Faith setting of Shakespeare's plays

Although Shakespeare was almost certainly a Christian (and in any case would have had to attend church by law) not all his plays are set in a Christian world.

Differing faith settings

  • Shakespeare's Roman plays, such as Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra are set in a world where people believe in ancient pagan gods such as Jupiter. The same pagan world is the background to King Lear. In these plays there is no suggestion of a life after death, whereas those set in a Christian universe strongly present the ideas of heaven, hell and judgement (see Themes and significant ideas: Heaven, hell and judgement).
  • Some plays present a mixed set of beliefs, for example The Winter's Tale, where pagan gods are mentioned alongside a reference to Whitsun, a Christian festival.
  • It is very important that Shakespeare consciously chooses to set plays such as Macbeth, Othello and Hamlet in a Christian universe, because what may happen to characters after death is as much an issue in these plays as what happens to them in life. It is significant when the characters in a play are conscious of sin and of God's judgement whereby they will go to heaven, hell or purgatory after death.

Biblical allusions

The Authorised Version of the Bible (sometimes called the King James Bible after the monarch who authorised it) was familiar to Christians from its publication in 1611 until the middle of the 20th century. Its language is very close to that of the slightly earlier translation of the Bible known to Shakespeare and his audience prior to 1611 (called The Great Bible).

Shakespeare often echos the language of the Bible.  For example, when he describes Christmas as being a 'hallowed' and 'gracious' time: The word ‘hallowed' means holy and would be particularly familiar to Shakespeare's audience as it occurs at the beginning of the prayer known as the ‘Lord's Prayer'. The well-known Prayer Book version is adapted from Matthew's Gospel 6:9, and starts:

‘Our Father, which art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name'.

The word ‘gracious' refers to grace — the undeserved forgiveness, and gifts, of God — which is an important concept in many of Shakespeare's plays. (See Big ideas: Forgiveness, mercy and grace.)

Shakespeare would have assumed that his audience all knew, and believed, a variety of Christian teachings and practices.

Heaven, hell and judgement

Life after death

The Soul

Christians believe that they have an immortal soul. In other words, a human being does not simply consist of a body which will die, but also has a spirit which will live on for eternity after the death of the body.


Christians also believe that, after death, all humans will be judged by God according to their actions on this earth. Because of the religious turmoil which had taken place in England just before and during Shakespeare's lifetime, beliefs would differ about what might happen after God's judgement.

For Shakepeare's audience, there were three possible after-life existences: heaven, hell and purgatory.


Christians believe that heaven is a place of eternal joy, where God is enthroned and surrounded by angels — creatures of pure spirit who act as God's messengers to earth. It is depicted as a place of shining light and great beauty: the most famous vision of the Christian heaven is in the last book of the Bible, Revelation. No human being deserves to enter heaven because all are guilty of sin (see Imagery and symbolism: The Fall and original sin). However, the Bible teaches that those who repent of their wrong attitudes and actions, put their faith in the fact that Christ's death has saved them and seek to live in obedience to God while on earth, will spend eternity in heaven with him (see Themes: Mercy and forgiveness, and also Grace).


However, according to a play like Hamlet, there is also a place called purgatory — a place between heaven and hell where the souls of those who are not damned, but who are not yet fit for heaven, may go to be purged, or purified, of sin (though this idea is not found in the Bible).

The Elizabethan attitude to purgatory

Not all Christians of Shakespeare's time believed in purgatory. In his critical discussion, ‘What happens in Hamlet', Dover Wilson sums up Elizabethan belief as follows:

‘Before the Reformation the belief in their existence [i.e. ghosts] … had offered little intellectual difficulty to the ordinary man, since the Catholic doctrine of purgatory afforded a complete explanation … Thus most Catholics of Shakespeare's day believed that ghosts might be the spirits of the departed, allowed to return from purgatory for some special purpose … But for Protestants the matter was not so easy … for purgatory being an exploded tradition, the dead went either direct to bliss in heaven or prison in hell ... the orthodox Protestant conclusion was that ghosts … were generally nothing but devils.' (See Religious/philosophical context: The Reformation).

The Ghost of Old Hamlet describes purgatory as a place of imprisonment and torment:

‘Doom'd for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confin'd to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away. But that I am forbid
To tell the secrets of my prison-house,
I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood ...'

The Ghost is in purgatory because, although he was a generally virtuous man, he was murdered before he had time to repent of the sins of which, as a human being, he was inevitably guilty.


The Bible taught that those who had rejected Jesus on earth, and were guilty of evil acts of which they did not repent, would be condemned by the judgement of God to hell — a place of eternal separation from God and thus eternal torments (far worse than those believed to take place in purgatory).

Although the Bible does not provide a detailed description of hell, Christian tradition has included the following beliefs:

  • Hell is a place of fire and suffering.
  • Hell is the abode of devils and demons — evil spirits (traditionally, angels who have rebelled against God). These devils torment souls in hell, and also tempt humans on earth
  • Hell is the home of Satan, the chief evil spirit, whose name means ‘enemy' (as he is the enemy of God and of humankind).

For further information see Big ideas: Devils.

Mercy and forgiveness

With death an ever present reality in Elizabethan life, it is no wonder that there was such a preoccupation with what happened to people when they died.  People's fears were focused on the torments of punishment, but the influence of the Reformation meant that there was also a clearer understanding of God's grace and the possibility of forgiveness

Changing emphasis

The Bible states that God, who created the world and entrusted its care to humankind, will judge all according to the way they have lived:

  • The Old Testament frequently shows God punishing individuals for sinful behaviour
  • However, both the Old Testament and the New Testament also show God offering mercy and the possibility of repentance and forgiveness, even when individuals or nations have previously ignored and refused to obey him. In the New Testament, God's love is emphasized as he is shown sending his son Jesus to die on the cross, making the sacrifice necessary to wipe out, or redeem, people's sins and making forgiveness and a new start available to all.
  • It was this which particularly inspired Reformers like Martin Luther, whose writings had a huge influence.

Confession and repentance

In order to gain forgiveness, according to Christian belief, individuals needed to recognize their failure to live in obedience to God, confess their sins, and repent (turn their back on that way of living), thus accepting the forgiveness and new life made possible through the death and resurrection of Jesus. In response to true repentance, God washes away all guilt of sin.

Justice and mercy

According to the Bible, since all people are in need of God's grace and forgiveness, all should show forgiveness to others in their turn. In many of his plays, Shakespeare illustrates that those who judge others harshly may expect to be so judged themselves.

Shakespeare's play The Merchant of Venice deals with the themes of justice versus mercy. Disguised as a lawyer, Portia faces Shylock, who wants strict justice, and scornfully asks what can force him to show mercy. Portia tells him:

The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
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,
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest, it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown …
But mercy is above this sceptred sway,
It is enthroned in the heart of kings,
It is an attribute of God himself,
And earthly power doth then show likest God's
When mercy seasons justice.


Vengeance forbidden

Vengeance, or revenge — the taking of retribution for a perceived injustice or harmful act — is directly opposed to ideas of mercy, forgiveness and grace. Consequently, in Christian theology, it is seen as entirely the wrong response to an injury. Although the phrase from the Old Testament, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth' is well-known, by contrast in many places in the New Testament the followers of Christ are told to forgive and not to seek revenge:

  • In Luke 6:27-29 Jesus says:

    ‘Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you ... pray for them which despitefully use you. And unto him that smiteth thee on the one cheek offer also the other.' AV
  • In Chapter 12 of a letter written by Paul to the Romans, he tells them:

    ‘Recompense no man evil for evil … Avenge not yourselves ... for it is written, ‘vengeance is mine; I will repay' saith the Lord.' (Romans 12:17-19) AV


What is Christian prayer?

To pray is to enter into a two-way conversation with God, sometimes using words, sometimes in silent thought. Prayers are often requests, but may also be in praise and worship of God, saying sorry or thank you, as well as meditations. Traditionally, Christians have kneeled to pray, since kneeling before one's ruler was a sign of respect. See Big ideas: Prayer.

The Prayer Book

In sixteenth century England, English became the language of worship in churches, replacing Latin. A new book of prayers and services of worship, which simplified and translated the Latin services, was drawn up by Archbishop Cranmer. (For further detail, see Social/political context: Protestant versus Catholic.)

This Book of Common Prayer was used in all church services at the time Shakespeare was writing.

Mass and Holy Communion

Celebrating the Last Supper

The most important religious service for Christians is known as the mass, the eucharist or holy communion. It commemorates The Last Supperthe Last Supper which Jesus had with his disciples before his crucifixion. During this supper, Jesus gave his disciples bread and wine and told them that, in future, the taking of bread and wine should be a commemoration of the sacrifice of his body and blood which he was about to make by being crucified.

In Shakespeare's day, everyone in England would have been expected to attend church each Sunday, and to take holy communion regularly, especially at the great festivals of the Church such as Christmas, Easter and Whit Sunday (also called Pentecost). For further detail see Big ideas: Last Supper, communion, eucharist, mass.

The Ten Commandments

The impact of the Commandments

In Chapter 20 of the Book of Exodus in the Old Testament, the prophet Moses was given by God Ten Commandments which summed up the laws by which humans should live.

  • These commandments were often written up on the walls of Christian churches, thus they would be very familiar to Shakespeare's audience.
  • In addition, the Ten Commandments would be recited by the priest and people during the service of holy communion held each Sunday (see Themes and significant ideas: Mass and Holy Communion).

The Commandments formed the basis of English law as well as affecting the day to day inter-relations between people. For example, casually swearing using terms referring to God (the act of blasphemy which was contrary to the third Commandment) was used by dramatists as an indicator of immorality, as was failing to set apart Sunday as a time to focus on God and take physical rest (as stated in the fourth Commandment).

Respecting parents

Commandment five is:

  • ‘Honour thy father and thy mother, that thy days may be long in the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.' (AV)

It was taken as a 'given' that all children were subject to their parents and should always speak respectfully to them and about them. Not to do so was to upset the Elizabethan perception of order and degree (see Chain of being) by which God maintained both the macrocosm and the microcosm).

For further information see Big ideas: Parents and children.

Murder and suicide

The sixth Commandment is:

  • ‘Thou shalt not kill.' (AV)


‘Self-slaughter' is not separately forbidden by the Ten Commandments but was held by the Christian Church to be a sin, since killing oneself is just as much taking away a God-given life as killing someone else.

Those who committed suicide were thought to have died in sin and to have offended against the laws of God. This is a key point in Shakespeare's Hamlet.

  • ‘To be or not to be': in Act III sc i, Hamlet muses that it is the fear of the after-life which prevents using suicide as a way to escape the miseries of the world.
  • We see that this view of suicide as being sinful is reflected in the words of the priest who is reluctant to give Ophelia the full rites of Christian burial, since she is thought to have committed suicide. Even the scant ceremonies she has are only because the king has so commanded:
‘Her death was doubtful,
And but that great command o'ersways the order,
She should in ground unsanctified have lodged

Till the last trumpet ...
We should profane the service of the dead
To sing a requiem and such rest to her
As to peace-parted souls'.

 A pagan view of suicide

When Shakespeare sets his plays in the ancient Roman world where pagan gods are worshipped, his characters follow an altogether different moral code and set of beliefs, and suicide is seen as a noble act. In Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra, for example, to kill oneself is depicted as the duty of an honourable man. Antony, having been defeated in battle, and seeing his servant Eros commit suicide, feels that this is the right course of action:

‘Thrice nobler than myself!
Thou teachest me, O valiant Eros, what I should ... I will be
A bridegroom in my death, and run into't
As to a lover's bed.'

In Julius Caesar, the defeated Brutus knows that suicide is the right course of action for a noble Roman:

‘Our enemies have beat us to the pit,
It is more worthy to leap in ourselves
Than tarry till they push us …
Hold thou my sword-hilts while I run on it.'

This is a totally different view from that depicted in the Christian universe of Hamlet where suicide invites eternal damnation.


The seventh Commandment is:

  • ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery' (AV).

Nowadays adultery is usually held to mean ‘the action of a married person who has sexual relations with someone other than their lawful spouse.' However, Christian theologians extended the meaning of the term since, in the Bible, in Matthew 5:27-28, Christ points out that the desire to commit adultery is as much a sin as the act itself:

‘Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery'. But I say unto you, that whosoever looketh upon a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.' (AV)

By this interpretation, a character may commit adultery whether or not they have sexual intercourse.


In the Book of Common Prayer (see Themes and significant ideas: Prayer) a ‘table of kindred and affinity' was included. This laid down rules about which family members could not be married to each other:

Sexual intercourse with a close family member, especially a sibling, is known as incest. Since in marriage a man and a woman were held to become ‘one flesh', the husband or wife of a sibling would come under the same degree of relationship as a sibling.

Other Commandments

The remaining Commandments, not to steal (eighth), lie (ninth), or covet (desire) what belongs to others (tenth) were (and still are) the basis of ideal social behaviour  - and failure to abide by them the source of much drama and tension in literature.

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