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Shakespeare Religion and God: Was Shakespeare an Atheist?

Updated on February 12, 2013
William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare | Source

Religion and god in Shakespeare's time

It is a long standing fact that no writer writes in a vacuum. Circumstances in their lives will impact their writing with the zeitgeists of the period. For example, Philosopher Karl Marx wrote the Communist Manifesto in response to the industrial revolution and Aldous Huxley's inspiration for his novel Brave New World came from the eugenics movement of the early twentieth century. These writer's works are connected to the period in which they wrote them. William Shakespeare is no different.

Shakespeare was born in Stafford-on-Avon in 1564. England at the time was fresh out of its religious reformation that broke its church away from the Roman Catholic church to create the Church of England. The conflict between the churches was felt by all of its citizens and did not spare Shakespeare's family despite their high place in English society. Shakespeare was born into a wealthy family. But due to the religious conflict, Shakespeare's family was subject to social reversals. Shakespeare's father was Catholic. Catholics were not treated well by the protestant Church of England. However, His father still managed to maintain an upper class living for his family as a landowner, money lender, and dealer in agricultural commodities.

The wealth of his family maintain afford Shakespeare a good education and access to the upper echelons of society. At the same time the Church of England transformed England's adherence to God, all around Europe Humanism was transforming the medieval mind. According to historian Marvin Perry, the Humanist Revolution "mark[ed] the birth of modernity...[where] individuals in all endeavors [were] not constrained by a destiny imposed by God from outside, but [were] free to make their own destiny guided.only by examples of the past, the forces of the present circumstances, and the drives of their own inner nature". Shakespeare, with his place in society, undoubtedly was witness to the beginnings of the movement, but would have initially been influenced by the religion of his culture, because, as it is often noted by religious critics, a child's religious upbringing is an accident of birth. Therefore, the backdrop of Shakespeare's writings was a tumultuous battle between the belief system he was born into and the sweeping reforms in human perspective that threatened to overthrow the religious stranglehold on human thought.

The English, in breaking from the confines of the Catholic tradition, formed a curiously humanist, secularist belief in their divergent path. For example, priests were allowed to marry, divorce was permited, and formal education became commonplace. The infallible commandments of the pope also lost favor in the minds of the English. These changes in thought gave raise to the Church of England in 1534.

Great books about Atheists in culture and history

Did Shakespeare believe in God

Shakespeare humorously wrote the following on his epitaph:

Good friend for Jesus’ sake forbear,
To dig the dust enclosed here:
Blest be the man that spares these stones,
And curst be he that moves my bones.

And Richard Davies, a contemporary to Shakespeare and archdeacon of Lichfield, wrote after Shakespeare's death that he was a Catholic. But There is a conspicuous lack of evidence for a belief in God. In fact, there is little evidence for Religion in Shakespeare's life other than his family history. And in a time period as religiously ripe as the 17th century, a seemingly non god stance raises eyebrows. This is especially true when compared to his contemporary writers like John Donne.

Was Shakespeare an Atheist

Many of the plays written by Shakespeare show a seemingly overt Humanistic stance on Human beings. From Julius Caesar to King Lear, Shakespeare's characters show deep humanistic qualities. This is one of the hallmarks that makes Shakespearean plays so powerful. His characters show that he was very much in tune with the human spirit, emotion, and most importantly the flaws that make humans who they are. And overcoming these obstacles takes even great human qualities and abilities. It does not come from anything supernatural. Religious belief and adherence is as conspicuously absent from His writings as it is from his life. This could make sense because of his cultural surroundings in England in the 17th century. With religious turmoil on one side and the humanist ideals on the other, Shakespeare may have renounced religion all together.

For a more in depth analysis of humanist and atheist qualities in the writings of Shakespeare see my page on atheism and humanism in Shakespeare's King Lear entitled "King Lear and Shakespeare: King Lear Character Analysis shows Shakespeare Was Atheist"

Please comment and check out my homepage (link below)


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    • Lesley T profile image

      Lesley T 5 years ago from Australia

      Tis not a two-pence matter! i would love to know if he really even wrote it cause if he did it surely was a joke not only on those who were friends of Jesus but on his own writing skills: it's just like a limerick and he was the great bard. (I come from Sydney Australia)

    • RyanBuda profile image

      Ryan Buda 5 years ago from Windsor, Connecticut

      Ya, I'm aware of that quote. I don't know what to make of it though. To me, it almost comes across as tongue and cheek in a way that only Shakespeare could do. It might have been the only way to voice his atheism in a time period that was so god centered and religion oriented. Thanks for the comment.

      p.s.- I had to look up the word tuppence. I feel so much more cultured now! We don't use that word in America.

    • Lesley T profile image

      Lesley T 5 years ago from Australia

      I just did a hub on Shakespeare and researching it found the epitaph on his grave which mentions Jesus. This makes me think he was a Christian. (There's my tuppence worth)Interesting topic.

    • shalini sharan profile image

      shalini sharan 5 years ago from Delhi

      an excellent hub, covering a topic less covered