Shakespeare - Tragedy and Religion

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

Shakespeare: Tragedy and Religion

“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.

4. “Religious values are absent from Shakespearean tragedy since the tragic view and the religious view are incompatible.”

One issue that makes the tragic view and the religious view incompatible is suicide. From a Christian standpoint, killing oneself is a sin, inconsistent with church doctrine. Self-destruction depicted as noble or admirable is perceived as the ultimate cowardice. In this sense, a tragedy cannot be religious in the Western world.

Since most critics who analyze Shakespeare are Western in culture and belief, the term “religious” will often be synonymous with “Christian.” The tragic element can be lessened if a writer approaches the suicidal character with condemnation, yet Shakespeare was not inclined to do this. He presents a story in a straightforward manner without judging every action, making a scriptural view difficult to maintain.