Poet and playwright

Shakespeare’s contribution to the theatre is immense. He brought a new psychological realism and depth to drama, and created hundreds of living, believable characters, all of them different individuals showing the rich diversity of humanity. Four centuries later, we can still identify with their aspirations, their strengths and their failings, and sympathise with their moral dilemmas. It is this truth to human experience that gives rise to comments like that of actress Janet Suzman: “Shakespeare was a humanist in everything he wrote.” In an era preoccupied with religion, Shakespeare’s plays and poetry are remarkably secular in subject matter and outlook, and Shakespeare seems to have been influenced by classical and Renaissance ideas about the importance of reason and of mankind and human individualism. “To thine own self be true,” advises Polonius in Hamlet, a view of personal integrity that is essentially humanist in its stress on individualism rather than on conformity.

Little is known about Shakespeare’s life or personal opinions, and there are dangers in attempting to deduce a writer’s outlook from those of his dramatic creations. It is unlikely that Shakespeare was a humanist in the modern sense of the word – that is, someone who believes that this is the only life we have and that there are good reasons for living a moral life that do not depend on a belief in gods or life after death. Shakespeare’s characters have an almost automatic belief, typical of his time, in “a divinity that shapes our ends”, “flights of angels”, and “the Everlasting” who, for example, opposes “self slaughter”.  They tend to believe in devils and ghosts and witches. But religion is rarely a major force or motivation in their lives; moral choices are made for human – rather than religious – reasons, and characters such as Macbeth reap the human and social consequences of bad actions in the loss of the love and respect of their fellow human beings, and other earthly punishments.

Shakespeare often portrays attitudes in his plays that are remote from the conventional Christianity of the day. Life on earth is not seen as simply a preparation for an after-life of reward or punishment, and death is often seen as very final. At the end of his life Macbeth reflects that human life is:

“…but a walking shadow; a poor player
Who 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.”

Hamlet speaks of death as:

“The undiscovered country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns.”

Prospero, at the end of The Tempest, Shakespeares’s last play, says:

“We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded by a sleep.”

But this is not the consistent view of all his characters, and some, like Claudius in Hamlet, agonise over their likely punishment after death.

Some overtly religious characters, like the ironically named Angelo in Measure for Measure, who sentences Claudio to death for “fornication” (something that the more humane characters in the play see as “a fault alone”), are seen as hypocritically harsh on others, and misguided. The nun-like Isabella, who in the same play chooses to preserve her chastity rather than her brother’s life, is not shown as an entirely likeable character. The Puritan Malvolio in Twelfth Night is mocked by the more hedonistic characters: “Dost thou think that, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?” The “Christians” in The Merchant of Venice are portrayed as cruel in their treatment of the Jewish Shylock. Although Shylock is a spiteful villain, he is portrayed compassionately and is given a famous plea for understanding: “…Hath not a Jew hands organs, dimensions, senses, passions… If you prick us, do we not bleed…” His daughter, Jessica, is sympathetically drawn, and Shakespeare may not have shared the antisemitism common in his era.

The Christian view of suicide, that it was a sin, is seen in Hamlet when Ophelia’s funeral ceremony is very perfunctory (“maimed rites” Laertes calls them) and she is only permitted burial in consecrated ground, grudgingly, because of her high connections. But Shakespeare does not condemn Ophelia, or the many of his other protagonists who die by their own hands: Othello, Antony and Cleopatra, Romeo and Juliet, Brutus. Instead, the plays often show pity for the problems that have driven them to suicide, and some approval of their courage. The portrayals of Shakepeare’s villains do not draw on the Christian concepts of “original sin” or “divine grace”. Some of his characters are robustly sceptical about the supernatural: when the egotistical, verbose Glendower claims, in Henry IV, Part 1 , that he can “call spirits from the vasty deep”, the pragmatic Hotspur replies:

“Why so can I, or so can any man;
But will they come when you do call for them?”

And perhaps Shakespeare is expressing his own views about human free will, as opposed to fatalism or a belief in divine predestination, when Edmund remarks in King Lear:

“This is the excellent foppery of the world, that, when we are sick in fortune – often the surfeit of our own behaviour – we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, the stars… as if we were fools by heavenly compulsion…and all that we were evil in, by a divine thrusting on.”

There is certainly little feeling in the plays that the stars or gods are responsible for human failings, or that the characters lack free will.

In his sonnets, which can more fairly be taken as expressing his personal viewpoint, Shakespeare’s main themes are love, death and immortality. But immortality is not seen as something metaphysical – it can be achieved by having children or by being immortalised in poetry:

“… But were some child of yours alive in that time,
You would live twice, in it and in my rhyme.”
(Sonnet 17)

“And nothing gainst Time’s scythe can make defence
Save breed, to brave him when he takes thee hence.”
(Sonnet 12)

Present day humanists share this belief that you can only live on after death in the memories of those that knew you, or in the work or children you leave behind.

Critics have frequently noted Shakespeare’s broadly humanistic view of life:

Dominic Dromgoole, then Artistic Director of Oxford Stage Company, future Artistic Director of The Globe Theatre, wrote in The Guardian (13/07/05):

“ …. Each age re-imagines Shakespeare to suit the pressure of its own moment. He suits now as well as ever. Yet he does not only match this age, in which religion has mumbo-jumboed its way back into muscular authority. He also offers a desperately needed alternative. For many he is now a non-religious icon, a secular saint. The Complete Works comprises an imagined world of stories, insights, rituals and beauties, more varied, more complex and more true to the nuttiness of our present world, than the streamlining or simplifications of any religious texts. It is governed not by the reductions of moral certainty, nor by the delusions of spiritual redemption, but by a sensibility that is confused, yet full of mischief and kindness. A sensibility that is happy to be human rather than straining to be better than human.

…He celebrated all the world, not the section he favoured. We keep going back to him – now more than ever – because we know that his spirit of inclusion, his love for everything, is our last best hope.”

The Rev J R Green, a distinguished 19th century historian, wrote:

“On the deeper grounds of religious faith his silence is significant.”

J M Robertson (1856-1933) wrote in Elizabethan Literature:

“Shakespeare, and Shakespeare alone, after Marlowe, is persistently non-religious in his handling of life.”

Algernon Swinburne, Victorian poet:

“Shakespeare was in the genuine sense – that is, in the best and highest and widest meaning of the word, a Freethinker.”

Ivor Brown (1891-1974), drama critic, said in Shakespeare:

“In so far as his view of death can be discovered from the plays, it shows remarkably little belief in any Christian heaven or hell… The conception of death and the after-life in Hamlet provides us with some glorious poetry, but not with any clear intimation that Shakespeare himself held clear opinions. ‘To die, to sleep’ is not the Christian attitude… When his imagination was working upon death with full intensity, he showed in his plays, a view of ‘the invisible event’ which is more pagan than Christian.”

Corliss Lamont in The Philosophy of Humanism:

“Shakespeare himself indicated little interest in or support of religious supernaturalism. As George Santanaya points out in his penetrating essay   The Absence of Religion in Shakespeare, England’s greatest poet ‘chose to leave his heroes and himself in the presence of life and death with no other philosophy than that which the profane world can suggest and understand’, namely a species of Humanism.”

George Orwell, in his famous essay “Lear, Tolstoy, and the fool” (1947), wrote:

“We do not know a great deal about Shakespeare’s religious beliefs, and from the evidence of his writings it would be difficult to prove that he had any. But at any rate he was not a saint or a would-be saint: he was a human being, and in some ways not a very good one. Shakespeare was not a philosopher or a scientist, but he did have curiosity, he loved the surface of the earth and the process of life.”


[i] Janet Suzman, leading Shakespearean actress, speaking on Radio 4: “Shakespeare was a genius.   He was a humanist in everything he wrote.”

[ii] Hamlet