Religion in the Works of Shakespeare
The purpose of this essay is to explore the religious nature of William Shakespeare's plays. This essay covers three topics surrounding Shakespeare's work: the religious climate of 16th Century England, Shakespeare's upbringing (school, parents, & Stratford itself), and a brief introduction into the impact his society and upbringing had upon his work.
I. THE RELIGIOUS CLIMATE OF 16TH CENTURY ENGLAND
In order to understand the religious content in Shakespeare's work it is helpful to first understand what the religious environment in England was like around the time Shakespeare wrote and lived. England, ever since it was ruled by the Romans, had been a Catholic nation. Before Shakespeare's lifetime, a strange and drastic change occurred that completely upended the existing Catholicism of the English people. During King Henry VIII's reign, the English people were, for the most part, content with Catholicism. Through a series of very complex political maneuvers, Henry eventually seized power of the English church. The benefits of this control were enormous for the state. First of all, Henry obtained his divorce from his first wife. Second, the state received the tithes and taxes from church property, thus making the break very lucrative for the state. Finally, with the closing of all of the monasteries, England gained large tracts of land to sell to land owners and tax heavily. The break with the Church of Rome, on the other hand, was not welcomed by the people. Through various laws and ordinances the monarchy effectively closed down the Catholic church in England, but they did not stop the people from being loyal to Catholicism in their hearts. This idea will be very important in the part about Shakespeare's parents later on in this essay.
One of the effects of the break from Rome was the welcoming of an English translation of the Bible. If they were going to have an English form of Christianity, then they wanted to have a Bible that was theirs also. One of the first English translations of the Bible was written by William Tyndale. Known as Cranmer's Bible or the Great Bible, this Bible along with the Geneva Bible would have been the two translations used widely during Shakespeare's lifetime (Milward 85). With the advent of the printing press before this time, the Bible was becoming more and more commonly a household item. Certainly access to Scripture was at it highest point in human history to that time. The accessibility of the Bible had an impacted greatly the work of Shakespeare because he had such a resource at his disposal. Along with these two translations of Scripture already available to Shakespeare came a new translation authorized by King James I. Today this translation is known as the King James Authorized Version (Milward 86). At this point in time, the climate was right for Shakespeare to learn a great deal about Christianity directly from Scripture, even if...