Shakespeare - Christianity and the Renaissance

Shakespeare (Brice Stratford)
Credit: Brice Stratford
(Wikimedia Commons)

Shakespeare: Christianity and the Renaissance

“Shakespeare and the Renaissance Concept of Honor” is based on a thesis presented to Harvard University in 1950. Curtis Brown Watson divides his work into two parts. The first discusses the Renaissance idea of honor, the second addresses William Shakespeare’s use of this concept.

A good source that presents original analysis, this study is essential for students of history and English literature. Published by Princeton University Press in 1960, the text is important to understand the definition of honor in Shakespeare’s time and encourages the scholar to develop an independent interpretation of the playwright’s work.

Watson provides a list of seven critical approaches in “Foreword to Part II: Does Drama Have a Moral Function?” He invites us to judge which position has the greatest relevance.

3. “The Renaissance was a Christian age. Therefore Shakespeare, like every other writer of his age, must have been profoundly influenced by Christianity.”

Since Christianity had a tight hold on the morals of the Renaissance, often counterproductive to advancement in the arts and sciences, Shakespeare would have felt an inhibiting impact. The conflicts of the Reformation would have helped him portray interesting, diverse characters and tension-filled scenes, but the church would have been a hindrance, not an aid, to creative achievement. As he wrote, he sought ways to express himself without offending people or inviting censorship.

Euphemism, an affected though ornate way of writing, was one stylistic method. John Lyly started this tradition. Shakespeare learned from Lyly and applied this technique. Although the use of flowery, suggestive phrases with a distinct, rhythmic sound is far more pronounced in Lyly’s plays and novels, its application in Shakespeare’s material is noticeable. Euphemism made it possible for a playwright to say anything, even describe sexual acts, by the strategic placement of words. Only the educated would have understood, one reason why no one stopped careful writers in an age of prudish restraint.

Scholars who incorporate religious beliefs in the interpretation of Shakespeare’s work are making a mistake. In the development of a scene, Shakespeare would have been capable of seeing a situation from the viewpoint of a Christian or an atheist based on the needs of his plot.