The Faith of William Shakespeare by Graham Holderness—Goodreads Book Review

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In The Faith of William Shakespeare, Graham Holderness argues from both biographical evidence and elements in his plays that Shakespeare was not, as others have argued, an agnostic, an atheist, nor a recusant Catholic, but a Calvinist Protestant in line with the reforming Church of England. Holderness is explicit about his aim and argument from the book’s Preface: “My own view…is that Shakespeare was, both as a believing individual and as a writer, a faithful Protestant.”

Holderness proceeds to introduce an interpretive summary of Calvinism and Catholicism in the English Reformation, though from a Calvinist perspective (he never gives the Catholic perspective on the doctrinal issues presented, including ones with which the Catholic Church agreed and which it had been teaching for centuries). He then identifies the tenets of his first chapter in Shakespeare’s plays to varying depth, focusing on one play per chapter. Starting paradoxically at the end of Shakespeare’s tenure (with a play on which he collaborated), Holderness examines Henry VIII, Richard II, Henry V, Measure for Measure, The Merchant of Venice, Hamlet, King Lear, The Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest. With each chapter he focuses on a different aspect of a play, whether explicit plot elements (HVIII, WT, Tempest) or language clues that he argues imply a Calvinist worldview (MM), among others. He is consistent in his argument, though he at times broadens it to show Shakespeare’s nuance with other religions (MV).

As can often happen, discussions about Shakespeare, especially his faith, often reveals more about writers, speakers, and audiences than about Shakespeare, himself. To Holderness’s credit, he is open about his book’s perspective, which agrees with several other writers on the topic. However, the work would be stronger if it devoted more time to admitting the limits of the Protestant Shakespeare argument.

A consistent problem with the book (though others may not see it as such) is not necessarily the argument, itself, but the supposed surety of its claims–for example, that more than following Protestant mandates on literary culture Shakespeare was a devout Calvinist and that this cannot but be seen in his plays.

At times this goes a bit far. Virtually every mention of the word “grace” in the focus plays is taken as an affirmation of the Calvinist tenet of Sola Gratia, and all elements that reference thankfulness for God’s providence or the Anglican Church are taken to be affirmations solely of Calvinism (the assumption that Anglican = Calvinist is another such package deal). Elsewhere, such as in his discussion of Richard II (which necessarily involves the Henry plays not mentioned in the book), he risks proving too much: in presenting Henry IV as a more pragmatic politician who reveals the supposed emptiness of the assumed divine mandate of Richard II, Holderness risks reading as Protestant the very Henry IV whose revolutionary actions create a series of upheavals which must be atoned for in Prince Hal’s restoring the majesty of the previous kings—all of which is ignored by Holderness in his reading of Henry V. At other times Holderness attempts to prove the negative that we can’t know Shakespeare wasn’t being sincere, despite the caveat that such outward signs of Anglicanism were requisite (to his credit, Holderness does reference, if briefly, other scholarship on the apparent Catholic recusancy of Shakespeare’s father). The supposed obviousness of Holderness’s findings of Calvinism in Shakespeare is reinforced by the lack of context which might weaken the argument, such as the real differences between Anglicanism and the Calvinism he describes, or the Greek tragicomic tradition which precedes the Church entirely, was common in the Renaissance, and was mimicked in Shakespeare’s Romance plots (read by Holderness as obviously Calvinist).

Again, Holderness’s argument may be true—and can certainly be supported—but to present his readings with such unconditional surety, unnuanced by at least even some concession, harms the argument, in my opinion. Catholics—or Anglicans, for that matter—might read the same passages and find in them signs of their faith as Holderness does of Calvinism. Protestantism is, of course, in the plays, but so are English Catholicism and budding Anglicanism. Ironically, eschewing a critical reading of his argument weakens it, besides presenting Shakespeare’s plays as implicitly hostile to the Catholic culture preceding (and still recusant in) Shakespeare’s generation. With this in mind, I would only recommend this book within the context of others.

(FWIW, I am neither Catholic, Anglican, nor Protestant, but Greek Orthodox; while I am not immune to my own third paragraph, I nonetheless do not to see in Shakespeare’s text the same exclusively Calvinist doctrines as Holderness, and certainly not with the same surety).

Author: dustinllovell

Writing professor, literature and US history tutor, previous ESL instructor, and would-be novelist who enjoys/specializes in Shakespeare, 19th century lit, and philosophy (whether in print or via audiobook). Author of the novel Sacred Shadows and Latent Light (Wipf and Stock, Resources Imprint). Member of Heterodox Academy. Columnist for The Mallard.

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