Lee Oser. Christian Humanism in Shakespeare: A Study in Religion and Literature. Washington DC: Catholic University Press, 2022.
“Shakespeare may or may not have been a Christian author. He likely was Christian, but gauging the degree of his Christian ideas is problematic, simply because a character, rather than the author directly, is always voicing them. Christian ideas and allusions do pepper his plays. But that is another matter.” So wrote a reviewer in rejecting an article of our eminent author arguing for a Christian heart to the greatest dramatist of the world. It’s also indicative of our sad state of academic and intellectual degeneracy and smokescreens, a fanciful self-adulation and congratulation over sophistry than any commitment to truth, knowledge, and wisdom.
Is Shakespeare Christian? To quote a professor who is a friend of mine who specializes in Shakespeare, “I didn’t think anyone could dispute the obvious.” Apparently this reviewer from a Catholic literary journal disagrees. Maybe he is. Maybe he isn’t. Only a sophist gives such an answer.
Lee Oser’s Christian Humanism in Shakespeare attempts to reveal the Christian heart to Shakespeare so often missed or left out when reading or discussing the great bard of Stratford-upon-Avon. While I cannot claim to be a Shakespeare scholar like my professorial friend and our prestigious author, I have written quite extensively on Shakespeare for a number of journals and newspapers over the years. And yes, I consider Shakespeare a Christian. And yes, drawing out the Christianity of Shakespeare is often a priority of mine.
The title of Oser’s book bridges two ideas together: Christianity and Humanism. Christianity is well-known and easily identifiable. Writers who utilize Christian themes, symbols, and ideas are generally considered “Christian writers,” especially when also a member of a Christian faith. (No one mistakes C.S. Lewis or G.K. Chesterton as anything but Christian writers, for instance.) Humanism, though, is a much trickier concept for people.
In contemporary parlance, humanism has largely been monopolized by secularists and atheists to denote a sense of anti-Transcendence. The word, after all, has a concentration on us rather than God. The history of humanism, though, is more complicated. The term humanitas was invented by Cicero. Humanism, as an identifiable strand of philosophy and intellectual thought, is applied backwards onto Renaissance scholars, most of whom were Christians, expositing on the uniqueness of humankind in contradistinction to the rest of creation (enhancing the existing theological notions of the imago Dei) and our universal impulse to worship and discover God. Renaissance humanism didn’t only mean those who studied human nature to discover our soul, or interior mode of being, it equally meant those who studied the classics and the liberal arts disciplines, especially rhetoric, gleaned from classical texts.
This is the world that Shakespeare grew up in. The Elizabethans used the term humanism to refer to those students, teachers, and artists who were steeped in the classical literature and writings of Antiquity which were utilized in explicitly Christian contexts at the time. (John Milton was the greatest example of an Englishman educated in the humanist tradition as all his predecessors and successors were.) Lee Oser, being intensely familiar with the real history of humanism and not the counterfeit fraud perpetuated in the twenty-first century by those who have stolen the term and cut it off from its real history, therefore presents the humanist and rhetorical background to understanding the language of Shakespeare as quintessentially Christian in nature.
Within this background context to humanism, Oser also provides the dichotomized concern of Christianity, especially in the writings of Saint Paul. The wisdom of this world is foolish to God. The wisdom of God is foolish to this world. This, too, Oser asserts, is quite important. While Shakespeare’s characters exude and embody a certain spirit of the humanist tradition, they also wrestle with the quintessential Christian dilemma of meaningful life and its manifestation in this world or the next.
Upon giving us a firm concept of humanism and its relevance to Shakespeare, Oser then proceeds to offer a Christian reading, or theological interpretation, of Shakespeare’s rhetoric and human emotions, desire, and psychology (the interior life) as represented by his characters in various plays. As he writes in beginning his magnificent treatise on A Midsummer’s Night Dream, “To dramatize for his audience their own conflict between worldly and spiritual priorities, the fierce paradox that is built into their faith, Shakespeare plays a game of wisdom and folly.”
Although A Midsummer’s Night Dream is set in the world of classical Athens, Oser persuasively shows through the careful study of characters and their rhetoric that the themes and ideas that are being played out are Christian in nature. When studying in England, a kind woman of an evangelical stripe complained to me that there is a lack of Christianity in Shakespeare. I responded in much the same manner that Oser did. It’s there for those with the eyes to see and the ears to hear, it is inserted through the themes and symbolism and ideas that guide the play rather than any explicit declarations of fundamentalist literalism. In other words, typology. (Something that many other scholars of Shakespeare have long noted in Shakespeare’s plays, how these otherwise fictional or sometimes historical characters serve as typological allegories and symbols of the Christian tradition.)
Oser’s reading of A Midsummer’s Night Dream as a theological comedy pitting foolishness and wisdom against each other until true wisdom (which may appear as folly to worldly individuals) wins out and loving marriage consummates itself by the play’s conclusion, really is a profound and insightful tour through one of Shakespeare’s grandest and most beloved comedies. We do not know if Shakespeare read Erasmus. But the idea of “foolish” wisdom as “true” wisdom from the light of Eternity was already a longstanding Christian tradition best exemplified by Erasmus (a noted humanist) and stretching back to the church fathers and, of course, the Apostle Paul.
What Oser does throughout this book is bring Shakespeare into dialogue with other scholars, the Christian literary and scholarly tradition, the context and history of humanism in shaping education and the Elizabethan era, and Christian theology, to offer a remarkable case study in Shakespeare. From A Midsummer’s Night Dream to The Merchant of Venice (assessing morality and moral characters), the Henriad (Henry IV Parts I and II, Henry V as skeptical Christian history and critique of politicized soteriology), Hamlet (concerning the issue of free will in contradistinction to determinism), and King Laer (dealing with the “hidden God” or moral law), Oser proceeds to give a robust account of how Shakespeare challenges his Christian audience (at the time and still today) to deal with the major themes of life and existence—which was the aim of the humanists of the preceding generations.
In reading Christian Humanism in Shakespeare, a new world is opened to the reader who may not already be familiar with the rich Christian ideas and symbolism that saturate the Bard’s great works. It also highlights our author’s erudition, one that far surpasses the reviewer who rejected a submission on the grounds that Shakespeare may have been or may not have been a Christian and that we can never know. Au contraire, the evidence is quite clear except for those blinded by the sophistry of deconstructionist theory. I return to what a professorial friend of mine said when dealing with Shakespeare’s Christianity (specifically in this conversation, his Catholicism), “I didn’t think anyone could dispute the obvious.”
Readers who may not be deeply aware of the rich intellectual and literary tradition Christianity has to offer may be put off with a book on Shakespeare that frequently makes detours dealing with authors other than Shakespeare. But this serves to try and buttress the case for Shakespeare’s Christianity. It must be forewarned, however, that this book is meant for devoted readers of the Bard of Stratford-upon-Avon, especially those devoted readers of Shakespeare who are Christian. Lee Oser, himself a scholar of Shakespeare and Elizabethan literature, arms himself with his vast treasure of knowledge to serve his goal of offering an apologia for Shakespeare’s Christianity against those who willfully ignore it. In doing so, however, Christian Humanism in Shakespeare isn’t for the faint of heart or those trying to dip their toes into Shakespeare’s complexity or depth for the first time. This is a learned treatise, not a popular introduction.
As someone who deeply and dearly adores the Bard, I found the work remarkable and insightful. As someone who has also written on Shakespeare, at the popular level rather than intensely academic, I also found my love for Shakespeare enhanced.
In reading Lee Oser’s phenomenal work, we also see Shakespeare engaged in the leading questions and issues of his day through his plays. “The intellectualism of systematic theology, the clarity of Lutheran exegesis, Calvin’s representation of faith as knowledge, the glittering myth of the Tudor regime: none of them matched truth to experience in the way their more zealous adherents claimed,” Oser writes of Shakespeare. Anyone who has any love for Shakespeare and desire to gain deeper insights into Shakespeare—his context, time, and the dramas of stage and life—will find an exceptional work in Christian Humanism in Shakespeare. For those of us who are involved in the curating and cultivating of the heart and the mind in relation to God and the arts, this is an indispensable read.
This review first appeared in VoegelinView, 24 April 2022.
Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.
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