Godless Shakespeare by Eric S. Mallin. 2007. Read in April, 2008.
Many have noted that Shakespeare, at least judging by his plays, was not an overly religious person. Granted, he lived in a society in which the Christian church dominated, but it was also a society in which this powerful church had split in two and was battling for something much more concrete than the human soul – political power. So what else is new, you might well ask, and indeed, that has been the role of organized religion since its appearance X number of thousands of years ago and until our day.
In this short (119 pages of text) but dense book, Eric Mallin proposes that the pervasiveness of Christian belief in Renaissance times did not preclude atheism. In his introduction her writes, “Unbelief was clearly possible in the Renaissance, and, as staged by Shakespeare, it furnishes a rich contrast and a goad to religious certainty” (p. 7). He quotes George Santayana's “The Absence of Religion in Shakespeare” (pointing out that Santayana's words could apply to many writers of the 16th century): “...for Shakespeare, in the matter of religion, the choice lay between Christianity and nothing. He chose nothing; he chose to leave his heroes and himself in the presence of life and of death with no other philosophy than that which the profane world can suggest and understand” (p. 6).
Mallin then gives several examples of characters who, in situations where they could have been expected to resort to prayer or evocation of the Christian God, breathe not a word of the Christian doctrine. Juliet, in rhapsodizing over her Romeo, “speaks lines that have nothing of Christianity about them” and instead of glorying in a shared future in the Christian heaven when they die, she wishes Romeo to be cut up into stars that will shine down on everybody (p. 8).
Mallin goes on to divide his essays into three categories: “Hell”, “Purgatory” and “Heaven”. Citing such plays as Titus Andronicus, Measure for Measure, Hamlet, Macbeth and A Midsummer Nights Dream, he shows how “[g]odlessness (or...counter-belief) passes the ethics test in Shakespeare that Christianity, religiosity, and self-conscious virtue so often and so glaringly flunk” (page 87).
He doesn't deal with the many examples in Shakespeare of pillars if the Church who are less than virtuous, (read: downright villains) but he has examples of heroes who do truly evil things in the name of religion, most notably Lucius in Titus Andronicus. (See further my text “The Nastiness of Lucius” on this blog. Mallin's take on Lucius was a big help in writing the text.)
In spite of such amusing references to such modern culture manifestations as South Park, Fawlty Towers and Randy Newman, this is not an easy book to read. Sometimes Mallin's reasoning is obscure and his point unclear. It is nevertheless a thought-provoking and very exciting read. Recommended!