Why Study Shakespeare?
Norman J. Lund, Ph.D.
June 11, 2005

            Shakespeare never grows old.  He continues to inspire each new generation.  That’s one of the reasons why he is so much fun to teach, and also why he holds such a high place in classic literature.  But is that enough reason to study him?  Actually, there are at least three very important reasons to study Shakespeare.  They are: an enlightened literary appreciation; an expanded Biblical worldview; and an enriched cultural literacy.

An Enlightened Literary Appreciation

The first reason to study Shakespeare is the rare quality of his work.   He is widely regarded as the greatest writer in all of English literature.  Although Shakespeare composed a wealth of exquisite, enduring poetry (especially the Sonnets), he devoted himself primarily to the theater.  His genius is evident both in the breadth and the depth of some three dozen plays, many of which are counted among the greatest works in English literature.  Examples of Shakespeare’s genius include: the richness of his literary devices; the compelling drama of his plots; the penetrating nature of his characterizations; the universal interest and appeal in his dialogs and monologues; his delightful sense of humor; his enduring wisdom and wit; and his many famous, unforgettable lines.  He continues to be the most-quoted author in the English language.  For instance, who hasn’t heard the line, “All the world’s a stage”?

            Shakespeare was an outstanding observer and communicator of human character.  Many of his characters have become immortal in the sense that they capture types which are universal.   Students today continue to identify with them and their struggles.  There is much profit to be gained from comparing and contrasting Shakespeare's characters with each other, and from learning the reasons for their strengths and weaknesses.  It is to Shakespeare’s credit that he conveyed these insights in such an effective and entertaining literary medium.

An Expanded Biblical Worldview

              A second reason to study Shakespeare is the insight to be gained from his Biblical worldview.  Few people realize how deeply the plays of Shakespeare depend upon and express a Biblical worldview.   Although he tapped many literary sources for ideas, his primary literary source was Scripture.  His references to the Bible (direct and indirect) far outnumber any other references.  A recent (April, 2000) Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Massachusetts demonstrated that the Bible served as Shakespeare's principal creative resource.  The Shakespeare Oxford Society has acknowledged that "the 1570 Geneva Bible [is]…a window into the mind of Shakespeare and his writing."

            The influence of a Biblical worldview is evident throughout Shakespeare’s work.  His plots are ripe with Biblical principles, lessons and truths.  Take, for example, this short summary of themes from some of his most famous plays.  
Hamlet deals with the theme of revenge, and teaches that “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord” (Rom. 12:19); “All who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matt. 26:52)  Measure for Measure takes its title from Matt. 7:2 and teaches the reader: “Judge not, that you be not judged.  For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get” (Matt. 7:1-2).  Macbeth demonstrates the dangers of ambition, and the Biblical truths: “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Prov. 16:18); “For what does it profit it man if he gains the whole world and loses his soul” (Matt. 16:26; Mk. 8:36; Lk. 9:25).  Much Ado about Nothing deals with the theme of deceptive appearances and warns the reader: “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment” (Jn. 7:24); “The LORD sees not as man sees; man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7).  The Merchant of Venice conveys a message of mercy and demonstrates the Gospel truth that: “Judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy; yet mercy triumphs over judgment” (Jas. 2:13)

            It is evident that
Shakespeare wrote from a God-centered, redemptive perspective.  As the Christian writer and English professor, Louise Cowan, says in her popular and delightful Invitation to the Classics (A Guide to Books You’ve Always Wanted to Read): “Shakespeare saw life as leading to a final end of reconciliation and love."  It is this Biblically based optimism and foundation for hope which inspired Shakespeare's ’comic’ (happy-ending) view of the world.

            In his comedies, Shakespeare depicted a world of love and joy, filled with faith and forgiveness, and leading to a happy end.   However, as in real life, the happy endings never come without a struggle.   Inevitably the heroes and heroines must face obstacles and threats which can only be resolved through faith and hope, and through redemptive strategies whereby love finds a way.  In the tragedies, the challenge or obstacle is the pride of a tragic hero who suffers some downfall.   The challenge of the hero is to respond to the downfall with humility and repentance.  Will the hero submit his pride to truth and justice (and ultimately, to God), or will he remain fixed in a defiance which demands his own way?  To quote Cowan again, will the hero "submit to a power higher than his own pride or continue with himself as the center of existence"?  Othello and Macbeth choose self; Hamlet and Lear allow themselves to be remade.

             There are few stories which take a reader deeper into a Biblical view of the world than those of Shakespeare.   Sin and repentance; judgment and redemption; the law and the Gospel—the great themes are all there.  In our current cultural context, it is easy to forget the contributions of Christianity to Western civilization, in general, and to great literature, in particular.  The study of Shakespeare is a good reminder.

An enriched cultural literacy

            Given the magnitude of his contribution, it is no wonder that E.D. Hirsch insists that a healthy knowledge of Shakespeare is essential to a basic, “cultural literacy.”  What  Christians often forget is that cultural literacy is crucial for evangelism.  Shakespeare provides a wonderful “bridge” for discussing the great questions of life, and for introducing the answers of Scripture.  I can still remember hearing a sermon, when I was just a youth, about Hamlet and his struggle for a reason to live.  God used the story of Hamlet to speak the Gospel to me in a fresh and powerful way.

            Forty years ago J. B. Phillips wrote the little classic, Your God Is Too Small.  His book struck a nerve in the Christian community.  We so quickly fall into idolatry, settling for our own, static images of the Almighty, and forgetting the infinite power and holiness of the true and living God.  We forget that God is at work all the time, all around us, and that God does not “leave himself without witness” (Acts 14:17).

            In the book Peace Child, Don Richardson has written about his experiences as a missionary to the Sawi tribe of cannibals in New Guinea.   After many failures and discouragements in the early 1960s, Richardson was surprised to learn that God had planted a redemptive custom in ancient Sawi tradition.  He learned that God had built a bridge, a “redemptive analogy,” for the true story about Jesus.  The Sawis believed that the only way to make peace between enemies was through a “peace child.”  Only if a man would actually give his own son to his enemies could that man be trusted.   Once he made that discovery, Richardson was able to introduce the Sawis to Jesus as God’s “Peace Child,” and suddenly the cannibals began to believe and to be saved (Regal/ Gospel Light, 1974).

            Out of this experience Richardson came to believe that God is far more active even in pagan cultures than we ever dreamed, working even in myths and customs to prepare lost souls to hear the truth.  All people know that they’re missing something.  Ancient cultural myths and traditions often express that sense of need.  In a second book, Eternity in Their Hearts, Richardson went on to record over two dozen other examples of cultural bridges, or redemptive analogies, which missionaries have used successfully to present the Gospel around the world (Regal/Gospel Light, 1981).

            I believe that Shakespeare is one of the gifts which God has provided for us as a rich source of “cultural bridges” and “redemptive analogies.”  Students of Shakespeare are richly rewarded for their efforts.   He offers so many treasures and delights, including: an enlightened literary appreciation; an expanded Biblical worldview; and an enriched cultural literacy.