It is the most common question I am asked when I am signing copies of The Bard and the Bible or speaking on the subject of Shakespeare and the King James Version of the Bible.
William Shakespeare was born and raised in a period of great religious confusion and conflict in England. His mother’s family, the Ardens, were well known recusant Catholics, and it is possible that his father, John Shakespeare, was also a recusant; he was fined for failing to show up at Protestant worship in Stratford (church attendance was required by law), though local records dismiss his reason as basically avoiding being arrested for debts.
But Will, as far as we know, was never fined for non-attendance at church, though he may have been given some sort of special consideration. But none of that is what my questioners mean when they ask if Shakespeare was a “believer.”
I am no expert, but here’s what I think: Will Shakespeare, who had been baptized in the Anglican Holy Trinity Church of Stratford-Upon-Avon on April 26, 1564, was intensely familiar with Catholic, Anglican, and Puritan religious beliefs and practices, but I see no indication that he aligned with any of them, mentally or spiritually. However, he knew his Bible (primarily the Bishops’ Bible, see here) better than most church-goers, even pastors, today. His plays, while bowing to the interests and expectations of his audiences, evidence a strong moral and Christian worldview. And at the end of his life, he seems to have left behind two documents that indicate something about his spiritual state. Will’s will (see what I did there?) begins:
In the name of God, Amen. I, William Shakespeare…, in perfect health and memory, God be praised, do make and ordain this my last will and testament in manner and form following. That is to say, first, I commend my soul into the hands of God my Creator, hoping and assuredly believing, through the only merits of Jesus Christ my Saviour, to be made partaker of life everlasting, and my body to the earth whereof it is made.
The phrasing is probably due as much to the custom of the day as to his own convictions, but it is something. And a few lines of verse that adorn his grave (see photo above) are thought to have been composed by the Bard:
GOOD FREND FOR IESVS SAKE FORBEARE
TO DIGG THE DVST ENCLOASED HEARE
BLESTe BE Ye MAN Yt SPARES THES STONES
AND CVRST BE HE Yt MOVES MY BONES
In my opinion, Shakespeare carefully maintained a “professional distance” from the religious conflicts and sectarian dangers of his time, which makes it impossible for us to reach any conclusions about his spiritual state. The eminent critic Harold Bloom seems to (wisely) agree with me, writing, “By reading Shakespeare, I can gather that he did not like lawyers, preferred drinking to eating, and evidently lusted after both genders. But I certainly do not have a clue as to whether he favored Protestantism or Catholicism or neither, and I do not know whether he believed or disbelieved in God or in resurrection. His politics, like his religion, evades me, but I think he was too wary to have any” (Harold Bloom,Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, p. 8).