the time from his becoming king by
deposing Richard II in 1399, until his death 1413. Henry IV is
followed by Henry V but Shakespeares play covers only one major
aspect of the short reign of Henry V his battles in France.
Actually, Henry V really did not have time to do a whole lot
else. He was only king from 1413 until 1422. Henry V was fol-
lowed by his son Henry VI, a good man, but a very unsuccessful
king. Henry VI was king from 1422 until he was deposed in 1461.
The tragedy of his years on the throne is the subject of three plays.
Henry VI, parts 1, 2, & 3. These plays end with Edward IV sitting
Henry V (I)

on the throne he has taken by force. The next play in the series
is Richard III, which depicts the rise of Richard to the throne and
his sudden fall into the everlasting doom into which Henry VII,
as Gods servant, delivered him. But Henry VII does not get his
own play. Shakespeare skips him and goes to Henry VIII, which
is the last play in the series.
As you can see from the dates, the first play, King John, is not
really part of the series; neither is Henry VIII. Apart from these
two plays, Shakespeares English history plays are limited to the
period from Richard II to Richard III the history before and
including the era known as the Wars of the Roses, from about
1400 to 1485.
Within this series, the history of Richard II is especially
important for understanding Henry V, because Henry Vs father,
Henry IV, is the one who deposed Richard II. Peter Leithart offers
a succinct statement of the historical background.

After the death of Edward III, England faced not only

war with France but also dynastic disputes at home.
You may recall that Henry VIIIs break with the Roman
Church began because his first wife could not give him
a son and he worried what would happen if he died
without a male heir to the throne. Edward III had the
opposite problem, leaving behind a troubled land because
he had too many sons. The rules of succession were
fairly fluid in Edwards time. Normally the crown passed
to the eldest son, and, if he died, to the next oldest,
and so on. Ambitious younger sons frequently sought,
however, to push past their older brothers. Edward IIIs
oldest son, and heir to the throne, Edward the Black
Prince, was killed fighting in France the year before his
father died. Richard, son of the Black Prince, succeeded
Edward III, but other parts of the family were ambitious
to gain the throne.

Lecture Eight

Richard II (1377-1399) was only ten years old when

Edward III died. For the first part of his reign, he was
ruled by his relatives. As he came to maturity, he tried
to free himself from the control of his family, and al-
lied himself with certain favorites that gained power at
court. Not surprisingly, this made his relatives angry,
as they saw their own influence waning. Five Lords of
the realm, among them Henry Bolingbroke, brought
charges of treason against the favorites. In the event,
the Lords Appellant, as they were called, won the case
and were able to secure their influence at court. By
1397, however, Richard had regained enough power to
move against three of the Lords Appellant. To protect
himself, Henry Bolingbroke lodged charges of treason
against his former ally, Mowbray. The conflict between
the former allies nearly ended in trial by combat but
Richard intervened and exiled both men. (This is the
situation at the beginning of Shakespeares Richard II.)

Two years later, in 1399, John of Gaunt, Henry Boling-

brokes father, died, and Richard seized his lands. Henry
invaded England on the pretext of regaining control of
his ancestral lands but in truth he intended to assert his
claim to the crown. Later that same year, he was crowned
as Henry IV, and Richard II died early the following year
under suspicious circumstances.1

As Leithart explains, in 1399, Henry IV, then known as Henry

Bolingbroke, rebelled against Richard because he and many of
the nobility of the land believed that Richard was corrupt and
no longer fit to rule. His theft of Bolingbrokes family land was
considered proof that he was dangerous to all the nobility.
1 Brightest Heaven of Invention, pp. 31-32.

Henry V (I)

That may have been true, but there were complications. After
all, a coup detat against a king sets a bad example. The same people
that thrust out the previous king might be dissatisfied with his
replacement. In addition to the bad example of getting rid of a
king that one does not like, putting a new king on the throne, cre-
ates another problem the question of legitimacy. In the case of
Henry Bolingbroke, there was some hereditary basis for his claim
to the throne, but it was not unquestionable. Others could claim
the right as well. In the end, the matter of who would actually sit
on the throne would have to be decided by the sword.
This raises problems of political principle. When a new king,
even with some legitimate claim, must hold the throne by virtue
of the raw power of the men who helped him to take it, his reign
is essentially unstable. The question will be put: How can the
king justify his rule? This would become especially problematic
whenever an unpopular decision had to be made. When the basis
of a kings authority is questionable to begin with, every difficult
decision potentially becomes an occasion to challenge his right
to reign. Unpopular decisions might even be resisted by the very
force that enthroned him. For Henry IV, this was not merely a
question of political theory; it was the major issue of his reign.
Thus, the rule is that a man who wins the throne by violence
has to keep it by violence. This is what we see in the story of
Richard II and the two plays about Henry IV. Henry IV takes the
throne from Richard II, apparently with some justification, but his
own reign is plagued with questions of legitimacy and rebellion
against his authority.
The Henry IV plays place this political struggle on the stage
as the main story, but alongside of the grand political contest for
the land, Shakespeare also introduces the kings wild son, Hal. He
is reckless, disobedient to his father, and a companion of men of
low character, spending his time with them at a disreputable inn
drinking and carousing.

Lecture Eight

Hal is the young Henry V and even though he and the char-
acters that surround him at the inn are historically not the central
concern of the two Henry IV plays, they provide some of the most
interesting scenes in all of Shakespeares history. We not only get
to know the future king of England in his rowdy youth, but we
also come to know the old man he spends his time with, a thief
and drunkard named Falstaff. He is considered by many to be the
most fascinating character Shakespeare developed. His quick but
often improper wit, his foolishness, his selfish perversity, and his
low morals all combine in a man who is nevertheless portrayed
in a genuinely sympathetic manner. In the introductory lectures,
I referred to the fact that Falstaff was a special problem for 19th
century Victorian audiences. Unlike Elizabethans, they felt they
had to morally approve of what they laughed at. Falstaff s gross
immorality was offensive, but his humor genuinely funny. The
combination created an uncomfortable situation for the Victorian
Falstaff and his inferior friends provide young Prince Hal
with entertainment and education. Meanwhile, King Henry IV is
distressed to have such a foolish son. In the two Henry IV plays,
the story of the king and his troubles is told side by side with the
adventures of young Hal. However, the secondary narrative of
the youthful Prince is so well-told that we could almost say the
two Henry IV plays are more like an introduction to Henry V than
a history of King Henry IV.
However that may be, Richard II and the two Henry IV plays
prepare the way for Henry V and are indispensable to a deep un-
derstanding. But they do not make Henry V easier to understand.
Rather, seeing Henry V in the light of Richard II and Henry IV
increases the problems of interpretation by making things more

Henry V (I)

A. Prince Hals Complexity

In the two Henry IV plays, we see young Hal carousing with

his low-life friends, who are led by Falstaff. Hal and Falstaff drink,
jest, deceive the kings servants, rob, and party. However, in all of
this Hal is not merely a fun-loving fool, led around by debauched
friends. There is more to him than is known to his companions.
For example, there is a young man about the Princes age
named Poins, one of the corrupt friends of the future king. There
is a story of him inviting young Hal to join a plan to rob some
pilgrims on their way to Canterbury. Falstaff is all for the plan to
steal their rich offerings the boldest and most wicked sort of
robbery imaginable. The pilgrims are relatively helpless and the
money is an offering for God. Hal refuses to have any part of it,
though he is chided by Falstaff.
But Poins talks to Hal privately and discloses a plan to pull
off a jest against Falstaff and his men. Just before they rob the
pilgrims, Hal and Poins will disappear from the group. Then, af-
ter the robbery is accomplished, they will appear again disguised
as men from the forest and they will rob Falstaff. The Prince
agrees to the plan. They have no trouble stealing from Falstaff
and his men, who are not eager for a real fight. The Prince and
Poins return to the inn where they wait for Falstaff and his man.
They return, sweating and angry. They have a tale to tell of how
they were robbed by seven or nine or fifteen men the longer
Falstaff talks, the more the number increases. According to his
report, Falstaff fought bravely, but lost the treasure he aimed to
take. The robbery was an occasion for much humor, and the
Prince enjoys Falstaff s blustering and lying as much as the audi-
ence does. All the same, is not robbery still robbery? Has not the
Prince participated in a crime?
We learn later that the money itself was not finally stolen.
The story shows us that though Prince Hal associates with the

Lecture Eight

criminal element, he does not actually commit crimes with them.

In fact, we learn that he is deliberately creating false appearances.
Right after Hal and Poins make their plan to deceive Falstaff, Hal
reveals himself in a soliloquy.

I know you all, and will awhile uphold

The unyoked humour of your idleness:
Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That, when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wonderd at,
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapours that did seem to strangle him.
If all the year were playing holidays,
To sport would be as tedious as to work;
But when they seldom come, they wishd for come,
And nothing pleaseth but rare accidents.
So, when this loose behavior I throw off
And pay the debt I never promised,
By how much better than my word I am,
By so much shall I falsify mens hopes;
And like bright metal on a sullen ground,
My reformation, glittering oer my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.
Ill so offend, to make offence a skill;
Redeeming time when men think least I will.

Hals association with Poins, Falstaff, and the rest of the

crowd at the tavern seems politically calculated. It appears that
he sees it as preparation for coming to the throne. He intention-
ally lowers everyones expectations in order to make it easier for

Henry V (I)

him to surpass them. He disappoints and creates concerns about

the future in order to make this accession to the throne a wonder.
Men will be amazed that such an unpromising Prince could turn
out to be so solid a king.
A character who thinks this way is obviously a complex sort
of man. On the one hand, he does not at all mind appearing to
be evil. In so far as he creates distress in the minds of his own
father and others in authority, he also does evil. However, on the
other hand, he is never the fool that he seems to be. He puts on
a mask, hiding his abilities and even the royalty of his nature. He
never really sinks into the corruption of the men at the tavern,
even though he spends so much time with them.
At the same time, when he is at the tavern, he also seems
to have a genuine concern for his friends and to relate to them
sincerely. Is this entirely a show? If it is, the young Prince we
meet in Henry IV reveals to us that Henry V is a man for whom
all personal relationships are merely means for attaining political
goals. He is a wholly Machiavellian character for whom nothing
is important but his own personal goals. On the other hand, if
we are persuaded that the young Prince is genuine in his relation-
ships with these men, we will see the king as a good man with a
complex mind, perhaps even a young man with wisdom beyond
his years. On this reading, he is a good young man who truly cares
for people, but who is also calculating what is best for them and
acting accordingly.

B. Interpreting Prince Hal

Of course, that is our problem: Which is it? The relationship

between the two Henry IV plays and the fact that Henry Vs father
is something of a political conniver suggest two possibilities: 1)
that he rebelled against his fathers political orientation and sought
to be a different sort of person; or 2) that Prince Hal is no less a

Lecture Eight

politician than his conniving father. We face the questions: Is Hals

apparent rebellion against his father in part a rebellion against his
political calculating and a calculation of his own for the future?
Or, is the future Henry V a Machiavellian character, manipulating
friends and family always and only in terms of his personal power?
This latter and less pleasant interpretation is a possible view of
Henry V. In fact, something similar to what I have just described
is the view of Harold Bloom. As he sees it, Henry V is an amiable
monster. In the words of Hazlitt, whom he quotes, Henry was a
hero, that is, he was ready to sacrifice his own life for the pleasure
of destroying thousands of other lives. According to Bloom,
Shakespeare presented us with an ambiguous Henry. In Blooms
words, Shakespeare has no single attitude toward Henry V in the
play. He concludes that though the story leads us to like Henry,
the play for all its exuberance, is essentially ironic.
Thus, for Bloom, Henry himself is brutally shrewd and
shrewdly brutal. He is a king and as such is necessarily some-
thing of a counterfeit. He is a hypocrite because as a king he
must be. Personal loyalties exist only for the good of the state or
at least for the good of the king, which is much the same thing.
Shakespeares picture of the dashing and charismatic Henry charms
us, too, even though we can see through his duplicity.
Consider the great speech on St Crispins day, by which Henry
stirred up his sick and battle-worn soldiers to fight one last time.
Though Henry promised the happy few soldiers that they would
all be his brothers and considered gentlemen, Bloom says, The
common soldiers fighting with their monarch are not going to
become gentlemen, let alone nobles, and the ending of the world
is a rather grand evocation for an imperialist land grab that did
not long survive Henry Vs death, as Shakespeares audience knew
too well.
For Bloom, Prince Hal was more interesting than the king
he eventually became because when he was Hal we were not sure

Henry V (I)

what the charming young man would become. Though Falstaff

loved Hal, no one, Bloom assures us, could fall in love with Henry
V. For Bloom, then, seeing Henry V in the light of the two Henry
IV plays teaches us to see Henry as an ambiguous character at
best, one who betrays, or at least disappoints, the hopes inspired
by his youth.
Though Peter Leitharts discussion of the play is both deeper
and more nuanced, his conclusion about King Henry V is relatively
similar. Leithart points out that Shakespeare has the chorus repeat
over and over, it is just a play, and he wonders why. As the play
begins, the very first speech of the chorus tells us what we already
know, and the following interruptions of the chorus are the same.
Yes, this is indeed just a play and the viewers need to use their
imagination to make armies fight on the stage before them, and
to transform the stage to the field of France or some other place.
The audience knew that before they came to the theater. Why,
Leithart asks, does Shakespeare insist on reminding us of what
we have not forgotten?

On the surface, Henry is being portrayed as the mirror

of all Christian kings in the sense of being a model of
Christian kingship. He is a king who prays at the begin-
ning of battles and gives glory to God alone at the end.
But then there is the chorus telling us over and over that
it is, after all, only a play. We know that what we see on
stage is an actor playing Henry V; the chorus insistence
on the point suggests we should understand it is only a
play in another sense. The chorus protests too much,
and we end up asking ourselves, Are Henrys piety and
sense of justice likewise only an act? Is he perhaps a
mirror image of a Christian king in the second sense
in the sense that he portrays the opposite of a Christian
king, everything a Christian king should not be? Perhaps

Lecture Eight

what we are watching is not only an actor pretending to

be Henry V. Perhaps we are watching an actor playing
a Henry V who is in turn pretending too, pretending to
wave his flag and play the national anthem while exposing
with all his warts the complex man beneath the thrice-
gorgeous ceremony.2

Leithart emphasizes the fact that Henry IV told his son to be

involved in foreign wars.

If we cannot attribute Henrys decision to piety, why

then does he decide to go to war? The best answer is
probably his fathers deathbed advice, in which he told
Hal to busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels (2 Henry
IV 4.3.342-343). Henry IV had spend his entire reign
fighting against disgruntled nobility, and as he died, he
advised his son how to protect himself from similar
rebellions by uniting the nobility in wars against foreign
enemies. If the nobles can be occupied with fighting in
another country, they will not have the time or energy
to fight against the king, and they will eventually forget
their grievances against him. There is an enduring pat-
tern of politics here, one that modern politicians will
continue to follow. When a modern politician is having
trouble at home, he will often find a relatively painless
foreign war to get involved in. Then everyone forgets
he is such a bad ruler and supports the cause for the
sake of the troops.3

Of the advice given to Henry by Canterbury, Leithart writes,

2 Brightest Heaven of Invention, p. 40.

3 Ibid., pp. 45-46.

Henry V (I)

His conversation with Ely in scene 1 places a question

mark over the entire discussion in the Kings Council.
Henry has asked the clergy for a moral judgment about
his claim to the French throne. The clergymen give
their wholehearted support to the expedition, but having
been privy to their earlier conversation, we know that
they do not support it for moral or theological reasons.
Canterbury, churchman that he is, is willing to plunge
England into a war and to shed rivers of French blood
to protect his own turf. Canterbury works on the advice
of Henry IV as much as Henry V does; he too wishes
to busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels.4

Leithart, therefore, sees both the English Clergy and Henry

himself as, shall we say, less than the noble and godly leaders they
ought to be. Henry may be the mirror of a Christian king in the
sense that the mirror image is the opposite of what it portrays.
In the interpretations of Henry V suggested by Harold Bloom
and Peter Leithart, the background of Henry IV is essential. The
character of Prince Hal is contrasted with what the king becomes.
This andthe political father, Henry IV,with his unending struggles
with the nobility, provide a background which suggests that in
Shakespeares view, Henry V may not have been such a great
Christian king after all.
In the most extreme statement of this sort of view going
beyond Bloom or Leithart one can view Henry V as the suc-
cessful Machiavellian king, one who gets away with his lies and
posturing, who pursues a political war successfully. If this were
Shakespeares real meaning, of course, the religious references in
the play would have to be understood as extremely cynical.
That, to me, is the problem with this view. Shakespeare does
indeed criticize religious leaders for their hypocrisy on occasion
4 Ibid., pp. 46-47.

Lecture Eight

the clerics private conversation before meeting Henry V being a

good example but he is never cynical about Christian teaching
itself. Any reading that suggests Shakespeare mocks the Gospel
cannot be made to fit with the profound Christian faith expressed
so often in the plays. As I said, neither Bloom nor Leithart go so
far as to suggest that Shakespeare presents Henry V as a successful
Machiavellian king, though Bloom assumes Shakespeare is a nihilist
of a sort. In any case, their analysis raises important questions.

Contrasting Two Henrys

Interestingly they both leave out of the discussion another

aspect of the historical background in Henry IV, the contrast
and comparison between Prince Hal and the young Henry Percy,
called Hotspur. It is the King, Henry IV, himself who states the
differences between the two in the strongest possible terms and
sets up the dramatic contest between them. Very early in the
first Henry IV, when the king mentions the glories of Hotspurs
victory, Westmorland responds that it is a victory for a Prince to
boast of. To this the king replies with the following speech, which
introduces young Prince Hal to the audience.

Yea, there thou makest me sad and makest me sin

In envy that my Lord Northumberland
Should be the father to so blest a son,
A son who is the theme of honours tongue;
Amongst a grove, the very straightest plant;
Who is sweet Fortunes minion and her pride:
Whilst I, by looking on the praise of him,
See riot and dishonour stain the brow
Of my young Harry. O that it could be proved
That some night-tripping fairy had exchanged

Henry V (I)

In cradle-clothes our children where they lay,

And calld mine Percy, his Plantagenet!
Then would I have his Harry, and he mine.

Both young men are named Henry. They are about the same
age. And they both come from leading noble families. But, as we
see from his fathers words, Prince Hal, is riotous and stained with
shame, while Hotspur is the theme of honors tongue. So vexed
is the king with his own son and so impressed is he with the Earl
of Northumberlands son that he wishes he could exchange his
Harry with Hotspur. I cannot imagine a more profound statement
of parental disappointment.
The kings words are the introduction to the whole play and
to Prince Hal himself. They resonate in the background when
Prince Hal finally comes to the stage, and, especially in the first
of the Henry IV plays, haunt the action to the end. In fact, the
first part of Henry IV shifts constantly back and forth between
Hal and Hotspur, as if to place the two young men before us to
ask us whether or not we agree with the king.
Immediately after this unpromising introduction, we meet
Hal in the next scene, conversing with Falstaff, the thief, and then
plotting with Poins, another thief. Their topic is the robbery of
the pilgrims that I mentioned previously. From the beginning,
Prince Hal is a companion of fools and wicked men. However,
as I pointed out above, he is also sincerely kind to them without
really joining in their folly, despite all appearance. They will rob
pilgrims on their way to Canterbury, but Hals participation is only
apparent and for the sake of jest. What he is really thinking is
soon revealed in this early scene, when we hear Hals first soliloquy,
which I quoted earlier. The last few lines are especially important.

Ill so offend, to make offence a skill;

Redeeming time when men think least I will.

Lecture Eight

This last phrase, redeeming time is the key to this speech.

It is used in the Geneva Bible and the Bishops Bible in Ephesians 5:16
and Colossians 4:5 and nowhere else. Both passages are relevant
for Hal. Ephesians speaks of redeeming the time because the
days are evil certainly an apt description of England in the
days of Henry IV. Colossians uses the expression with reference
to walking in wisdom with those who are without. And Hals
subsequent conversations show that he is very much aware that
Falstaff and his crowd are indeed without. The Prince even
promises to banish Falstaff. I suspect that Hals allusion to these
verses is pregnant. Shakespeare, through this soliloquy is inform-
ing us that Prince Hal is mad in craft. This speech leads us to
view the Prince as acting in wisdom, waiting for the appropriate
time. No doubt, this also means that Hal is calculating, in a certain
sense of the word. He is cool and calm, planning for the future
in a clever manner at least, if not in true wisdom.
By contrast, the scene after Hals soliloquy, which introduces
us to Hotspur in person, shows him to be a man whose name fits.
He is first of all and beyond anything else, hot. He is passionate,
loyal, courageous, and sincere. However, he also comes across as
rash. Where Hal is able to listen carefully and respond to those who
talk to him, in spite of the fact that they are actually not worthy of
his attention, Hotspur ignores the wiser and older men who try to
calm him down and rages about the revenge he will take against
the king. He cannot control himself long enough to be quiet and
listen to the worthy men who are trying to advise him.
Both young men are caught up in conspiracies of a sort. One
scene after another sets before us the contrasts between the two
young noblemen. We observe how their plots develop and work
out. As it turns out, the whole of Henry IV part one seems to be
focused more on the comparison between these two young men
than any deep portrayal of Henry IV himself.

Henry V (I)

As the story develops, we realize that the supposedly honor-

able Hotspur is involved in a plot that is both more gallant and
more base than Hals apparently criminal escapade. Hotspur and
his relatives plan to revolt against the king. It is a bold scheme, with
some justification in the acts and words of the king. But political
rebellion and civil war are not in the end what most people would
call noble, especially when they involve joining with traditional
enemies of the English. Hotspur, thus, leads a conspiracy that
is serious, and tragically fatal for many of the English who join
him, and in the end, for himself as well. In the planning phase,
Shakespeare depicts Hotspur as so overly zealous that his own
father calls him a fool for not listening to others. But the play also
shows us that he is not an evil man, as we see in his relationship
with his wife. Though he is charming and earnest, his immaturity
and passion magnify all the problems that he and his family con-
front. The conspiracy that he and his friends formulate against
the king is less well-thought-out and far more dangerous than the
conspiracy Prince Hal joins.
The disparity between the two could not be more extreme.
Prince Hal is a player in an altogether ignoble plan to rob pilgrims.
But in this whole story, Hal is playing, both in the sense that he is
not showing his real self and in the sense that he is simply having
fun. Falstaff and his men will rob the pilgrims of their offering.
The robbery is bloodless and no one suffers. Hal and Poins pre-
tend to be part of the robbery, but they disappear at the crucial
moment. They change clothes and hide nearby waiting for Falstaff
and the rest. They surprise them with shouts and rob the robbers
of their booty. Though outwardly, as the robbery of pilgrims, this
conspiracy appears to be heinous, it is in fact relatively harmless
fun. In the end, Hals prank hurts no one, except perhaps Falstaff,
who must have been momentarily embarrassed by the unveiling
of his cowardliness in the conversation at the inn, after all return
from the robbery and recount their experiences.

Lecture Eight

The contrast between the two Henrys is especially pronounced

in Act 3. Scene 1 of that act shows Hotspur in conference with his
friends planning the attack on the king. He is indeed a brave and
honest youth and the men around him give him honor and respect.
All the same, his impulsive carelessness stands out obviously.
In the very next scene, we see the king and his son together
for the first time. The king expresses his deep disappointment
directly to the Princes face, repeating in different words the com-
parison between the Prince and Hotspur that began the play. The
king speaks to his son from his heart, expressing his deep concern
about his sons companions and character. He fears his son will
be another Richard II, who lost the throne because of his folly.
He suggests that God is punishing him through his foolish son.
But in spite of these passionately argued allegations against him,
Hal is calm and mature. His response not only comforts the king,
it inspires confidence so much, in fact, that the king is ready
to accept Hal as a soldier in the coming fight with Hotspur and
the rebels.
Thus, Shakespeare sets before us two conspiracies, each led
by a young Harry. Hotspurs plot is seen to be unstable in many
ways, though he himself is confident and courageous in the pursuit
of it. Prince Hals plot is entirely successful, though, of course,
entirely unworthy of a Prince of the realm. As we view all of this,
we are led to ask ourselves, which man is worse, the one who plots
rebellion against the kingdom, ending in the deaths of many men,
or he who plots a jest, ending in laughter and fun, and the deaths
of only those whom Falstaff imagines he has killed?
Though I have noted this briefly before, in the light of the
Machiavellian interpretation of the Prince, it bears emphasis. Al-
though Prince Hal is the companion of morally depraved men, he
is always honest with them, even to the point of telling Falstaff,
rather early on in Act 2 Scene 4 of the first of the Henry IV
plays that he will indeed banish him. Prince Hal clearly cares

Henry V (I)

for the low-life people around him, but he never gives his approval
of their lifestyle. Instead, he repeatedly lets them know that they
need to reform their lives. Though Hal is with them, he is never
one of them. One of the clearest examples concerns the outcome
of the Princes plot. As I noted previously, the money that Falstaff
and his companions stole will, Prince Hal says, be paid back with
advantage, that is, interest. In the end, Hal not only has fun, he
also deals with the theft of the money in terms of the standards
of Biblical justice. His robbing the robbers might even be seen
as Solomonic wisdom, bringing about just and righteous ends
through strange and wonderful means.
Since the kings evaluation of the two Harrys begins the
play and since the action of the play may be said to center on the
outworking of the contrast between these two Harrys, our own
evaluation of King Henry V must take into account Shakespeares
narrative story of these young men. The king totally misunder-
stood his son because he judged him superficially and perhaps also
because he was plagued with guilt about Richard II. Everything
that happened during his reign challenged his legitimacy and must
have reminded him that he had stolen the throne. Even though the
kings judgment of Hotspur was more accurate than his judgment
of Hal and we find Hotspur to be a winsome character, Hotspurs
character flaws ruin him and his friends.
That Hal even turned out to be the better soldier might be a
surprise to modern audiences, but it would have added significance
to viewers in Shakespeares day, who still retained something of the
medieval belief that two men facing one another in single combat
stand or fall by the judgment of God. The Prince prevailed over
Hotspur because the Lord was with him. The single combat be-
tween the two Harrys was not only, and certainly not primarily,
intended to show us their martial skills. In the outcome of the
battle, we are shown Gods judgment of the two Harrys, which,
near the end of the play, stands in profound contrast to the kings

Lecture Eight

evaluation at the beginning.

Even though Hotspur is dead at the end of Henry IV part
one, the comparison between the two young Harrys is not over. It
continues in the second Henry IV play, which begins in the home
of Hotspurs father, the Earl of Northumberland. Rumor brings
the false report that it was actually Hotspur who won, killing the
Prince. However, as more messengers arrive, in a long scene in
which the father seeks reliable information, the fact of Hotspurs
death at the hand of Prince Hal is confirmed beyond the possibil-
ity of doubt. In this way, Shakespeare begins the second play of
Henry IV, by reminding us of the two Henrys and the differences
between them, as well as Gods judgment in favor of the future
Henry V.
The Prince himself does not appear until Act 2, Scene 2 where
he is speaking with Poins about his fathers sickness and his own
apparent unconcern. Here again we see the Prince posturing. He
knows that everyone will think him a hypocrite if he shows pain
and sorrow at his fathers illness, so he shows none. Meanwhile,
however, he is truly suffering with his father. And once again, he
shows himself to be in substance more honorable than in appear-
ance. He also proves that he is wise in the sense that he always
seems to know what the common people think and how they will
perceive things. He acts accordingly, not because he is a hypocrite,
but because he is not one.
To summarize, again, we must keep in mind this aspect of
Shakespeares picture of the young Prince. All that Bloom has to
say about what may appear to be the Kings almost-Machiavellian
character must be considered from the perspective of his relation-
ship to his father and to Hotspur which sheds a different light
on everything Henry V does. From this perspective, he is not
Machiavellian in the sense that he does whatever is necessary to
get and maintain power. Rather he calculates his actions according
to his understanding of his people. This can be seen, as I hope to

Henry V (I)

show later, as a kind of wisdom that the Bible also praises in rulers.

II. Thinking about War and Peace in Shakespeares


That brings us to our second perspective for considering

the play. As I said at the beginning, we need to keep in mind the
thinking of people in Shakespeares own day. In particular, what I
have in mind here is based on an article written for the Renaissance
Quarterly by the Shakespearean scholar, Steven Marx. The title of
the 1992 article is Shakespeares Pacifism.5
Marx explains that for almost 100 years, roughly from the
beginning of the 16th century to the end, there was a lively debate
between those who thought the business of the king was making
war, the most well-known of whom is Machiavelli, and those who
thought kings were to be men of peace, represented especially by
Erasmus and Sir Thomas More. Marx uses the word pacifism
to refer to the position that peace is to be preferred to war. It
may seem odd to us but there were many in the 16th century and
later who believed that only war brought out the best and most
noble in a man. The embarrassing truth is that Christians took
both sides in the long debate.
Marx explains the debate in some detail and offers insight on
how it may have influenced Shakespeare. War, of course, is one of
those fundamental problems that naturally come up whenever one
thinks seriously about history or mans nature. In Marxs words:

Like Youth and Age or Reason and Passion, War and

Peace was one of those polarities that Renaissance writ-
ers persistently thought about as well as with. Reflection
5 Steven Marx. Shakespeares Pacifism, Renaissance Quarterly 45.1 (1992): 49-98.
Online at: I quote from
the online version, which does not have page numbers and probably not some of the
italics in the original article.

Lecture Eight

upon war and peace was at the heart of the Humanist

movement, just as the conduct of war and peace was at
the foundation of the European state system during the
early modern period. This concern with war and peace
arose from Humanisms defining traits: its exaltation
of fame, its fascination with the military cultures of
Greece and Rome, its emphasis on human dignity and
freedom, its pursuit of secular knowledge in history and
psychology, and its political commitment to improving
the quality of institutional and personal life. . . . This
debate shaped the actions of monarchs, the deliberations
of councils, the exhortations of divines, as well as the
imaginative productions of artists and writers during the
sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.6

Shakespeare himself, according to Marx, was influenced by

the debate and was led to revise his own understanding, which in
the earlier plays favored the views of those who saw war as the
business of a king. Over time, perhaps due in part to the influence
of Christian humanists like Erasmus and at least reflecting the
changes in the political climate, Shakespeares perspective, Marx
believes, clearly changed. As Marx explains it, English political
policy from the late years of Queen Elizabeth and continuing on
to the reign of King James moved in the direction of promoting
peace. James himself was a vocal proponent of the view that kings
should make and preserve peace.
The militarist view is so different from what we take for
granted that I think it is good to include a rather long quotation
here from Marx explaining the background of the pro-martial
view in the life of the middle ages. Marx begins with a quotation
from Machiavelli himself.
6 Ibid.

Henry V (I)

A Prince therefore must not have any other object nor

any other thought, nor must he take anything as his
profession but war, its institutions, and its discipline;
because that is the only profession which befits one who
commands. So Machiavelli opens chapter XIV of The
Prince entitled The Princes Duty Concerning Military
Matters. His equation of sovereignty with military
strength was both traditional and innovative. Since the
fall of the Roman Empire, European political power
and social status were vested largely in a warrior elite
descended from Germanic chiefs. Their martial values
and cultural identity were sublimated by the intellectual
and bureaucratic legacy of the Church of Rome into the
institutions of feudalism and the ideology of chivalry,
but Europe throughout the Middle Ages retained the
underpinnings of a warrior culture. Hence the symbols
of gentility and honor were inextricably tied to the prac-
tice of arms. With the secularization of literacy and the
rediscovery of classical civilization in the Renaissance,
learning became a source of prestige no longer restricted
to the clergy and was eagerly pursued by military aristo-
crats. The paradigm of the Renaissance Prince combined
the virtues of the general and the scholar. In the texts
that he studied and the statues he admired, he found not
only models of intelligence and grace, but also paradigms
of military strategy and a celebration of amoral prow-
ess free of the moral strictures of the Christian Church.
In The Art of War, Machiavelli observes that since
military institutions are completely corrupted and have,
for a long period, diverged from ancient practices, bad
opinions about them have arisen, causing the military
life to be despised... and calls for a rebirth of classical
military skill through the imitation of ancient military
7 Ibid.
Lecture Eight

That call for a humanist militarism was widely heeded

by Machiavellis patron Lorenzo de Medici, by mer-
cenary captains who elevated themselves to nobility
like Federico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino, by the
Kings of England and France, Henry VIII and Francis
I, and by Elizabethan courtiers like Sir Phillip Sidney
and Sir Walter Raleigh. For them war and politics were
extensions of one another and formed the opportunity,
or occasione, for displaying a worldly virtu a
self-created ability forged in mortal strife. Machiavelli
sees the presence of many warring states as the reason
why in Europe there are countless excellent men; he
finds vitality and health in the class struggles, civil wars
and foreign engagements of the Roman Republic, but
disdains the pax romana of the Empire as the source
of abilitys decline. Humanist militarists had no use for
medieval justifications of war that it was Gods pun-
ishment upon sinning man or a means of bringing about
peace. For them it was an end in itself, the fundamental
condition of social life, individual psychology and all
creation: There is not in nature a point of stability to be
found; everything either ascends or declines: when wars
are ended abroad, sedition begins at home, and when
men are freed from fighting for necessity, they quarrel
through ambition . . . I put for a general inclination of
all mankind, a perpetual and restless desire after power
that ceaseth only with death.

In contrast to the Renaissance military culture that glorified

war, Christian humanist writers like Erasmus wrote on the Art of
Peace, publishing his book, The Education of a Christian Prince, in
1516 three years after Machiavelli published The Prince. One year
later in 1517, the year of Luthers famous 95 theses, Erasmus pub-

Henry V (I)

lished another work, The Sum of All Religion is Peace and Unanimity.
Whereas for men like Machiavelli war was seen as essential
to the development of character and peace was virtually a punish-
ment from God, Erasmus saw war as unnatural. In Marxs words:

The duty of Erasmus Prince consists not of making or

preparing for war, but rather of avoiding it and serving
his people, on whose satisfaction he depends for legiti-
macy. Real power and true heroism lie not in physical
dominance over others but in self mastery. To establish
and maintain peace should be the goal of all Princes,
a goal achieved by the greatest spiritual and temporal
leaders in history, Jesus and Augustus.8

Erasmus himself wrote:

There is scarcely any peace so unjust, but it is prefer-

able, on the whole, to the justest war. Sit down before
you draw the sword, weigh every article, omit none,
and compute the expense of blood as well as treasure
which war requires, and the evils which it of necessity
brings with it; and then see at the bottom of the account
whether after the greatest success, there is likely to be a
balance in your favor.9

Marx notes that some scholars deny the views of men like
Erasmus had much influence in the 16th century. However, Marx
provides persuasive evidence to the contrary.

However, the phenomenon of Renaissance pacifism

is neither an anachronistic construct nor an ephemeral
8 Ibid.
9 Ibid.

Lecture Eight

aberration. Like humanist militarism, it derives from a

rich range of ancient models, including the Hebrew and
Christian Bibles, the teachings of Stoics and Epicure-
ans and the cultural ideals of the Pax Romana. Fifteen
years after it appeared, according to Sir Thomas Elyots
Book of the Governor, Erasmus Institutio was still
the most widely read and quoted literary production of
the period, and its purpose of cultivating a humanist
peacemaking Prince was adopted both by the tutor of
Queen Elizabeth, Roger Ascham, in his Schoolmaster,
and by Castiglione and his educational handbook, The
Courtier. Between 1517 and 1529 alone, The Complaint
of Peace went through twenty four editions and was
translated into most European languages.10

However, Erasmus pacifism was also considered dangerous.

As Marx explains, The status of pacifist ideas oscillated between
subversive and orthodox throughout the Renaissance, depending
upon the shifting alliances and moods of rulers. After being lion-
ized by both Charles and Henry, Erasmus became persona non grata at
the courts of the great and retired to his study in Basel in 1521.11
In Shakespeares days, especially after James I came to the
throne of England in 1603, the tides of debate turned in the favor
of the so-called pacifists. There may have been a corresponding
change in Shakespeare as well. According to Marx, it can be dated
rather specifically. He sees Shakespeares understanding evolving
from clearly militarist views of the history plays written in the early
1590s, to ambiguous glorification of the military in Henry V in
1599. By 1602 or 1603, with the publication of Troilus and Cres-
sida, the military virtues are subject to open criticism. In the years
that follow, plays like Marc Antony, Othello, Macbeth, and Coriolanus
10 Ibid.
11 Ibid.

Henry V (I)

offer penetrating psychological analysis of military heroes whose

martial virtues Marx says, are tragically flawed. The final stage
in the evolution of Shakespeares thought on peace and war is seen
in the last plays. To borrow Marxs words again: Shakespeare at
the end of his career repeatedly evokes the positive symbols of
the pacifist tradition.12
Marx offers a reading of Shakespeares plays that relates them
to the political climate of Shakespeares day and the hundred year
debate about peace and war. Shakespeares references to Ma-
chiavelli show that he must have been aware of the debate and if
Marxs reading of Shakespeare is even close to the mark, there is
abundant evidence that Shakespeare was not a mere bystander to
the argument going on around him. His plays contribute to the
discussion through dramatic portrayal of the issues.
It is only natural that he should be martially minded in his
earlier years shortly after the defeat of the Spanish Armada in
1588. In the next years, tension between England and France,
including English aid to the Protestant King Henry IV in the
siege of Rouen, encouraged the militarists. But Elizabeth pulled
the English out of the battle when the incompetence of the Earl
of Essex and King Henry became evident. This deepened the
split between those Sir Walter Raleigh called the men of war
and the scribes.
It also seems natural that Shakespeare should be influenced
by the currents of opinion in his day, though Marx explains that
it is common to deny that Shakespeare was influenced by or at-
tempted to express what is called Jacobean pacifism. Also, few
seem to consider the possibility that Shakespeares views changed
over time.
What we should think of Marxs assessment and how we are
to understand Henry V are two of the subjects that we shall take
up in our next lecture.
12 Ibid.

Lecture Nine

Lecture Nine:
Henry V, Part 2

At the end of the previous lecture, we were discussing how

people in Shakespeares day thought about war and peace, with
the help of Stephen Marxs article Shakespeares Pacifism. Ac-
cording to Marx, Shakespeares understanding of war and peace
changed from the pro-war view of his earlier years to what Marx
calls pacifism in his later years. As Marx explained, the evolu-
tion he sees in Shakespeares view corresponded to developments
in the intellectual climate of England. During Elizabeths reign,
there were times that the English had relatively good reasons to
hold martial values in high regard. After the defeat of the Span-
ish Armada in 1588, many of the English, including Elizabeths
young general Essex, wanted to go to war against Catholic France.
However, as we explained in the previous lecture, in 1592 Elizabeth
cut short Essexs adventure with the protestant Henry IV. From
that point on, in the debate between the proponents of martial
virtue and the proponents of peace, the balance began to tip more
heavily on the side of peace. By the accession of James in 1603,
pacifism of the sort that Marx refers to was a viable option. James
himself apparently favored the pacifist perspective.
Marxs thesis about a change in Shakespeares view seems
reasonable and I find the evidence he offers to be relatively per-
suasive. Of course, there is no absolutely certain chronology of
Shakespeares plays, so there remains an element of speculation.
Henry V (II)

However, the real question for our purpose concerns the

meaning of Marxs thesis for our understanding of the play. If
Shakespeare was in the process of altering his stance from the pro-
militarist perspective to the so-called pacifist views of Erasmus
and Thomas Moore, does that imply that his view of Henry V was
essentially critical? Is Shakespeare depicting Henry V as the kind
of man that Bloom suggests a man willing to risk thousands
of men for the sake of his own glory and political scheming?
In the abstract, that is certainly a possibility, but it would have
to be proved by evidence from the play. Before we consider that
evidence, however, there is an interesting historical point that needs
to be mentioned in passing.

I. New Interpretation of Henry V and War

Blooms view of Henry V is part of a tradition that believes

that Shakespeares Henry V is critical of war. Various rather subtle
literary devices are cited as evidence of an underlying condemna-
tion of Henrys war, though on the surface, Henry is treated as
a hero.
However, this tradition is quite new, having originated in
the twentieth century, as Peter Saccio explains in his lectures on
Shakespeare. The view that Shakespeare wrote the play with a
double meaning was not introduced until 1919, just after WWI,
in an essay by an Englishman who had fought in the war. Since
that essay, the view has been taken up by many others and it has
become the standard view. College courses commonly refer to
Henry V as a play with a complex message. On the surface is a
story about a great war hero, but underlying is a message about
the futility of martial virtue. Sometimes this is expressed as two
messages for two audiences. The play about Henry the war hero
is addressed to the masses but the anti-war message is reserved
for the more sophisticated viewers of the play. The most famous

Lecture Nine

essay expressing this view is by Norman Rabkin, titled Rabbits,

Ducks, and Henry V in which Rabkin refers to the well-known
picture that can be seen either as a rabbit or as a duck, depending
on ones perspective. In Henry V, we can shift our view back and
forth between Henry the hero and Henry the hypocrite.
What is remarkable about this is that apparently no one be-
fore the 20th century noticed these subtleties in Henry V. William
Hazlitt at the beginning of the 19th century and George Bernard
Shaw at the end of the 19th century, for example, both criticized
Shakespeares play for praising Henry, but they did not suggest that
the play had a double meaning. Hazlitt in particular complained
about the Henry of real history as much as about Shakespeares
Henry, but he sees either Henry as a rogue. Hazlitts objection,
in other words, is that in older days, a monster like Henry was
regarded as a hero.
Thus, until shortly after WWI, virtually everyone considered
Shakespeares Henry V to be a play about a courageous English
king, even if they did not like the hero. The advice of Henry IV
about entangling giddy minds in foreign wars, the hypocrisy of the
Church in supporting Henrys invasion of France, Henrys brutal
speech before the walls of Harfluer, his unfeeling execution of
Bardolf, the well-known long term failure of Henrys project, and
other unpleasant aspects of the campaign in France are not newly
discovered features of the play. However, in the past, these were
not taken as an indication that Henry V was a dishonorable man.
I think at least part of the reason is cultural. To begin with,
the 18th and 19th century still had a much more positive view
toward war than the 20th century. They may also have had a less
idealistic view toward politics and greater tolerance for the foibles
of a king than our democratic age. Furthermore, and this is most
important, the impact of the Bible in the broader culture was much
greater than it has been in the twentieth century.

Henry V (II)

II. History Writing in Shakespeares Day

This brings us to our next point. We need to give some

thought to the writing of history in Shakespeares day. There is an
excellent book that introduces Shakespeares histories very thor-
oughly. Daniel L. Wright authored, The Anglican Shakespeare: Eliza-
bethan Orthodoxy in the Great Histories.1 Wright emphasizes two points
that are essential to understanding Shakespeares English history
plays. First, it was common for the English, in Shakespeares day
especially, to identify England with ancient Israel as Gods special
land. Broadly speaking, this would be true for Christendom in
Europe as a whole. But the English people thought of themselves
in particular as a new Israel in a way roughly similar to the way
people of the Byzantine Empire considered Constantinople to be
not only a new Rome but a new Jerusalem. So, English history
was written with Biblical history in mind. In the words of Steven
Marx, Following the perennial tendency of the British to identify
themselves with the Israelites, Shakespeares sources, Holinshed
and Halle, modeled English history on the Bibles providential
pattern.2 The earliest example of this according to Wright was
Bede, who wrote in the 8th century. The Bible and its historiog-
raphy, therefore, underlie Shakespeares history plays and are far
more important for understanding what Shakespeare was doing
than many modern critics acknowledge.
In particular, the idea that the English nation is under Gods
special providence, means that God works in her history and
through her to bring blessing to the world. When England and
her rulers disobey Gods commandments, they will find, like the
ancient Israelites, that God will deal with their sins.
The second point that Wright emphasizes is what is called
1 Daniel L. Wright, The Anglican Shakespeare: Elizabethan Orthodoxy in the Great
Histories (Vancouver, WA: Pacific-Columbia Books, 1993).
2 Shakespeare and the Bible, p. 41.

Lecture Nine

the Tudor myth. We have to remember that Shakespeare wrote

most of his plays in the age of Queen Elizabeth, the last of the
Tudors. The history plays from Richard II to Richard III end with
King Henry VII, Elizabeths grandfather, saving England from
King Richard III, the Satanic monster. In Shakespeares English
history plays, all England suffers because of the sins of her kings
from Richard II to Richard III. Richard III is the climax of the
evils of the monarchy and the suffering of the nation. Henry VII,
as we shall see in our lectures on Richard III, is seen as a Messiah
who saved England from the beast. The Tudor familys role as
saviors sent by God to deliver a sinful and suffering nation includes
the role of Henry VIII in delivering England from the oppression
of Rome. The Tudor myth, therefore, is a distinctly protestant
and Anglican myth. Shakespeares histories not only endorse this
viewpoint, they propagate it.
When we read or view Henry V, therefore, we have to keep
in mind these aspects of Shakespeares view of history as well.
England is a land that God watches over with special care. Her
kings and her people are like the kings and people of ancient Israel.
God deals with their sins, and punishes or blesses them accord-
ing to their obedience to His commands. The Tudor family was
raised up in the providence of God to lead England to become a
protestant nation, the greatest nation in the world.

III. Bible References in Henry V

Keeping in mind the complexity of Henrys character, the

debate about war and peace in Shakespeares day, and the Tudor
myth will help us to evaluate Shakespeares references to the Bible
in Henry V. I believe they offer us decisive insight on Shakespeares
view of Henry. It becomes especially clear when you compare
references to God in the other history plays about Henrys father
and son, Henry IV, parts 1 and 2, and Henry VI, parts 1, 2 and

Henry V (II)

3. Certain expressions occur in all of the plays: God forbid,

May God forgive, God knows in Gods name, and for
Gods sake.
But Henry V is the only one of these history plays to employ
pregnant language from the books of Moses. The expression
God be with you, for example, is a variation on a common
covenantal blessing found from the book of Genesis onward.
Genesis tells us that God was with Joseph and he prospered. The
Lord promised Joshua that He would be with him: No man will
be able to stand before you all the days of your life. Just as I have
been with Moses, I will be with you; I will not fail you or forsake
you. Josh 1:5 He repeated the promise in verse 9 Have I not
commanded you? Be strong and courageous! Do not tremble or
be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you
go. It is noteworthy, then, that this expression occurs four times
in Henry V, twice on the lips of the king himself, the last time at
the end of his speech before the great battle of Agincourt.
More important are the allusions to Gods giving the Israelites
the victory against Egypt in the Exodus. These allusions define a
framework for the whole play. They occur especially at the end,
where Shakespeare alludes to some of the most basic passages in
the Bible that speak of the Exodus. But there are anticipatory
allusions at the beginning of the play also. Together, they form
an introduction and conclusion that frame the action of the play
through the Biblical Exodus. I do not mean to imply that these
are obvious, though I think that in Shakespeares day an intelligent,
Biblically sophisticated viewer of the play might have picked up
on them.
At the end of the first scene, when the French ambassadors
have just left, the king says to his counselors, God before, Well
chide this Dauphin at his fathers door. The words God before
point to three verses in Deuteronomy in particular and to the whole
idea that God went before Israel in the glory cloud to lead and

Lecture Nine

protect them and give them victory. The verses in Deuteronomy

in the Geneva Bible that Shakespeare alluded to are the following:

The Lord your God, who goeth before you, he shall fight
for you, according to all that he did vnto you in Egypt
before your eyes, (1:30)

The Lord thy God he will go ouer before thee: he will

destroy these nations before thee, and thou shalt pos-
sesse them. Ioshua, he shall goe before thee, as the Lorde
hath said. (31:3)

And the Lorde him selfe doeth go before thee: he will

be with thee: he will not faile thee, neither forsake thee:
feare not therefore, nor be discomforted. (31:8)

The allusion may seem subtle and to some nothing more than
a pious expression. However, there are no analogous expressions
in the other history plays. If it were a mere pious expression that
men going to war might employ, it is odd that with all the wars and
fighting in the two Henry IV plays and the three Henry VI plays,
no one else says anything like this.
Moreover, even in the Bible, references to God going be-
fore are not common. They are a feature of the Exodus story
in particular. Though they appear in other Biblical passages as
well, they are probably allusions to the Exodus, as if to say, God
is fighting for us now as He did in the days of Moses. In Henry
V Shakespeare does not leave us in doubt since at the end of the
play, he includes multiple allusions to the Exodus, confirming the
allusion in the first scene.
For example, Act IV, scene 3, opens with the English nobility
making final preparations for battle. Westmorland notes that the
French have a full three score thousand, to which Exeter adds

Henry V (II)

Theres five to one; besides they all are fresh. The odds against
the English winning are insurmountable. But Salisbury answers,

Gods arm strike with us! tis a fearful odds.

God be wi you, princes all; Ill to my charge:
If we no more meet till we meet in heaven,
Then, joyfully, my noble Lord of Bedford,
My dear Lord Gloucester, and my good Lord Exeter,
And my kind kinsman, warriors all, adieu!

Salisburys expression Gods arm is one that will be re-

peated. It is carefully chosen for the context and I will return to
it later. It is worth noting also the words God be with you. As
I pointed out, this is an important biblical expression, and its use
here with the phrase Gods arm is meant to be suggestive.
When the king appears, he overhears Westmorlands wish
that there were more English to fight with them. His answer is
the famous speech before the battle in which the king encourages
the men to fight for honor. In the speech, Henry makes the offer
that anyone who does not want to fight that day will have passport
for home and transportation paid. This, of course, follows the
Biblical law of war in Deuteronomy 20:1-8. It is significant that
the law begins with an allusion to the deliverance from Egypt.

When thou goest forth to battle against thine enemies,

and seest horses, and chariots, and a people more than
thou, thou shalt not be afraid of them; for Yahweh thy
God is with thee, who brought thee up out of the land
of Egypt. (20:1)

Verse 8 says, And the officers shall speak further unto the
people, and they shall say, What man is there that is fearful and
faint-hearted? Let him go and return unto his house, lest his breth-

Lecture Nine

rens heart melt as his heart. When, therefore, Shakespeare has

the king allude to this law before the battle, there is the implication
that God will be with England as He was with Israel in the Exodus.
We should also not miss the fact that before the battle, the king
has declared St. Crispins day as a day of perpetual remembrance,
even speaking of a feast on the night before. An allusion to the
Passover and to Israels remembrance of Gods great victory over
Egypt is intended, though perhaps it does not become entirely clear
until the end of the battle. Finally, Henrys last words before the
battle actually begins commit the battle and all into the hands of
God: And how thou pleasest, God, dispose the day!
At the end of the battle, when the French Herald, Montjoy,
tells Henry the English have won the battle, Henrys first words
are Praised be God, and not our strength, for it! Somewhat
later, the king reads the lists of the dead and he sees that 10,000
French, including many nobles and knights have died, but only
three of the English nobility, one knight, and 25 other men died.
The victory is a miracle and Henry declares immediately,

O God, thy arm was here;

And not to us, but to thy arm alone,
Ascribe we all! When, without stratagem,
But in plain shock and even play of battle,
Was ever known so great and little loss
On one part and on the other? Take it, God,
For it is none but thine!

He adds a moment later:

Come, go we in procession to the village.

And be it death proclaimed through our host
To boast of this or take the praise from God
Which is his only.

Henry V (II)

His Welsh captain, Fluellen, is a little disturbed and wants to know

if it is at least lawful to tell how many died. To which the king

Yes, captain; but with this acknowledgement,

That God fought for us.

In these words, Shakespeare is alluding to the following two verses

in the book of Joshua.

And all these kings and their land did Joshua take at one
time, because Yahweh, the God of Israel, fought for
Israel. (10:42)

and ye have seen all that Yahweh your God hath done
unto all these nations because of you; for Yahweh your
God, he it is that hath fought for you. (23:3)

By this, Shakespeare links Henrys semi-miraculous defeat of

the French with Joshuas defeat of the Canaanite enemies in the
land. However, he is doing much more. Here we have a subtle
but theologically profound allusion. At the beginning of the play,
Shakespeare alluded to the promise in Deuteronomy that God
would go before Israel and at the end of the play, Shakespeare
alluded to the historical record in the book of Joshua that shows
that God did indeed fight for Israel as He had promised.
An astute viewer of the play could pick up the references and
note that the plays allusions suggest a parallel between the promise
and fulfillment of Israels battles with Englands. These allusions
suggest that the entire play is to be seen as a repetition of Israels
story of Exodus and conquest. In both the Exodus and the con-
quest, Israel fought with enemies who vastly outnumbered them
and had overwhelming power by comparison, but God fought for
her and Israel won.

Lecture Nine

There is one more very important allusion to the Bible.

Shortly after this conversation with Fluellen, the great battle scene
ends with the kings final words:

Do we all holy rites;

Let there be sung Non nobis and Te Deum;
The dead with charity enclosed in clay:
And then to Calais; and to England then:
Where neer from France arrived more happy men.

The repeated emphasis on the arm of God and giving praise

to God alone find their climax in the singing of Non nobis the
first verse of Psalm 115, which reads in the Geneva Bible not
unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but unto thy name give the glory.
These allusions to the Bible show us clearly that Henry V is
indeed to be seen as an ideal Christian king. They put the whole
play into a Biblical frame that defines Henrys conquest of France
as a sort of crusade. The Biblical allusions confirm the view of
the clergy that the king did have rights to the French throne. He
led the English like Moses and Joshua led Israel.
This view of Henry is further confirmed by two important
scenes in the play. The first scene of Act 1 is a conversation be-
tween Ely and Canterbury. There may be implications here that
the church is not altogether pure, but we have to remember that in
Shakespeares day, the notion of a church separate from the State
was not the common English view. For the leading prelates to be
involved with political affairs is perfectly normal.
What is important for our understanding of Henry V as a man
is their description of his change upon becoming king. Canterbury
speaks of Henry as if he had been converted, after which he details
the kings ability in theology, politics, military affairs, and rhetoric.
The wild and reckless prince Hal, who never studied or prepared
for his future has been transformed into a king with wisdom and

Henry V (II)

ability surpassing his years. It is a wonder.

There is no reason to view this speech of Canterburys to
be insincere. The two churchmen have no motive to represent
Henry as a godly and wise king in their private conversation. Their
words should be taken at face value as their sincere evaluation of
the king and his apparent conversion.
There is an aspect of their conversation that Shakespeares
audience would have noted that most modern audiences, especially
American ones, probably miss. The two churchmen describe the
kings transformation using language from the Anglican baptismal
Daniel Wright points out the parallels. In the Anglican bap-
tismal service from the 1559 Book of Common Prayer is the follow-
ing: we which are baptized die from sin and continually mortify
. . . all our evil and corrupt affections. In Henry V, Shakespeare
wrote, his wildness, mortified in him, seemed to die, too. In the
Book of Common Prayer, grant that the old Adam in these children
may be so buried. In Henry V, Consideration like an angel came
and whipped the offending Adam out of him. Canterbury uses
metaphorical expressions that point to baptism also Never came
reformation in a flood with such a heady currance scouring faults.
The allusions to the baptismal service would have been as obvious
to 16th and 17th century Anglicans as an allusion to Just as I am
would be to 20th century American evangelicals.
The first scene establishes the plays view of the king. Shake-
speare opens the play with two prelates talking in private about
the king as a wonder of godliness and wisdom, borrowing well-
known language from the baptismal service. It is highly unlikely
that this is ironic and those who assume that it is have a very heavy
burden of proof.
The other scene that confirms the view of the king as good
and wise is the scene at the battle of Agincourt where Henry is
alone, considering the meaning of kingship and praying to God.

Lecture Nine

The soliloquy reveals the king as a humble man who knows that
he is no better or greater than other men. A mere ceremony has
made him king. However, his responsibilities are heavy and he is
subject to the criticism of the whole realm for every mistake he
may make. While the common people sleep soundly, the king has
to worry about the kingdom.
Henrys prayer reveals a truly repentant faith and may even
be intended to imply that he is a man like Job. In the Bible, Job
loved his children and, just in case they might have sinned, he of-
fered sacrifice for them to atone for their wrongs. In Henrys case,
there is no question that his father has done wrong. But Henry,
rather than justifying it or simply ignoring it, feels responsible
and tries to atone for it as he can, even though it is his fathers
sin and not his own. At the same time, he admits that his acts of
penance cannot earn Gods favor or pardon. He relies on grace.
Since this is a prayer in private, Henry is not posturing for others;
he opens his true heart to God. The prayer confirms the view of
the clergymen at the beginning of the play. This king is a sincere
and pious Christian.
Though this seems obvious, Henrys prayer has been analyzed
by Steven Marx in a manner that makes Henry appear hypocritical.
Henry prays that God would take from his soldiers their sense of
reckoning, which Marx takes as Henry praying that God would
deceive the soldiers for him, in Marx words blind them from
the truth. Marx recognizes that Henrys real request is that God
would strengthen his mens hearts for the battle, but that is to be
accomplished in part by a sort of dissimulation. In Marxs view,
this fits into a larger pattern of deception that includes the king
disguising himself as a commoner to speak to the men.
This strikes me as a very modern and odd reading. Of course,
it is true that Machiavelli discusses religious deception and insists
that it is part of good governance. But Machiavellis reading of
the Bible is perverse. He twists the Scripture to endorse a kingly

Henry V (II)

right of deception as an essential means of rule, whereas in the

Bible deception is a much more theologically complicated business.
For example, God advised Joshua and the Israelites about how
to deceive their enemies in battle, but there is nothing unrighteous
here. In terms of Biblical ethics, if we have the right to kill some-
one, we also have the right to deceive the person. The children of
Israel had been commanded to exterminate the Canaanites, using
deception as a means to accomplish that goal was not an issue.
Another famous example appears in Genesis. Rebekah in-
structed her son Jacob to deceive her husband Isaac. The plan
was entirely hers. Jacob seems to have been put in the place of
choosing to obey his mother or honor his father. However, his
father was about to commit a great sin. He knew that Jacob was
the God-appointed heir and in spite of that, he was about to give
the inheritance to Esau. What Rebekah and Jacob did was to use
deception to prevent Isaac from sinning against God. When Esau
came to him, Isaac realized immediately what Rebekah and Jacob
had done and he did not rebuke them for it. He realized they were
right and he was wrong.
Other examples could be cited but the point is that deception
in the Bible is a highly complex theme that has many dimensions.
Machiavellis attempt to glean from the Scriptures a sort of right
to lie for kings and leaders is a perversion of the Biblical teaching
here. Marx grants too much to Machiavellis view and applies it
to King Henry illegitimately.
With respect to the larger question of Henrys character, there
is a far more important factor that has been ignored in the entire
discussion. To say that Henry is a king like the great kings of
the Bible or a leader like Moses or Joshua is not at all to say that
Henry is without fault or sin. The Bible records the lives of the
heroes of the faith without covering over their blemishes. Moses
and Joshua each committed sins that brought divine rebuke. In
Moses case, his sin prevented him from entering the promised land.

Lecture Nine

King David, though he was a man after Gods own heart,

sinned in many things, including adultery and murder, both sins
that were punishable by death. Though the Bible records sins by
David and other kings, their sins are not always commented upon
nor is there any indication in the written record that God dealt with
them. Polygamy is the most obvious example of a sin committed
by most, if not all, of the kings, but it is recorded without com-
ment or condemnation in the history books, though it is clearly
forbidden in the law.
The point is that Shakespeare and his audience know that a
king being a good man and a hero of the faith does not mean the
man has no faults. They are accustomed to seeing their heroes
being represented warts and all. Henrys crude language before
Har Fleur may indeed be inappropriate for an ideal Christian king,
though I am not sure everyone in Shakespeares day would have
found it so. The kings treatment of people on various occasions
may have been blameworthy even in the eyes of a 16th or 17th
century Englishman. But that would not have meant to those
people that he was a hypocrite or an unworthy king. It would
simply have meant that he was a sinner, like everyone else. For a
people steeped in the Bible and its relatively critical view of kings
and leaders, finding faults with Henry would not have led to the
view that there are two Henrys in Shakespeares play or that Henry
was a hypocrite.
Consideration of Shakespeares play about Henry Vs son,
Henry VI, further supports this view. Henry VI was a pious and
godly king. Somewhere in the play, it is remarked that he should
have been a priest rather than a king. He had his fathers religious
nature, but none of his fathers military or political competence.
Thus, he was not able to keep France or settle the problems that
arose in England.
However, Englands failure to retain control over France and
then, the kings inability to maintain peace at home during the Wars

Henry V (II)

of the Roses from 1455-1485 are seen as the result of the infight-
ing of the English nobility. In the three plays that have his name,
Shakespeares Henry VI is not so much blamed as pitied. What is
important is that Henry V and Henry VI are not seen as the cause
of Englands troubles. There is not the slightest hint that Henry
V was somehow responsible for Englands later turmoil. On the
contrary, it was the rebellious nobility and their factional quarrels
that brought misery to the land, just as Henry IV warned they
might. The Wars of the Roses were Gods discipline on England.
Her nobility loved war and strife and God gave it to them until
they were worn out with it.

IV. Conclusion

The final consideration with regard to Henry V is that the

play ends in a marriage. Following the Bible, the pattern in Shake-
speare is that tragedy ends in death and comedy ends in marriage.
Though Henry V is a history play, it ends like a comedy, celebrating
the union of France and England. It is appropriate that the war
between Christian princes should end in the Churchs mediation
of a peace and both sides exchanging forgiveness. The marriage
of Henry V to the Princess of France brings the two countries
together in a bond of peace and love. Of course, the audience
knows it did not last long, but in the last words of the chorus,
Henry V is still the star of England, and the blame for Englands
subsequent misfortune is squarely placed on the nobility.
What Henry V achieved then, was the union of England
and France under the authority of the English crown. His reign
was the height of English glory. Whatever faults he had were
vastly outweighed by his virtues and his accomplishments in war
and peace. Shakespeares play commemorates one of Englands
greatest Christian kings, depicting him as a leader like Moses or

Lecture Nine

Joshua. The Biblical references in the play and the conclusion

of the play in a glorious marital union between the two great na-
tions of England and France point to Henry as an ideal king for
Christian England refuting the 20th century misunderstanding
of Henry V as a subtle anti-war play and exposing that view as
reading a modern bias into Shakespeare.
To review, then, we have seen: First, that in the series of
Shakespeares history plays, Henry V is presented as an English
hero; second, that Shakespeare may have been changing his views
on war and peace, moving closer to the views of Thomas More
and Erasmus; but that third, this does not imply that Shakespeare
regarded Henry V as less than an ideal Christian king, or that he
coded the play, so to speak, so that it would show Henry as a hero
to the less sophisticated and a hypocrite to those who could view
the play with discernment. On the contrary, the Biblical refer-
ences in Shakespeares play make it clear that Henry V conforms
to contemporary views of English history and Gods providential
working in England.

Romeo and Juliet

Lecture Ten:
Romeo and Juliet

Romeo and Juliet may not be one of Shakespeares ten best

plays, but it remains one of the most popular. A course on Shake-
speare can hardly afford to neglect it. However, I present this
play from a perspective that will be unfamiliar to most readers. I
argue that in our day Romeo and Juliet is popular for all the wrong
reasons, reasons that go directly contrary to Shakespeares own
intentions in writing the play. If this sounds radical, let me assure
you that my view is not by any means unique, though I suspect it
is not well-known, even among Christians.

The Common View

If the experience of most Christians is at all similar to what

mine was, they will be unacquainted with the diverse interpreta-
tions of Romeo and Juliet. What they will be familiar with is the
popular notion that these two young lovers express some sort
of ideal love, so complete and pure that it constitutes a virtually
transcendent standard. If we want to know what love between
a young man and a young woman should be, all we need to do is
look to Romeo and his Juliet.
Not only is this the common view of high school students,
it is also a common view among non-Christian scholars and, no
doubt, among some Christian students of Shakespeare, as well.
Lecture Ten

I believe this view is basically mistaken. As in some of my other

lectures, I will interact with the views of Harold Bloom, one of
the most highly respected Shakespearean scholars today. I have
chosen him because Bloom epitomizes the view of non-Christian
scholars, Hollywood, and modern teenagers when he writes things
like the following.

There had to be one high song of the erotic by Shake-

speare, one lyrical and tragicomical paean celebrating an
unmixed love and lamenting its inevitable destruction.
Romeo and Juliet is unmatched, in Shakespeare and in the
worlds literature, as a vision of an uncompromising mu-
tual love that perishes of its own idealism and intensity.1

The permanent popularity, now of mythic intensity, of

Romeo and Juliet is more than justified, since the play is
the largest and most persuasive celebration of romantic
love in Western literature.2

It is hardly possible to praise the play in more exaggerated

language than this. Phrases like unmixed love, unmatched, in
Shakespeare and in the worlds literature, mythic intensity, and
the largest and most persuasive celebration of romantic love in
Western literature strain to find the most extreme praise imag-
inable. Bloom believes nothing can compare with Romeo and
Juliet as the depiction of a flawless love between two pure-hearted
young people.
Why, then, according to Bloom, did it all have to come to a
tragic end? Bloom sees the source of the tragedy in the very nature
of the world itself, rather than in a fault of the two young lovers.
He refers to Thomas McAlindons book Shakespeares Tragic Cosmos
1 Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, p. 89.
2 Ibid., p. 90.

Romeo and Juliet

which, we are told, traces the dynamics of conflict in the dramatist

back to the rival worldviews of Heraclitus and Empedocles.3 The
huge assumption here is that Shakespeares view of the universe is
a fundamentally Greek and secular view, rather than the Christian
view of his contemporaries. Shakespeare supposedly picked up
from Chaucer the views of Heraclitus that all things flow, that is,
that change is ultimate, and of Empedocles that there is a per-
petual war between love and death. The practical result of such
thinking is, according to Bloom, Love dies or else the lovers die;
those are the pragmatic possibilities for the two poets, each of
them experientially wise beyond wisdom.4
Blooms two poets in this quotation are Shakespeare and
Chaucer. The apparent paradox of love and death comes from
the fact that change is regarded as ultimate. If all must change,
then love itself which is in perpetual war with death must
change over time and therefore capitulate to death. Or the lovers,
to preserve their love inviolate, must lose their lives before the fire
of their passion is washed away with the floods of time.
What evidence can Bloom find that Shakespeare holds to this
view of the world rather than the Biblical view? The little Bloom
can find comes from his own subjective interpretations of the
plays, but his interpretations presuppose this view to begin with.
He is arguing in a circle. Of course, at some level that is unavoid-
able. When it comes to ultimate presuppositions, we all argue in a
circle because it is in the very nature of an ultimate presupposition
that it cannot be proved by something more ultimate. But that
does not mean we are all stuck on our own individual philosophi-
cal merry-go-rounds, endlessly whirling around in private circles.
We can compare various presuppositional systems to the things
they are supposed to explain to see which system offers a better
3 Ibid., p. 88.
4 Ibid.

Lecture Ten

My Christian understanding of Shakespeare is supported by

the Christian structure of many of the plays as we have already
seen in the previous lectures and by the remarkable quality and
sheer quantity of Shakespeares references to the Bible. It may not
be impossible to imagine an essentially secular poet whose life and
thought are so saturated in the Bible but it would certainly be a
work of supererogation. Why should we attempt to construct for
ourselves a secular Shakespeare who knows the Bible well, quotes
it often, and consistently interprets it in an intelligent Anglican
manner that fits the worldview of the larger culture of Elizabethan
England? How would we explain this secular Shakespeare, so far
out of tune with his own society? Could a hypocrite who attended
church regularly and honored Christ in his will write plays that
show such deep understanding of good and evil men? Finding
persuasive answers to questions like these is only possible if we
are trying to persuade someone who desperately wants to believe
in a secular Shakespeare.

I. The Key Reference in Romeo and Juliet

Romeo and Juliet provides an excellent play for testing the

Christian versus the secular hypothesis. What I will demonstrate
in this lecture is that Shakespeare has given us the key to the play
in a passage that Bloom correctly identifies as central to any cor-
rect interpretation of Romeo and Juliet. We can easily unlock the
interpretation of the play if we only take that Biblical key in hand.
I say it will be easy for us to unlock the interpretation because
there are in fact many other places in the play that confirm my
understanding of what may be the most important single passage.
Before turning to those lines, I hasten to add a word to remove
possible misunderstanding. In pointing to Shakespeares use of
the Bible in a specific passage to give us the key to the play, I am
not suggesting that Shakespeare offers an ambiguous play and then

Romeo and Juliet

hides a secret message coded in a Scriptural allusion. Shakespeare

never uses Biblical references as some sort of cryptogram. It is
just the opposite. The Bible was the most read and well-known
book of his day. Allusions to the Bible were not secret information
hidden in an otherwise obscure and difficult-to-understand story.
In our day, however, when the Christian consensus of Elizabethan
England is lost, and when even professing Christians hardly know
the Bible, Scriptural references might seem like some sort of hid-
den code. For many, if not most, viewers of the plays, they go
unnoticed. Or, if noticed, are hardly treated seriously.
I argue that the basic relationship between Romeo and Juliet
is succinctly expressed in the Scriptural reference Shakespeare
placed in one of the most important exchanges in the play. In
that sense, my use of the image of a key may be misleading and
inappropriate. The Biblical reference should not be thought of as
unlocking a door that would be closed to us without it. Rather, it
is a brief statement of the point of the whole story in the words
of Scripture, which enables us to see the meaning of the story
with greater clarity and depth. Though there is nothing obscure
in the play to begin with, when Shakespeare sets forth the heart
of the story in language as shocking as it is profound, he rivets
our attention on the central issue.
To say it in different words, if we pay attention to the Scrip-
tural reference, we cannot possibly miss Shakespeares meaning,
even with the cultural blindness which comes from our too deeply
imbibing modernist and postmodernist ideological moonshine.
Even though most of us hardly realize it, there is a huge world-
view gap between Shakespeare and us. Shakespeare is still a man
of the middle ages and he views the world through the lens of
Christian presuppositions. We are modern and postmodern. Our
cultures presuppositions come from our views of science and our
humanism. And these romantic and individualistic notions lead
us to misinterpret Shakespeare. We fail to see the obvious. We

Lecture Ten

need something to open our eyes to what is plainly set before us,
and that is exactly what this crucial Biblical reference in Romeo
and Juliet does.
Harold Bloom introduces the dialogue containing the decisive

When I think of the play, without rereading and teaching

it, or attending yet one more inadequate performance,
I first remember neither the tragic outcome, nor the
gloriously vivid Mercutio and the Nurse. My mind
goes directly to the vital center, Act II, Scene ii, with its
incandescent exchange between the lovers.5

I am not going to quote the entire dialogue that Bloom regards as

central but just the portion relevant to my point.

ROMEO: Lady, by yonder blessed moon I swear

That tips with silver all these fruit-tree tops--
JULIET: O, swear not by the moon, the inconstant
That monthly changes in her circled orb,
Lest that thy love prove likewise variable.
ROMEO: What shall I swear by?
JULIET: Do not swear at all;
Or, if thou wilt, swear by thy gracious self,
Which is the god of my idolatry,
And Ill believe thee.

Romeo first suggests that he swear by the moon, but, as Ju-

liet realizes, the moon is inconstant. If she had known that only
24 hours earlier, Romeo could have sworn by the moon that he
loved Rosaline with invariable love, she might have understood
5 Ibid., p.90.

Romeo and Juliet

that swearing by the moon perfectly fits the nature of Romeos

love. But Juliet knows nothing of Rosaline and so cannot share
that bit of irony with us.
When Romeo asks what he should swear by, Juliet responds
first by saying, do not swear at all, borrowing words directly
from Christs Sermon on the Mount. In the context, this refer-
ence is important. Jesus taught us to let our yes be yes and our
no be no. But inconstant Romeo is not capable of that. What
is more important, Jesus here teaches against taking light or rash
oaths precisely the sort of oath Romeo is about to offer. Thus,
Juliets quotation of Jesus words teaches us what obviously never
occurred to her about Romeos oath. This deepens the irony of
the reference to the moon and prepares us for the next statement,
which is another reference to Scripture.
Shakespeare has Juliet allude to Hebrews 6:13, a well-known
and important verse about the Abrahamic covenant. Her words
swear by thy gracious self point to the following verse.

For when God made the promise to Abraham, since He

could swear by no one greater, He swore by Himself.
(Heb. 6:13)

Alluding to these words of Scripture to suggest that Romeo swear

by himself is virtual blasphemy. Is there nothing or no one greater
than Romeo by which he could swear? Just in case we might think
such an allusion could be accidental or innocent, Shakespeare has
Juliet herself confirm the meaning in her next line.

Which is the god of my idolatry.

Juliets confession that Romeo is her god and that her attitude
toward him is idolatry is immediately followed by her promise to
believe him. This is the core of the matter. The story of Romeo

Lecture Ten

and Juliet is a story of idolatrous love, a story about a young man

and woman whose love was tragic because it transgressed the
very deepest meaning of true love in an ironically twisted manner.
Love means self-sacrifice for the blessing and benefit of the other.
Romeo and Juliets love was idolatrous. And Shakespeare knew
that idolatry is not about worshipping a god for whom or what
the god is. The idol worshipper makes demands from the gods.
He serves his gods for wages. If one god does not provide what
the idolater seeks, he can always find another. Idols are made by
mans hands to serve mans needs.
Idolatrous love is the same. It is essentially selfish and self-
seeking. Rather than sacrifice of the self for the blessing of the
other the lesson of love taught in The Merchant of Venice
idolatrous love uses the other to gratify the self. Romeo and Juliets
idolatry therefore ends in what appears to many to be self-sacrifice,
but what is really the ultimate act of selfish pride suicide. The
irony of the conclusion is that neither of them had the time or
guidance to grow into mature love. Romeo did not sacrifice him-
self for Juliet but for Romeo, just as Juliet loved Romeo for her
own sake. Idolatry never gets beyond the self. Idolatrous love
does not and cannot sacrifice for the blessing of the other.
Shakespeares play does not preach directly, but it remains nev-
ertheless a condemnation of these young lovers for an improper
love. It is not that they loved too much, but that their passion
fell short of the qualities that make love true. In exposing their
fault, however, Shakespeare does not despise them, like a Pharisee
looking down on foolish youth. Tragedy presupposes that there
could have been something better. Things did not have to turn
out bad; the stars are not really in control. Romeo and Juliet are
guilty of idolatrous passion, but had someone corrected them and
guided them, what began in imperfection could have been rectified.
Their love was seriously defective, but it did not entirely lack the
purity or devotion of genuine love. It could have been sanctified

Romeo and Juliet

into something truly beautiful. But it was not. They fell into
idolatry and ruin almost inevitably because their idolatrous love
fit the mood of a city addicted to idolatrous pride and foolishness.
That, in brief, is the view of the play suggested by this central
passage with its references to Scripture. As I said before, I am
not the only one who holds this view. Many Christian interpret-
ers of Shakespeare hold a similar view. To see if it really fits the
play itself, we need to consider the details of the play. Our aim
is to determine what Shakespeare is doing in this story, what his
intention is. One of the best ways to get at Shakespeares inten-
tion is to relate his play to its source, for Shakespeare borrowed
the story of Romeo and Juliet.

II. Shakespeare and His Source

Modern non-Christian readers are often a little bit disturbed

to discover that Shakespeares play Romeo and Juliet came primarily
from a poem by an earnest Protestant poet, Arthur Brooke. If
the Brooke family internet site is correct, Arthur was the great
nephew of the Protestant reformer and martyr, Archbishop
Thomas Cranmer. Brookes poem, based upon an Italian story
by Bandello, was published in 1562, just a year before his untimely
death in a shipwreck.
Brookes intention in turning the Italian story into an English
poem was clearly expressed in the preface to his work, addressed
to the reader. Brooke clearly tells the reader that he told the story
of two foolish young people in order to edify us.

The God of all Glory created, universally, all creatures

to set forth His praise; both those which we esteem
profitable in use and pleasure, and also those which we
account noisome and loathsome. But principally He hath
appointed man the chiefest instrument of His honour,

Lecture Ten

not only for ministering matter thereof in man himself,

but as well in gathering out of others the occasions of
publishing Gods goodness, wisdom, and power. And in
like sort, every doing of man hath, by Gods dispensation,
something whereby God may and ought to be honoured.
So the good doings of the good and the evil acts of the
wicked, the happy success of the blessed and the woeful
proceedings of the miserable, do in divers sort sound
one praise of God. And as each flower yieldeth honey
to the bee, so every example ministereth good lessons
to the well-disposed mind. . . . And to this end, good
Reader, is this tragical matter written, to describe unto
thee a couple of unfortunate lovers, thralling themselves
to unhonest desire; neglecting the authority and advice
of parents and friends; conferring their principal coun-
sels with drunken gossips and superstitious friars (the
naturally fit instruments of unchastity); attempting all
adventures of peril for th attaining of their wished lust;
using auricular confession the key of whoredom and
treason, for furtherance of their purpose; abusing the
honourable name of lawful marriage to cloak the shame
of stolen contracts; finally by all means of unhonest life
hasting to most unhappy death.6

For most modern readers, this is a rather different perspec-

tive on a story about young lovers, but Christians should not be
shocked. Brooke actually follows Solomon and the way he warns
about the evil woman in the book of Proverbs. In Proverbs 7:6-23,
Solomon tells a short story in the form of a wisdom poem. The
story of an adulteress who seeks and finds a young, foolish man,
tempts him and leads him to destruction, is described realistically
without apology. Solomon depicts the adulteress concretely. Her
6 Online:

Romeo and Juliet

language is crude, attracting the foolish young man by its bold ap-
peal to his lust. Anyone who visualizes to himself what he reads
is confronted with an X-rated short story, though, of course, the
details are left to the imagination. Solomons story is not erotic
or crude, even though the adulterous womans words and actions
are set forth in authentically awful language.
Arthur Brooke, concerned that his readers might misunder-
stand his meaning, prefaced his story with a short explanation of
why he wrote it and what he aimed at with his poem. Shakespeare
does not borrow Brookes introduction and many assume that he
could not possibly have had a similar purpose. However, careful
study of the play reveals that Shakespeare and Brooke were of
one mind.
The first thing we need to know is that Shakespeare followed
Brooke so faithfully that Brian Gibbons, editor of the Arden ver-
sion of Romeo and Juliet, describes Shakespeares reading as close
and gives detailed evidence for his view.

The closeness with which Shakespeare read Brooke is

attested by occasional allusions in the play to incidents
in Brooke which Shakespeare did not dramatize, and by
the frequency with which Shakespeare preserved material
from Brooke while altering its context or transferring it
to another character; so the Nurses account of Juliets
childhood, for example, is recounted to Juliet and her
mother in the play (I. iii), but is told to Romeo by the
Nurse in Brooke, and there are a number of similar epi-
sodes to support the impression that Shakespeare had a
copy of Brooke by him as he wrote the play.7

Note Gibbons words. Through comparing Shakespeare and

7 The Arden Shakespeare (Third Series), Romeo and Juliet, ed. Brian Gibbons
(London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1980), p. 38.

Lecture Ten

Brooke, he has the impression that Shakespeare had a copy of

Brooke by him as he wrote the play. Whether or not Shakespeare
directly incorporated elements from Chaucer or had read the Ital-
ian story by Bandello, his heavy dependence on Brooke is unques-
tioned. Shakespeare followed Brooke so completely that a scholar
who looks into the matter carefully receives the impression that
Shakespeare wrote his play with Brookes poem open in front of
him. This suggests, though it does not prove, a unity of purpose
on the part of the two authors. It also suggests another line of
investigation. If Shakespeare usually followed Brooke so strictly,
the places where he diverges from Brooke must be important for
our understanding of his purpose.
If we pay attention to the places where Shakespeare differs
from the source he usually followed so closely, we will gain insight
into Shakespeares particular approach. That is, we will better un-
derstand precisely what Shakespeare himself was attempting with
this play. As we look into the differences, I think it will become
clear that Shakespeare shared Brookes desire to edify. He modi-
fied Brooke not to change, but in order to emphasize the message.
The important differences can be summed up under three topics:
the use of Scripture, Shakespeares chronology, and the develop-
ment of the characters).

A. Shakespeares Biblical References

The first topic to consider is Shakespeares Biblical references.

Brookes poem contained about 20 references to the Bible, though
some are not so clear. What makes Shakespeares references sig-
nificant is that not a single one of them is borrowed from Brooke
or from other possible sources they all come from Shakespeare
himself. Though we will consider only a few of them, the fact
that Shakespeare chose reference himself must be kept in mind
when weighing their importance.

Romeo and Juliet

One reference missed by Naseeb Shaheen, and probably by

most viewers of the play also, appears in Juliets conversation with
the Friar in Act 4, Scene 1. Of all the people in the world, how
could Juliet say to Friar Lawrence, Bid me leap, rather than marry
Paris, from off the battlements of any tower? She is clearly not
intending to imply anything evil about the Friar, but she has in-
advertently alluded to the temptation of Christ by Satan, putting
the poor Friar in the place of the tempter. No doubt, this should
not be pushed too far, but it is not insignificant either. The Friar,
who was supposed to be a counselor for Romeo and Juliet, in fact
fails them tempting them to sin in secret marriage and in secret
plots to avoid parental authority. In fact, Romeo and Juliet test
God rather than trusting His goodness and leading. This passing
reference to the temptation of Christ, though ironic, clearly gives
insight into the action of the play.
The earliest Scripture reference in the play also illumines our
perspective on Verona and its young men. In Act 1, Scene 1, two
servants from the house of Capulet converse crudely about sex
and violence. One of them, ironically named Sampson, refers to
women as weaker vessels, while suggesting forced sexual rela-
tions. The expression he borrows from the Bible comes from
the apostle Peter who refers to women as the weaker vessel in
the context of exhorting husbands to honor them, the very op-
posite of the attitude expressed by Sampson. The ironic use of
Scriptural language enforces the picture of almost animal crude-
ness. To the degree that it is important for the whole play, it fits
in with the larger picture of young men who view young women
as little more than a sexual prize. Mercutio, Benvolio, and to some
degree, even Romeo himself, are not far from this vulgar view of
women and sex.
Apart from a few references that give us insight about the
action or characters of the play, most of the 30 or so Biblical refer-
ences in Shakespeares play are only important for the immediate

Lecture Ten

context in which they appear. For example, when Juliet hears that
Romeo has killed Tybalt (Act 3, Scene 2), her anger explodes into
oxymoronic poetry.

O serpent heart, hid with a flowering face!

Did ever dragon keep so fair a cave?
Beautiful tyrant! Fiend angelical!
Dove-featherd raven! Wolvish-ravening lamb!
Despised substance of divinest show!
Just opposite to what thou justly seemst,
A damned saint, an honourable villain!
O nature, what hadst thou to do in hell,
When thou didst bower the spirit of a fiend
In moral paradise of such sweet flesh?
Was ever book containing such vile matter
So fairly bound? O that deceit should dwell
In such a gorgeous palace!

The general picture of satanic deception suggests more than

one Biblical reference, perhaps the most specific of which is the
allusion to the wolf in sheeps clothing. In her response to this
outburst from Juliet, the Nurse answers in language reminiscent
of Psalm 116:11, I said in my alarm, All men are liars.
However, these references do not give us an essential insight
or a final verdict on Romeo, either from Juliets perspective or from
Shakespeares. Juliets passing anger, expressed in Biblical language
as it is, suggests the darkest picture of Romeo imaginable, but not
his true self. It does, however, correspond partially with another
Scriptural reference that is intended to characterize Romeo.
This Biblical reference is another one of those few that point
clearly to the meaning of the play as a whole. In Act 2, scene 3,
Romeo goes to visit Friar Lawrence to ask him to perform a wed-
ding. The Friar is alone on stage, talking about his plants, when

Romeo and Juliet

Romeo silently enters. The Friars last words about his plants are
spoken just before Romeo greets him.

Within the infant rind of this small flower

Poison hath residence and medicine power:
For this, being smelt, with that part cheers each part;
Being tasted, slays all senses with the heart.
Two such opposed kings encamp them still
In man as well as herbs, grace and rude will;
And where the worser is predominant,
Full soon the canker death eats up that plant.

The language of the allusion here is relatively indirect, but it

meets with Naseeb Shaheens strict criteria for a Biblical reference.
Shakespeare refers here to Biblical passages like Galatians 5 or
Romans 8, which speak of a warfare between flesh and spirit. The
Friar reminds us that when the flesh wins the battle, the sinner is
damned. Romeos appearance at just this point identifies him as a
plant that will full soon be eaten by the canker death, because
in him rude will predominates over grace.
This Biblical reference applies much more broadly than to
just the immediate discourse. The Friar himself does not intend
to define Romeo or his course in life, but in fact, he has. If we
change the terms the Friar uses to define the battle between the
flesh and the Spirit, we might say that Romeo is a man in whom
rages a battle between true and idolatrous love.
The Friar, however, does not help Romeo to gain the victory
over idolatry. On the contrary, he merely mollifies the intensity of
the idolatry and temporarily channels it into a less radical expres-
sion. But I will return to this subject later. For now the point is
that the Friars words here allude to the Biblical teaching about the
flesh warring against the Spirit and are part of the basic teaching
of the whole play. The Friar is warning all of us about this battle

Lecture Ten

in the same way that he warned Romeo, who just happened to

overhear the last part of the Friars soliloquy.
This warning, together with the references to Matthew 5
and Hebrews 6, constitute the most significant Biblical references
for the play. The fact that none of them are either part of the
traditional story or included in Brookes poem show clearly that
Shakespeare wrote this play to preach a message to his audience.
Of course, he does not preach directly. His method is to hold up
the mirror to nature, so that we can see the dangers of idolatrous
love. He warns us just as Solomon warned his son, by telling a
tragic story.

The Chronology of the Play

The second topic to consider is the chronology of the play.

The details here reinforce the point made by the Biblical references,
for the differences between Shakespeare and his source here are
most striking. They patently lay bare Shakespeares intention to
anyone willing to seriously consider the matter.
Brookes story of Romeus and Juliet took place over a period
of nine months. Now for many of us, a teen-age romance devel-
oping over a period of nine months may seem a bit hasty, but it
would not be shocking. Shakespeare, in order to emphasize that
Romeo and Juliet were moved by passion rather than what any
adult could consider true love, restructured and radically acceler-
ated the chronology of the story.
Shakespeares story begins a little before 9 oclock one morn-
ing with a brawl between the servants of the house of Montague
and Capulet. Shortly after the brawl, Benvolio, whose name means
good will, searches out Romeo to discover the cause of the mel-
ancholy that has troubled him for so long. We learn that Romeo
is sick because Rosaline does not return his love for her. Later in
the day, Romeo and Benvolio hear that there will be a party that

Romeo and Juliet

night at the Capulet home, and that Rosaline will be there. Romeo
and his friends attend the party, but instead of meeting his beloved
Rosaline, Romeo sees Juliet and is immediately stricken. Now he
is really in love again.
After leaving the party, Romeo hides in the garden beneath
Juliets balcony and hears Juliet speaking of her love for him. He
reveals himself and the two of them exchange vows of love and
promise to be married. They have known each other for only a
few hours. Juliet is just 14. We are not sure of Romeos age, but
16 or 17 is a good guess.
The next morning Romeo meets the Friar and persuades him
to marry them. In the afternoon, less than 24 hours after their first
meeting, the private wedding takes place. But their bliss is marred
in one short hour when Tybalt, a hothead from the Capulet family,
kills Romeos loquacious friend Mercutio. Romeo cannot withhold
his wrath. He kills Tybalt in revenge and is banished from the city
for his crime. When Juliet hears of it, she is distraught.
Then, that night Juliets father makes arrangements for his
daughters marriage with Paris, a young nobleman of the city.
During this conversation, we learn that it is Monday. Late that
night until early the next morning, Romeo and Juliet meet secretly
As Tuesday dawns, Romeo leaves for Mantua. Shortly after,
Capulet informs his daughter of her upcoming marriage to Paris.
His plan is for them to be wed on Thursday, only two days away.
Juliet at first panics and tries to resist her father, but after consulting
with the Friar, she changes her tactics. She is told to agree to her
fathers will. But she also has a strong potion the Friar has given
her. By drinking it, she will go into a deep sleep that appears to
be death. This will free her from her ties to her family and her
promises to Paris, so that she can run away to be with Romeo.
With this plan in mind, Juliet returns home and apologizes to her
father, who is so happy for the change that he reschedules the

Lecture Ten

wedding from Thursday to Wednesday. Late Tuesday night, Juliet

drinks the potion that will put her into a death-like sleep.
All night, her parents diligently prepare for the wedding.
When the nurse comes in the morning to wake the tardy Juliet,
she finds her dead. The family is in shock. Instead of a wedding,
Juliets funeral is the ceremony for the day. News of this tragedy
also reaches Romeo, who was supposed to have been told that
Juliet is not really dead, but only unconscious. But the message
that Juliet is alive was never delivered. Romeo, overwhelmed at
the thought of Juliets death, makes plans to join her in the grave.
Late Wednesday night, just before Romeo arrives at the sepul-
cher, Paris comes to Juliets grave to mourn. When Romeo arrives,
Paris seeks to apprehend him and the two fight. Paris is killed.
Romeo then drinks the deadly poison he brought with him and
dies beside Juliet. A half an hour later, she wakes up and notices
the Friar, who has just come in the tomb. He urges her to leave
with him, since their plan has been thwarted and both Paris and
Romeo are dead. Juliet refuses. Looking on dead Romeo beside
her, she kisses him goodbye and uses his knife to kill herself. The
play ends when all is discovered on Thursday morning.
The entire action of the play, then, takes place between Sun-
day morning and Thursday morning. Taking into account the fact
that both Sunday and Thursday were only partial days, the whole
story covers only four short days. In less than 100 hours, Romeo
falls out of love with Rosaline, into love with Juliet, marries Juliet,
kills Tybalt, is banished from the city, returns to die with Juliet,
and kills both Paris and himself. During that same brief span,
Juliet falls in love with Romeo, marries him, forsakes her family,
pretends to die, and then kills herself. Also, besides the murder
of Tybalt and Paris, Romeos friend Mercutio is killed by Tybalt,
and Romeos mother dies of grief. Shakespeares version of the
story of Romeo and Juliet represents the most action-packed week
in the history of world romance.

Romeo and Juliet

Can anyone who notes the chronology not feel that everything
simply happens too fast? The passion of the young lovers moves
them to move too speedily for the counsels of wisdom to catch up.
Their feelings may be much more pure than Mercutios speeches
imply, but the pace of their passion outruns love. Love may be
planted at first sight, but the tree cannot be firmly rooted without
time and nurture. Loves seed cannot bear fruit in a single day or
even in four. The incredible brevity of the action is intended to
jolt the viewer into astonished realization. This is not an ideal love
story. Rather, it is a story of two infatuated teenagers who might
have learned to truly love each other if they were not so impulsively
headstrong, or if the adults responsible to guide them had done
so. Since teenage impetuosity is common, the warning is needed.
Another notable point in Shakespeares chronology is that
the play begins on a Sunday, but there is not a word of church or
worship at any time during the day. It is true that in the story the
Friar plays a prominent role in Verona, so we assume some sort
of Christian community, but the lack of any mention of worship
on Sunday seems odd. The omission is even more conspicuous
in the light of the fact that in Shakespeares England failure to
attend Sunday worship was punishable by a fine.

B. Character Development

Significant differences between Shakespeare and Brooke

appear in a third area, the development of the characters. Even
though Shakespeare uses the same characters that appear in
Brooke, he elaborates some of them in significantly different
ways, changing the mood of the story and emphasizing its main
themes. Some of these differences concern what may seem to be
minor details, but, as we all know, the devil is in the details. So is
the demonstration of my thesis.

Lecture Ten

Shakespeares play differs from Brooke in details that concern

the central characters, Romeo and Juliet. The most significant mat-
ter concerns Juliet. I refer to her age: she is a mere 14. In Brooke,
she is 16 and Brooke calls her a wily dame. People sometimes
discount Juliets youth by saying that people in Shakespeares day
married early, but in early 17th century London, the average age
for a young woman to be married was 22 or 23. Even a girl of 16
would have been too young for marriage, but a girl of 14 would
have been considered too young to even contemplate marriage, let
alone go through with it less than 24 hours after meeting her lover!
There is a similar detail about Romeo. In Brooke, Romeo
loves an unnamed lady. Shakespeare calls her Rosaline. The dif-
ference between Brooke and Shakespeare is that Brooke has his
Romeus persuaded to forget the unnamed lady who does not
respond to his love. Brookes Romeus spends 3 months looking
for another woman. But Shakespeares Romeo never gives up
Rosaline at all. It is she that Romeo is seeking at the Capulets
party. That Romeo forgot all about Rosaline upon the instant of
meeting Juliet is a detail that Shakespeare added to the story to
create a strong impression of rash changeability. Romeo is the
kind of young man that can be so overwhelmed with passion for
one woman that he sinks into the deepest depression when she
does not respond. But he is also the kind of young man that can
forget this woman in an instant when another woman, or, rather,
girl, inspires him with a new passion, especially when the new
object of his affection responds with affection.
These differences in characterizing Romeo and Juliet change
our perspective on the play tremendously. These two details alone,
almost, put the whole love story into a framework in which the
haste and folly of the young couple cannot be missed or excused.
Shakespeare also changed lesser characters in order to rein-
force as well as broaden the message of his play. One of Shake-
speares most colorful inventions is Mercutio. Though in Brookes

Romeo and Juliet

original, Mercutio is hardly more than a name, in Shakespeares

play he threatens to steal the show. No one doubts Mercutios
importance for Shakespeares version of the story, but the mean-
ing of his contribution to the play is widely disputed. Many see
Mercutio as the picture of a young man who knows only crude
and lustful attraction to young women. This licentious youth is
thought to be set in opposition to Romeo and his ideal love for
Juliet to emphasize Romeos purity and devotion.
Without necessarily denying that Mercutio is, to some de-
gree, set in contrast with Romeo, it is possible to see him from a
different perspective. Roy Battenhouse, who has written on the
art of Shakespearean tragedy, argues that Mercutio is a kind of
internal chorus for the play. Mercutio criticizes and explains
Romeo, giving the kind of comments on the play that usually come
from the chorus. But, of course, Mercutio is more colorful than
any chorus. Perhaps we could say that he functions for us like
the fool functions for a king in the court. He can get away with
saying things that no one else can say. Though much of what he
says sounds like nonsense and buffoonery, the fool is actually a
social commentator. He offers insight.
Mercutios famous speech on Queen Mab in Act 1, scene 4,
is just that kind of speech. Rather than being a mere interruption
in the action of the play, as some critics think, the speech defines
the whole world of Verona, as Battenhouse says, by telling us the
nature of the fairy who captivates human beings to the service
of cupidity in its many forms.8 Romeos idealistic dedication to
Juliet ironically unknown to Mercutio, who still thinks Romeo
is in love with Rosaline is in part a bewitching dream and in
part idle sport. But Queen Mab is not only ruling Romeo. The
entire city is inspired by her dreams. Her temptations direct men
in the way of idolatries of all sorts.
Mercutios uncouth social commentary includes vulgarities
8 Shakespeares Christian Dimension, p. 113.

Lecture Ten

that draw an analogy between love and dueling. Needless to say,

this presupposes that the love being spoken of is rash, hot passion,
not the total self-gift that the Bible sets forth as the standard. Also,
Mercutios words are prophetic, for it is only a short time before
Romeo betrays his love for Juliet by slaying her cousin Tybalt in
revenge for Tybalts slaying of Mercutio. This is another significant
Shakespearean change of detail. In Brooke, Romeus fights with
Tybalt in self-defense. Shakespeare changes this into a furious
assault against Tybalt for the sake of revenge an impetuous,
hot blooded and evil deed. Through Mercutios words, Romeos
love and revenge are shown to be parallel acts of undisciplined
and foolish self-will.
To reinforce the connection between love and killing, between
the passion of desire for Juliet and the lust for death, Shakespeare
alters another minor character in the play, Paris. Shakespeare in-
troduces Paris earlier than Brooke in order to set Romeo and Paris
in contrast throughout the story. However, the most important
change in detail comes at the end of the story, where Shakespeare
brings Romeo and Paris into conflict at Juliets tomb. Romeo,
again in the heat of his passion, kills the young count who loved
Juliet. The extra murder at the end of the play, this time provoked
by Romeos desire for Juliet, shows the immaturity and folly of
Romeos love in another extreme act of violent emotion. The bit-
ing irony here is that Romeos and Juliets lives would have been
saved if Romeo had run away or submitted to Paris. Had he been
something other than a hotheaded young man ready to fight and
kill, he would have been able to enjoy his love.
In other words, Shakespeare shows us a Romeo who was
doomed, but not by the stars. His own folly was his undoing. The
two sides of man that the Friar spoke of are both seen in Romeo
to be sure, but sinful lust, the self-willed determination to have
his own way, conquered Romeo and led him to his sad end, taking
Juliet, Tybalt, and Paris with him.

Romeo and Juliet

The Friar himself is another character that Shakespeare de-

veloped in his own way. In Brooke, the Friar is an essential and
important part of the story. He marries the two young people,
gives Juliet the potion that puts her in a deep sleep and abandons
her at the grave. These aspects of the story are part of the tradi-
tion inherited by Brooke and passed on to Shakespeare.
What Shakespeare added is the Friars commentary on the
nature of man. In Shakespeare the Friar defines the whole action
of the play in the quotation I referred to previously, in which the
Friar points to the Biblical idea that man as a sinner faces a moral
conflict in his soul. This points not only to Romeo and the struggle
between lust and love that rages within him, but also to the Friar
himself, who exemplifies his own words.

Virtue itself turns vice, being misapplied,

And vice sometimes by action dignified.

Ironically, in our day Romeos vice has been dignified as if it

were the perfect example of ideal love, but that is not Shakespeares
fault. What Shakespeare shows us through the Friar is virtue
turning into vice because virtue was misapplied. The Friar rightly
desires the peace of Verona and rightly tries to bring the conflict
between two influential families to an end. The marriage of Ro-
meo and Juliet might indeed have been good for that purpose. But
marrying two teenagers without their parents knowledge, keeping
the marriage a secret, giving Juliet a potion to make it seem she is
dead, and abandoning her in her hour of deepest need undermines
the virtue the Friar intended and turns all of his working into a
vice. He should have heeded his own warning to Romeo.

Wisely and slow, they stumble that run fast.

Lecture Ten

The instant wedding, the hasty decision to give the potion,

and the panic at the grave are all the very opposite of the slow
thoughtful working of wisdom.
One final character that Shakespeare develops in a special
way is the nurse. In Brooke, she is much less colorful and plays a
less important role. In Shakespeare, she is to Juliet more or less
what Benvolio and Mercutio are to Romeo in that she is Juliets
closest friend. Like the young men, her language is full of sexual
word plays, though she is ignorant of the import of her words.
She is also parallel to the Friar, who is Romeos counselor, as the
Nurse is Juliets.
For Brooke, the Nurses betrayal of Romeo comes after the
visit with the Friar and the decision to deceive the family by pre-
tended death. In Shakespeares play, the nurses betrayal drives
Juliet to desperation. The difference in order is important for the
depiction of Juliets psychology. She is ready to resort to such
extreme means because she has been betrayed by her lifelong
counselor and confidant.
Common to Brooke and Shakespeare is the larger role of
the nurse, though her actual words and dialogue in Shakespeares
play draw a more concrete and compelling character. When the
nurse advises Juliet to forget Romeo and marry Paris, she acts like
everyone else in the older generation, calculating the concerns of
love as if she were considering a business deal. The fact that she
knows about Juliets secret marriage to Romeo makes her betrayal
all the worse.
The nurses character epitomizes what appears throughout the
play the folly of the youth in Verona is a reflection of the folly
of the adults. Romeo and his friends have inherited more than a
family feud from their elders; they have inherited all the vices of
the flawed society. Queen Mab rules the dreams and hearts of
the lawyers, courtiers, priests, soldiers and ladies of Verona. But
she also leads Romeo and Juliet into doom by tempting them to
lust and then despair.

Romeo and Juliet

The Nurse, like the Friar, could have prevented the despair,
if not the fall into lust. In Brookes version, she is punished at
the end of the poem for having concealed the marriage. Shake-
speare leaves that out, but he does show her, together with the
Friar, as examples of the older generation failing the young couple.
Rather than nurturing the young couples love and enabling it to
blossom, they allow it to be corrupted by the weeds of self-will
and impetuous passion. What could have been true love never
developed beyond the initial infatuation. The sparks of love that
were kindled at their first meeting were soon overwhelmed by
Romeos burning rage for revenge and, later, by both Romeos and
Juliets impatient despair.
The final detail to which I wish to draw attention does not
concern the development of the characters. It has to do with the
perspective on gold in Shakespeares play. Two details in Shake-
speare that do not appear in Brooke suggest perhaps the deepest
and most painful irony. First, preparing us for the conclusion of
the play, Romeo, in Act 5, Scene 1, gives gold to the apothecary
with these words.

There is thy gold, worse poison to mens souls,

Doing more murders in this loathsome world,
Than these poor compounds that thou mayst not sell.
I sell thee poison; thou hast sold me none.

In Scene 3 of the same act, the play ends, with Montague

promising to raise a statue for Juliet made of pure gold and Capulet
responds by saying he will do the same for Romeo. Is this a real
reconciliation, or are we to think of the gold as Romeo has just
defined it? The word gold only appears five times in the play
and golden four times. Once Romeo refers to saint-seducing
gold. Shortly after this, when Lady Capulet is first speaking to
Juliet about Paris, she seems to be seducing the young saint as

Lecture Ten

Romeo calls her with the prospect of gold, if she marries Paris.
If I am correct in linking these two references to gold, the likeli-
hood that Romeos words about gold as poison, spoken near the
end of the play, should be thought to echo in the background as
we view the parents superficial reconciliation.
Romeo was the god of Juliets idolatry and she the god of his.
That the play ends with the two idolatrous lovers being reduced
to dead, golden idols strikes me as an ironic conclusion, not an
irenic one. I do not see this as a real reconciliation, but the per-
petuation of the problem in a different form. Queen Mab leads
men to seek the satisfaction of whatever form of idolatry pleases
them. The play ends not with Verona being freed of its idolatry
or the temptations of Queen Mab, but with the Queen ruling as
securely as ever.
Here, then, are the most important differences in details be-
tween Shakespeare and Brooke. As we have seen, with each of
them Shakespeare reinforces and clarifies the point that Brooke
aimed to make. He takes Brookes poem and turns it into a play
that does what Brooke was trying to do far more powerfully than
Brooke did. Shakespeares play, more than Brookes poem, conveys
the immaturity of the lovers, the haste of the marriage, the failure
of the older generation to lead the youth, and the perversion of
gold into poison. Irony appears throughout the play. The famous
Queen Mab speech, like the Friars description of the warfare be-
tween sin and righteousness in the heart, provide commentary on
the action that perfectly corresponds with the perspective offered
in the Biblical references.

III. Conclusion

Contrary to Harold Bloom, Shakespeare is not celebrating

unmixed love. Nor is this play the largest and most persuasive
celebration of romantic love in Western literature. Celebration

Romeo and Juliet

does not at all describe what Shakespeare was doing, nor does
Blooms other expression, lamenting its inevitable destruction.
Shakespeares play does not present the tragedy as inevitable, but
rather as the result of the combination of the tragic choices of
numerous major and minor characters. If the play is a lamenta-
tion, it is a lamentation of widespread human folly and sin, spread
so far that the whole city of Verona brings about the destruction
of the young lovers.
Bloom and others are correct when they say that Shakespeare
shows us something beautiful in the love of Romeo and Juliet, or,
to be more precise, something that should have become beautiful.
For we actually have only the seeds of love planted in the hearts
of idealistic youth what could have and should have become
pure and deep, a love that could have brought reconciliation to the
feuding families. Shakespeare does not mock or ridicule the lovers,
like Mercutio. He does not look on them with disdain. But neither
does he simply celebrate what was merely unrealized potential.
What, then, was Shakespeare doing? What emerges from a
careful consideration of the play is a view that few modern readers
of the play can even begin to imagine: Shakespeare actually agreed
with what Brooke was doing. Shakespeare is preaching about the
dangers of sexual sin, the deceptive difference between infatua-
tion and love, the responsibility of the older generation to lead
the younger in the way of true love, and the dangers of idolatry
of whatever sort, but especially the idolatrous distortion of the
greatest gift that God has given to man: love.
Shakespeare preaches like Solomon, by telling a story. He
does not need to comment because the details of the story contain
all the commentary necessary. A young man deeply in love with
one young lady, switches his affection in an instant to a 14-year
old girl, who marries him within 24 hours of the first meeting. He
murders her cousin and her prospective husband. The two commit
suicide. All the other details that link these large and inescapable

Lecture Ten

features of the story, especially the Scriptural passages Shakespeare

imbedded into his version, combine to create an overwhelming
impression that this was a love that failed. Shakespeare is warning
us. Shakespeares story preaches to young and old alike about the
dangers of idolatry in all its forms, by showing how one form of
idolatry feeds another, and all idolatry brings destruction.
Understood as Shakespeare intended it, Romeo and Juliet func-
tions as a play for teenagers and their parents. It edifies, instructs,
warns, and encourages. The beauty of love and the horror of its
distortion confront us in a story of two young people caught in
the web of idolatry. Indeed, not only Romeo and Juliet, but the
whole of Verona was ruined by Queen Mab, the fairy who tempts
and destroys men by giving them what they wish, though it leads
to results they never contemplated. They eat the fruit of their de-
light, but their eyes are opened only to see their impending doom.

Course Study Guide

Shakespeare the Christian I

Study Guide
The Course Introduction, placed at the beginning of the first
lecture, gives a general outline of the entire course Shakespeare
the Christian, of which this CD is Part One, consisting of the first
10 of the 20 lectures.

The following outlines are general and simple, giving a skeletal
picture of the original lectures. Though the Study Guide has not
been revised to fit the book, the outlines may still function as a
reminder of the basic material for test preparation and as a
rough index.

This is a list of selected books dealing with Shakespeares faith
and use of the Bible. Not all of the books are appropriate for
every student and some of the books are valuable for historical
reasons only.

Video greatly enhances the study of Shakespeare, for his plays
were written to be heard and viewed, not read in a book. The list
of recommendations offered is only a small sampling of all that
is available, but it introduces some of the best.

Shakespeare the Christian I

Course Introduction

I. General Introduction
A. The Reason: Share the lectures with Christian
educators and students in America and raise funds
for a building
B. The Goal: Provide a key for understanding and inter
preting Shakespeare from a distinctly Christian
C. The Claim: Offer a Christian approach seldom provided
by college courses
1. Bible backgrounds for plays largely ignored
a. Shakespeare viewed as secular poet
b. Aversion to Bible study
c. Relative ignorance of the Bible
2. Concentration on interpretation of plays
a. Literary interpretation and literary scholarship
b. Literary interpretation and worldview

II. Outline of Course Part One

Lectures 1-2: Refutation of Objections to Christian Shakespeare
Lectures 3-4: Shakespeares Use of the Bible
Lecture 5: The Merchant of Venice
Lectures 6-7: Macbeth (I-II)
Lectures 8-9: Henry V (I-II)
Lecture 10: Romeo and Juliet

III. Outline of Course Part Two (not yet completed)

Lectures 11-12: Richard III (I-II)
Lecture 13: Julius Caesar
Lectures 14-15: Othello (I-II)
Lectures 16-17: Hamlet (I-II)
Lecture 18: The Taming of the Shrew
Lectures 19-20: King Lear (I-II)

IV. Suggested Study Method

Peter Leitharts Brightest Heaven of Invention
Videos & Critical Texts

Lecture Outlines

Lecture Outlines
Lecture One:
Refutation of Objections to
a Christian Shakespeare (I)

I. Introductory Considerations
A. Christianity
B. Authorship

II. Statement of Objections

A. Quotations from Walter Kaufmann
B. Restatement of Objections
1. First argument: Problem of ethics
2. Second argument: Problem of religion
3. Third argument: Problem of tragedy

III. Refutation of Objections

A. First Argument: Problem of Ethics
1. Ignorance of Shakespeares life
2. Meaning of playwriting
3. Judgment of evil
B. Second Argument: Problem of Religion
1. Wrong question
2. Faith in Shakespeares will
3. Religion in history plays
4. Censorship in Shakespeares day
5. Christian era and worldview
Shakespeare the Christian I

Lecture Two:
Refutation of Objections to
a Christian Shakespeare (II)

III. Refutation of Objections (continued)

C. Third Argument: Problem of Tragedy
1. Ethical cause-effect
a. Ancient Greek view
b. Arthur Shopenhaurs view
c. Shakespeares view
2. Basic elements
a. Ethical causality
b. Freedom of choice c. Goodness of hero
d. Awful consequences
e. Termination in death
f. Element of mystery
3. Finality
a. Karl Jaspers view
b. Hell in Shakespeare
c. Heaven and tragedy
4. Enjoyment
a. David Humes answer
b. Christian answer
fall of man
5. Christian theology
a. The Fall
b. The Judgment
6. Conclusion: G. W. F. Hegels analysis

Lecture Outlines

Lecture Three:
Shakespeares Use o f the Bible (I)

I. Introduction: The Importance of the Bible in


II. Literary Allusion in the Bible

A. Explanation from Robert Alter
B. Example: Ruth 1:1-5

III. Literary Reference in Shakespeare (seven kinds)

1. Borrowing of Biblical words or phrases
2. Quotation of Biblical words or phrases
3. Allusions to Biblical teaching
Example: The Merchant of Venice
4. Allusions to Biblical stories
Examples: Various plays

Shakespeare the Christian I

Lecture Four:
Shakespeares Use o f the Bible (II)

III. Literary References in Shakespeare (continued)

5. Biblical symbolism
Examples: Various plays
6. Biblical paradigms
Example: Macbeth
7. Biblical typology
a. Biblical use
Example: Genesis 37-50
b. Shakespearean use
Example: Measure for Measure
Explanation: Different approaches
Harold Bloom
W. H. Auden
Steven Marx

IV. Conclusion

Lecture Outlines

Lecture Five:
The Merchant of Venice

I. Introduction

II. Anti-Christian Approaches

A. Homosexual Interpretation
B. Feminist Interpretation
C. Anti-Semitic Interpretation

III. Christian Approach: Allusion to the Bible

A. Debate: Naseeb Shaheen vs. Steven Marx
B. Main Arguments
1. Concept of usury
2. Structure of plot
3. Theme of stories
C. Secondary Arguments
1. Use of words: Christian and Jew
2. Portrayal of Shylock
3. Trial of Antonio

IV. Critique of Christian Approach

A. Explanation
B. Response

V. Conclusion

Shakespeare the Christian I

Lecture Six:
Macbeth (I)
I. Introduction

II. Objections to Christian Interpretation

A. Representative Non-Christian Views
1. Ian Johnston
2. Terry Eagelton
3. Harold Bloom
B. Summary of Non-Christian Views
1. Omission of Christian doctrine
2. Absence of institutional Christianity
3. Evil without divine purpose
4. Silence on divine judgment
5. Generic nature of crimes
6. Universality of appeal
C. Refutation of Non-Christian views

III. Historical Background

A. Raphael Holinshed on Macbeth
B. Raphael Holinshed on Donwald
C. Shakespeare on Macbeth

IV. Biblical Typology

A. Macbeth as Adam
1. General structure (Act I - Act II)
2. Specific details
a. Three witches
b. Issue of true manhood
c. Symbolism of castle
d. Aftermath of sin
e. Change of garments f. Failure of love
3. Allusions to other Biblical characters
4. Comparison to Paradise Lost

Lecture Outlines

Lecture Seven:
Macbeth (II)
IV. Biblical Typology (continued)
B. Macbeth as Saul
1. Relation between Adam and Saul
a. Allusion and typology in the Bible
b. New Adams
2. Construction of Macbeth through Saul
a. Development of plot
b. Specific allusions
Lords anointed
Bloody house
Witch of Endor
c. Elaboration of parallel
d. Characterization of Lady Macbeth
3. Invention of personality
a. Harold Blooms thesis
Supreme literary value of human character
Unique notion of personality
Realism of characterization
Superiority of characterization
Dynamic development of characters
Autonomy of characters
Influence on modern concept of personality
b. Refutation of the thesis

V. Conclusion

Shakespeare the Christian I

Lecture Eight:
Henry V (I)
I. Introduction

II. Background for Characterization

A. King John to Henry V
B. Hundred Years War
C. Henry IV
D. Prince Hal and Friends

III. Discussion of Character: Machiavellian Prince

A. Harold Bloom
B. Peter Leithart

IV. Discussion of Character: Christian King

A. Characterization of Prince Hal and Hotspur
1. Parallel traits
2. Opposite temperament
3. Sense of nobility
4. Ethical maturity (Henry IV, Part 1, Act III)
5. Moral outcomes (Henry IV, Part 2, Act I)

Lecture Outlines

Lecture Nine:
Henry V (II)
IV. Discussion of Character: Christian King (continued)
B. Military Views
1. 16th century debate
a. Niccolo Machiavelli
b. Desiderius Erasmus
2. Shift in Shakespeares view
a. Transition to pacifism
b. Contemporary intellectual history
3. 20th century perspective
a. Post World War I trend
b. Cultural factors
C. Historical Mentality
1. England as New Israel
2. The Tudor Myth
D. Biblical References
1. Covenantal formula: God be with you
2. Historical frame: Exodus and Conquest
E. Dramatic Scenes in Henry V
1. Act I, Scene 1
2. Act IV, Scene 1
3. Act III, Scene 3
4. Act V, Scene 2

V. Conclusion

Shakespeare the Christian I

Lecture Ten:
Romeo and Juliet

I. Introduction

II. Typical Modern View: Harold Bloom

III. Original Christian View

A. Biblical Key to Christian Interpretation
B. Central Theme: Idolatrous Love

IV. Original Christian Source: Arthur Brooke

A. Preface to Romeus and Juliet
B. Remaking of Romeus and Juliet
C. Revising of Romeus and Juliet
1. Scripture references
2. Chronology
3. Characters
4. Use of gold

V. Conclusion

Selected Bibliography

Select Bibliography

The following books are a select bibliography of works that discuss

Shakespeares use of the Bible or his Christian faith. The works
listed here may be consulted by students or teachers doing deeper
study of Shakespeares religious convictions, but not every work
is appropriate for less advanced students. They are written from
various perspectives, some Catholic, some Protestant, one Puritan
(I. D. E. Thomas). Together they provide abundant material for
thinking about Shakespeares Christian faith.

The best and most helpful of all, though by no means perfect,

is the work by Naseeb Shaheen because it provides a careful col-
lection of Biblical allusions in Shakespeare the basic material
needed for an in-depth study of the topic. For interpretive essays,
nothing surpasses Peter J. Leitharts Brightest Heaven of Invention.

Battenhouse, Roy, ed., Shakespeares Christian Dimension (Indianapolis:

Indiana University Press, 1994) [This collection of essays of-
fers helpful and thought-provoking interpretations of many of
Shakespeares plays from a Christian perspective. For advanced
study, it is an indispensable resource.]

Battenhouse, Roy, Shakespearean Tragedy: Its Art and Its Christian

Premises (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1969) [Batten-
house provides an excellent study of Shakespearean tragedy for
the advanced student or teacher.]

Shakespeare the Christian I

Bethel, S. L., Shakespeare and the Popular Dramatic Tradition (St.

Albans: Staples Press Limited) [Bethel introduces worldview
considerations into the interpretation of Shakespeare. T. S. Eliot
wrote the introduction to this short but profound work.]

Carter, Thomas, Shakespeare and Holy Scripture: With the Version

He Used (New York: AMS Press, 1970, reprint of 1905 edition)
[Carters well-known work is one of three older works often
referred to. Like the other two by Noble and Wordsworth, it may
be worth looking at but it is probably not worth buying, unless one
is studying the history of Shakespearean scholarship. It is entirely
surpassed by the work of Naseeb Shaheen.]

Fisch, Harold, The Biblical Presence in Shakespeare, Milton, and Blake:

A Comparative Study (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999) [As
a comparative study, this is interesting, but Fisch does not delve
into the Biblical allusions in Shakespeare in any depth.]

Frye, Roland Mushat, Shakespeare and Christian Doctrine (Princeton,

NJ: Princeton University Press, 1963) [A study which attempts
to deny that Shakespeares plays reflect a Christian perspective,
providing an excellent guide to an anti-Christian approach to

Leithart, Peter J., Brightest Heaven of Invention (Moscow, ID: Canon

Press, 1996) [The best single book for learning how to interpret
Shakespeare as a Christian.]

Lings, Martin, The Secret of Shakespeare: His Greatest Plays Seen in

the Light of Sacred Art (Cambridge: Quinta Essentia, 1996, third
edition) [Lings book, prefaced with a recom- mendation from the
Prince of Wales, is a Christian study that includes interpretations
based upon the esoteric ideology of the Middle Ages, providing
challenging material for advanced students and teachers.]

Selected Bibliography

Marx, Steven, Shakespeare and the Bible (Oxford: Oxford University

Press, 2000) [Marx is not a Christian and his interpretations often
include strange elements, but this is a very valuable study for
a teacher or advanced student.]

Milward, Peter, Biblical Influences in Shakespeares Great Tragedies (In-

dianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1987) [Milward, a famous
Catholic Shakespearean scholar who has written many books on
Shakespeare, offers interpretations with his Biblical references,
providing a good companion for Shaheen on the tragedies.]

Morris, Harry, Last Things in Shakespeare (Tallahassee: Florida State

University Press, 1985) [Morris shows in depth that Shakespeare
treats the final judgment seriously.]

Noble, Richmond, Shakespeares Biblical Knowledge and the Use

of the Book of Common Prayer as Exemplified in the Plays of the
First Folio (London: SPCK, 1935) [See comment under Thomas

Rees, James, Shakespeare and the Bible (Philadelphia: Claxton,

Remsen, and Haffelfinger,
1876); reprint available through Kessinger Publishing: www.kes- [This older study is not well-known and is interesting
for historical study rather than the information on Shakespeare
and the Bible, which is more thoroughly provided by Shaheen.]

Shaheen, Naseeb, Biblical References in Shakespeares Plays (Cranbury,

NJ: Associated University Presses, Inc., 1999) [This is the fullest
and most carefully compiled list of Shakespeares Biblical refer-
ences ever assembled. For an in-depth study of Shakespeare and
the Bible, this is the resource.]

Shakespeare the Christian I

Spencer, Theodore, Shakespeare and the Nature of Man (New York:

The Macmillan Company,
1942) [Interesting material on Shakespeares understanding of
mans nature, attempting to present his views in the light of the
thinking of the Elizabethan age.]

Taylor, Dennis, and Beauregard, David N. ed., Shakespeare and the

Culture of Christianity in Early Modern England (New York: Fordham
University Press, 2003) [A helpful collection of essays, many by
Catholics, arguing for a Christian, usually Catholic, cultural back-
ground for Shakespeare.]

Thomas, I. D. E., Shakespeare and His Bible (Oklahoma City: Hearth-

stone Publishing, 2000) [This is the only work on the list arguing
that Shakespeare was a Puritan. It is not a scholarly work, but
the author makes some noteworthy points.]

Wordsworth, Charles, Shakespeares Knowledge and Use of the Bible

(Honolulu: University
Press of the Pacific, 2002, reprint of 1880 edition) [See comment
under Thomas Carter.]

Wright, Daniel, The Anglican Shakespeare: Elizabethan Orthodoxy in the

Great Histories (Vancouver: Pacific-Columbia Books, 1993) [Wright
offers a superb introduction to the historical plays and explains the
views of the time in depth, arguing persuasively that the historical
plays clearly reveal the faith of an Anglican. There is no better
introduction to the Christian back- ground of the historical plays.]

Video Recommendations

Video Recommendations

One of the most important things to keep in mind when studying

Shakespeares plays is that the plays were produced to be seen,
not read. No adequate appreciation of the plays can be gained
from mere reading. But few people have the opportunity to see
the plays staged by competent actors. What can be done? DVD
and VHS technology have come to the rescue. Now, in the
comfort of their own homes, students can study and enjoy the
plays as stage productions or movies. (Nevertheless, one should
understand that the thrill of a first-class live performance on
stage cannot be reproduced by a box in a living room.)

However, video recommendations are difficult. There are prob-

lems of price, problems of taste, problems of compatibility for
DVD players, and so on. There is also the problem that so much
is already available and new material is constantly being produced,
so any written recommendations are bound to be outdated soon.
Keeping all of this in mind, the following is a select annotated list
of recommended videos. These recommendations are qualified.
Not every video will be good for every church, school, or family.
Still, I hope the following list offers the kind of information that
will help readers begin to build a library of Shakespeare videos.

BBC Shakespeare Plays. All 37 plays in VHS or a DVD set.

Available only from Ambrose Video: https://www.ambrosevideo.
com/ [This is considered the standard version of Shakespeares

Shakespeare the Christian I

plays by which all others are compared. It is the version offered

by the best university libraries. The plays are presented with a
minimum of editing so students have the opportunity to see a
faithful reproduction of the text of the entire play. The props
are relatively modest, but adequate. The overall presentation is
more than a stage play and less than a movie. Virtually all teach-
ers agree that this is the best single set of Shakespeare videos or
DVDs one can buy.]

BBC Shakespeare Tragedies. A 5-DVD set, including Julius Ceasar,

Macbeth, Hamlet, King Lear, and Othello. Available from Amazon.
[These are the same BBC plays as the set above sold through
Ambrose. All but Julius Caesar are excellent. For someone
not interested in buying the whole 37 plays, this is highly recom-

BBC Shakespeare Histories. A 5-DVD set, including Richard II, Henry

IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2, Henry V, and Richard III. Available
from Amazon. [These are the best of the BBC history plays,
though not having the three Henry VI plays is a significant loss.]

BBC Shakespeare Comedies. A 5-DVD set, including As You Like It,

The Taming of the Shrew, The Tempest, A Midsummer Nights Dream,
and The Merchant of Venice. Available from Amazon. [This set is
also collected from the BBC set and includes some of the great-
est comedies.]

Oliviers Shakespeare. A set of 3 DVDs starring Laurence Olivier

in Henry V, Hamlet, and Richard III. Available from Amazon.
[Olivier is one of the most highly respected Shakespearean actors
of the 20th century. His versions of the plays are well-acted and
never contain R-rated scenes. However, Olivier heavily edits the
plays. His Hamlet is much shorter than Shakespeares play and

Video Recommendations

cuts out some of the scenes crucial for a correct interpretation,

leaving the viewer with a distinctly secular and psychological
portrayal. His Richard III also edits out parts of the play that show
how deeply Christian Shakespeares view of history was. Having
said that, Oliviers productions are still highly recommended, al-
though teachers will have to do a little extra work to use them for
instructing students. They are also inexpensive.]

Julius Caesar, starring Marlon Brando. Available from Amazon.

[Brandos 1953 version of Julius Caesar is still an unsurpassed clas-
sic. Performances by Brando and the rest of the cast are simply
superb. This is one of the few cases where the BBC play is
far inferior to a movie version and Brandos movie is also one
of the most inexpensive available.]

Julius Caesar, starring Charlton Heston. Available from Amazon.

[Hestons version is not bad and not expensive. For those who
like to compare various versions of a play, Hestons and Brandos
versions make a good pair.]

The Taming of the Shrew, starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth

Taylor. Available from Amazon. [Burton and Taylors version
of the play sometimes goes overboard, trying too hard to be
comedy. Perhaps a few viewers will be offended by a scene or two
and the clothing, but on the whole, this 1967 movie version of
the play is excellent. Like most movie versions, it is edited and
departs from the text quite a bit. The BBC version is better for
study, but this version is an entertaining introduction to the play.]

Hamlet, starring Richard Burton. Available from Amazon. [Bur-

tons version of Hamlet is unique. The film was shot in a theater
with a live audience. Viewing the DVD, one feels like a member
of the original audience. Though Burton is perhaps a little bit
too old to play Hamlet and the text is somewhat edited, this is
an excellent version.]

Shakespeare the Christian I

Hamlet, starring Kenneth Branagh. Available from Amazon.

[Branaghs version is famous for including every line of the
original and for being a thoroughly modern movie. Unlike the
original setting in the middle ages, Branaghs movie is set in the
nineteenth century. Music and scenery are spectacular. Though
it is eccentric, sometimes crude, and contains an altogether un-
necessary nude scene (which can be avoided with parental
guidance), this is still a good version for older students able to
view with discernment.]

Henry V, starring Kenneth Branagh. Available from Amazon.

[This movie version of Henry V has been criticized by some for
having an underlying anti-war message, but it is very well-done
and only slightly edited.]

Much Ado About Nothing, Kenneth Branagh. Available from

Amazon. [Very brief and hardly noticeable nudity appears at the
beginning. The value of this version is the acting by Branagh
and Emma Thompson.]

Hamlet, starring Mel Gibson. Available from Amazon. [Gibson

fans will enjoy this. It is a decent version and inexpensive, but,
like Oliviers movie, it edits out many important parts of the play.]

Macbeth, starring Orson Wells. Available from Amazon. [Although

editorial changes abound, this haunting interpretation of Macbeth
is generally regarded as one of the best available.]

Othello, starring Orson Wells. Available from Amazon. [As with

Wells Macbeth, there is much editing, but Wells is excellent in

King Lear, starring Lawrence Olivier. Available from Amazon.

[The BBC version of Lear is the best, but Oliviers is also good.]



Shakespeare the Christian I

The following pages are simple tests for each of the lectures so
that parents or teachers and their students or others using
the course can check their comprehension of the material.
The suggested answers are taken from the lectures. A students
answer will no doubt vary in some respects, but should include
most of the basic points in the answers provided.

Following the last test, there are also suggestions for essays. There
are no answers offered, but parents and teachers can refer to the
tests and answers for the lectures, since the essays cover the same
topics. Apart from whether or not the student has adequately
grasped the material, the important things to look for in evaluating
an essay are grammar, organization, logic, style, and persuasiveness.

Shakespeare the Christian I

Course Introduction

1) What is the key to understanding Shakespeares plays?

2) What is the name of the literary expert who says that little work
has been done on Shakespeares use of the Bible?

3) What kinds of things do experts on Shakespeare usually study?

4) What are three reasons that modern experts on Shakespeare

are ignorant of the Biblical themes in his plays?

5) What facet of Shakespeare study is the particular concern of

this course?

6) What are the key capabilities required for good literary inter-

7) What is the most fundamental issue in literary interpretation?

8) Why does Bethel say that literary interpretation is not a pure


9) Explain the importance of ones worldview for interpreting


10) Does the following quotation from Macbeth reflect Shake-

speares view of life? Explain your answer.

Lifes 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, zz
full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.


Lecture One:
Refutation of Objections to
a Christian Shakespeare (I)

1) What are the three basic objections to a Christian interpretation

of Shakespeare presented by non-Christians like Walter Kaufmann?

2) Summarize the first part of the answer to the first objection.

3) Summarize the second part of the answer to the first objection.

4) Summarize the third part of the answer to the first objection.

5) Summarize the answer to the second objection.

6) What are some of the worldview questions we should consider

when trying to understand an authors faith?

Shakespeare the Christian I

Lecture Two:
Refutation of Objections to
a Christian Shakespeare (II)

1) Why is the definition of tragedy important?

2) Why do we ask whether or not tragedy excludes ethical cause

and effect?

3) What is the story of Oedipus thought to show?

4) What did Schopenhauer believe we are to learn from tragedy?

5) Do Shakespeares tragedies contain ethical cause and effect? If

not, explain. If so, give examples.

6) In light of Aristotles theory of tragedy, what is wrong with

Schopenhauers view of tragedy?

7) What are six characteristics that define a tragedy?

8) Why is it important that the consequences seem too great for

the fault?

9) What does tragedy remind us about the fairness of life?

10) What does Karl Jaspers claim about tragedy?

11) What is wrong with Jaspers view?

12) What was David Humes answer to the question of why people
enjoy tragedy?


13) What is wrong with Humes view?

14) What is the Christian view of tragedy presented in the lecture?

15) How can tragedy be edifying?

16) What are the elements of a Christian theology of tragedy?

17) Why do we say that Christianity is not ultimately tragic?

18) Why did Hegel think that Shakespeare was great?

Shakespeare the Christian I

Lecture Three:
Shakespeares Use o f the Bible (I)

1) What do the two lectures on Shakespeares use of the Bible

intend to show?

2) Summarize in three points what Robert Alter says about liter-

ary allusion.

3) How is understanding or not understanding the literary allusion

in the book of Ruth similar to understanding or not understanding
literary allusion in a play by Shakespeare?

4) What is the significance of being told at the beginning of the

book of Ruth that the events occurred in the days when the
judges ruled?

5) What are the primary allusions in the words there was a famine
in the land?

6) What do these allusions about the famine show us?

7) What do the words Bethlehem and Elimelech mean and

what do the meanings of these words show us?

8) What are the allusions in the fact of Elimelechs sojourn?

9) What is the significance of the fact that he goes to Moab?

10) What is the irony of Ruth herself ?

11) According to Freud, what is the key to Macbeth?


12) What are the seven categories of literary illusion suggested

in the lecture?

13) What are the two types of borrowing?

14) Explain the three kinds of quotation found in Shakespeare.

15) Give an example of Shakespeare alluding to a Biblical teaching.

16) Why are allusions to stories especially important?

17) Give an example of an explicit allusion to a Biblical story from

The Merchant of Venice.

Shakespeare the Christian I

Lecture Four:
Shakespeares Use o f the Bible (II)

1) Give an example of the use of symbolic language from the

play Richard III.

2) Give an example of the use of Biblical symbolism in a broad


3) Explain what it means to use a Biblical story as a paradigm for

another story.

4) Give an example of a Biblical story as a paradigm for a Shake-

spearean play.

5) Give an example of a Biblical story that functions as a paradigm

story in the Bible itself.

6) Was Shakespeare the first to use Biblical stories as a paradigm

for his stories?

7) Give an example of Biblical typology that shows what Biblical

typology is.

8) What is the underlying assumption in Biblical typology?

9) What is typology ultimately pointing to? Give examples.

10) What do we learn from the fact that men like David and Solo-
mon were types?

11) What does marriage have to do with typology?


12) What does it mean to say that typology is multiple? Give an


13) What is the basic difference between typology and allegory?

14) How does Harold Bloom interpret Shakespeares Measure for


15) What is wrong with Blooms view?

16) Why are Blooms views important?

17) How did W. H. Auden interpret Measure for Measure?

18) How does a typological interpretation understand Angelo?

19) What is the typology of the Duke?

20) What is a modest estimate of the average number of Bibli-

cal references per act in a play and what version of the Bible is
Shakespeare quoting?

21) Besides the Bible, what other sources are important for un-
derstanding Shakespeare?

Shakespeare the Christian I

Lecture Five:
The Merchant of Venice

1) Why does The Merchant of Venice hold special interest for a course
on Shakespeares use of the Bible?

2) Name four areas of controversy surrounding the interpretation

of the play.

3) How should we understand the relationship between Antonio

and Bassanio?

4) What does the play suggest about the position of women?

5) Explain some of the difficulties involved in defining the word

anti-Semitism and suggest a definition.

6) What did the Church in the Middle Ages think about usury?

7) What do most modern day churches think about usury?

8) What did Christians in Shakespeares day think of charging

interest on a loan?

9) Describe the story of The Merchant of Venice at the most general


10) How are the two stories in the play united?

11) Describe what and how Bassanio learns and grows in the play.

12) How is the theme of life through death developed in the play?


13) What is the central point told through the two stories?

14) What superficial detail of the play suggests that the main theme
is Christians and Jews, the new covenant versus the old covenant?

15) How does Shakespeare portray Shylock?

16) What are some of the details that associate Shylock with the

17) How does the trial scene point to the crucifixion of Christ?

18) How does the conclusion of the trial point to the Biblical
teaching about salvation?

19) Is the trial scene realistic? Explain?

20) How should we respond to the view of Rene Girard that An-
tonio and the other Christians are hypocrites who make money
on Shylock?

21) How does Shakespeare preach to his audience?

Shakespeare the Christian I

Lecture Six:
Macbeth (I)

1) What reasons do non-Christian scholars like Ian Johnston and

Harold Bloom give for rejecting a Christian interpretation of

2) Why doesnt Shakespeare insist on the Christian belief system

in Macbeth?

3) Why doesnt Shakespeare refer to the Church in the story of


4) How is evil depicted in the play?

5) Does Macbeth refer to divine judgment?

6) What do Johnston, Bloom and other non-Christians ignore

when they interpret Macbeth?

7) What is important for us to understand about the historical

background of the play?

8) How does Shakespeare make Macbeth into a character we can

sympathize with?

9) Describe the general flow of the story of the murder of Duncan.

10) How do Banquos words allude to the Genesis story of Adam

and Eve?

11) What is the significance of Macbeths argument with his wife

when she accuses him of being a coward?

12) How does Shakespeare include in Macbeth something analogous

to the Garden of Eden and expulsion from the Garden?

13) Why is it important that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth react to

the sounds they hear with fear?

14) What did Macbeth and Lady Macbeth do when they became

15) What two other Biblical characters is Macbeth linked with in

the first part of the play?

16) What is the main difference between Shakespeare and John

Milton in the way they depict the fall of man into sin?

17) What are we to learn from the first part of Macbeth?

Shakespeare the Christian I

Lecture Seven:
Macbeth (II)

1) Who is the rest of the story of Macbeth linked with and why
is this important?

2) Why is literary allusion important?

3) What is the most basic and largest literary association with


4) Name some of the well-known new Adams in the Bible.

5) When Israel rejected Gods kingship and asked for a king of

their own, what kind of king did God give them?

6) What was Sauls first test as king and how did he do?

7) What was the second test that Saul faced and how did he do?

8) What two other incidents are important for understanding Saul?

9) Why is the story of Saul especially important?

10) In a general and basic way, tell the Biblical story of Saul.

11) How are the stories of Macbeth and Saul parallel?

12) When MacDuff saw the dead king, he exclaimed that the
Lords anointed temple had been broken. How does this relate
to the story of Saul?


13) How are allusions to Saul as Gods anointed ironic?

14) Explain the unclear allusion to the life of Saul in Macbeth.

15) What is the significance of the witches noticing that Macbeth

is amazed and attempting to cheer him up?

16) What is the main theme of the last part of Macbeth?

17) How does the witches cry, Fair is foul and foul is fair work
itself out in the play?

18) What is the link between the witches words fair is foul and
the story of Saul?

19) What is the broader Biblical theme alluded to in fair is foul.

20) What is the place of Lady Macbeth in the story?

21) Give the seven basic assertions of Harold Blooms theory of

Shakespeares contribution to literary history.

22) Offer simple answers to Blooms assertions.

23) What is it about Kurosawas movie Throne of Blood that is

so inferior to Shakespeare?

Shakespeare the Christian I

Lecture Eight:
Henry V (I)

1) Who are the kings included in Shakespeares history series and

when did they reign in England?

2) Henry V depicts events during what important war, fought be-

tween what two countries, for what purpose, during what years?

3) What great English king first claimed the French throne on

what basis?

4) How old was Richard II when he became king and what special
problems did he face?

5) How did Henry IV come to the throne of England?

6) Henry IV faced two very fundamental political problems for

one basic reason. What are the problems and the reason?

7) Apart from the political story in Henry IV, what does Shake-
speare portray for us?

8) What is the secondary story in the two Henry IV plays and why
is it important?

9) What do we learn about the prince from the robbing of the


10) Describe Harold Blooms view of Henry V.


11) Describe Leitharts view of Henry V and explain how it differs

from Blooms view.

12) How does the play Henry IV Part One introduce the contrast
between Hotspur and Prince Hal?

13) What Bible verses provide the key to Hals first soliloquy and
how are they important?

14) How is the contrast between Hotspur and Hal presented in

the initial scenes?

15) What might the conclusion of the robbery suggest about

Prince Hal?

16) What does the play show us about the kings view of his son
and Hotspur?

17) How might one answer Blooms critique of Hal as a Machia-

vellian prince, always calculating to hold or increase his power?

Shakespeare the Christian I

Lecture Nine:
Henry V (II)

1) Name one representative for each of the perspectives in the

16th century debate between the so-called pacifists and the ad-
vocates of war.

2) Explain the so-called pacifist perspective.

3) Explain how Christians could agree with Machiavellis views.

4) Explain the militarist position of Machiavelli.

5) What was Erasmus argument against war?

6) Explain Steven Marxs view of Shakespeares perspective on

war and peace.

7) Where in Henry V might Shakespeare be criticizing the militarist


8) Is it reasonable to assume that Shakespeare may have changed

his views on war? Why, or why not?

9) Explain the origin of the view that Henry V is a play with a

double message, on the surface portraying Henry V as a hero,
but actually through underlying current subtly showing that war
is futile and evil.

10) With whom did the English of Shakespeares day identify their
history and what does that mean for Shakespeare?


11) What is meant by the Tudor Myth?

12) What are some of the important Biblical phrases that occur
in Henry V that do not occur in Henry IV or Henry VI?

13) How do these phrases illumine our understanding of the play?

14) What scenes in the play confirm the view that Henry V is seen
as a Christian hero?

15) If Henry V is a Christian hero, how can one explain the places
in the play that seem to be critical?

Shakespeare the Christian I

Lecture Ten:
Romeo and Juliet

1) What is Harold Blooms understanding of Romeo and Juliet? Is

it common?

2) What is the key Biblical allusion in the play and what does it
show us about Romeo and Juliet?

3) What is the difference between idolatrous love and true love?

4) What is Shakespeares view of Romeo and Juliet?

5) Who was Shakespeares source for Romeo and Juliet?

6) What was the purpose of Shakespeares source in writing about

Romeo and Juliet and how do we know?

7) How closely did Shakespeare follow his source? How does this
help us understand the play?

8) What do we learn from comparing Biblical references in Shake-

speare and his source?

9) What reference did Naseeb Shaheen miss?

10) What is the first allusion in the play and what does it show us?

11) What Scripture allusion is found in the Friars words to Romeo

in Act II, Scene 3, and what is its significance for the play?

12) What is the chronological difference between Shakespeare

and his source?

13) What is the difference between Shakespeare and his source

with regard to Juliets age and what difference does it make?

14) What are the differences between Shakespeare and his source
concerning Romeo and Rosaline?

15) How does Mercucio function in the play?

16) What is the point of the Queen Mab speech?

17) What does Shakespeare show us about gold that may be im-
portant for understanding the play?

Essay Questions

Essay Questions

There is one essay suggested for each lecture. Answers can be

anywhere from 2 to 10 pages, depending on how much work the
student is required to put into the essay.

1) Write an essay showing the importance of ones worldview for

the interpretation of Shakespeares plays. Give illustrations from
the lecture and/or from your own experience.

2) Write an essay on the difference between Christian and non-

Christian views of tragedy, showing how the non-Christian view
is actually inadequate for the interpretation of Shakespeare.

3) Write an essay on the importance of literary allusion in the Bible

and Shakespeare. Include illustrations of allusion from both.

4) Write an essay on Biblical typology, explaining what typology is

and how something similar is found in Shakespeares plays.

5) Write an essay on the Christian interpretation of The Merchant of

Venice. If possible, include your own observations and thoughts
on Christian aspects of the play.

6) Write an essay explaining the non-Christian approach to Macbeth

and show how it is inadequate.

Essay Questions

7) Write an essay drawing out the parallels between King Saul and

8) Write an essay on Henry V defending the view that Shakespeare

presents him as a good Christian from his youth.

9) Write an essay on the 16th century debate about war and show
how it is relevant to the interpretation of Henry V.

10) Write an essay on Romeo and Juliet defending the view that the
play is intended to edify young people by warning about the dan-
gers of rashness and lust.

Shakespeare the Christian I

Shakespeare the Christian I

Answer Key
The following answers to the questions for each lecture are
intended as guidelines, something that will help teachers and
home-school parents evaluate students answers. Students will
obviously word their answers differently. Sometimes they will
give a fuller answer, sometimes their answers will be partial or
emphasize something not included in the answers given here.
However, the basic content of their answers should correspond
to the answers provided.

Answer Key

Course Introduction

1) The fact that Shakespeare wrote as a Christian.

2) Steven Marx.

3) Quotation from lecture: Experts on Shakespeare usually

concentrate on subjects like the history of English drama,
textual variations in the plays, questions about authorship, analy-
sis of Shakespeares poetry, the relationship between the works
of Shakespeare and other great writers of his time, and so on.
Very few experts have specifically concerned themselves with
the use of the Bible in Shakespeares plays, though there has
been a great deal of debate about Shakespeares religion.

4) Quotation from lecture:

(1) the remaining influence of the popular 19th century
notion that Shakespeare was a secular poet;
(2) a general aversion to Bible study among academics; and
(3) a resulting ignorance of the Bible and Christianity.

5) Literary interpretation.

6) To be able to read intelligently and communicate ones response


7) Worldview.

8) Quotation of Bethel from lecture: ... literary criticism

is not a pure activity, since literature is a cultural expression and
its boundaries are as wide as life. We cannot have it both ways: if
literature is more than a pleasant pastime played according to
certain rules, if its breadth is the breadth of human experience, then

Shakespeare the Christian I

it is fraught with all the uncertainties of human experience and the great
controversies about the meaning of life will all be reflected in our literary
criticism. [Italics emphasize important points.]

9) Some of the points that a student should include in his

answer: Ones worldview is fundamental to interpretation
because different worldviews include different ideas about
right and wrong, about the nature of man and the world, about
the meaning of life. Non- Christians might ignore or downplay
the kinds of things that a Christian would emphasize, especially,
for example, quotations from the Bible. [The answer here can
be expanded quite a bit to include things the student brings
in from his knowledge of the Bible and Christian faith in its
conflict with non-Christian thought.]

10) This is not Shakespeares view of life. He puts these words

into a villain that is despairing of life because of the weight of
his sins. This is the kind of existential despair that characterizes
the thinking of men like Walter Kaufmann, not Shakespeare.

Answer Key

Lecture One:
Refutation of Objections to
a Christian Shakespeare (I)

1) The three objections are:

(1) Shakespeares plays do not teach or endorse a
specifically Christian ethic;
(2) his plays do not clearly address religious issues,
matters of faith and piety;
(3) tragedy is not possible from a Christian perspective,
yet Shakespeare wrote great tragedies.

2) We have to admit that we know little about the man himself.

Speculating about what kind of man he was does not really
answer any questions. What we can look at are the references
to the Bible in his plays. There are very many refer-
ences and they are intelligent. Shakespeares references to
the Bible show him to be either a mature and pious Christian
or someone who is able to think and write like a pious Christian.

3) We have to keep in mind the purpose of Shakespeares plays.

He is not writing to instruct his audience in Christian faith or
to defend Christian faith from detractors. He is holding up
the mirror to nature, showing the world as it is. In so doing,
he shows sinners as sinners.

4) In Shakespeares plays, truly evil men come to a truly evil end.

Shakespeares plays endorse the Christian worldview by showing
how sin and folly bring judgment.

5) Shakespeare does not have to address religious issues in order

to write as a Christian. The important questions to ask are
basic worldview questions.
Shakespeare the Christian I

6) There are a number of questions we might ask.

(1) Is his view of man or human psychology distinctly
(2) Does he presuppose the Christian view of life and history?
(3) Do his plays employ distinctly Christian symbolism
or depend upon distinctly Christian ideas?

Answer Key

Lecture Two:
Refutation of Objections to
a Christian Shakespeare

1) Tragedy is defined differently according to ones worldview.

Some have defined it in such a way that Christian tragedy is
simply ruled out by definition.

2) Some define tragedy as a story in which ethical cause and

effect play no important part. If this is the way tragedy is
defined, then ethical questions are excluded from tragedy by
definition. Of course, this also excludes a Christian view of

3) The story of Oedipus is thought to show that a basically good

man trying to live rightly may have his life turned into a tragedy
because the world we live in is ruled by capricious gods who
dish out blessings and curses more or less at random.

4) According to Schopenhauer, tragedy teaches us that there is

no satisfaction in this world or this life, so we should despise
life in this world and be resigned to its troubles.

5) Yes. Shakespeares plays do contain ethical cause and effect.

(1) Macbeths lust for the throne led to death and destruction;
(2) Lears folly ruined his kingdom;
(3) Othellos wicked jealousy led to murder;
(4) Hamlet sought revenge and ended up killing innocent
people also.

Shakespeare the Christian I

6) In Schopenhauers view, tragedy has no rational explanation.

This undermines our ability to sympathize with the tragic hero,
an essential aspect of Aristotles view of tragedy. Without
sympathy, we cannot relate the tragedy to our own life.

7) Quotation from lecture:

(1) there is ethical causality;
(2) things could have been different;
(3) the hero is a basically decent man;
(4) the consequences of the choice overturn the scales of
poetic justice;
(5) the tragedy is irreversible because it ends in death;
(6) there is that which cannot be explained. Tragedy confronts
us with the mystery of life and reminds us that God has
a plan that transcends our understanding.

8) A story of a man merely reaping what he sowed is not usually

called tragedy. The tragic aspect of stories like Macbeth is that
a great mans mistakes can have consequences far beyond what
we might think and bring misery to many people.

9) Tragedy reminds us that we cannot calculate fairness. This

world and this life are full of mystery. We cannot fit the story
of Cain and Abel into anyones views of fairness. Good people
suffer for reasons we often cannot fathom. The meaning of
life cannot be understood until the final judgment.

10) Jaspers claims that tragedy must be final in the sense that there
can be no life after death in which the tragedy may be reversed.

Answer Key

11) Jaspers view ignores the facts that

(1) according to the Bible, there is an everlasting hell,which
means that tragedy can be far greater than we imagine;
(2) the Bible treats human suffering as real, even though
there is comfort after death;
(3) Shakespeares plays assume life after death and the
judgment to come.

12) Hume explained that the slight pain experienced by watch-

ing a tragedy is pleasurable just like tickling is pleasant when
it is limited. The events in the tragedy are usually far away and
long ago, so they dont bother us deeply. Also, the actors make
fine speeches that appeal to our aesthetic sense.

13) Humes explanation applies to any genre that concerns matters

that we might enjoy watching but not experiencing. It does not
answer the particular question of tragedy per se.

14) Tragedies are stories of the fall, variations on the theme of

the fall of Adam into sin.

15) Because tragedies are stories of a man falling into sin, they
can edify us since we are also sinners and can sympathize.
We are warned about the danger of sin and the destruction
it causes. We are led to meditate on the seriousness of life.
They remind us that we are not alone in our suffering.

16) Some of the elements of a Christian theology of tragedy are

as follows:
(1) the fall of Adam into sin is the first and greatest tragedy of
the human race because it led to all other tragedies;

Shakespeare the Christian I

(2) the whole created order has been perverted by Adams fall
so that earthquakes, floods, and other disasters occur,
bringing tragedies to countless numbers;
(3) man-made catastrophes, tyrants, criminals, and every other
sort of oppression in the world lead to tragedies caused
by mans sin and rebellion against God;
(4) there is redemption so that tragedy is not the final word for
the human race, nor does it have to be the final word for
any individual person.

17) For Christians, tragedy cannot be final because Christ won

the victory over sin and death through the cross, rose again
from the dead, and ascended into heaven to sit at the right
hand of God.

18) Hegel said that Shakespeares characters came across as real

people with real personalities, unlike the characters in the an-
cient Greek plays or the modern French and Italian plays that
imitate them.

Answer Key

Lecture Three:
Shakespeares Use of the Bible (I)

1) The two lectures on Shakespeares use of the Bible intend to

show that Shakespeare quotes from the Bible more frequently
and more intelligently than is commonly known, that his allu-
sions to the Bible show real theological understanding based
upon well thought out interpretation of Biblical passages, and
that Shakespeare probably imitated Biblical methods of allusion.

2) Quotation from Lecture:

a) First, Alter provides an important distinction between
literary allusion and what we might call casual allusion.
in our everyday speech, in newspaper articles, or even in
advertisements, we make use of allusion for the sake of
embellishment. This sort of allusion is a matter of style; it
adds panache, but is not vital to the content. In true literary
allusion, however, the author or speaker is interacting with
previous texts. Literary allusion is based upon a particular
understanding or interpretation of the previous text and it
creates a complex relationship between the two texts.

b) Second, Alter describes the kinds of relationships that may

be created as competitive, admiring, revisionist, elabora-
tive. To restate these categories in simpler terms, the latter
text may be either in basic agreement with the previous
text in which case the relationship may be admiring or
elaborative or the latter text may disagree with the con-
tent of the previous text in which case Alter calls the
relationship competitive. The category revisionist might
be used to refer to a text that basically disagrees or agrees
with a previous text.

Shakespeare the Christian I

c) Third, the Bible makes abundant use of literary allusion and

does so by way of literary necessity. Biblical stories all point
back to and interact with previously written Biblical literature,
ultimately elaborating the meaning of creation, the fall, and

3) Misunderstanding or not seeing the literary allusion in the

book of Ruth makes ones interpretation shallow, but a reader
could still understand the story itself, which is the same situa-
tion we have with Shakespeare.

4) That the story in the book of Ruth took place at a time when
the people of Israel were not taking Gods kingship seriously,
and that the book of Ruth is a story like the stories we read
about in the book of Judges.

5) The first allusions in these words are to the blessings and curses
of the covenant in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28.

6) That Israel was under covenantal judgment for her sins, since
God had promised abundant blessing. Just like in the stories
of the book of Judges, the book of Ruth tells us of Gods
covenantal judgment on unfaithful Israel. It also shows us
that Elimelechs decision to move away from Israel was not
morally neutral.

7) Elimelech means my God is king and Bethlehem means

house of bread. Elimelechs name is ironic because he is
not following God as king. Bethlehem is ironic also because
there is a famine in the house of bread.

8) The book of Ruth alludes to the stories in Genesis when Abra-

ham, Isaac, and Jacob journeyed in times of famine or trial. But
the point of the stories is to contrast the journey of Elimelech

Answer Key

with the journeys in Genesis. In the days of the Patriarchs,

the land of Canaan belonged to the Canaanites and leaving it
was not sinful. In the days of Elimelech the land belonged
to Israel and leaving the land was virtually an act of apostasy.

9) Moab should have been Israels friend, but when Israel came
to the Promised Land, Moab opposed her. Later, Moabs King
Eglon oppressed Israel in the days of the Judges. Because Moab
hired Balaam to curse Israel, it was under a special curse, as the
book of Deuteronomy records (Deut. 22:3-4).

10) The irony is the fact that a cursed member of the people of
Moab becomes an ancestress to the Messiah. The people who
should have been the people of faith do not follow God as they
should, but this Moabite woman fears God.

11) According to Freud, the key is that Macbeth and his wife are

12) Quotation from lecture:

a) Shakespeare not infrequently borrows words or phrases from
the Bible.
b) Sometimes Shakespeare is clearly quoting a verse from
the Bible. (The difference between this and the first category
is that borrowing may be less clear than quoting and quoting
is usually more than just a word or a short phrase. But the
distinction between the two categories is not always sharp).
c) Shakespeare makes allusions to Biblical teaching. (And when
I say teaching here, I am not necessarily speaking narrowly
of what we would call doctrines.)
d) Shakespeare makes allusions to Biblical stories.
e) Shakespeare borrows Biblical symbolism.
f) Shakespeare sometimes uses a Biblical story as a paradigm.
That is, he uses a Biblical story to structure and define some
other story.
Shakespeare the Christian I

g) Finally, Shakespeare employs typology in a manner similar

to the Bible.

13) Unconscious borrowing and non-literary allusion.

14) The three subcategories are:

a) Stylistic quotation a form of quotation that is more than
merely borrowing Biblical language, but it does not
establish a link between Shakespeare and the Bible.
Malcoms use of Biblical oath language, for example, shows
his sincerity, but it does not link him or his story with the
b) Ironic quotation a kind of quotation in which the quo-
tation has a different meaning or opposite meaning from
the Biblical text quoted. Hamlets quotation of Genesis 2
and the meaning of marriage is ironic.
c) Literary quotation a quotation that does intend to
establish a link between Shakespeares play and the Bible.
Macbeths quotation of the words of Jesus to Judas links
Macbeths murder of Duncan to Judas betrayal.

15) There are various possible answers:

a) Nerissas allusion to Proverbs 30:7-9.
b) Portias general allusion to sin and mockery.
c) Allusions to the Biblical teaching about usury in The Merchant
of Venice.

16) Because in them, we have the master storyteller alluding to

the greatest story ever told. Allusions to stories can be com-
plex and ambiguous, suggesting many ideas and feelings in a
few words. The allusions in Ruth refer to multiple stories in
Genesis, Numbers, and Judges. As the Biblical story grows,
allusions become richer and more complex.

Answer Key

17) In The Merchant of Venice, Shylock reminds Antonio of the

story of Jacob serving Laban and attempts to use it to justify
his own practice of usury.

Shakespeare the Christian I

Lecture Four:
Shakespeares Use of the Bible (II)

1) Richard is repeatedly referred to as a devil and also a toad,

suggesting the frogs in the book of Revelation.

2) The fact that tragedy ends in death and comedy in marriage is

like the end of the Bible in the book of Revelation, where
the choices are the second death or the marriage feast of
the Lamb.

3) It means that a story in the Bible provides the outline or the

pattern for a story in Shakespeare.

4) The first part of the story of Macbeth is like the story of the fall
of Adam. Macbeth and his wife are tempted by the devil
(witches) to steal the throne and become like gods by killing
King Duncan.

5) The story of Abrahams going on a journey is the story of the

Exodus. Twice Abraham goes on a journey and both times Sarah
is attacked by the evil king. Both times God rescues Abra- ham
and Sarah and brings them back to the Promised Land. This is
repeated again in the life of Isaac and again in the life of Jacob.
The Exodus story is the same story written large.

6) No, there was a long tradition in Europe of stories of the fall.

The story of Adam is the story of Everyman, portrayed in
Medieval European drama.

Answer Key

7) The story of Joseph in the book of Genesis is one of the

best examples of Biblical typology. Joseph was betrayed by his
brothers, sent to die, resurrected and seated at the right hand of
Pharaoh, and became the savior of his brothers. His life story
is a prophetic foreshadowing of the life of the Messiah, Jesus.

8) The underlying assumption is that God guides history ac-

cording to His covenant. History includes repeated themes
and patterns. Overall it is a spiral in which there are repeated
themes while there is progress toward the goal.

9) Typology is ultimately pointing to Christ. The book of Hebrews

says that the tabernacle, the sacrificial system, and the priest-
hood all were types of Christ.

10) From David and Solomon we learn that anyone who is going
to be a type of the Messiah is unworthy of his role as a type.
No one is adequate. In the nature of the case, the men who
foreshadow the Messiah are vastly inferior to Him.

11) The fact that the Bible ends in a marriage means that the
Church is part of typology also. The Church is Christs bride,
so marriage is part of the story of salvation as it is pictured in

12) To say typology is multiple means that the same thing or

person can be more than one type and that there can be many
different types of the Messiah in the same place and the
same time. David was another Adam and also a type of the
Messiah. The Israelites in the wilderness were surrounded by
types of Christ the manna, Moses, the tabernacle, the rock
that gave water, etc.

Shakespeare the Christian I

13) Allegory is more ambiguous than typology and lacks the Bibli-
cal basis typology has.

14) Bloom interprets the play through Freudian lenses. He

calls the play the masterpiece of nihilism and comic re-
bellion against authority. He considers it completely alienated
from traditional Western morality. In his view, the Duke is
sadistic and the play equates sex and death.

15) Blooms view requires us to read the title of the play as im-
plicit blasphemy and the Biblical references in the play as all
ironic. The play would have to be seen as a mockery of Chris-
tian faith. This is highly unlikely since Shakespeare writes in
a European tradition that included many stories similar to the
one he wrote in Measure for Measure. Rather than assuming that
Shakespeare was a blasphemer and the European tradition of
storytelling was full of anti- Christian stories, it is much more
likely that Shakespeares story has a very different meaning from
the one Harold Bloom attempts to impose.

16) Bloom is one of the most highly respected Shakespearean

scholars in America today. His book on Shakespeare was a
bestseller and is used in American universities. He is a typical
anti-Christian academic.

17) Auden interpreted the play in terms of its main themes which
he identified as the nature of justice, the nature of authority,
and the nature of forgiveness.

18) Angelo typifies the story of man. Like Adam he was filled
with lust for what was not his and he stole it. He tried to flee
from Gods judgment and was eventually caught and punished,
but also, by grace, forgiven. The Duke, like Christ, works to
bring him to repentance and forgiveness.

Answer Key

19) The Duke is a type of Christ. He leaves the city temporarily

in the rule of another until he returns. He disguises himself
so that the people will not know him. He works behind the
scenes to bring about the realization of sin and the need for
repentance on the part of Angelo and Claudio, but also Isabella.
By leading the other characters to the place that they die to
themselves, he opens up the way of life for them.

20) A modest estimate would be about 10 references per act.

Shakespeare usually quotes from the Geneva Bible, the trans-
lation produced in Calvins Geneva and one which included
footnotes instructing the reader in Protestant faith.

21) Important sources for Shakespeare are the literature and

mythology of ancient Greece and Rome, the Christian drama
of the Middle Ages, the history of England, the contempo-
rary situation, the literature of the Renaissance and Elizabethan

Shakespeare the Christian I

Lecture Five:
The Merchant of Venice

1) The Merchant of Venice contains more references to the Bible

than any other single play and the references are complicated,
requiring interpretation. In addition, it is a very popular and
also controversial play.

2) First, the play has been regarded as anti-Semitic because of

the character Shylock. Second, the play has been interpreted
as portraying a homosexual relationship between Antonio and
Bassanio. Third, Portia has been pictured by feminists as a
liberated woman. Fourth, there are numerous controversies
surrounding the interpretation of the play and its use of the
Bible, especially whether the play as a whole should be under-
stood as an allegory.

3) In the Italian story that Shakespeare borrowed, Antonio is

Bassanios grandfather. He is especially kind to him because
Bassanio has been orphaned. Shakespeare does not explain
their relationship, though they are clearly relatives, perhaps be-
cause he intends to draw attention to the symbolic dimension.

4) Portia is the main woman in the play. She is beloved by her

father. All the men in the play treat her with respect for her
wisdom as well as her beauty. Neither Bassanio nor Antonio
object when they learn it was she who was the judge. On the
whole, the play gives us a Christian picture of respect and honor
for a woman.

Answer Key

5) Anti-Semitism is difficult to define in our day because of

the holocaust, because of the contemporary Arab-Israeli con-
flict, and also because of some of the statements of Christian
leaders in the past. For some Jewish people, the New Testa-
ment itself is an anti-Semitic document because Paul spoke
of the wrath of God on Jews because of the crucifixion, and
because Christians seek the conversion of all Jews to faith in
Christ. To define the expression clearly, anti-Semitism should
be defined as the desire to exterminate Jews as a race
of people, the ambition of Hitler and of some Muslims in
our day. It is clearly not a matter of religion only, since Jews,
Muslims, and Christians all believe their religion is true and
all others are wrong. If anti-Semitism is defined as believing
Judaism to be a false religion, then Jews would necessarily be
defined as anti-Christian also. But when Christians claim that
Judaism is a false religion, they are not against Jewish people,
but for them, for they seek their conversion and salvation. The
religious issue and the racial issue, therefore, must be divided.
Anti-Semitism only makes sense as racial hatred of Jewish
people. In that sense, nothing in Shakespeare is anti-Semitic.

6) The Church in the Middle Ages tended to regard all loans on

interest as sinful. Usury was seen as a sin that was associated
with covetousness. Scholars in the Middle Ages, influenced
by Aristotle, saw money-lending as an enterprise in which the
money-lender contributed nothing to society. Therefore, he
deserved no pay. There was also a Biblical command not to
lend money to a brother on interest.

7) Modern day churches usually make a distinction between a

loan to a poor person, which should not include interest, and
a business loan, which may charge interest.

Shakespeare the Christian I

8) Christians in Shakespeares day regarded the idea of charging

interest on a loan as sinful. Anyone who charged interest
was regarded as covetous. Even though the practice was
necessary and common, it was not socially respectable.

9) At the most general level the story of The Merchant of Venice is

two interrelated stories. One is the story of the loan of money
from Antonio to Bassanio. The other is the story of Bassanios
love for Portia. The two stories are connected by the fact
that Bassanio needs a loan to court Portia. Antonio does not
have the money on hand, so he borrows from the Jewish
money lender, Shylock. This loan connects the two stories and
problems with the loan point to the central message of the play.

10) The two stories are united by the central theme: self-denial
as the essence of love. They are also united by the fact that
they both include trials that test the character of Bassanio.

11) Bassanio learns the meaning of love and self-sacrifice from

Antonios care for him and is able to apply that lesson when
he has to choose a casket. He shows his understanding of
self-sacrifice at the trial of Antonio when he volunteers to give
his life for his friend.

12) Antonio and Shylock both have a literal death sentence

pronounced against them and both of them are delivered from
death and given a chance for a new life. Bassanio has to die
in a figurative sense more than once in the play. Portia, too,
has to die to herself in the sense that she has to submit herself
to her fathers will.

Answer Key

13) The central point taught through the two stories is that true
love is self-denial and that we can only live through the death
of self-denial in love.

14) The fact that the word Jew occurs 70 times and the word
Christian occurs 26 times, often in important contexts.

15) He portrays Shylock as covetous, unfeeling, and selfish

a hypocritical Pharisee who proclaims his faithfulness to the
law, while he is actually breaking the law.

16) First, he speaks out against Christ. Second, he speaks of the

law and justice when he is plotting murder. Third, the
Duke refers to him as stone-hearted and lacking in mercy.
Fourth, Antonio also refers to the hardness of his heart.
Fifth, he swears by the Sabbath. Sixth, he refuses to eat with
Gentiles. Seventh, he hates Antonio passionately because of
his Christian faith.

17) The trial scene shows Shylocks irrational and passionate

hatred of Antonio and Antonios humble submission to judg-
ment. Shylock alludes to Scriptures in the Gospel accounts
when he says, My deeds upon my head, and when he claims
he is being faithful to an oath when he persecutes Antonio.
He also mentions Barabbas. Antonio compares himself to
a lamb, pointing to Isaiah 53. He suffers quietly and patiently.

18) Shylocks appeal to the law is defeated by the law itself, show-
ing that those who would be justified by law cannot be saved.
Salvation must be by grace.

Shakespeare the Christian I

19) No. The trial scene is not realistic. Shylocks sort of case
would not have been accepted in any court of Europe. The
whole trial is obviously an allegory of something else, a par-
able teaching about life.

20) Numerous details in the play refute the notion that Antonio is
a hypocrite. To begin with, he was honestly willing to die for
his friend. When he first asked that only half of Shylocks
money be taken, he still assumed his money had all been lost
at sea. If Antonio were being presented as a hypocrite, the
passages in the play that associate him with Christ would border
on blasphemy.

21) Shakespeare preaches to his audience through the character

Gratiano, who is a perfect picture of the selfish, immature
Christian. He exemplifies the kinds of traits that Shylock com-
plains of in Christians and reminds the audience that they
must live by their faith, like Antonio. Because of Christians
like Gratiano, the name of God is blasphemed among the Jews
(cf. Rom. 2:24).

Answer Key

Lecture Six:
Macbeth (I)

1) Quotation from lecture:

a) The overt Christian belief system is not insisted upon.
b) Institutionalized Christianity is not present in the play.
c) There is a sense of evil as an objective existence apart from
divine purpose.
d) There is no reference to future divine judgment.
e) There is nothing specifically anti-Christian in Macbeths
crimes since they would offend any system of morality.
f) The play is universal, the implication being that the Christian
view would restrict it.

2) Stories, even in the Bible, do not insist on the Christian belief

system. That is not the way stories work. We should not expect
a Christian author writing to a Christian audience to insist on
the Christian belief system.

3) It is not clear why Shakespeare does not refer to the Church,

but it may be perhaps in part due to the fact that the two
Biblical stories he is using as background have little to do with
institutions of religion.

4) Evil is depicted as the inexcusable personal lust of Macbeth

aroused by the demonic temptation of the weird sisters. Mac-
beths sin and rebellion deepen as he seeks to maintain control
in the future. Every aspect of evil in the play is personal.

5) Yes. There are 11 references to hell in the play, as well as

references to damnation and judgment and allusions to judg-
ment day in a speech by Lennox.

Shakespeare the Christian I

6) They ignore the Biblical references in the play.

7) It is important to understand how Shakespeare changed the

history of Macbeth so that his story would fit the Biblical
story of Adam and the fall. In the actual history of Scotland,
Macbeth did not murder the king with his wife. That story
is borrowed from the murder of King Duffe by Donwald
and his wife. Macbeth is recorded to have been met by the
witches, and he did slay his own king, Duncan, but that was
with the cooperation and consent of the other Scottish nobles.
Shakespeare has changed the history of Scotland so that he
could have a story of a man and a woman being tempted
to greatness, killing to get what they lusted after, and falling
into deeper sin and distress because of it.

8) Shakespeare presents Macbeth as a brave and loyal soldier

who risks his life for his king. When Macbeth is tempted,
he is shocked at himself and resists the temptation. His wife
is worried that he is too kind a man to take the throne by
force. We also see him struggle deeply against temptation
and witness the anguish of his soul as he tries to escape his
own lust. These sorts of details present him as a man we can

9) Witches tempt Macbeth and his wife to murder King Duncan in

order to gain his throne and become king and queen of Scot-
land. At the beginning of the story, Macbeth is a righteous
and good man. The wife first gives in to the temptation and
then encourages her husband to join her. The story of a hus-
band and wife being tempted by demons to attempt to steal
the throne, becoming like gods, so to speak, comes right out
of the book of Genesis.

Answer Key

10) Banquo warns Macbeth about Satanic temptation in words

that obviously allude to the temptation and fall of Adam.
Oftentimes, to win us to our harm, the instruments of
darkness tell us truths, win us with honest trifles, to betrays in
deepest consequence.

11) The argument is about whether or not he is a man. He says

that he dares do all that becomes a man and that anyone who
does more is no man. This is an argument about what consti-
tutes true manhood and courage in connection with temptation
to sin. In essence, Lady Macbeth says that the man who sins
to attain his ambition is manly, whereas Macbeth is trying
to argue that a true man restrains himself within the boundar-
ies of what is becoming for a man. This conversation clearly
points back to Genesis 3 and the fall of man, when Adam and
Eve decided that their true humanity would be realized by
rebellion against God rather than patient obedience.

12) Shakespeare has Banquo and Duncan discussing the beauty

of Macbeths castle, alluding to Psalm 84, which speaks of the
beauty of Gods temple. The temple is the dwelling place of
God, like paradise. But after Macbeth and his wife kill the
king, when MacDuff comes to visit the castle the next morn-
ing, the doorkeeper refers to Macbeths castle as hell and his
master as Beelzebub. Rather than have Macbeth and his wife
cast out of the paradise-castle, Shakespeare writes the story so
that paradise itself is transformed into hell.

13) To emphasize the connection between Genesis 3 and Macbeth,

Shakespeare includes many references to hearing sounds and
being afraid. Adam and Eve were afraid and fled when they
heard the sound of God. Macbeth and his lady hear various
sounds, but the sound that finally provokes them to flee is the
sound of MacDuff, the man who becomes their judge.

Shakespeare the Christian I

14) They fled and changed clothes, alluding to Adam and Eve.

15) There are allusions also to the stories of Judas and Cain.

16) Milton pictures Adam as falling into sin because he loves his
wife. His fall may be said to be an idolatrous devotion to her.
In Shakespeare, Macbeth is the one who originated the tempta-
tion by telling his wife the words of the three weird sisters.
Though Lady Macbeth eggs him on, Macbeth virtually shares
equal responsibility for the fall. In that sense, Shakespeares ver-
sion is much closer to the Bible, which puts the blame on Adam.

17) The first part of Macbeth reminds us that even good and
brave men can be tempted to commit the most awful sins.
Just like Macbeth is another Adam, so are we in our own ways.
We all are in the same danger and should be careful lest we fall.

Answer Key

Lecture Seven:
Macbeth (II)

1) The rest of the story is linked with King Saul. It is impor-

tant because Saul shows us the progressive deterioration of
a sinful man who rebels against God. Saul did not repent,
but fell further into sin, eventually consulting with the devil.

2) Literary allusion connects stories in the Bible so that each

provides a perspective on the other, leading to deeper un-

3) The most basic literary link with Adam is the connection

between Adam and Christ in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians
15. The whole Bible is related to these two men.

4) Noah is the most obvious new Adam. Abraham, Moses, and

David are new Adams in their own way also. Saul is a more
secondary figure in the larger Biblical picture, but he is also a
new Adam.

5) A man who was qualified to be a king, but who was also like
the nation he led, spiritually unstable. In the beginning he was
a good son, and it looked like he would be a good leader. He
even prophesied with the prophets of Israel.

6) Sauls first test as a king was the battle with King Nahash, whose
name means serpent. Saul succeeded in battle by trusting in
God. He showed godly character by forgiving the men in
Israels army who spoke against him before the battle.

Shakespeare the Christian I

7) The second test Saul faced was the battle with the Philistines
in 1 Samuel 13. He failed this test miserably. Instead of wait-
ing for Samuel to come and offer the sacrifice as he was told
to do, he became impatient when Samuel did not come and
offered the sacrifice himself.

8) In 1 Samuel 14, Saul sought to kill his own son Jonathan

when he disobeyed what was actually a foolish command.
In 1 Samuel 15, Saul disobeyed God and showed mercy to
Gods enemies instead of judging them as he was told to do.

9) Saul is important because he did not repent of his sins but

became gradually worse, giving us one of the clearest Biblical
examples of what it means for a man to become progressively
depraved. Also, Saul gives us an example of a king who rebelled
against God. This adds to the story of the fall because there
is nothing in the story of Adam to link with the progressive
development of evil in the life of a king.

10) Saul began as a good young man who seemed to be a prom-

ising leader. He fell into sin as a young king and did not repent.
When he learned of Gods judgment that another would have
the throne after him, he became insanely jealous and tried to
overthrow the plan of God by killing David. He also killed
the priests of Nob. Though he had lucid moments when he
seemed to repent, he returned to his sin with even greater zeal
against God. In the end, he is consulting a witch.

11) They can both be divided into three parts:

(1) Saul began as a good young man and a good king; Macbeth
began as a good soldier.
(2) Saul sinned and fell away from God; Macbeth and his wife
sinned and did not repent.

Answer Key

(3) Because he did not repent, Saul became gradually more

wicked; Macbeth, like Saul, became progressively more evil.

12) MacDuff referred to Duncan as the Lords anointed, an ex-

pression that only occurs 9 times in the Geneva Bible, 7 times
with reference to Saul and twice with reference to David.
This links the two stories in a general way.

13) First, there are ironic contrasts. Macbeth, in contrast with

David, had absolutely no legitimate reason to hate or kill the
king. David resists the temptation to kill the king, though he
knows that he is appointed by God to be the next king. Macbeth
has heard from demons that he will be the next king, but he
cannot resist the lust to kill Duncan. Second, it is ironic that
the one who kills the Lords anointed is the one who becomes
King Saul.

14) In Act III, Macbeth says that blood will have blood. The
most obvious allusion is to the story of Cain and the blood
of Abel crying out for vengeance, but there is also a story in
the life of Saul that is related. There was a famine during the
reign of David that came to Israel as a punishment for the
bloody deeds of Saul (1 Sam. 21:1).

15) This is perhaps the clearest literary link to the story of Saul.
When Saul encountered the witch of Endor, the language is
very similar. Shaheen admits this as an allusion to the Bible.
This also points to larger themes as well. Saul, like Macbeth,
is worried about who will inherit the throne. He knows, like
Macbeth, that God has not chosen his heirs. Like Macbeth,
he resists.

16) The main theme is Macbeths jealousy toward Banquo, a liter-

ary link to the story of Saul and his jealousy of David.

Shakespeare the Christian I

17) Macbeth and his lady appear fair but turn out to be most foul.
The kings sons appear at first to be foul, but they are fair at
least, relatively speaking. MacDuff is considered foul but he
is fair, as are others. In Macbeths Scotland, foul and fair are
turned upside down.

18) In Sauls Israel, as in Macbeths Scotland, fair and foul are

tuned upside down. Sauls fairest servant David is regarded as
an enemy of the crown, while Saul himself rejects Gods word
and seeks counsel from a witch.

19) The broader Biblical theme is the theme of the ungodly ruler
or leader. His power to rule includes the power to define. Jesus
is the supreme example, the story of His crucifixion showing
the fair one being treated as foul.

20) Lady Macbeth is similar to some of the evil women in the

Bible, like Jezebel and Herodias who both encouraged their
husbands to sin against God to maintain or increase their
authority. But more than that, she is an image of Macbeths
heart and the guilt and pain he suffers. Just as she sympathized
with Macbeth wholly in his ambition, making it her own, she
sympathizes with him in suffering. She is the picture of his
conscience and his inner man going mad.

21) Quotation from lecture:

a) The supreme literary value is the representation of human
b)The idea of man as a moral agent has many sources, including
both Greek philosophers, the Bible, and Christian theo-
logians. What is unique about Shakespeare is the notion
of personality.

Answer Key

c) Shakespeares characters seem real to us in way that is be-

yond explanation. Historical considerations do not aid us in
explaining his accomplishment.
d) Other playwrights in Shakespeares day working with the
same sort of material that was available to him were not
able to produce characters with the deep psychological reality
we find in Shakespeare.
e) Shakespeares characters differ from characters in the litera-
ture of his own day and before in that his characters change
whereas the others are relatively unchanging.
f) Not only do his characters change, they change in a spe-
cific manner. They do not merely grow old and die, nor
do they simply respond to the gods or God. They change
because their relationship to themselves has changed. They
reconceive their very selves. An act of the will is central
to who they are.
g) Shakespeares contribution to Western conceptions of the
human is so important that if he had died young, we would
actually have different ideas of what it means for us to be
human. Shakespeare is, in other words, the most important
single source of the modern idea of man as a personality.

22) In answer to Bloom:

a) The first is almost true. The portrayal of God Himself and
His relationship with man is the supreme value.
b) Blooms attempt to distinguish between man as a moral agent
and man as a personality is confused and ambiguous. The
Bible provides us characters that we come to know better
and better by reading their stories. Moreover the fullness of
personality comes to us through the words of Jesus.

Shakespeare the Christian I

c) It is true of course that history cannot wholly explain

Shakespeare. But as a man who read and understood the
Geneva Bible, he is at least partially explained by the Prot-
estant history of his time. He wrote as an Elizabethan
Christian for Elizabethan Christians.
d) Point four is true, but it simply means Shakespeare was a
superior genius, it does not imply anything about his Chris-
tian faith or use of the Bible.
e) The fact that Shakespeares characters change makes them
like real people, but here Shakespeare is just following the
f) The assertion in Blooms sixth point is simply wrong.
People are defined by their relationships with others, above
all, their relationship to God. Shakespeare shows people
changing according to their circumstances and the influences
of others around them.
g) Blooms point is partially true. Without Shakespeare we
would be different. He was one of the few men who have
so great an impact on history. But the most single important
source for our notion of personality is the Bible and the
doctrine of the Trinity.

23) Kurosawas movie has no allusions to the Bible. The story

of Macbeth is told in a different age in time, without any of
the Bible allusions found in Shakespeare. At best, it is just a
moral story, like the ones in McGuffys Readers. Kurosawas lack
of Biblical references makes his movie a secularized version
of Macbeth.

Answer Key

Lecture Eight:
Henry V (I)

1) The series of plays, of which Henry V is a part, begins with

Richard II and is followed by two plays on Henry IV. After
Henry V, there are three plays on Henry VI and one on Richard
III. The whole series covers the years a little over 100 years
of English history from 1377 to 1485. There are also plays
on King John and Henry VIII, but they are not really part of
the series.

2) Henry V depicts events during the Hundred Years War between

France and England, fought over the control of the French
crown. The war lasted from 1337 to 1453.

3) Edward III claimed the throne of France on the basis of

the fact that his mother was the daughter of King Philip IV
of France.

4) Richard II was 10 years old when he became king. His problems

stemmed from the fact that Edward III had other sons besides
his father, and they and their families were in competition with
Richard for power. When Richard was old enough to rule for
himself, he tried to take power away from his relatives, but that
led to a battle for power which ended in him being deposed by
Henry Bolingbroke.

5) In 1399, Richard II seized land from John of Gaunt when John

died. Henry Bolingbroke was Johns son. On the pretense of
regaining his family land, Henry, who had been banished, re-
turned to England and fought against Richard. He set himself
up as king in the same year.

Shakespeare the Christian I

6) Henry IV faced the problems of legitimacy and rebellion.

Both of these problems stemmed from the fact that he gained
his throne through rebellion against the rightful king. If Henry
IV got his throne through rebellion, then some may ask if his
reign is legitimate. Others may wonder if they can imitate him
and take the throne for themselves.

7) Apart from the political story, Shakespeares Henry IV shows

us the story of young King Henry V, Prince Hal. The story
is fictitious but popular among the English.

8) The secondary story in the Henry IV plays is the story of

young Henry V, Prince Hal. It is important because of what
it shows us about the future king and also because it is so
well told that it is one of the most interesting stories in Shake-
speares plays.

9) We learn that even though Hal associates with evil men, he

does not follow them in doing wickedness. He knows how
to be with them without actually becoming one of them. He
seems to genuinely care for them and in the end he works to-
ward reforming them. We also see that he has political motives
in associating with them. He is calculating about the future.
This seems to be an example of his wisdom, not a case of the
king being a cold, calculating kind of person.

10) Harold Bloom sees Henry V as a Machiavellian character,

a king who does whatever is necessary to increase his power
and maintain his position. His morality is purely a show for
the sake of power. His attempt to conquer France is heartless,
sacrificing the lives of thousands for the sake of his own raw
ambition. Henry V is a hypocrite, a liar, and a brute.

Answer Key

11) Leithart sees Henry V as a king who repeatedly violates Chris-

tian standards of righteousness. According to Leithart, Henry
V is something like a Machiavellian character, though he does
not push this paradigm as far as Bloom. Also, according to
Leithart, Shakespeares irony in presenting Henry V is not an
example of Shakespeares skeptical critique of the world but an
example of his Christian faith, for Shakespeare is showing that
the king violates Christian standards of righteousness. Henry
is the mirror of a Christian king in the sense that he is the
reversed image of a Christian king.

12) The contrast between Hotspur and Prince Hal is introduced

by Henry IV himself when he compares the two young men
and laments that his son is not like Hotspur. He even says he
wishes that it could be proved that Hotspur was his real son.

13) The phrase redeeming the time was used in Ephesians 5:16
and Colossians 4:5. Ephesians speaks of redeeming the time
because the days are evil, an appropriate description of the
times in which young Hal was raised, since England faced civil
war and social confusion. Colossians speaks of walking in
wisdom toward those without, which describes Hals dealing
with Falstaff and the other people at the tavern.

14) They are seen to be young men of about the same age, both
involved in plots of a sort, both called Harry. Hotspur, as
his name suggests, is above all passionate. He is not an evil
young man but he is rash to the point of being foolish. His
plot is to instigate civil war and overthrow the king. It is bold,
but also bloody. Hal, on the other hand, is calm and wise in
his dealing with others. His plot is a harmless practical joke.

Shakespeare the Christian I

15) The fact that Hal has the chance to expose Falstaff s cow-
ardly lying and also restore the stolen money with interest may
suggest that Hal shows Solomon-like wisdom in dealing with
the people at the tavern. He deals with the theft Biblically by
restoring the money with interest, and he uses the occasion to
rebuke Falstaff and the others for their sins.

16) The play shows us that the king was entirely mistaken about
his son. Hal is braver and wiser and even a better soldier than
Hotspur. The king was not entirely wrong about Hotspur.
He was a brave young man and not lacking in nobility. He
loved his wife and family. But he was also rash and foolish.
His plotting cost the lives of many men, including his own.
Hal responded to the kings accusations calmly, fought in the
war bravely, and personally won in his fight against Hotspur.
In the end, we see that the king entirely misunderstood and
underestimated his son.

17) Shakespeare does show Hal as calculating in a certain

sense, but it is not necessary to understand that as a Machia-
vellian bid to hold or increase his power. Rather Shakespeares
Hal should be seen as a young prince who understands his
people and uses wise means to lead them.

Answer Key

Lecture Nine:
Henry V (II)

1) Machiavelli is the best known representative for the pro-war

perspective. Thomas More and Erasmus are the best known
representatives of the so-called pacifist perspective.

2) The so-called pacifist perspective was that times of peace were

ideal and better for the nation than times of war. It was not
the opinion of Erasmus and More that all wars were evil or that
war should never be fought. Their position was that peace is
preferable to war as the ideal condition for a nation.

3) Christians did not agree with Machiavellis entire philosophy,

which was radically amoral. They separated his views on war
from his overall political perspective. What some Christians
agreed with was that times of war were times that built mens
character. They could point to Biblical heroes like Abraham,
Moses, and David, all of whom were warriors at some time in
their lives.

4) Machiavelli believed that the main duty of a king was to make

war. From the time of the fall of the Roman Empire, Europe
had been ruled by warrior chiefs. Even though Christianity
restrained the ancient warrior culture, feudalism retained the
underpinnings of the old martial culture and its values. The
symbols of the gentleman and the notion of honor were dis-
tinctly military. For Machiavelli, only war offered the means
for men to gain and display true virtue. But war for him was
also a necessary aspect of human nature and the world. The
whole created world is activated by a principle that everything is
either ascending or declining, so that the world is in perpetual
strife. Man in particular has a restless desire for power that
only ends in death.
Shakespeare the Christian I

5) Erasmus argued that the most unjust peace was preferable to

war because of the bloodshed war caused, the drain that it
was on the economy, and all the other evils that accompanied
it. Even for the prince who wins, the cost is not worth it. The
real duty of the prince is to avoid war and lead his people to
prosperity and happiness.

6) According to Marx, Shakespeares views on war and peace

changed over the years, as did views of Englands leaders.
Marx believes Shakespeares earliest plays glorify the military,
but that there is a gradual change during the 1590s. Henry
V was written in 1599, when Shakespeares view was not
clear. After 1602 or 1603, Shakespeare began to take an anti-
military stance. Plays after that, like Macbeth, Othello, Coriolanus,
and Antony and Cleopatra, show military leaders as flawed men
whose lives became tragedies.

7) There are three places in Henry V where Shakespeare might

be criticizing the military perspective. One is Henrys speech
before the gates of Harfleur, where Henry threatens the city in
unchristian language, including the rape of virgins and murder
of children. Another is the scene in which Fluellen, a comic
figure, argues for the ancient arts of war. The third is the
conversation between Henry and a soldier named Williams,
in which Williams describes the horrors of war so graphically
that an audience has to be repulsed.

8) Yes. It is reasonable to assume so because Shakespeare had

enough contact with the intellectual life of his day and the
views of the leaders of English society that he could have been
influenced by the intellectual climate and the kinds of arguments
and issues that persuaded others.

Answer Key

9) The notion that Shakespeare was communicating a double

message in Henry V was not expressed until after World
War I. In the years that followed, it gradually became the
standard view in college courses. Norman Rabkin wrote an
essay titled Rabbits, Ducks, and Henry V in which he referred
to the famous drawing that can be seen either as a rabbit or a
duck, depending on how you look at it, suggesting that Shake-
speare is painting two pictures of Henry V.

10) The English identified their history with that of ancient Israel.
It means that English people in Shakespeares day believed
that their nation was guided by a special divine providence
and that their land and leaders were blessed or cursed by God
according to their faithfulness to Him.

11) The Tudor Myth is the belief of the English in Shake-

speares day that the Tudor family, beginning with Henry VII,
was specially raised up by God to deliver England from her
political and religious trials. Henry VII saved England from
Richard III. Henry VIII, Edward, and Elizabeth saved Eng-
land from the Pope and the Catholic Church. Elizabeth saved
England from the Spanish Armada. The Tudor family lead
England to become the leader of the Protestant world.

12) One of the important phrases is God be with you. Some

others are God before, Gods arm, God fought for us,
and praised be God.

Shakespeare the Christian I

13) These Biblical phrases are important because they establish a

link between the play Henry V and the story of the Exodus
and Conquest in the Bible. The phrases alluding to figures
like Moses and Joshua and their trust in God leading to victory
over the pagan nations form a framework for the whole play.
Shakespeare creates a link to these stories so that we will see
Henry V as a hero of virtually Biblical proportions and his
victory at Agincourt as a miracle granted by God.

14) Two scenes in the play show Henry as a Christian hero. One
is the conversation between Ely and Canterbury. They are talk-
ing about the amazing transformation of the king, including his
Christian character. There is no reason for them to make this
up in private conversation. The other is Henrys soliloquy the
night before the battle which shows his humility and includes
his sincere prayer to God for help. Again, since Henry is alone,
this is not political posturing.

15) The Bible itself criticizes almost all of its heroes. Men like
Moses and David are portrayed with their faults. If Shake-
speare wrote as a Christian, he would not have to hide the
kings faults. He could also regard Henry V as a hero, just as
he would regard David as a hero.

Answer Key

Lecture Ten:
Romeo and Juliet

1) Harold Bloom sees Romeo and Juliet as the greatest love

story every told. He believes Shakespeare is giving us a story
of ideal love that we should look to as a vision of the purest
and most uncompromising love. His view includes the no-
tion that true love must be tragic because of Heraclitus view
that all things change and Empedocles view that life is a war
between love and death. If both of these notions are true, love
must either die of itself, or the lovers must die to preserve
love. The philosophical aspect of his view is not common,
but the notion that Romeo and Juliet depicts pure love is common.

2) The key Biblical allusion in the play comes in Act II, Scene
2, when the two young lovers first exchange their confession
of love. Juliet tells Romeo to swear by himself and says that
he is the god of her idolatry. Her words allude to Hebrews
6:13 which tells us that God swore by Himself because He
could swear by none greater. It shows us that the relationship
was not Christian love but flawed because it was idolatrous,
leading to tragedy.

3) Idolatrous love, like idolatrous worship, is self-seeking, using

the other for ones own desires. The essence of true love is
self-sacrifice. True love delights to give and bless the other.

4) He does not despise them like a Pharisee for the fact that their
love was flawed and led to tragedy, for if he had no sympathy
for them, he could not have made them tragic heroes. They
had the potential for something true and beautiful. That is
what makes the loss of it painful.

Shakespeare the Christian I

5) Shakespeares source was an earnest Protestant poet Arthur

Brooke who wrote a poem about two lovers, Romeus and
Juliet, in 1562.

6) We know what Brookes purpose was because he told us him

self in a preface to his poem. Brooke wrote to edify his
readers by warning them of sin through a story that shows
how lustful, rash, immature love can ruin young people.

7) Shakespeare followed his source so closely that Brian

Gibbons, an editor of the Arden edition of Romeo and Ju-
liet, suggested that Shakespeare had a copy of Brooke by him
while he wrote the play, clearly suggesting a unity of message
between the two. This also implies that where the two stories
differ, we have important perspectives for understanding what
Shakespeare is doing with his play.

8) We see that Shakespeare did not use even one of Brookes 20

Biblical references, which means that Biblical references ap-
pear in Shakespeare as self-conscious choices. They give us
a distinctly Shakespearean view of the story.

9) Shaheen missed the reference in Act IV, Scene 1, when Juliet

alluded to the temptation of Christ by the devil in the Gospels.
Ironically, the Friar is put in the place of the devil, and he actu-
ally does tempt Romeo and Juliet by giving them bad advice.

10) The first allusion in the play is in Act I, Scene 1, where two
servants of the house of Capulet refer to women as weaker
vessels, alluding to Peters instruction that men should honor
their wives. But the servants are speaking of dishonorable acts
toward women, making the reference ironic and showing that
the servants have vulgar views of women and sex.

Answer Key

11) Shakespeare alludes to Galatians 5, where Paul speaks of a

warfare between the flesh and the Spirit. The Friars words
are spoken just before Romeo walks into the room, suggesting
that Romeo is a man in whom this battle is ongoing and that
Romeos failure in the play was a victory of the flesh. The
Friars influence on Romeo can be seen in the light of this
allusion as well, for he does not help Romeo to do righteous
spiritual battle.

12) Brooke has the romance between Romeo and Juliet take place
over a period of 9 months. Shakespeare has the whole thing
take place in just 4 days, less than 100 hours. Romeo and
Juliet are secretly married by the Friar less than 24 hours after
they first meet. The extremely short chronology makes the
rashness and lust of the two young lovers clear beyond
any doubt and brings much greater emphasis to the sin than
does Brooke. It shows us that Shakespeare is trying to make
Brookes point more clearly.

13) Brooke has Juliet 16, Shakespeare 14. What Shakespeare

has done is to emphasize her youthfulness, and therefore her
immaturity and foolishness. It is often thought that in Shake-
speares day, woman married younger, but in Shakespeares
London, the average age for a woman to be married was
about 24. It would have been shocking for his audience to
see a 14 year-old girl marry.

14) In Brooke, Romeo is persuaded to forget the unnamed woman

who corresponds to Rosaline, since she does not love him.
Then he spends 3 months looking for a new love. In Shake-
speare, Romeo is passionately and madly in love with Rosaline
until the moment he meets Juliet. Romeos friend, Mercucio,
dies even before he knows there has been a change. Romeo is

Shakespeare the Christian I

seen thus to be extremely fickle and his passion to be profound

mainly in its superficiality. The idolatrous nature of Romeos
love is emphasized.

15) Mercucio is like the chorus in some plays or like the court
fool. He interprets what is going on. His buffoonery contains
wisdom and insight that help us understand the play.

16) Mercucio exposes the city of Verona as a city in which lust

and foolish ambition dominate all. Idolatrous desire and the
pursuit of selfish lust characterize the whole society of Verona,
not just Romeo and Juliet. The parallel that Mercucio draws
between love and dueling shows us the kind of passion he is
speaking of.

17) In Act V, Scene 1, Romeo gives gold to the apothecary, re-

ferring to gold as the worst poison in the world for mens souls.
In Scene 3 of the same act, the play ends with the two families
erecting gold statues to Romeo and Juliet, an ironic and idola-
trous conclusion to an idolatrous love affair.