Scholar: Christian Themes Take Stage in Shakespeare Plays

Playwright William Shakespeare never wrote essays or testimonies expressing his personal views on religion, but many of his plays, particularly his comedies, explore Christian values, one of the world’s foremost Shakespeare scholars said at Palm Beach Atlantic University on Monday.

Dr. David Bevington speaks in chapel at PBA on Monday. Palm Beach Atlantic University (PBA) is a private, accredited, Christ-centered college located in West Palm Beach, Florida, USA.
Dr. David Bevington speaks in chapel at PBA on Monday.

For instance, Shakespeare’s comedy “As You Like It” deals with forgiveness, and “ultimately good is seen as more powerful” than tyranny and evil, said Dr. David Bevington, the Phyllis Fay Horton Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago.

In the play, the people who are banished to the forest by Duke Frederick learn to forgive each other, he said. “These kinds of values are very important to Shakespeare throughout his career,” said Dr. Bevington, who has written extensively about the playwright.

Although it is known that Shakespeare’s father grew up in the Catholic faith, Shakespeare lived in a time when England was a nation of Protestants, he said. However, his play “Hamlet” does include a reference to the Catholic concept of Purgatory, Dr. Bevington said.

Another religious view of the time which appears in Shakespeare’s history play “Richard II” is that of “passive obedience” to rulers who are tyrants, he said.

“If you allow people to overthrow a tyrant, you are allowing the people to take matters into their own hands other than letting God work the thing out according to His divine will,” he said.

Dr. Bevington also addressed the religious skepticism in the play “King Lear,” which is set in pre-Christian times. He said that while the play’s characters have few reasons to do good, ultimately the play advocates doing good for its own sake, he said.

Dr. Bevington will continue his discussion of religion in Shakespeare’s plays at 7:30 p.m. today during the President’s Distinguished Scholar Lecture. His topic will be “The Battle between Compassion and Envy in ‘As You Like It.’” Held at the DeSantis Family Chapel, the lecture is free and open to the public. He also will speak in classes and in chapel on Tuesday.

His lectures follow a two-weekend run of the Palm Beach Atlantic University Theatre Department’s production of “As You Like It” at PBA’s Fern Street Theatre.