What did Shakespeare believe? We can only guess. He left neither a diary nor a philosophical treatise. His only surviving letters and public statements are either conventionally – if supremely elegantly – phrased pleas for patronage, or words devoted to business transactions and legal cases. His will is orthodox and Anglican, but that is how wills were written. It doesn’t mean that he was orthodox and Anglican.
The only poems written in his own voice are the Sonnets. The man who wrote them clearly believed that love is a powerful and complicated thing, that poetry is an effective way of exploring its many dimensions, and – if his lines are to be taken at face value – that creative art is a way of achieving a kind of immortality for the beloved and perhaps for creative artists themselves. But his lines are not necessarily to be taken at face value. The “I” who speaks a poem, even an intimate love poem, is not synonymous with the person who writes the line. All poets rejoice in creating a persona. And if Shakespeare really believed that the purpose of writing sonnets was to immortalise the beloved, he might have taken the trouble to tell his readers the name of the addressee.
As for immortalising himself, he was lackadaisical about publishing his works. The sonnets may well have been published without his permission, and half his plays were unpublished at the time of his death. Had it not been for the diligence of his fellow actors in seeing into print the First Folio of his collected comedies, tragedies and histories in 1623, Julius Caesar, Twelfth Night, Measure for Measure, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, The Tempest and a dozen more would be lost.
What kind of a thinker was Shakespeare? That is a better question. The patterns of his mind can be traced in his work and from his education. Here we need not guess. We can say many things that are incontestable. He loved words and wordplay. He was fascinated by every variety of human character. He thought by way of dialogue and debate. He was sceptical of generalisation about the ways of the world: almost every time a character in one of the plays gives voice to a piece of sententious wisdom, someone else says something that contradicts it – or a twist in the plot makes the seeming wisdom look foolish. “The Gods are just,” says Edgar in King Lear, but he has hardly closed his mouth before the old king comes on bearing the hanged body of his beloved, virtuous daughter Cordelia, most unjustly murdered.
The few moments in the plays where a sententious or philosophical discourse is vindicated rather than subverted by surrounding events tend to be those when a character says that life is like a play. Most famously, there is Jaques’s “All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players” in As You Like It. As if to prove he is right, he has hardly closed his mouth when young Orlando comes on bearing the frail body of a man approaching the seventh and last age of human life. He is pointedly named Adam: he is Everyman. It would be hard to controvert the view that Shakespeare believed life is a kind of theatre and theatre a mirror of life. But an actor-turned-dramatist would believe that, wouldn’t he?
Did Shakespeare believe in God? Though he could not escape the Christian thought that saturated his society, the relationship between the church and the theatre was strained. Rival dramatist Christopher Marlowe was specifically accused of atheism. Puritans disapproved of players, especially when boys dressed as girls started kissing adult male actors on stage. At a deeper level, the Puritan abhorrence of theatre echoed an ancient quarrel. Plato argued that poets should be banned from the ideal republic not only because plays stirred up unhealthy emotions (he was thinking of Greek tragedy – anyone for revenge, rape and incest?), but also because if, philosophically speaking, the day-to-day world is a “shadow” (as on the wall of a cave by flickering firelight) of the true reality of ideal forms, then plays, imitations of those “shadows”, are shadows of shadows, at two removes from Reality with a capital R.
By the same account, extreme Protestantism, taking the biblical second commandment literally, regarded all graven images as idolatrous because they encouraged worship of the image of God as opposed to his ineffable Reality. When the Protestant revolution reached sleepy Stratford-upon-Avon, the treasurer of the town council, a certain John Shakespeare, paid for workmen to whitewash over the image of the Last Judgment in the Guild Chapel across the road from the well-appointed house that his son William would one day purchase.
Across the country, the old biblical mystery plays were banned, and in London Puritan pamphleteers railed against the idolatry of everything theatrical. Killjoy Malvolio in Twelfth Night is specifically described as a Puritan, while hypocritical Angelo in Measure for Measure is said to be “precise” – a “precisian” was another term for a Puritan. So one thing we can say for sure about Shakespeare’s beliefs is that he was not a Puritan.
It has sometimes been argued, without any firm evidence, that he died a closet Papist. One suspects that throughout his career he had a vestigial love for the more theatrical aspects of the old faith – dressing up, ceremony, ritual. But the interest in resurrection and redemption that marks his last plays does not feel specifically Roman Catholic. His thinking seems to have been much more profoundly shaped by ancient Rome than modern, that is to say by the classical rather than the Judeo-Christian tradition, by the Renaissance rather than the Reformation or counter-Reformation.
Patterns of thought are learned at school. It was Stratford-upon-Avon grammar school that formed the mind of young William – to whom he surely nods in the scene in The Merry Wives of Windsor (his most English play) where a Welsh schoolmaster (he had one himself) gives a Latin lesson to a bright but cheeky schoolboy called … William. It was at the grammar school that he learned the art of rhetoric – the persuasive use of words, the elaboration of linguistic figures, the ability to argue both sides of a case. This art of rhetoric provided him with the building blocks of his literary achievement. And it was at the grammar school that he was introduced to classical literature.
It is reading that makes us into thinkers. So what were the books of which Shakespeare thought most highly? Castaways on Desert Island Discs are allowed to take three books with them: the Bible, Shakespeare and one other of their own choice. On the 400th anniversary of his death, the ghost of Shakespeare really should be invited on to the programme. When it comes to the books, I suspect he will say that he doesn’t want to bother with the Bible (he knew it well enough from compulsory churchgoing in his youth) and he has all of Shakespeare in his head, so could he choose three books, please?
One will be Plutarch’s Lives of the Most Noble Grecians and Romans, in the translation of Sir Thomas North. This was the book that got him thinking seriously about politics. Monarchy versus republicanism versus empire. The choices we make and their tragic consequences. The conflict between public duty and private desire. He absorbed classical thought, but was not enslaved to it. Shakespeare was a thinker who always made it new, adapted his source materials and put his own spin on them.
In the case of Plutarch, he feminised the very masculine Roman world. Brutus and Caesar are seen through the prism of their wives, Portia and Calpurnia; Coriolanus through his mother, Volumnia; Mark Antony through his lover, Cleopatra. Timon of Athens is alone and unhappy precisely because his obsession with money has cut him off from the love of, and for, women (the only females in Timon’s strange play are two prostitutes).
Here is another thing that Shakespeare certainly thought: that women are more than the equal of men. Where most “thinkers” among his contemporaries took the traditional view of female inferiority, he again and again showed the girls to be smarter than the boys – think Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, Rosalind in As You Like It, Portia in The Merchant of Venice.
Another of his desert island books will be The Essays of Michel de Montaigne, in the translation of John Florio. The more philosophical tenor of the works in the second half of his career can attributed to his reading of this book when it was published in 1603 (or maybe to a first acquaintance with parts of it in manuscript some time before – there is good evidence that he knew translator Florio from his days in the household of the Earl of Southampton). When I tried to write an intellectual biography of Shakespeare in my book Soul of the Age, I came to the conclusion that if we can pin a philosophical pattern upon him, it would be one remarkably like that revealed by the progression of thought through the three books of Montaigne’s endlessly rereadable meditative essays: a broad movement from attention to the Roman Stoical idea that “to philosophise is to learn how to die” (which could stand as the set theme of Hamlet) to a severe scepticism about the Christian idea of God’s providence being revealed through natural justice (the position that Montaigne eviscerated in his lengthy Apology for Raymond Sebond, which is echoed very closely in the language of King Lear), to a coming to rest in a philosophy of acceptance associated with the Epicurean tradition.
Though sometimes parodied as an excuse for bodily self-indulgence (think Sir Epicure Mammon in Ben Jonson’s great comedy The Alchemist), Epicureanism was a serious philosophical tradition that proposed that the good life may be best achieved through the acceptance of limits: limits on our knowledge of God or the gods, and limits on our hopes about the afterworld. We should learn to accept, to live in the moment. We should cherish friendship. And we should not deny our bodily urges. It is foolish to pretend that we can live happily without sex, food and drink, though all should be consumed in moderation.
Almost the last words that Shakespeare wrote for the theatre were these, spoken by Duke Theseus of Athens at the end of his final (co-written) play, The Two Noble Kinsmen: “Let us be thankful / For that which is, and with you [the gods, if such there be] leave dispute / That are above our question.” That is Epicurean acceptance in a nutshell.
Kirsty Young will, however, interrupt desert island Shakespeare to tell him that it is cheating to have three books. He must choose just one. “In that case,” he will say, “it will be the one that first fired my imagination in school and to which I returned throughout my writing career. The Metamorphoses of Ovid. I will take it in the translation of Arthur Golding, because my Latin is rather rusty after these 400 years.”
Ovid was where he found the things that made him a poet and a dramatist: magic, myth, metamorphosis. He acknowledged as much by bringing a copy of the Metamorphoses on stage in his first tragedy, Titus Andronicus; by basing his first published poem, Venus and Adonis (the book that made his name), on one of Ovid’s tales; and by choosing another of them, Pyramus and Thisbe, for the play-within-a-play at the climax of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Ovidian myth, magic and wonder form a golden thread that runs all the way through his career from these early works to the late visions of The Winter’s Tale, where the exquisite animation of Hermione’s statue nods to the story of Pygmalion, and The Tempest, which alludes to the sinister magic of the sorceress Medea.
Ovid was the master who taught Shakespeare that what makes great literary art is extreme human passion. Ovid showed him how to represent grief: in Hamlet it is learned from Hecuba, in Lear from Niobe. And Ovid gave him the theme that is the driving force of all his comedies and several of his tragedies: erotic desire.
What kinds of question did Shakespeare think most deeply about? The simplest but most essential ones. Such as: how do we cope with a father’s death (Hamlet)? How do we reconcile the pleasures of our youth with the responsibilities of adulthood and authority (Prince Hal’s growth to King Harry in the Henry IVplays)? And how do we make sense of the experience of falling in love? A Midsummer Night’s Dream is his best answer to this last question, and that is one of the several reasons that I increasingly feel it is not only his most Ovidian play but also his most Shakespearean.
Shakespeare still lives, and still matters, after four centuries because he reminds us of the value of the old answers to the perennial questions. We live in an age of increasing biological determinism. The neuroscientist will tell us that the experience of falling in love can be explained by brain chemistry – the activation of certain proteins and neurotransmitters. Sooner or later – probably sooner – in the style of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World some laboratory will produce a pill to make us fall in and out of love. But Shakespeare’s plays are there before us, as a laboratory – a safe space for experimentation – in which we witness the chaos that will be wrought by such a drug. He called it love-in-idleness, the juice that mischievous Puck applies to human eyes.