Late 16th-century England had no very great portrait painters, but at least one of its dramatists created a gallery of images – principally through his characters – at once brilliant and hard to forget. Hamlet and Lear can haunt the mind in a way that eclipses even the magnificent faces of Dürer and Titian. Shakespeare in fact embodies in his work a great change in 16th-century culture. During the late 15th and early 16th centuries, major European artists came to work in England. In these decades, King’s College chapel was completed, Holbein achieved his great portraits of the king, courtiers and gentry, and Torregiano was sculpting Henry VII for Westminster Abbey. But, though there were notable writers (Skelton, Wyatt, More, the great translators of the Bible like Tyndale), the country’s literary culture was relatively thin: it lacked character and cohesion. By the end of the 16th century, the picture had reversed. The great architectural and sculptural achievements were over – few churches were built in Elizabeth’s reign, though grand country houses were certainly rising. But a great literature had emerged, with Shakespeare at the peak of it.

No such cultural change can ever be fully explained. ‘We prove, we do not explain our birth,’ Marianne Moore said. There is always an element of the random in the historical which demands respect. If Shakespeare himself was a romancing artist, old-fashioned beside sophisticated and newly classicising contemporaries, it was perhaps because freer methods allowed him to encompass a wider sphere. Ben Jonson mocked Shakespeare’s ascribing a sea-coast to Bohemia, but such locations recurred throughout his world: it was a place where the random felt at home and the uncontrollable was ordered into art. Hence the startling but true forms of Hamlet, Antony and Cleopatra, Cymbeline.

But if it can’t be said exactly how Shakespeare happened, there are contexts that help to throw light. I want to glance at two of them here. Sixteenth-century Europe was changed by two movements: Shakespeare was the product of both Renaissance and Reformation. If his extraordinary generation of writers was not mute and inglorious, some of the credit has to go to the heroic humanist educators, headed by Erasmus and More. The New Learning, reaching back to classical literary and linguistic resources, and taught in grammar schools and universities, brought into Tudor life a formal principle of reasoning intelligence, mediated through language. In the course of the century, literacy in England rose sharply and hugely. In its immense effectiveness, this educational change could even be said to have exceeded its ends: first in the rhetorical and stylistic games of patterning that took over the writing of the time, and second in the fact that many graduates could find no employment. The 1590s, plague-struck and famine-ridden, saw university-trained men moving faute de mieux into the new London theatres, underpaid but not (most of them) actually starving.

The 16th-century Rise of the Word has a second and intellectually rather different aspect. When Elizabeth came to the throne in 1558 as a moderate Protestant, she made sure at her accession to hold in her right hand a Bible, the Word of God. In her study of the 16th-century image-breakers, England’s Iconoclasts (1988), Margaret Aston showed lucidly how the iconoclasm took its violence from the conceptual depth of the ancient belief in the supremacy of Word over Image. The Word was God. The power of Reformation in England was in part a result of Henry’s obsession with a male heir, as well as his prudent sense of how much might be gained by a takeover dissolution of the Roman Church’s more corrupt interests. But the movement as a whole still operated in terms of beliefs well beyond material greed, or even political hierarchies, and it would change European life decisively. If Shakespeare was a Renaissance artist, he was also a product of the Reformation. The emphasis placed by Protestantism on the Word, on private Bible-reading and public sermonising, created a new ethos of conscience and consciousness, of self-scrutiny and inwardness. Such an ideological climate breeds tragedy. It is not for nothing that both Faustus and Hamlet studied at the University of Wittenberg, a Lutheran town.

But there is a further historical sense in which Shakespeare was the child of the Reformation. It is sometimes said that our characters are made by the ten years immediately preceding our birth. The poet was born in 1564; five years earlier, in 1559, the Act of Uniformity was passed (though only barely, by three votes). The previous half-century was not strong in uniformity. Major historical studies of the Reformation period, like Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars and Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Reformation: Europe’s House Divided 1490-1700, may be written from different ideological positions, yet will imply a similar historical picture. The world they describe is one of political confusion, religious bewilderment and personal danger. Shakespeare’s parents and grandparents lived through three major religious transformations within a dozen years. Henry VIII was first Catholic and papist, then the anti-papist but Catholic supreme head of the Church in England. His son Edward VI’s violently Catholic-burning Protestantism was replaced after his death while still a child by the violently Protestant-burning Catholicism of his half-sister Mary Tudor, who died childless (though married to the Spanish Catholic Philip II, some 30 years before the Armada). And Mary was succeeded by her half-sister, the Protestant Elizabeth Tudor (held by Rome to be a bastard well deserving execution and displacement by her cousin, the Catholic Mary Stuart of Scotland).

Only 30 or 40 years after this crowded hour, Mercutio, in Romeo and Juliet, says: ‘A plague on both your houses.’ He was not, of course, speaking ecclesiastically, but the phrase has a usefulness. So does Donne’s actually ecclesiastical comment, in his ‘Satire III’, roughly contemporary with Shakespeare’s play, that ‘To adore, or scorne an image, or protest,/May all be bad; doubt wisely.’ These comments to my mind reflect the judgments of two highly intelligent men on the religious chaos of the recent past. MacCulloch, in Reformation, preserves a ghost of such wit when he remarks that a majority of English bishops after 1572 ‘found themselves defending a status quo in which many of them did not believe’. The Catholic Duffy goes further and finds in the middle years of the 16th century a helpless damage done to the English religious sensibility, a violation of its ‘sense of the sacred’.

English religious sensibility certainly survived, to be reanimated in Anglican form in the great phase of Christian writing that spanned Donne himself, Herbert and Vaughan, Milton and Marvell; in each of the three centuries that followed, there emerged in England a different religious poetry, orthodox and unorthodox. But the historians’ negations are helpful, and echo another witticism of Donne’s, this time from ‘A Litanie’: ‘Oh, to some/Not to be martyrs, is a martyrdom.’ In the first decades of the English Church, religious feeling goes underground; a stunned silence reigns, and negation rules. England becomes quiet, quiescent, even quietist.

The harsh laws of sedition, affecting Church matters as well as state, and bringing peace by enforcing uniformity (Elizabeth after all burned conspicuously few people), would in any case have acted to silence the wary. But the rise of a great drama, with Shakespeare at its centre, suggests something beyond the powers of censorship. Despite the gigantic popularity of dogmatic tract-writing, there must have been a new and serious audience who longed for a free and secular play of mind. Erasmus, the great humanist and Catholic reformer, got away with saying, ‘Saint Socrates, pray for us,’ and there were evidently many, both artisans and aristocrats, who felt the same about Shakespeare.

Certainly drama could still recall the lost rituals. Marlowe’s tragedy of a man of learning who goes to hell, Doctor Faustus, set down by a writer assumed by most of his contemporaries to be an atheist, makes the despairing scholar see Christ’s blood streaming in the night sky; and some in the early audiences thought they saw real devils moving on stage. But it is Shakespeare who seems to achieve a more decisive, more essential move from the religious to the secular. In his very early tragedy Titus Andronicus, written perhaps even before 1590, the old soldier Titus, himself a man of violence, is caught in a horrifying revenge-world where Rome is ‘but a wilderness of tigers’, and watches his daughter Lavinia, who has been raped, mutilated and made dumb by his enemies, struggling to name her violators by writing with a stick held between her handless arms. It would be a mistake to try to symbolise this. But to look ahead to King Lear is to see how much expressiveness Shakespeare can give to what would otherwise be mere Elizabethan horror, the blinding of Gloucester. There is something in the bald yet tender image of Lavinia reminiscent of Shakespeare’s whole transformation of historical violence. A different speech is coming from the silence of the church. T.S. Eliot’s ‘Burnt Norton’, naming the private places where insight takes place, calls one of them ‘the draughty church at smokefall’. At its highest and most serious moments, its most searching inquiries into the human, the Renaissance theatre in England itself became a ‘draughty church’: a place never securely justified by power or authority but released into a new utterance by the secession of the churches trapped in political conflict.

Over the last few decades, academic study of Shakespeare has assumed him to be a closet Catholic, perhaps even an active one. There are some things to be said for this argument. It is natural to feel sympathy for a minority party, a loser in the historical process. As a result of such sympathy, heroic doomed movements like the Catholic Pilgrimage of Grace and even the Babington Plot have fuelled some absorbing fiction. Mary, Queen of Scots has become, like the Stuart Pretenders who followed her, a figurehead for nostalgic loyalty: she has even managed since her execution to rewrite history around herself, as in the legend of the important parallelism between herself and Elizabeth – even to the point, in Schiller’s very fine Mary Stuart, of a confrontation that never actually happened.

Interestingly, Shakespeare relates something like this myth of rival queens but with an important difference. In his now slightly undervalued, haunting late Romance-History Henry VIII, the king is divided between the Catholic Catherine of Aragon and the Protestant Anne Boleyn, both of whom he loves. With a subtly complex and tragic-comic effect, the play ends with the exaltation of Anne’s newborn child of peace, Elizabeth; it was, of course, written and staged after the death of Elizabeth and of her dynasty, in the time of Mary Stuart’s enthroned son. This almost musical, ironic balance (the play’s other title is All Is True) is more characteristic of Shakespeare the artist than commitment to any Good Old Cause. Certainly, there were other factors: men of the theatre were unlikely to warm towards the kind of always fairly philistine Puritan lethally portrayed in Ben Jonson’s Zeal-of-the-Land Busy. But there isn’t much attractiveness, either, in Shakespeare’s own early Catholics, the coldly wicked and worldly Cardinal Pandulph in King John, manipulator of the young and innocent, or Cardinal Beaufort of 2 Henry VI: compare them with his cosier, story-book brothers like Friar Laurence, or the fundamentally sound disguised Duke of Measure for Measure.

Any artist, furthermore, might be expected to feel hostility to the iconoclastic Protestants’ destructiveness. Much quoted in this context is Sonnet 73, with its allusion to ‘Bare ruin’d choirs where late the sweet birds sang’. Much more striking, though, is the way in which the churchy image is put to new use. The ruined (as it were, draughty) church becomes one in a series of images of natural decay: as if Time itself, which in the magnificent Sonnet 19 blunts ‘the lion’s paw’, has here cracked open the sacred building. Ruins, winter trees, evening light, dying fire all communicate through their sad and silent grace: and what they say is that loss is a part of human love, that love must embrace kindness, sympathy, pity. It is perhaps worth adding that, in comparison with this intricacy of moral awareness, Shakespeare’s only explicitly religious sonnet, 146, is relatively awkward and conventional: it nowhere comes near the almost transcendental power of love poems like Sonnets 124 and 125, or even the sublime ironic fineness of ‘The Phoenix and Turtle’.

Walt Whitman hooted at the idea of self-contradiction and boasted: ‘I am large. I contain multitudes.’ The probably even more multitudinous (though more reticent) Shakespeare is highly likely to have made room in his work for anything the Catholic and Protestant branches of the Church could give him; he was, moreover, bound by law to attend his Erastian ‘state’ or ‘Anglican’ church every week and take communion there. But his lifelong commitment was not to a church, not to a politics, but to his work: his draughty church was the theatre stage, or a cleared and courtly space, or a friendly publishing printer’s office. Shakespeare must have worked incredibly hard and incessantly: nearly 40 plays, some of them incomparably good, and a body of poems, smaller but no less good. Reading and writing at every given moment, learning roles, acting them, perhaps directing, surely finding time for his family, and making money for them: this totally time-and-attention-absorbing life was Shakespeare’s calling, without wasting time trying to assist the pope in murdering his queen.

The last two centuries have witnessed something close to adulation of Shakespeare, whether Romantic, Victorian or modernist. In hopes, perhaps, of securing a new angle, criticism and biography have now adopted a tone felt to be tougher, even more realistic. In practice, the realistic has meant the literal, and the literal, the reductive. Some of the new wealth of biography is fictional, and some of it unbelievable. Shakespeare is sometimes presented as having become a dramatist almost by accident, his chief purpose in leaving Stratford for London having been to abandon his wife and children (it seems more likely that the seven ‘lost years’ were spent helplessly trying to silence his sense of vocation and doing what his father wanted him to do, to carry on the family business).

Similarly, critics now tend to think of him as simply one of a generation, some of them in some respects cleverer than he was. And this is just: Shakespeare hadn’t in his first years the same kind of mental brilliance as Marlowe, and never achieved the range of a professional man of letters as Jonson did. It is clear, too, that he learned incessantly from his fellows in the theatre such as Kyd and Lyly and Greene and Peele and Nashe, who were not incapable of objecting to his assimilative invasion. Shakespeare was, like Chaucer, a ‘great translator’, which meant he was capable of creative response, in terms of adaptation and mimicry. But he gave back too, teaching men as gifted as Marlowe psychological subtlety, and as individual as Webster how to use poetry in drama and how to respect the heroism of women. A whole marvellous theatre might not have come fully into being, and have influenced centuries of English (and American) poetry, without the ‘Jack of all trades’ working at the centre of two generations of writers, to spur, madden, encourage, instruct and finally exceed them.

The word ‘exceed’ is unavoidable. T.S. Eliot was perhaps the first critic to use the term ‘canon’ of Shakespeare’s body of work, though he would probably have agreed that the extraordinary autonomy of each play is equally important. But the simple existence of the canon is vital, a body of work always at once renewing and consolidating itself. It is hard to see that any of the poet’s contemporaries achieved a coherent canon in this sense: not many had the chance to, but none shows the kind of consistent aesthetic reach that possesses Shakespeare. If criticism now tends to set the poet among his fellows, the reason may be partly the anxiety that afflicts the democrat in the presence of very great talent, or it may just be a kind of kindness. By virtue of large intelligence, unceasing work and possibly a driven nature, Shakespeare was by 1600 the master of the theatre of his time: but it has to be added that his first rivals were no longer there – they had lost heart, had caught the plague, been murdered, entered the Church, had failed and died. When Shakespeare himself salutes the ‘dead shepherd’ in As You Like It – the generic term perhaps making Marlowe representative of all unlucky artists – he does so by quoting him, the only true praise for a literary colleague.

The allusion may even be a kind of apology for surviving into so great a success. By 1603, when James came to the throne, Shakespeare could have retired rich and honoured to his great house in Stratford. The work he had amassed around the turn of the century was formidably diverse and brilliant. History had grown in his hands from chaotic chronicle to the most vivid and entertaining confrontations of Hal and Falstaff, comic in Part One of Henry IV and near tragic in Part Two, the life of power set against the life of wit and imagination, against a densely living background of England itself. Or there are the wholly different comic worlds of Much Ado about Nothing and As You Like It, showing how without any trouble a woman can hold a stage, if she is Beatrice or Rosalind. The mature Histories and Comedies fulfil their kind superbly, but Troilus and Cressida has the extreme sophistication of a play which has no kind, but can hold and move its audience entirely. Julius Caesar, coldly clear-cut and sonorous, reddens its black and white Roman world with the fountain of blood at its secret centre. And then there is Hamlet.

Hamlet is too large to include in a list: it crowned and summarised everything Shakespeare wrote in the 1590s, and lit up its audiences with excitement, awe and amusement for the next four hundred years. Although it is an Elizabethan play rather than a Jacobean, one aspect of it foretells the decade to come. Like Troilus and Cressida, Othello, King Lear, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus and Cymbeline, Hamlet is too long for the stage of its time, with its ‘two hours’ traffic’: the longest playable Hamlet, known in the theatre as the ‘eternity version’, runs for well over four hours. This is a contentious matter, since many modern textual critics are reductive in their own fashion by not believing in what they refer to as ‘conflated’ texts. These they take to be quite mistakenly botched together out of alternative acting versions and revisions of the text.

This is a scholarly argument that sometimes makes sense mechanistically. But it also ignores what may be a writer’s true purposes. I believe that Shakespeare needed to write long plays in the second half of his career, and that he was fascinated by the contest between Art and Nature which actually becomes articulate in The Winter’s Tale; his final symbol of the Nature that Art both blesses and struggles to control is the chaotic, destructive yet life-giving ocean so powerfully present in three of the four late Romances. To put it romantically, he worked, even as early as Hamlet, to loosen and liberate the strangling revenge-plot of the play so that Time, History and even the sound of the sea could be heard in his work.

As I suggested, this need to write, and to write Histories first, may have had an origin in the cultural chaos of the years before his birth. MacCulloch’s study of the Reformation carries the subtitle ‘Europe’s House Divided’, and History is, for Shakespeare (who fairly certainly invented the dramatic form), a divided house. King John deals urgently with the clash of English king and Roman pope. From 1 Henry VI to Henry IV England is split between the houses of York and Lancaster. Only with the very late and Romantic Henry VIII is peace gloriously and biblically prophesied over the infant Elizabeth, dead when the play was written, her godfather Cranmer burned alive not long after the prophecy was made.

Nor is the divided house confined to History. It is transformed into family feud in the lyrical story of Romeo and Juliet. In comedy, division troubles the heart of love, as Valentine flounders between dishonouring his friend and betraying his beloved; as Kate and Petruchio bash out the war of the sexes; as The Comedy of Errors gleefully multiplies mirror-images in the house by doubling its twins. All these striking patterns are richly echoed in The Merchant of Venice, Much Ado and Twelfth Night (even As You Like It has characters who mysteriously seem to share the same name). Hamlet’s divided house of Denmark finally cracks and splits and lets in the alien Fortinbras, and in the process there are doubled and tripled kings, fathers and sons, murderers, plots and characters and words, until ‘The rest is silence.’

Hamlet is the climax of all Shakespeare’s writing through the 1590s because it finds an aesthetic form that holds the chaos of nature within History. But the later, Jacobean Shakespeare is still fascinated by the sheer extension of experience, and King Lear, Antony and Cleopatra and Cymbeline all possess dramatic forms that invite the charge of formlessness. Gloucester calls Lear ‘O ruin’d piece of nature’ – where the word ‘piece’ means both ‘fragment’ and ‘masterpiece’. Madly giving judgment in the storm scenes, and encountering Gloucester on what may or may not be the cliffs at Dover, Lear comes very close to the region of the uncontrollable; and editors and critics can still be bothered by Gloucester’s leap into an abyss that isn’t actually there. Shakespeare’s art is a magic that takes on artlessness, as in Prospero’s final drowning of his book.

Magic becomes decisive in the Romances. When Paulina stage-manages Hermione’s return to life, she tells bystanders: ‘It is required you do awake your faith.’ The moment is certainly spellbinding, miraculous. But ‘faith’ means less the feeding of the five thousand than Coleridge’s definition of Art, the ‘willing suspension of disbelief’: an agreement to be magicked. The church is draughty, the statue only painted and the play soon over. But throughout his career and most articulately in these late plays, he endows the mundane (‘We’ll strive to please you every day’) with a sense of the sacred, which he believed was perhaps lost to the Protestant English. But in Shakespeare, the artist became a magician who worked for a lifetime to hand back the sense of the sacred to the merely human.

In this, the writer referred to in his own time as ‘gentle’, and who often looked like and passed as Mr Nobody, was in fact a most extraordinary individual: so extraordinary as to explain the number of perversely stubborn sceptics who have refused to believe that William Shakespeare of Stratford could have been our – the world’s – Shakespeare. I quoted Erasmus’s ironic but also serious celebration of ‘Saint Socrates’. The English intellectual descendant of both Socrates and Erasmus was of course a writer before everything, but he might occasionally be invoked as ‘Saint Shakespeare’.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences