The 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 of 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 Imagery and symbolism: Heaven and hell).
  • 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 significant 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 important 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 echoes the language and themes of the Bible. For example, Othello contains dozens of phrases from universal Christian usage: 
  • ‘Heaven is my judge’ (Iago)
  • Amen to that, sweet powers’ (Othello)
  • ‘God forgive us our sins’ (Cassio)
  • ‘the serpent’s curse’ (Emilia)
  • ‘The devil their virtue tempts’ (Othello)
  • ‘rot and perish and be damned’ (Othello)
  • ‘Fire and brimstone’ (Othello)
  • ‘as I am a Christian’ (Desdemona)
  • Saint Peter’ (Othello)
  • ‘heaven and grace’ (Othello)
and many others.
Shakespeare would have assumed that his audience all knew, and believed, a variety of Christian teachings and practices.

Heaven, hell and judgement

Last Judgement by Fra AngelicoLife after death

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 Shakespeare'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. 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.


However, according to a Catholic belief portrayed in Othello, 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). For example, Emilia states that she is prepared to suffer purgatory for worldly gain, implying that she believed she would still eventually gain heaven. 


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. In Othello, Emilia curses her husband with, ‘hell gnaw his bones.’
  • Hell is the home of Satan, the chief evil spirit, whose name means ‘enemy' (as he is the enemy of God and of humankind). As Othello says, ‘The devil their virtue tempts.’
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 him and refused to obey him. In the New Testament, God's love is emphasised as he is shown sending his son Jesus to die on a 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 recognise 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. In Othello, Cassio prays aloud, ‘God forgive us our sins.’

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.
In Othello, Cassio forgives Othello for plotting to have him killed. But when Othello realises that he has killed his own wife unjustly and without forgiving her, he believes that he will not enter heaven: ‘This look of thine will hurl my soul from heaven, and fiends will snatch at it.’

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 being 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 (see Luke 6:27-29; Romans 12:17-19)
So, when Othello believes his wife has committed adultery with Cassio, and plans to kill them both, this actually leads him to his self-condemnation at the end of the play.


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.
Othello joins in with Desdemona’s prayer that their love for each other will increase when he replies, ‘Amen to that, sweet powers!’ Near the end of the play, Othello wants to know that Desdemona has prayed before he kills her, so that he can be sure she will go to heaven.

The Ten Commandments

Moses with the ten commandments by RembrandtThe impact of the Commandments

In chapter 20 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 
  • 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 to 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.' (Exodus 20:12 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.
It was also expected that children would obey their parents when they were to be married. This was especially true of girls, who would usually marry at a young age (sometimes even before puberty), while boys would often wait until they had reached financial independence from their fathers. Hence many young women were married to older men. Given this expectation, it is understandable that:
  • Othello is portrayed as an experienced soldier, much older than Desdemona
  • Desdemona’s father is angered and dismayed when she marries Othello without his permission.
For further information see Big ideas: Parents and children.

Murder and suicide

The sixth Commandment is:
‘Thou shalt not kill.' (Exodus 20:13 AV)     
Suicide or ‘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. When Iago treacherously kills Roderigo, the latter in his dying breath curses Iago with, ‘O damned Iago!’ with the strong implication that Iago would be condemned to hell. When Othello kills himself at the end of the play after murdering his innocent wife, much of the tragedy lies in the fact that Othello has willingly condemned himself to hell. 


The seventh Commandment is:
‘Thou shalt not commit adultery' (Exodus 20:14 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.
There was something of a double standard regarding this commandment in Shakespeare’s day. Young noblemen often indulged in pre-marital sex, partly because they would marry later in life. However, young women would be expected to be chaste before marriage and faithful within it. The possible pregnancy resulting from illicit sex would end any hopes a young woman might have of marrying well, and the penalty for committing adultery was usually much more severe for women than for men. (See also John 8:3-8). Thus Othello perceives Desdemona’s supposed adultery with Cassio as just cause for murdering her.

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. Iago embodies the transgression of all three commandments and is portrayed as one of the most despicable characters in Shakespeare’s plays:
  • Stealing – As the play progresses it becomes clear that Iago has persuaded Roderigo to give him money to pass on to Desdemona, with which Roderigo will woo Desdemona and gain her affections. But Iago admits to the audience that he has kept all the money for himself: ‘Of gold and jewels that I bobbed (tricked) from him…’
  • Lying - Iago lies to everyone in the play and very seldom speaks the truth to anyone, all in the cause of getting his revenge on Othello and Cassio
  • Coveting - In his very first long speech, Iago shows that he is bitter because he has been passed over for promotion, and he speaks scathingly and enviously of Cassio, who has been promoted instead of him. He spends the whole play plotting how to disgrace Cassio and take his place in Othello’s service:
Let me see now, 
To get his place, and to plume up my will 
In double knavery.’ (Act 1 Scene 3)     
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