Religion was extremely important in Shakespearean England. It influenced everyone’s actions and thoughts. Because it had politics behind it and the Protestant Queen was firm on the change that her father Henry VIII brought in England. Still many remembered Catholicism and kept it in their hearts. So there was a tussle between the two. But the writers desiring royal patronage wrote in favour of Protestant beliefs. Of course, taking the side of the rulers is always beneficial. Many writers did it. There were also official censors and the play would be cancelled if it was in any way seditious.
But with Shakespeare, the situation is a bit different. He was a clever writer. He adhered to nothing. But he used anything from anywhere that was befitting his work according to the situation no matter what religious, political, social, or moral perspective it might have been. He was all the time after creating masterpieces that could win him undisputed fame.
It is no less coincident that at one time he is using themes and symbols from the Bible like a puritan and the very next moment he is talking about ghosts, witches, and the supernatural like a catholic.
The ghost of Hamlet’s father suffers horribly in purgatory “until the crimes done in (his) lifetime are burned away“. A belief in purgatory is not a Protestant belief, but a Catholic one. Similarly, we have the three witches in ‘Macbeth‘.
Shakespeare belonged to a Catholic family. In Catholicism men other than priests is not allowed to read the Bible. But the Bible becomes a source of Shakespeare’s imagery and of many of his explicit and implicit themes.
Amanda Mabillard writes on the biblical imagery in ‘Macbeth’, “Shakespeare’s debt to scripture is profound; biblical imagery is woven into every play. No writer integrated the expression and themes found in the Bible into his own work more magnificently than Shakespeare“. He believed that good eventually triumphs over evil and that goodness is rewarded and evil punished. He highlighted the Protestant beliefs much more than the Catholic.
Besides religion the other influence on Shakespeare’s plays is that of the Renaissance. Man is the subject of his writings. His characters have self centred interests. His ‘Macbeth’ is a humanist document. His plays are full of worldly wisdom. Hamlet is the best mind of his age. He has wit and intellect. His characters are hankering for the worldly achievements.
In Shakespeare we find what is there and what happens in our real life. He is not primarily preaching something – this is his his secondary concern. His primary concern is to bring a best story. He entertains the audience by brining concerns and issues. He is a great organiser of events in his texts. That is his best quality that no other writer could surpass.
Shakespeare is not bookish. He holds the soil and dust of earth in his hands. With same hands he produces great dramas. He is a realist and not a moralist. He depicts life from the core of it with no artificiality. He usually does not reflect historical events and happenings of the real life in his dramas. He rather recreates life with a great mastery. He presents lifelike events and situations. There is a difference between reflection and recreation. A reflection is an imitation of the real.
For example while reading Alfred Tennyson’s poem ‘The Lady of Shalot‘ we get an impression that the limitations of Victorian England are reflected in it. Similarly in Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land‘ we see a reflection of WWI. Such pieces of literature act like a mirror. Things stand for other things or events of the real life. If we look at them as self-contained and self-referential pieces of literature they lose their meaning. Only incidents from history or some other things of the real world which are in their contexts can provide the meaning.
But the action that one finds in Shakespeare’s plays looks real. He is not reflecting anything, nor his events or characters stand for something from the real world. He himself is a creator of events that have their own identity. His stories have their own recognition. That’s why if looked as something detached from society, time or biography of the writer even then his works will provide meaning. His text alone carry meanings because he is not reflecting anything in a way the above mentioned famous pieces of poetry do. He recreates life on the stage. His works are not dependent on anything from outside.
This very quality makes his plays universal. That’s why he is the most relevant writer to modern times. All the time he comes up with a new story and new characters. His characters have their own causes and interests. His Iago has a jealousy for not being promoted. Macbeth kills his kings and takes his throne. Claudius kills his brother and becomes the king. King Lear’s daughters get huge shares of their father’s state by lying and then turn indifferent to him. All such greed and jealousies are possible in the real world and have their existence at the core of life.
Harold Bloom has also emphasised the above-mentioned idea by saying that Shakespeare invented humans. Considering literature as a mere reflection of society looks incomplete here. Defining it as “a comprehensive essence of the intellectual life of a nation” takes both the recreation and reflection in its wide spectrum.
Creating such characters, stories and situations is the outcome of Shakespeare’s remarkable intellect. He and his works have been loved and admired by scholars, actors and everyday people for hundreds of years. Because he wrote exciting stories that are still relevant today. Because he tells us stories about kings, queens and princes, and makes us cry. Because he tells stories about tricks, mistaken identities and falling in or out of love, and makes us laugh. Because he gets inside our heads and hearts and has us saying, “Yes, that’s exactly how i feel! I know what you mean”.
He moves us with the courage of heroes, the foolishness of clowns, and the aching of lovers. When we read or watch Shakespeare we gain a deeper understanding of the complexities of the human condition. He writes with the sweeping vision of a storyteller and the intimacy of a poet.