Why Shakespeare Matters

Leland Ryken

Ordained Servant: April 2016

Why Shakespeare Matters

Also in this issue

The Bard for Preachers

Faith, Politics, and the Fall in Thatcher’s Britain: A Review Article

A Helpful Little Primer on Eschatology? A Review Article

The Triumph of Faith by Rodney Stark

Sonnet 73

When William Shakespeare died at the age of 52 on April 23, 1616, he was buried inside Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon. He had been baptized in the same church as an infant. Shakespeare was buried inside the church in a day when most people were buried in the churchyard surrounding the church. Why?

When Shakespeare retired from a theatrical career in London five years before his death, he became a lay reader (also called lay rector) at the local Anglican church. At the very least this means that he supported the church financially and wanted to be affiliated with it in the eyes of townspeople. I believe that it meant a lot more than that. A lay reader in an Anglican church takes a leadership role in worship services, at least to the extent of public reading of Scripture.

Shakespeare’s untimely death at age 52 was preceded by a period of illness of unknown duration. A month before his death, he signed his will. The preamble to that will reads,

In the name of God Amen. I William Shackspeare of Stratford upon Avon in the county of Warwickshire gent., in perfect health & memory God be praised, do make & ordain this my last will & testament in manner & form following. That is to say first, I commend my Soul into the hands of God my Creator, hoping & 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.

I have begun my article with these details for two reasons. First, the English-speaking world is now celebrating the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. The article you are reading right now is occasioned by that anniversary. Second, I want to plant a seed that will lead to fruition at the end of this article. I have come to regard Shakespeare as a Christian writer. I make no claim to know the state of his soul during his life and at the time of his death. But no matter how much we qualify the data I have already cited as being rooted in the Protestant milieu of Shakespeare’s day, the data is indisputably there. It is also present in Shakespeare’s writings. The myth of the secular Shakespeare is a fallacy foisted on an intimidated public in an unbelieving age.

I will place one more enticing tidbit on the plate of readers of Ordained Servant. Shakespeare’s biblical knowledge was extensive (of which I will say more below). The English Bible that he primarily used in his works was the Puritan Geneva Bible, translated in Calvin’s Geneva by Protestant exiles from England.

A Word of Encouragement to the Faint Hearted

I am about to make lofty claims for the greatness of Shakespeare (without doubt the greatest English author), but I do so in an awareness that not everyone begins at the same starting point in relation to the bard. To readers with little acquaintance with Shakespeare, let me offer the advice to begin where you are. In every area of life, acquiring a taste for the excellent requires contact with it. There are printed guides to the plays of Shakespeare that can take you by the hand and say “look.” Of course the best initiation or reentry into the plays of Shakespeare is to watch a performance of a play.

I also need to state the following disclaimer. With all literary authors, the quality falls off drastically once we move beyond their best works. In fact, we usually drop into a black hole. This does not mean that the lesser works do not have their moments, nor that they lack champions who might even claim them as favorite works. Nonetheless, the claims that I make for the importance of Shakespeare are based on what nearly everyone would acknowledge to be crème-de-la-crème works in the Shakespeare canon: two romantic comedies (A Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You Like It), three relatively early plays that have problematical aspects to them but nonetheless belong to the inner circle (Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice, and Julius Caesar), the four great tragedies (Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth), and the greatest of the late romances (The Winter’s Tale). Other Shakespeare lovers include additional plays and are often passionate about them. I have no problem with that, but I do not want to be held accountable for plays beyond the ones I have listed, in case my readers dip into them and find them wanting (as I do).

In addition to the plays, the sonnets of Shakespeare are as great as his best plays. The following at least are among the choicest treasures of English literature: sonnets 12, 18, 29, 73, 98, 106, 116, and 146.

A final note of encouragement that I want to offer is that Shakespeare’s highly poetic and often archaic language makes him a very difficult writer. There is no need to apologize for finding Shakespeare’s language difficult. I offer the following perspectives: (1) we do not need to understand all the words in order to enjoy Shakespeare’s works; (2) repeated contact with the text makes it more and more familiar; (3) the greatest literature does not carry all its meaning on the surface but embodies much of it below the surface.

To give shape to what I will say in praise of Shakespeare, I will provide five answers to the question, Why does Shakespeare matter for Christians?

1. Shakespeare Matters because Beautiful Language Matters

Multiple sources tell us that when American pioneers headed west in their covered wagons, the two books that they were most likely to have in their possession were the King James Bible and the works of Shakespeare. What did these two books represent amid circumstances that threatened the continuity of civilization? One answer is that these two books are the very touchstone of English language at its most beautiful and powerful. I do not have space to prove that, so I will just appeal to people’s experiences over the centuries to confirm my claim. One signal is the space allotted to the King James Bible and Shakespeare in compilations of famous quotations.

Why does beautiful language matter? It matters because God is the source of both language and beauty. Christianity is a religion of the word. Beautiful and exalted language has a power that prosaic language lacks. We need a space in our lives where the best language is liberated to be itself and elevate our spirits beyond the idiom of everyday discourse. We cannot always reside at such lofty heights, but we are diminished if we never do.

The greatness of Shakespeare begins with the words that he wrote. The worlds of imagination that he created use words as their building blocks. I was struck by the statement of an actress who said about playing Shakespeare, “You need more than the character; you need the words.”

2. Shakespeare Matters because the Understanding of Human Experience Matters

It is a truism that literature is the voice of authentic human experience. Literature as a whole is the human race’s testimony to its own experience, and Shakespeare wrote so much and covered so many aspects of human experience that he himself constitutes a major chapter in the history of the literary portrayal of human experience. A book title from several years ago was so preposterous as to cheapen the idea that I am advocating—Shakespeare and the Invention of the Human. Shakespeare did not invent the human. But the more modest claim that he is an unsurpassed portrayer of the human is true.

Wherein lies the secret of Shakespeare’s ability to do this? It starts with skill in character creation. Every one of the plays I listed earlier provides us with a gallery of memorable characters. These characters have such a life force pulsing through them that they are almost impossible to forget. I remember once reading along in Northrop Frye’s book The Great Code: The Bible and Literature and encountering the following sentence: “Characters in Shakespeare or Dickens take on a life of their own apart from their function in the play or novel they appear in.”[1] Yes they do.

In addition to the vividness of Shakespeare’s imagined characters, we should note their range. The range of Shakespeare’s characters comes close to embracing humanity as a whole. We encounter the proverbial good, bad, and ugly. We meet young people in love, people in their prime, and old people. When I teach Shakespeare’s “seven ages of man” speech, I tell my students that Shakespeare got it right. I do not have space to quote the whole speech, but here are the sixth and seven ages of a person, which I quote as a parallel passage when I teach the portrait of old age in Ecclesiastes 12:1–8:

          . . . his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound.
Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.[2]

In addition to the vividness and range of Shakespeare’s characters, we may note their universality. We have met Shakespeare’s characters in real life. In fact, we see some of them when we look in the mirror. The best comment on Shakespeare’s universality comes from his contemporary poet and playwright Ben Jonson. In a memorial poem on Shakespeare, Jonson called Shakespeare “soul of the age,” but then he went on to say that Shakespeare “was not of an age but for all time.”[3]

Wherein lies the value of Shakespeare’s portrayal of human experience? It yields a kind of truth—truthfulness in human experience. When we contemplate the experiences that Shakespeare places before us, we come to see human experience accurately. I call this knowledge in the form of right seeing. It is representational truth as compared with ideational truth. Shakespeare gives us both, but it is the living through of experiences like young people in love and destructive ambition and the mysteries of providence that we chiefly carry away from an immersion in Shakespeare plays.

3. Shakespeare Matters because Good Entertainment Matters

We live in a day of cheap and tawdry entertainment. The sonnets and plays of Shakespeare offer an alternative. In addition to the crisis of entertainment at a societal level, the subject of leisure has always been a topic of neglect in the church. Because we do not dignify the concept of leisure and surround it with a Christian defense, we usually sink to a low level by default. The leisure life of most Christians does not rise much above the general level of our culture. Reading and viewing Shakespeare (along with other great literature) provides a better way.

What things constitute what T. S. Eliot called “superior amusement”[4] (which I prefer to call superior entertainment)? For starters, many of the pleasures of Shakespeare’s plays are the pleasures of narrative or story. One ingredient is the characters that Shakespeare invented, of which I have already spoken. A second is the plots that captivate us. Shakespeare’s plays are a primer on storytelling, with such elements as conflict moving to resolution, suspense, moments of revelation, surprise, and dramatic irony. Novelist E. M. Forster famously said that a story has only one essential requirement, namely, making us want to know what happens next.[5] Once we allow ourselves to be immersed in the opening scene of a Shakespearean play, our curiosity about what happens next and how it all ends can usually be trusted to work its magic.

The third narrative ingredient is setting. Shakespeare’s plays do not employ realistic stage props, so the concept of entering an imagined world takes the place of setting in the usual sense. When we read or view a Shakespearean play, we enter a whole world of the imagination. That world is so compelling that it is easy to enter it and stay there. But literature is bifocal: it asks us first to look at the work and then look through it to real life. Shakespeare’s poems and plays give us windows to the world.

Two additional avenues toward understanding what makes Shakespeare’s poems and plays pleasurable have already been mentioned. To see human experience observed and recorded accurately and with insight into the human condition is pleasurable. Shakespeare’s works deliver the goods. Additionally, Shakespeare’s way with words is pleasurable. He exploited the resources of poetry, metaphor, and symbol in a way that makes his poetry (in which most of his plays are written) meet Robert Frost’s definition of a poem as “a performance in words.”[6] Shakespeare’s exploitation of the resources of language is a performance by a master.

Through the years I have frequently gone on the Wheaton College summer literature program in England. Our students watch many plays as the summer unfolds. When I fly back to the U.S. at the end of the program and reflect on the summer, it is obvious to me that after 400 years, in the field of drama Shakespeare is still the best show in town.

4. Shakespeare Matters because the Bible Matters

Whole books have been written on the Bible as a presence in Shakespeare’s sonnets and plays. It is a subject that is dear to my heart. We need to begin with Shakespeare’s cultural milieu. The Bible was the best selling and most talked about book. Children learned to read from the English Bible. The Catholic Thomas More offered as proof that the Bible should not be translated into English the fact that the Bible was being disputed in taverns by “every lewd [ignorant] lad.”[7]

A “fact sheet” on Shakespeare’s knowledge of the Bible yields the following data. The total number of biblical references in the plays and sonnets is approximately 2,000. Experts on the subject regularly theorize that there are so many references to the first four chapters of Genesis that Shakespeare must have known them virtually by heart. To the end of Shakespeare’s writing career, he made so many references to the Bible, often based on detailed biblical knowledge, that he must have been a lifelong reader of the Bible. As one scholar notes, Shakespeare’s plays suggest that he owned an extensive personal library, and it would be unthinkable that his library would not have included the best selling book of his day.

Before 1598, Shakespeare’s biblical references were based on the Bishop’s Bible, and after that on the Geneva Bible. What caused the shift? Shakespeare’s family resided in Stratford while he pursued an acting and writing career in London (with Shakespeare returning home during the off-season). When residing in London, Shakespeare eventually became a lodger in the home of a Huguenot family, where he would have heard the Geneva Bible read at meals and in family worship, and where a Bible was always available on the table. But Shakespeare’s first acquaintance with the Geneva Bible came during his grammar school education, when students at the Stratford Grammar School translated passages from the Geneva Bible into Latin and then back into English. Occasionally Shakespeare even alludes to the marginalia of the Geneva Bible and not just the main text.

For a Christian reader or viewer, one of the sources of edification in Shakespeare’s sonnets and plays is the biblical presence in them. We do not need those references when we have the Bible itself, but if we grant that we want wholesome literature in our lives beyond the Bible, then the rootedness of a work in the Bible becomes an avenue toward increased pleasure and edification. In some Christian circles there is an unwarranted disparagement of Christian literature because it represents “second level” discourse, whereas the Bible is the primary level. But sermons based on the Bible are in the same category as literature. Authors like Shakespeare and Milton do the same thing that preachers do—they create human discourse on the foundation of the Bible itself. In principle, a sermon and Christian work of literature have the same potential for truth and error.

The Bible enjoins us to sing a new song—a new poem, a fresh metaphor, an original story. Placed into an unexpected setting, the Bible can come alive or be confirmed in new ways. It can perform the same function as a good sermon, with the added element of entertainment and artistic enrichment. I will speak personally in saying that my life has been continuously enriched by seeing the Bible and its truths enshrined in the plays and sonnets of Shakespeare.

5. Christian Shakespeare?

Great literature that embodies Christian truth has been a major source of spiritual input in my life. Over the course of my career as a literary scholar, Shakespeare’s works came to seem more and more Christian until I reached the point of not hesitating to claim him as a Christian writer. The rewards of reading his best works are the same as those of reading Donne, Herbert, and Milton: we view human experience from a Christian perspective. This is not say that Shakespeare’s works are as overtly Christian as those of Milton, but sometimes a work in which Christian patterns are latent can be all the more powerful for that understated quality. There is a place for implicitly Christian literature as well as explicitly Christian literature.

The myth of the secular Shakespeare casts a long shadow, even among Christians, so when I meet resistance, my first strategy is to ask, What is there in Shakespeare’s works that contradicts Christianity? My own answer is that I am disappointed by bawdy and indecent scenes and language. But these passages are relatively few and far between. Certainly we cannot ascribe to Shakespeare the indecencies and assaults on Christian morality that are visited on us by modern directors of his plays.

What, then, constitutes the Christian element in Shakespeare’s plays and poems? I have already noted the biblical presence. Macbeth is the Shakespearean play that I teach most often, and one authority on the subject of the Bible in Shakespeare identifies over 200 biblical references and echoes in this play. That averages out to a biblical presence once every minute.

Additionally, the perspective from which human experience is viewed (the themes or embodied ideas) is consonant with Christianity. Here is a brief list that covers all of the genres in which Shakespeare wrote: affirmation of romantic love and marriage; the potential of the human heart for both good and evil; the destructive effects of unchecked ambition and other passions; the workings of divine providence; the necessity of forgiveness; the certainty of justice and retribution for evil; the importance of order within the individual and society; the need to choose good rather than evil. That is a beginning list.

Also Christian is the world that Shakespeare creates in his plays. That world is based on Christian premises. The best summary statement on this comes from a guide to Christian historical sites in London. Shakespeare’s plays are Christian, claims the author, because they assume the same kind reality that the Bible does. That is exactly right.

Shakespeare’s works assume the reality of God and the Christian supernatural, including heaven and hell, angels and demons. His plays accept the premise that every human soul is destined for either heaven or hell, based on the choices that people make. Shakespeare’s moral vision lines up with the Christian scheme of virtues and vices. The Winter’s Tale even affirms belief in the resurrection from the dead with a story in which the statue of a dead woman comes to life. I return to a question that I put on the table earlier: what ideas in Shakespeare’s plays can be said to be incongruous with Christian doctrine? If we cannot name them, they must not exist.

It is true that often the embodied themes are implicitly or inclusively Christian, by which I mean that they are ideas that are shared by other religious and philosophical systems. But that does not make them any less Christian. Furthermore, when Shakespeare fills his plays with biblical allusions and echoes, he signals that the framework within which he expects his themes to be understood is the Christian one. He expects us to connect the dots and see an overall Christian world picture.


What is the takeaway value of this article for readers of Ordained Servant? I have two answers. First, to the degree to which you take time for literature, I want you to consider spending some of that time with the greatest English author. The rewards are abundant, and some of them are spiritual. Second, secular forces are trying to excise all Christian elements from Western culture. I hope that I have said enough that you will take a stand for the Christian element in Shakespeare as occasions arise. You do not have the time or expertise to fight the battle, but you can plant a flag of initial resistance. Resources are available to provide a supporting army.


[1] Northrop Frye, The Great Code: The Bible and Literature (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982), 238.

[2] As You Like It, Act 2, scene 7, lines 160–66.

[3] Ben Jonson, “To The Memory of My Beloved Master William Shakespeare, and What He Hath Left Us,” lines 17 and 43.

[4] T. S. Eliot, The Sacred Wood (London: Methuen, 1920, 1960), viii.

[5] E. M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1962), 35.

[6] Robert Frost, quoted by Elizabeth Drew, Poetry: A Modern Guide to Its Understanding (New York: Dell, 1959), 84.

[7] R. W. Chambers, Thomas More (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1958), 254.

Leland Ryken is Emeritus Professor of English at Wheaton College, where he continues to teach part-time. He is in his 48th year of teaching at Wheaton. He has published more than fifty books, the most recent of which is J. I. Packer: An Evangelical Life (Crossway, 2015). Ordained Servant Online, April 2016.

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Ordained Servant: April 2016

Why Shakespeare Matters

Also in this issue

The Bard for Preachers

Faith, Politics, and the Fall in Thatcher’s Britain: A Review Article

A Helpful Little Primer on Eschatology? A Review Article

The Triumph of Faith by Rodney Stark

Sonnet 73

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