Well, here it is. The 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.
It is quite clear, from the attention already being paid to the occasion, that if we thought the 450th anniversary of his birth in 2014 was big, we have seen nothing yet. So how should we Christians react?
In a way, it should be Paul Edmondson, Head of Learning and Research at The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, writing this, not me. For if anyone has given thought to how Christians should respond to the inheritance of the Bard, Paul is that person. And I am glad that he is sharing, with a number of other luminaries including Ronnie Mulryne, Professor emeritus of the Centre of the Study of the Renaissance at the University of Warwick, in the annual conference of Modern Church in July on precisely that theme.
But here are my own thoughts as organiser of that conference.
If only from the play Twelfth Night, and from his treatment of the character of Malvolio, we can be pretty sure that Shakespeare had little time for Puritanism. How would he have observed Lent, I wonder? As little as he could get away with? Or would the sympathy which some have found in him for the 'old religion' of Catholicism have led to a quite serious keeping of the season?
Notoriously, we know remarkably little about Shakespeare the man, and even less about Shakespeare the believer. His inner life is an enigma. The Victorian poet Matthew Arnold, writing in an age when the 'sea of faith' seemed to be withdrawing, was fascinated by the puzzle of Shakespeare’s true beliefs. He wrote:
Others abide our question. Thou art free.
We ask and ask. Thou smilest and art still
In other words, Shakespeare’s plays and poetry do not give straight answers to the big issues. But they do give a picture of the realities of life which helps us to find our own answers. Time and again, his insights into human nature ring true. There is certainly no rigidly orthodox religious line, whether Catholic or Protestant, anywhere in his plays. He tacks from an apparent belief in Purgatory in Hamlet to an attack on ‘equivocating’ Jesuits in Macbeth. Sometimes he seems to be approving of an even older religion, with the gods of Greece and Rome making an appearance. And often, not least in many of the Sonnets, he is just simply earthy. But he has a deep sense of our origins, both in our past and in a world beyond ourselves; he knows that human beings are flawed, and he recognises that redemption must come from beyond. Prayer, in one form or another, figures often in his plays. And so, notably, does the idea of resurrection.
So when we ask him about his precise beliefs, he ‘smiles and is still’ Yet we can be enriched in our own faith by hearing again those great insights. And, in participating in ‘the Shakespeare industry’, we just may enable other people to hear a message also.
So we might do well to focus on the events to come - the Birthday Weekend celebrations and the Modern Church conference - and prepare ourselves to understand and share that message more fully with the tens of thousands who will be touched by the anniversary of this enigmatic writer.